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.