Touring the Chemin des Dames

Joined by my knowledgable guide Madame Teyssier and chauffeured by her husband Louis, I spent the morning driving along the Chemin des Dames battlefield. Here, the 137th regiment of the French infantry, as well as many others, served. Katharine Baker was a corporal in this regiment so seeing this site was crucial to understanding her war experience.

The battles along the Chemin des Dames were notoriously difficult and deadly because of the spot’s geographic features. The Chemin des Dames itself runs across the top of a hill. Anyone at the top of this point had an uninterrupted view of the sprawling flat land beneath. For this reason, every attack could be seen and hiding was impossible. Furthermore, the hill is spotted with underground quarries that provided protection to anyone lucky enough to be in this advantageous position. Gaining ground on the Chemin des Dames was quite literally an uphill battle that yielded few successes.

My guide, Madame Teyssier, brought me through the many towns and forts where Katharine’s regiment was stationed including Rouge Maison (not to be confused with the nearby Maison Rouge), Vauxaillon, Chavignon, and many others. All of the sites we visited were either completely destroyed and rebuilt, completely destroyed and abandoned, or transformed into something entirely new so even standing in the exact spots where the regiment was stationed, it was difficult to imagine what they would have seen. The closest to what the 137th would have recognized was probably the “town” of Craonne. After it was destroyed, what remained of the buildings was purposely buried to symbolize the death of the town and the uneven ground that resulted is very similar to what the shelled battlefields looked like.

We also made a point to visit the Fort de la Malmaison since we know Katharine and the regiment were there. Despite its World War I connection, the site is now a visitors center and German World War II military cemetery. Unfortunately it was closed for the season so we could not go in, but it was interesting to see how this particular area was deeply affected by not just one but two major conflicts.

When discussing the war in an academic setting, you typically learn about the large-scale impacts such as the effects on relations between different countries and the lands gained or lost. When engaging in projects like Bucknellians in World War I, you are confronted with the small-scale impacts such as the loss of individual lives. However, what struck me most during my tour of the Chemin des Dames was what I thought of as the “medium-scale” impacts. So many of the towns we drove through were rebuilt but never fully the same; the populations that were at one point hovering just below a thousand are now somewhere around 45 people. Much of the farm land has now been reclaimed, but every year unexploded grenades are turned up during the beet harvest and it’s become an expected event that they estimate will continue for at least another 100 years before the fields are finally free of explosives. Even the simple placement of memorials could be categorized here. Almost every single town, no matter how small, has a monument to the lives lost in this conflict and they’re so common that they usually go unnoticed by the locals. Life here goes on, but it’s subtly changed. Before this excursion, I hadn’t thought of the “medium-scale” effects but they certainly exist.

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