The Second Battle of the Marne, also known as the Battle of Reims, was the last major German offensive on the Western Front of World War One. The offensive was stalled by a combined French and American counterattack. The Entente forces, who had several hundred tanks at their disposal, overwhelmed the Germans on their right flank, inflicting heavy casualties. The German defeat marked the beginning of the relentless 100 Days Offensive, initiated by the Entente forces, that ended the war.
General Erich Ludendorff was caught in a cleft stick after the Spring offensive failed to defeat the Entente. He decided to launch his Friedensturm – Peace Offensive – with an all-out attack on the French and the Americans with the Seventh, First and Third Armies from Servon to Château-Thierry in what would become known as the Second Battle of the Marne. Once the French were defeated, Ludendorff resolved to turn for the final decisive battle with the British in Flanders. But the French easily detected the precursors of this huge offensive and were ready and waiting: the German methodology was now fully understood.
Before the German bombardment opened up, the French front lines were cleared to avoid casualties, while the massed French guns actually opened their fire first, flaying the German gun batteries and crashing down on the infantry as they moved up for the assault planned to commence. It was the start of a very bad day for the German Army: they encountered heavy resistance and suffered heavy casualties, especially in the sectors of the front defended by the Americans.
The main French riposte came, commencing just three days after the initial German attack. General Ferdinand Foch determined to strike hard at Soissons, augmenting his armies with four divisions from the AEF, thereby threatening the whole bloated Marne Salient carved out by Operation Blücher. This was a mighty assault led by Charles Mangin’s Tenth Army backed by over 1,500 guns and some 300 tanks. There would be no preliminary barrage, just a huge creeping barrage designed to blast, kill or blind the German machine gunners. Although not without its problems, the attack succeeded in driving back the Germans.
The Germans could not withstand the pressure and fell back towards the Aisne River. By 7 August all their gains from their Spring offensive had been lost. Finally, Ludendorff was forced to face the fact that he no longer had the forces available to launch a viable offensive and would be on the defensive for the foreseeable future. His whole strategy for 1918 lay in ruins and defeat beckoned.
Ludendorff came close to a nervous collapse. Increasingly erratic and uncertain, he was rapidly losing his grasp of strategic realities. Although the Germans no longer held the military initiative, Ludendorff refused to acknowledge that all hopes of offensive victories had vanished. He therefore spurned Fritz von Lossberg's shrewd advice that the German Army should withdraw to the relative security of the Hindenburg Line.
Aerial combat at the start of the war was an affair of individuals, and generated its own heroes, the aces so loved by propaganda and the press. By 1917-18 it was a matter of masses, and was therefore sustained as much by the capabilities of its industrial base as by the skills and courage of the pilots who flew the aircraft. The corollary of this point was that the air forces were themselves being reshaped. At the start of the war, their role was reconnaissance; by the middle fighters were contesting control of the air above the battlefield; by the end bombers were targeting positions on the ground and interdicting lines of communication.
A German Army unable to make good its losses was now confronted by a new enemy, the U.S. Army, with four million fresh troops in action or training. More pertinently, its old enemies, the British and French, now had a new technical arm, their tank forces, with which to alter the terms of engagement. The exponential growth in the numbers of aircraft during the course of the war illustrated similar arguments.