Battlefield Study – Aisne 1917

It is that time again!

I am shortly off to study a pivotal battle from 1917, the Nivelle Offensive and the Battle of the Aisne. This offensive has to be seen in the context of the battles of 1916 at Verdun and on the Somme, the latter described by Captain von Hentig of the German General Staff as “the muddy grave of the German field army”. General Ludendorf wrote, “we were completely exhausted on the Western Front… If the war lasted our defeat seemed inevitable…I cannot see as I look back how the German G.H.Q. could have mastered the situation if the Allies had continued their blows as they did in 1916.” (‘My War Memories, by General Ludendorff, vol.1, pp. 292-307). However, at home in France and England, political vision was clouded by the level of casualties and lack of strategic military intelligence; some personal prejudice and antipathy contributed to the sense of horror and indecision.

I shall introduce the battle in my next post, but first let me introduce the area. The central thrust of the battle was the attack by French 5th, 6th and 10th Armies north from the River Aisne, between Berry au Bac and Soissons, towards Laon to capture the Chemin des Dames, a road running east-west atop a narrow ridge rising 100m above the valleys of the Aisne to the south and Ailette to the north, that gave dominating views of the valleys. The hope was that this would lead to break-through of the German line forcing them back out of France and ending the war.

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The front line is shown on this map:

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Attacking well-prepared defensive positions up steep slopes when the defence can see one’s preparations and approach, is horrible. The pyrrhic nature of any success is captured in this French caption:

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The ancient village of Craonne was completely destroyed and never repopulated. A new village was built some few kilometres away, the site of the old becoming part of the memorial to the battle.

It would be lovely if you were able to follow me on this journey of homage and re-discovery. It is part of the fabric of our European cultural history and as we enjoy our freedoms, we should remember the sacrifice of those who fought to defend them.


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