A mini-break in Laon
I have just had 36 hours away in Laon, in the département de l’Aisne. It is a striking city, the medieval town perched on top of a steep hill that rises abruptly a hundred metres above the plains of Picardy. With the very distinctive silhouette of its enormous Gothic cathedral. I remember driving past it back in the 1980s, on the way to Geneva, and thinking that I must go and explore the place one day. Susie and I stayed there couple of times on the way up and down to Lyon; once in a featureless Première Classe or similar at the bottom of the hill; and once in a rather splendidly old-fashioned hotel in the centre of the medieval town.
Laon was the capital of France under the Merovingians, the long-haired kings, les rois fainéants. About whom I know nothing at all. [My dwindling awareness of medieval European history only starts with the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800.] And it remained the capital city under the Carolingians. The city contains a good number of medieval buildings, including the cathedral and the abbey church of Saint Martin. In the 12th century the School of Theology under Anselm of Laon was one of the most distinguished in Europe, and pupils included the young Peter Abelard.
Laon Cathedral was built in the 13th and early 14th centuries, on the site of an earlier church that was burned to the ground during the Easter Insurrection of 1112. It is an early example of the Gothic style that originated in northern France, and is more-or-less contemporary with Notre Dame in Paris. Although the cathedral suffered some damage during the Revolution and again in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, it survived both the more recent world wars unscathed.
In Laon I was staying in the B&B Seraphine, which turned out to be a genuinely old house in the rue Saint Martin, very close to the centre. Difficult to access because there are narrow streets and an elaborate one-way system. My room was up three flights of stairs in the attic, complete with wooden beams and an uneven stone floor. But very comfortable.
On the Chemin des Dames
My main reason for going was not to see Laon itself but to explore the Chemin des Dames. This is a distinctive limestone ridge which runs east-west for some thirty kilometres just south of Laon. It is a noticeable feature amid the flat plains of Picardy. It acquired its name in the eighteenth century when the two young daughters of Louis XV, Adelaide and Victoire [known as les Dames de France] travelled along it regularly by carriage to visit Françoise de Châlus, countess of Narbonne-Lara, and onetime mistress of Louis XV. The count had the road surfaced, and it is now the D19.
The ridge has obvious strategic importance, and has been the site of much fighting down the years. In 1814 Napoleon’s troops defeated an army of Russians and Prussians at the battle of Craonne. The site marked by a statue of Napoleon gazing impassively at the neighbouring field.
A century later the ridge was the scene of much fighting during the First World War. The German armies withdrew to this area early in the war, after their retreat following the first Battle of the Marne. in September 1914. This was when French troops were rushed to the front in 600 Paris taxicabs, requisitioned by General Gallieni. [It seems that the taxis left their meters running, and the French treasury subsequently reimbursed them to the tune of some 70,000 francs.] There is a very striking monument to this battle, a menhir some 20 metres high, with a skin of red granite and a frieze depicting a group of French generals and an outsized Joffre and an outsized poilu. The monument is badly signposted and little visited, down a minor road just north of Sezanne, overlooking the Saint-Gond marshes where much of the heavy fighting took place. When the German withdrew they dug in on the Chemin des Dames ridge, which saw some of the earliest trench fortifications which came to define the years that followed.
In April 1917, after Joffre had been limogé, Robert Nivelle ordered a major offensive between Reims and Soissons, that he calculated would end the war within 48 hours. Details of the plan leaked to the Germans, bad weather caused a postponement, and the offensive was a damp squib. The ridge had been heavily fortified by the Germans, who had installed artillery and machine gun posts in the numerous caves and tunnels excavated by the limestone quarries. On the first day of the attack the French took 40,000 casualties. Over the following two weeks of the battle the number of casualties rose to over 270,000. Such high casualties for minimal gains were seen by the French public as a disaster. Nivelle was forced to resign, and there was a growing problem of mutiny as the French troops refused to go back into the trenches. Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun, was summoned to take over and restore order. Some 630 men were sentenced to death, but only a small proportion were executed. [I had assumed that the intensely anti-military, Stanley Kubrick film Paths of Glory was based on this episode. But I am not sure if that is the case.] After the failed offensive the Germans remained in possession of the ridge.
There are an extraordinary number of monuments and cemeteries the length of the ridge, British and German as well as French. At nearby Berry-au-Bac there is a National Tank Monument, marking the spot where French tanks were first used in an organised way, not wholly satisfactorily, in April 1917. In Buttes Wood, just south of La Ville-aux-Bois, there is a monument to Guillaume Apollinaire, the French writer and Symbolist, who suffered a severe shrapnel wound there in 1916. [He never fully recovered from his wounds, but subsequently died of Spanish flu.] At the eastern end of the Chemin des Dames is the Plateau de Californie, the scene of heavy fighting in both 1917 and 1918. There is a high wooden platform commanding extensive views over the plain. A little to the west is the statue of Napoleon. And then a striking Monument aux Basques, in memory of the many soldiers from the south-west who fought and died here. Alongside it is a modern wire sculpture, created I believe by Jean-Pierre Rives, in memory of the rugby players who died on the Chemin des Dames. One of the very first casualties here, killed in September 1914, was a young Scottish international, Ronnie Simson, of Blackheath and Scotland. On the centenary of his death teams of players from Blackheath and London Scottish travelled to play against a local selection; and the following day there was a commemorative event at the Basque Monument.
The major tourist attraction on the Chemin des Dames is the Caverne du Dragon, the Dragon’s Lair. The Visitors’ Centre is a modern glass and concrete building, erected over the entrance to the Carrière de la Creute, a former limestone quarry which had been worked since the 16th century. There is no admission for individuals because the complex is too dangerous. But there are guided visits during the day, which descend some fifty feet below the surface and which give a good idea of what life was like in this network of tunnels; used as command centres, machine gun nests, ammunition dumps, and field hospitals, as well as shelters for the troops. The very well-informed guide told us that there were many kilometres of such tunnels beneath the ridge, and that there were times when different parts of the network were occupied by both French and German troops. A cave lit with soft red lamps is said to symbolise the spirits of the dead. The walls of the tunnels are littered with military fragments and period graffiti. The guide said that local farmers uncover several tons of military debris every year.
It was cold down in the cavern. And it was good to come back up into the centre and into the fresh air. I bought a Chemin des Dames hoodie. But I’m not sure when I will wear it.