Northern Champagne was the setting for vicious fighting during WWI and the region is famous for the two battles of the Marne that took place in 1914 and 1918. Ardennes and the north-western corner of the department of the Marne remained under German occupation during the entire war. The Argonne Forest was the theatre of violent clashes and Reims suffered systematic shelling that inevitably ended in its destruction.
Today, many remnants of the conflict can still be seen. The landscapes of Champagneand have forever been marked by the bombs and trenches that scarred the land, as has the Ardennes area, now punctuated with vast necropolises and memorials erected in honour of soldiersfrom different nations.
The Treaty of Frankfurt of May 1871 once again shifted the border between France and Germany. The Champagne region was integrated into the fortified defence system designed by General Séré de Rivières and implemented between 1874 and 1880. From 1914 to 1918, northern Champagne once again became a battlefield.
Although the “progress” in weapons technology made for shorter-lived encounters, it vastly increased the amount of bloodshed and destruction. The departments of Ardennes and Marne were invaded in August and September of 1914. German forces crossed the Marne River, from Meaux to Vitry-le-François.
First Battle of the Marne
The First Victory of the Marne (5 to 12 September 1914) pushed the Germans to retreat north of Soissons and Reims. The front then stabilised, changing only slightly in 1915 and 1917 at the cost of thousands of dead and injured soldiers until the major German offensive in the spring of 1918. The victorious Germans reached the Marne River once again, between Château-Thierry and Epernay. The First Battle of the Marne caused destruction in the southern part of the department, where the armies clashed directly.
War of attrition
The war of attrition warfare that ensued for four years removed almost all life from the strip of land that survivors quickly began to call “The Red Zone”.Some hills were lowered and streams diverted from their course. Forests were reduced to a few shattered trunks and villages decimated by artillery were permanently wiped off the map, although their names have been attached to neighbouring villages that were spared.
Further east, numerous Argonne memorial sites honour the offensives of August and September 1914, the battles in the thick Argonne Forest in 1914 and 1915, and the offensive of 1918.The Camp de la Vallée Moreau in Vienne-le-Château is a remarkably well-restored German military camp.
Second Battle of the Marne
The Second Battle of the Marne (15 to 18 July 1918) resulted in the liberation of almost all of occupied Champagne (to Mézières and Sedan) before the Armistice of 11 November.
The battle took place in the western part of the department and caused much more devastation than the First Battle of the Marne. The development of artillery by both camps and knowledge of what was at stake brought the battle to an unprecedented level of violence. In just a few weeks, the villages lining the route of German resistance against the Allied Army counteroffensive were also destroyed. Their monuments, churches and castles suffered irreparable damage, with mechanised warfare seeing the first use of tanks and bomber planes in battle
End of the conflict and reconstruction
In 1918, when hostilities had come to an end, Champagne was a true battlefield: temporary railway lines and makeshift sorting stations in the middle of nowhere, millions of tangled and overlapping shell craters, trenches suffocating beneath the artificial brambles of snarled barbed wire and metal stakes.
Though restored, the Main de Massiges site has remained unchanged with its 1914-1915 mine holes and trenches.
The makeshift tombs, where the soldiers on both sides buried their fallen comrades as best as they could, had not yet been dug. The bodies of those who were never returned to their families were yet to find a final resting place in the vast military cemeteries along the fomer front line that have become so familiar to those living in the devastated Champagne countryside. The largest include the Crouée Necropolis in Souain-Perthes-les-Hurlus, which is the final resting place for more than 30,000 bodies on a 60,000 m2 plot of land, and Marfée in Noyers-Pont-Maugis.
Many historical sites and monuments commemorate the relentless combats as well as the day-to-day living of the war: Fort de la Pompelle, the only fort of the Séré de Rivières system to have been set onn fire, Fort des Ayvelles (and battery), or the fortified Château de Sedan in the Ardennes.