Chemin des Dames

The British Attack the Ridge: 1914

The 1st Loyal North Lancashires were part of General Haig's I Corps, serving in the 1st Division, and their monument stands in front of the Chapel of Remembrance at Cerny-en-Laonnois.

Following their repulse on the Marne in early September 1914 it became apparent to the Allies that the Germans were retreating back towards the Aisne River.

1st Loyal North Lancashire

Unfortunately they did not really make the most of the widening gap between von Kluck's First Army and von Bulow's Second. Von Kluck had been attacked by the French Sixth Army with the aid of Parisian taxis transporting men to the front. This famous incident was forcing him to move westwards as he pushed back the French.

It could be argued that the BEF had just retreated all the way from Mons and was tired and that the weather turned for the worst, but even so their return to the offensive was, to begin with, a little lethargic. I would add though that the French were no faster.

The delay was crucial. On 8 September the French fortress town of Maubeuge fell and the German's VII Corps was now free to make a forced march for the Chemin des Dames in a bid to plug the gap. They beat General Haig's I Corps by a couple of hours. The British would have to fight their way up.

 

14 September 1914

At 03:00 hours that morning 2nd Brigade had been ordered to take the crest above Troyon (Cerny). It was pouring with rain and there was a dense mist.

2nd KRRC (Kings Royal Rifle Corps) actually made it to the top of the ridge but found themselves faced by stiff opposition in particular from a sugar factory. 2nd Royal Sussex who had been brought up from the rear now took on the factory.

By 07:00 hrs the (1st Guards) Brigade had reached Vendresse in anticipation of pushing on through 2nd Brigade, but by now the resistance being met on the ridge made it evident that the Germans were no longer in retreat but standing their ground.

It was about this moment that the 1st Loyal North Lancashires were sent up to assist the KRRC and Royal Sussex to take the sugar factory. The three battalions succeeded in doing so and dug in on the ridge where they were faced with counter attacks throughout the day.

1st Coldstream Guards managed to fight their way up the slope from Vendresse and into Cerny village where they found themselves surrounded by Germans. Fortunately in the fog and confusion although both sides initially took the other for allies, the Coldstreams were the quicker to realise their predicament and opened fire frightening off the Germans.

This was about as far as the British managed to get though. Their own artillery was frightened of hitting the advancing soldiers in the front lines whilst the German artillery appears to have been happy enough to plough shells in regardless of who might have been on the receiving end.

To the left the British were gaining ground on some of the spurs, but at 13:00 hours the Germans launched a large counter attack which pushed 2nd Brigade and the Guards back to where they had started from in the morning, taking the sugar factory back in the process.

 

Private Ross Tollerton VC

This left the 1st Cameron Highlanders of 1st Brigade very badly exposed to machine gun fire which raked their positions. The battalion lost 600 men in casualties during the day. One of them was Lt J Matheson who was badly wounded.

A soldier under his command: Private Ross Tollerton carried him off the battlefield to a place of safety. Tollerton who had been wounded in the head was subsequently wounded again on his return to the fighting. After the battle Tollerton returned to Matheson and stayed with him for three days until the pair of them were rescued. For his bravery and devotion Tollerton was awarded the VC - both men survived the war.

By 15:00 hours though the attacks by both sides had petered out. Casualties all round had been severe. As mentioned the Cameron Highlanders suffered worst but each battalion of 2nd Brigade (including of course the 1st Loyal North Lancashires) had over 300 men killed or wounded.

 

Summary

Although some ground had been taken, the expected breakthrough had never materialised. What may not have been realised at the time was that as the British advance had slowed and the battle became a German counter attack, it was only their determination to hold their ground that stopped von Bulow's armies from punching a hole in the Allied line.

Such an outcome would have spelled disaster for the Allies allowing the Germans to roll up the BEF and advance against Paris.

As the Official History puts it:

Thus the 14th September passed in alternative attack and counter-attack, and ended in no decisive result. It was the first day of that stabilisation of the battle line that was to last so many weary months - the beginning for the British, of trench warfare.


In the immediate area.

The Memorial Chapel The Memorial Chapel
The Cemeteries The Cemeteries
Cerny and the French Cerny and the French

From the crossroads you can take a short detour to visit the CWGC Cemetery at Vendresse, but return to Cerny to continue this tour of the ridge.

Vendresse British Cemetery Vendresse British Cemetery

Continuing along the Chemin des Dames towards the Caverne du Dragon you will see a small monument on your left.

The 2nd Colonial Corps The 2nd Colonial Corps