Chemin des Dames, a road named after a king’s daughters

Chemin des Dames literally translates as Ladies’ Way.

La Royere - Battlefield after the offensive of 25 October 1917
Battlefield after the offensive of 25 October 1917

The D18 road runs from east-west on the Chemin des Dames, a plateau and ridge delineated by the Aislette Valley to the north and the Aisne Valley to the south.

The road connects the N2 and D1044 and is commonly known as Chemin des Dames.

The Chemin des Dames was initially named after Madame Adelaide and Madame Sophie, the daughters of King Louis XV.

Madame is commonly shorten as Dame.

The Duchess of Narbonne, the Dame of Honour of Adelaide, owned an estate in the nearby village of Presles-et-Bove.

In 1776 she asked for the muddy road leading to Bove to be paved, so that Adelaide’s carriage could get there more easily.

The Route pour les Dames – the Road for the Ladies was completed at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.

It is therefore unlikely that Mesdames Adelaide and Sophie ever traveled on the newly paved road!

In fact, it even seems that they only came once in the region, in 1784!

Plateau du Chemin des Dames, a strategic location

The strategic location of the plateau didn’t escape the Celtic tribes Suessons (Soissons) and Remes (Reims).

Plateau de Californie - Former trenches and craters - Chemin des Dames
Former trenches and craters

The ridge indeed formed a natural geographical boundary between their two territories.

Sadly, this also turned the plateau into a place of predilection for battles!

The first took place in 596AD.

The Battle of Laffaux opposed  the King of Neustria to the king of Austrasia, the two sons of the Frank King Chilperic I.

The Battle of Craonne took place on March 17, 1814.

It ended with the victory of Napoleon’s army over the Russian and Prussian troops of General Blücher.

Two advanced defence forts were built along the Chemin des Dames during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 to protect Paris.

The Fort de la Malmaison is located close to the N2, the road linking Soissons to Laon;  the Fort Condé was built on the south side of the plateau overlooking the Valley of Aisne.

Chemin des Dames – WWI battlefield

However, the Chemin des Dames is sadly world famous for the terrible offensives that took place there during WWI.

La Royere - Concrete trench
Concrete trench

It was indeed part of the western front positions held by the French troops.

The first French counteroffensive, which took place in September-October 1914, is known as First Battle of the Marne.

The Germans, had seized the Plateau du Chemin des Dames at the beginning of the war.

They therefore blocked the progression of the French and British troops and tightly secured their positions on the plateau.

They held these positions for two and a half years!

The numerous attacks that took place during that time frame claimed the lives of thousands of men on both sides.

The various offensives

On 25 January 1915 the Germans managed to seize the last position held by the French troops at the Creute farm and stone quarries.

Commemorative steles by the Caverne du Dragon
Commemorative steles

The contemporary building that today stands above the site hosts the Museum of the Chemin des Dames and the entrance to the Dragon’s Cave.

The second French counteroffensive was led by General Nivelle; it took place on April 16, 1917 and was a complete slaughter!

The Nivelle Offensive indeed involved more than 1 million men from both camps.

It  not only ended in a terrible defeat for the French troops, but also in an astronomical and unnecessary loss of lives.

This triggered discouragement and loss of trust among the French troops and ended in numerous mutinies and revolts.

On 15 May, General Petain replaced Nivelle and took the command of the North and North-East front armies.

The French fought a series of short and surprise operations and attacks throughout the summer.

Monument des Basques - Chemin des Dames - Obelisk with Basque man looking towards his native land
Obelisk with Basque man looking towards his native land

However, it was not until October 23, 1917 that the Germans were defeated at Fort de la Malmaison and forced to retreat to the northern bank of the Aislette.

The 3rd offensive led by General Ludendorff took place on May 27, 1918, and ended in a German victory.

This offensive allowed them to break the French and British defence lines and reach Soissons and Château-Thierry.

The French counteroffensive on July 18, 1918, the Second Battle of the Marne, ended with the capture of Soissons on August 2.

The Germans definitely pulled out from the Plateau du Chemin des Dames on October 10.

The armistice was signed on November 11th!

It is believed that between 100,000 and 200,000 soldiers from all nationalities were killed on the battlefields of the Chemin des Dames between 1914 and 1918!

As you progress along the Chemin des Dames you’ll come across many monuments, an on site museum, battlefields left in their war state and many cemeteries:

Fort de Condé, Fort de la Malmaisson, Laffaux, La Royère, Cerny-en-Laonnois French Cemetery, Cerny-en-Laonnois German war Cemetery, Cerny-en-Laonnois British Memorial Column, Caverne du Dragon, Constellation de la Douleur, Plateau de Californie, Monument des Basques, Monument des Marie-Louise, Monument des Chars d’Assaut, but also the Abbaye de Vauclair and Napoleon Memorial of the Battle of Craonne.

Department of Aisne
Coordinates Chemin des Dames:
N2: Lat 49.455685 – Long 3.490047
D10144: Lat 49.462504 – Long 3.823607

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