Second Battle of the Marne
Germany's last major offensive of the war
15 July - 6 August 1918
author Paul Boșcu, March 2018
During the Second Battle of the Marne the German Army made one last attempt at a strategically decisive victory against the Entente forces. The initial German assault was repelled and the Germans suffered heavy casualties. A combined French-American counterattack forced a German retreat of some 28 miles. The battle, a decisive Entente victory, marked the beginning of the end for the German Army in World War One.

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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.

A strictly defensive strategy would have been the wisest course for Germany to follow by early July. However, its military leaders still hoped to persuade the Entente to seek a peace settlement on terms favorable to Germany. With this object in view, the Germans decided to embark upon another offensive.

Three days later, the French and Americans delivered a major counterstroke, which had been prepared by General Charles Mangin. Mangin's units assailed the western face of the German salient between the Aisne and the Marne. The surprise counter-offensive was spearheaded by the two US divisions and supported by 225 tanks, a large proportion of which were new Renault light tanks. Within 48 hours the French Tenth Army pushed forward approximately six miles.

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.

The defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders remained his overriding objective but Ludendorff was aware of Entente strength there and chose instead to make a further attempt to lure enemy reserves to a different sector. To this end the Germans struck either side of Reims.

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.

In the sector manned by Captain Jesse Woolridge of the American Expeditionary Force, the Germans attempted a crossing of the Marne on pontoons and a floating bridge: ‘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 10 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 600 which we counted later and fifty-two machine guns. We had started with 251 men and five lieutenants. I had left fifty-one men and two Second Lieutenants.’

Lieutenant Kurt Hesse, the Adjutant of the German 5th Grenadier Regiment certainly agreed as to the level of resistance offered by the Americans: ‘It was the severest defeat of the war! One only had to descend the northern slopes of the Marne: never have I seen so many dead, nor such frightful sights in battle. The Americans on the other shore had completely shot to pieces in a close combat two of our companies. They had lain in the grain, in semicircular formation, had let us approach, and then from 30 to 50 feet had shot almost all of us down. This foe had nerves, one must allow him this boast; but he also showed a bestial brutality. “The Americans kill everything!” That was the cry of horror of 15 July, which long took hold of our men. A day like 15 July affects body and nerves for weeks. Our lines were thinned. Low spirits took hold of most of the men.’

On the day of the French-American counterstroke Ludendorff travelled to Mons to discuss the transfer of troops to Flanders for his much-postponed offensive against the British. The French attack brought him hurrying back but there was little he could do to stem the flood.

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.

‘Absolute peace reigns! No roar of guns, not even a rifle shot! We are silent and a bit cast down just waiting for the big moment. 04.35! A tremendous barrage roars out behind us with the sound of thunder; the creeping barrage that triggers our advance. The 75mm shells fly fast over our heads to explode in the valley at the edge of the forest. The heavier shells follow, flying higher in the sky to explode on our distant objectives: gun batteries, German reserves, etc. Without losing a moment we go down to the river, each section behind its leader.’ (Lieutenant Émile Morin, 60th Infantry Regiment)

The Renault tanks made a real difference, swarming over the battlefield, taking out German machine gun posts and generally assisting the infantry, with their fully rotating turrets making them flexible in selecting targets. Although their small size prevented their crossing trenches, they were meant to work in tandem with sappers or specially trained infantry using picks and shovels to break down the trench walls and smooth out the way. As can be imagined, such arrangements did not often stand up to the test of battle. Mechanical breakdowns and crew exhaustion meant that tank units melted away after a day or so in action.

As the barrage rolled forward, the massed Renault, St Chamand and Schneider tanks crushed their way through the barbed wire. Of course, not everything went smoothly; in particular, the Americans found it difficult to fit in with the French plans and working methods, which led to a degree of confusion: ‘The battle does not become coherent again until late afternoon. The reasons for this are evident; there was the haste and confusion incident to the last minute concentration for the attack – all made inevitable by the French Army and Corps instructions wherein order and deliberation were compromised to the end that a surprise might be achieved. Thus, no reconnaissance by the American officers was possible. Changes of direction in the course of action, especially on a terrain without prominent natural landmarks, are difficult under the most favorable circumstances and to the best-trained troops. Finally, the Division orders enjoined rapidity of movement, and an advance without long halts on the successive objectives. The attack waves got off on time, they advanced, and continued to advance. They lost formation, but retained so much individual energy that the German formations on their front were destroyed or rendered incapable.’ (Second Lieutenant John Thomason, 5th Marines, AEF)

The German vanguards which had crossed the Marne three days earlier fell back across the river and the retreat continued in the days that followed. The fifth German offensive, and the battle called by the French the Second Marne, was over and could not be revived. Nor could the Flanders offensive against the British be undertaken.

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.

The failure to achieve a decisive victory coupled with the arrival of the American legions had undoubtedly dealt a severe blow to German morale: ‘We were like animals, for we lived as such. At times we did not wash for days; our bodies were infested with vermin and most of us suffered from worms. Our clothes were torn and filthy, rags were used as socks. We ate anything that was barely edible and were content when they let us sleep without interruption. Our brains grew numb. Something had put new life into our enemies, who seemed more confident, more determined. Had they really been reinforced by two million Americans? The Allied forces hadn’t struck yet, but we sensed that they were merely feeling out our weakened position. Their aircraft filled the air, raking us with machine gun fire and bombs from above, while artillery and trench mortars worked from every possible angle on the ground.’ (Corporal Frederick Meisel, 371st Infantry Regiment)

The German Army was near to breaking point. Not only that but the situation on the home front was grim, with chronic food shortages, difficulties in providing enough labor to cope with the demands of industry, and problems with what labor force there was, as socialist views began to take a grip on many of the workers, causing an increasing number of strikes and protests.

The Germans had suffered losses of 168,000 men, including 29,000 prisoners. Ludendorff's fifth and final gamble had ultimately proved as fruitless as its predecessors.

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.

Ludendorff regained his composure to some degree, proposing a future policy whereby the German Army would return to its former defensive posture but would continue to sap enemy morale and manpower by making sudden small-scale attacks, in specially-selected sectors, from positions of considerable strength. He did not have time to implement this strategy: the Entente forces were about to attack.

Lossberg, the great tactical expert, responded to the failure of the Second Battle of the Marne by arguing that the army should withdraw to the Siegfried Line of 1917. Ludendorff theatrically offered to resign but then recovered his nerve when the Entente did not move immediately to exploit their success on the Marne. There was, he said, nothing to justify Lossberg's demands for a withdrawal and no sign that the Entente could break the German line. Had the material circumstances of the war been those of any of the previous years, Ludendorff's analysis might have been proved correct; but they were not.

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.

The products of war industries themselves, heavy bombers were beginning to be used to target war production. In 1917 German Gotha heavy bombers raided Paris and London. Spurred to retaliate, the British established the world’s first air force on 1 April 1918 and created an ‘Independent Force’ to target factories, railways and airfields. This strategy set missions which were beyond the capabilities of the existing aircraft, but its implications were already becoming clear: ’I would very much like it,’ Lord Weir, secretary of state for air, instructed the head of the independent air force, Hugh Trenchard, on 10 September 1918, ‘if you could start up a really big fire in one of the German towns. If I were you, I would not be too exacting as regards accuracy in bombing railway stations in the middle of towns. The German is susceptible to bloodiness, and I would not mind a few accidents due to inaccuracy.’

In practice, bombing against civilian targets produced negligible results in the First World War, but ground attack on the battlefield played a crucial role in checking the German spring offensives in 1918 and in the combined arms offensives of the late summer and autumn. ‘The whistling of the falling bombs was like the noise of a thousand door-keys used to hiss a bad play,’ German writer Rudolf Binding wrote as he fell back to the Aisne on 30 July. ‘On explosion they burst into millions of splinters, which flew out horizontally and caused hundreds of casualties.’

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.

The tank was the most striking evidence of a number of points: that the Entente tackled the integration of science, technology and tactics with greater success than the Germans; that the link between tactical experience and factory production was a continuous loop, involving fresh blueprints and the rejigging of machine-tools and plant, as well as feeding munitions into the battle; that by 1918 the Entente, not the Central Powers, derived greater benefit from the tradeoff between the mass army and mass production; and that the ultimate benefit was on the battlefield, in the reintegration of fire and movement.

In the last year of the war the aeroplane as well as the tank embodied in one platform the ability both to maneuver and to deliver accurate fire on a target. Neither of them, however, was the true artisan of victory: that was the artillery. The biggest single intellectual shift in making war between 1914 and 1918 was that the combined-arms battle was planned around the capabilities of the guns rather than of the infantry.

In the last year of the war bombardments were short, but their effects were greater than those of the long bombardments of 1916 and early 1917. First, second and third lines of defence could be isolated from each other by curtains of fire, which moved forward or back according to plan, matching the type of shell to the nature of the target. Confronted with mortal danger, and cut off from resupply or relief, the defenders had to respond in the most unnatural way of all: ‘In absolute darkness we simply lay and trembled from sheer nervous tension.’ Industrialised war enforced passivity, as one of Pershing’s officers, Hervey Allen, found out: ‘There is a faraway moan that grows to a scream, then a roar like a train, followed by a ground-shaking smash and a diabolical red light.... Everybody simply shakes and crawls ... A hunching of the shoulders and then another comes, and the thought - How long, how long? There is nothing to do. Whether you get through or not is just sheer chance and nothing more.’

Nobody on the Entente side had yet realized that victory was possible this side of Christmas. In London the War Cabinet was making preparations for 1919. In France Foch convened a conference of the national army commanders. He appreciated that the opportunity to take the initiative had now arrived; morally, materially and numerically the allies were in the ascendant on the Western Front. But even he, ebullient spokesman of the offensive that he was, rejected a single decisive blow. Instead he envisaged a series of limited attacks.