Chapter 25 Second Marne – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 25 Second Marne

In This Chapter
  • Foch gambles on a Marne counteroffensive
  • The Americans gallantly spearhead the Second Battle of the Marne
  • Ludendorff blunders at Amiens
  • The kaiser’s son tells his father that the war is lost
  • August 8, 1918: the German army’s “Black Day”

The failure of the Champagne-Marne Offensive, the fifth of Erich Ludendorff’s great offensives, severely demoralized the German army. German losses were indeed staggering, but for the Allies they were actually even heavier. That they had managed to inflict more casualties than they received brought no encouragement to the Germans. Ludendorff had promised his troops and his government that total victory would result from a powerful offensive. In light of the promise, the failure of five offensives seemed that much greater. Worse, the offensives had cost Germany its best soldiers—those trained as shock troops—and they were now being replaced by men from the rear, reservists, and even former prisoners of war returned from Russia. None of these had much fight in them.

Also taking its toll by mid-1918 was the merciless British naval blockade. Ersatz goods could make up for only so many needs. Shortages were now critical. Food supplies for soldiers were meager, and for civilians even worse. When equipment wore out or was destroyed, it became increasingly difficult to replace.

Despite recent losses, with a quarter-million to 300,000 American troops arriving in Europe every month, the Allies were reinvigorated. Defeatism was dissolving into a hunger for victory. Yet four years of war had made the Allies wary of acting too quickly. The leaders who had once advocated such doctrines as “attack to the uttermost” were now willing to put off final victory for another year or more.

Turning Point: The Second Battle of the Marne

On the eve of the German offensives, the European Allies had clamored for the immediate piecemeal deployment of American troops. Pershing resisted. Now that the offensives had been crushed, Allied feelings of urgency gave way to a belief that Pershing had been right. The French and British, somewhat encouraged but overwhelmingly battle-weary, resolved to hold off the final push until the Americans had arrived in their millions. For their part, the British had been sufficiently impressed by the potential of the tank as a weapon capable of overcoming the trench that they also wanted to delay a final push until tanks had been produced in sufficient quantity to make a real impact.

 Words of War A counteroffensive is aggressive action in response to an attack, as opposed to merely protective or defensive action.

Historical hindsight is always clearer than the vision of those who live the moment. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of war. It seems clear to us, looking back, that the Germans were clearly headed for defeat by July 1918. To most of the French people and government, however, worn down by so much bloodletting and unwilling hosts to a German invasion of four years’ duration, the five recent German offensives felt like fresh French defeats. Ludendorff had thrust toward Paris to divert resources from the north, where his intended principal target was the British army. As the French saw it, though, Paris was in real danger of falling. As they had done in August 1914, the government began to make plans for evacuation.

General Ferdinand Foch saw the situation more clearly. He had been holding out, waiting for a maximum American buildup, but now he saw an opportunity he could not afford to miss. He resolved to turn the fifth German offensive into an occasion of Allied counterattack.

The Rock of the Marne

The successful defense against the fifth of Ludendorff’s offensives, the Champagne-Marne Offensive, also called the Peace Offensive, may be seen as the first phase of the Second Battle of the Marne.

One of the key elements that allowed this Allied defense to be converted into a counteroffensive was the action of the U.S. Third Division, in particular the 38th Infantry of that division, which we met briefly in Chapter 24, “New Blood,” as the “Rock of the Marne.” That this regiment was able to defend a large loop of the river enabled the Third Division to beat back every German thrust. Where the Third Division defended, no German unit made it across the Marne, and this continual repulse ultimately moved General Ludendorff to break off the offensive along the river.

Foch Versus Pétain

The majority of Ferdinand Foch’s colleagues did not interpret Ludendorff’s withdrawal from the Marne as a German defeat. They interpreted it as a tactical withdrawal, temporary in nature. Foch, however, saw it for what it was: the desperate action of a battered, demoralized enemy. Moreover, on July 17, 1918, Foch further divined that Ludendorff was pulling troops away from the Marne sector, which had threatened Paris, to send them north against the British positions.

 From the Front By July 1918, Ludendorff estimated that 200,000 replacements were required each month. By drawing on those about to turn 18 years old, a total of 300,000 recruits were available for the entire current year. German hospitals were returning 70,000 convalescents to the ranks each month.

In this great transfer of resources, Foch saw an opportunity. He decided that the time was now ripe for an Allied counteroffensive in earnest, and he understood that it must be launched before the Germans could commence their offensive against the British. This was no time to wait for tanks or for more Americans.

Foch rolled the dice. He concentrated his forces around the Marne salient, the bulge of German penetration, and decided to leave the British armies of Douglas Haig exposed before the growing German concentration to the north. The trick was to allow Ludendorff to weaken the Marne sector while Foch built it up, and then to attack before Ludendorff had concentrated enough troops in the north to overwhelm Haig.

 Voices of Battle “The will to conquer is the first condition of victory.”

—Ferdinand Foch, in Foch Speaks, 1929

Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain strenuously disagreed with his colleague over just how the counterattack should be mounted. The two commanders puzzled over their maps. A salient is a bulge, an outcropping of enemy strength. Expressed in geometric terms, it is a rough arc. Pétain advocated an attack across the chord, or base, of the arc. This would require the transfer and massing of large numbers of Allied troops along the west face of the German salient. Given sufficient time, it was a very sound tactic that could entrap the Germans as in a big sack that was pinched and tied by closing it up along its chord. Driven by what he himself had called in one of his famous military textbooks the “spirit of the offensive,” Foch believed that there was no time for movement of troops and that instead the counteroffensive should come not at the chord, but all along the great arc of the salient.

It would be the kind of brute-force frontal assault that the French had tried so often earlier in the war and that had been so disastrously unsuccessful. Pétain was understandably worried.

 Combatants Douglas Haig (1861–1926) was born in Edinburgh to the wealthy family of a distiller. After an Oxford education, he enrolled at Sandhurst, the British army’s military academy, from which he graduated at the top of his class in 1885. He served with distinction in India and Egypt, then in the Second (Great) Anglo-Boer War, in which he commanded the 17th Lancers, known as the “Death or Glory Boys.”

At the outbreak of World War I, Haig commanded I Corps of the BEF under his former commander, Sir John French. He fought at Mons (August 23, 1914) and the Marne (September 5–9), as well as in Picardy and Artois during the Race to the Sea (October–November). In February 1915, Haig was appointed commander of First Army, and directed a moderately successful major attack at Neuve-Chapelle during March 10–13. During May 9–26, he launched another offensive, in Artois, but was stopped at Festubert. Hitting German positions at Loos during September 26–October 14 resulted in negligible gains and severe losses.

Blame for the disappointing performance of the BEF during the opening months of the war fell not on Haig, but on French. Haig replaced him on December 17, 1915, and immediately set about planning a massive British offensive at the Somme in an effort to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun. The result was punishing both to the Germans and to the BEF, which incurred heavy losses during June 24–November 13, 1916. Nevertheless, Haig was promoted to field marshal at the end of 1916.

Placed under command of French General Robert Georges Nivelle, Haig launched a moderately successful attack at Arras during April 9–15, 1917. Expecting major German offensives in Flanders early in 1918, Haig called for 600,000 reinforcements. He received a mere 100,000 troops, and the German Somme offensive nearly destroyed the British Fifth Army. When German General Erich Ludendorff pressed his second offensive around the Lys River during April 9–17, the British lines nearly dissolved again. Haig rallied his troops, who ultimately halted the German advance, and directed a counterattack at Amiens during August 8–11, which was a breakthrough. Haig directed the last Allied attacks in Flanders from September until the armistice. After the war, he worked tirelessly for the welfare and relief of veterans.

To the north, the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, was also deeply concerned. The decision to mass against the Germans in the south precisely when it was clear that they were preparing to attack in the north was a gamble of desperate proportions. At stake was nothing less than all the British troops under Haig’s command, now vulnerable to a massive attack.

The Allies Strike Back

In the midst of the shifting of German troops from the Marne salient, the major thrust of the Allied counteroffensive began. It was 4:35 on the morning of July 18—one of the war’s many predawn sallies “over the top.” In the past, such ventures, begun with a mixture of hope and terror, typically ended in death and the tragic fruitlessness of continued stalemate.

This time it would be different.

The French Tenth, Sixth, and Fifth armies, from left to right along the front, made the assault, while the French Ninth Army waited in reserve. The Tenth was commanded by General Charles Marie Emmanuel Mangin. He had been born in 1866 in the village of Sarrebourg, in Lorraine, territory lost to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. He was spoiling for revenge, and he was the kind of soldier equipped to exact it. Boundlessly aggressive and courageous, he had fought before World War I primarily in the colonial service, against rebellious natives. Always leading from the very front of the front, he had been seriously wounded three times during colonial service.

On the Western Front, he was as unsparing of his men as he was of himself. Those outside his command called him “butcher” and “eater of men.” Yet his own troops, many of them Africans from his former colonial command, loved him and willingly laid down their lives for him. Mangin himself displayed no fear. He was precisely the kind of general that Foch needed for his brute-force gamble.

 Words of WarFriendly fire refers to shells or other missiles that inadvertently fall on one’s own position or troops.

Mangin’s main attack was preceded by the advance of General Jean M.J. Degoutte’s Sixth Army. Degoutte’s advance and that of Mangin were coordinated with a rolling artillery barrage. In the past, this tactic, which called for a very brief artillery preparation followed by artillery firing just ahead of the advancing troops, had frequently failed. It was always very difficult to synchronize the rate of the artillery fire with the rate of the infantry’s advance. Fire too far ahead of the infantry, and the effect of the barrage would be minimal. Fire too close to the advancing troops, and they would become victims of friendly fire.

This time the rolling barrage technique worked perfectly. Moreover, by limiting artillery preparation, Foch had achieved total surprise. In following his gut instinct, he had also timed the attack exquisitely. The German commanders were indeed focused on shifting troops to the north. This had left the salient relatively weakly defended by second-line troops—yet, at the same time, there were hardly sufficient numbers of Germans on their way north to menace the British. Foch had found his moment, and he seized it.

 From the Front A U.S. Army division at this time consisted of 28,000 men and was divided into 2 brigades of 2 infantry regiments and 1 machine-gun battalion each; 1 field artillery brigade of 3 regiments; 1 engineer regiment; and 1 signal battalion.

There was more wrong with the German response. Advancing Allied troops noted that defensive structures—trenches and barbed wire—were poorly constructed or entirely absent. Within the German trench lines, sanitation had broken down: Latrines had not been built, and bodies remained unburied. Clearly, German discipline and morale were disintegrating.

The Yanks Weigh In

The main attack, by Mangin’s Tenth Army, was spearheaded not by Frenchmen, but by Americans of the U.S. First and Second divisions. The First Division encountered no fewer than seven German divisions, defeating all of them and taking some 3,800 prisoners as well as 70 guns. The Second Division took 3,000 German prisoners, together with 75 guns.

Other U.S. outfits also fought valiantly, six other divisions in all.

Ludendorff Withdraws

While the French and Americans waded into the German line, Ludendorff, headquartered at Mons, was preparing his final instructions for the assault on the British positions to the north. He was interrupted by the first reports of the Allied counterattack. He reluctantly ordered two of his reserve divisions to respond and then had to order an additional two.

But the news only got worse for Ludendorff. He was forced to order indefinite post-ponement of the assault on the British; with his rail lines and roads now under attack, Ludendorff had no choice but to order a complete withdrawal from the Marne salient.

Ludendorff began the withdrawal across the Marne on the night of July 18. The French units to the east of the salient were impeded by difficult terrain and could not keep up with the units on the west face of the salient. This allowed the withdrawal of the bulk of the German troops that had occupied the salient. Although German casualties were heavy—including the loss of 30,000 prisoners and some 800 guns—the German armies were intact on August 6, when Marshal Pétain prevailed in his decision to call off the counteroffensive.

It was an understandable decision; despite the success of the counteroffensive, Allied losses had been high. Moreover, the Germans had retreated to their most thoroughly prepared defensive positions. Long and bitter experience had proven the futility of making a frontal assault on these.

Amiens Offensive

Whether Pétain’s caution was wise is open to debate; however, Ludendorff interpreted the reluctance to press the counteroffensive as a sign that the action had been an isolated incident. He concluded, hopefully, that there would be no further attacks. Armed with nothing more than his own conclusion, Ludendorff resolved to mount a new offensive.

Ludendorff’s rival, the German Crown Prince, known derisively as “Little Willie,” responded to the idea of a new offensive by sending a letter to his father, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The war is lost, the letter declared. Let us accept whatever peace terms are dictated. Paul von Hindenburg attempted to mediate the extremes of Ludendorff’s and Little Willie’s positions. There would be no new German offensive, but the war would go on.

 Voices of Battle “Monotonously, the lorries sway, monotonously come the calls, monotonously falls the rain. It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead up the line, on the body of the little recruit with the wound that is so much too big for his hip; it falls on Kemmerich’s grave; it falls in our hearts.”

—Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929

Just before initiating the counteroffensive on the Marne, General Foch had proposed to British General Haig that his armies coordinate an offensive on the southern flank of the German’s Lys River salient. Flanders, Haig responded, was awash in mud during August and the early autumn. Mounting an effective offensive under such conditions was suicidal. He proposed instead Anglo-French collaboration in an attack east of Amiens in northwestern France, along the Somme River. The objective was to free up the rail network in the area.

Foch agreed and, in a demonstration of the new spirit of unity of command, placed the French First Army under Haig’s direction. Haig, in turn, chose the British Fourth Army, under General Henry Rawlinson, to operate in conjunction with the French First.

 From the Front The authorized strength of a German infantry division was 9,000 men. At Amiens, German divisions consisted of a mere 3,000 men each. War had taken its toll. U.S. divisions consisted of 28,000 men each.

Rawlinson preserved absolute secrecy in concentrating 15 infantry and 3 cavalry divisions along a 14-mile front weakly held by 6 under-strength German divisions. Two thousand guns were massed, together with 17 air squadrons, and almost the entire British tank corps, 604 tanks of all types; however, no artillery preparation preceded the assault. Rawlinson had learned the value of surprise.

A “Black Day” for the German Army

The British advance on August 8 was led by Canadian and ANZAC (Australian-New Zealand Army Corps) infantry, preceded by tanks, and protected by a thick blanket of fog. On their right, the French assault was preceded by a brief artillery preparation.

The Allies rolled over the Germans, taking more than 15,000 prisoners and capturing 400 guns.

 Words of WarANZAC was the acronym for the Australian-New Zealand Army Corps and was also used to refer to a member of that corps. More familiarly, ANZAC troops were called “diggers.”

In his memoirs, written after the Armistice, Erich Ludendorff would call August 8 the “Black Day” of the German army. It was to this day that he traced the beginning of his nation’s defeat.

Yet still the Germans refused to give up. They reestablished a position 10 miles behind what had been the nose of the salient. On August 10, however, the French Third Army, under General Georges Humbert, pushed the Germans out of Montdidier. Yet on the next day, Douglas Haig, in the past all too eager to press the attack almost heedless of cost, now exercised caution. Against Foch’s wish that he maintain unremitting pressure on the Germans, Haig paused to regroup his forces.

“The War Must Be Ended”

For Winston Churchill, who had participated in the Amiens Offensive, the sure sign that the German army was falling apart could be read on the faces of the POWs. The captured officers were stoically grim, but the enlisted prisoners smiled with barely contained expressions of relief and even jubilation. For them, the war was over. The concepts of victory and defeat had ceased to have meaning. The only thing that mattered to them was that the war had ended.

The offensive picked up again on August 21, when the British Third Army, on the left, and the French armies, on the right, resumed the attack. On the 22nd, the British Fourth came racing up the center, followed by the British First on the far left. Under this enormous pressure, the German positions crumbled. Ludendorff ordered a withdrawal not only from the Lys salient up in Flanders, but also from Amiens, to the south, in France.

Then the ANZACs struck, advancing across the Somme during August 30–31. They took the German-held village of Péronne and menaced St.-Quentin. Next, a Canadian corps forced its way through the German lines near Quéant on September 2. What had started as an orderly strategic withdrawal for the Germans turned into a full-out retirement, a withdrawal all the way to their last-ditch position: the Hindenburg Line.

As a result of the Amiens Offensive, the Germans suffered casualties numbering in excess of 100,000 killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Some 22,000 British soldiers and 20,000 French were killed or wounded. It was an unalloyed Allied victory. Great advances had been made—the long Western Front stalemate had been irrevocably ended.

Perhaps even greater was the psychological victory, a source of elation to the Allies and utter misery to the Germans. Even the supremely tenacious Erich Ludendorff now declared, “The war must be ended!”

The Least You Need to Know
  • Ferdinand Foch, in overall command of Allied troops on the Western Front, turned the bloody but successful defense against Ludendorff’s fifth offensive into an Allied counteroffensive, which drove the Germans back from the Marne salient.
  • Reluctantly, General Pershing had committed some American troops to the defense against Ludendorff; now they spearheaded the counteroffensive at the Second Battle of the Marne.
  • When Pétain ordered a halt to the counteroffensive, Ludendorff mistakenly assumed that the Allies would break off offensive action. The result of this miscalculation was a stunning defeat at Amiens, after which the Germans retired to their last-ditch defensive works, the Hindenburg Line.
  • Together, the Second Battle of the Marne and the Amiens Offensive constituted the definitive turning point of the war. Ludendorff would mount no more offensives.