During World War I the western front ran through the Aisne department. The Chemin des Dames is a crest line between the Aisne and Ailette valleys. Its location and underground quarries meant that it was a veritable fortress.
After the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the Germans retreated to the heights above the Chemin des Dames and French troops were unable to flush them out. Then began an endless and deadly confrontation: a war of position. The Chemin des Dames became the scene of great battles.
Today it is an open-air museum, extending 40 km from east to west, with many monuments along its length.
On the D2 secondary road between Soissons and Laon, Laffaux mill was a highly strategic position, fought over by both sides for many months in 1917. The trench-mortar monument pays tribute to the 12,000 trench gunners who died between 1914 and 1918. At the western entrance to the Chemin des Dames the guardian angel wayside cross commemorates French soldiers killed during fighting in the Aisne.
The Fort de la Malmaison, part of the Séré de Rivières defence system, guarded the way onto the ridge and is today a symbol of the offensive launched on 23rd October 1917. From the La Royère viewpoint, you can see Sainte Berthe Chapel down below, in the village of Filain. A plaque commemorates the battle fought nearby by men of the 283rd Regiment of Infantry on 23rd October 1917.
At the centre of the Chemin des Dames stands the reconstructed village of Cerny-en-Laonnois. It was at the very centre of the fighting on the Chemin des Dames. Today it has both French and German cemeteries, a chapel of Remembrance, and a British war memorial to the “Lancashire lads”.
On one of the slopes next to the Caverne du Dragon museum stands the Constellation de la douleur, a sculpture comprising nine statues in charred raw wood, the work of Christian Lapie, paying tribute to the courage of African soldiers killed during 1917.
A little further on, the Monument des Basques is an obelisk-shaped war memorial in honour of soldiers from south-western France. The statue represents a peasant in traditional costume, wearing a Basque beret. Facing away from the old battlefield, the figure has its eyes forever turned towards its homeland.
On the plateau de Californie, an impregnable stronghold at the heart of the German operation, stands a bronze sculpture nearly four metres high, the work of Haïm Kern, called "Ils n'ont pas choisi leur sépulture" (they did not choose their grave). Close by are the ruins of the old village of Craonne, destroyed by very heavy shelling in 1917, which gave its name to the famous Craonne song, associated with the mutinies which followed General Nivelle’s French offensive.
In the forest, remains of trenches can still be seen; a wooden observation tower, 20 metres high, affords a view of the Aisne and Ailette valleys, making clear how important this steep-sided ridge was for military manoeuvres. Further south, towards Reims, near La Ville-aux-Bois-lès-Pontavert, in the Buttes wood, is a stele in memory of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who suffered a serious head wound when a shell exploded on the front lines on 17th March 1916. Finally, the Monument National des Chars d’Assaut stands at the place where French tanks were used en masse on 16th April 1917.
Today there is an exhibition of tanks from the 1950s.
The Caverne du Dragon and Laon Tourist Information office offer a wide range of themed guided tours of the Chemin des Dames. If you have a smartphone you can also choose to be guided by the Carnets 14-18 application, through the story of Andrew Naylor, a British stretcher-bearer in the First World War.