The Chemin des Dames is a road that runs atop a ridge in the plain that stretches from Soissons to Reims. It was a bitterly contested part of the western front in 1914-18 war and is as famous to the French as Ypres and Passchendaele are to the British. Our visit over the Remembrance day weekend was particularly poignant.
The old village of Craonne lay just below the end point of the ridge with its view over the plain. During the fighting for this key strategic point, the village was completely destroyed. The inhabitants were evacuated by the occupying Germans after having sheltered in their cellars during the initial invasion. Today nothing remains of the village except the mounds of the ruins, some cobbled roads and isolated cellar entrances.
La Chanson de Craonne is a well-known anti-military song sung by the soldiers who mutinied in 1917. This mutiny was widespread and was caused by the terrible conditions in the trenches and what was seen as terrible loss of life for very little military gain.
The main fighting on the Chemin des Dames was between the French and German armies, however there were British troops fighting in the area. The cemetery at Vendresse-Beaulne is beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The tombstones are set in flowerbeds containing roses, asters, sedums, heuchera, dianthus, festuca glauca and other ground-cover plants. The British cemeteries were designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens who worked closely with Gertrude Jekyll, whose devotion to traditional cottage garden plants and roses greatly influenced the appearance of the cemeteries.
The Chemin des Dames runs between the route N2 (starting half way between Soissons and Laon) and the village of Corbeny. It is about an hour an a half drive from central Paris. We also visited the museum of the Caverne du Dragon, a stone quarry used as an underground shelter by both sides. On the chiselled stone ceiling one soldier drew a tree in candle smoke. There are also French and German cemeteries along the route dating from both world wars. The cathedral in the medieval quarter of Laon is also worth visiting with smiling carved stone cows and other animals on the facade.