Located in the centre of the strategic axes between the East and the West, Champagne-Ardenne reluctantly found itself on the front line of a war that raged, leaving much devastation in its wake.
The Marne and the Ardennes in the Heart of the War
The German army entered the Ardennes department on 21st August 1914 after the invasion of Belgium. The Ardennes, Germany and war was already an old story, if we dare admit it: 34 years prior, almost day for day, the battle of Sedan ended the war of 1870. As soon as that was done, on 2nd September, France surrendered to the Prussian enemy.
On 4th September 1914, the Germans were in Reims and threatened the capital. One month later, in Jonchery-sur-Vesle, near Reims, the first airborne dual of the conflict played out, during which the French two-seater defeated the German two-seater.
The Marne was to give its name to two battles. In September 1914, the first battle of the Marne ended in a French victory. But fighting very quickly got bogged down. A moving war was replaced by a static one. On either side, the warring nations hid away in trenches that they only left for sporadic and deadly assaults. This front line that ran unbroken for 700 kilometres scarred the department of the Marne along its whole length, with the scars still visible today.
The second battle of the Marne took place in July 1918 with the Allies’ decisive breakthrough, signalling the beginning of the end for the invader. The Germans were pushed back into the Ardennes, until the final fighting of 10th and 11th November, the date of the Armistice. Though war was then over, the Marne and the Ardennes would nevertheless remain forever marked by this dreadful episode in history.
A Heavy Tribute to Pay
The Marne was one of France’s departments to suffer the greatest damage. The city of Reims, 80% demolished, and its martyr cathedral, thus remain a powerful symbol of the tortures endured. The Ardennes department too was marked in both its flesh and its earth; history remembers the last official victim of the First World War as a soldier by the name of Augustin Trébuchon who fell in Ardennes, killed by a bullet in the head on 11th November 1918 between 10:45am and 10:55am, some minutes before the ceasefire. You can visit his grave in the local cemetery of Vrigne-Meuse, where he fell.
The Ardennes is also the only department to have been occupied throughout the whole of the Great War; 52 months spent under the yoke of the enemy.
The German army was also to choose Charleville as the location for its general staff and grand headquarters, while the emperor Wilhelm II of Prussia would establish his residence in Mézières. It was from the Ardennes prefecture that, notably, operations over Verdun and the Chemin des Dames were to be ordered.