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The Battle of Bois des Buttes - Battlefield Tour

The 2nd Battalion The Devonshire Regiment fought at the Battle of Bois des Buttes on 27th May 1918, for which they were awarded the French Croix de Guerre. It is possible to make personal visits to the battle area using the guidelines below.

Please note that this tour guide was written a number of years ago - please check road numbers before you travel as these may have changed .  You should also check access arrangements as much of the area is now private land and used for hunting in the autumn and winter.

Introduction

In writing these tour notes, the aims are three fold. Firstly, to educate individuals or groups; secondly, to entertain and thirdly, to provoke thought and discussions as to the  relevance of the battle to soldiers today. As in the narrative, the tour starts with the Divisional level situation, moving down to paint pictures of individual actions by small groups of men.

Warnings

There are three dangers at Bois des Buttes for the visitor. The first is unexploded ordnance -  do not touch! France and Flanders still, seventy years after the war ended, suffer a depressingly large number of deaths and injuries every year from exploding shells. At Bois des Buttes if the few buried live shells don't explode when tampered with, the casing may rupture releasing gas that is still very effective, Secondly, the tunnels and dugouts that exist in parts of the wood are nearly 100 years old and unsupported by props. Anyone entering these subterranean features of the battlefield should do so appreciating the risks that they are taking. Thirdly the westerly portion of the wood is a hunting area. Enough blood has spilt at Bois des Buttes, so visitors should exercise caution and only stray from the perimeter of the wood, particularly at weekends, if you have prior clearance to do so.

Reims to .Juvincourt

Leave REIMS on the N44, sign posted to LAON. On the left is a utilitarian French Military Cemetery which testifies to the many lives lost in the area before the British arrived in 1918. Bear in mind the slightly scruffy atmosphere when the time comes to visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at LA VILLE AUX BOIS. Just before reaching the canal line, down a turning to the left, is another smaller French cemetery. The river line was 50th Division's right boundary. It was this area and BERRY AU BAC (which is the next village) that was the scene of the Germans early successes. Continue through the village to the crossroads (LE CHOLERA) which is easily identified by 2 modern French tanks and a memorial to the French Armoured Forces of 1917-1918. Turn right onto the D925, sign posted to GUIGNICOURT. The wooded area to the left is the line of the Miette Stream. In 1918 there were only a small number of shell blasted trees growing in the Valley.

As you cross  the motorway  note the open nature of this area where the front line held by the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade was only 100 metres from that of the Germans. The German front line was crammed with trench mortars, while the storm troopers waited further back in deep dugouts in the support line.

Just after entering the outskirts of GUIGNICOURT, turn left onto the D62 signposted to JUVINCOURT. Once in JUVINCOURT, turn left onto the D89 and drive through the village which had to be totally rebuilt after the war. Stop 100 metres after the last house.

Stand 1

This is the site of the German front line. Shortly after ploughing, the chalky marks in the soil show the course of the trenches. The British line, held by the 2nd Battalion, The West Yorkshire Regiment, was 250 metres further down the road. From this point the dominating nature of the German position can be appreciated. The twin pimples' of Bois des Buttes can be easily seen three kilometres away to the south west and it should be noted that from this view point the hills can be seen to be of some considerable tactical importance. Today the wood is far more extensive and developed than it was in 1918. The majority of the area North East of Bois des Buttes was swampy open land until the 1920's. 8th Division boundary with 50th Division was 800 meters to the right. Continue down the D89 to the junction with the REINS - LAON road (N44). Turn left towards REIMS and park 250 metres down the road on the left opposite LA VILLE AUX BOIS British Cemetery.

Stand 2

The cemetery, maintained by the Commonwealth War Craves Commission, was built after the Armistice and is widely thought to be one of the most poignant on the Western Front. Of the 513 soldiers buried here, 413 are unknown. Half way along the left wall is a memorial to eighteen soldiers who were buried in a number of small war time cemeteries and whose graves are lost. There are three known, and four unknown Devons in this Cemetery. They were moved from other cemeteries and it is thought that a high proportion of the other unknown dead are also Devons who died at Bois des Buttes. It is thought that the Germans burned some of the Regiments dead in the ruins of the trenches at the foot of the hill. The details of the 3 known Devons are as follows:

  • 74134 Private Albert Conarave. Born and enlisted in Birmingham. Killed in action on 13 May 1918, aged eighteen. He was killed when the Devons were holding the outpost line which they had recently taken over from the French. (Left side, Row A, Crave 12).
  • 8599 Corporal John Cadamy. Born in Devonport and enlisted in Plymouth. Died of wounds as a Prisoner of War in German hands on 1 June 1918. (Right side, Row J, Grave 9).
  • 5881 Private Mark Farrow. Born in Swaffham Prior and enlisted in London. He was listed as Killed in Action on 26 May 1918 (the day before the battle). It is interesting to speculate as to how he died as the Regiment was out of the line training/in reserve in Roucy. Maybe Farrow was killed in an accident and listed as 'Killed in Action'  for the sake of the next of kin, or maybe, as was usual for Battalions in reserve, he was one of a party of men carrying stores' up to the battalions in the Front Line and was killed by one of the few German shells fired prior to the start of the barrage.

There are four unknown Devons in the cemetery. Two are in the left half in rows J3 and in row K17. Two more flank the Great Cross at the end of the cemetery in graves A4 and Bl. On the way out, please sign the visitors book that is kept with the Register in a small stone building on the LAON side of the cemetery. If in uniform, soldiers are to face the Great Cross and salute on entering and leaving the cemetery.

The line of the N44 was in 1918 the position of 2nd Middlesex Regiment. They occupied trenches on the Intermediate Line of Battle and were attacked in the right flank and rear by Germans who had broken through further to the east around BERRY AUX BAC. The concrete walls on the LAON side were built by the Germans in 1916 when they held this area. The land would have been mostly open and marshy as far as the foot of Bois des Buttes at the time of the Battle but the Devons machine guns could not help the Middlesex due to the mist. Once the mist had cleared it was too late to help as they had already been overrun.

Drive 150 metres back towards LAON back to the crossroads and take the turning to LA VILLE-AUX-BOIS LES PONTAVERT on the D89. Once in the village, turn right and park by the little Commune Cemetery.

Stand 3

This location is forward of the Devon's position and towards the left flank. Take the track that runs between the edge of the wood and the cemetery. Do not turn left through the gate but follow the edge of the wood and field 300 metres to the top of a small rise where a smaller track enters the wood. From this point the maze of trenches occupied by 'B' Company can be seen. Without wandering too far from the edge of the wood trenches can be found that are still in places over two metres deep, which after seventy years is remarkable. Due to the depth, 'B' Company would have had difficulty in fighting from these trenches. Crouching down at the edge of the wood, it can be easily appreciated that once the mist had lifted, 'B' Company would have had an excellent field of fire. It can be seen how important it was to the Germans to remove this point of resistance in the centre of their main axis. Also to be noted is the dead ground immediately to the front from which the Germans attempted to assault the Devons left flank positions. Other points to note are the size of some of the shell holes. Similar craters would have also provided plenty of cover in the open land and cover would have been provided by several years' worth of vegetation growth. Back in the wood the difficulties of command and control, for both attackers and defenders, when fighting in trench systems can be appreciated. In the battle, Companies soon broke down into Platoons. Lieutenant Clark (6 Platoon) and Lieutenant Hill (5 Platoon) both of 'B' Company  fought back along the edge of the wood to the river line, along with the remains of their Platoons.

If you have authority to go into the wood has been given, follow the trench line 150 metres east without going up hill. This route will lead the visitor to 'D' Company's position in the centre of the Battalions position. If you do not have clearance to go into the wood, return to the transport and move to Stand 4 in the village.

Stand 4

As one passes the Marie the memorial to the 2nd Devons can be seen. It has the badge and French and English translations of General Berthelot's order of the day.  'A' Company of the 1st Battalion The Devonshire and Dorset Regiment provided a guard at a parade to re-dedicate the memorial, after it was moved to its current position, in 1977. On the wall opposite is a memorial to the 5 Battery Royal Artillery who were also awarded  the Croix de Guerre for their part in the battle. Their gun position was to the rear of the wood toward PONTAVERT. They fired on pre-planned targets when called to do so signal rockets or runners as telephone lines were destroyed. The remaining guns after the bombardment continued to fire until the gun position was overrun by German Infantry.

Continue along the D89. 100 metres into the wood is a turning and clearing on the right. Park here.

Stand 5

This road from LA VILLE AUX BOIS to PONTAVERT was vital to the Germans continuing advance. Hence the great efforts to clear the Devons from the hill. Facing back towards LA VILLE AUX BOIS 'C' Company were on the left of the road and 'D' Company to the Right.

Take the track from the parking area; 'C' Company's trenches are in the undergrowth to the right. Just before entering the quarry turn left up the hill, do not enter the quarry as the hunting area begins just beyond it. Parts of 'A' Company and Battalion Headquarters were on this, on the easterly of the two hill tops. Note the trenches and shell holes that still cover the hillside after seventy years of commercial forestry. Also in this area are a number of deep dugouts in which the Devons sheltered during  the bombardment.

Move back down to the parking area, walk down the road towards LA VILLE AUX BOIS until the edge of the wood is reached. Turn right through the undergrowth and head towards the corner of the wood following the trenches of 'D' Company's initial position facing forward (north east).

The concrete pill box at the corner of the wood was built by the Germans in 1916. Allied pill boxes normally were built with corrugated iron shuttering rather than with the wooden shuttering preferred by the Germans. The positioning of the doorway is also a give-away. No doubt this and the other pill boxes in the area helped 'D' Company survive longer than they otherwise would have done. The trenches facing east were the ones to which 'O' company re-deployed when an attack developed on the Battalion's right Flank. The wood to the south east were less well developed and formally planted in the 1920s. At the time of the battle there would have been a reasonably clear field of fire towards Pt 73, one thousand metres away across the MARIS DE LIGNY.

Return to the transport.

Stand 6

Drive on down the D89 South West towards PONTAVERT. On the right is a memorial to a French soldier killed in 1916. It is also in this area that Lt Col Anderson-Morshead deployed the remains of the Battalion across the road and engaged marching Infantry, guns and transport. Within 100m or so of this spot is where the Lieutenant Colonel Anderson-Morshead was killed and the survivors attempted to make their way to the river line.

Park in a track-way just before the road leaves the wood. The large vegetation covered bunker on the right side of the road was the Headquarters of 23 Infantry Brigade. Despite the short distance very little information got to or from Brigade Headquarters as telephone lines were quickly cut by shell fire and the runners could not make their way through the barrage.

The boundaries of this part of the wood are much as they were in 1918 except that the Southerly portion is new. It can be appreciated that once surrounded the Devons would have great difficulty in making their way across the open ground towards PONTAVERT. Some men including the wounded Adjutant, Captain Burke, managed to crawl through ditches and old trenches only to be captured in the village.

Stand 7

Drive into the village of PONTAVERT turn right onto the D925 BEAURIEUX. After 200 metres turn left onto the D19 to ROUCY. The café on the right does not seem to object to Englishmen with muddy boots and maps. Cross the river and park on the canal banks.

The problem of the double obstacle to the rear of the position can be appreciated. The bridges are replacements. The original structures were captured reasonably undamaged but needed to be supplemented by additional bridges that the Germans had to build in order to sustain the offensive. The Devons action delayed the forward of such equipment for a significant period. Brigadier Grogan with survivors from the Devons, mainly from Lieutenant Clark's Platoon, and men from other regiments held the high ground (Pt 71) and further delayed the enemy. The canal has been slightly widened and the banks improved but it was still a very significant obstacle in 1918.