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.