The Battle of
La Malmaison (Bataille de la Malmaison) from 23 to 27
October, was the final French action of the 1917 campaign in the First
World War, which had begun with the Nivelle Offensive. The French
captured the village and fort of
La Malmaison and took control of the
Chemin des Dames
Chemin des Dames ridge. The German 7th Army (General Max von Boehn)
had discovered French preparations for the attack and also identified
the date and time. Boehn chose to defend the front positions, rather
than treat them as an advanced zone and to conduct the main defence
north of the Oise–Aisne Canal. The German artillery was outnumbered
three-to-one and on the front of the 14th Division, 32 German
batteries were confronted by 125 French, which silenced most of the
German guns before the attack. Gas from French bombardments on
low-lying land near the Oise–Aisne Canal in the Ailette valley,
became so dense that it was impossible to carry ammunition and
supplies forward or to remove the wounded.
Battalions from specialist German counter-attack divisions
(Eingreifdivisionen) had been distributed along the front line and
were caught in the French bombardments, German infantry shelters
having been identified by French air reconnaissance and systematically
destroyed. After the four-day bombardment was extended by two more
days because of bad weather, the French XIV, XXI and XI corps of the
Sixth Army, attacked on a 12.1 km (7.5 mi) front with six
divisions.[a] Zero hour had been set for 5:45 a.m. but a German
message, ordering the front garrisons to be ready at 5:30 a.m. was
intercepted and the French start time was moved forward to 5:15 a.m.
The French infantry advanced behind an elaborate creeping barrage but
the earlier zero hour meant that the attack began in the dark. Rain
began to fall at 6:00 a.m. and the 63 attached
Schneider CA1 and
Saint-Chamond tanks were impeded by mud and 27 bogged behind the
French front line. Fifteen tanks were immobilised crossing no man's
land or in the German front line but the 21 remaining tanks and the
infantry reached the German second position according to plan. The
38th Division captured Fort de Malmaison and XXI Corps took Allemant
and Vaudesson. From 24 to 25 October, XXI and XIV corps advanced
rapidly; the I Cavalry Corps was brought forward into the XIV Corps
area, ready to exploit a German collapse. The German 7th Army
conducted the Bunzelwitz Bewegung (Bunzelwitz Manoeuvre), a retirement
from the Chemin-des-Dames to the north bank of the Ailette on the
night of 1/2 November.
1.1 Strategic developments
1.1.1 Nivelle Offensive
1.1.2 Second Battle of the Aisne
1.2 Tactical developments
1.2.1 Battle of the Observatories, May–October
2.1 Order of battle
2.2 French offensive preparations
2.3 German defensive preparations
2.4 French plan of attack
2.5 Preparatory bombardment
3.1 Sixth Army, 23 October
3.1.1 XIV Corps
3.1.2 XXI Corps
3.1.3 XI Corps
3.2 23–24 October
3.3 25–27 October
3.4 German 7th Army, 23 October
3.5 25 October
3.6 Bunzelwitz Bewegung 1/2 November
8 Further reading
9 External links
Main article: Nivelle Offensive
Robert Nivelle replaced
Joseph Joffre as French
Commander-in-Chief in December 1916, after the costly fighting at
Verdun and the Somme. Nivelle claimed that a massive barrage on German
lines could bring French victory in 48 hours and avoid the costly
battles of attrition, grignotage (nibbling) fought in 1916. The
French offensive began on 16 April 1917, after support from the France
Prime Minister, despite the doubts of other politicians, Pétain,
Micheler, other senior army commanders and the British. The Nivelle
offensive involved c. 1.2 million French and British troops and
7,000 artillery pieces on fronts between
Reims and Roye after
preliminary offensives at Arras and St. Quentin. The principal effort
was an attack on the German positions along the Chemin des Dames
ridge, in the
Second Battle of the Aisne
Second Battle of the Aisne intended to rupture the
German defences in 48 hours, bring about a battle of manoeuvre and
defeat decisively the German armies in France.
German withdrawal from the Bapaume and Noyon Salients.
From February–March 1917, the German armies in the Noyon and Bapaume
salients retired to a new line of fortifications, the
Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) across the base of the salients,
from Neuville Vitasse near Arras, through St. Quentin and
Laon to the
Aisne east of Soissons, ending at Cerny en Laonnois on the
Chemin-des-Dames ridge, although the withdrawal to the last part of
the line did not take place. The new fortifications were intended to
be precautionary, (Sicherheitskoeffizient) built to be used as
rallying-positions Eventual-Stellungen (similar to ones built on the
Russian front) to shorten the Western Front, economise on troops and
create reserves. The Siegfriedstellung had the potential to release
the greatest number of troops and was begun first on 27 September
The French Third Army began the offensive against German observation
points at St. Quentin from 1–13 April, which took some of the German
defences in front of the Siegfriedstellung. On 9 April, the British
Third Army began the Battle of Arras from Croisilles to Ecurie,
against Observation Ridge, north of the Arras–Cambrai road and
towards Feuchy and the German second and third lines. The British
attack either side of the Scarpe river penetrated 5,500 m
(6,000 yd), the furthest advance achieved since the beginning of
trench warfare. Most of the objectives were reached by the evening of
10 April, except for the line between Wancourt and Feuchy around
Neuville-Vitasse. The First Army attacked from Ecurie north of the
Scarpe to Vimy Ridge, which fell at about 1:00 p.m., in a 3,700 m
(4,000 yd) advance. By 16 May, the British had captured 254
German guns but had not broken through.
Second Battle of the Aisne
Main article: Second Battle of the Aisne
French territorial gains on the Aisne, Nivelle Offensive, April–May
Second Battle of the Aisne
Second Battle of the Aisne (16 April – 9 May), the French
failed to achieve their strategic objective of a breakthrough and a
return to a war of movement but captured tactically important ground
and inflicted many casualties on the German defenders. The Germans
were forced to retire from the area between Braye-en-Laonnois,
Laffaux to the
Hindenburg Line from
along the Chemin-des-Dames to Courtecon. The German armies in France
were still short of reserves, despite the retirements to the
Hindenburg Line in March and lost 163,000 casualties during the
Nivelle Offensive. Because of the shortage of troops, the
front-holding divisions had to change places with the Eingreif
divisions, rather than be withdrawn to recuperate. In a lull from
9 May – 20 August, more German divisions were depleted than at
Verdun the previous year. Of the German divisions engaged on the
ridge, none spent more than twelve days in the line and only the 46th
Reserve Division returned for another period in the line; the French
took 8,552 prisoners.
Battle of the Observatories, May–October
1916 Schneider CA 16, Tank (Musée des Blindés, France, pic-4)
From May, there were many local actions on the Chemin-des-Dames ridge.
On 23 May, a German assault on the Vauclerc Plateau was defeated and
on 24 May, a second attack was driven back in confusion. During
the night, the French took the wood south-east of Chevreux and almost
annihilated two German battalions. On 25 May, three German columns
attacked a salient north-west of Bray-en-Laonnois and gained a footing
in the French first trench, before being forced out by a
counter-attack. On 26 May, German attacks on salients east and west of
Cerny were repulsed and from 26–27 May, German attacks between
Laffaux Mill were defeated. Two attacks on 28 May at
Hurtebise, were stopped by French artillery and on the night of 31
May/1 June, Germans attacks west of Cerny also failed. On the morning
of 1 June, after a heavy bombardment, German troops took some trenches
Laffaux Mill and were then pushed out by a counter-attack in
On 2 June, a bigger German attack began after an intensive bombardment
of the French front, from the north of
Laffaux to the east of
Berry-au-Bac. On the night of 2/3 June, two German divisions made five
attacks on the east, west and central parts of the Californie Plateau
and the west end of the Vauclerc Plateau. The Germans attacked in
waves, sometimes advancing shoulder-to-shoulder, supported by
flame-thrower detachments. Some ground was gained on the Vauclerc
Plateau, until French counter-attacks recovered the ground. Despite
the French holding improvised defences and the huge volume of German
artillery-fire used to prepare attacks, the German organised
counter-attacks (Gegenangriffe) met with little success and at
Chevreux north-east of Craonne, the French advanced further into the
Map of Vauclerc (commune FR insee code 51598)
On the night of 26/27 August, German artillery conducted a preliminary
bombardment for an attack early on 27 August, west of the
Laon road, from Moisy Farm to the south-east of Vauxaillon
and Laffaux. East of the road, the French defences on either side of
Cerny and on both sides of the Hurtebise Monument, were attacked; near
Laffaux the Germans recovered some ground. By 30 August, the
strength of each company of the German battalion holding the captured
ground had been reduced to 40–50 men. A fresh battalion which
relieved it after dark was bombarded by the French artillery
throughout the night of the 30/31 August and during the rest of 31
August. At 7:00 p.m., two battalions of French infantry and a
battalion of Chasseurs, advanced behind a creeping barrage and a
shrapnel bombardment, with double barrages along each flank. A
squadron of aeroplanes machine-gunned the German infantry and the
crews of trench mortars and batteries beyond the crest. In fifteen
minutes, the French attack recaptured the ground, except on the right
flank, where a machine-gun nest resisted until the morning.
Three German counter-attacks in the night were costly failures and
about 200 prisoners were captured by the French, along with seven
machine-guns; on the night of 1/2 September, two more German
counter-attacks failed. On 31 August, a French party north-east of
Craonne, wrecked 180 m (200 yd) of German trench south-east
of Corbeny and returned with twelve prisoners. On the same day, a
German raid to the south-east of Vauxaillon was repulsed, as was one
in the Cerny region during the night of 1/2 September. Four attacks on
the Hurtebise Spur were made on 3 September, by three waves of German
infantry, which failed to penetrate the French covering barrage.
Simultaneous attempts were made to advance on the Ailles Plateau to
the west of the spur and to the east, on the evening of 4 September
and morning of 5 September. Attacks were made on the Casemates and on
the Californie Plateau above Craonne, which were repulsed by artillery
and machine-gun barrages.
For most of September, artillery duels and raids by both sides took
place from Vauxaillon to Craonne. Long-range guns bombarded villages
and Châteaux far behind the front line, directed by observers in
lines of observation balloons, which were protected by aircraft and
many anti-aircraft guns. From 20–21 September, a German attack south
of the Arbre de Cerny and at the neck joining the Casemates to the
Californie Plateau failed and on the night of 12/13 October,
Thuringian stormtroops attacked between the western edge of the
Hurtebise Finger and the French positions in the plain east of
Craonne. North of Vauclerc Mill, the Germans captured the French
first line but were pushed back by a counter-attack; German
detachments probing between the Hurtebise Spur and the south of La
Royère were also repulsed. On 17 October, the French preliminary
bombardment for the offensive at
La Malmaison began and the next day
the German communiqué read
North-east of Soissons the lively fighting activity, which has lasted
for days past, developed to an artillery battle, which, since early
yesterday, has continued with only short intervals from the Ailette
region as far as Braye. The batteries of the neighbouring sectors also
took part in the duel.
— German communiqué
and during 18 October, French detachments patrolled between Vauxaillon
and Braye-en-Laonnois, destroyed several strong points and returned
with 100 prisoners from four German divisions. Until the beginning of
the battle, the artillery of both sides fired constantly, with much
trench-mortar fire by the French, which a German report of 20 October,
reported had transformed the foremost fighting zone between Vauxaillon
and Braye into a crater field. Since the Chemin-des-Dames ridge was
honeycombed with large limestone caves and quarries, adequate
artillery preparation was indispensable.[b]
Fort de la Malmaison, 1917
Fort de la Malmaison lay on the Chemin-des-Dames ridge and had been
built as part of an entrenched camp north of the Aisne, in the Séré
de Rivières system, designed by General Raymond Adolphe Séré de
Rivières and built from the 1870s. The fort was in the northern angle
between the Chemin-des-Dames and the Soissons–
Laon road. The
fortress casemates were tested with high explosives in 1887 and found
to be insufficiently robust. Steel reinforced concrete had been added
but in 1913, the fort was sold to a
Laon contractor, to demolish and
use the materials to build new barracks in town. A long tunnel,
the Montparnasse Quarry lay on the northern slopes below the fort, on
the route to
Chavignon village at the foot of the ridge. The
quarry was big enough to shelter an infantry brigade. The fort was to
the north-west of the quarry, on the summit of the plateau at the
western end of the ridge and the dismantled work was surrounded by a
moat filled with mud. The subterranean galleries had been rebuilt and
garrisoned by the Germans in September 1914, the outworks and interior
being provided with several ferro-concrete machine-gun nests. From the
ramparts, the Germans could see all movement from the Ailette to the
Aisne and on the spurs running down to the Aisne from the
There was a clear view northwards from the fort over the Ailette,
along the lower edge of the west side of the Forest of Coucy and past
the village of Brancourt; to the east were two groups of hills round
Anizy, on the north bank of the Ailette.
Laon was about 13 km
(8 mi) distant and visible at the end of the valley of the Ardon,
which joins the Ailette north of Chavignon. Further east, beyond the
Bassin d'alimentation reservoir, was the hilltop village of
Monampteuil. East of the reservoir, the valley of the Upper Ailette
was visible as far as the Troyon–
Laon road. South of Fort de la
Malmaison, in the centre of the plateau closer to the French lines,
lay the huge Bohery Quarry, where the ground began to slope steeply
down towards the Aisne valley. In October 1917, German engineers were
still connecting the quarry with the Montparnasse tunnel, other
underground works and the galleries under the fort. The Montparnasse,
Fort de la Malmaison and Bohery excavations, the Fruty Quarry on the
edge of the Soissons–
Laon road, about 1.6 km (1 mi) east
Laffaux Mill and many other subterranean obstacles faced the Sixth
Order of battle
On the left flank of the French Sixth Army was XIV Corps (Général
Marjoulet), with the 28th Division, the 27th Division and the 129th
Division in reserve. In the centre, XXI Corps (Général Degoutte)
prepared to attack with the 13th and 43rd divisions. On the right
flank, XI Corps (Général de Maud'huy), had the 38th Division and an
attached tank group, the 66th Division and part of the 67th Division
(XXXIX Corps) in support.
Artillery support was provided by the 2nd,
12th, 32nd, 231st, 240th and 259th artillery regiments with 812 field
guns, 768 × 75mm and 44 × 95mm, 862 heavy guns from 105–380
millimetres (4.1–15.0 in) 105 super-heavy guns and 66 trench
mortar batteries. The German 7th Army had five divisions in the first
position, three Eingreif divisions and three divisions in close
reserve, supported by 180 batteries of artillery, 63 of which were
French offensive preparations
Map of Vauxaillon area (commune FR insee code 02768)
The Sixth Army formed part of groupe d'armées du Nord (GAN), under
the command of General Franchet d'Esperey, who before the Nivelle
Offensive in April, had studied the tactical problems connected with
the natural barrier between the Aisne and the plain at
advised Maistre in the topography of the region. The XIV, XXI and XI
corps were to conduct the attack, with the 67th Division of XXXIX
Corps providing trench garrisons, on the heights east of La Royère
Farm. French artillerie d'assault (tanks) had been technically
improved since 16 April, when they had operated on the plain from
Craonne to Berry-au-Bac. A bold decision was taken to use them again,
despite the steep spurs, cratered ground and the establishment of
anti-tank batteries by the Germans. Some tanks were attached to XIV
Corps, on the west flank of the Sixth Army, astride the
Laon road. On 5 May, the French had captured
Chateau de la Motte, Fruty and Allemant quarries but the Germans had
recaptured much of the ground during the Battle of the
Super-heavy siege artillery was necessary, to pierce the roofs of the
caverns on the Chemin-des-Dames and Pétain provided several batteries
of 380 mm (15 in) and 410 mm (16 in) guns, which
fired non-explosive shells with armour-piercing points, capable of
penetrating the roofs of the tunnels. Where the thickness of the roof
was too great for one shell, a salvo falling about the same spot
gradually reduced the layer of rock, until it was thin enough to be
penetrated. The accuracy French gunnery was exemplary and on 21
October, an observer reported that directed by an observation
aeroplane, one of the 380 mm (15 in) guns fired five
consecutive shells into the same hole. The galleries of Fort de la
Malmaison and the interiors of some of the caves were demolished. The
roof of the Montparnasse Quarry was made to resemble a honeycomb and
despite its extraordinary thickness, at least two 410 mm
(16 in) shells penetrated to the double gallery underneath,
causing many casualties to the garrison. Holes driven into the
overhead cover became funnels, down which flowed gas and shrapnel
German defensive preparations
Map of Allemant area (commune FR insee code 02010)
The vulnerability of the
Laffaux Corner to envelopment was made worse
by the proximity of the Ailette and the parallel Canal de l'Oise a
l'Aisne to the north, below the Chemin des Dames. A retreat to the
north of the river and canal would be difficult, despite the number of
crossing points, which could be made impassable by artillery-fire,
particularly with gas-shell. Much of the German artillery was south of
the canal, from Pinon to Pargny and was cramped for space in patches
of woodland, so far back that only long-range fire could reach beyond
the French front line. Reserve positions in the salient ran
north-east and the front position had insufficient depth, as it lay
partly on and partly behind the Chemin-des-Dames ridge, which had a
convex slope at the top. Ridges radiated down to the Aisne valley,
over which the German positions had inadequate observation. Due to a
lack of manpower, constant French artillery-fire and the autumn rains,
the condition of the German defences was poor and in some places, only
narrow trenches and shell-hole positions existed. There were few
pillboxes and tunnels but numerous underground quarries, which had
been equipped with ventilation and lighting systems, for ammunition
and food storage.
Behind the Pinonriegel in the south-west corner of the salient near
Laffaux, work had begun on a reserve line from Pinon to
on rearward defences behind the Canal de l'Oise a l'Aisne for a
possible retirement, the Gudrun Bewegung (Gudrun Manoeuvre). From 11
October, the right flank division of Group Vailly was relieved by the
13th Division and on the left the 2nd Guard Division was moved into
the line near Malmaison. The west face of the salient from the
Anizy–Vauxaillon railway line to the canal tunnel, the area
considered must vulnerable, was held by Group Crépy, the VIII Reserve
Corps headquarters, under General Wichura, with the 37th Division and
the 14th Division, joined by the 52nd Division from 15 October. In
Group Vailly to the east, the
ZbV 54 (special duties) headquarters,
under Lieutenant-General Max von Müller, defended its sector with the
13th Division, 2nd Division, the 5th Guards Division and the right
flank units of the 47th Reserve Division. The 43rd Reserve Division
and the 9th Division, which was intended mainly to support the left
flank adjoining Group Liesse, were in reserve as Eingreif
The ground-holding divisions held a frontage of about 4.8 km
(3 mi) each and to evade French artillery-fire, had moved the
reserve and resting battalions far to the rear and about 18 battalions
of the Eingreif divisions positioned near the Ailette, were moved
closer to the front to compensate. Another 36 artillery batteries were
brought into the area, which increased the number of guns to c. 580,
of which 225 were heavy and super-heavy but this did little to
compensate for the vast French numerical superiority. About 220 guns,
particularly those behind the 14th and 13th divisions and some of
those behind the 2nd Guard Division, south of the canal were difficult
to supply and the new batteries were placed north of the Ailette.
On 15 September, the 7th Army had c. 168 aircraft against 300 French
but the Army Group headquarters delayed the dispatch of more air units
until mid-October, having expected attacks elsewhere and had also
reinforced the Flanders front. Many of the new air units arrived after
the French preliminary bombardment had begun and when the French
infantry attacked, were still unfamiliar with the terrain. By late
October, the 7th Army had received 17 squadrons, including four
fighter units, which increased the number of aircraft to more than
200, along with support available from the fighter squadrons of the
neighbouring 2nd and 1st armies.
Caves and tunnels had been used by the Germans as shelters for
reserves, to reinforce the trench garrisons in the network of trenches
running from the Ailette valley, over the Soissons–
Laon railway, up
the western slopes of the Mont des Singes, east of Vauxaillon and
along the summit of the plateau above Laffaux, to the
Laffaux Mill on
the Laon–Soissons road. There the German trenches ran eastwards
below the Fruty Quarry, crossed the road and ascended to the southern
edge of the Malmaison plateau at Mennejean Farm. From the farm, the
front line went north-eastwards to a point 910 m (1,000 yd)
La Malmaison Farm, due west of the fort and to the right of
Laon road. The line wound along the summit of the
Malmaison Plateau to the Chevrégny Spur above the Canal de l'Oise à
l'Aisne. West of the Chevrégny Spur, the villages except for
Allemant, lay on lower ground between five spurs facing north.
Froidmont Farm and the plateau north of the Chevrégny Spur and
further east, on the Chemin-des-Dames ridge, along with several posts
on the northern edge of the plateau, together with the villages of
Courtecon, Cerny and Ailles on the northern slope, north-east of
Craonne and the plain; Chevreux were also fortified.
Map of the
Chavignon area (commune FR insee code 02174)
The ground down to the forests of Pinon and Rosay, which covered most
of the uneven plain south of the marshes around the Ailette, comprised
numerous ravines which in places were still wooded. The sides of the
ravines wound around, facing all directions and could not be swept
from end to end by artillery-fire. On the western flank, the
Vauxaillon valley ran along most of the western and eastern slopes of
the ridge and plateau above Laffaux. The Mont des Singes Spur was to
its east and the Vauxaillon valley, which narrowed to the Allemant
ravine, went round and then northwards, joining a ravine which curved
round the Allemant plateau west of Pinon. The Allemant plateau was cut
from south to north by the narrow St. Guillain ravine and other
ravines lay below the crest of the Chemin-des-Dames ridge. From
Vaudesson a ravine descended northwards to the west of Chavignon,
where it met the western of two gullies, at the head of which was
Malmaison Farm; Fort de la Malmaison was on the plateau above the
eastern gully. The plateau was separated from the Filain and
Pargny-Filain area on the east of the French attack front, by a valley
into which the eastern or Bois de la Garenne gully opened, just south
German engineers had exploited the irregular ground, which was easy to
defend with machine-guns. The German front line on the crest of the
Laffaux ridges consisted of two or more trenches.
Behind the forward zone, from the western edge of the ridge above
Pinon, a Riegelstellung (support line) ran eastwards, south of the
farm and Fort Malmaison to the Panthéon.[c] To the north of the
Riegelstellung, the fortified villages of Pinon and Vaudesson,
Malmaison Farm, the fort and below them, the Montparnasse quarry,
Chavignon and Bruyère, with various intermediate fortified woods,
caves and pillboxes, formed the German third position. The village
fortress of Allemant and other strongpoints lay between the first and
second positions. On the German right flank north of Moisy Farm,
entrenchments round Mont des Singes to the bank of the Ailette,
prevented an attacker from outflanking the heights in that direction.
Low ground north of the Pinon–
Chavignon road as far as the Ailette,
was dominated by the forests of Pinon and Rosay, where many trees
still stood. 
Canal de l'Oise à l'Aisne
Canal de l'Oise à l'Aisne (a summit level canal), had been
drained and was not a serious obstacle; behind the German east flank,
beyond the Panthéon, were the fortified villages of
Filain, the southern sides of which were protected by earthworks.
Should they and
Chavignon be lost, it was unlikely that the Germans
could remain on the southern slopes of the Chemin-des-Dames east of
the Chevrégny Spur. Attacked from the front and flanks, the Germans
would have to retire behind the Ailette, where a French pursuit up the
valley of the Ardou to
Laon could be enfiladed by German artillery on
the Anizy hills and in the Forest of Coucy. Guns on the Monampteuil
heights enfiladed the mouth of the corridor and at the northern end,
there was German artillery around the
Laon hill. A rapid exploitation
up the valley was impossible, because the ground on the borders of the
canal was marshy.[d]
Group Vailly, had four divisions between Moisy and La Royère farms
and three on the northern slopes of the heights. Three divisions were
in reserve, the 5th Guards Division around Filain and Pargny-Filain,
the 2nd Guards Division on the right supported the 13th Division and
the 43rd Reserve Division held the ground between Malmaison and La
Royère farms. During the battle, Müller was reinforced by the 6th
Division from Galicia and by elements of four other divisions. Müller
had taken precautions against a retreat and French air reconnaissance
reported that fruit trees and farms in the Ailette valley were being
destroyed and artillery was being moved to the high ground about
Monampteuil, to enfilade the French if they took the west end of the
Chemin-des-Dames ridge and descended towards the Ailette.
French plan of attack
On 23 October at 5:45 a.m., the French infantry were to advance
between the Anizy–Vauxaillon railway and Royère on a 10 km
(6.2 mi) front, to the northern edge of the ridge on which lay
the villages of Pinon, Chavignon, Pargny and Filain, in three stages.
After a pause for consolidation, the attack was to continue to the
Ailette on 25 October. The main effort was intended to drive a salient
into the German defences, on a line from Vaurains to Fort Malmaison
and Chavignon. Behind the six attacking divisions and two regiments of
the flanking divisions, six more divisions waited to nettoyer (clean
up) and consolidate the captured ground. The French attack was faced
by 3 1⁄2 front holding divisions, backed by two depleted
Eingreif divisions, since part of the 9th Division remained with Group
Liesse further east.
XIV Corps was to capture the German first position, from Moisy Farm to
Laffaux Mill, Mennejean Farm and the Fruty Quarry, by taking the ridge
above Laffaux, from Moisy Farm to a neck of ground linking it to the
Malmaison plateau. The corps was then to keep on the right of the
ravines, between which lies the Mont des Singes spur and capture the
strong point of the Guerbette valley, below the tip of the spur and
the Château de la Motte. The 28th and 27th divisions were then to
descend into the ravine of Allemant, capture the quarry and ruins of
Allemant, the Allemant plateau and the strong points between the
German first and second positions. After the capture of Allemant, the
28th Division was to halt between Vallée Guerbette and a point
550 m (600 yd) north of Allemant. Pivoting on Allemant, the
27th Division on the right, was to attack the Riegelstellung known
there as Giraffe and Lizard trenches. On the extreme right flank the
French were to stop on the high ground west of Vaudesson. Assuming
success, the Mont des Singes spur would be outflanked to the east and
the Malmaison spur to the west.
On 5 May, the French had reached the outskirts of Allemant but failed
to capture the network of defences from the south of Mennejean Farm to
the south of the Bohery quarry. On 23 October, XXI Corps with the 13th
and 43rd divisions, reinforced by several battalions of Chasseurs
Alpins, were to drive the German 13th and 43rd divisions and part of
the 2nd Guard Division, from the labyrinths on the south-west end of
the Malmaison plateau and from Bois des Gobineaux, on the sides of the
ravine between the bois and the Allemant Spur. Having secured both
sides of the Soissons–
Laon road, from the Fruty Quarry to the point
where the Chemin-des-Dames branches off eastwards, the XXI Corps
divisions were to attack Malmaison Farm and the Tranchée de la Dame
(Lady Trench) between the farm and Fort de la Malmaison.
The flanking divisions of XXI Corps were then to descend on the final
Vaudesson village, Bois de la Belle Croix, Montparnasse
Quarry, the west end of
Chavignon village and the Bois des Hoinets, a
northern continuation of Bois de la Belle Croix. If successful, the
centre of the Sixth Army would be in a salient but west of
deep ravine from north of
Laffaux Mill to the east of Pinon, commanded
from the west by the 27th Division in Giraffe Trench, would protect
the left flank of XXI Corps from counter-attacks. On the right flank,
in the XI Corps area, the 38th Division would co-operate with the 43rd
Division on the right of XXI Corps, to capture the Bohery Quarry, Fort
de la Malmaison, Orme Farm on the plateau to the north of the fort,
Bois de la Garenne in the ravine to the west, Many Farm east of the
Chavignon road, due east of Garenne Wood and the east
Chavignon village. With the 43rd Division, it was to secure the
north end of the Malmaison Plateau, the slopes and the ravines
descending from it to Chavignon.
On the right of the 38th Division, the 66th Division and the XXXIX
Corps regiment of the 67th Division, extended the attack front east to
the Chevrégny spur, to force 5th Guard Division out of the ruins of
Panthéon Farm, Panthéon Quarry and Orage Quarry. The objectives
were the east end of the Malmaison plateau and two lines of trenches
further back; Fanion Trench to the north, the east end of the German
second position and Lützen Trench just below the crest towards
Pargny-Filian. The Chasseurs Alpins and the 67th Division, were to
attack part of the neck joining the Malmaison plateau to the
Chevrégny Spur, reach the Les Bovettes water-tower and then work down
the ravine on the east side of the north of the Malmaison plateau and
down the Bovettes ravine to Pargny-Filain, to capture Lützen Trench,
Pargny-Filain village and Bois de Veau, in the depression between Fort
de la Malmaison and Pargny-Filain. During the advance, the French
would have to pass the subterranean quarries near Les Bovettes, the
Tonnerre Quarry and across the crest, where the French could be
engaged by the German artillery on the
A French artillery demonstration was conducted against Group Crépy,
on the western face of the salient from 6–7 October in support of
British operations in Flanders and on 11 October highly accurate
French artillery registration commenced. The weather on 17 October
was clear and French aircraft made a coordinated attack on German
observation balloons. The main bombardment by c. 1,790 guns began,
with an average of 180 guns for each 1 km (0.62 mi) of
front, three times the amount of German artillery. Along with the
usual destructive bombardment, the Ailette valley was deluged with gas
shells. The German counter-bombardment could only be maintained in the
eastern part of the attack front and French patrols found that some
German outposts had been left unoccupied.
The German artillery reply began with a substantial
counter-bombardment but this rapidly diminished, especially south of
the Ailette, where the supply of ammunition and equipment was blocked
by the thick gas cloud in the valley. Some guns were withdrawn but on
19 October, the gas cloud was so thickened by fog that it became
impossible to move the rest. Positions held by the 14th Division in
Group Crépy and those of the 13th Division and 2nd Guard Division in
Group Vailly were quickly reduced to crater-fields. French aircrew
watched fortifications and tunnel-openings for signs of occupancy and
immediately directed artillery-fire on any which were seen. The French
bombardment had most effect at the boundary of the 13th Division and
2nd Guard Division, where by the night of 21 October, a gap 800 m
(870 yd) wide had been blown in the German defences, which could
not be repaired. On the eastern flank of the attack front, the
bombardment of the 5th Guard Division was less damaging but a local
attack, Operation Autumn Harvest was cancelled.
Ceaseless explosions and concussion from shell bursts at the mouths of
caverns caused rock falls and spread thick clouds of dust. The
garrisons changed position but rarely found a spot not under
bombardment. A feeling of impotence spread among the defenders and was
made worse when the German artillery was silenced. French
artillery barrages on the roads from
Laon across the Ailette to the
Chemin-des-Dames, made it impossible for ammunition to be carried
forward. Even long-range 200 mm (8 in) naval guns near
Pinon, were later found to be without ammunition. Morale among the
German infantry of the cave garrisons was also depressed by isolation
and the unprecedented gas shell bombardment, which forced them
permanently to wear masks. Supply routes were closed by curtains of
shrapnel fire and from 20–23 October, the Ailette valley and the
sides and summits of the spurs projecting into it from the ridge were
blanketed by gas, which made it impossible for German gunners to
remove their gas masks to eat and drink.
Sixth Army, 23 October
The battle of La Malmaison
At 5:15 a.m., the French field artillery began a creeping barrage and
SOS rockets rose into the air and the German artillery managed
to fire a prompt but thin counter-barrage. The French infantry of
XIV Corps on the left and the XXI Corps in the centre, moved up the
slopes and ravines towards their objectives, against the faces of the
obtuse angle formed by the
Laffaux Salient. XI Corps and the regiment
of the 67th Division of XXXIX Corps on the right began a parallel
advance. Until XXI Corps reached the Chemin-des-Dames, XI Corps was
isolated on its left flank; the attacks of XIV and XXI corps had
reciprocal effects. The deep, steep Laffaux–Pinon ravine between
Mont des Singes and the Allermant plateau, increased the difficulties
of the German defenders in the salient. The garrisons to the south
fought with their backs to the ravine and the German troops in the
trenches and pillboxes of the western face, risked being cut off and
pushed eastwards into the ravine, if they failed to escape down the
Allemant gorge to Pinon or retreat to the Mont des Singes spur.
On the left of XIV Corps, the 28th Division quickly defeated the
Germans in Moisy Farm and the
Laffaux Mill at the tip of the salient;
then took the intermediate trenches and pillboxes on the summit of
Laffaux ridge. A defensive flank was established from Moisy Farm
across the plateau, to prevent a counter-attack from the Mont des
Singes. On the right flank, from
Laffaux Mill to Mennejean Farm, the
27th Division and XXI Corps to the east of the farm, attacked the
southern face of the salient. Mennejean Farm and the first line
trenches fell quickly and Fruty Quarry was surrounded by battalions of
the 75th Regiment.. The French infantry reached the edge of the
Laffaux–Pinon ravine, at the junction with the Allemant ravine,
which ran downwards to the west of Pinon. The 28th Division arrived
almost simultaneously at the western edge of the Allemant ravine,
which forced many German soldiers back into both hollows with many
In the centre, XXI Corps crossed the Soissons–
Laon road, entered the
German second position and then captured Malmaison Farm by 6:00 a.m.,
which secured the right flank of the XIV Corps, since the farm was
level with Allemant. With the defenders of Fruty Quarry cut off, at
6:15 a.m. Marjoulet ordered his troops into the ravines, to capture
Mont de Laffaux, encircle Allemant and seize the southern end of the
Allemant plateau. Mont de Laffaux, south of Allemant, commanded both
ravines and was determinedly defended by the garrison against the 75th
Regiment, part of which was still besieging Fruty Quarry. Round the
Château de la Motte and to the north, at the strong point of Vallée
Guerbette, below the east end of the Mont des Singes plateau, there
was also a determined defence. Around Allemant, several machine-gun
emplacements held up the advance but before 9: a.m., the 30th Regiment
worked its way on to the plateau north of Allemant. The 75th Regiment
captured Fruty Quarry and took Mont de Laffaux, ready to attack the
village from the south, to take the strong points in it
At Bois de St. Guillain, between Allemant and the Laffaux–Pinon
ravine, at 9:15 a.m., the 140th Regiment was stopped by fire from
machine-gun nests, until French tanks crawled up and knocked them out.
The advance was resumed by the right wing, as the left flank units
halted on a line from Vallée Guerbette, to a point 460 m
(500 yd) north of Allemant. The attackers on the right, astride
the St. Guillain and Laffaux–Pinon ravines, reduced St. Guillain
Farm and assaulted the second German position, over-running Giraffe
and Lizard trenches by noon in a rainstorm. Except for Bois 160, south
of Vaudesson, where the garrison held out until the early hours of 24
October and for some isolated quarries, the German position south of
the Riegelstellung and east of the Allemant ravine had fallen. The
27th Division faced Pinon and covered Vaudesson, which had been
secured by XXI Corps. XIV Corps had pivoted on its left flank to a
line perpendicular with the start line. The Germans on the Mont des
Singes and in Pinon with the Ailette at their backs, were menaced from
the south and the west. XIV Corps had also taken c. 3,000 prisoners,
several guns, machine-guns and trench mortars.
XXI Corps attacked the remainder of the southern face of the Laffaux
salient, from east of Mennejean Farm to the south of the Bohery
Quarry. If the attack failed, XIV Corps on the Allemant plateau would
be caught in a salient, as would XI Corps on the right at Fort de la
Malmaison. At 5:15 a.m., both divisions advanced up the slopes towards
Laon road, from Fruty Quarry to the west of Malmaison
Farm. Little opposition was met and the wire entanglements and
trenches were found to have been obliterated. Bois des Gobineaux,
beyond the road on the south side of the Laffaux–Pinon ravine, was
captured by the 21st and 20th Chasseur battalions, Vaurains Farm in
the western angle of the Soissons–
Laon and Pinon roads, was captured
with tank support and the east ends of Lizard Trench and Lady Trench
were occupied. At about 6:00 a.m., the 31st Chasseur Battalion stormed
Malmaison Farm and at 6:45 a.m., the French were established north of
At 9:15 a.m., the 13th Division began to descend the northern slopes
Vaudesson and Bois de la Belle Croix. On the right, the 43rd
Division attacked downhill on both sides of the Soissons–
to the Montparnasse Quarry on the left side of the road, level with
Vaudesson against the Bois des Hoinets and the west end of Chavignon
village. Bois des Hoinets and
Chavignon were close to the road from
Pinon, which from
Chavignon ran up along the eastern slopes of the
Malmaison spur to Pargny-Filain. The wood and
considerably nearer the Ailette than Vaudesson. The 38th Division also
descended the heights and attacked Chavignon. At Zero Hour, the
division had ascended the slopes towards Bohery Quarry and Fort de la
Malmaison; at the quarry the German garrison fought until overrun and
were killed or captured.
The 38th Division ejected the Germans from Lady Trench, halted on the
summit of the plateau, in front of Bois de Garenne, north of Chavignon
and east of the Montparnasse Quarry. On the right flank, the élite
4th Zouaves had been detailed to take Fort de la Malmaison; from 3:00
a.m. they had been bombarded by German heavy artillery, which caused
many casualties. At 5:15 a.m., the advance began and only traces of
the first two German trenches were found. At Carbine Trench some
resistance was encountered, the Zouaves advanced towards the fort,
guided by French artillery firing incendiary shells. From Bois de la
Veau on the right, massed machine-gun fire was encountered but the
surviving Zouaves, reached the remains of the counterscarp and entered
the ruins of the fort.
The garrison was stalked through the ruins and quickly overrun.
Bombers and flame-thrower teams searched the galleries, several
machine-guns were captured and at 6:05 a.m., the flag of the battalion
was hoisted over the fort. Other Zouave battalions on the flanks came
up and the 38th Division halted and helped to consolidate the summit
of the plateau, which had come under bombardment by German artillery
Monampteuil Heights to the east. At 9:16 a.m., the divisions of
XXI Corps descended the northern slopes towards Vaudesson, Bois de la
Belle Croix, Montparnasse Quarry, Bois des Hoinets and the west end of
Chavignon village. The 38th Division of XI Corps conformed and
advanced on its objectives at Bois de Garenne and Orme Farm, between
Fort de la Malmaison and the east end Chavignon. The road from
Chavignon was to be crossed to reach the objective at
Many Farm to the east.
Map of Vauclair area (commune FR insee code 02102)
The 38th Division of XI Corps, was intended to cover the right flank
of XXI Corps and to outflank Pargny-Filain, from the south. The 13th
and 43rd divisions of XXI Corps and the 38th Division advanced
simultaneously down the Malmaison heights, with tank support on the
flanks, towards the edge of the plain south of the Ailette. French
aeroplanes flew overhead, attacked German infantry and bombed
trenches, roads and bridges. Behind the French troops on the right, at
the summit of the Chemin-des-Dames ridge, a surprise was sprung by a
line of French guns secretly placed behind the ridge, which began a
creeping barrage. The 13th Division attacked
Vaudesson and Bois de la
Belle Croix, the 43rd Division advanced towards Montparnasse Quarry
and the 38th Division entered the Bois de la Garenne and Orme Farm.
Vaudesson village was threatened from the west flank by the 27th
Division of XIV Corps, in Lizard Trench and was captured by the 21st
Regiment and several tanks, as Bois de la Belle Croix further east was
overrun by the 109th Regiment, which took 18 guns and several
At Montparnasse Quarry, which had galleries 0.97 km (0.6 mi)
long, the 1st Chasseur Battalion attack continued until the garrison
surrendered at 10:30 a.m. and Orme Farm and a quarry to its left, were
taken by the 38th Division. The French pressed on and drove the
Germans from Bois de la Garenne and the open ground on its right. By
1:00 p.m., the French had reached the
Chavignon brickfields and the
east end of the village. The 38th Division crossed the
Chavignon road at the same time and attacked Many
Farm. By 3:00 p.m., the division had fought through the east end
Chavignon and had reached Voyen-Chavignon. An hour earlier, the 1st
Chasseur Battalion had advanced from Montparnasse Quarry and taken the
west end Chavignon. On their left, the 149th and 150th Infantry
Regiments captured a German battalion at the Corbeau cavern and pushed
the German defenders out of Bois des Hoinets.
South of the Pinon–
Chavignon road, Pinon and Rosay forests extended
to the south bank of the Canal de l'Oise à l'Aisne. The 66th Division
and the left flank regiment of the 67th Division of XXXIX Corps, were
to capture the Panthéon Farm fortifications, at the south-east end of
the Malmaison plateau and to occupy the area round the Orage Quarry to
the north, from the stump of Les Bovettes water-tower, to an
underground quarry at the head of the Bovettes ravine, which descended
to Pargny-Filain. The next objective was the Tonnerre Quarry, on the
edge of the Malmaison plateau and after capturing Lützen Trench, the
attackers were to drive the Germans from Bois de Veau, east of Fort de
la Malmaison, on the slopes of the plateau opposite Pargny-Filain. The
Pargny-Filain was to be occupied if possible.
The 66th Division was to swing eastwards and form a defensive flank on
the east slopes of the plateau, to defend against counter-attacks,
while the 38th Division and the XXI Corps divisions on the left,
descended from the plateau to the plain of the Ailette. A wheeling
manoeuvre so close to the Germans was hazardous and made worse by the
narrowness of no man's land in this area, which prevented French from
bombarding the German defences with super-heavy artillery; on 23
October, many of the trenches, barbed-wire entanglements and
machine-gun nests remained intact. The defences were held by the 5th
Prussian Guard Regiment and in the Panthéon and Orage quarries, whose
garrisons had been relieved the night before by the 5th and 8th
companies of the 3rd Grenadier Regiment, who had not been seriously
shaken by the preliminary bombardment.
The 66th Division and the left hand regiment of the 67th Division,
would be exposed to the German batteries on the
firing over the Bassin d'alimentation, which fed the Canal de l'Oise
à l'Aisne, when they passed over the crest and began their descent.
At Zero Hour, the 66th Division advanced behind a creeping
bombardment, through German artillery and machine-gun
counter-barrages, which caused many casualties, entered the German
first position and fought hand-to-hand with the Prussian Guard. On the
extreme right flank near La Royère Farm, the 67th Division made
little headway but the 66th Division pushed on to the Panthéon, Orage
and Bovettes quarries. By 9:00 a.m., the division had advanced between
Fanion Trench, the east end of the German second position and Lützen
Trench. Bois de Veau was entered but the division was not able to
advance down the slopes to Pargny-Filain. The 67th Division had been
repulsed from Tonnerre and other quarries and a further advance by the
66th Division was postponed until they were captured. During the night
the division organised a defensive flank from Bois de Veau to Bovettes
The 66th Division captured 2,500 prisoners, 15 guns, several trench
mortars and a number of machine-guns. The 27th Division had reached
Giraffe Trench, the Laffaux–Pinon ravine and was on the heights
beyond the ravine west of Vaudesson. The XXI Corps divisions were in
the village, the wooded ravine of Bois de la Belle Croix and Hoinets
wood, the Montparnasse quarry and the western half of Chavignon. The
38th Division had reached the east end of
Chavignon and Many Farm,
beyond the Chavignon–
Pargny-Filain road. The Allemant plateau,
the Mont des Singes spur and the spur above Pinon, the Malmaison
plateau with the fort at its centre and the northern slopes to the
edge of the valley of the Ailette, had been captured. The salient
facing the Ailette was over 4.8 km (3 mi) wide, into which
artillery could be moved, using the vast Montparnasse and the other
quarries as ammunition dumps. The salient protruded north from the
Chemin-des-Dames towards the valley of the upper Ailette, which made
the remaining German positions on the crest and the northern slopes of
the ridge further east untenable.
From 23–24 October, none of the expected counter-attacks by Group
Vailly, from the Mont des Singes and Pinon plateaux, the Plain of the
Ailette and the Chevregny spur occurred. Two Eingreif divisions had
been committed between Allemant and Chavignon, a third had been pinned
down around from Pargny-Filain–Filain and a fourth division, which
arrived at Anizy during the battle, was unable to cross the Ailette
owing to the French barrage.[e] Sporadic felling of fruit trees and
demolitions either side of the Ailette, which had been seen by French
airmen before the battle, became frequent and a pall of black smoke
from fires, drifted over the plain. On 24 October, the Germans retired
from the Mont des Singes and Pinon plateaux, pursued by the 28th
Division from the Vauxaillon valley and the Allemant ravine. The
Germans fled across the Ailette or into Pinon and the Pinon forest.
French patrols from the Vaudesson–
Chavignon area brought in more
prisoners, which increased the bag beyond 8,000, along with 70 guns,
30 trench mortars and 80 machine-guns.
On 25 October, Pinon was captured with 600 prisoners, Pinon and Rosay
forests were entered and Rosay Farm was occupied, as XI Corps attacked
from the Chemin-des-Dames ridge, to east of the Malmaison plateau and
captured the farms of St. Martin and Chapelle Ste. Berthe to the south
of Filain. The French then overran the Tonnerre and Charbon quarries,
crossed the Bovettes ravine and ascended the slope from Many Farm to
capture Pargny-Filain. The German defenders were eventually forced
back, beyond the Bassin d'alimentation on the
More than 2,000 prisoners and twenty more guns were taken, bringing
the number of prisoners taken in the operation above 11,000. At
Filain, part of the élite Konigin Elizabeth Guard Regiment
surrendered, having had no food for three days.
On 25 October, the new front line ran from Vauxaillon, north of Mont
des Singes, to the
Canal de l'Oise à l'Aisne
Canal de l'Oise à l'Aisne near Anizy, then north
of Pinon and Rosay forests, south-eastwards to the west end of the
Bassin d'alimentation, up to the Chemin-des-Dames ridge east of
Pargny-Filain and Filain. Under bombardment by the German artillery
round Anizy and Monampteuil, thousands of French Territorial troops,
African and Chinese labourers extended roads from the French lines
across no man's land. Engineer stores were rushed forward to repair
captured caves, quarry entrances and field fortifications. On 26
October, XI Corps reduced the remaining strong points in Filain and
reached the Bassin d'alimentation. The 67th Division pushed the
Germans back over the Chevrégny Spur and on 27 October, one of the
last German observation posts overlooking the Aisne, at Froidmont Farm
to the south-east was captured.
German 7th Army, 23 October
The French artillery bombardment caused unprecedented destruction
behind the German front, as far back as the canal and river bridges.
At midnight on 22/23 October, the shelling increased to drumfire. The
German artillery had been ordered to begin a counter-bombardment at
5:30 a.m. on 23 October, after the time of the attack was discovered
from French prisoners. The French intercepted German wireless messages
ordering the bombardment and brought the attack forward by thirty
minutes. The density of the French creeping barrage was such, that the
attack on Allemant was preceded by sixteen shells per minute, per
100 m (110 yd) of front. The barrage moved in 50 m
(55 yd) bounds, followed closely by the French infantry, who
found that most of the surviving German defenders were Shell shocked
and still under cover. The German artillery south of the Ailette had
little effect, because of losses to French counter-battery fire, lack
of ammunition, lack of communication and loss of observation; the
artillery on the north side of the river, was only able to fire after
observation officers were sent forward to report.
The intensity of French artillery-fire and the gas cloud blocking the
Ailette, left the German commanders ignorant of the situation on the
south bank, except for a few messages delivered by runners, whose
reports implied that the situation was hopeless. In some places,
bypassed garrisons held out in quarry tunnels and machine-gun nests
and the last troops of the 14th Division in Allemant were not overrun
until 11:00 a.m. On the Soissons–
Chavignon road, the 13th
Division was only able to withstand the French attack for an hour but
to the west of Fort de la Malmaison, the 2nd Guard Division repulsed
the attack with massed machine-gun fire; at Malmaison a German
artillery battery was overrun in hand-to-hand fighting.
captured at 1:00 p.m. but a German counter-attack temporarily retook
the north-eastern corner and little ground was lost by the 5th Guard
Division further east.
Map of the
Vaudesson area (commune FR insee code 02766)
At noon, the 7th Army headquarters concluded that the loss of
Chavignon and Malmaison, made it necessary to
hold the lines from Pinon to
Chavignon and to form a new line from
there to Malmaison; it was also decided to withdraw the artillery from
the Pinon Forest. At noon, Group Crépy was given command of the 52nd
Division and Group Vailly command of the last two battalions of the
43rd Reserve and 9th divisions. The 6th Bavarian Reserve and the 6th
Division were sent forward to
Laon and Pierrepont, 12 km
(7.5 mi) north-east of
Laon and a division of the neighbouring
1st Army, was alerted to move to the battlefront on foot. At 1:00
p.m., reconnaissance flights revealed that the French had dug in at
In Group Crépy, the 14th Division managed to form a continuous line
along the Pinonriegel, to the original position on the right flank and
no French attack ensued; at 2:45 p.m. the Group headquarters ordered
the withdrawal of the remaining artillery, south of the canal. The
situation on the front of Group Vailly was much worse, on the left
flank of the 13th Division and part of the 2nd Guard Division front,
no front line was recognisable. At Chavignon, a counter-attack
recovered a small part of the village in the evening and at the
eastern boundary of the French attack, the 5th Guard Division was able
to repulse the attack, since the artillery positions north of the
canal had suffered less damage and trench mortars had been dug into
the front line before Operation "Autumn Harvest". Few of the mortars
had been damaged and were used to engage the French infantry, who were
repulsed along most of the position, except on the west flank, which
was withdrawn to conform with the retreat of the neighbouring
On the extreme flanks of the attack front, the French limited their
operations to artillery-fire and probing attacks and in the late
afternoon, French artillery-fire diminished. By the evening, the
German line ran from the plateau east of Vauxaillon, along the
Pinonriegel north of
Vaudesson and Chavignon, to the high ground of
the ridge south-west of Pargny and then connected to the old position.
About seven infantry regiments and much of the artillery had been
lost. A counter-attack was impossible and it was decided that the area
south of the canal, should be retained only as an outpost area, with a
main defensive position being established north of the canal and river
Ailette, once the remaining artillery had been removed. The night of
23/24 October was quiet and during the day, only minor skirmishing
took place, as the French consolidated.
The 7th Army commander, Boehn, concluded that the
Chemin des Dames
Chemin des Dames was
untenable and proposed to retire, even though this would require the
abandonment of the defences for another 20 km (12 mi) to the
east, as far as
Craonne and reserve positions on high ground about
3 km (1.9 mi) further back, as well as the
Boehn decided to implement the Bunzelwitz Bewegung (Bunzelwitz
Manoeuvre) contingency plan, part of the Gudrun Bewegung (Gudrun
Manoeuvre) prepared earlier in the year. In view of the sacrifices
made during the Nivelle Offensive, the headquarters of Army Group
German Crown Prince, ordered that a retirement by the six divisions
along the Chemin-des-Dames, east of the 5th Guard Division could not
begin unless a big French attack was imminent but that preparations
were to be made, for the abandonment the ground south of the Ailette
and the canal. The 7th Army was quickly to remove the remaining
artillery and the 3rd Bavarian, 30th and 103rd divisions were to moved
close to the threatened sector of the front, though exhausted, ready
for use as Eingreif divisions.
On 25 October, the French attacked again and the German troops made a
fighting withdrawal to the Ailette and the canal, which had been
occupied by the 6th Bavarian Reserve and 6th divisions but few guns
could be withdrawn. The
Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL) received a
broadcast from the Eiffel Tower, in which the French announced the
capture of 8,000 prisoners and 25 heavy guns, then mistakenly reported
that the canal had been crossed near Anizy, which caused a temporary
panic, that the Ailette position and the Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg
Line) had been outflanked. General Erich Ludendorff, was told by the
7th Army Chief of Staff von Schulenburg, that the army had no
resources left to resist a French attack and was given the 21st and
28th Reserve divisions as reinforcements. The Chiefs of Staff of the
defeated groups were sacked and it was agreed with Army Group German
Crown Prince, that the Bunzelwitz Bewegung (Bunzelwitz Manoeuvre)
should begin on 26 October. The salient formed at Anizy, was the area
most vulnerable to attack and the Army Group reinforced Group Crépy
with the 14th Reserve and 103rd divisions.
Bunzelwitz Bewegung 1/2 November
Defence in depth was not possible in the area of Group Vailly, which
held positions on the edge of the hog's back ridge of the
Chemin-des-Dames, south of the Ailette. A quick withdrawal of the
artillery could not be conducted, if the French infantry crowned the
crest and gained observation over the canal crossings, which were
within range of French artillery. When the front line fell, the 7th
Army had no option but to withdraw Group Vailly north of the Ailette,
abandoning the Montparnasse and other quarries, which had become death
traps. Army Group German Crown Prince, ordered the 7th Army to hold
the positions east of La Royère Farm and on 28 October, the Germans
counter-attacked just north of Froidmont Farm but were repulsed and
lost another 60 prisoners. On 30 October, a German counter-attack near
Cerny was also repulsed. The French brought more artillery onto the
Allemant and Malmaison plateaux, the Pinon and Rosay forests and the
Pargny-Filain and Filain. The French guns enfiladed the
Ailette valley, east of the Bassin d'alimentation reservoir, bombarded
the German defences on the north slopes of the Chemin-des-Dames ridge
and the last strong points holding out on the summit, with
high-explosive, gas and shrapnel shell.
On the night of 1/2 November, the German retirement to the north bank
of the Ailette began. To avoid alerting the French, no demolitions of
shelters, tunnels and pillboxes were made and a screen of
machine-gunners and riflemen was left on the summit of the ridge, to
fire until just before dawn. The Bunzelwitz Bewegung was completed
without alerting the French, who bombarded the empty positions along
the Chemin-des-Dames, during the morning of 2 November. A party of
Chasseurs found an empty German trench and the field artillery opened
a creeping barrage, behind which waves of infantry advanced over the
crest. By mid-day Cerny was occupied, Cortecon was entered at 3:00
p.m. and Ailles at 7:00 p.m., which the Germans then bombarded with
mustard-gas shell. The advance was cautious, due to fear that caves
and tunnels had been mined but by the morning of 3 November, the
French had advanced on a 21 km (13 mi) front to the south
bank of the Ailette. North-east of Craonne, the ruins of Chevreux were
occupied, patrols reached the southern outskirts of Corbeny and
another twenty heavy and field guns were captured.
German retreat from the Chemin des Dames, November 1917
The offensive had been intended to capture high ground from the Mont
des Singes to the Californie Plateau above
Craonne and be economical
in infantry, rather than break through the German fortified zone.
Pétain issued a communiqué on the evening of 23 October, announcing
that the Sixth Army had taken more than 7,500 prisoners and an
enormous quantity of equipment, including 25 heavy and field guns.
While the German 7th Army had held the Mont des Singes, Laffaux,
Allemant and Malmaison plateaux, the French positions north of the
Aisne were vulnerable to attack and the alternative for the French was
to fall back behind the Aisne. On 24 October, a German communiqué had
announced that Allemant,
Chavignon had been lost but
claimed victory west of La Royère Farm, where no attack had taken
place. On 25 October, Pinon and the forest had been captured and
the French closed up to the line of the Canal de l'Oise à
l'Aisne. In four days, the French had advanced 9.7 km
(6 mi) and forced the Germans from the plateau of the Chemin des
Dames to the north bank of the Ailette valley. The attacks at
Verdun in August and at Malmaison were compared with the failures of
Nivelle Offensive and were used to produce L’instruction sur
l’action offensive des grands unités dans la bataille (Instruction
on Offensive Action of Large Units in Battle [31 October 1917]).
The French success at
La Malmaison prevented Hindenburg and Ludendorff
from further reinforcing the Austro-Hungarians in Italy and assisted
the surprise gained by the British at the Battle of Cambrai (20
November – 7 December). The ground taken by the Sixth Army increased
the difficulties of the Germans in the spring offensives of 1918. Had
the 7th Army retained the western end of the Chemin-des-Dames ridge,
the German offensive in 1918 could have started simultaneously with
the offensives from the Somme to Flanders. The extension of the
northern face of the salient from Vauxaillon to
Berry-au-Bac, beyond the Chemin-des-Dames ridge to the left bank of
the Ailette during the Battle of Malmaison, caused Ludendorff to hold
Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz (Army Group German Crown
Prince), until Allied reserves had been shifted west and north of
Soissons. Had the 7th Army retained the western end of the ridge, the
French at the east end and between the ridge and the Aisne, would have
been highly vulnerable to a simultaneous attack.
The Official Historians of the Reichsarchiv wrote that the German
defence had been outnumbered threefold in artillery, which had
prepared the attack with almost unlimited ammunition. The closure by
gas bombardment of the Ailette valley a few days before the French
attack, had made withdrawal impossible (as had a similar bombardment
Verdun in August), which accounted for the French claim of 11,500
prisoners, along with 200 guns, 222 trench mortars and 700
machine-guns. The Reichsarchiv historians recorded 18,000 casualties,
of whom 10,000 were missing. The magnitude of the defeat, after the
severity of the losses at Messines Ridge,
Verdun and Ypres, showed
that carefully prepared attacks against German defences in tactically
unfavourable positions could inflict costly defeats. Such defeats
could have been mitigated by German tactical withdrawals, as soon as
Allied artillery preparation began. The
Laffaux Salient had been
retained despite the risks, because of the confidence of the local
commanders in the fortifications and as a jumping-off point for an
offensive in 1918.
French losses were 2,241 men killed, 8,162 wounded and 1,460 missing
from 23–26 October, ten percent of the casualties of the attacks
during the Nivelle Offensive. The Sixth Army took 11,157
prisoners, 180 guns, 222 trench mortars and 720 machine-guns. In 2014,
Philpott recorded 38,000 Germans killed or missing and 12,000
prisoners, along with 200 guns and 720 machine-guns, against 14,000
French casualties, fewer than a third of the German total. German
losses at the
Battle of the Hills
Battle of the Hills 17 April – 20 May, had been 6,120
prisoners, 52 guns, 42 trench-mortars and 103 machine-guns. From
20–24 August at Verdun, the Second Army had taken 8,100
^ Much of the narrative is derived from the translation of a French
original, in which the French custom of describing events from left to
right was observed.
^ For centuries stone-cutters had tunnelled into the ridge; the sides
and summits of the plateaux were studded with workings, often
9.1–12.2 m (30–40 ft) underground and many, like the
Dragon's Cave beneath the Hurtebise Finger, were connected to the
surface by tunnels. Some of the workings were held by the French, in
which the assaulting troops could be kept under cover until the last
moment but most of the underground chambers and tunnels from the
Ailette, north of Vauxaillon, to the Chevrégny Spur on the
Chemin-des-Dames ridge, were still held by the Germans.
^ A Riegelstellung was a barring position, intended to stop retreat
from the line in front.
^ A writer in the
Vossische Zeitung of 20 August, had claimed that a
French attack had no chance of success. Müller had ordered an attack
at the Chevrégny Spur, to begin at 5:30 a.m. on 23 October, fifteen
minutes after the French advance had begun.
^ A German battalion commander captured in Pinon on 25 October,
carried conflicting instructions, one ordering him to retire and one
to hold on at all costs; similar orders were found on other captured
^ Doughty 2005, p. 325.
^ Doughty 2005, pp. 327–344.
^ Doughty 2005, pp. 344–346.
^ Wynne 1976, pp. 133–134.
^ Falls 1992, p. 485.
^ Falls 1992, pp. 236–243.
^ Falls 1992, pp. 348–352.
^ Falls 1992, pp. 541–552.
^ a b Times 1918, p. 220.
^ Falls 1992, pp. 491–499.
^ Times 1918, p. 104.
^ a b Times 1918, p. 105.
^ Times 1918, p. 221.
^ a b c d Times 1918, p. 222.
^ a b c d Times 1918, p. 223.
^ Times 1918, p. 219.
^ a b Times 1918, p. 224.
^ Chtmiste 2003.
^ Times 1918, p. 229.
^ Times 1918, p. 225.
^ Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 113.
^ a b Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 114.
^ Reichsarchiv 2012, pp. 114–115.
^ Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 115.
^ Times 1918, p. 226.
^ a b c d Times 1918, p. 227.
^ a b c Times 1918, p. 228.
^ Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 118.
^ Times 1918, p. 230.
^ Times 1918, p. 231.
^ a b c d e Times 1918, p. 232.
^ Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 116.
^ a b Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 117.
^ Times 1918, p. 234.
^ a b c Times 1918, p. 235.
^ Times 1918, pp. 235–236.
^ Times 1918, p. 236.
^ Times 1918, pp. 236–237.
^ a b Times 1918, p. 238.
^ a b Times 1918, p. 239.
^ a b Times 1918, p. 240.
^ Times 1918, pp. 240–241.
^ a b c Times 1918, p. 241.
^ a b Times 1918, p. 244.
^ a b Times 1918, p. 245.
^ a b Times 1918, p. 246.
^ a b Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 119.
^ a b c Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 120.
^ a b c d Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 121.
^ a b Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 122.
^ Times 1918, p. 247.
^ a b Times 1918, p. 248.
^ Reichsarchiv 2012, p. 123.
^ Times 1918, p. 242.
^ Michelin 1919a, pp. 6–7.
^ a b Doughty 2005, pp. 384–389.
^ Gale 2015, p. 18.
^ Times 1918, pp. 217–218.
^ Reichsarchiv 2012, pp. 123–124.
^ Philpott 2014, p. 279.
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