Thursday, 12 July 2012

To the Woods, To the Woods

7th June 
I was now riding across the limestone plateau to the south of Soissons.  Erosion of the limestone has created steep valleys bounded by low cliffs in which there are grottoes or  'creuttes' as they are called in Picardy patois. Here is an example in the village of Maast-et-Violaine...
These creuttes or crouttes have undoubtedly been used by man (and Neanderthals!) since time immemorial.  In times gone by they probably provided troglodyte dwellings for poorer members of society, and during the Great War they came into service as shelters for munitions and fighters. Nowadays the creuttes have been renovated and used for storing firewood, laying down wine, and even as garages such as in the aptly named village Les Crouttes below!
After crossing the valley at Longpont where there are the ruins of an old Cistercian abbey, Zorbee and I plunged into the immense Foret de Retz, which is a relict of the ancient forests which used to cover France.  Protected and maintained over time for hunting purposes by French royalty, it is criss-crossed by wide rides, and virtually unchanged for the last three hundred years or so.  Following GR 11A along a remote ride...
Situated between Paris and the northern French border, the forest was also the site of heavy fighting during both World wars.  A forested ridge runs east to west with a thickly wooded slope facing to the north providing a natural defence position.
On 1st September 1914, the 4th Brigade comprised of the Grenadier, Coldstream and Irish Guards, were holding the ridge and covering the retreat of the 2nd brigade when they were attacked by advancing German forces. In the ensuing fierce and confused battle in dense woodland with limited visibility, the brigade managed to withdraw to behind Villers-Cotteret to the south, but not before over 300 officers and men were killed.
Among those killed was Second Lieutenant George Edward Cecil, the only son of Lord and Lady Cecil....
An emotive memorial was erected by Lady Cecil in memory of her 18 year old son, who died when two platoons of Grenadiers were surrounded and killed at La Ronde de la Reine.  The monument can be seen by the side of the D81 road from Villers-Cotteret  Such a tragic loss of young lives, none the less poignant for having happened almost a hundred years ago....

The ridge was also a natural look-out point.  In the Second World War French General 'The Butcher' Mangin erected a high wooden observatory tower on the crest to keep watch for the enemy and oversee the progress of his 10th army.
 This stele above marks the spot where the tower once stood, and the inscription reads  "Here was erected the High Observatory from which General Mangin directed the attack of 18th July which forced the victory".   Above the inscription is engraved a pictorial representation of the tower, but unfortunately the light was falling in the wrong direction for the photo.

This grassy ride sweeps all the way down to the chateau of Villers-Cotteret in the far distance..
Postscript:  In January 2015 the forest achieved notoriety as the focus of a manhunt for the terrorist brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, who massacred a number of people in an attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

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