[guest post by JVW]
On July 15, 1918, the German First and Third Armies attacked the French Fourth Army just east of Reimes, beginning what came to be known as the Second Battle of the Marne. By this point the German forces had been ravaged by influenza, and despite having successfully advanced in Northern France from March until June of that year, the Kaiser’s troops were overworked, undernourished, and dispirited. The German commander, General Erich Ludendorff, had led the spring offensive hoping to penetrate the Allied lines on the Western Front, thus rallying his troops while simultaneously providing Germany with one last opportunity for an end-run to Paris.
The fighting commenced the day before with Germany firing 17,500 gas shells at the American 42nd Rainbow Division whose Chief of Staff was a 38-year-old newly-promoted brigadier general named Douglas MacArthur. The 42nd was about 20 miles west of Reims at Château-Thierry, so the attack appears to be intended to prevent the Americans from reinforcing the Fourth Army to the east. The gas would incapacitate over 1,000 American troops and blind dozens, though only six were killed. On that same day, Bastille Day, Second Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt, son of the former President, was shot down and killed piloting his Nieuport 28 ten miles east of the 42nd in Chamery (now known as Coulonges-Cohan).
The Germans also bombed the French lines at Souain-Perthes-lès-Hurlus, 10 miles east of Reims. The French, however, had advance warning of the assault thanks to intelligence from some prisoners of war, and left a skeleton crew in their front trenches as they fell back to the rear. Thus, the Germans basically wasted their heavy artillery to kill a very few troops left behind in the ruse. At the same time, the advance intelligence on the German movements gave the Americans and French the opportunity to shell the German lines as they assembled to attack, further disorienting the Hun. As the German First and Third passed through the abandoned trenches, they were quickly cut down by French troops who had dug new trenches a quarter-mile back from the German bombardment.
The next day, July 16, the Germans fired a half million shells against the French and American forces, dropping over 9000 tons of mustard gas, phosgene, and diphenylchlorarsine as the Kaiser himself watched from the First Army observation point 14 miles to the northeast. Despite the onslaught, the French heavy guns managed to destroy 20 German tanks (the tank being new to the war, appearing on the battlefield for the first time a year earlier) and French bombardiers along with American artillery successfully destroyed every bridge that the Germans had managed to build to cross the Marne River. German troops attempting to ford the river at its most shallow points were easily mowed down by waiting Yank machine gunners. Even the Italian troops (insert your favorite Italian war joke here) got in on the act, repelling a German offensive at Nanteuil-Pourcy. On July 18, the Allied armies under Marshal Ferdinand Foch launched their counter-attack, driving the Germans back four-and-one-half miles and capturing 20,000 prisoners in one day’s worth of fighting.
The events of July 15, 1918 would be recognized as the last significant German offensive of the Great War. The Second Battle of the Marne would officially last until August 6, at which point the Kaiser’s lines had been driven back 28 miles, several beyond the point where they had launched the spring offensive five months earlier. The American poet Joyce Kilmer would be killed in action on July 30 while accompanying Major William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan (who founded the Office of Strategic Services in the next war) to scout the position of German machine guns prior to an impending Allied attack. A little over three months later, the war mercifully concluded.
Note: Most of the above is taken from the late Sir Martin Gilbert’s excellent account, The First World War. I regret that I loaned my copy of the late John Keegan’s The First World War to my father, as I would have liked to consult it as well in writing this post. Both books are indispensable for an understanding of that momentous conflict.