The Second Battle of the Marne, or Battle of Reims (15th July – 6th August, 1918) was the last major German Spring Offensive on the Western Front during the First World War, in the final year of this conflict. It was planned as a German feint, to draw the Allied forces away from Flanders and allow Germany to deliver a hammer-blow there with minimal resistance. However, it has gone down in history as the battle that finally turned the tide of the Great War in the Allies’ favour.
The Second Battle of the Marne was part of a cunning plan by German General Erich Lundendorff to force the Allies to take their eyes off the ball- Flanders- and thereby ultimately lose the ballgame. So convinced was Ludendorff that this push would succeed, he optimistically named it ‘Operation Friedensturm’ – Peace Offensive. This overconfidence caused him to make three key errors: he relaxed his hitherto admirable security in the run-up to the attack, he underestimated his opponents’ ability to match his own duplicity, and, by giving his plan so bold a name, he overlooked the fact that the mental lift it gave his troops must, in the event of a defeat, be followed by a great dip in morale.
As ‘The Battle for Europe 1918’ by H. Essome explains, much of the German success in March, April and May was down to their maintaining the element of surprise. In the lead-up to this attack, the Germans were not exactly discreet. First, German prisoners captured on 28th June 1918 were able to tell about reconnaissance being carried out and materials gathered for a planned crossing on the Marne, and rumours of a double attack from both West and East of the river. French air observers easily confirmed that troops were gathering on both potential fronts, and that there were fresh cross-country tracks and badly concealed fuel dumps in the area. An attack was coming.
So, the French formulated a plan to reduce casualties and make sure Germany wasted the first fury of her attack as harmlessly as possible. They ‘false-fronted’ them by creating a line of false trenches, manned by a few brave souls on machine guns, while the bulk of the Allied forces gathered three miles or so to the rear.
On the morning of July 15th 2018, then, 23 divisions of the German 1st and 3rd Armies attacked the French 4th Army east of Reims, while 17 divisions of the 7th Army, assisted by the 9th Army, attacked the French 6th Army to the west of the city. The Germans began their advance after an initial artillery bombardment, however, they found that the French had set up a line of false trenches. The real front line of trenches lay further on, and had scarcely been touched by the bombardment. They made great headway to start with but realised too late that the French and US forces were safely entrenched and circled with barbed wire further on. The Germans were exposed, by now in bright daylight, and many were cut down by the Allied guns and the RAF fire. The attack by the German First and Third Armies, led by Mudra and Einem, on the French Fourth Army and 42nd United States Division, led by Gouraud, was repelled in the course of the first morning.
However, in the west the French Fifth Army, led by Berthelot, and the Sixth Army and 3rd United States Division, led by Degoutte, had less luck. The German Seventh Army, under Boehm, was strong and confident, having spent the past few months pursuing the Allies around the land with much success. Berthelot and Degoutte, worried about leaving the river Marne unprotected, had spread their armies too thinly over too large an area. Their troops were pushed back, and the Germans triumphantly established a bridgehead over on either side of Dormans three miles deep and seven to nine miles wide. The French Ninth Army, led by De Mitry and supported by British, Italian and American troops, had luckily been held in reserve, and with the help of the Allied Air Force, inflicted severe casualties on the Germans. By the 17th July they were driven back into the river. Meanwhile Lundendorff, blithely convinced of the superiority of his forces and planning, had actually left the area to report to headquarters and start working out the strategies for his next attack at Flanders!
On the 18th July, the Allied counter-offensive began. Utilising the tactic of subterfuge with far more success than the Germans, Mangin’s French Tenth Army and Degoutte’s Sixth Army quietly assembled in the Forest of Villers Cotterets. There was no warning preliminary bombardment; there was no delay for reconnaissance. At 4.35am, now joined by tanks and extra US forces, the soldiers burst out of the wood under an intense rolling barrage, taking the Germans completely by surprise. The Ninth and Fifth Armies launched subsidiary attacks to the West. The rate of advance was breath-taking, and by 20th July the German armies were ordered to retreat. Ludendorff had been completely outmanoeuvred, and the attack on Flanders was hastily postponed. It would in fact never happen.
In terms of man power the battle had been expensive for both sides. France suffered 95,000 casualties, with Britain incurring 13,000 losses and the U.S. 12,000. The Allies had taken 29,367 prisoners, 793 guns and 3,000 machine guns and inflicted 168,000 casualties on the Germans. The primary importance of the battle was its morale aspect: the decision gained on the Marne marked the end of a string of German victories. As a German officer, Rudolf Binding, wrote in his diary of the July 15th attack, the French "put up no resistance in front...they had neither infantry nor artillery in this forward battle-zone...Our guns bombarded empty trenches; our gas-shells gassed empty artillery positions....The barrage, which was to have preceded and protected [the attacking German troops] went right on somewhere over the enemy's rear positions, while in front the first real line of resistance was not yet carried." As the Germans approached the "real" Allied front lines, they were met with a fierce barrage of French and American fire.
The Second Battle of the Marne was seen as an Allied victory. After it became clear that the Germans had not only failed in their aim to win the war in this offensive, but had in fact lost ground, a number of German commanders, believed the war was lost. Thus, the Second Battle of the Marne can be considered as the beginning of the end of the Great War. The whole course of World War One changed from that point on, and for the first time the Allies dared to hope that victory might be theirs.
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