Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Around the First Battle of the Marne: 3 victory

The third (and last) part of visiting the 1914 battlefields of the Marne in connection with my Osprey on the First Battle of the Marne.

Although the fighting had gone on for several days, the Germans had not succeeded in defeating the Allies, although they had been driven back in places with heavy casualties. But the front was too long for the number of men engaged, and gaps, small and large, began to appear. Both sides rushed to fill the gaps, but began to run out of men. The clash to the west of the town of Montmirail was the straw that broke the German camel's back.

We stayed at the Hotel Le Vert Galant in Montmirail.

More by chance than design, the French had found the open flank of the German 2nd Army. On 8th September, masking Montmirail itself, French infantry from 36th Division crossed the Petit Morin river and climbed the wooded slopes opposite, supported by artillery. The key combat was the struggle for the small village of Marchais-en-Brie. The German commander, Generalmajor von Unruh, had spread the units of his 25th Brigade (13th Division) out along the ridge line overlooking the river, and could not bring all their guns to bear against the French advance in and around the Bois de Courmont. By the time the defenders had changed front it was too late. If the division's flank was turned, then the corps' flank was turned. If the corps' flank was turned, the 2nd Army's flank was turned, and the only way out was retreat.

Walking out from Montmirail along the country road on the north bank towards the hamlet of Les Marais gives you a good idea of the dominating position of the ridge line, and turning up-slope on the D20 into Marchais, one can only admire the effort of the French infantry who performed the same feat under fire and carrying a full pack.

Montmirail was also the site of a battle in 1814, involving someone called Napoleon (whoever he was). There is a monument and several information boards concerning this battle along the main road.

The action at Marchais lasted most of the day, but, by the later standards of the war, was not very bloody. Perhaps that is why the regimental histories of the units involved do not devote a great deal of space to it. However, their war diaries survive, and their consultation is free of charge: 36th Division, its constituent brigades, 71st (34th and 49th Infantry) and 72nd (12th and 8th Infantry), as well divisional units such as 249th Infantry and 14th Artillery.

The photo-blog La défaite oubliée is a site largely concerned with the 1814 battlefield, but as there is a good overlap on the ground, many of the photos show the 1914 one as well. A site devoted to IR13, who bore the brunt of the French attack, is here.


We also spent some time at Chateau Thierry, staying at Le Jardin des Fables guesthouse. We walked out to the impressive US Memorial, connected, of course, with the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918, rather than the First. From here, it was possible to continue walking westwards, amongst the vineyards. It is easy to see how the Marne crossings are dominated by the hills to the north, and how difficult it was for the BEF to make the crossings when they were faced with a determined opponent.

We also took the opportunity when changing trains to visit La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, but there was little time to do other than climb the hill above the town, to appreciate the importance of the place as a crossing, and to see the memorial to the British dead, close by the bridge (left).

A Google map with the places listed is here.

Pictures: cover of the penny-dreadful from Gallica (I don't what effect she has on the enemy, but by God she frightens me!); the north side of Courton Wood from the German positions; an old postcard of the main square of Chateau-Thierry; the monument at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Around the First Battle of the Marne: 2 Mondement

Continuing our travels around northern France in search of the First Battle of the Marne for my Osprey Campaigns book. Moving on from Meaux, we headed east. These posts will be in the order of the battle, rather than the order we actually visited the sites to keep the account half-way coherent, because there was bit of ducking and diving on the way. 

The next phase of the battle involved assaults by the German 2nd Army, along the lines of the Petit and Grand Morins rivers, and by 3rd Army across the River Somme (a different River Somme, not the one of 1916). Restricted as we were by public transport, we were not able to visit sites like Charleville, where the French defenders hung on bravely in defiance of common sense. Nor could we reach the line of the Somme, and the villages of Normée, Lenharrée, Haussimont and Sommesous, the site of an equally desperate French defence, and where the surprise night attack of the Saxons of 3rd Army nearly succeeded in breaking through the French front.

Looking nearly four years later, public transport in the area remains thin; it is possible to reach Mailly-le-Camp from Troyes (timetable), but then it is a walk to Sommesous. A long-distance bus from Troyes to Charleville-Mézières, also stops at Sommesous and the nearby Vatry airport (timetable). Unless I've missed something, the villages further north remain difficult, if not impossible, to reach by public transport.

Where we did go was to one of the key points of the French front, at Mondement. The nearest town is Sézanne, and we stayed in the Croix d'Or. No alternative to get to Mondement but via Shanks's Pony. It's a brief climb out of the town, past the communal cemetery, where there are some French war graves and a monument. After that, its the D39 towards Broyes, then the D45 towards Mondement.


The attack on Mondement chateau by René Rousseau Decelle

The attack of 3rd Army had bent the French front backwards to Connantre. The hinge in the line was the village of Mondement. The village and its chateau are situated on a hill with a commanding view northwards. Unfortunately, the over-stretched French had left only a small garrison, and this fell to a bold pre-dawn attack on 9th September by the Hanoverians of IR164. Scraping together whatever resources were available, mostly men from the 77th Infantry and from the Moroccan Division, the French flung men at the village, even to the extent of firing field artillery over open sights in an attempt to force a German withdrawal.

For a long, hot day, the Germans hung on. The French attacks were too piecemeal to be successful, although they did inflict heavy casualties on the enemy. Fortunately for the French, the German attack was called off following the French victory at Montmirail (which will be in part 3), and they were able to withdraw unmolested.

The places I mention are on a Google map here.

The chateau was badly damaged in the fighting, but has since been restored as a private home. The most extraordinary feature of the battlefield is an extraordinary 'menhir' memorial, built of concrete made to look like sandstone, some 33 metres high. It was started in 1931 and took six years to finish, but was not formally inaugurated until 1951. Towards the top is a figure that recalls figures from the Arc de Triomphe, and around the base are figures that look almost like Joffre and his commanders, including Sir John French. There is a small private museum in the village school.

The battle is covered in a number of items available on Gallica: a divisional history of the Moroccan Division here, regimental histories of the 8th Zouaves here and here, that of the 46th Artillery is here. The history of the 77th is available via BDIC here, and an account of the battle by Léopold Retailleau, a bugler of the regiment, was published in 2003. The regimental war diary is here. The regimental history of IR164 is not online, but a brief account of the regiment, and its garrison town of Hameln, during the war is here.

The third and final part will be around Montmirail.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Around the First Battle of the Marne: 1 the battle of the Ourcq

In 2008, I was writing a book on the First Battle of the Marne for Osprey (here), so a visit to the battlefield was vital. The trouble is that the battle took place over a wide geographical area, and I don't drive, so arranging the visit was a major campaign in itself (for which my wife must take the sole credit).

Our first port of call was Meaux, to cover the battle of the Ourcq phase. We stayed at the Hotel Le Richemont, which is handily placed for both the centre of town and the rail / bus interchange.

The first day started with a bus trip to Trocy-en-Multien. The route goes past the American monument (a bit flamboyant for my taste, but still ... ); the new Museum of the Great War was still a gleam in the architect's eye at the time, but has since been completed on a neighbouring site. Alighting at Trocy, we walked the short distance to the village of Etrepilly. This marked the high-water mark of the French advance during the battle in this sector - a night-time attack led to some confused, bloody fighting, particularly around the communal cemetery on the north side of the village. The monument and a small French cemetery is a few steps further north.

Onwards, and southwards. The road leads across the railway to the small German cemetery (where 1,258 men are commemorated, most in mass graves), which is next to the larger French one (922 graves). The graves are those of men killed on the 6th, 7th and 8th September, as the French attacked across an open, empty plain against the Germans, who were sheltered by the woods above the river. It is ironic that the two cemeteries are separated by the TGV-Est line, that takes passengers between Paris and Germany.

Further long the road to Barcy is the monument of Notre Dame de la Marne. This was erected by the Bishop of Meaux as the result of a vow of thanksgiving for sparing Meaux from destruction in 1914. The monument was inaugurated in 1924, on the site of a German headquarters during the battle. From here, we made for Chambry, and then Penchard.

Almost unnoticed at the side of a dusty crossroads between the last two named places is the monument to the Army of Paris, erected in 1918 at the instance of General Gallieni. An unlovely concrete stump, it is seemingly neglected and ignored.

In Penchard, we caught the bus back to Meaux.

The following day saw us on the bus to Monthyon. On the south side is the L'Hôpital Farm; positioned here were the German batteries that fired the first rounds of the battle (when the Germans thought they were simply disturbing the lunch of a French rearguard). The road from here to Iverny was busy with lorries moving aggregate, but the wide verge made it walkable. From Iverny we took the quieter back road south to Villeroy.


A view of the battlefield taken from where Péguy was killed. The Germans were in the woods in the middle distance
The small museum to the battle here was closed (I see its website has disappeared - could the museum be closed completely?). Exiting the village down a long allee of poplars, a small monument markes the spot where the writer Charles Péguy was killed on the afternoon of the 6th. The road opposite leads to a extraordinary art deco memorial to those, including Péguy, who were killed in the vicinity. An interview with a veteran of Péguy's regiment, the 276th Infantry, is here. Heading further down the road is to follow in the footsteps of the Moroccan Brigade (including the future Marshal Alphonse Juin) as they tried to outflank the German positions in the valley. The north African troops managed to reach the village of Chauconin, ahead, before being forced to withdraw, severely depleted.

Back to Meaux on the bus.

Meaux can be reached from the Gare de l'Est, Paris - timetables for the wider Ile-de-France region can be found on the vianavigo site, here. Meaux and its immediate vicinity is well served by public transport, whose timetables can be found here; it is more difficult to get further afield, which meant we were not able to visit the hotly-contested area around Nogeon Farm and Betz, nor visit Nanteuil-le-Hardouin, where the 'taxis of the Marne' debussed. The most economic way to get about in and around Meaux is to buy a carnet of ten T+ tickets at 13 Euros 50 (price as at March 2013); single journeys are at a flat rate of 2 Euros each.

I have placed the locations I have mentioned on Google maps here. A selection of photographs of the battlefield can be found here, courtesy of 'Pierre Grande Guerre'. The most useful collection of accounts, by French, German and British participants, can de found here.

Covers from the Collection Patrie series of penny-dreadfuls from Gallica.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Kings of the Air: Clément Ader

This is the first of a series of biographical sketches based on the research I am doing for my new book Kings of the Air: French aces and airmen of the Great War, to be published by Pen & Sword.

Clément Ader (1841-1925) was a French inventor, whose attempt at heavier-than-air flight some years before the Wright brothers was so nearly successful.

Ader had a restless mind, and his inventions covered a wide range of fields. In 1868, he began as a velocipede manufacturer. Instead of conventional iron tyres, his machines used a rubber tubular tyre of his own invention, resulting in a much lighter frame, and a much more comfortable ride.

The war against German in 1870 brought an end to his work. He then began working for a railway company in the south-west of the country, the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Midi. In 1875, he designed an engine that laid rails, that saw service for several years.

He then turned to the new telephone, commercialising the inventions of Alexander Graham Bell and Cyrille Duquet, helping install a network in Paris. Ader then went further, and invented the Theatrephone, which allowed to subscribers to listen to live performances at the Paris Opera in the comfort of their own home. These projects earned him a considerable amount of money as well as influential contacts within the Government.

He devoted much of the rest of his life to heavier-than-air flight. Like many other pioneers, he started with a glider (in 1874). But then the problem was how to power it. Ader chose steam power. He constructed a small light-weight engine for his first aeroplane, which he christened Eole. The engine itself is a small masterpiece of construction, that would prove to be lighter than the one the Wrights would use ten years later (51kg as against 75kg), and developed more horsepower (20hp as against 12hp). It seems obvious now that steam-power was the not the way forward. The internal combustion engine had already been invented; perhaps Ader did not think he could engineer one small enough or light enough, or perhaps he just wanted to get into the air first, hoping that an answer to the engine question would reveal itself later.

Like many a pioneer, for the configuration of his flying machine Ader looked to nature for inspiration, and Eole (also known as Avion I) had bat-like wings, with a single, centre-mounted engine. Its first 'flight' took place in the park of the chateau at Gretz-Armainvilliers (Seine-et-Marne) on October 9 1890. There were gaps in the marks left by the machine's wheels of between twenty to fifty metres, suggested that the machine had got off the ground, at least.

Ader then used his Government contacts for support. Charles Freycinet, the Minister of War, was an engineer by background, and was always enthusiastic about new technologies - both the 75mm field gun and the Lebel rifle would enter service during his ministries. He encouraged Ader to produce a more powerful prototype that would actually fly with a 75kg payload, and offered him a total of 30,000 francs (about £3 million at today's prices) if he succeeded. 'This was the day,' commented Ader of Freycinet's offer, 'when Military aviation was born.'

Ader abandoned his second prototype for a third, twin-engined machine, named Aquilon or Avion III. Ader demonstrated it to an audience of the military at the camp of Satory, near Versailles, on 12 October 1897. One witness was an NCO of Engineers, named Neute: 'I didn't lose sight of it for a moment, I heard the engine start up and [the machine] began to roll in a straight line. I was watching from a little to one side … It covered perhaps 100 metres and then it rose very slowly, gained height and I saw it clearly above the heads of the crowd. How high was it? 20 metres, perhaps 25. It was pitching quite heavily as it progressed and after 100 or 150 metres it changed direction slightly. I had the impression the pilot was having trouble with the steering. Then suddenly I saw it fall.' Ader subsequently claimed he had achieved flight; certainly, it skipped across the ground. But there were obvious problems with stability and steering, as well as the matter of the steam engine. And it was not sustained flight.

The Army withdrew its support and its funding. As another pioneer, Ferdinand Ferber would later explain, 'To design a flying machine is nothing; to build a flying machine is something; but getting a flying machine to fly is everything.' Ader, disheartened, withdrew from the active development of flying machines. He was still interested in the subject, however, and continued to address letters and memoranda to the Minister for the rest of his life. He was the author of a number of books on aviation, which called for the creation of massive air fleets to defend France against her enemies (ie Britain and Germany).'Whoever becomes Master of the Air,' he thundered, 'will become Master of the World.'

His most lasting contribution was the introduction of the word 'avion' into the French language, to mean 'aircraft'. It replaced 'aéroplane' in official usage in 1910 as a tribute to the inventor, and subsequently became the standard word.
Pictures: Ader in old age; Ader's engine; a painting showing the trial of Eole; Charles Freycinet, Minister of War; Aquilon, currently hanging in the Museum of Arts et Métiers in Paris; a contemporary reconstruction of his 'flight'; the pilot's compartment of Aquilon, showing the pilot had no forward view; the monument to Ader, appropriately enough situated in the Rue Clement Ader, Versailles.