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Post Info TOPIC: Ploisy-Chazelle: What's in a name?


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Ploisy-Chazelle: What's in a name?

Another in our occasional series “Let’s Take a Closer Look at That.”

A further examination of the debut of the Renault FT. It is a truth universally acknowledged that this took place on May 31st, 1918 at Ploisy-Chazelle. From Steve Zaloga down, any self-respecting account says that such is the case. I've found it in The Fighting Tanks Since 1916 by Jones, Rarey, & Icks, published in 1933. I shouldn't be surprised if someone has an earlier reference.

The trouble is that there is no such place.

If you google "Ploisy-Chazelle" (in inverted commas), you get six pages of results - but they are exclusively references to the FT's first action, and nothing else. Ploisy-Chazelle seems to exist only in this context. That is grounds for suspicion. It looks as if we have a clone on our hands.

If you google Ploisy Chazelle you get rather more, including both French and American accounts of the retaking of the area in July, in which Ploisy and Chazelle are described as separate places. But what type of location? They are described variously as villages, ravines, marshes, or swamps. So what and where are or were these two locations?

We can establish that Ploisy is, whatever else it might be, a village. There are some very nice aerial photos of it here. Population has been 80-something  over the last 50 years, though I haven't been able to find out the population 1914-18. It's at top centre of the map, with Chaudun, where the FTs began their advance, on the left.


But there's no sign of Chazelle.

Now, our friend Michel has procured a map of the area drawn up by the opposing German forces, the Württembergisches Gebirgs-Regiment, showing the positions on May 31st. Chazelle is clearly visible, east of Chaudun and south of Ploisy, and appears to be a substantial settlement, by the standards of the area.


That seems to be the problem solved. In fact other maps in Michel's article actually show the location of individual buildings in Chazelle:

But our problems are only just beginning. Chazelle must be somewhere in the rectangle here:


but nothing is shown on the map at this magnification.

But if you google one of the nearby villages (Ploisy, Berzy-le-Sec, or Chaudun) plus Chazelles (with an 's'), something very unhelpful happens:


Chazelle seems not only to have an 's' on the end, but to be a road rather than a place, and also a wood. This is all very perplexing.

Is this just a mistake by Google Maps? It seems not. Chazelles with an 's' is signposted, where the road forks away from the D179.



Unfortunately, there's no street view of the road itself, so we can't investigate via the internet, but there is clearly something there called Chazelles. But what?

If we go right to the end of that road, there are some buildings:


This doesn't seem to be a farm, because farms in the area are specifically named as such in accounts of the fighting. Can't tell if it's all one property or a group of separate dwellings. The orderly arrangement of trees suggests orchards, i.m.o. But we shall return to this matter. 

Next question: If it's called Chazelles now, why was it Chazelle in 1918? Well, according to some, it wasn't. This really gets complicated now.

It is helpful at this point to explain the French system of local government and the rules for the naming of places.

The commune is the smallest administrative district of local government in France. In rural locations such as the one under discussion, there is a central village ( the chef-lieu) which is responsible for the other settlements within the commune's boundaries. Chazelle/s lies within the commune of Berzy-le-Sec. Ploisy and Chaudun are each the chef-lieu of their own commune.

Now, these settlements can be one or more of a number of things:

Village needs no explanation. Hameau translates as "hamlet" and seems to be the equivalent of the English hamlet (i.e. a settlement without a church). There's also the écart, an isolated settlement, which appears to be interchangeable with hameau. What a dépendance and a carrière habitée are I don't know, but I don't think it's important. What is important is the category lieu-dit, because it's possible that that's what Chazelle/s is. Definition: "A French toponymic term for a small geographical area bearing a traditional name. The name usually refers to some characteristic of the place, its former use, a past event, etc. A lieu-dit may be uninhabited, or inhabited for only part of the year, which distinguishes it from an hameau, which is inhabited."

According to this site this place was Chazelle in 1372, Chasselle in 1471, and since 1501 Chazelles with an 's'.

But according to this it was previously Chezelles, and is now Chazelle, an "hameau dépendant de Berzy-Le-Sec." although it's described in many sources as a lieu-dit.

So Chazelle or Chazelles might be a hamlet, a locality, a sunken road (un chemin creux), or, according to some, mostly American, reports . . . a ravine.

That is odd, because most of us can tell a village from a ravine. But this might just be a linguistic problem. To western Europeans (which most friends of Landships are) a ravine conjures up the Wild West or treacherous polar ice-fields. I think we'd be more likely to use a gentler word, like valley, dale, or one of these. That feels a bit more comfortable. So what these descriptions mean is: a) the village of Ploisy and the valley within which it lies, and, rather less neatly, b) the valley that is or that contains Chazelle/s.

Just in case we have a proper geologist among our number, I've found these stats: The altitude of the town hall of Ploisy is 100 metres; minimum and maximum altitude of Ploisy are 73 m and 166 m. Maybe that does constitute a ravine, but I'd welcome any competent views on the matter. At least it gives us an idea of what the terrain was like, and with the help of these maps we can picture what the troops and the FTs had to negotiate:


So both locations are in valleys with thickly wooded slopes on either side.

Putting together all of the above, I think we can now interpret descriptions of the area rather better. Concerning not the début of the FT but the allied offensive in the area on July 19th, Jennings C. Wise wrote in The Turn of the Tide, American Operations at Cantigny, Chateau Thierry, And the Second Battle of the Marne, p169:

"The 153rd French Division was ordered to press forward, and the 1st U. S. Division was to establish itself on the line from the western edge of the Ploisy
ravine to the head of the Chazelle ravine." I would suggest that we can now visualise what the author intends to convey.

Interestingly, he also says: "The French tanks, which had rendered excellent service the preceding day, failed to clear the way on the left, being unable to penetrate into the ravine of Ploisy, and again the 153rd French Division failed to take that part of the Missy-aux-Bois ravine which lay in its sector." These were, btw, Schneiders, not FTs. 

Was that because of enemy resistance, the steepness of the gradient, thick woodland, or soft/boggy ground?


Just one more thing, sir.

A few days ago, I emailed the town hall at Berzy-le-Sec, asking if they could throw any light on the matter. I have yet to receive, as they say, the courtesy of a reply. It seems their town halls operate in much the same way as ours. But by a remarkable coincidence, in May of this year, the council of Berzy elected a new mayor, for a term of six years. His name is Christian Deulceux, and his address is . . . . Hameau de Chazelle, 02200, Berzy-le-Sec. You can even find his phone number with very little effort. He lives in the group of buildings that might or might not be Chazelle/s at the end of the track that also might or might not be Chazelle/s. He clearly considers the settlement to be un hameau but, astoundingly, Chazelle, without the 's', appears in connection with M. Deulceux in numerous council documents. Yet every day he must drive past the road sign that informs him he lives in Chazelles with an 's.'

Of course, our friend Michel lives in Picardie. Being virtually on the doorstep, he might volunteer to make some inquiries . . . .

So this all turned out to be more complicated than I expected. It seems odd that in the 21st century, in western Europe, there is a human settlement and we don't know exactly where it is, what it is, or what it's called.

What we do know, though, is that for 80 years or so nobody seems to have bothered to check that there is a place called Ploisy-Chazelle. As I said in the previous post, it was, at best, an operational area, just as there is nowhere called Fleurs-Courcelette.

Anyway, I hope that this increases the sum of human knowledge. If anyone wants to add/argue, please feel free.

-- Edited by James H on Thursday 11th of September 2014 03:22:16 PM


"Sometimes things that are not true are included in Wikipedia. While at first glance that may appear like a very great problem for Wikipedia, in reality is it not. In fact, it's a good thing." - Wikipedia.

Field Marshal

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Bonjour James,

If the French tanks don't fight in the ravines (and not only in these one) it was for steepness of the gradient

and, of course, for the enemy resistance.

About Chazelles, you have forgotten a transcription of the name . . . . .

On Géoportail IGN (Carte de Cassini from XVIII° century) the Hameau was called "Chazel",

On Géoportail IGN (Carte d'Etat-Major 1/40000° from the end of XIX° century) the Hameau was called "Chazel",

and, South of "Chazel", the village (now called "L'échelle") was called "Chazelles" !

On French carte d'Etat-Major 1/80000°, the Hameau is written "Chazelle",

and, South of this "Chazelle", the village is well called "L'échelle" (as now).

On French 1/20000° from the war, the Hameau is written "Chazelle"

On British military map 1/100000° (on Mc Master University maps)

On Géoportail IGN (Carte d'Etat-Major 1/25000°) the Hameau is now called "Chazelles",

and this Hameau is inside the COMMUNE of "Berzy-le-Sec with, also, the village of "L'échelle".

In July 1918, Ploisy and Chazelle was always named together, in reports and documents,

because it was a gate between the two deep ravines from Ploisy and Chazelles.

I well known this very beautiful ravine and I am now sure that it is not by this way that captured Renault FT came down towards Noyant-et-Aconin.

Bonne après-midi - Michel




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Merci, Michel. It is, indeed, complicated.

I still don't understand why the signpost says Chazelles but the maps from 1918 say Chazelle (and monsieur le maire gives it as his address). Whatever it has been called over the centuries, surely it hasn't changed since WWI? One would think that the commune would signpost it correctly, but you would also expect the military to be accurate. Which do you favour?

I don't doubt that the term Ploisy-Chazelle was used to refer to the sector. That makes perfect sense. I just don't think that people writing about it later have realised that. It looks, I think, as if they assume there was an actual village called Ploisy-Chazelle. I know it's only a very minor point, but I always think it's worth checking things out rather than cutting and pasting. Remember Captain George Patton and the Battle of Cambrai . . .

I think anyone writing nowadays should make it clear that these are two separate locations between which the events happened. That gives the reader a much better impression of what happened - that the action was spread over an area of Front rather than concentrated on one location. But how would you phrase it? "Between the village of Ploisy and" . . . ? Would you say Chazelle/s is un hameau or un lieu-dit or something else? Is it the houses, the road, or the locality? And are they in un ravin, un vallon, or une vallée?

Your historical, cultural, and linguistic knowledge greatly required.





"Sometimes things that are not true are included in Wikipedia. While at first glance that may appear like a very great problem for Wikipedia, in reality is it not. In fact, it's a good thing." - Wikipedia.

Field Marshal

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"Between the village of Ploisy and Chazelle's hameau"

Chazelle is well a "Hameau".

If you look at the 1-40000° map, you will see that Chazelle was bigger.

A "Hameau" is, some times, a old village who lost many houses

The "Moulin de Laffaux" on the Chemin des Dames" is a "lieu dit".

At Laffaux, the windmill was destroyed at the end of the XVIII° century.

The French tank monument from Berry-au-Bac was built on the "ferme du Choléra" crossroads, who is also a "lieu dit".

There was no farm on this point since . . . . . ? ?



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Thanks, Michel.

I understand "lieu-dit" much better now. But I still don't understand why it was "Chazelle" in 1918 and seems to be "Chazelles" today.


"Sometimes things that are not true are included in Wikipedia. While at first glance that may appear like a very great problem for Wikipedia, in reality is it not. In fact, it's a good thing." - Wikipedia.

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