Chemin des Dames

Berry-au-Bac

The Monument to French Tanks

Situated on the N 44 just to the north of the town of Berry-au-Bac the monument is easily seen and visited from the roundabout leading to the Junction 14 of the A26 Autoroute. There is plenty of parking space.

Monument to the French Tank Corps

There is no longer a possibility of winning and the decisive cause of this has been the tank.

German Military Representative at the Reichstag, 2 October 1918

 

Jean-Baptiste Estienne - the father of French Tanks

Monument to General Estienne

Messieurs, la victoire appartiendra dans cette guerre à celui des deux belligérants qui parviendra le premier à placer un canon de 75 sur une voiture capable de se mouvoir en tout terrain.

Gentlemen, victory in this war will go to whoever is the first to create an armoured machine capable of crossing all terrain and armed with a 75mm cannon.

Colonel Estienne, Commanding the 8th Division's Artillery
25 August 1914


General Jean-Baptiste Estienne was not only a gunner by profession (like General Nivelle) but also an original thinker. He saw quite early on in the war that the problem for his artillery was that having destroyed the ground the infantry were attacking, they - the artillery - couldn't move over it fast enough.

The infantry needed artillery cover and could only advance as far as that protective curtain's range.

In 1915 Estienne put forward the idea to General Joffre (Commanding the French Forces) that time and energy should be applied to developing some form of Land Battleship. He had seen the British heavy guns being pulled into position by American Holt tractors. Why not, he reasoned, armour a tractor and equip it with a 75mm cannon.

Estienne contacted Louis Renault but at that moment the car manufacturer had no spare capacity or time to even consider such an idea (He would however, within the year, start work on the Renault Light Tank).

As things happened, Eugène Brillié of the Schneider company (an armaments firm) and Jean-Louis Bréton (a politician) were already in the process of developing a vehicle capable of cutting barbed wire and their project was based on a tracked Holt chassis.

When Brillié heard of Estienne's idea he immediately became interested and the development of the first Chars d'assaut began (literally: assault chariot).

On 30 September 1916 Estienne was made: Commander of the Artillerie Spéciale (Special Artillery) and was raised in rank to General de Brigade.

By this stage the first British tanks had already made their appearance on the Somme at Flers. Their limited success fuelled great hopes for the future - but the Germans were also quick learners and began widening their trench systems to stop the lumbering beasts being able to cross them so easily.

Rather like the British, the French had come up with a war winning device but they were not certain how to integrate it into their system.

Then came Robert Nivelle and his battle plans for the Chemin des Dames.

Nivelle liked the tanks and wanted to use them immediately - en masse - whether inter arm tactics had been worked out and practised or not.

 

Major Louis Bossut

Major Bossut was offered and took on: a secret and dangerous mission. The mission was to form the first French Tank Units.

The tactical unit was a: Groupe d'Artillerie d'Assaut, composed of four batteries of four tanks a piece. Thus 16 tanks a group.

These could then be further grouped together to form larger units which were named after the commander.

On 16 April 1917 Bossut decided to go forward with his creation only to have his own vehicle hit by a shell early on completely destroying the tank and killing all the crew.

The attack at Berry au Bac

For the attack on the Chemin des Dames two of these larger formations were brought up. Major Bossut's own of 5 Groupes and a second commanded by Major Chaubés of 3 Groupes and a recovery section.

The area around Berry au Bac was chosen because it was nowhere near as steep and offered good possibilities for the tanks.

Each of the Groupes was numbered off with an Infantry Regiment and the tactic was for the infantry to advance with the tanks coming up behind acting as mobile artillery.

On the right and attacking to the east of Juvincourt, the Bossut formation made steady progress despite the loss of many of the tanks and their leader early on. They got through the German's second position and kept going only to discover that the infantry were not following on.

With the German artillery observers still actively in place on the Plateau de Californie the lead tanks were forced to retire.

On the left of Juvincourt the first tanks of Chaubés formation discovered on reaching the enemy lines that the Germans had so widened them that the tanks couldn't get across. This meant that behind them, the rest of the unit couldn't deploy into battle formation and the column became a sitting target.

Despite the advance made by Bossut's units the day was a disaster for the French Tank Corps.

Three quarters of the tanks either broke down or were destroyed as they tried to cross the German trenches.

Of the 720 crewmen, 143 were either killed or wounded - including their commander Bossut himself.

Some of the German gunners would put this experience to good use against the British on 20 November 1917.

The Battle of Cambrai 1917 The Battle of Cambrai 1917
 
Looking inside a Renault FT-17

Although the day had not gone well, a lot was learnt. Better training was needed for the infantry working with the tank crews. The tanks needed better armour and were too slow and liable to mechanical breakdown.

Estienne decided that lighter tanks were more likely to achieve results than the heavy monsters. They would need to be used though in large numbers.

By 1918 the new Renault FT-17 light tank was available and 3 000 saw service with the French and American Armies.

Capable of travelling at 7 kph and armed with either a machine gun or 37mm cannon the Renault FT-17 (FT - Feeble Tonnage) also boasted the first fully revolving turret. It was thus very much the prototype of all tanks ever since.

This one in the Military Museum in Bruxelles is armed with the cannon. As you can see there was not much room inside for the two man crew.

The Renault became symbolic of the victory and became known as the Char de la victoire.

In 1940 over 1500 were still in service.

 

The National Tank Memorial

Panhard EBR 75 FL10: 1954

Panhard EBR 75 FL10: 1954

The monument at Berry au Bac was unveiled on 2 July 1922 in the presence of Generals, Foch Mangin and Estienne.

It sits on the point of departure for France's first tanks on 16 April 1917: The Ferme de Choléra (I can only assume that in another time the farm had been attacked by the disease).

Like a number of memorials in the area it was designed by the sculpture Maxime Real del Sarte.

The two light tanks present on the memorial both date from the 1950's.

AMX 13 canon de 105mm: 1955

AMX 13, 105mm canon: 1955

General Estienne was a firm believer in his creation and after the war wanted his units to be given their own corps. The French High Command, however, decided that they would be assigned to the infantry.

At least two other people disagreed with this idea. One was Charles de Gaulle who became a tank commander. The other was Adolf Hitler. The Germans had shown little interest in tanks during the war but made up for it afterwards, their Panzers striking across France with impunity.

The only French tank successes against the Germans being those of de Gaulle's unit.


A short drive down the main road will take you into Berry-au-Bac.

Courage and Mutiny at Sapigneul Courage and Mutiny at Sapigneul

Immediately in the area at La Ville aux Bois lès Pontavert there is a monument to the 2nd Bn Devonshire Regiment and a Commonwealth Cemetery.

Drive towards Corbeny and you will see the Cemetery on your left. Turning left at the junction by the cemetery will take you into the village.

The 2nd Devon's The 2nd Devon's
La Ville-aux-Bois British Cemetery La Ville-aux-Bois British Cemetery

Taking the D 925 in the direction of Pontavert takes you back towards Soissons via a number of interesting points and cemeteries following along the rear areas of the attack.

It should be remarked that almost all of the French Cemeteries along the way have British casualties from 1914 or 1918 in them.

It is from along this road that you can gain another view of the Chemin des Dames Ridge - that of the French looking up towards the German emplacements. It is also along this road that you will realise the enormous cost in human life: French, German, British, Italian and Russian.

Pontavert French Military Cemetery Pontavert French Military Cemetery