Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

100 Years Ago: Foch Launches the First Great Allied Offensive of 1918

The Offensive Phase of the Second Battle of the Marne

1st Division on the Eve of 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 toward the 10th of the month it was believed certain that if the enemy attacked, the blow would fall in Champagne. Foch was sure he had deployed sufficient forces to arrest the attack and did so in both Champagne and along the Marne River.

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.

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 18 July 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 would become untenable and its ultimate reduction assured.

At 4:35 a.m. on 18 July, 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 eight kilometers in the first 26 hours, took about 3,000 prisoners, two batteries of 150mm guns, 66 light guns, and 15,000 rounds of 77mm ammunition, besides much other property. This division suffered some 4,000 casualties, having made exhausting marches to reach the battlefield and recently been withdrawn from its desperate fighting at Chateau-Thierry, the division was relieved after the second day.

The 1st Division suffered 7,000 casualties, of whom it is believed not one was a prisoner. Sixty per cent of its infantry officers were killed or wounded, in the 16th and 18th Infantry all field officers, except the colonels, were casualties. Notwithstanding its 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.

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 18 July 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 22 July. The 4th Division was subsequently re-assembled as a division and would relieve the 42nd Division in the salient on 2 August.) 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 also at one time, the right half of the division had to attack simultaneously in two directions.

Notwithstanding the difficult nature of its task, and the fact that it lost 5,300 officers and soldiers, the 26th remained in the attack until 25 July; 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 25–26 July, the 26th Division was relieved by the 42nd Division, which, after having taken some part in the successful resistance to the German attack of 15 July 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 15 July. Now, on 20 July, 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 25 July. Constantly fighting its way forward, the division took Roncheres and finally on 30 July 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, on 25 July the 42nd Division relieved the 26th Division. 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 29 July and continued to press forward until 2 August when the enemy withdrew.

[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...

Men of the 32nd "Red Arrow" Division Resting

The 4th Division now relieved the 42nd, and on 6 August the front stabilized on the line of the Vesle (4th and 32nd Divisions being in line). The 42nd had lost some 5,500 officers and men. Eight American divisions (the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 26th, 32nd, and 42nd) had been indispensable in the reduction of the Marne salient. The American units 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.

From the beginning of the fighting, however, General Pershing had never varied from his determination to bring the American forces together. The German offensive, however, had interrupted the execution of this plan, forcing the Allies to utilize all possible 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 to Pershing that his troops must be assembled. A few divisions might be properly cared for when dispersed under foreign command, but his forces with the Allies 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 through early September. To be continued...

Source: The Doughboy Center

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