Review of two new titles on the Aisne battlefields

The Nivelle offensive and the Battle of the Aisne 1917
A battlefield guide to the Chemin des Dames
by Andrew Uffindell
published by Pen & Sword Military in 2015
paperback ISBN 978-1-78303-034-7
pages 197 including index
cover price £14.99

I have been a regular visitor to the battlefields of the Aisne valley and the Chemin des Dames ridge over many years and can honestly say that I have learned more from this book that all my visits and many other books combined. It is a terrific and well-written piece of work that I can heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in this sector of the Western Front.

British readers may be familiar with the Aisne due to the short but bloody period in which the area was occupied by the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, and indeed there are several good books that describe this fighting and provide today’s visitor with guidance for seeing and understanding the battlefield. Others may know of the equally short and bloody time when a British Corps was here in 1918, and we now have a very good battlefield guide covering that fighting (see David Blanchard’s “Aisne 1918” below). Visitors to the area are sure to see the “Caverne du Dragon” and the group of cemeteries and memorials at the crossroads at Cerny-en-Laonnois; and those looking for the 1918 fighting will also see the tank memorials at Le Cholera crossroads. It is also quite possible that many will have heard of the French army mutinies after the failure of the “Nivelle offensive” in April 1917 – but try finding a good English-language book on that major battle, or that preceding and following it. Try finding a good guidebook that explains why there is a huge memorial to the trench mortars at Moulin de Laffaux or even why the tanks at at Le Cholera. They just do not exist – at least, until the publication of Andrew Uffindel’s superb book.

“The Nivelle offensive and the Battle of the Aisne 1917” is presented in a way that will be familiar to readers of Pen & Sword’s “Battleground Europe” series in that it is part-history, part-guidebook and well illustrated with maps and photographs. It is the same size and style all round. Quite why it is not in the “Battleground Europe” imprint I do not know.

The book provides is with a number of routes to follow, with very sensible advice as to the practicality of doing each by car, bike or on foot. I am also impressed to see that the author actually recommends not going to one site as it is a long hike and there is only a fragment of a memorial remaining. The routes cover the Chemin battlefield, essentially from Laffaux to Le Cholera, taking in Fort Malmaison, Craonne, Caverne du Dragon, Californie and many other places en route. In so doing, we learn of the real failures and indeed successes of General Nivelle’s 1917 offensive. British readers may be interested to learn that the first attack using tanks in any numbers greater than penny handfuls was a French one, half a year before Cambrai. Those with an interest in history before the war will also recognise the name of Marchand, a French officer whose expedition into the Sudan just before the turn of the century gave Britain  an apoplectic fit.

After the routes, Uffindell describes 46 of what he calls “stops”. A battlefield guide might call them “stands”. In other words, particular locations where there is something to see: a cemetery, a memorial, or a particular view or geographic feature. I found this separation of routes and stops very clear and useful.

Excellent. If you ever plan to see the Aisne in person or even through the internet from your armchair, or if you wish to know more about the French Army and their little-covered endeavours, do not hesitate to buy “The Nivelle offensive and the Battle of the Aisne 1917”.

Battle of the Aisne 1918
The phantom sector
by David Blanchard
published by Pen & Sword Military in 2015
paperback ISBN 978-1-78337-605-6
pages 280 including index
cover price £14.99

For a work published in the familiar Pen & Sword “Battleground Europe” imprint, David Blanchard’s book is a heavyweight, coming in as it does at 280 pages. The depth of research required to produce it is borne out by a detailed narrative of the experience of the British IX Corps when attacked and driven back from the Aisne in the German offensive that began on 27 May 1918. It is copiously illustrated by maps and photographs.

Inevitably, the ground covered by this book is part of that explored in Andrew Uffindell’s “The Nivelle offensive and the Battle of the Aisne 1917”, for the British relieved French forces here just before the German attack commenced. The line which they took over was to a great extent that reached by the French when they advanced during the Nivelle offensive in April 1917. We learn of the near-destruction of many hapless British units, overwhelmed by numbers and weight of enemy artillery; in positions that were difficult to defend; and with large numbers of drafts having very recently arrived, for the Divisions concerned had also been through the grinder of two previous offensives in recent weeks. Perhaps the best-known of the hopeless rearguard actions was that fought by the 2nd Devons at the Bois des Buttes: as we would expect it is covered in excellent detail. The enemy’s attack pushed the British southwards over many miles and eventually to the Marne, and the book somewhat belies in title in that the guide covers the many cemeteries and battlefield locations well down towards the Marne and into the Champagne area.

A very good book indeed and for my money one of the best of the “Battleground Europe” series.