German history books style it the Damenweg, while the French call it the Chemin des Dames. Both translate into English as the “Ladies’ Path” and refer to a nearly 20-mile route along an exposed ridgeline northeast of Soissons. The ridge runs east-west between the Ailette river valley to the north and the Aisne river valley to the south. Farther south run several more parallel valleys and then the Marne.
The Chemin des Dames acquired its somewhat prosaic name in the 18th century, when daughters of King Louis XV traveled the route regularly on their way to and from Paris and Château de Boves near Vauclair. The road offers magnificent views of the pastoral French countryside. It is also one of the most blood-soaked swaths of land in Europe.
Though associated primarily with World War I, the Chemin des Dames was also the setting of one of Napoléon Bonaparte’s last victories. Toward the end of the War of the Sixth Coalition, during the Battle of Craonne on March 7, 1814, Napoléon and a force of mostly raw recruits successfully repelled a combined Russian-Prussian force seeking to halt the French retreat to Paris.
During World War I the Allies and Germans fought three major actions along the Chemin des Dames. The First Battle of the Aisne unfolded Sept. 13–28, 1914, as French and British forces pursued the withdrawing Germans after the First Battle of the Marne. Digging in behind the Aisne, the Germans occupied the northern high ground and stopped the Allies cold.
The Germans still held that strategic ground in the spring of 1917, when General Robert Nivelle, the French commander in chief, launched a massive offensive, promising war-weary France he had “the formula” that would break the Western Front stalemate and win the war. The Chemin des Dames, commanding the surrounding plains from 600 feet, was the key to Nivelle’s plan and the prime target of his attack. But the Germans had their own formula, based on their brilliant defense-in-depth system. The Nivelle Offensive, also known as the Second Battle of the Aisne, launched on April 16. It turned into one of the greatest disasters in French military history. By the time Nivelle halted the offensive five days later, the French army had sustained more than 120,000 casualties. French morale snapped, and the resulting widespread mutinies tore the French army apart, almost knocking France out of the war.
Finally in late October the French took the Chemin des Dames. Following a massive artillery preparation supported by tanks, General Philippe Pétain’s methodically executed Battle of la Malmaison pushed the Germans to the north. Although forced into positions along the Ailette at the base of the ridge’s north slope, the Germans still had the advantage of a reverse-slope defense.
On May 27, 1918, the Germans initiated Operation Blücher-Yorck, a 20-division attack with an initial objective of the Vesle, about 12 miles south of the Aisne. The German troops, supported by an immense artillery barrage, swept up the Chemin des Dames and back down the other side within a matter of hours. At the end of the day they were across the Vesle, and by the time the offensive ended on June 6, the Germans were on the Marne, having advanced almost 30 miles. But they didn’t stay there long. The Allied counteroffensive, launched on July 18, pushed the Germans back to the Chemin des Dames by the first week of August. The opposing armies had suffered a combined quarter-million casualties in what the French called the Third Battle of the Aisne. A few weeks later the Germans abandoned the Chemin des Dames for the last time, as the Allies’ Hundred Days Offensive systematically pushed the Germans back east, one step at a time.
Today the Chemin des Dames overlooks French farm country, far off the tourist paths. A monument to Napoléon gazes out over the small 1814 battlefield in Craonne, at the eastern end of the ridge. At its western end are the heavily overgrown and inaccessible ruins of Fort de la Malmaison. Completed in 1882, Malmaison and its three dozen guns were already obsolete by the time the war started. The French abandoned it in 1914 prior to First Marne, but the Germans occupied it when they took over the Chemin des Dames.
Near the ridge’s eastern end is the Caverne du Dragon (“Dragon’s Lair”), among the more fascinating of France’s many World War I museums [www.caverne-du-dragon .com]. Comprising 250 acres of tunnels and galleries some 50 feet below ground, the lair originated as a limestone quarry in the 16th century. During the war the cavern housed field hospitals and command posts for both sides, as the ridge repeatedly changed hands. Without question, however, the more than 20 French and German military cemeteries along the Chemin des Dames serve as the starkest reminder of what happened there a century ago. Only about half of those buried in the cemeteries rest in identified graves; the others’ remains sift together in ossuaries or mass graves.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.