Running parallel to the St Quentin-Cambrai highway, the Canal de St Quentin disappears into a 3.5 Km tunnel that dates to the time of Napoleon I. During the latter stages of WWI, the tunnel - which had been dried up and used as an underground haven for hospitals, barracks, etc. - was used as an integral part of the German Hindenburg defensive line. Different tunnel escape hatches could allow them to pop up behind would-be attackers, something that American and Australian soldiers would discover to their dismay. Pleasant hikes take off from the south entrance to the tunnel. There is also a museum devoted to the tunnel and the boat traffic which still utilizes it.
Montmirail is a small town on the road from Paris to Chalons-en-Champagne. Two monuments can be found across from each other on that road – D 933 – just west of town. Each monument is related to one of Napoleon’s last victories, achieved on 11-12 February 1814 – he had defeated another Russian corps at Chaumbert the day before - against two isolated corps under Sacken and Yorck – part of Blucher’s Army of Silesia. The Coalition forces lost some 7,000 men and most of their supply train as opposed to about only 2,500 for the French. Two days later, Napoleon spanked two more of Blucher’s corps at Vauchamps, a few miles to the east on the same road. Blucher lost another 7,000 men – only 600 for the French – and most of these corps’ supply trains, too. Losing a good third of his army, Blucher retreated to Chalons. The Six Days’ Campaign was vintage Napoleon, reminiscent of his many earlier campaigns where he had been able to outmaneuver and isolate his opponents. Napoleon’s problem in 1814 was he had too many enemies. With Blucher’s retreat, Napoleon turned south to force another superior Coalition army under Schwarzenberg to flee, but while this was happening, a reinforced and stubborn Blucher again lunged towards Paris forcing Napoleon to turn his attention northwards. A hard fought win at Craonne would be followed by the final end at Laon. The monument here was erected by Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III.
Across the road is a monument to the St Cyriens of the Montmirail promotion. Classes of the French military academy of St Cyr are named after famous battles or soldiers. The class of 192-14 was named after Montmirail. Of the 463 graduates, 241 – 52% - would die ‘pour la patrie’ with 233 during WWI – mostly in the fighting of 1914-15. This is the third highest death rate of all St Cyr classes.
Craonne is a little village on the eastern end of the Chemin des Dames, a road built by Louis XV for his daughters. It was here 5 March 1814 that Napoleon won one of his last victories. A much larger Prussian-led Coalition army under Blucher was advancing upon Paris when they came upon the French here at the Plateau du Californie – a name that would be given to the area later in the 19th century. Outmaneuvering his opponents, Napoleon was able to stop Blucher here with some of the heaviest fighting occurring here at the Hurtebise Farm. The fighting left about 5,400 French and 5,000 Coalition casualties and while Blucher’s progress was stopped, his army got away. For Napoleon, the beginning of his end would start in earnest two days later with his defeat at Laon.
In 1917, the sides were reversed as the French were the ones trying to wrest the heights of the Chemins des Dames from the Germans with a similar lack of success. The ground to the east remains churned up and the original village of Craonne has been moved a few hundred meters away having been obliterated in the World War I fighting.