In December 1916 Robert Nivelle replaced Joseph Joffre as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. Nivelle argued that a massive onslaught on German lines would bring victory in 48 hours. The French War Minister, Hubert Lyautey, General Henri-Philippe Petain and Sir Douglas Haig were all opposed to the plan. When Aristide Briand, the French prime minister supported Robert Nivelle, Lyautey resigned from office.
The Nivelle Offensive was launched in April 1917 and involved a million French soldiers on a broad front between Royle and Reims. This included a massive assault on German positions along the River Aisne. On 16th April, 19 divisions of the French Fifth and Sixth Armies, under the command of General Charles Mangin, attacked the German frontline. The German Seventh Army had little difficulty defending its entrenched positions and the French suffered over 40,000 casualties on the first day. The French Army also lost 150 Char Schneider tanks. Nivelle's use of a creeping barrage failed to protect his advancing soldiers.
Nivelle refused to accept his strategy was not working and full-scale attacks continued until 20th April. Small gains were made by General Charles Mangin, west of Soissons, but the major breakthrough that Nivelle expected did not take place. Further attacks were ordered and by 5th May, a 4km stretch of the Chemin des Dames Ridge was secured. By the time the 2nd Battle of the Aisne came to an end on 9th May, the French Army had suffered 187,000 casualties. Robert Nivelle was sacked a week later.
Where: The Aisne-Marne Sector, 75 Miles Northeast of Paris
In a Triangular Area Bounded by Chateau-Thierry, Soissons and Reims
Check the Location on a Map of the Western Front
When: July 15 - September 16, 1918
AEF Units Participating: Nine U.S. Divisions Under French Command, Coordinated by Marshal Ferdinand Foch
Click Here To See a List of U.S. Divisions and Their Commanders
Opposing Forces: German First, Third, Seventh and Ninth Armies
Memorable For: Starting with the Last German Offensive of the Great War and Becoming the Allies' First Victorious Offensive of 1918
The Second Battle of the Marne marked the turning of the tide in World War I. It began with the last German offensive of the conflict and was quickly followed by the first allied offensive victory of 1918. The American Expeditionary Force with over 250,000 men fighting under overall French command played key roles both in the initial defense and the later advances. In the Second Battle of Marne with 30,000 killed and wounded, the United States started suffering casualties on the enormous scale usually associated with the battles of the Great War.
The River Marne, 1918
In late May, the German high command had ordered a major offensive from the Chemin des Dames northeast of Paris towards the River Marne threatening both Paris and the Paris - Verdun rail link. The 2nd and 3rd divisions of the AEF helped defend along the Marne on either side of the river town of Chateau Thierry. What resulted was a rounded bulge in western front thirty miles wide at the base, extending south about 25 miles to its apex right at Chateau Thierry. With American encouragement, a plan evolved to eliminate this salient with a two pronged assault from the west and south.
In July, when it became clear that the Germans would renew their assault in the area, a decision was made to absorb the assault, let the enemy tire themselves, and then counterattack soon afterwards.
There were three distinct parts to the battle of the Marne and they will be discussed separately in this article. Since this piece was produced for the Doughboy Center, the emphasis will be on the American participation. French, British and Italian forces fought hard and in great numbers in this huge operation as well. Here is a summary of those three phases with some key dates:
Phase I: THE 5TH LUDENDORFF OFFENSIVE, July 15-17, 1918July 15 Three and one-half German Armies attack in the early morning. The 3rd Division of AEF makes a strategically important stand on the left end of the Marne River line. July 17 German units occupy southern bank of Marne between Epernay and Chateau Thierry and advance their line 7 miles east of Reims.
Watching the Americans Dig In
Phase II: THE AISNE-MARNE COUNTER OFFENSIVE, July 18 - August 17, 1918
Phase III: THE OISE-AISNE OFFENSIVE, AUGUST 18 - SEPTEMBER 16, 1918Aug 18 French 10th Army launches major offensive near Soissons Aug 28-Sep 2 US 32nd Division captures key town of Juvigny cutting the Soissons-St. Quentin road. Germans find Vesle line untenable and withdraw before River Aisne. Sep 4 Vesle River crossed US 28th & 77th Divisions advance. Sep 16 Last full American division in sector [77th] relieved as the axis of the French and American offensive operations shifts east to the Champagne and Verdun sectors.
The 5th Ludendorff Offensive, July 15-17, 1918
Click Here To See a Map of the Battle's First Phase
|At midnight, July 14/15 the artillery crashed and the last German push of the war started. As predicted, it was a drive to get across the Marne [east of] Chateau-Thierry. [From Chateau-Thierry east were] the Third American Division. where they'd been ever since their machine gunners had come charging up the riverbank six weeks before. Then came another French outfit and next the pea-green Pennsylvania National Guard -- The 28th Division -- which had no line time even in a quiet sector. They were fed in by companies to fight with the French. Farther east |
Men of the 42nd Division Prior to the Marne Several of these men were killed by artillery fire just 5 minutes after the photo.
The 38th was in line just west of where the Surmelin River flows north into the Marne. The Surmelin runs northwest and down either side of its gentle valley there ran two good roads which went south into the main Paris highway. This was to be the main German track, the route by which guns were to move south and help exploit a breakthrough.
[Westpointer, Colonel Ulysses Grant McAlexander commanded the 38th.] Down by the [Marne] river he put Major Guy Row's 2nd Battalion. The 1st Battalion, only half strength, was farther back in the support, and the 3rd Battalion even deeper in reserve.
Along the river Row's men had three companies in line. from left to right -- each with two platoons dug in down on the riverbank, two more about three hundred and fifty yards back behind the embankment of the east-west Metz-Paris railroad. The railroad was raised up on a constructed embankment about nine feet high and so wide it was very difficult to fight from behind it.
The story continues with a firsthand description of the defense along the River Marne by Captain Jesse Woolridge of Major Rowe's battalion:
. Newly captured prisoners began to give real information - a grand offensive was to be made [where] the Marne was only about 50 yards wide. We had 600 yards of [this] front all to ourselves. [When it began] it seemed [the Germans] expected their artillery to eliminate all resistance. French Officers attached to our Brigade stated positively there was never a bombardment to equal it at Verdun.
At 3:30am the general fire ceased and their creeping barrage started - behind which at 40 yards only, mind you, they came - with more machine guns than I thought the German Army owned.
The enemy had to battle their way through the first platoon on the river bank - then they took on the second platoon on the forward edge of the railway where we had a thousand times the best of it - but the [Germans] gradually wiped it out. My third platoon [took] their place in desperate hand to hand fighting, in which some got through only to be picked up by the fourth platoon which was deployed simultaneously with the third. By the time they struck the fourth platoon they were all in and easy prey.
It's God's truth that one Company of American soldiers beat and routed a full regiment of picked shock troops of the German Army. At ten o'clock. the Germans were carrying back wounded and dead [from] the river bank and we in our exhaustion let them do it - they carried back all but six hundred which we counted later and fifty-two machine guns. We had started with 251 men and 5 lieutenants. I had left 51 men and 2 second lieutenants.
Capt. Jesse Woolridge, 38th Inf., 3rd Division
The German Commander quoted:
. All [German] divisions [along the Marne] achieved brilliant successes, with the exception of the one division on our right wing. This encountered American units! Here only did the Seventh Army, In the course of the first day of the offensive, confront serious difficulties. It met with the unexpectedly stubborn and active resistance of fresh American troops.
While the rest of the divisions of the Seventh Army succeeded in gaining ground and gaining tremendous booty, it proved impossible for us to move the right apex of our line, to the south of the Marne, into a position advantageous for the development of the ensuing fight. The check we thus received was one result of the stupendous fighting between our 10th Division of infantry and American troops.
Erich von Ludendorff, Quartermaster General
The Aisne-Marne Counter Offensive
1st Division Troops on the Attack
In the first days of July, 1918, it became apparent that the Germans would be unable to launch more than one other great attack, and towards the 10th of the month it was believed certain that if the enemy attacked the blow would fall in Champagne. Thanks to the arrival of American troops, the Allied reserves were now sufficiently numerous to justify a counterattack, and if, as every High Command was confident, the Champagne front could hold with the troops already allotted to it, the Allied Command retained complete freedom in the selection of the front upon which the counterattack should fall. The selection by the Germans of Champagne and the eastern face of the Marne salient, as the fronts on which they were to make their last effort was fortunate for the Allies for this decision of the enemy allowed an Allied counterattack which, while affording immediate relief to the enemy's thrust, would also obtain other advantages for the Allied cause.
|Paris is still France, and the approach of the German lines along the Marne toward Paris had caused apprehension throughout France it was essential that the threat on Paris be relieved at the earliest possible moment. Aside from reasons of morale, purely material reasons also demanded the reduction of the Marne salient as the first task of the Allies when the offensive should pass to their hands. Paris contained a multitude of essential war industries, and so long as the Germans maintained their lines these industries were seriously hampered by the constant long range bombardments and air raids. The great east and west railroad through Chateau-Thierry must also be regained by the Allies as a first necessity in the troop movements required in any general offensive.|
German Ammo Train in Marne Salient
But while with each day there came increased certainty that the Allied counterattack could be properly launched to the north of Chateau-Thierry, and while the French armies on that front began to plan accordingly, the Allied resources were not sufficiently great to permit a final decision until after the actual launching of the hostile attack it thus happened that only on the 16th could many of the actual preparations be commenced.
The general plan for the Allied counterattack of July 18th involved attacking the entire west face of the Marne salient. This main attack was first to pivot on Chateau-Thierry later the Allies in the region of Chateau-Thierry were to take up the attack. The Allies were also to attack that part of the German salient south of the Marne and to the southwest of Reims. The plan then really involved attacking the entire Marne salient, the principal blow falling at first on the west face, with the critical point, at which eventual success or failure would be determined, southwest of Soissons. The three divisions selected to break the most sensitive part of the German line were the 2nd American, the 1st Moroccan (French) and the 1st American. If these three divisions could seize and hold the heights south of Soissons the German position in the salient proper became untenable and it's ultimate reduction was assured.
At the Receiving End of Allied Artillery
At 4:35a.m., July 18th, after some of the American infantry had double-timed into line and when some of their guns had barely gotten into position, the 1st and 2nd American Divisions and the 1st Moroccan Division jumped off. Notwithstanding their desperate resistance the Germans were driven back and the results upon which ultimate success depended were secured.
The 2nd Division advanced 8 kilometers in the first 26 hours, took about 3,000 prisoners, 2 batteries of 150mm guns, 66 light guns and 15,000 rounds of 77 mm ammunition, besides much other property. This Division suffered some 4,000 casualties and, as it had made exhausting marches to reach the battlefield, and having recently been withdrawn from it's desperate fighting at Chateau-Thierry, the Division was relieved after the second day.
Key American Commanders at Soissons
Maj. Gen. Charles Summerall
Maj. Gen. James Harbord
The 1st Division suffered 7,000 casualties, of whom it is believed that not one was a prisoner. Sixty per cent of it's infantry officers were killed or wounded, in the 16th and 18th Infantry all field officers were casualties except the colonels, were casualties. Notwithstanding it's losses, the 1st Division, by constant attacks throughout four days and nights, had broken through the entrenchment's in the German pivot to a depth of 11 kilometers, had captured 68 field guns and quantities of other material, in addition to 3,500 prisoners taken from the seven separate German divisions which had been thrown against the 1st United States Division in the enemy's desperate effort to hold ground which was essential to his retaining the Marne salient.
Never again could friend or enemy question the fighting qualities of the American soldier!
But while the work of the 1st and 2nd Divisions attracted most attention because of the special importance of their attack, they were not the only American divisions to participate in the July 18th offensive. [A little south of the 2nd Division, units 4th Division had been separated and were in line with French divisions. They joined in the attack and continued to advance until July 22nd. The 4th Division was subsequently re-assembled as a division and would relieve the 42nd Division in the salient on August 2nd.] The 26th Division was just northwest of Chateau-Thierry and together with the 167th French Division formed the 1st American Corps, which was the first American corps to exercise tactical command. This corps acted as a pivot in the beginning and later had to advance under peculiarly difficult conditions. For the 26th Division maneuver was much complicated in order that the front of the division might conform to the general plan not only was it necessary for the division to pivot during attack, but at one time, the right half of the division had to attack simultaneously in two directions.
Memorial to Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, Son of Theodore Roosevelt KIA Flying in Support of the Aisne-Marne Assault
Note the terrain, 10miles N. of Marne
Notwithstanding the difficult nature of it's task, and the fact that it lost 5,300 officers and soldiers, the 26th remained in the attack until July25th some of the elements having been continuously fighting for eight days and nights. The division had advanced more than 17 kilometers against determined enemy resistance, had taken the villages of Torcy, Belleau, Givry, Epieds, and Trugny, and had captured large quantities of enemy material. On July 25-26 the 26th Division was relieved by the 42nd Division, which, after having taken some part in the successful resistance to the German attack of July 15th in Champagne, had been brought round to the Chateau-Thierry region.
Just east of Chateau-Thierry and south of the Marne the 3rd Division had broken up all efforts made against it on July 15th. Now on July 20th the 3rd Division received orders to join the counterattack. By skillful work of the command and staff the division had gotten well across the Marne by the 22nd and without having encountered serious resistance. From the 22nd to 25th the division was engaged in bitter fighting in wooded slopes leading up to the village of le Charmel, which was taken on the evening of July 25th. Constantly fighting it's way forward, the division took Roncheres, and finally on July 30th was relieved by the 32nd Division [which had just been transported into the sector from Belfort]after having suffered a total loss, in the defense of the Marne and in crushing the German resistance , of about 7,900. (
The 28th Division also had elements with French and American divisions during the attack and won great credit. As has been mentioned, the 42nd Division relieved the 26th on July 25th. On the next day the 42nd Division attacked, and by the 28th it had crossed the Ourcq and taken Sergy. Here the enemy offered desperate resistance, launching counterattack after counterattack, the village of Sergy changing hands four times. But the 42nd definitely occupied Sergy on the morning of July 29th and continued to press forward until August 2nd when the enemy withdrew.
Sgt. Joyce Kilmer 42nd Division KIA at River Ourcq
[In late] July three American divisions, the 3rd, 28th and 42nd were in line there, side by side with [another], the 4th, in close support [and the 26th and 32nd preparing to deploy]. By August the Germans had taken up a position behind the Vesle and Aisne Rivers, where they held fast. On 5 August the entire front of the French Sixth Army was held by two American Corps.
The 4th Division now relieved the 42nd, and on August 6th . the battle front stabilized on the line of the Vesle (our 4th and 32nd Divisions being in line). The 42nd had lost some 5,500 officers and men.
. Now eight American divisions (the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 26th, 32nd, and 42nd) had been indispensable in the reduction of the Marne salient. We had lost over 30,000, but the results were commensurate--not only was the Marne salient [greatly] reduced, but the initiative had been gained by the Allies and was never to be lost--the value of the American soldier, which had first been demonstrated by the 1st and 2nd Divisions, had been verified by the conduct of six other divisions.
From the beginning the Commander-in-Chief had never varied from his determination to bring the American forces together. The German offensive, however, had interrupted the execution of this plan, forcing us to utilize all our efforts to the end that the war might not be lost. Now, however, the initiative had passed into the Allied hands and there appeared to be no good reason for longer delay. On the contrary, the Chateau-Thierry operations had involved such difficulties in the way of supply and the evacuation of sick and wounded (in all of which we were largely dependent upon the action of French staffs) that it was apparent that our troops must be assembled. A few divisions might be properly cared for when dispersed under foreign command, but our forces had increased to the point where it became imperative to begin assembling them. [Preparations began for the American led St. Mihiel Offensive and the AEF Divisions started shifting from the Marne to the Verdun sector. More action, however, was to follow in the Marne region.]
TWO FUTURE MARINE COMMANDANTS CAPTURE THE SPIRIT OF THE CORPS AND THE EXPERIENCE OF THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE MARNE IN A LEGENDARY BATTLEFIELD MESSAGE:
From Co. "H"
Date: July 19. Hour 10:45 am
To: Major [Thomas] Holcomb.
I am in an old abandoned French trench bordering on road leading out from your P.C. and 350 yds. from an old mill. I have only two men out of my company. We need support, but it is almost suicide to try and get here as we are swept by machine-gun fire and a constant barrage is on us. I have no one on my left and only a few on my right. I will hold.
2nd Lt. 96 Co.
The Oise-Aisne Offensive August 18 - September 16, 1918
Gen. Charles Mangin Commander French 10th Army
For a month, from the first week in August to early September, the Germans stalled the French and Americans on the Vesle lines. The Americans held roughly six kilometers from St. Thibaut to Fismes and bitterly fought the Germans in seesaw actions for the possession of bridge heads at Bazoches, Chateau du Diable, and Fismette. Afterwards Bullard commented: " I have rarely, if ever, seen troops under more trying conditions. they were on the spot and they stayed there. " Any movement by day brought down fire, as the Germans used cannon to snipe at careless soldiers. They were also lavish with mustard gas. Throughout most of the month in "Death Valley," a name the Pennsylvanians [28th Div.] gave the Vesle Front, the 28th Division under portly Charles H. Muir shared the sector with the 77th Division [made up] of draftees from New York City and its suburbs.
American Gas Victims
What finally broke the deadlock on the Vesle was an attack by the French Tenth Army north of Soissons in late August. Although understrength and not yet recovered from the rigors of their fighting on the Ourcq and Vesle lines, the 32nd Division took part in this operation. In fact their capture of Juvigny on August 30th was a crucial blow against the German Defenders.
The 32nd Division Before Juvigny
The French used the nickname "Les Terribles" to praise this division's prowess in battle. Their battles of late July and early August had been hard, but the Juvigny fight was much tougher. The German Defenders fought hard and made effective use of the caves in the are to protect their machine guns but "Les Terribles" were stubborn in their determination to force the Germans back. They succeeded in capturing the ruins of the village of Juvigny and in advancing some two and a half miles in five days of constant battle. The division historian referred to this period as "five days of hell on earth."
. The Germans gave up the Vesle line only to fall back a few kilometers nearer the Aisne River where they again stabilized the front. They could be proud of their defensive actions since the collapse of their last offensive. The attack at Soissons had surprised them, but, after a couple of anxious days the German commanders had regained control of the situation. True, they had to give up the Marne salient, but they succeeded in withdrawing their forces to pre-planned phase lines on the Ourcq and the Vesle on schedule. Significantly, [however,] the German definition of success changed in July from how many kilometers they advanced to how well they conducted a retreat.
The results of the Aisne-Marne operation were far out of proportion to its size. the initiative [on the Western Front] had passed to Allied hands, where it would remain, and Ludendorff would be compelled to postpone indefinitely his cherished Flanders offensive. With German morale sagging, it was clear that Ludendorff's hope of crushing the Allies before the United States could put a large force in the filed would not be realized.
Even as the Second Battle of the Marne was winding down the AEF had begun its first major offensive as an independent force at St. Mihiel.
BY SUMMER OF 1918 MANY AMERICAN HOMES WERE STARTING TO RECEIVE LETTERS SUCH AS THIS:
Your husband, Sergeant Lloyd C. Ackerman, was in my company, and was the best sergeant I ever had. I thought a lot of him, and was greatly grieved when he was killed. He was right at my side when he was killed. We were in a wheat field about five miles northwest of Chateau-Thierry, and your husband is buried right there. Your husband died a hero. He was right in the front line advancing on the Germans, when some machine guns opened up on us and killed many of our men.
Sgt. Ackerman was the best drill sergeant I ever had, and was cool under fire. The company and regiment lost a very valuable man when he was killed, and I personally feel it very deeply. I cannot speak too highly of him.
Captain W.F. Marshall, 318th Inf., 4th Division
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Strategic developments [ edit | edit source ]
Nivelle believed the Germans had been exhausted by the battles at Verdun and the Somme and could not resist a breakthrough offensive, which could be completed in 24–48 hours. Ώ] The main attack on the Aisne would be preceded by a large diversionary attack by the British Third and First armies at Arras. The French War Minister, Hubert Lyautey and Chief of Staff General Henri-Philippe Pétain opposed the plan, believing it to be premature. The British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, supported the concept of a decisive battle but insisted that if the first two phases of Nivelle's scheme were unsuccessful, the British effort would be moved north to Flanders. ΐ] Nivelle threatened to resign if the offensive did not go ahead, Nivelle had not yet lost a battle and he had the enthusiastic support of the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Ώ] The French Prime Minister Aristide Briand supported Nivelle but the war minister Lyautey resigned, during a dispute with the Chamber of Deputies and the Briand government fell a new government under Alexandre Ribot took office on 20 March. Α]
The Second Battle of the Aisne involved c. 1.2 million troops and 7,000 guns on a front from Reims to Roye, with the main effort against the German positions along the Aisne river. Β] The original plan of December 1916 was plagued by delays and information leaks. By the time the offensive began in April 1917, the Germans had received intelligence of the Allied plan and strengthened their defences on the Aisne front. The German retreat to the Hindenburg Line (Operation Alberich ) left a belt of devastated ground up to 25 miles (40 km) deep, in front of the French positions facing east from Soissons north to St. Quentin. Operation Alberich freed 13–14 German divisions, which were moved to the Aisne increasing the German garrsion to 38 divisions against 53 French divisions. Γ] The German withdrawal forestalled the attacks of the British and Groupe d'armées du Nord (GAN) but also freed French divisions and by late March GAN had been reduced by eleven infantry, two cavalry divisions and 50 heavy guns, which went into the French strategic reserve. Δ]
When Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over from Falkenhayn on 28 August 1916, the pressure being placed on the German army in France was so great that new defensive arrangements based on the principles of depth, invisibility and immediate counter-action were adopted, as the only means by which the growing material strength of the French and British armies could be countered, when a large portion of the German army was operating in Russia. Ε] Instead of fighting the defensive battle in the front line or from shell-hole positions near it, the main fight was to take place behind the front line, out of view and out of range of enemy field artillery. "Conduct of the Defensive Battle" Grundsätze für die Führung in der Abwehrschlacht was published on 1 December 1916. The new manual laid down the organisation for the mobile defence of an area, rather than the rigid defence of a trench line. Defensive positions necessary for the new method were defined in "Principles of Field Position Construction" Allgemeines über Stellungsbau . Ζ]
In the new defensive manual, unyielding defence of ground regardless of its tactical value, was replaced by the defence of positions suitable for artillery observation and communication with the rear, where an attacking force would "fight itself to a standstill and use up its resources while the defenders conserve[d] their strength". Defending infantry would fight in areas, with the front divisions in an outpost zone up to 3,000 yards (2,700 m) deep behind listening posts, with the main line of resistance placed on a reverse slope, in front of artillery observation posts kept far enough back to retain observation over the outpost zone. Behind the main line of resistance was a Grosskampfzone (battlezone), a second defensive area 1,500–2,500 yards (1,400–2,300 m) deep, sited as far as possible on ground hidden from enemy observation while in view of German artillery observers. Η] A rückwärtige Kampfzone (rear battle zone) further back was to be occupied by the reserve battalion of each regiment. ⎖]
"Principles of Field Fortification" Allgemeines über Stellungsbau was published in January 1917 and by April an outpost zone (Vorpostenfeld) to be held by sentries had been built along the Western Front. Sentries could retreat to larger positions (Gruppennester) held by Stosstrupps of five men and an NCO who would join the sentries to recapture sentry-posts by immediate counter-attack. Defensive procedures in the battlezone were similar but with a greater number of troops. The front trench system was the sentry line for the battlezone garrison, which was allowed to move away from concentrations of enemy fire and then counter-attack to recover the battle and outpost zones such withdrawals were envisaged as occurring on small parts of the battlefield which had been made untenable by Allied artillery fire, as the prelude to Gegenstoss in der Stellung (immediate counter-attack within the position). Such a decentralised battle by large numbers of small infantry detachments would present the attacker with unforeseen obstructions. Resistance from troops equipped with automatic weapons, supported by observed artillery fire, would increase the further the advance progressed. A school was opened in January 1917 to teach infantry commanders the new methods. ⎗]
Given the Allies' growing superiority in munitions and manpower, attackers might still penetrate to the second (artillery protection) line, leaving in their wake German garrisons isolated in Widerstandsnester , (resistance nests, Widas ) still inflicting losses and disorganisation on the attackers. As the attackers tried to capture the Widas and dig in near the German second line, Sturmbattalions and Sturmregimenter of the counter-attack divisions would advance from the rückwärtige Kampfzone into the battlezone, in a Gegenstoss aus der Tiefe (immediate counter-attack) if this failed the counter-attack divisions would take their time to prepare a methodical attack but only if the lost ground was essential to the retention of the main position. Such methods required large numbers of reserve divisions ready to move to the battlefront. The reserve was obtained by creating 22 divisions by internal reorganisation of the army, bringing divisions from the eastern front and by shortening the western front, by withdrawing to the base of the Noyon salient in Operation Alberich. By the spring of 1917 the German army in the west had a strategic reserve of 40 divisions . ⎘]
"Experience of the German First Army in the Somme Battles", (Erfahrungen der I Armee in der Sommeschlacht) was published on 30 January 1917. During the Battle of the Somme in 1916 Colonel von Lossberg (Chief of Staff of the First Army) had been able to establish a line of "relief" divisions (Ablösungsdivisionen) . In his analysis of the battle, Lossberg opposed the granting of discretion to front trench garrisons to retire, as he believed that manoeuvre did not allow the garrisons to evade Allied artillery-fire, which could blanket the forward area and invited enemy infantry to occupy vacated areas unopposed. Lossberg considered that spontaneous withdrawals would disrupt the counter-attack reserves as they deployed and further deprive battalion and division commanders of the ability to conduct an organised defence, which the dispersal of infantry over a wider area had already made difficult. Lossberg and others had severe doubts as to the ability of relief divisions to arrive on the battlefield in time to conduct an immediate counter-attack (Gegenstoss) from behind the battlezone and wanted the Somme practice of fighting in the front line to be retained and authority devolved no further than the battalion, so as to maintain organizational coherence, in anticipation of a methodical counter-attack (Gegenangriff) after 24–48 hours by the relief divisions. Ludendorff was sufficiently impressed by Lossberg's memorandum to add it to the new Manual of Infantry Training for War. ⎙]
The Second Battle of the Aisne
The Second Battle of the Aisne was the main part of the Nivelle Offensive of April 1917. Robert Nivelle’s plan was for a huge attack on the German forces along the River Aisne, which would, he stated, be successful in 48 hours with the loss of just 10,000 men. Nivelle argued that the defeat would be so shattering for the Germans that they would sue for peace.
Nivelle had made his name at the Battle of Verdun in 1916 as the commander who had recaptured the symbolic Fort Douaumont and who had issued the famous command “they shall not pass”. Nivelle was a great believer in a massive artillery attack prior to an infantry attack protected by a creeping barrage. In December 1916, Nivelle was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the French Army and he set about devising a plan that combined the mighty punch of an all-out artillery onslaught with a massive infantry attack that was supported by the artillery. This plan became known as the Nivelle Offensive. Despite opposition to his plan from some senior French army commanders (such as Pétain), Nivelle had the support of the Prime Minister, Aristide Briand.
On April 4 th a seemingly inconsequential attack by the Germans against French lines took place. However, the Germans captured a copy of the plan for the Nivelle Offensive. Such a prized document gave the Germans a huge advantage. The area around the Aisne River that was held by the Germans was littered with many deep quarries. The Germans also knew that the attack would be preceded by a large artillery onslaught – 7,000 guns in all. Therefore, they moved as many men as was possible into the quarries while the bombardment took place. They also placed 100 machine guns in every kilometre of the front giving them a devastating amount of fire.
On April 16 th 1917, nineteen divisions of the French 5 th and 6 th Armies attacked German positions on the Aisne along an eighty kilometres front. They faced a German army that was well dug in using fortified defensive positions that were built on higher ground – a major advantage in an infantry attack, especially with the density of machine guns that the Germans had. On the first day of the attack, the French lost 40,000 men.
On April 17 th , the French 4th Army made a secondary attack on German lines. This was also repelled.
It was ironic that the creeping barrage, so favoured by Nivelle, was incorrectly used and the barrage that should have dropped in front of the French actually landed among them, killing many. Those who were not killed or wounded had to attack well placed German positions with no artillery cover as the shells were dropping behind them.
Regardless of these setbacks, Nivelle pressed on and refused to scale down the attacks, which continued into May. There were successes – part of the Hindenburg Line was captured at Chemin des Dames – but at great expense.
Nivelle did eventually scale back the size of the attacks but all attacks were finally called off on May 9 th . Though the French had captured land previously held by the Germans (in places they had advanced about 5 miles) and had captured 147 German artillery guns and taken 20,000 German POW’s, they themselves lost 187,000 men. The French army was in disarray and mutinies were experienced in 68 out of the 112 divisions in the French army.
Nivelle was sacked as Commander-in-Chief and replaced by Pétain. At the end of 1917, Nivelle was posted to North Africa where he remained until the end of the war.
Battles - The Second Battle of the Aisne, 1917
The Second Battle of the Aisne, which comprised the main action of the Nivelle Offensive, was a virtually unmitigated disaster for the French Army. A hugely costly attack, ultimately involving 1.2 million troops and 7,000 guns, it achieved little in the way of territorial gain - certainly not the 48 hour breakthrough envisaged - and also brought to an end the career of its instigator, the French Commander-in-Chief Robert Nivelle, and sparked widespread mutiny in the army.
Devised upon his appointment as Commander-in-Chief in December 1916, replacing Joseph Joffre, Nivelle's plan, which he confidently assured the French government would bring about an end to the war within two days, was beset by delays and leaks. By the time of its main launch on 16 April 1917, the plans were well-known to the German Army, who accordingly took appropriate defensive steps.
Nivelle's strategy by no means received unanimous support among influential French politicians. Whilst Prime Minister Briand's support effectively sanctioned the plan, it led to the resignation of war minister Hubert Lyautey. The British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, expressed his opposition, as did Nivelle's successor as Commander-in-Chief, Henri-Philippe Petain. Even Nivelle's Reserve Army Group commander, General Micheler, was opposed.
19 divisions of the French Fifth and Sixth Armies - under Mazel and Mangin - went into battle on 16 April 1917, along an 80 km front from Soissons to Reims, after a week of diversionary attacks by the British in Arras.
Opposite the French on high ground, heavily defended and fortified, was von Boehm's German Seventh Army, who conducted an efficient defence. On 16 April the French suffered 40,000 casualties alone, a similar disaster to that suffered by the British on the first day of the Somme a year earlier on 1 July 1916. The mass use of French Char Schneider tanks brought little advantage, with 150 lost on the first day.
On the second day the French Fourth Army under Anthoine launched a subsidiary attack east of Reims towards Moronvilliers. However von Below's German First Army readily repelled the assault.
Ironically, in the attacks of 16 and 17 April Nivelle's own innovation - the creeping barrage - was incorrectly deployed, leading to increased French casualties as the infantry advanced without protection.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Nivelle believed his offensive would ultimately prove successful, continuing French attacks until 20 April. Some gains were made, by Mangin west of Soissons, but progress was slow. The offensive was scaled back over the next two weeks, although by 5 May a 4 km stretch of the Chemin des Dames Ridge - part of the Hindenburg Line - had been captured. The offensive was finally abandoned in disarray on 9 May following a final ineffective four day assault.
French losses were significant, with 187,000 casualties. The Germans suffered an estimated 168,000 losses.
At home, disillusion among French public and politicians alike led to Nivelle's prompt removal, replaced on 25 April by the considerably more cautious Henri-Philippe Petain. Petain was only able to restore order within the French Army by improving trench conditions and, more importantly, by refraining from committing his forces to offensive operations.
Click here to view a map of Nivelle's preparations for the battle click here to view a map charting the battle's progress.
Click here to read the reaction of Kaiser Wilhelm II to news of German success click here to read Erich Ludendorff's view click here to read the account given by the French War Minister Paul Painleve.
3rd Battle of the Aisne
Many books have been written about the 3rd Battle of the Aisne (Chemin des Dames) and there is nothing new added here but this page will provide particular focus on what happened on the first day, May 27, 1918 to the 1/Sherwoods (8th Division) before 9am and to the 9th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (25th Division) before 6pm.
Operation Bluecher-Yorck, which commenced on May 27, 1918 was the 3rd Operation of the German Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht). The German Spring Offensive was “the last of the ebb” and ultimately failed for a number of strategic reasons.
The Germans were ruthlessly well prepared while the Allies laboured under certain operational and political constraints. But tactical brilliance undermined by strategic blunders meant that the Germans won the battle but ultimately lost the war.
The 3rd Battle of the Aisne started with a 3 hour Artillery barrage of unprecedented ferocity and scale consisting of both High Explosive (HE) shells and poison gas. This was immediately followed by overwhelming numbers of elite, battle hardened German storm troops (Sturmtruppen) advancing en-masse still under cover of the early dawn light and thick mist. The German troops advanced rapidly, bypassing any pockets of strong resistance, leaving them to e mopped up by their secondary wave. British Company, Battalion and Brigade HQs were rapidly overrun the consequence of which being that no comprehensive official record exists since papers were unsurprisingly destroyed, lost or captured in the ensuing chaos.
Consequently, the narrative of what exactly happened, certainly before 9am on the 1st day, can only be pieced together from Brigade and Divisional war diary fragments and from individual accounts written much later. One of the best of these accounts is undoubtedly the one published in 1937 by Sidney Rogerson, in ‘The Last of the Ebb’, an excerpt of which was included in the 8th Division war diary. Capt. Rogerson served on the Staff of the 2nd West Yorks, (8th Division).
Pte. Arthur Slater 1/Sherwoods was right in the middle of all that pre-dawn chaos, captured in the Bois de la Miette a small wood on the Miette stream, situated half-way between the 24th and 25th Infantry Brigade HQs, (the Miette’s course separating the two Brigade sections). Based upon the fact that all three of the 8th Division Brigade HQs were abandoned by 6am we can reasonably conclude that he was captured around about that time. It’s a miracle he was not killed.
2nd Lt. A. E. Downing with the 9th Loyal North Lancashires (9/LNLs) was not caught up in the initial onslaught as the 9/LNLs were in Divisional reserve at Muscourt. The Germans were already crossing the Aisne, at Pontavert (the bridge not being blown), by the time the first group of 9/LNLs were called forward to defend the Canal at Maizy (West of Pontavert). And the German advance troops were already more than a kilometer South of the Aisne by noon when the remainder of the 9/LNLs moved up to meet them. Lt. Downing’s story is wrapped up in the less chaotic tactical retreat that slowed the pace of the German advances, made possible through the re-ordering and the piecemeal reconstitution of smashed Brigades and Divisions that started to take place in the early afternoon of the 1st day, South of the Aisne.
It is remarkable that these two men who did not know each other and had never met would be caught up in the same battle, on the same day, just a few kilometers from each other. One killed in action the other taken as a Prisoner of War. Eventually being related via marriage when Arthur Slater‘s son married Alfred Edward Downing‘s niece 36 years later.
GERMAN SPRING OFFENSIVE
In March 1918, the Germans launched the Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht). Aware that American troops would soon be arriving in Europe, the Germans saw this as their last chance to win the war. If they could overcome the Allied armies and reach Paris, victory might be possible. The German offensive was initially a great success. Striking at the Allied line’s weakest point, the Chemin des Dames, they burst their way through and made quick progress towards the Marne. However, the advance eventually stalled due to supply shortages and lack of reserves. This was to be the ‘last ebb’ of the German war effort.
- Operation Michael March 21, 1918
- Operation Georgette April 9, 1918
- Operation Blucher-Yorck May 27, 1918
Operation Blücher-Yorck was planned primarily by Erich Ludendorff, who was certain that success at the Aisne would lead the German armies to within striking distance of Paris. Ludendorff, who saw the British Expeditionary Force as the main threat, believed that this, in turn, would cause the Allies to move forces from Flanders to help defend the French capital, allowing the Germans to continue their Flanders offensive with greater ease. Thus, the 3rd battle of the Aisne was essentially a large diversionary attack.
Colonel Georg Bruchmüller:
Col. Bruchmüller commanded the German Artillery in Operation Blücher-Yorck. Bruchmüller developed and perfected a system of centralised command so that the batteries could fire, solely off map references, using a program which co-ordinated with movements on the battlefield instead of merely supporting limited troop movements. He devised an intense artillery bombardment which neutralised defences by disorientating or killing the majority of the defenders before the German advance went forward behind a creeping barrage. At the Aisne, the thousands of artillery pieces fired from their maps, in darkness, allowing the infantry to advance at first light into a battered and disoriented defence.
THE ALLIED SITUATION
The defense of the Aisne area was in the hands of General Denis Auguste Duchêne, commander of the French Sixth Army. In addition, four divisions of the British IX Corps, under Lieutenant-General Sir Alexander Hamilton-Gordon, held the Chemin des Dames Ridge they had been posted there to rest and refit after surviving Operation Michael.
The Allies faced a number of challenges:
Despite British protests, Duchene insisted that the British defensive positions be North of the Aisne because he was unwilling to cede any ground to the Germans due to the heavy French losses incurred to win the ground during the Nivelle Offensive of 1917. The British would have preferred to place their Artillery South of the Aisne and defend in depth.
The positions of the Allied Artillery were well known to Germans because the French had been there a long time and the Germans had many months to accurately locate them.
British troops were tired and depleted. Young, barely trained recruits, with no battle experience, making up the numbers. They were there to rest, refit and properly assimilate the new recruits into their battalions before going back to the front lines.
British troops had been there less than a month and were getting familiar with their new surroundings and generally fixing things to their liking after the long rather leisurely French occupation.
The Allied forces were greatly outnumbered in Artillery and Men. 8 Allied Divisions faced 17 German Divisions and 4,000 guns.
EVENTS OF 27 MAY, 1918
The following narrative is excerpted from (and copyright of) the book 8th Division in War 1914 – 1918, by Lt. Colonel J.H. Boraston & Captain Cyril E.O. Bax which in turn acknowledges that most of the information supplied to the regimental historians for this account (below) came from Captain Sidney Rogerson of the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment. The section on the Royal Engineers and the Bridges is excerpted from (and copyright of) the History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Volume V, by Major-General H.L. Pritchard. Sub-headings and annotated maps have been inserted to aid readability and illustrate locations and timing of events.
Yet the feeling of silence persisted. Not a shell came from the enemy, and his quietness removed any lingering doubts as to his intentions.
How that evening dragged. The time crept slowly on towards zero hour till only a few minutes were left…. Suddenly two German Gas shells burst close at hand, punctual heralds of the storm. Within a second, a thousand guns roared out their Iron hurricane. The night was rent with sheets of flame. The earth shuddered under the avalanche of missiles… leapt skywards in dust and tumult. Ever above the din screamed the fierce crescendo of approaching shells, ear splitting crashes as they burst… all the time the dull thud, thud of detonations… drum fire. Inferno raged and whirled round the Bois des Buttes. The dug outs rocked… filled with the acrid fumes of cordite, the sickly sweet tang of gas. Timbers started, earth showered from the roof, men rushed for shelter, seizing kits, weapons, gas masks, message pads as they dived for safety. It was a descent into hell. Crowded with jostling, sweating humanity the dug outs reeked and to make matters worse Headquarters had no sooner got below than gas began to filter down.
Gas masks were hurriedly donned and anti-gas precautions taken- the entrance closed with saturated blankets, braziers lighted on the stairs. If gas could not enter, neither could air. As a fact both did in small quantities and the long night was spent forty feet underground, at the hottest time of the year, in stinking overcrowded holes, their entrances sealed up and charcoal braziers alight drying up the atmosphere – suffocation rendered more complete by the gas mask with clip on nostrils and gag in teeth.
It was one o’clock in the morning of the 27th May, punctual to the predicted time, that the German bombardment was loosed. The whole of IX Corps front and many back areas – railheads, ammunition dumps and the like – were drenched with gas shell. Outpost lines were assailed in addition by trench mortars of every calibre, and the Battle Zone received the terrible bombardment from artillery of all natures which has just been so graphically described. Our artillery positions were also violently attacked with gas shell and H.E. and had area shoots carried out upon them, with the result that by 6am most of our guns North of the river were out of action. A mist which rose into being with the opening of the bombardment, as though evoked at the will of the German Higher Command and in fact accentuated by the enemy’s gas and smoke shells, grew steadily thicker as the night proceeded and made the task of defence additionally difficult. It was indeed, almost uncanny how in this spring of 1918 the luck of the weather favoured the Germans in attack. On each preceding night spent on the new front the weather had been clear and when, for the third time, the troops of the division found their defence hampered by a dense blanket of fog, men and officers began firmly to believe that the enemy had discovered means to put down a mist whenever it was wanted.
The first Infantry attack, assisted by tanks which flattened out the wire, was delivered, it is probable, at about 4 o’clock in the morning, against the angle of the salient in our right sub-sector (25th Infantry Brigade). Owing to the dense mist and to the fact that nearly all units in the Outpost Zone were cut off to a man, it is difficult to reconstruct precisely the sequence of events. It is only at intervals that a clear message comes back out of the chaos and confusion which the fog necessarily produced. Even such a message only serves to emphasize the assistance which the lack of visibility and the exposed position of our troops in the salient gave to the enemy in his attack. Take for instance, the following pigeon message, timed at 5.15am, which was received at Divisional Headquarters at 6.05am: HQ 2nd R.Berks Regt, consisting of Lieut-Col Griffen, Capt Clare, RSM Wokins, Sergt Trinder, Corpl Dobson, Ptes Stone, Gregory, Slee, and QM surrounded. Germans threw bombs down dug outs and pressed on. Appeared to approach from right rear in considerable strength. No idea what has happened elsewhere. Holding out in hopes of relief.
Such hopes were alas in vain.
The attack swept forward, and although our troops resisted stubbornly for a time in the Battle Zone and caused severe losses to the enemy on this line, the defence was overwhelmed by weight of numbers. Brigade HQ had been early involved in the fighting, being practically surrounded before it was known that the front line had gone. It was near here that the brigade major, Captain B.C. Pascoe, M.C., Rifle Brigade, was killed while making a gallant stand. General Husey and what remained of his HQ staff fought their way out and moved back to Gernicourt to organise its defences. At 6.30am General Husey reported to Divisional HQ that he was holding the river line there with the remnants of his brigade. At 7.15am he further reported that all the bridges east of the junction of the Miette and Aisne had been blown up and that he was holding the high ground west of Gernicourt. Later in the morning General Husey, who had only taken command of the brigade front (vice General Coffin, promoted to Divisional Command) on the 7th May, was badly wounded and gassed, and he died a few days after in German hands.
Meanwhile the fortunes or misfortunes of the other two brigades remain to be considered. These two brigades do not appear to have been seriously attacked until about 5am. The front line battalion of the 24th Infantry Brigade (2nd Northamptonshire) was then gradually driven back to the Battle Zone. Tanks do not appear to have been used on this front, but as the light increased enemy aeroplanes were observed flying low over our forward system and firing into the trenches. Colonel Buckle, whose conduct and example had been an inspiration to his men, was killed outside his Battalion HQ, but his battalion fought on and in the Battle Zone in this sector the enemy’s advance was definitely checked. The position here was very strong and repeated attacks were beaten off both by the 2nd Northamptons and 1st Worcestershires.
The last message sent by Colonel Buckle to his front line companies a short time after the German bombardment started, is recorded in tribute to a very gallant officer, and as an example of the spirit in which the defence was made. It ran:
“All Platoon commanders will remain with their platoons and ensure that the trenches are manned immediately the bombardment lifts. Send short situation wire every half hour. No short bombardment can possibly cut our wire and if sentries are alert it cannot be cut by hand. If they try it, shoot the devils. C.G.Buckle, Lieut-Col”
This message was found pinned on the wall of the battalion HQ dug out by Colonel Buckle’s father, who visited the spot after the Armistice. He found his son’s grave close to the entrance, and on each side of the grave a German had been buried. Those who knew Colonel Buckle felt sure he would fight to a finish and never surrender.
The position here was, as has been said, so strong that our troops might well have held out indefinitely against any frontal assault, but the enemy was able to profit by his success on our right. At 5.45am large numbers of Germans were suddenly observed from the 24th Brigade H.Q. approaching along the line of the Miette Stream which they had crossed south of the Battle Zone. The main line of defence was taken by this movement in flank and rear and its defenders were cut and surrounded. Major Cartland, commanding the 1st Worcestershires, was killed in the trenches with his men and, at 6am, Brigade HQ was itself attacked from the rear. The staff captain to the brigade was taken prisoner, and General Haig, and his acting brigade Major (Capt. F.C. Wallace, M.C.) both of whom were suffering from gas, had great difficulty in getting clear. A few others, including the signalling officer, intelligence officer and some of brigade H.Q personnel, managed to fight their way back to la Pecherie bridge, the defence of which they organised under Captain Pratt, M.C., 1st Worcestershire. The Germans, however, were seen shortly afterwards to have worked round behind Capt. Pratt’s party and appear to have cut them off. Soon after 9 o’clock in the morning the collected remnants of this brigade, now numbering 3 officers and 68 other ranks only, were holding a trench on the north east side of Roucy.
The Bridges (Royal Engineers)
The 15th Field Company (Major E.C. Hillman) was in dug-outs on the Aisne Canal a short distance west of Gernicourt, with one section, under 2nd Lieutenant H.C. Garbutt, detached near Berry-au-Bac. All sections had parties told off for bridge demolitions. As soon as news of the impending attack had been received, orders were issued that the bridges were to be blown at the discretion of the field company commanders on the spot. Accordingly, when he received the warning order from the C.R.E. (Commander Royal Engineers) at 8 p.m. on the 26th, Major Hillman went along the canal to verify the readiness of all his bridge-demolition parties. He was at Berry-au-Bac when the German bombardment opened at 1 a.m., and returned at once to his headquarters to order immediate packing-up and readiness to move. He sent out Lieutenants E.H. Jacobs-Larkcom and C. Sutton with written orders to blow their bridges as soon as it became evident to them that the enemy was advancing, and that the blowing of the bridges was necessary to prevent him from crossing the river. The canal bridges were to be blown after the river bridges. Shortly after this, all telephonic communications was cut, and no further instructions were received from the C.R.E., but at about 4:30 a.m., Major Hillman was handed a message from the 25th Brigade stating that the enemy had penetrated the right flank of the Rifle Brigade. Stragglers and wounded coming along the canal bank reported that the Germans were advancing rapidly. At 6 a.m., 2nd Lieutenant Strong was sent out to his bridges. At 6:15 a.m. 2nd Lieutenant Garbutt came in with his section and reported that he had blown all his six bridges at Berry-au-Bac, and that the enemy was being prevented from working along the canal by some gunners. At 7 a.m., Lieutenant Jacobs-Larkcom returned to company headquarters, wounded in the face, and was evacuated. Major Hillman, who had by now collected a number of stragglers and three infantry officers, disposed of his little force for the defence of the canal bank.
At 10 a.m., he was visited by Brigadier-General R.H. Husey, commanding the 25th Brigade, and ordered to take his men back across the canal and endeavour to hold the front edge of the Bois de Gernicourt. In the village itself were the 22nd D.L.I. (Durham Light Infantry – Pioneers) and some of the 490th Field Company. At 11 a.m., Major Hillman received word that the Germans were well across the river at Pontavert and were working round behind the Bois de Gernicourt. He was becoming more and more isolated, and there was a gap of 1,000 yards on his right between him and the East Lancashire Regiment, who were south-west of the village of Gernicourt. About midday, when it became obvious that the Germans were in the wood, he sent Captain A.D. Black, of the 490th Field Company, with twenty-five sappers, southwards to do what he could to prevent the enemy coming out of the wood. Captain Black evidently went too far, for at 12.30 p.m., the Germans suddenly appeared within a few yards of Major Hillman in his trench. They threw bombs, but the sappers had none to throw back. Hillman, seeing that the position was hopeless, passed the word down to retire towards the East Lancashires. Hillman was the last out, and following a trench that he thought would lead him to the infantry, came upon the remains of Captain Black’s party, Captain Black having been killed. He told them to follow him, as he intended to get through the wood if possible, although groups of Germans could be seen on all sides. Crossing a clearing one by one, the little party managed to get into the wood and discovered a track leading southwards. On this track Hillman found an abandoned 18-pounder gun and removed the breech-block. At the end of the track, they saw a group of men whom they took to be British, but soon found that they were Germans, making signs to them to surrender. Hillman shouted to his men to follow him, but they were evidently too close to the enemy to do so. Hillman, now left by himself, doubled through the wood, but came upon six Germans talking together. He made a rush towards a trench but it turned out to be a cul-de-sac, and he was taken prisoner.
The 490th Field Company (acting O.C., Captain A.D. Black), which was working in the front line and was billeted at Le Cholera farm, turned out at 1 a.m. on the 27th to go into support under 25th Brigade arrangements, leaving bridge demolition parties under Lieutenant P. Burr and 2nd Lieutenant W.C. Leslie-Carter. Heavy casualties were incurred in moving up, but the company manned their trenches until daylight, when Germans appeared in the trench fifty yards to their left. Black gave orders to retire to 25th Brigade headquarters. Before these were reached, the company, now much reduced in strength, met some men of the Rifle Brigade, whom they joined and assisted to hold their position until a tank bore down on them. They then retired past Brigade headquarters and reached Le Cholera farm. Here Captain Black sent out Burr and Leslie-Carter to blow up their bridges, while he took his own party to Gernicourt, where men were being collected in a trench to make a stand. After some four hours, word was passed along that Germans were massing on the left, and a party of thirty R.E. and infantry was sent to hold up their advance. By this time, Major Hillman, O.C. 15th Field Company, had taken over command, and Captain Black with some twenty-five sappers and infantrymen, was ordered to man a trench on the left, but found it occupied by Germans. He gave orders to retire, and word was passed along to Major Hillman asking for orders. The reply was to get forward, as the enemy were killing men in the rear. Captain Black then led the way over the top of his trench, but was immediately shot. Lieutenant Otway followed safely, gathered the men together in another trench, and then, as ammunition had been exhausted, and there were no organized troops left in sight, he returned by stages with ten other ranks to the company’s transport lines.
23rd Infantry Brigade
The 23rd Infantry Brigade had been attacked at about the same time as the 24th Brigade. The enemy were held for a short time by the forward battalion (2nd West Yorkshire) who were then forced back to the Battle Zone, where, with the 2nd Middlesex they held their ground against all attacks. The 2nd Devonshire maintained their positions in the Bois des Buttes with equal stubbornness. The enemy brought up tanks against these troops, but these were destroyed by the French anti-tank guns. At 7am these battalions were still holding out. Once again, however, the gallant frontal defence was of no avail. The turning movement which had got round the flanks and rear of the 24th Brigade was continued against the 23rd Brigade, and not only so but a breach had been made in the right front of the 149th Infantry Brigade (50th Division), the neighbouring brigade on the 8th Divisions left. As a result of this double thrust the unfortunate West Yorkshire and Middlesex were taken in rear from both flanks and cut off.
Here is an account of the receipt, turn by turn, of these disastrous tidings at Brigade H.Q. “Dawn began to break, but no news came of any Infantry attack. The Brigade intelligence officer reported that a heavy ground mist rendered observation impossible, but shortly afterwards sent the amazing message: “Enemy balloons rising from our front line.” Hot upon this message came another from the 24th Brigade: “Enemy advancing up Miette Stream. Cannot hold out without reinforcements.” Such news was startling in the extreme, but worse was still to come, for at about 5.30am the 149th Brigade on the left reported: “Enemy has broken our Battle Line and is advancing on Ville au Bois.” Thus before word had come of the brigade front being assaulted, the enemy had turned both flanks and was advancing on the Butte des Buttes.”
The 2nd Devonshire here posted were soon in desperate straits. Heavily attacked in front and on both flanks, the battalion slowly fell backwards towards Pontavert. When some distance north of the town the gallant commanding officer, Lieut-Col. R.H. Anderson-Morshead, D.S.O., refused to retire further and called upon his battalion to take up a position and protect the crossing. This they did, but the enemy coming in from the east along the river finally got into Pontavert itself and thus surrounded them and cut them off. The fact that the Germans were behind them made no difference to the dauntless spirit of the Devons. There they remained, an island in the midst of a sea of determined enemies, fighting with perfect discipline, and, by the steadiness of their fire, mowing down assault after assault. A battery commander, who was an eye witness, gives the following account of the action:
“At a late hour in the morning I, with those of my men who had escaped the enemy’s ring of machine guns and his fearful barrage, found the C.O. of the 2nd Devon Regiment and a handful of men holding on to the last trench north of the canal. They were in a position in which they were entirely without hope of help, but were fighting on grimly. The Commanding Officer himself was calmly writing his orders with a perfect hail of H.E. falling round him. I spoke to him and he told me that nothing could be done. He refused all offers of help from my artillerymen, who were unarmed, and sent them off to get through if they could. His magnificent bearing, dauntless courage and determination to carry on to the end moved one’s emotion.”
Refusing to surrender and preferring to fight to the last, this glorious battalion perished en-masse, its losses comprising the C.O., 28 officers and 552 N.C.O.’s and men. In fit acknowledgement of its splendid choice the battalion was “cited” in French Army Orders and awarded the Croix de Guerre. Its self-sacrifice enabled Brig-Gen Grogan to organise, with the remnants of his brigade, a defensive position on the high ground about la Platrerie, due south of Pontavert and across the river, to which he moved his H.Q. The command of such troops as were left was entrusted to Capt. Clive Saunders, Adjutant of the 2nd West Yorkshire.
Thus, by early morning, the remnants of the division were all across the river and the enemy, rapidly following up, was crossing the river also. Before continuing the further narrative of the battle it will, however, be convenient to consider what had happened to our artillery during the progress of the initial attack.
Royal Field Artillery
There can be no doubt that our battery positions were known to the enemy and when his artillery was loosed at 1am all our gun positions were heavily shelled, at first with gas shells and later with H.E., or mixed with H.E. and gas. “H.E and gas in mixed doses following the preparatory gas”, says one battery report, and the enemy shooting seemed uncannily accurate. Under these conditions it was, in many cases, impossible to carry on the counter preparation and harassing fire which was to have continued all night, but it was maintained whenever possible and for as long as possible. The 5th battery (XLV Brigade) for instance, continued to fire throughout the night until, at about 6.30am the enemy appeared on the battery position. Many guns, however, were early put out of action by direct hits. The three guns at the main position of the 57th battery (Major B.W. Ellis) of the same brigade had been absolutely wrecked by 2.30am and the fourth pit (which was unoccupied) had been set on fire. The 1st battery (Major M.T. Bargh), also of the XLV brigade, similarly had three guns put out of action by hostile shell fire.
The 8th Divisions Artillery dispositions when the battle opened were as follows: The zone of the 25th Infantry Brigade on the right, was covered by the French Group Paul, under Commandant Paul. This group of 75mm guns was located south of the Aisne. The 24th Infantry Brigade, in the centre, was covered by the XXXIII Brigade, R.F.A. (Lieut-Col H.G. Fisher, D.S.O.) while the XLV Brigade, R.F.A. (Lieut-Col J.A. Ballard), covered the zone of the 23rd Infantry Brigade. Both these brigades of 18 pounder guns were north of the river.
Owing to the circumstances, and as a result of the rapid German penetration which has already been described, the personnel of the two British brigades became involved, between 6 and 7am in hand to hand fighting, and such guns as had not been previously destroyed were ultimately captured by the enemy. The 1st battery was completely surrounded by 7am. Breech blocks were taken out to render the guns useless to the enemy and the men fought with rifles and Lewis guns, but of the whole battery only 2 Sergeants and 6 men succeeded in breaking their way through and getting back to the wagon lines.
When the enemy in like manner approached the position of the 32nd battery ( XXXIII Brigade) Major A.G. Ramsden, the battery commander, had one of his guns run out of its emplacement, so as to give it a wider arc of fire, and with it kept the enemy off at close range, the remaining gunners and N.C.O.’s assisting with Lewis and rifle fire. The gun was eventually placed on a small railway truck, and after all the maps, records, kits etc., which could not be moved had been burnt and the other guns had been rendered useless by the removal of the breech blocks and sights, Major Ramsden retired down the Miette valley fighting a rearguard action with his one gun. Although nearly surrounded and ultimately forced to abandon his gun, he was finally able to get the remaining personnel of his battery across the canal.
A detailed account has been compiled from survivors statements of the heroic action of the 5th battery (XLV Brigade), already mentioned, and it may be quoted fairly fully here as a typical example of the appalling trials which our gunners on this night had to undergo, and of the magnificent spirit with which they were met.
The battery was carrying out its counter preparation work when the deluge from the enemy’s guns broke over it.
“Gas masks were instantly adjusted and about ten minutes later the rocket sentry reported S.O.S. rockets on the front. The call was immediately responded to by our gunners, Capt. J.H. Massey controlling the fire of the battery, while Lieut. C.E. Large and 2nd Lieut. C.A. Button commanded their sections. To continue to serve the guns indefinitely during such a terrific bombardment was a physical impossibility for any one man, and Capt. Massey, realizing this, organised a system of reliefs, two gunners and one N.C.O. manning each gun. The remainder of the personnel took cover until their turns came round to take their place at the guns.
After the customary period of fire on the SOS lines, guns were once more laid on counter preparation lines and a steady rate of fire was continued during what seemed an interminable night.
Lieut. Large and 2nd Lieut. Button frequently took their places with the gunners in the reliefs, while Capt. Massey kept moving from pit to pit and dug out to dug out and then to the detached sections, encouraging the detachments and telephonists and reminding them of the splendid traditions of the Royal Regiment.
By about 5am No 4 gun had been put out of action owing to a shell splinter tearing up the guides. The detachment was withdrawn and sent in to reinforce the other detachments.
The strain on all concerned was terrific, but at last at about 6.45am the enemy’s barrage lifted clear of the position. Instead, however, of the expected respite, large numbers of German Infantry and gunners came into view less than 200 yards from the battery position. A few rounds were fired at point blank range, but it was then reported that Germans were coming up in rear. There was nothing left but to resort to rifles and Lewis guns. Capt. Massey, realizing the situation a little earlier, had called for volunteers and pushed off with 4 gunners and a Lewis gun to a small eminence to the eastward in an endeavour to protect the flank. Nothing more has been heard of Capt. Massey and his men. Lieut. Large, although wounded in the foot, took the other Lewis gun, 2nd Lieut. Button, after having destroyed all the maps, papers and records, was last seen moving off with a rifle to assist Capt. Massey. The remainder of the battery fought to the last with their rifles till overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers.”
Only three gunners who were unarmed and were ordered to retire, and one with a rifle who fought his way out, survived. Of the two F.O.O.’s, 2nd Lieut. C. Counsell and 2nd Lieut. H.Reakes, and their telephonists nothing was heard of again. The 5th battery shared with the 2nd Devonshire the honour of being “cited” in French Army Orders and awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Many a similar conflict, carried to the same grim, gallant and inevitable end, must have been fought in the dim and misty dawn on that tract of country north of the Aisne, where were collected on the night of the 26th May the fighting troops of the 8th Division.
South of the Aisne
To continue now with the main story. By 6.30am the right of the line rested on the Gernicourt position, but between this and the right of the 24th Infantry Brigade there was a gap. The battalion in divisional reserve (1st Sherwood Foresters) was ordered to move forward and fill it, and succeeded in preventing the enemy crossing the river on its front in the vicinity of la Pecherie bridge. Elsewhere, however, he was getting across and, well covered by artillery (of which the 8th division now possessed none), he outflanked and drove back General Grogan’s party (23rd Brigade), which was holding the high ground above la Platerie. The enemy drove forward thence and the Sherwood Foresters and the other defenders of the Gernicourt position were ultimately cut off. The great natural strength of the position, which must have made it a most serious obstacle to a direct assault, was thus of no avail. It was turned from the south west and the battle passed it by. The garrison, including the French Territorial Troops, appear to have put up a good fight, but they were surrounded and, later in the morning, were overpowered. All the French 75’s and the guns of the VX brigade, R.F.A. which were in action in this neighbourhood were lost.
In view of the rapid advance of the enemy the divisional commander decided, shortly after 10am, to use his remaining reserves – some 600 men from the Lewis gun school, men from the transport lines, etc. – to hold the second position. This ran along the northern slopes of the high ground south of the river Aisne on the general line Bouffignereux – Roucy – Concevreux. Troops of the 25th Division were already moving up to this line in accordance with corps orders. At 1.20pm the 75th Infantry Brigade, which had originally been ordered forward from 25th Division division in reserve to fill a gap between the remnants of the 8th division and what was left of the 50th division, was put under General Henekers orders and the line about this time was held generally as follows. On the right front, isolated and surrounded, remnants of the 22nd Durham L.I. and 1st Sherwood Foresters were still holding portions of the Bois de Gernicourt. The 75th infantry brigade was holding the second position from Bouffignereux to Concevreux as follows: On the right, from Bouffignreeux to Roucy, the 2nd South Lancashire with remnants of the 24th and 25th Infantry Brigades: on the left, from Roucy to Concevreux, the 11th Cheshires, with the remnants of the 23rd infantry brigade. The 8th Border Regiment was in close support behind Roucy. On the divisional right the forward swell of the hill on the right of Bouffignereux was occupied by the 7th infantry brigade of the 25th Division, on its left at Concevreux was the 74th infantry brigade.
During the afternoon there was a lull in the fighting. “The day was extremely hot, the sunshine brilliant and, but for the deep drone of heavy shells winging their way rearwards, all sounds of battle were temporarily stilled. Viewed from the hills above Roucy the battle area presented a vivid spectacle. The Aisne and its attendant canal glittered like silver ribbons in the sun, while in the vacated trench area beyond hung a pall of haze and dust, which lifting at intervals revealed the roads thick with marching regiments in field grey, with guns, lorries and wagons.
Above, like great unwinking eyes rode observation balloons, towed along by motor transport. These balloons were brought up very close and the German preparations for a fresh assault continued methodically and with hardly any molestation.
Between 4 and 5 o’clock in the afternoon, under cover of heavy fire from trench mortars and machine guns, the attack was renewed all along the line. Our line on the right, at the point of junction with the 7th infantry brigade, was pierced and the village of Bouffignereux was captured. This success was vigorously exploited and our whole line forced back. By 7.15pm it had been pushed back some 3,000 yards and ran along the tops of the hills separating the valley of the Aisne from the valley of the Vesle. The GOC 75th infantry brigade (Brig-Gen H.A Kennedy) was calling urgently for reinforcements and ammunition. The latter was sent at once. To meet the former demand, General Heneker sent out officers to collect all the stragglers they could find and these, supplemented by his HQ guard and the personnel of his HQ – a total force of some 500 men – were sent forward under his ADC, Major G.R. Hennessy and were handed over to General Kennedy at 10pm. Our line, often out of touch with adjacent formations, continued to fall back and, before midnight, Ventelay and Bouvancourt were in the hands of the enemy. So rapid was the enemy’s advance that in the latter village the entire 25th Ambulance was captured. The village was surrounded before the ambulance knew that any danger existed. Subsequently the O.C., Lieut-Col T.P. Puddicombe, D.S.O., and another officer, Lieut. Kelly, an American Doctor, managed to escape and to regain our lines.
Divisional HQ, which had already at 5 o’clock that afternoon fallen back to Montigny-sur-Vesle, were opened at 11.30pm at Branscourt to the south of that river, but during the night the enemy succeeded in turning our right flank, our troops were forced to fall back to the line of the river Vesle, and Divisional HQ had again to retire, opening at Faverolles at 9.45 am on the 28th May. Meanwhile General Grogan, GOC 23rd infantry brigade was ordered at 6am, to assume command of all troops in the vicinity of Jonchery and to hold a front on the river Vesle extending 1 mile on either side of that town.
THE GERMAN PERSPECTIVE
The following is excerpted from (and Copyright of) John Reith’s book, Imperial Germany’s Iron Regiment of the First World War, History of Infantry Regiment 169, (www.ironregiment169.com) that details the actions of IR 169 as it assaulted over 8th Division lines, participated in the attack at the Bois de Buttes, and attacked over the Aisne between La Pecherie and Pontavert. The primary German source comes from the memoirs of Leutnant Otto Lais, who served as the Executive Officer for IR 169’s 2nd Machine Gun Company during this battle.
German commanders designed 4:40 am (x+160) as the moment for the ground attack. In the 20 minutes before the attack, engineers placed special bridging over the trenches so that the tanks could pass over. Other engineer squads ventured out to no-man’s-land to clear passages through the obstacle fields. At 4:39 am, storm troop commanders raised their hands as a signal for their men to ready their weapons. Hand grenade squads pulled out their grenades and communications wiremen prepared their bulky cargos of rolled field phone wires. Tank engines were started and pitched to high levels of torque. Precisely at 4:40, the commanders’ arms were lowered and the stormtrooper climbed out of their trenches for the 200 meter race to the British trenches. Trust in the Feurewalze was absolute, as supporting artillery fire did not lift from the lead trenches until seconds before the storm troopers reached their objectives.
Opposing British troops, including 1st Battalion, 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment, were stunned. The ferocity of the bombardment blew in trenches, collapsed bunkers and destroyed defensive obstacle fields. The German storm units wasted no time to fully clear the trenches, as this was the job for the follow-on waves of conventional infantry. In moments, the first and second trench lines were in German hands. The British put up a more determined stand in the third trenches, causing heavy losses on both sides. IR 169’s 9th and 10th Companies participated in this segment of the struggle. Even as the fighting for the third trench raged, German engineers were already putting up bridging over the first trenches to make passage for the tanks, artillery and support wagons soon to follow. The West Yorks attempted a resolute defense, but stood little chance to slow the avalanche pouring over them.
For the commander and staff at the British 8th Division’s Headquarters, the indications of the disaster at the front unfolded with terrible speed:
“The 24th Brigade on the right reported “Enemy advancing up the Miette stream close to Brigade headquarters. Cannot hold out without reinforcements”. Such news was startling in the extreme. But worse was yet to come, and at about 5:30 a.m. the left Brigade, 149th reported “enemy has broken our battle – line and are advancing on Ville au Bois”. Thus before word had come of the front being assaulted, the enemy had turned both flanks and was closing on the Bois des Buttes.”
With the front three trenches in German hands, the only remaining form of organized British resistance before the Aisne was the 2nd Devonshire’s Battalion. The Devonshire’s sector comprised the Bois des Buttes, a twin crested hillock about thirty meters high and 500 meters across to the immediate south of the La Villa village. The hill was laced with underground quarries, with deep galleries that were dry and naturally protective to shellfire. The extensive underground network, fortified by both German and French troops over the years, was large enough to protect a brigade headquarters and three infantry battalions. Passages connected the complex to another fortified bunker system for the 5th Field Battery of the Royal Artillery. Of this later feature observed the 8th Division historian “This was at once a tactical and a social convenience – not only were we in close touch with our guns but we never lacked a fourth at bridge o `nights!” The Devonshires, under the command of Lt Col Anderson-Morshead, only rotated into the forest the evening of the attack, having just spent the past week in reserve status training new replacements.
The protection of the quarries enabled the battalion to withstand the German bombardment relatively intact, but with little awareness of the situation outside. Once the shelling lifted, the troops raced to positions in trenches and bunkers with Companies B, C and D forward, with Company A in the reserve. The heavy early morning mist enabled the first groups of Germans, led by storm troops of the 50th Division, to close in at close range. German rifle-fired and hand thrown grenades flew into the trenches. The British repelled three separate attacks, leaving many dead and wounded on both sides. The sun started to burn off the early fog, exposing arriving German formations to Lewis machine gun fire at longer ranges. In one of many instances of heroism, 20 year old Private Borne fired his Lewis gun at ‘German hordes’ while all his comrades were shot down around him. As the Germans close in to 100 yards, he withdrew back a short distance and resumed his fire before falling mortally wounded.
German commanders began to appreciate the extent of the determined resistance, and briefly paused the ground attack to resume artillery fires. Aircraft flew into machine gun, bomb and mark the British positions for artillery strikes. Observations balloons, some tethered to tanks, added to the precision of the artillery fire. The Germans resumed the infantry attacks in such overwhelming numbers that it seemed nearly impossible for the British riflemen to miss a target. Trenches were taken, counterattacked, and taken again. The overpowering weight of the infantry attacks and artillery fires devastated the Devonshire ranks. The few survivors of three front line companies were knocked off the summit of the hill by 7:00 am.
Although Lt. Col. Anderson-Morshead’s command was reduced to a handful of troops, he organized A Company and the battalion headquarters into a last stand defense on the reverse slope of the hill. From this position, they were still able to bring fire on German troops advancing towards the Aisne bridgehead at Pontavert.
IR 169’s recent experience in training with tanks came of use when a pair of German converted Mark IV’s joined the battle. In concert with other German units, IR 169 squads accompanied the tanks in the final series of assaults that wiped out the Devonshires. The British, with no anti-tank weapons available, were powerless to stop the armor. The tanks lumbered forward, firing machine guns and cannons to dislodge the British at the edge of the forest. These tanks were only stopped when they proved unable to climb the steep berms of the last artillery positions. [While the role of the tanks at the Bois des Buttes can hardly be qualified as decisive, it did provide IR 169 with the rare distinction as being one of the few German infantry units in the war to attack alongside their own armor.]
IR 169 squads, augmented by machine gun teams, closed in on the last remaining positions. A newly assigned replacement officer began to direct machine gun fire into a bunker when he was torn to pieces by a hand grenade. A pioneer squad then maneuvered behind the bunker and destroyed it with an explosive charge. Leutnant Spies led a storm troop platoon, supported by machine guns of the 1st and 3rd MG Company, into the bunker complex to wipe out remaining defenders. In another trench, a group of British soldiers raised their hands in surrender. Leutnant D.R. Barth entered the position to take them as prisoners. As Lais described:
“A fanatical scoundrel pulled a Browning pistol and shot Barth in the stomach, leaving him with a grievous wound. The Englishman paid for his treacherous act with his life. The remaining prisoners stood still, with snow white faces as they raised their arms as far as can be stretched. All were evacuated with an audible breath of air from their lungs.”
By 9:30 am, the Bois des Buttes was fully in German possession and the path to the Aisne River was clear of organized resistance. Lt. Col Anderson-Morshead, last observed with pistol in one hand and riding crop in the other, was among the many British dead. The 2nd Battalion, Devonshire Regiment was practically annihilated, with 552 members killed or captured and less than 80 survivors left to regroup with the retreating British forces. The British Army recognized 2nd Devonshire Battalion’s heroism by listing the Battle of Bois des Buttes with an exclusive unit battle honor.
Captain D.R. Knapp, commanded IR 169’s 2nd Battalion in this action. Lais described Knapp, who was a public prosecutor in Constance before the war, as being respected as a capable leader who possessed a deep sense of intellectual curiosity. A captured British colonel, who was being moved to the rear, took notice of the 2nd Battalion staff and asked if he could speak to their commanding officer. After being presented, he addressed Knapp in perfect German: “Herr Hauptmann, ich begluckwunsche sie zu einer solchen Leistung Ihrer Truppe” (“Captain, I congratulate you for the performance of your troops.”)
When the fighting subsided, Lais remembered pausing to reflect on the stunning battlefield landscape that left such significant milestones to his wartime service. Two miles to the southeast were the ruins of Berry-au-Bac. In the April 1917 battle, the fields beyond the town witnessed the destruction of 24 French tanks, one of which explored on a rainy night from the Juvincourt trenches. Another two miles to the southwest was the village of Pontavert and its stone bridge that crossed the Aisne. A few miles further to his right was the desolate Winterberg, which after so much bloodshed in the summer of 1917 was finally again under German control.
With the Bois des Buttes finally taken, the next objective was to cross over the Aisne River and canal, just a mile to the south past the forest.
The Devonshires stoic defense allowed British engineers time to blow up five small, wartime bridges that spanned the river between Berry-au-Bac and Pontavert. However, they did not have time destroy the main stone bridge at Pontavert. By 9:00 am, German storm troop and infantry units were soon on the near bank of the river, making prisoners of those British troops not able to swim across the river and canal.
A mile to the east of Pontavert and just off the river was a substantial fishery complex, recorded by the combatants as the ‘La Pecherie Ferne.’ On the south bank of the Aisne, disorganized British troops attempted to rally to defend the stone bridge. French reserve forces, described by Lais as ‘grey-bearded elderly men’ took up positions in a wood line across the river from the Pecherie. Another quarter mile south of the river began the Gernicourt Woods, a thick forest one mile wide and a half mile deep. The Gernicourt Woods was still shrouded with traces of the deadly light-green poisonous gas that the Germans used to target the British rear positions. IR 169 assembled for its role in the river assault between the Pecherie and Pontavert.
Lais arrived at the front leading 2nd MG Company’s gun and ammunition wagons. It was a difficult journey, with the wagon convoy having been trapped within an obstacle field for over an hour before it could finally be untangled. Nearing the forward lines, Lais took note of large groups of British prisoners awaiting evacuation to the rear. The faces of the POWs reflected amazement as endless formations of Germans infantry and artillery followed behind the storm troop units.
Lais led the MG wagons behind the courtyard structure of the La Pecherie outbuildings. A large graveyard, filled with dead from the past three years of combat, covered much of the grounds. French troops from directly across the river and British machine guns from Pontavert peppered the Germans with gunfire. The MG Company support troops distributed ammunition and from the wagons and broke out the hardware to set up the heavy machine guns. Leutnant Fahr placed one section of machine guns at a nearby point where the river and canal ran directly alongside each other and opened fire.
With his ammunition supply duties fulfilled, Lais took a few moments to explore the farm buildings. He found one of the rooms being used as a dressing station, still staffed by captured British medical personnel: Lais wrote: “English doctors and medics treat friends and foes. All have respect for these people, who selflessly attend all while the battle rages nearby.” In another building, Lais’ men came across a large pile of bedding material. They gladly took whatever blankets they could carry, leaving stacks of bed posts and frames alone, but noted for future use.
The Germans hurried to improvise ways to cross over the river and canal before the enemy could regroup. As a start, an infantry company found two abandoned barges. Lais wrote how someone from the 2nd MG Company came up the ‘brilliant idea’ to use the abandoned stores of bed frames and posts as framework to construct improvised footbridges. The pioneers quickly got work, lashing together the posts with wires and using wooden planks for the bridging. Within an hour, they had constructed footbridges sufficiently long enough to cross the 40 meter-wide river and canal at this uniquely narrow point.
A collection of IR 169 storm troopers and 6th Company were tasked to lead the river assault. The 9th Company, commanded by Leutnant D.R. Kastner, took position along the north bank to join the machine guns in providing covering fires. One of the 9th Company NCOs, Vice Master Sergeant Howe, was severely wounded but still stayed in line to fire his light machine gun. The enemy marksmanship proved sound, as several others nearby were killed with head shots.
At 10:00 am, the crude foot bridges were complete, and dragged up to the river. A number of the pioneers were shot as they swam into the river to set up the far side of the bridge. A squad of stormtroopers, led by Leutnant Selle, were the first to charge across. Selle and his entire unit were killed within a short distance of the crossing. Lais, who considered Selle a ‘dear comrade,’ was branded with the image of his friend’s corpse lying face down in the mud. Other troops continued on. Crossing the shaky bridge was a perilous affair. Not only did the attackers face a deadly fire from the front and flanks, but they were heavily laden with rifles, assault packs, hand grenades and entrenching tools. A fall into the river would likely result in drowning.
Squad-by-squad, enough Germans made it across the river and canal so that they could maneuver against the French troops immediately before them. One of the German leaders was the red-haired Leutnant Ries, described by Lais as being completely unflappable. Filthy dirty, and with a long stubble of a red beard, he attacked with great fury. Nearing the French position, he yelled with his rich tenor voice ‘a’ bas les armes! (Down with your weapons!) Lais, somewhat sympathetically, recorded the plight of these French reservists:
“Scared of this red devil, the French landstrum commander could not raise his hands fast enough. It was a bad situation for the elderly men, accustomed to the beer and comforts of guarding the depots of Jonchery and Fimes [large French army depots 8 miles south], to be fetched up early in the morning by lorries and thrust into a frenzied battle against this God of Thunder, roaring devil-fire.”
Directly ahead was the ominously silent Gernicourt Woods. Due to the large concentration of the special ‘yellow cross’ gas targeted there, most German units bypassed the woods to open fields on either end. A small storm troop group, wearing well-inspected gas masks, was ordered to scout the center of the woods. There they found that the yellow cross gas indeed functioned as billed. The crews of an entire British artillery battery lay dead. Elsewhere, others were found dying or suffering in horrible agony. Lais reflected:
“The Gernicourt Woods was a great cemetery. Gas is a cruel weapon and does not distinguish commands or victims. We were the victors in this murderous location because we had better gas masks.” Foreshadowing the destruction of IR 169 five months later, Lais noted how “we also had to experience our own gas masks failing in a very insidious American gas attack in late October, 1918.”
German small units breached in the Aisne in greater numbers, forcing the British to abandon their defense of the southern end of the Pontavert Bridge. German pioneers quickly set up more substantial bridges across the river and canal that could support wagons and vehicles. The Aisne River was now fully under German control.
The next line of British resistance stood at the small village of Bouffignereux, one mile further south of Gernicourt Woods. At 10:30 am, the 1st Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment, came up from reserve positions in an attempt to slow the German advance. The Wiltshire’s established a line in front of the village, with Companies D, B, and A forward, and two platoons of C Company in reserve. The ground between Bouffignereux and the Gernicourt Woods were open fields. To the east was a forest where a mounted British artillery battery paused along path in the midst of a copse of alder bushes.
In addition to the battery, the confused British retreat left a collection of supply, medical and munitions wagons becoming tangled in the small forested pathways. In early afternoon, a squadron of four German planes attacked into the woodlands, sending the some of the wagons crashing into the cover of the undergrowth. Shortly after, salvos of well-aimed artillery exploded on top of the British wagons and artillery sections, panicking men and horses. A section of the hidden artillery battery, with caissons, limbers and guns colliding together, dashed out to the road only to run in to the advancing German infantry. The battery commander and other section leaders were killed in the initial German volley and the remaining artillerymen taken prisoner. Two battery horses were killed and two others badly wounded and shot out of mercy. Nearby, a group of supply wagons tried to make an escape from the woods. The lead crews were also shot down and the rest of the personnel captured.
Lais noted how the English horses, of strong Norman breed, were well fed, had shiny coats and were in excellent condition. The first order of business was to unlimber the newly captured horses to replace the more worn-down German mounts. Some of the horses were unruly, leading the Germans to press the British farriers to assist in getting them under control. Lais wrote that while the Germans would never seek to harm their prisoners, they also did not appreciate the rather ‘insolent attitude’ displayed by this particular batch of POWs.
The main assault on Bouffignereux line took place at 5:30. The Wiltshire Regimental diary records that the attack struck with overwhelming artillery and machine gun fire, compelling the Wiltshire troops to retreat in small groups through the village to fight trailing, rear guard actions.
Lais arrived in Bouffignereux just after the village was stormed. The intensity of the fighting was evidenced by the many dead British soldiers lying throughout the village streets. Still-warm corpses were dragged to the sides of houses so wagons would have free passage. At dusk, a large group of prisoners, described by Lais as having a more polite demeanor than those taken in the forest, gathered unguarded in the village center, waiting for evacuation to the rear. Artillery units entered the village with a heavy battery taking position in the church courtyard. Lais’ MG wagons also set up near the church’s high walls and occupied a house after feeding and watering their horses.
Elsewhere in IR 169’s advance that day, infantry companies reached the high ground near Bouvancourt, two miles further south. Leutnant Spies, after leading his storm troopers in clearing British bunkers in the Bois des Buttes that morning, captured a unique prize – a functioning British tank. The popular Spies recounted his tale with great relish. It began with his leading a reconnaissance patrol two kilometers past the forward-most German lines. The patrol came across the lone tank and surprised its crew, killing two men and capturing the rest. Realizing the opportunity at hand, Spies man-handled the driver back into the tank and through a combination of gestures and sharp pokes to his ribs, guided him back to German lines. As he neared German forward positions, he realized that tank would likely be perceived as vanguard of a British counterattack, and risk drawing friendly fire. With his heart pounding furiously, Spies ordered one of his men take off his shirt and wave it wildly above the tank hatch. The ploy worked and Spies and his men returned to a jubilant welcome as all explored the four-man tank with great interest.
That evening, the Germans in Bouffignereux feasted on British rations. They had not had the opportunity to sample British food since taking prisoners in the 1916 Somme Campaign. With great delight, Lais’ orderly, Dirksen, filled any extra space in the wagon limbers with such delicacies’ as white bread, butter, peach jam and corned beef. The best of these gourmet items were the dark coffee beans. Lais remembered how their mouths had longed for coffee that didn’t taste like it was a by-product of German acorns.
It was a remarkable moment in IR 169’s wartime journey. For the first time since September 1914, the regiment was attacking on a front with no enemy trenches, entanglements of barbed wire obstacles or clouds of poisonous gases immediately before them.
The following are the capture statements of Officers of the 1/Sherwoods.
Capt. Clarence Harrison (O.C. “C” Company)
My battalion was sent at about 6:30am on the 27th May, 1918 to fill a gap on the Canal Bank North of GERNICOURT WOOD.
When moving through the wood I received orders from my C.O. to take my Company forward and form a line on the South Bank of the Canal and try to stop the Enemy who at that time were approaching the North Bank. I got my Company in position about 8am, and with B Company on my right, engaged the Enemy and remained although suffering heavy losses, and with my left flank exposed.
I sent back for reinforcement but none arrived until after noon as near as I can remember, and by that time the Enemy had got across the Canal on my left and had either killed or taken prisoner the few who remained of my Company, also one Platoon and Company HQ of Letter “D” Company who had been sent as reinforcement.
2/Lt. William Edward Brown (“B” Company)
At daybreak on 27th May, 1918 the Battalion turned out at ROUCY and proceeded towards the trenches between PONTAVERT and BERRY AU BAC. Before reaching the BOIS DE GERNICOURT we came under shell fire and suffered casualties. On entering the wood we passed through a heavy barrage. Before clearing the wood, I was ordered by my commanding officer (the late Lt. Col. R. F. MOORE) to try and reach the bank of the AISNE Canal and engage the Enemy, who were then across the River AISNE. I had 3 Platoons and succeeded in taking up the position ordered after suffering heavy casualties. This was at about 5:30 – 5:45am. I at once engaged the Enemy at a range of not more than 50 yards. About 12:30pm I received an order to withdraw and get away as many men as possible. I was then practically surrounded and could not retire, and fought until compelled to surrender at 12:40pm. I had only 6 men left when I surrendered. I am sure that if I had received the order a few minutes earlier I could have withdrawn, but I had received orders to stick there.
2/Lt. Arthur Nield (“D” Company)
On the morning of the 27th May, 1918 my Battalion was ordered up to stem the German advance on the AISNE, and eventually reached GERNICOURT WOOD where we found the Enemy in our Artillery lines.
About 8:30am I was instructed to take my Platoon to an indicated point on the map, and report on 3 bridges crossing the AISNE Canal.
Before emerging from the Wood, I went forward with my runner to make a personal reconnaissance, found an Artillery O. P. and mounted it leaving my man at the foot. I observed that Enemy troops had passed the Western slope of the wood, whilst others were resting on the slopes leading to the Canal.
Whilst descending to report I was observed by a party of the Enemy, and on reaching the ground was taken prisoner.
2/Lt. Fitz Donald Severn (“D” Company, 13 Platoon)
At 6am 27-5-1918 I marched with my Battalion from ROUCY towards the front line, on the road running through the BOIS DE GERNICOURT. Passing through a barrage of shell fire, we came into contact with the Germans on the river AISNE. D Company was left just inside the wood on Battalion support. At 10:30 am (approx.) my platoon (No 13) together with Company HQ, was ordered to reinforce C Company.
We crawled up under heavy M.G. fire until we reached the spot on the grass where Capt. C. HARRISON, O.C. C Company was lying. I was ordered to take my Platoon to the river and line the near bank. I started to carry out this order but the M.G. fire immediately intensified making it impossible to advance. Capt. HARRISON then gave the order to remain where we were. I ordered my Platoon to face their front and keep on the alert. This position was 10 yards in front of a thick belt of wire and there was no cover of any description. We remained there under heavy M.G. fire and T.M. fire, with a German aeroplane flying up and down the line. There was no unit on our left flank. At 12:30 pm the fire suddenly ceased. I then saw the Enemy advancing at about 60 yards distance and immediately ordered my Platoon to open rapid fire. On looking to the left I saw a party of the Enemy advancing up the wire and opened fire on them with my revolver as the flanks were in the air.
When the Enemy were within 20 yards I heard Capt. MENZIES, O.C. D Company, shout “Surrender, HARRISON, we can’t do anything.” Capt. HARRISON then gave the order to surrender. We could not retire owing to the belt of wire in our rear. We numbered at the time about 25 all ranks and the Germans attacked with at least 250 men.
Capt. Eric Bosworth Greensmith (C.O. 24 LTM Battery)
At the time of capture, I was in command of the 24th Light Trench Mortar Battery and the Brigade sector was the JURNICOURT salient.
The HQ was about one kilometer behind the front line in a disused trench leading from the main communication trench (VERDUN).
I received a warning from my Brigade HQ during the afternoon of May 26 that an attack was possible and I took action accordingly.
At about 1am on May 27th the Enemy put down an exceptionally heavy barrage which lasted until about 4am.
I manned the parapet with the few details at my HQ. No enemy were seen to approach my post frontally but about 5am my small party was outflanked by superior numbers and forced to surrender.
1. I had no trench mortars at my HQ but had three pairs of guns which were disposed with three section officers just behind front line in accordance with Brigade defence scheme. Communication was maintained with runners.
2. My HQ party consisted of Sergeant Major, servant, clerk, two orderlies.
3. My HQ was in a disused trench running from main communication trench and there were no troops on either flank or in immediate contact. Two runners from my HQ failed to return with information during the heavy bombardment.
4. Little resistance was possible as no enemy were seen frontally (visibility was bad owing to smoke and dust). First sign of enemy was given by arrival of bombs from left flank.
Lt. John Edward Mills Walker (24 LTM Battery)
During the evening of May 26th 1918 I received orders from my C.O. to withdraw the left and centre groups of guns (two guns in a group) about 300 yards and in the event of a hostile attack to fire as much ammunition as possible and to withdraw with the guns.
Owing to extremely heavy Enemy bombardment and the miscarrying of certain orders I had not time to withdraw the centre group, one gun being destroyed by hostile shell fire. I decided to remain with the one gun as it was too late to reach headquarters.
The first indication I had of a hostile attack was a few rifle shots fired from the front line less than 100 yards to my front. I fired a few rounds but as no S.O.S. could be seen I ceased fire. The mist was dense but during a temporary lift I saw a party of the Enemy behind me moving diagonally to my right rear. I realized I was being cut off and should have to fight my way back. To attempt this with a gun was useless, so I destroyed it. I proceeded to withdraw with about six men, three of whom had been very badly shaken by hostile shell fire.
As soon as I left the trench I saw in the mist a group of men moving to the rear. I shouted to them to find out who they were. They were the Enemy and shouted that we were prisoners and when we turned back into the trench, threw some bombs. I decided to withdraw by the trenches as much as possible to avoid observation. Attempting to do this, I turned a corner and found a group of the Enemy on the side of the trench covering me with their rifles. Resistance being useless I surrendered. Three of my men following me were captured a few moments later.
8th DIVISION CASUALTIES
1st SHERWOODS PoWs
|Pte||108974||James||Beesley||Berry au Bac|
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1st SHERWOODS KiA
ORDER OF BATTLE, BRITISH IX CORPS (Sir Alexander Hamilton Gordon)
8th Division: (Major-General W C G Heneker)
23rd Inf. Brigade: (Brigadier-General W St G Grogan – VC)
2nd West Yorkshire
24th Inf. Brigade: (Brigadier-General- General R Haig – Wounded)
1st Sherwood Foresters
25 th Trench Mortar Battery
25th Inf. Brigade: (Brigadier-General R H Husey – Killed in Action)
2nd Royal Berkshire
2nd Rifle Brigade
2nd East Lancashire
Royal Field Artillery (RFA) Brigades:
Field Companies Of the Royal Engineers (RE): 2, 15, 490
22nd Durham LI (Pioneers)
8 th Machine Gun Battalion
25th Division: (Major-General Sir E G T Bainbridge)
7th Inf. Brigade: (Brigadier-General C J Griffin)
4th South Staffordshire
74th Inf. Brigade: (Brigadier-General H M Craigie Halkett)
11th Lancashire Fusiliers
9th Loyal North Lancashire
75th Inf. Brigade: (Brigadier-General A A Kennedy)
8th Border Regiment
2nd South Lancashire
Royal Field Artillery (RFA) Brigades:
Royal Engineer (RE) Field Companies:
6th South Wales Borderers
Commemorating the Fallen of WW1
The death of Ralph Bell was one of the very few missed by the Radleian Society recorders during WW1. Consequently, he is not named on Radley’s war memorial.
The last entry for him in the Radley Register published in 1923 simply stated that he left the school in 1907. This entry was reprinted in 1962. In the 1980s, the Radleian Society was planning an updated version of the Register and so conducted extensive research into those ORs with whom they had lost contact over the years. A handwritten note in the Archivist’s annotated copy of the 1962 register updated the information on Ralph Bell:
‘Went to Canada 1st W Ontario Regt, and 98th Sqn RFC Captain married. Died on active service in France 27th May 1918’.
George Coote, A Social 1910, Lt, 50th Bn, Machine Gun Corps
Killed in action 2nd Battle of the Aisne
He was a School Prefect who played for the Cricket XI.
He obtained a commission In the Royal West Kents in December, 1914. and later on was transferred to the M.G.C. In July 1917, he was wounded and came back to England. He returned to France in April, 1918, and was killed in action May 27th, 1918. The news of his death will be a great grief to many Old Radleians. He was of a retiring nature, but his was a character,- like that of his great friend, Rupert ffolkes, – of which the very simplicity commanded admiration.
His best friend, Rupert ffolkes, was killed on 30th December 1917. Richard Coote, George’s older brother, was killed in action at the Battle of Hulluch on 13th October 1915. Their eldest brother, Peter, was badly wounded in 1917.
He is recorded on the Soissons Memorial, Aisne
Captain Ralph Bell remembered on the Arras Flying Memorial. Photographed for ‘Marching in Memory’ July 2015
German Failure at Chemin des Dames: How They Lost in 1918
German troops move toward the front as others enjoying a brief respite look on. The gains made during the Third Battle of the Aisne were purely tactical, resulting in no operational or strategic advantages.
A German feint over the Chemin des Dames in May 1918 gained more ground than expected before devolving into a logistical nightmare
By May 1918 the Germans no longer had any possible chance of winning World War I militarily.
Two great German offensives against the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in Flanders—operations Michael (March 21–April 5), and Georgette (April 9–29)—had captured huge swaths of terrain and inflicted 367,000 casualties on the Allies.
Yet the German gains were purely tactical, resulting in no operational or strategic advantages. The German operational situation had in fact worsened, as they were left holding two very large and vulnerable salients opposite the British. The German strategic situation was worse still. The two offensives had cost them 326,000 casualties, but unlike the Allies they could not make up for the losses. Meanwhile, fresh—albeit inexperienced—American troops continued to arrive in France in large numbers.
The Germans had no realistic alternative but to shift to the defensive and work toward a negotiated end to the war. But Gen. Erich Ludendorff—who with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg wielded what amounted to supreme control of Germany’s military forces—could not bring himself to accept a negotiated settlement, especially since the British would insist Germany relinquish control of the Belgian coast, which both sides knew was vital to controlling the English Channel. Moreover, the stunning tactical successes achieved during Michael and Georgette only convinced Ludendorff he could force an Allied collapse with just one or two more hard pushes.
He resolved to aim those pushes primarily at the BEF in Flanders.
Days after Operation Georgette ended, Ludendorff ordered Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht to prepare his namesake army group for Operation Hagen, which Ludendorff envisioned as a renewal of Georgette on a far larger scale. If Hagen could push the BEF off the Continent, Ludendorff was certain the French would collapse, despite the influx of Americans.
In fact, Allied forces in Flanders were stronger than Ludendorff anticipated. In response to the recent German offensives French Gen. Ferdinand Foch, the newly appointed supreme Allied commander, had moved considerable numbers of French reinforcements north of the Somme River. The Germans would have to draw off those reserves before hoping to re-engage the BEF. Thus Ludendorff conceived a large-scale diversionary attack in Champagne, south of Saint-Quentin and west of Reims, designed to look like an attack on Paris. Ludendorff reasoned the French would pull all their reserve divisions out of Flanders to establish a blocking force to cover their capital.
German infantrymen cross a canal on May 27, the first day of the battle. / Imperial War Museums
On April 18 Ludendorff ordered German Crown Prince Wilhelm’s army group to start planning and preparation for Operation Blücher. Wilhelm’s forces were to sweep toward Paris over the Chemin des Dames ridge, advance a dozen or so miles to the south, cross the Vesle River and take the high ground on the far bank. Once the French reserve divisions started moving south to protect Paris, the Germans would shift rapidly back north and launch Hagen.
Spearheading Blücher was the German Seventh Army, under Col. Gen. Max von Boehn, which struck south with 29 divisions across a 43-mile front, from Chauny on the Oise River east to Loivre on the Aisne-Marne Canal, north-northwest of Reims. As in their previous two spring offensives, the Germans weighted the attack heavily with artillery, with gunnery expert Col. Georg Bruchmüller again in charge of fire planning. The Germans massed 5,263 guns against 1,422 French and British guns. The resulting 3.7-to-1 ratio was the highest artillery superiority the Germans achieved in any Western Front battle.
Up until a few days before the battle Foch believed the Germans would renew their offensive in the north. Meanwhile, the French defense in the Champagne sector centered on holding the Chemin des Dames ridge, with the Ailette River to its immediate north. The French had recaptured this dominant feature from the Germans during the April–May 1917 Nivelle Offensive. Facing the main German attack was Gen. Denis Auguste Duchêne’s weak French Sixth Army, with 11 infantry divisions in the front line and five in reserve. The force included British Lt. Gen. Sir Alexander Hamilton-Gordon’s IX Corps, which had been severely battered during the Germans’ spring offensives.
Having sustained more than 42,000 casualties in Flanders, IX Corps had been transferred south to reconstitute in a supposedly quiet sector. Sixth Army was deployed as follows:On the left French XXX Corps held the line from Pontoise-lès-Noyon east to Vauxaillon in the center French XI Corps stretched east to Craonnelle (just west of Craonne) and on the right British IX Corps covered the line east to Loivre. Farther right still was the French 45th Division, to the northwest of Reims.
The French XI Army Corps, under Gen. Louis de Maud’huy, held a 23-mile sector. Deployed west to east in the first line, between the crest of the Chemin des Dames and the Ailette, were the 61st, 21st and 22nd divisions. Behind them the 74th, 39th and 157th divisions, respectively, held the main defensive Green Line, which ran roughly behind the Aisne River. The British IX Corps line, held by the 50th (Northumbrian), 8th and 21st divisions, ran from Bouconville-Vauclair (near Craonne) to Berméricourt (near Loivre). From the heights of the Chemin des Dames ridge the British line dropped in a southeasterly direction to Berry-au-Bac, where it crossed the Aisne and then paralleled the Aisne-Marne Canal toward Reims. The 25th Division remained in corps reserve, while a fifth British division, the 19th (Western), waited farther back near Châlons-sur-Vesle in army-level reserve. The mission of IX Corps and the French 45th Division to its right was to hold the Plateau de Californie, the eastern buttress of the Chemin des Dames. The Germans considered the plateau and the ground around Craonne the key terrain in their initial attack. The sector straddled the boundary between the French 22nd and British 50th divisions.
The German artillery opened up at 2 a.m. on May 27, taking the Allies by surprise. Though Bruchmüller’s masterful preparatory barrage lasted less than three hours, German gunners managed to damage or destroy most Allied forward positions, communications trenches, command posts and batteries. The fire effect was especially devastating, as Duchêne had ignored French army commander Gen. Philippe Pétain’s instructions to adopt a defense in depth.
When Pétain tried to force compliance with his orders, Foch backed Duchêne, who had been his chief of staff when Foch commanded XX Corps in 1914. The Sixth Army commander also rashly rejected similar warnings from his British commanders, who had had recent firsthand experience with Bruchmüller’s bombardments, dismissing his Allied subordinates with an arrogant, “J’ai dit” (“I have spoken”). Refusing to yield an inch of French soil without a fight, Duchêne foolishly packed his forces into the front lines, making them sitting ducks for Bruchmüller’s guns. The German artillery fired 3 million rounds on the first day of Blücher.
Crossing the line of departure at 4:40 a.m., 20 minutes before dawn, the German infantry advanced, preceded by a double creeping barrage. Attacking uphill along the northern base of the Chemin des Dames, they secured the eastern end of the ridge within two hours. The initial German blow fell on the French 22nd and 21st Divisions, which faced eight German divisions, while seven German divisions attacked the three British divisions in the first line.
Around 7:30 a.m. British IX Corps committed its reserve 25th Division. Within four hours of the start of the infantry assault the lead German units crossed the Aisne, 4½ miles south of the crest of the Chemin des Dames. They pushed the British 50th and 8th Divisions back across the river and enveloped the 21st Division on its right flank. In the French XI Corps sector the Germans hammered back the 22nd and 21st Divisions, while the 61st Division on the left held on for the time being. The effect was to push the right wing of French XI Corps to the southwest and away from British IX Corps, opening a gap in the Allied center.
At 11:15 a.m. Duchêne ordered XI Corps to withdraw to the Green Line—but the position had not been prepared for defense. Using infiltration tactics they had mastered during Michael and Georgette, the advancing Landser moved so fast the French and British were forced to abandon their artillery on the north bank of the Aisne. The attackers captured some 45,000 prisoners and 650 guns as they surged forward. British IX Corps lost most of its artillery. The Allies also failed to blow several key bridges over the Aisne, further facilitating the German advance. Hamilton-Gordon had received permission to blow the bridges in his sector at 12:30 p.m. Fortunately, he had already done so on his own initiative.
German soldiers pose outside a supply and accommodation cave captured from French forces during the June attacks toward Reims / Imperial War Museums
By 8 p.m. the Germans had pushed the French 22nd Division and the 157th Division behind it south of the Vesle. The German lead elements then crossed the river, having advanced 13 miles, exceeding the operational objective. It marked the largest single-day advance on the Western Front during the war. The French 22nd, 21st, 61st and 157th divisions had lost more than a third of their guns.
On May 28 the Germans pushed the French 22nd and 157th divisions still farther southwest, widening the gap between them and the British 25th Division to almost 10 miles. The British 19th Division, under Maj. Gen. George Jeffreys, was ordered forward. Still seriously understrength from the beating it had received that spring, the division fielded only about 9,000 troops. By day’s end the 25th Division had been badly mauled, while only remnants of the 50th, 8th and 21st divisions survived. IX Corps was ordered to hold the line of the Vesle, but as the British had almost no artillery, the Germans were able to repeatedly outflank them from the left. By 6 p.m. the Germans had pushed IX Corps south of the river, centered on Jonchery.
The German penetration to that point was nearly 15 miles deep and 42 miles wide at its base. Although Ludendorff had reached his geographic objective far more quickly than planned, there were no indicators yet that any significant numbers of French reserve units were moving out of Flanders.
Ludendorff had to make a decision. As he had done in Michael and Georgette, he abandoned the original plan and sought to exploit local tactical success. Without clearly identifying new operational objectives, he ordered the Seventh Army to continue pushing south. In support he redeployed from Flanders assault divisions he had been husbanding for Hagen. By that point nine Allied divisions, including four British, had been nearly destroyed. Recognizing it was no longer possible to re-establish a line along the Vesle and counterattack from there, Pétain at 11 p.m. redirected the Allied main effort against the German flanks, with particular emphasis on holding the Montagne de Reims, the high ground immediately south of the namesake city.
On May 29 the French center collapsed, and the Germans pushed the British left wing back to the southeast. The British 19th Division arrived in sector that day, and by noon the next day the surviving elements of the 21st, 8th, 50th and 25th divisions regrouped under the 19th. The Germans captured Soissons on the 29th and Fère-en-Tardenois, on the Ourcq River, the following day. As the Germans advanced to within a few miles of the Marne, Allied resistance seemed to disintegrate. Pétain committed his 16 available reserve divisions with little effect. Then, doing just what Ludendorff had originally anticipated, Pétain requested the transfer of Allied reserves in Flanders to his personal control. Foch, however, recognized Blücher as an operational dead-end. Unlike Michael or Georgette, it would have to culminate before reaching any significant objective. Thus he declined Pétain’s request for the time being.
On May 30 French XI Corps, which had been continually pushed to the southwest, was south of Soissons. At 11:45 a.m. Foch finally decided to commit part of his strategic reserve, the Tenth Army, of four divisions, which at that point was behind the BEF, north of the Somme. That still left the BEF in Flanders supported by the French Army Detachment of the North, with nine divisions. Pètain asked for those forces too, but Foch refused.
Although the German lead elements reached the north bank of the Marne at Château-Thierry on June 1, the German drive faltered on the shoulders of the huge salient. Thus far the Allies had managed to hold on to the important rail centers of Reims in the east and Compiègne in the west. Those key junctions controlled access to the only major rail line into the Blücher salient. Without access to that line, German logistics would soon become problematic.
By morning on June 1 the Germans had forced the left wing of the British 19th Division south of the Ardre River, though the British still held both banks below Bligny. Defending tenaciously, the 19th that day blocked the German advance up the Ardre, the main approach to the Montagne de Reims. Had the Germans taken that key piece of high ground south of Reims, the city would have fallen. Had that happened, the Germans would have been able to open up a major rail line into their huge salient.
Among the reinforcements Foch did feed to Pétain were the U.S. 2nd and 3rd divisions. In three days of fighting around Château-Thierry, beginning on June 1, the Americans repulsed repeated German attempts to cross the river, earning the title “Rock of the Marne” the 3rd Division still carries. The Germans’ worst nightmare had come to pass: The Americans were making their presence felt on the Western Front far sooner than anticipated.
Finally, on June 6, Crown Prince Wilhelm’s army group halted Blücher and ordered the Seventh Army to dig in. Although Paris had never been their real objective, the Germans were within 45 miles of the French capital. While the situation for the Allies appeared desperate, the Germans were in no position to exploit their advantage. They lacked the combat power, mobility or logistics to reach Paris, even if they had wanted to.
Over 11 days of fighting the Allies had suffered upward of 127,000 casualties. The Germans had lost fewer men, some 105,000, but all they had to show for it was another huge salient to defend. Worse, lines of communication into the Blücher salient were poor and incapable of supporting the logistics flow necessary to maintain the troops defending it. Worse still, Ludendorff had squandered 13 of the 26 Hagen attack divisions in Blücher, and those divisions had to be reconstituted. Before he could even think of trying to launch Hagen, Ludendorff would have to wrest control of the Compiègne–Reims rail line by seizing the hub at either end. That imperative drove the fourth and fifth of Ludendorff’s 1918 offensives, Operations Gneisenau (June 9–13) and Marneschutz-Reims (July 15–18). With the failure of those operations the Germans were forced to scrub Hagen, and on July 18 the Allies launched a massive counterattack into the Germans’ overextended Blücher salient, opening the Second Battle of the Marne.
What was left of the British IX Corps units transferred back to Flanders between June 19 and 30. IX Corps’ casualties from Blücher came to 1,298 officers and 27,405 other ranks. The remnants of the 8th and 25th divisions had been reduced to two composite battalions, and the survivors of the 50th and 21st divisions were grouped into two composite brigades.
Although an outstanding German tactical success, Operation Blücher (the Third Battle of the Aisne) not only denied Ludendorff further success in Flanders but also set the conditions for the Allies’ decisive operational-level victory on the Marne, giving them an overextended salient to attack, one thinly defended by exhausted and inadequately supplied troops.
Had Reims fallen, the operational situation in early June 1918 would have looked much different. By preventing the Germans from capturing the key high ground of the Montagne de Reims, the remnants of British IX Corps fighting under its 19th Division probably prevented Reims and its vital rail center from falling into German hands. In the process the Germans lost their last viable operational possibility for any sort of battlefield victory—or even a battlefield stalemate—in 1918. Its failure to take Reims proved the final nail in Germany’s strategic coffin. If the Germans’ failure to take Amiens in March was their World War I strategic equivalent of Stalingrad, then their failure to take Reims was their Kursk. MH
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki is Historynet’s chief military historian. For further reading he recommends his own The Generals’ War: Operational Level Command on the Western Front in 1918, as well as The Nineteenth Division, 1914–1918, by Everard Wyrall.
This article appeared in the May 2021 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook:
Belleau Wood is located on the high ground to the rear of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial south of the village of Belleau (Aisne), France.
Travel via Car:
From Paris travel via toll autoroute A-4. Take the Montreuil-aux-Lions exit (#19), then travel via N-3 (also called D1003), following the cemetery signs to “Lucy-le-Bocage” and proceed via D82 through Belleau Wood.
From Reims travel via toll autoroute A-4. The cemetery may be reached by taking the Château-Thierry exit (#20). Proceed to the center of Château-Thierry and then follow the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery signs in the direction of Meaux/ La Ferté sous Jouarre via D1003. About one mile after Château-Thierry, there will be signs for Belleau via D9 on your right, at the top of the hill. Once in the village of Belleau, take the first road on your left to Bouresches and then follow the Belleau Wood signs.
Travel via Train:
There is rail service from Paris (Gare de l'Est) to the train station in Château-Thierry. The journey takes about one hour. From Château-Thierry to Belleau, the trip is a 15-minute ride via taxi. (No bus transportation is available)
Travel via Airplane:
Paris is about 60 miles from the cemetery.
Travel via Public Transportation:
Public transportation to the cemetery is not available.
The fighting along the Marne cost the Germans around 139,000 dead and wounded as well as 29,367 captured. Allied dead and wounded numbered: 95,165 French, 16,552 British, and 12,000 Americans. The final German offensive of the war, its defeat led many senior German commanders, such as Crown Prince Wilhelm, to believe that the war had been lost. Due to the severity of the defeat, Ludendorff canceled his planned offensive in Flanders. The counterattack at the Marne was first in a series of Allied offensives that would ultimately end the war. Two days after the battle's end, British troops attacked at Amiens.