Caverne du Dragon – On site War Museum

The Caverne du Dragon is linked to the Museum of the Chemin des Dames or Musée de la Caverne du Dragon.

Caverne du Dragon Visitors Centre
Caverne du Dragon Visitors Centre

The entrance to this on site museum is a contemporary glass and concrete building.

It was erected over the entrance of the Carrière de La Creute, a limestone quarry exploited since the 16th century.

In local dialect a quarry is known as Creute.

The Germans converted the quarry into an underground fortress during WWI.

The Drachenhöhle – Dragon’s Lair, as they nicknamed it, became the theater of one of the deadliest battles of the western front.

The war over, the Caverne du Dragon became a place of pilgrimage for veterans and the families of Fallen Soldiers.

A Remembrance Site

The museum overlooks the valley, where the French were positioned.

Inside the Caverne du Dragon
Inside the Caverne du Dragon

A couple of commemorative steles were erected by its entrance.

The first pays tribute to the men of the 164th Division,.

The second honours the memory of the 4th Regiment of Zouaves for their bravery at the Ferme de la Creute (farm).

The most unusual tribute is a set of 9 giant wooden sculptures placed on the adjacent slopes.

La Constellation de la Douleur pays tribute to the Senegalese Tirailleurs who fell on these very slopes on April 16, 1917.

The museum has been placed under the direction of the General Council of the Aisne since 1995.

The Caverne du Dragon was listed Historical Monument in 2006.

La Caverne du Dragon can only be visited with a guide for safety reasons.

No more 16th April 1917 - Caverne du Dragon
No more 16th April 1917

The quarry was exploited from the 16th century onward and the limestone used to built monuments and churches.

The walls and ceilings bear the marks of the stonemasons’ tools.

They also bear numerous inscriptions, many made by the soldiers, such as this poignant inscription that reads:

Plus de 16 Avril 1917 – No more 16 April 1917

Countless tools, weapons, everyday objects used by soldiers are on display, but also modern works of art that pay tribute to the men who fought and died in the Caverne du Dragon.

One of the chambers is adorned with soft red lamps that seem to symbolize the souls of the Dead.

The Creute Battle

The fighting took place on January 25/26, 1915 on a section of the road D18 – Chemin des Dames located between La Ferme de La Creute and quarry and La Ferme de Hurtebise.

Remembrance lights in the Caverne du Dragon
Remembrance lights

La Creute and Hurtebise farms were situated on a narrowing section of the ridge.

This highly strategic position is known as ‘isthmus of Hurtebise’.

It was also the only position the French had retained on the Chemin des Dames.

The Germans, who had been positioned on the ridge since November 1914, wanted obviously to seize it.

They therefore launched their attack with short, but intensive artillery shelling, concentrated on the 500m section that separated the two farms.

Their infantry took over.

Commemorative steles by the Caverne du Dragon
Commemorative steles

By the morning of January 27, they had captured the last remaining French position on the Chemin des Dames!

This two-day offensive resulted in a high number of casualties on both sides.

More than 1500 French and 850 German soldiers were killed, and 1100 French made prisoners.

The Germans renamed the Battle of the Creute Battle of Craonne of 1915.

This was their way of taking revenge on the Battle of Craonne of 1814 where Napoleon defeated the Prussian and Russian troops of General Blücher.

The Germans kept their positions for months!

Nivelle Offensive

The French counteroffensive launched by General Nivelle, Operation Nivelle, on April 16, 1917 not only ended in a tragic defeat, but also in an astronomical number of casualties.

Caverne du Dragon Visitors center overlooking the trench
Museum overlooking the trench

It is also known as Second battle of the Aisne.

The objective of the French army was to break the 80km long German line of defence between Reims and Soissons, by opening a huge breach on the Chemin des Dames ridge.

The Germans were at a huge advantage.

They indeed controlled the Chemin des Dames ridge and La Creute quarry.

Positioned there since the beginning of the war, they had plenty time to connect the galleries and create a gigantic underground fortress (Caverne du Dragon).

Trench and Ferme de Hurtebise by the Caverne du Dragon
Trench and Ferme de Hurtebise

They equipped this 500m long network of underground tunnels with medical and command posts, electrical and telephone systems, dormitories, supplies, ammunition, various equipment, and even a well and a chapel.

They were fully ready to fight the French on the Chemin des Dames!

The French, on the other hand, were positioned some 80m below and in the open.

The French force amounted to thousands of men including 15,000 men from the Colonial Troops, Senegalese Tirailleurs and Zouaves.

The plan of attack was that intensive artillery fire was to open the way for the infantry, by destroying the German front lines of defence.

French Colonial troops were positioned in the green field near the Caverne du Dragon
French Colonial troops were positioned in the green field

This breach would allow the infantry to advance fast under the protection of a rolling artillery fire.

However, the shelling had turned the area into a moonscape.

The cold rain and snow that fell on that day prevented the French Colonial Troops from progressing as planned.

Positioned below the Caverne du Dragon, they rushed towards the enemy positions to meet a tragic fate.

Slipping and falling on the slopes, immobilized by disastrous weather conditions they were not accustomed to, mowed down by continuous fire of German machine guns, they panicked and became totally disoriented.

Chapel in the Caverne du Dragon

The failed Nivelle Offensive ended up in 40,000 casualties among the French troops, along the 80km front, on April 16 alone!

The traumatizing fighting triggered a deep crisis of confidence.

Many mutinies and revolts broke out among the men, who refused to return to the front.

Marshal Pétain took over from Nivelle on April 25.

From April 16 to 25, the French suffered 134,000 casualties.

These included 30,000 dead (including 1400 Colonial Troops on April 16 alone), 100,000 wounded and 4,000 taken prisoners!

Entrance to the Caverne du Dragon
Entrance to the Caverne du Dragon

The Germans suffered an estimated 168,000 casualties.

Sporadic attacks continued in the weeks that followed.

The French eventually seized the Caverne du Dragon on June 25.

This was during this battle that the Germans renamed La Creute quarry Drachenhöhle – Dragon’s Lair – Caverne du Dragon.

The flames of their flamethrowers coming out of the quarry’s entrances reminded them indeed of the flames coming out of a dragon’s nostrils!

Aisne department – Oulches-la-Vallée-Foulon – Picardie region
Coordinates: Lat 49.441454 – Long 3.732433

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