It is hard to believe that this farmer’s field was once a killing zone for British troops in early September in 1914. It was here also that the crystallisation of the Western Front began for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), resulting in static trench warfare that would claim so many lives in the following four years. It was here where an unknown phenomenon started, a tactical and logistical problem which took countless lives to solve. It was here where the ultimate challenge of the Great War began for Britain. It was here that British troops began to trade with local farmers for a pick or a shovel in order to protect themselves from the enemy.
Last year when the thought of lockdown seemed unthinkable, en route to the Citadel of Verdun in France, myself and my Father touched very gently the area astride the Chemin De Dames. The Chemin De Dames, (The Ladies Road) is a 30 Kilometre road which stretches between Soissons in the west to Corbeny in the east. Running in between the Aisne and Ailette valleys the road gives incredible views on either side, a perfect vantage point for any army considering staying put with unrestricted observation. The road where countless men died is now forever called the D18CD in honour of the sacrifices made. In 1917 the French offensive that took place here almost brought the French Army to mutiny and to it’s knees.
The villages in the valley of the river Aisne are truly hidden gems of the country, the villages of Craonne, Vendresse, Pont-Arcy are absolutely stunning. Over a century ago there also were once other villages near these. One of the Villages, Beaulne-et-Chivy close to the Village of Vendresse by the end of the Great War became sacrificed for the life of France, once a thriving village became a sacrificial ground of martyrdom, joining the villages of Fleury and Ornes in the Verdun battlefield.The only thing that symbolises that a village was ever there is a memorial church, and that church like the village is falling into the category of martyrdom, left to rot and decay, the birds finding sanctuary building nests in the holy water fonts. Once a proud monument of victory, left on its own to return back to nature.
In early September 1914, the German Army was checked by the French and British troops at the Battle of the Marne, which stopped the impending threat to Paris. Recoiling from this significant defeat the German Army retreated towards the Aisne and the Chemin De Dames. The French Army and the Old Contemptibles of the BEF scented blood and believed that victory would be achieved by Christmas. It could be argued that the British and French were naive in their approach to the situation and began the chase to outflank the German armies in France. This was the beginning of the ‘Race to the Sea’ as both armies tried desperately to keep the war fluid. The Germans reached the Chemin de Dames and with the use of spades as scalpels they cut trenches into the soil of France for the first time, contrary to the rules of the past the Germans decided to stand and fight here overlooking the Aisne where the BEF would have to engage these new defensive positions.
The BEF which had fought in desperate battles such as Mons, Le Cateau and the Marne arrived at the valley of the Aisne tired and battered, but due to their professionalism and sheer discipline. The force kept holding their own. When they arrived at the Aisne, they found that the Germans had blown the bridges along the river, brave men of the Royal Engineers under the cover of darkness constructed pontoon bridges for the infantry to cross as the flashes of German artillery fired in front of them. On the morning of 14 September 1914 the Irish Guards crossed the pontoon bridge over the Aisne at Pont-Arcy and headed towards the village of Soupir.
Soupir is to me where the agony of trench warfare began for the BEF. One of the most beautiful places in the world and yet like Verdun, Thiepval and Langemarck hides discreetly the agony of its past. In the area of the village alone there are five National Cemeteries, Two French, Two British, One German and One Italian. The village was destroyed during the Second Battle Of The Aisne in the spring of 1917 and rebuilt after the War. The story of the Irish Guards in fighting in and around the outskirts of the village on September 14 1914 is one of the hidden stories of the Great War. Having reached the Chateau at Soupir under heavy shellfire, the Guards waited for orders to advance. The 3rd Coldstream Guards who were ahead of the Irish Guards attacked through the village and headed northwards towards the Soupir Farm at the top of the ridge where they made contact with the enemy. The 3rd Coldstreamers came under heavy fire from the right, a ridge called point 197 and after a quick consultation with Major Matheson who was commanding the Coldstreamers, the Irish Guards would go into an attack with three companies to assault the wood and to take the ridge that was giving the Coldstreamers a bloody nose.
At 2pm the Irish Guards swept into the wood overlooking Soupir and immediately ran into difficulties, 200 yards to the northern edge of the wood they were stopped by rifle fire from newly dug German Trenches that had been dug 100 yards from the wood in a farmers field. The Irish Guards quickly dug in, whilst also having to deal with snipers that were causing havoc in the wood on the right hand side close to point 197. Famously Lieutenant Greer brought up his Machine Guns and brought fire to the Germans in a Turnip field.
At 2.30pm that afternoon near Soupir farm, 150 Germans were seen resting on haystacks with white flags and men of the Irish Guards with the Coldstreamers left the safety of their trenches to take them prisoner, sadistically the Germans opened up on the men advancing cautiously towards them at the range of 30 yards forcing them to retire. There was also the added danger of German snipers still lurking in the woods and they also needed to be cleared.
The fighting now increased in intensity as the Guards fought for control of the outskirts of the wood and Soupir Farm alongside the Coldstreamers. The acting Quartermaster Lord Guernsey, who had served in the Boer War and had been on duty on the coronation of King George V in 1911, came up to the front line positions and was assigned to number two company to assist Lord Arthur Hay in clearing out the snipers that were still in the wood. Both were shot dead immediately, and as dusk was approaching no further attacks were made. The Guards that had survived the days fighting were tired and exhausted, and spent the night in the wood overlooking Soupir bivouacked in battle outpost formation.
The following morning at 4am the Irish Guards sent a reconnaissance patrol to find that the Germans had dug in on the reverse slope north of Soupir Farm, the Guards reached the outskirts of the wood and spent the day consolidating the new positions. Sadly any attempts to retrieve the dead was suppressed by German artillery fire. The tactical problem of trench warfare began here for the BEF at Soupir and throughout the remainder of the month the trench lines were consolidated and improved. The Irish Guards on the 16 September spent their first night in these trenches as the rain lashed down. It was a foretaste of things to come. The action at Soupir that day cost the Guards lost 49 men, killed or wounded, not a lot of men in comparison to the bloodshed of the Somme or Passchendaele but the loss of experienced battle hardened men was incredibly evident.
In the communal cemetery of Soupir, Lord Guernsey and Lord Arthur Hay who were killed on the 14 September 1914 lay in peace side by side close to the wood where they both lost their lives. These elite officers of the BEF and part of Britain’s first professional fighting force were sacrificed on these hills in the creation of a tactical problem that was to last for four years. The cemetery contains also the remains of the Honourable William Amhurst Cecil MC of the Grenadier Guards who was killed on the 16 September 1914. His Epitaph in Latin, Cor Unum Via Una (One Heart One Way) is a reflection of passing from one life to another. In the midst of their final reckoning their dedication and devotion to duty is inspiring beyond compare.
I visited this battlefield with my father on a beautiful summers day and the ground itself weeps with emotion at one who recognises and remembers what happened here over a century ago. It gives the imagination an overload of emotion that is rarely seen, you honour the sacrifice and it acknowledges that in bounds. Remembering the memory of the Irish Guards who fought so bravely above the village of Soupir 106 years ago today.
Lord Guernsey’s epitaph strikes me as the most beautiful and symbolic of that War, and I conclude this blog with his gravestone on the 106th Anniversary of his passing in the defence of his nation.