I was in France recently, for a week-long camping trip with my parents. We had planned most of the week with activities and sight-seeing trips; except for the first day. We’d planned some trips into Paris, a day at Euro Disney and all the regular touristy things. So on that first day, we decided to explore the local village we were in, find the shops and markets and maybe spend the day sitting in the sunshine back at the caravan.
We ended up spending the day driving all over the vast farmland and countryside. You see, you cannot go very far in France, without coming across a war memorial. Both my dad and his dad fought in the military, so it’s always been an interest of mine. We spent the day driving and stopping at all the different memorials we saw.
A number of them line the roadsides, like the French Military site, Ambleny, which is one of the largest French Military Cemeteries of the Aisne region. Amongst the 10, 266 graves, 8157 have individual names, and a further 76 are civilian casualties.
It was stopping and visiting here that sent us on a quest to see what others we could find. We were staying in the surrounds of the Valley of Aisne, between Soissons and Reims, which was the main assault of the French Military’s offensive in 1917 during World War 1, and a number of further battles during World War 2.
The Battle of La Malmaison lies on the road Chemin des Dames and had already been a focal point of extremely heavy fighting during WWI, and so the German war graves commissioned the cemetery in 1941. It’s located near the old ruins of Fort-de-Malmaison and was used as a collection point for individual graves, combining them in a central location. During 1960 and 1961, 6,800 German war casualties were laid to rest here.
Vailly-Sur-Aisne lies on the North bank of the Aisne River, and here we found a British cemetery. Vailly-Sur-Aisne village was the point at which the 3rd Division crossed the river on the 12th September 1914, in the advance from the Marne. It fell to the Germans in 1915. It was retaken by the French on the 18th April 1917, lost again in June 1918, and finally captured by the French on the 15th September 1918. Vailly British Cemetery was made after the Armistice, by concentration from other burial grounds and from the battlefields.
The majority of those buried here died in September 1914. There are now over 650, 1914-18 war casualties commemorated in this site. Of these, nearly half are unidentified. It was while here, that we found a number of graves of people from my home county of Berkshire. We also found graves with the emblem of my dad’s army regiment, making it even more poignant.
One of our last stops of the day, was the Guards Grave MCMXIV, in ‘La Forêt de Retz’. The Forêt de Retz was the scene of a rearguard action fought by the 4th (Guards) Brigade on 1 September 1914. In the aftermath of the fighting, many of the dead Guardsmen were buried by the people of Villers-Cotterêts. The cemetery was formed by the Irish Guards when the British forces regained this territory two months later and contains 98 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, 20 of which are unidentified. Just north of the cemetery on the road to stands a memorial to the Coldstream, Grenadier and Irish Guardsmen who were killed or mortally wounded during the rearguard action.
A later memorial was placed there by Lady Edward Cecil, the mother of Captain George Edward Cecil of the Coldstream Guards who fell during the fighting on 1 September and is buried in the cemetery.
The only thing I regret about our visit to all these sights was not having a pen. Each site had a visitor book, left in a secure weather-proof box, and I would have liked to have left a note with my thanks, to all those brave men and women who fought for what we have today.