100th Anniversary – Third Battle of the Aisne

Third battle of Aisne
Third battle of Aisne

In May 1918, the third phase of the German Spring Offensive, 'Operation Blücher', was launched against the French Army on the River Aisne.

Whilst the first two battles of the Aisne were conducted by Allied forces, predominantly French, against the German army in France, the Third Battle of Aisne, from 27th May – 6th June 1918, comprised the final large-scale German attempt to win the war before the arrival of the U.S. Army in France, and followed the Lys Offensive in Flanders. This would threaten Paris, and hopefully, force the allies to concentrate their reserves in front of the city. If that happened, then the Germans would launch a new attack against the weakened British lines to the north.

General Eric Von Ludendorff assembled a massive army for the attack on the Aisne. Over twenty divisions supported by as many as 4,000 guns were lined up against sixteen Allied divisions, three of which were British divisions moved south for rest and recuperation after the fighting further north.

In the early morning hours of May 27, 4,000 German guns opened fire on a 64-mile-long stretch of the Allied lines. It was one of the most intensive artillery bombardments of the war with the Germans firing some two million shells in four hours to begin the Third Battle of the Aisne. Owing to the heavy concentration of primarily British troops in front-line trenches, casualties from the bombardment were severe; IX Corps itself was virtually wiped out. Allied losses were mostly attributable to the French General Duchene insisting on massing most of his troops in the front trenches – a decision that cost him his position.  The bombardment was accompanied by a gas attack, designed to disable defensive gun crews, after which 17 divisions of German infantry, under Crown Prince Wilhelm, began their advance through a gap in the Allied line.

The Allied forces were totally taken by surprise, the rapid progress of the German troops was reminiscent of the more fluid war of movement of the opening months of the war. By the end of the first day, the Germans had gained 24 miles of territory and had reached the River Vesle.  By 30th May the Germans had managed to capture 50,000 Allied soldiers and 800 guns, arriving within 35 miles of Paris by 3rd June.

French and British troops marching back during the battle of the Aisne photo taken on May 29th 1918 at Passy-sur Marne
French and British troops marching back during the battle of the Aisne photo taken on May 29th 1918 at Passy-sur Marne

Once again, a German victory seemed probable.  However, the situation was saved by the German army outpacing their supplies, the heavy casualties on both sides, and the arrival of fresh American troops. 8th Division in IX Corps, French Sixth Army, was holding a portion of the sector between Bouconville-Vauclair and Bermricourt on the east of the Chemin-des-Dames ridge, near Reims. The German advance halted on the Marne, much as the "Michael" and "Georgette" offensives had in March and April of that year.

The French had suffered over 98,000 casualties and the British around 29,000. German losses were nearly as great, if not slightly heavier. Duchene was sacked by French Commander-in-Chief Philippe Petain for his poor handling of the British and French troops. The Americans had arrived and proven themselves in combat for the first time in the war. On 1st June the American 3rd Division had taken up the defence of Château Thierry, before launched a counterattack that forced the Germans back across the Marne. They were followed into action by the 2nd Division, who on 6th June attacked the German positions at Belleau Wood, to the north west of Château Thierry.

German General Erich von Ludendorff would launch two more offensives during the summer of 1918, but neither had the same impact as the Somme or Aisne offensives. The balance of power on the Western Front was about to move in favour of the Allies. Erich von Ludendorff’s offensives had pushed the Allies back by up to thirty miles, but had failed to break the line, and had dramatically weakened the German army. The fifth and final of the German offensives ended with an allied offensive (Second Battle of the Marne) and was quickly followed by the battle of Amiens, which saw the first signs of a German collapse.

Order of Battles

Forces War Records unique ‘WW1 Troop Movement’ using Order of Battle of Divisions (ORBATS) uses an interactive audio-visual feature that allows you to follow these battles step-by-step and you’ll also be able to read, and hear information about each location.

Battle Of The Aisne - 27/05/1918

 

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