A century ago this week the Battle of the Marne was raging close to Paris as the outcome of the German invasion of French hung in the balance. The ‘miracle of the Marne’ saw an Allied force of British and French troops halt the German Army at the very gates of Paris and it was not only the largest battle of 1914 – with nearly 2.5 million troops involved – but arguably the most decisives of the campaign.
While the French Army had demonstrated in the Battles of the Frontier that it fought in an outdated way, resulting in heavy losses, battles like the Marne showed that the French often had an edge in technology and the ability to adapt. The famous French 75mm field gun seen here was one such example; certainly the best field gun that went to war in 1914 and arguably one of the best of the whole war. It’s rapid rate of fire and accuracy meant that it increasingly gave French gunners an edge on the battlefield, something they would carry through the entire conflict.
The Musée de la Grande Guerre opened in the French town of Meaux – in the heart of the 1914 Marne battlefields – in late 2011. While this is its second year and has had good visitor numbers, I do not think it has quite reached the radar of English speaking visitors as yet and I myself have only just had a chance to pay the museum a visit.
I must confess that I did approach the visit with some trepidation; modern museums can often have themes which at times seem remote from the core subjects of the Great War and occasionally go for audio-visual over objects. In the case of this superb museum my fears were unfounded as it proved to be one of the best museums I have visited in a long time and now is in my top five WW1 museums in the world!
The visit at the Musée de la Grande Guerre starts with a short film taking you back to the origins of the Great War and the Franco-Prussian War. You then proceed into the pre-war galleries which emerge into a display of soldiers marching to war in 1914 and the main hall. This hall is packed with a Marne Taxi, pigeon loft, WW1 aircraft a FT17 tank, artillery and two large trench displays. Off of it are other rooms which follows themes or the timeframe of the war, equally packed with fascinating objects, imagery and artwork. Two and a half hours here just flew by and it is one of those great museum where I know I shall return each time and see something I missed previously.
The trench displays were particularly effective; a trench ends on a wall where the movement and activity in the trench is cleverly blended with archive film from WW1 – see below.
The museum has a well stocked bookshop at the end, good, clean toilets, safe and plentiful parking, and a nice little cafe which does drinks and light snacks. You cannot take bags inside but there are lockers to leave them in. It has good disabled access for a French museum and the staff are all very friendly.
I cannot recommend the Musée de la Grande Guerre enough and combined with a visit to some Marne battlefield sites close by, this makes the Marne an exciting battlefield to visit.
This week the #Arras95 project has been commemorating the 95th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras, fought in Northern France. But Arras is not the only major battle fought during this week 95 years ago; at the same time General Robert Nivelle was commanding the French Army into action on the Chemin des Dames.
The Chemin des Dames – or ‘Ladies’ Way’ – was a road than ran across an area of high ground north-west of Reims. It had been taken by the Germans in 1914 during the Battle of the Aisne and the offensive was a combined operation with the British attacks at Arras. Nivelle’s objective was to crush the German defences on the Chemin des Dames and destroy their dominance of the battlefield – all within a time frame of 24-48 hours. Sadly from the start things went badly; in the opening of the attack on 16th April 1917 French armoured forces took heavy losses on the right flank losing more than 150 tanks and the bombardment proved ineffective with substantial casualties among the infantry; 40,000 casualties alone in the first day of operations. The battle continued beyond the planned 48 hours into early May as gradually the French forces made some gains on the high ground but at huge cost. The offensive partially led to the mutinies in the French Army and ended Nivelle’s career as a commander.
This aerial image is from a small collection showing the battlefield across the Chemin des Dames around Fort de Malmaison in April 1917. WW1 French aerial images are very large – almost A3 size – and of a very high quality; a huge amount of detail can be picked out on them. Fort de Malmaison was built in 1877 and was in fact abandoned by 1914. Captured by the Germans in 1914 they used it until the battle crept close in 1917 but the Nivelle Offensive failed to reach it and there was only serious fighting here in October 1917. After WW2 the area in front of the fort was chosen for a WW2 German Cemetery but the ruined remains of the fort were fenced off for many years; now a group of volunteers regularly conduct tours of the site.
A larger version of the aerial photo can be viewed here.
Today we feature some more photos from the Lauder album, taken by a young women who travelled to the battlefields between Reims and Verdun in 1925.
These images show some knocked out tanks which were then visible close to Fort La Pompelle, just outside Reims. The fort had been on the front line for four years during the Great War but had never fallen. In June 1918 a German attacked was launched on the fort which included a large number of captured British Mark IV tanks (largely taken at Cambrai) being used by the German Army, painted in their own colours and given German names. The wrecks of the tanks knocked out here in June 1918 became tourist attractions post-war and remained here until they were scrapped by the Germans during the occupation of WW2.
The Lauders were some of thousands who visited these wrecks in the 1920s and 30s.
The French 75mm Field Gun has often been called the artillery piece of the Great War. Brought into service in the last years of the nineteenth century, it had a unique recoil mechanism which meant that it could fire between 15 and 30 rounds a minute without the gun moving. Normally a field gun had be re-positioned to fire after every shot; the 75mm could deliver a huge rain of shells precisely in a short space of time, which gave the French Army the upper hand when the war turned to stalemate and artillery dominated the battlefield. In 1914 more than 4,000 were in service and by the end of the war more than 12,000 had been produced.
This image shows men of the 44th Regiment d’Artillerie of the French Army either just before the war on manoeuvres or at the time of mobilisation in August as it is dated 1914 on the reverse in pencil. The 44th was from Le Mans in France and weeks after this photo was taken, the unit was in action during the Battle of the Marne, where the German Army was stopped in its tracks at the very gates of Paris. It spent the winter of 1914/15 near Reims getting used to being dug in as Trench Warfare developed, and in 1915 took part in Operations in the Champagne. In 1916 it fought at Verdun, and in 1917 was back on the Marne before returning to the Champagne in 1918.
The men in the photograph are officers of the 44th; they are wearing the pre-war uniforms of blue serge and in field service attire with the equipment needed to do their job as gunner officers; map cases and binoculars. The officer second from right is likely to be either the 44th’s commander or a Brigade commander within the 44th; he is wearing the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration which could be awarded for general duties as well as for gallantry in the field and may just indicate he had some service in the army. Sadly no names are appended, but one wonders what sights and sounds these men experienced only weeks after this image was taken, and how many of them survived that long journey from the Marne back home.