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BEFORE THE BATTLE, THE AISNE VALLEY UNDER CONSTRUCTION

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  • BEFORE THE BATTLE, THE AISNE VALLEY UNDER CONSTRUCTION

    Often overlooked, Engineering is, at best, associated with sappers and miners, and even pontoneers. In fact, this scientist arm included, in 1914, many more specialties: railway sappers, searchlights, telegraphists, cyclist sappers as soon as the mobilization1(the Engineering then represented 1/40th of the men of the mobilized Army); then to meet the growing needs of specialized teams: road workers, well diggers, forest sappers, flame throwers, electricians, MD companies2 (Mascart and Dessoliers, engineers at the beginning of the special vehicles used by MD battalions) ... We can therefore only give here a brief overview of the activity of men of engineering, engaged in early 1917 in the Aisne Valley, given the breadth and variety of the fields covered.A further study would surely deserve to be carried out. A support arm, Engineering is as much fundamental very upstream in the preparation of the assault as during its execution, then downstream to reorganize the ground conquered or to slow down an enemy advance. With the experience of the Battle of the Somme, the high command, in its preparation for the Chemin des Dames offensive, is more interested in the issue of supplies, and everything that can help increase its fluidity (accessibility of land, installation of storage warehouses near places of operation, etc.) From January 1917, the engineers began large-scale works.

  • #2
    ROADS.
    The preparation of the roads before the assault is an essential first step to allow the supply of ammunition and materials, and then to ensure the mobility of the troops and the evacuation of the wounded. Knowledge of traffic during the Battle of the Somme led to the provision of solid roads capable of supporting the weight of trucks3 (at certain points on the Chemin des Dames, there would be up to 9,000 vehicles/day on April 15). The exploitation of quarries close to the ground, like that of Oeuilly4 (quarry exploited by the company 26/2 of the 26th battalion, 10th Engineers), is therefore undertaken to supply the materials necessary for the roadbedding of the tracks. Nothing is left to chance: the width of the roads is studied to allow, depending on the tracks, the frontal crossing of two trucks, or a truck and a horse-drawn car. Widening works are necessary on a large part of the road network. Access to the new bridges is provided. Companies of roadmasters, of the stages and territorial engineers, are at work during these operations made particularly difficult by the climatic conditions (periods of freezing and thawing succeed one another quickly). Road improvement works continue until the offensive: on April 11, the Engineers are still responsible for starting work on the Beaurieux-Craonnelle road5 (Command of the Engineer of the 1st Army Corps). The road improvement works take place even during the fighting, the fascines then replacing the stones: thus the company of roadmasters C33 of the 24th battalion of the 7th Engineers, is responsible for rehabilitating the road to Laon, behind the troops of assault. The works continue in the days following April 16: until the end of April, the sappers of the company of Morocco of the 2nd Engineers establish tracks to allow the transport towards the rear of German artillery pieces and their recovery6 (Company 26/2M, 2nd Engineers ).
    200216 1.png
    Road to Vassogne at the Moulin Rouge

    200216 4.png
    The track between Oeuilly and the village of Pargnan in the background.

    200216 12.png
    Track built of logs (plank road) between Pargnan and Moulins.

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    • #3
      BRIDGE CONSTRUCTION
      Crossing rivers and canals is an essential military issue, both upstream and during the attack. Engineers are responsible, at the rear, for establishing and strengthening permanent bridges, and for providing destruction devices in the event of enemy advance. During the offensive, they throw light footbridges and bridges on floating supports, to allow the passage of French troops. The works undertaken from January, are made difficult in particular because of the floods of the Aisne and the enemy bombardments.

      200216 6.png
      Crossing structures, which can allow the passage of tanks.

      200216 7.png
      “Sucrerie des Hautes Rives”, side canal of the Aisne, in Maizy. In the far background, a train crosses the canal.

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      • #4
        RAILROADS
        Organized since the end of the 19th century, the railroad sappers were very active during the First World War7 (It was the 5th Engineer who specialized in the railways). Since 1917, they have been employed in the Chemin des Dames sector, building new lines, connecting existing ones, enlarging stations, repairing and constructing engineering structures to allow the supply of food and materials, and for transport of men and wounded. The 9th Railway Company, from February 22, is responsible for building the line from Fismes to Pontavert8 (9th Company of the 5th Engineers). The restoration of the Soissons-Rethel line (the part between Cys-la-Commune and Roucy) must be associated eventually, with an extension to Craonne and Corbeny, provided in the event that the enemy retreats. The line is not built in the normal 1435mm track, but for convenience and speed, in the 1meter track. It is therefore necessary to provide a transshipment station at Courlandon (near Fismes) to connect this line to the normal rail network. A new line from Blanzy to Villers-en-Prayères, less exposed than the old one, was also built. Repair works on the Villers-Roucy line, the restoration of the stations of Maizy, Concevreux and Roucy, then the rehabilitation of the Villers-Cys-la-Commune line (after the German setback on May 9) aim for a better supply of the Chavronne and Braye region, poorly served by roads. Each operation involves significant work: carrying out topographic surveys9 (the 2nd engineering survey team is responsible for studying the Fismes-Maizy line, with variants, and for making useful ground surveys. It establishes the necessary long profiles for the Maizy-Roucy-Pontavert track, from January to March), drainage, earthworks, embankments, while the sites are frequently bombed. To hide them from planes, part of the work can only be carried out at night (as in Roucy station for example); moreover, the tracks are camouflaged with canvases and branches.

        200216 5.png
        Work on the tracks near a train station in the Aisne valley.


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        • #5
          OBSERVATORIES, COMMAND POSTS AND OTHER FACILITIES
          Apart from questions of communication routes, the Engineers are also responsible for the development of the land, in various fields. They build observatories, for example the one north of Moussy in March 1917 for Artillery10(Company 6/62, 6th Battalion, 9th Engineers). They set up command posts protected from artillery fire. Thus, a PC was set up for Divisional Artillery 162, from April 1 "on the defile of the Beaurieux-Craonnelle road"11 (64th Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Engineers); another vast underground CP is undertaken from April 12 at hill 137 (comprising several rooms separated by dividing walls, provided with 13 tables, 40 benches and 77 berths), of which 150 meters of main galleries are capped with bituminized cardboard12(Company of Morocco 26/2M, 2nd Engineers). First aid stations are set up like at the bridge of Moussy13(Company 6/11, 6th Battalion, 9th Engineers). In anticipation of the consequences of an offensive victory, prisoner camps are set up at the beginning of April: for example, the Company of Morocco, 2nd Engineers sets up a camp in the sector of the hill 137: a square 50 meters wide is surrounded by a metal fence two meters high, and divided into four compartments with a room for the interrogation of prisoners.
          For all this equipment, the question of water supply is crucial: men and horses need potable water, and locomotives need water for their boiler. NCOs and men, chosen for the work to be carried out, were well-diggers, masons, plumbers, mechanics before the war. They develop springs, dig wells, install motor pumps and reservoirs equipped with complex devices for water leveling. The Engineers Command of the 1st Army Corps thus installed a 50 cubic meters water tank on April 8 on the road Beaurieux-Craonnelle.
          In addition, the Engineers use the trickery of war in its two components which are the dissimulation and the art of deception14(Art which consists in misleading the enemy, in particular by disinformation or imitation), so that the French strategic installations are less targeted by enemy fire. Many camouflage works are undertaken, for example from March 5 to April 14, on the Braine-Vieil-Arcy road by the Company 6/4, 6th Battalion, 9th Engineers, assisted by the 112th RIT, and from March 17 on the Vauxtin-Dhuizel and Vauxtin-Courcelles roads. Lures are installed to attract the attention and the shots of the Germans far from the strategic points: the command orders to install three false ammunition depots on April 10 west of the Beaurieux-Craonnelle road, on the road leading from la Fontaine to Vivier-au-bois of Beaumarais and one kilometer east of the church of Meurival. A special operation is planned for the chapel of Boves on April 4. Like all recognizable and clearly visible architectural elements, the Boves chapel served as a landmark for the Germans to adjust their shots. To deceive the enemy, it is therefore imagined destroying the chapel and place a fictitious one, in all points similar, made on removable panels, 80m from its original location. A section of Company 6/4, 6th Battalion, 9th Engineers, is placed at the disposal of a camouflage team, to carry out this manipulation operation15(the history of the 9th Engineers develops this episode which he qualifies "of the most curious example that has ever been made of camouflage, by displacement of real objective").

          200216 2.png
          Plan of the divisional command post built in February 1917 at Mont Charmont, by the 57th Company of the 9th Battalion, 6th Engineers

          200216 3.png
          Installations and group of soldiers near Villers-en-Prayères.

          200216 10.png
          Military installations below the Paissy plateau. In the background, walking on the ridge, horses and horse-drawn convoys.

          200216 11.png
          The funicular in Vassogne



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          • #6
            FLAMETHROWERS
            Besides the infrastructure works, the Engineers participate in the neutralization of the enemy installations, which can bring them to the front line16 ("The engineer platoons must march at the head of the regiments": Company 20/14, 20th Battalion, 10th Engineers ). Originally designed by the Germans at the start of the 20th century, flame throwers were used for this purpose in 1915 in the Meuse. The violence of the damage produced, causes terror of the enemy, leading the troops to surrender. The flame throwers are of two types, corresponding to different tactical purposes. The "light" type (23 kg portable device, in charge) is mobile but of short autonomy and fairly reduced range, it can accompany the infantry during the offensive. The heavy type (85 to 125 kg, in charge) has a greater range, but, given its weight and size, it is used especially in trenches.
            The number of devices per section remains quite limited. In the Company Schilt 22/517 (the companies of flamethrower, known as Companies Schilt, are attached to the 1st Engineers), three sections are assigned to the fights of the sector of the 127th ID between April 16 and 2018 (5th Company, 22nd Battalion, 1st Engineers). In the first section, eleven devices are used to clean shelters north of the "village nègre" (Soupir), at the Cour Soupir farm and in the village of Ostel (empty devices are supplied with flammable liquid at Soupir's mobile depot. ). The second section is equipped with 12 devices, but the shocks during the progression on difficult field make these largely unavailable19 (Fragile device, the flame thrower is also particularly dangerous. Manipulation exercises are still taking place just before the D-Day ... 7th Company, 22nd Battalion, 1st Engineers); the sappers then continue as grenadiers. The third section, also with twelve devices, operates in the Vailly sector: shelters and cellars are cleaned with flame throwers or with incendiary grenades. The 7th Company cleans Neuville, Cerny-en-Laonnois, Martigny and the neighboring quarries.
            200216 9.png
            The ”village nègre” in Vassogne.


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            • #7
              ELECTRICITY
              Since the start of the war, the applications of electricity to operations have been implemented by Engineers both for the benefit of "comfort" (lighting, ventilation, motorization of arduous work) and of the action itself (putting barbed wire under tension)20(Supplied with 1500 volts alternating current). The technical knowledge of the sappers allows the installation and maintenance of the generator sets and transformer stations, as well as the reuse of civil installations: the Reims sector is supplied by the factory of the ‘Compagnie du gaz et d’électricité’ in Reims, the other sectors of the Chemin des Dames are supplied by gasoline generator sets or by "generator electric cars"21(Some, of small dimensions, could go as close as possible to the lines). The protection of these generators is essential: Engineers use the cellars of destroyed houses for the smallest, and for the most voluminous, they carry out specific concrete work.
              In addition, as close as possible to the enemy, the sappers are trying to detect the networks of electrified wire, set up by their German counterparts, by searching on documents and on the spot: the maps allow to remove wet places which do not lend themselves to the use of electricity; the survey of first line units is used to identify the presence of sparks suggesting the existence of such networks; intelligence bulletins and information from prisoners make it possible to refine this knowledge as well as reconnaissance on the ground. This information is then particularly useful during the attack to avoid electrocution.
              Among the many electrical devices put into action by the Engineers, one can in particular retain the projectors. Used on the front since 191522(This is not an innovation: projectors had already been used during the War of 1870), their objective was to provide assistance with the night shots of the infantry and artillery, to blind the enemy, to facilitate the march of the troops or the realization of works. Having to be close enough to the target to be effective, they are not necessarily compatible with the network of trenches and boyaux. The devices used have a more or less wide range of action (up to 2 km) depending on their diameter (from 24 to 90 cm). The position chosen considers the nature of the field (preferably on a height) and must allow a close connection with the command of the infantry or artillery unit. Projectors are also used for optical signaling between command posts. On April 16, section no. 1 of projectors installed, at the optical center planned for Californie, three projectors of 24 and 35 cm; April 17, a projector of 60 is replaced by a projector of 35 for connection with the "infantry planes". Section No. 11, for its part, is responsible for providing the posts necessary on D-Day for the optical link between the divisional headquarters and the infantry headquarters and for lighting the entrance to the Braye-en-Laonnois tunnel, to prohibit the exit, in conjunction with machine guns23 (Projector section no.1). April 16, the advance not having been that envisaged, the optical connection is not necessary. In the following days, the optical post of the division was installed in front of Moussy; then an optical line (with two 24 cm projectors) is established between the 1511 quarry and the Moussy substation. The reconnaissance carried out to install projectors on the reconquered ground, shows the difficulties to handle these apparatuses on a dominant point on a ground disturbed and provided with a dense network of trenches; finally, the two projectors of 60 cannot be used. Another section, present in January in the sector, installs a 60 projector on the "triangular plateau" south of Craonnelle, to light the enemy posts (especially in the sector of Vauclerc, Chevreux, Californie). The projector station is connected by telephone to the colonel's PC; four 35 cm projectors are installed in the Oulches-Craonnelle sector24(Projector section no.162). To neutralize this demonstration of their positions, the Germans target these installations: two of these searchlights are bombed and destroyed on April 17.


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              • #8
                TRANSMISSIONS
                The telegraph service (telegraph and telephone) which already existed before the war, developed enormously because of the importance of communications, to coordinate actions. Initially a minority, the telephone is gradually becoming more important, particularly for links between the different artillery positions and between artillery and infantry. The telegraph stations, which are still important, use several technologies: Morse sets, optical sets, radio telegraph sets (TSF), etc. The TSF in particular allows listening to German radiotelegrams (then handed over to the cipher service); thanks to radiogoniometry, enemy transmitters can be identified and neutralized. Connection is made to the civil network when possible. Otherwise, new temporary lines are installed: the telegraph Company of the Xth Army pulls wires on the Crugny-Beaurieux and Crugny-Craonnelle sticks in early April and builds a Beauregard-Roman circuit. On D-Day, it pursues a Calvaire-Corbeny sticks (continuing from Beaurieux-Calvaire) between 7 and 9 am (poles are planted up to hill 87), before retreating in the afternoon to Pontavert, progression having become impossible25(8th Engineers). Engineers use a special armored cable (coated with an iron trellis) capable of withstanding without breaking the passage of men, horses or cars. But the lines are cut in several places by the German shells.

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                • #9
                  MINES AND LISTENING
                  The war of positions brought the development of underground works, entrusted to the sappers and miners : works of protection for the French troops and galleries towards the enemy positions with a view to their destruction. This tunnel construction is a heavy task, requiring constant ventilation and sufficient shoring. The 64th Company of the 9th Battalion of the 6th Engineers organizes the building site of the "waldtünnel"26(This German tunnel which connects the von Lüttwitz trench to the Vauclerc plateau resisted the attack of April 16 but was conquered on May 4-5 ) from May 14 and until the end of June, day and night in a three-eight shift. We start by clearing the tunnel cluttered with ammunition in particular; the northern entrance which serves as an observatory over the Ailette valley is restored to a defensive state and a new southern entrance is put in place; new accesses are planned to communicate with the Offenburg trench; water catchment works are undertaken; a special room is provided for the generator.
                  In addition to the digging work, the miners are responsible for underground listening to enemy noises. Company 6/5 of the 6th Battalion, of the 9th Engineers, participates in the listening service. On April 4, French miners, thanks to these eavesdropping, speed up their German counterparts and detonate camouflets27 (A camouflet is a mine stove intended to destroy an enemy gallery) in the Soupir region, shortly after having detected the work of enemy miners. This war of eavesdropping requires the miner a very long practice, concentration and an ability to differentiate the different types of noise and their origin, and requires the command to assess the danger to determine the optimal time to ignite the cheddite.

                  200216 8.png
                  Right, map of the Waldtünnel ... Left, location of three tunnels between the Moulin de Vauclerc and Hurtebise


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                  • #10
                    MD BATTALIONS
                    Created in the context of an adaptation to war of positions, the MD units must make it possible to provide the troops with buried shelters for the test of field artillery28(Read "The MD Battalions" by General Protard). Extraction, elevation and transport of spoil earth represent a work of force. Working with generators, ejectors, elevators and transporters, developed by Mascart and Dessoliers, make it possible to facilitate operations while ensuring good speed of execution. These devices are accompanied by jackhammers and hammer drills, operated by compressors. In May, several MD units are used for the development of the Soissonnais creutes29 with a view to cleaning them up, ventilating and strengthening them: sixteen creutes in the sector from Laffaux to Braye-en-Laonnois, six from Braye to Craonne. The total habitable surface areas are considerable: 74,000 square meters with 28,000 berths, as of May 15, 1918. Each site requires major work. The first operation concerns the creute of Chassemy: twelve access stairs, with an average length of 13.50 m, sixty-two ventilation chimneys with a height of 6 to 10 meters, allow to set up 8,000 square meters living space, where comfort goes up to permanent electric lighting. The work was finished at the end of July 1917.

                    29 In Laonnois and Soissonnais, the multiple cavities dug for centuries in the thick layers of limestone from the hills of these territories are called "creutes" or "boves". These quarries exploited for the construction of houses and public or cultural buildings were used sometimes from the Middle Ages and often until the beginning of the 20th century. During the First World War, the creutes can be used as shelters or cantonment for the combatants. A whole interior layout was installed there by the various armies: dormitories, command posts, infirmaries, chapels, etc. and sometimes electrical and telephone installations. French, German, British and American fighters left graffiti, sculptures and bas-reliefs there. The creutes are generally not accessible to the public. Only the Dragon Cave-Museum of the Chemin des Dames in a creute and the Quarry of Confrécourt (south-east of the Chemin des Dames) can be visited.

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