Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Château-Thierry and the Arrival of the Yanks

Today Looking South: Place de l'Hôtel de ville in Foreground;
River Marne in Distance

The name of Château-Thierry, more than any other French town, will always stand out in American World War I history. Château-Thierry will always be an American shrine in France—not the old Marne city alone or chiefly but rather the American battlefields that surround the city. Château-Thierry still occupies a major position in our national military traditions, for it was there that General Pershing's forces first participated in a critical battle and first figured in a large offensive. Château-Thierry is a little town so picturesque that its smiling aspect has tempted many a traveler to break his journey on the way from Paris to Champagne.

Before the Great War

Today Looking West: Ruins of Ancient Castle; Saint-Crépin Church; AEF Memorial on Hill 204 in the Distance

In the late years of the western Roman empire, a small town called Otmus was settled on a site where the Soissons-Troyes road crossed the Marne river, today 65 miles northeast of the Eiffel Tower as the crow flies. During the 8th century, Charles Martel kept King Theuderic IV prisoner in the castle of Otmus. At this time, the town took the name of Castrum Theodorici, later transformed in Château-Thierry (Castle of Thierry, Thierry being the French or early Roman language translation of Theuderic). Later, as the castle was enhanced, it was to give the town its greatest renown. From

Château-Thierry Castle, locally known as Château de Château-Thierry, lies on a hill in the town with the same name in the Aisne department in France. The first fortification at this site was built around 720 by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel as a residence for the adolescent Merovingian king under his control; Thierry IV (Theodoric). The settlement and name of the town originated from this fortification. In 1060, Hughes Lambert leveled the top of the hill. The castle of which we see the present-day ruins was founded in the 12th century by the Counts of Champagne.


A Surviving Porte of the Castle


Château-Thierry Castle was rebuilt between 1220 and 1230 by Theobald IV, Count of Champagne, and until 1285 fell under the Lords of Coucy. After that date the castle was part of the royal domain, and then ceded in the early 15th century to Louis I, Duke of Orléans. After his death in 1407 the castle returned to the royal domain. During the 15th and 16th century the castle was adapted to the use of firearms. The town and castle were taken by the English in 1421 and in 1544 by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Duchy of Château-Thierry was later given to the Bouillon Family, who left it without proper maintenance, causing the castle to fall into ruin.

Dominated on the north by the ruined towers of the ancient castle, the town lies closely nestled in a valley, between the wooded sides of which winds the River Marne. Approaching from the east, the Marne bends sharply upon passing the town, as if to avoid a bare knoll known as Hill 204, which bars its direct course to the west. At no point more than 70 meters wide, the river is too deep to be forded. The Marne meanders through a lovely valley walled in by two parallel ranges of hills. East of the town the crests of these lie about two kilometers apart, a narrow plain stretching along the base of the hills on the southern bank. South of the town the valley expands to a greater breadth. The valley slopes ascend from the northern banks of the Marne to a plateau about 500 feet above the river.

Château-Thierry Market, 1879 by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte

Château-Thierry, a small market town with a population of 8,000 in 1914, still bears signs of it regal heritage. It is an attractive town of stone buildings whose winding streets, rise terrace-like above the other, paralleling the river. Below the edge of the plateau, the ancient chateau, with crenellated and bastioned walls, rears itself above the trees and gardens which surround it. From the old castle, a wonderful panorama of hills, ridges, valleys, rivers, towns, villages, and hamlets is seen. Along the main boulevard at the level of the river there are many lovely houses with walled gardens. The steeple of 15th-century Saint-Crépin church is still the tallest structure in the town. Château-Thierry was once the home of the poet and writer of fables, Jean de la Fontaine.

There are four roads that radiate from Château-Thierry: one up the north bank of the Marne, one to Soissons, one to Fere-en-Tardenois, and one to La Ferté and Paris. Because of it riverside and crossroads position Chateau-Thierry has been a strategic location historically and has seen many battles  and sieges before the Great War. It was was captured by the English in 1421; by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1544; and by the duke of Mayenne in 1591.  The town was sacked during an  important battle  in 1814. The Battle of Château-Thierry saw the Imperial French Army commanded by Emperor Napoleon attempt to destroy a Prussian corps led by Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg and an Imperial Russian corps under Fabian Wilhelm von Osten-Sacken. The two allied corps managed to escape across the Marne River but suffered considerably heavier losses than the pursuing French. This action occurred during the Six Days' Campaign, a series of victories that Napoleon won over Prussian field marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher's Army of Silesia. A century later, another Germanic army would approach the town.

Château-Thierry During the First World War

Prewar Street Scene in Château-Thierry

September 1914

On 2 September 1914, the town was almost encircled by the Germans. While the German batteries posted above Courteau  were firing on the railway station across the river and the Place-du-Champ-de-Mars, their troops debouched by the Essommes and Paris roads at about five in the afternoon. The French fell back at 11 p.m. On 3 September, German troops pillaged the town. On the 9th, the Franco-British troops relieved the town.

May–July 1918

Three days into  the third German offensive of 1918, rapidly advancing German forces were approaching Château-Thierry and only minimal French forces were available to defend the town and the bridges crossing the Marne. On 31 May, machine gunners from the U.S. 3rd Division were placed at the disposal of the French commander, who was defending the town, which was in danger of being outflanked. They were hardly out of the trucks when they were rushed into the battle in support of the French Colonials. At 9 p.m. on 1 June   the Germans, under cover of night, and protected by a dense smoke screen, counterattacked, creeping along the riverside toward the great bridge, the defense of which had been entrusted to the Americans, with orders to hold it until the Colonials, who were fighting on the far side of the river, should fall back. This they did until the last of the French troops had passed over, when they withdrew. When the Germans debouched in front of the bridge, the latter blew up, and the few who had succeeded in crossing before the explosion were taken prisoner by the Americans, who had calmly posted their guns on the south bank of the river. 

An American Soldier Surveys the Damage to 
Château-Thierry from the South Bank of the Marne

This action was actually the first of four operations, that historians sometimes aggregate, sometimes selectively pick or ignore, to label the "Battle of Château-Thierry." In my reckoning, there were Four Battles at Château-Thierry.

1. The Defense Along the Marne River at Château-Thierry (3rd U.S. Division)

2. The Ongoing Struggle for Hill 204 (two French divisions; elements 3rd and 28th U.S. Divisions)

3. The Battle for Belleau Wood (4th Marine Brigade and 2nd Engineers, 2nd U.S. Division; elements 3rd U.S. Division)

4. The Capture of Vaux (3rd Brigade, 2nd U.S. Division) 

By the completion of these four elements on 18 July 1918, Château-Thierry had become the place that made the world aware that the United States' commitment to winning the war was wholehearted and included a willingness to sacrifice American lives in pursuit of that victory.


  1. Excellent job showing how much history is compressed in that town.

  2. American war correspondent Don Martin (my grandfather) reported a lot about Chateau Thierry. In his Thursday, June 6, 1918, dispatch to the New York Herald (published June 7), he wrote:
    “The beautiful city of Chateau-Thierry, marking the vital point where the Huns failed to cross the Marne, is now No Man’s Land. At this place I saw the captured Germans who were stopped in the bold rush across the river by the American machine gunners, who thus had their first taste of actual battle.
    The heroic stand of these men is the subject of glowing tributes by the French. That they are entirely justified I can attest, for I saw them standing at the foot of the streets, all of which lead to the Marne, firm in their determination to stop the maddened march of the Hun hordes, outnumbering the defenders four to one, or to die to a man.
    They waited propitiously, then turned loose a tornado of lead, leaving the streets strewn with German dead and wounded. Like Jaulgonne and also at Neuilly their action is sure to be an inspiration in years to come.”
    Don Martin’s diary entry for Sunday, July 21, 1918 included: “Visited Chateau Thierry which the Germans evacuated last night.” At Château-Thierry, Don Martin saw a large number of looted and wrecked private residences. He reported the following list of what the Germans did in one single home (The New York Times current history: the European war, Volume 17 - page 4):
    Threw an inkbottle against a seven-foot mirror, afterward splashing ink on the walls and ceiling.
    Jammed a bayonet through the works of five handsome marble clocks.
    Tore covers and blocks of pages from costly volumes and strew more than 500 books about the floor, practically ruining a library which was very evidently the pride of a booklover.
    Tore a Teddy bear in two; pulled arms and legs from large dolls; smashed a doll cradle and generally wrecked a child's nursery.
    Smashed all the china in a cabinet and a cupboard and shattered expensive glassware.
    Slit oil paintings and stamped holes in pictures, which had been torn from the walls and left on the floor.
    Broke the keys on a costly piano.
    Knocked tops off vases and fancy urns.
    Slit tapestries and curtains to ribbons.
    Threw bottles against handsomely decorated walls and poured various kinds of sauces and other liquids on expensive rugs and carpets.
    Rifled every drawer In the house; blew open a small safe; threw trinkets and fancy articles of wearing apparel all over.
    Wrecked beds, dresses, and mirrors in all the sleeping rooms.
    Posted by James Larrimore.