Rugby suffered more than any other sport in the Great War, losing a large number of International players including 23 from France, 28 England, 28 Scotland, 14 Wales and 12 Ireland as well as a large number of South Africa, Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Islanders.
For British and American people the Somme is the most well-known of the First World War battles and is the symbol of everything terrible about that Great War. It is where the majority of their forces fought and fell.
For the French Verdun arguably has the same unfortunate notoriety, but there is another site on the Western Front that has equal significance and that is the Chemin des Dames. In the words of one well-travelled war expert, Albert Londres, the Craonne plateau was ‘like Verdun, only worse’.
The defeats in May 1917 greatly affected the French rugby team and was a point where public opinion turned against the war, so it is fitting that this is the location of a new memorial to International Rugby Men.
The defeat resulted in the mutinies in 68 of the 110 French army divisions. Soldiers lost faith in their leaders, rebelled against poor food and conditions and most of all lost hope of victory. Their feelings about fighting this bloody war were captured in a song, the Chanson de Craonne, named after a village near the Chemin des Dames, completely destroyed in the war. The song recounts the lot of soldiers awaiting almost certain death on the Western Front, and features a famous refrain ‘goodbye life, goodbye love’. It was banned in France until 1974 so one can understand the significance.
It is here on this elevated plateau some 30 miles above the Champagne region and near the charming and historically significant town of Laon, seat of French kings and bishops until 1789, that a memorial to International Rugby players has been created.
It is located near the Monument des Basques at the highest point of the Chemin and was designed by French rugby captain and legend Jean-Pierre Rives. It is a beautiful spot today with views over the Aisne region south to the Marne Valley, East to Verdun and west to Paris.
Inaugurated in September 2017, the memorial was created jointly by the French Rugby Federation and Aisne Regional Council, and the Home Nations Rugby Football Unions. The inauguration saw ‘Rugby Men’ from all over the world come together and was organised by John Dennison of Francourt Events, a specialist tour operator offering battlefield tours for schools and rugby clubs.
The monument serves as a reminder of how International the war was. The British and French mobilised companies of men from all their dominions around the world, with soldiers fighting in the First World War coming from as far as the Pacific Islands – Fiji, Tahiti, Nouvelle Caledonia and Wallis Island – as well as from Africa, India and Canada.
Caverne du Dragon
Just a mile or two away you can visit the famous Caverne du Dragon, The Dragon’s Cave’, a complex of quarries and tunnels occupied by the German army whilst defending the line. This incredible visitor centre and museum has been created beneath the limestone escarpment where once war raged. Now so peaceful and green, below you can start to understand the true horror, sheer determination and ingenuity of men fighting a war underground.
When the German infantry dug-in for the long-term in 1914, they found the ancient limestone quarries and realised what a good defensive barrier they would make. They created a maze of tunnels and walls to help defend the quarries which potentially provided alternative routes up onto the ridge for attacking forces. There are some 300 quarries right along the Chemin des Dames and beyond, but only two are open to visitors and have been made accessible, with the ‘The Dragon’s Cave’ being by far the best.
Here you can see how, to avoid having to go up above where heavy artillery peppered the terrain with millions of shells, the Germans did everything they could to remain hidden below ground, maintaining a supply chain and air holes even when the French army had advanced overhead and were attempting to gas them. Pictures from the time show German soldiers living beneath ground as everything possible was done to secure the line, even creating a cemetery to bury their dead rather than risk going outside.
The re-designed museum opened in 1999 includes an escorted underground tour. It takes around 90 minutes, so you need about 3 hours in all to take in the tour and to leave time to look at the exhibits above ground. Despite descending underground into such unhospitable terrain the museum is completely accessible by wheelchair and has a relatively even floor and path to follow your guide and a lift. The quarry is huge so there is no need to worry about feeling claustrophobic underground.
Other notable sights worth visiting include the grave of Ronald Simpson at Moulins, the first international rugby player to die on Chemin des Dames. Selected to play for Scotland in 1911 and a key member of London Scottish he passed away on 14th September 1914.
A visit to Laon is also highly recommended. Surprisingly undamaged during the war as it lay behind the Western Front in German-held territory, this historically rich and attractive regional capital is elevated above the plain, with magnificent views south to the Chemin des Dames.
For lodging during your stay there is the very comfortable and relaxing Hôtel du Golf de l’Ailette, situated on a lake some 4 miles from the Dragon Cave and monument. With large rooms and a good onsite restaurant for breakfast and dinner it is suitable for both an overnight stay if touring or to use as a base for a few days.
www.jaimelaisne.com – www.aisne14-18.com – Aisne Tourist Board based in Laon
uk.france.fr/en/discover/caverne-dragon-chemin-dames-museum – The Dragon Cave
www.francourt.org – Francourt Events
www.ailette.fr/ – Hôtel du Golf de l’Ailette