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

Sunday, July 15, 2018

100 Years Ago: Germany Launches Its Last Offensive of World War I

Germans Attacking in Champagne, 15 July 1918

The Germans on 15 July 1918 launched the fifth of their great Ludendorff Offensives. Operation MARNESCHUTZ-REIMS had two objectives. The most urgent was to capture the city of Reims, which would open up the vital rail line into the salient. The second was to once more try to force the Allies to pull the French reserves out of Flanders by making it look like the real objective of the German attack was Paris. Despite the massive and intricate German deception plan and the attack across the Marne River with six divisions in the vicinity of Château-Thierry, all of the German operations plans and attack orders make it crystal clear that they never had any intention of attacking toward Paris. The main effort of MARNESCHUTZ-REIMS was on the left flank of the Seventh Army, which was supposed to envelop Reims from the west, while the First Army attacked to envelop the city from the east. Nonetheless, the German deception plan was so effective that to this day it remains an article of faith in far too many history books that the Germans were attempting to attack Paris in July 1918.

Map Showing Dispositions on 15 July 1918 and Depth of German Penetrations

When the Germans attacked the French government panicked and started making preparations to evacuate Paris. Even the commander in chief of the French Army, General Henri Pétain, believed Paris was threatened. Foch, the overall Allied commander, immediately recognized MARNESCHUTZ-REIMS for what it really was, a desperate, last-ditch bluff. He refused to react and ordered Pétain to continue preparations for a counterattack into the German Marne salient that the Allies had long been planning to launch on 18 July. Once again, Foch had out-generaled Ludendorff.

The German assault played out essentially in a single day. On 15 July, after the most fearsome artillery barrage of the war, Three and one-half German Armies attack in the early morning on 50-mile front between Chateau-Thierry and Navarin Farm in the Champagne. Notably at both ends of the front fresh American divisions were dug in and prevented any swinging door effect that might have collapsed the allied flanks. The 3rd Regular Division of the AEF made a strategically important stand on the left end of the line along the  Marne River, known as the "Rock of the Marne" episode. In the East, the 42nd "Rainbow" Division with French forces made an equally resolute defense using "bend but don't break" tactics. In other places on the line German units occupied parts of the  southern bank of Marne between Epernay and Chateau-Thierry and advanced their line somewhat east of Reims.

They Fought on the Marne, 15 July 1918

However, the minimal German gains were untenable and had to be quickly abandoned. Just three days later General Foch ordered his well-prepared and massive counter-offensive. It was the beginning of the end for Germany. The Ludenorff Offensives had failed to force a settlement on the Allies before the Americans arrived in overwhelming numbers. In July 10,000 Yanks per day were flooding into France.

Sources:  David Zabecki, The German Offensives of 1914; the Doughboy Center; Wikiwand


  1. Very helpful summary of the last German offensive. Question: In the "Sources" line, could it have been Ian Passingham's "The German Offensives of 1918" rather than Zabecki's book?

  2. Thank you for this. I'm still astonished at how effective Germany was at this late date, as with "the most fearsome artillery barrage of the war."
    Three months later...