The origins of the Aisne-Marne canal can be traced back to the early 17th century Hugues Cosnier, the engineer behind the Briare canal, was tasked to create a small waterway between the important city of Reims and the nearby village of Sillery, around 8 kilometres south. Shortly after the French Revolution, during the period of the Directorate from 1795 to 1799, a certain Napoléon Bonaparte had the idea of connecting the Aisne and the Marne rivers. However, due to the difficult political context and a lack of interest in this idea, the canal never happened. Thirty years later, these two rivers were doubled by lateral canal: in 1841 for the Aisne, and in 1846 for the Marne. Meanwhile, there were renewed discussions on the possibility to connect these canals. This was an important question because Reims felt neglected by the waterway network. Located between the two canals, the city was only connected to them by the rivers Loivre and Vesle, but they were of insufficient capacity to support proper commercial traffic.
In 1838, a project to create four new canals in the North-East and South of the country was submitted to the government. It only retained two canals: the Garonne lateral and the Marne-Rhine canals. The project for an Aisne-Marne canal was once again brought forward, two years later. This time, it was accepted, and the construction could start in 1841. However, it proved to be much more complicated than expected.
While other similar canals took around a decade or less to be completed, the Aisne-Marne canal was finished 25 years later, in 1866. The soil was very weak, and the canal needed extensive masonry on much of its course. At Billy-le-Grand, there is a 2,302 metres-long tunnel. This structure too was difficult to construct, and it was completed in 1856. Once the canal was fully navigable, the tunnel required a steam chain-boat system for barges to pass through. This system was later replaced by an electric tractor.
Like most of the region, including local waterways, the First World War was extremely destructive. Canals and rivers were both obstacles and protections for the armies, thus they played an important strategic role. As the region was bombarded and its landscape turned into a moon-like terrain, these waterways suffered heavy damage. The Aisne lateral canal had to be almost entirely reconstructed after the war. Reims was an important target and was heavily bombarded, like its Cathedral Notre-Dame which was almost completely destroyed. The Aisne-Marne canal needed entire sections to be rebuilt. The Billy-le-Grand tunnel was cleverly used by French artillery as a hiding place. Indeed, some barges were equipped with canons. After firing, they could hide inside the tunnel to avoid being hit by counter-batteries.
A quiet cruising route, the Aisne-Marne canal is the perfect waterway to explore this region filled with history. WW1 history buffs will love the experience of exploring old battlefields and military cemeteries, while others will be enchanted to visit both old and recent churches. The green countryside offers many walking and cycling opportunities. At Reims, 18 kilometres of the old towpath have been turned into cycling and running tracks known as the Coulée Verte. The city of Reims is one of the most beautiful in the country. Once home to a Gallic people, Reims is famous for being the city where most French monarchs, from Clovis to Charles X, had their coronation ceremony. The Archbishop of Reims was one of the most important figures in France for centuries.