6/8/1918 Victory at the Marne paves way for planned Allied offensive at Amiens #1918Live

Supported by British and American troops the French have been counter-attacking in the Marne sector. Like its namesake in 1914, this Second Battle of the Marne has pushed back the Germans, who no longer threaten to break through and seize Paris. If anything the victory now is greater than that of 1914, as there is a real sense that the offensive power of the Germans has been broken and that the initiative has passed to the Allies. In the Marne fighting the French have recovered all the ground lost in the Blücher-Yorck offensive, advancing some 50 kilometres. They have also captured some 25,000 Germans, a sign that German morale is beginning to break.

Ludendorff is still planning another offensive, this time against the British in Flanders, but his thinking in this regard is increasingly delusional. German forces are spent; with the Allies in the ascendant it is unlikely the Flanders offensive will ever take place, far less that it will win the war for Germany.

The German situation is increasingly precarious. The fighting since the start of the first offensive in March has taken a heavy toll on their forces, with the Germans suffering nearly a million casualties. Their Western Front army now has 300,000 men less than it did before the start of the Kaiser’s Battle. The Allies meanwhile are seeing their numbers growing all the time, as more and more American soldiers arrive in France. In desperation the Germans are drafting youths who will not turn 18 until next year, but calling these children to the colours will still not make good the losses suffered in the year’s fighting. German ranks are further being depleted by the influenza pandemic, which appears to be hitting their men harder than those of the enemy.

The Allies are also outproducing the Germans. They now have a marked advantage in guns, tanks and aircraft. Their ability to use these weapons has greatly improved, with Allied artillery tactics dominating the battlefield and tanks finally being used in an effective manner.

On the Allied side, Foch recognises that the Germans have lost the advantage. Haig and Pétain demurred when he called for them to go on the offensive, but since then they have come round to his thinking. Haig and Rawlinson, the local British commander, are now preparing to attack the Germans in the Somme sector, hoping to push them back so that they can no longer shell the important transport hub of Amiens. The attack will be led by Canadian and Australian forces. Planning is being undertaken in great secrecy in order to guarantee the element of surprise. The offensive is scheduled to begin on the 8th, at which point it will be clear whether the advantage has really shifted to the Allies or whether Foch is guilty of the kind of hubris that afflicted Haig in 1916 and at Passchendaele, and Nivelle last year.

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German prisoners under escort (Dinge & Goete – July 15, 1918 : Second Battle of the Marne begins with final German offensive)

map (Wikipedia: Second Battle of the Marne)

22/7/1918 Ludendorff shaken as French troops advance across the Marne #1918Live

French troops, supported by Americans (as well as British and Italian contingents), are counterattacking on the Marne. The Germans have been forced to abandon their own Marne-Champagne offensive and are now being pushed backwards, forced to gradually yield some of the gains of their earlier Blücher-Yorck battle. The French have now crossed the Marne and are continuing to move forward, though their advance has slowed somewhat thanks to their own exhaustion and the broken nature of the ground.

The Germans appear to be suffering something of a morale crisis. The spring offensives, starting with Operation Michael in March, were meant to bring victory but instead they have led to ever-lengthening casualty lists. With the Allies now striking back the promises of victory seem hollow. The crisis in morale manifests in incidents of units surrendering to the Allies and in disorder behind the lines. Nevertheless, most German units are continuing to resist the Allied advance; for the French this is no victory parade.

The failure of his Marne-Champagne offensive and the successful French counterattack has shaken Ludendorff, Germany’s Quartermaster-General and effective dictator. However he is still hoping that one more German offensive will bring about the final defeat of the Allies. For some time now he has been planning an offensive in Flanders, codenamed Hagen, which is meant to drive the British into the sea and force the French to surrender. His southern offensives (Blücher-Yorck, Gneisenau and the Friedensturm) were meant to be diversionary preludes to the final battle in Flanders. Now his attention turns back to the north and the war-winning offensive he intends to launch there. But with his army broken and the Allies in the ascendant, Ludendorff’s dreams of victory now look delusional.

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French machine-gunnners in a ruined church (Wikipedia: Bataille de la Marne (1918))

US propaganda poster showing African American troops of the US 369th infantry regiment (Wikipedia: 369th Infantry Regiment)

18/7/1918 2nd Marne: the French strike back #1918Live

The Germans launched the fifth phase of their offensives three days ago, attacking in the Marne and Champagne sectors to the east and west of Reims. Progress has been poor, achieving nothing like the initial successes of the previous assaults.

Now the Allies strike back. A strong French force bolstered by American reinforcements attacks the German salient on the Marne. In a break with Western Front tradition, there is no preliminary bombardment; instead a rolling barrage opens up just as the Allied troops move forward. Supported by several hundred of the new Renault tanks the French make great progress against the Germans, who have been taken by surprise and are manning only weakly fortified positions

The French attack forces the final abandonment of the German offensive, which Ludendorff had rashly dubbed the Peace Offensive in an attempt to persuade German troops that this was the last battle before the war’s victorious end. Now the Germans are losing the initiative. Ludendorff’s attempt to win the war before the Allies collected their strength appears to have failed. Unless he can pull one more rabbit out of the hat it looks like German defeat is now inevitable.

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map (1918: La Deuxiéme Bataille de la Marne)

French tanks and soldiers advance (Herodote.net: 15 juillet 1918 – L’Allemagne joue son va-tout en Champagne)

15/7/1918 Round Five: Ludendorff’s Peace Offensive #1918Live

Germany’s four offensives on the Western Front have failed to break the Allies. While both sides suffer enormous casualties, the Allies have been better able to replenish their ranks from new recruits and reinforcements from America. German losses have weakened the effectiveness of the elite stormtrooper units while morale generally has fallen as the offensives have failed to bring an end to the war.

Now Ludendorff rolls the dice one more time. The German commander still sees Flanders as the best location for a decisive battle but instead his men attack further south, on either side of Reims, in the Marne and Champagne sectors. He has assembled 43 infantry divisions for this assault, which has been dubbed both the Friedensturm (Peace Offensive) and Second Battle of the Marne. As with the previous assaults, this one begins with an intense artillery bombardment of the enemy, with the Germans having assembled some 5,000 guns for the purpose.

Then things start to go wrong for the Germans. The French are ready for the German assault, forewarned by deserters. As the German assault troops move up to the trenches from which they are to attack, they are hit by French artillery. This does not stop the German assault, but the French have learned from previous battles, organising a defence in depth that smothers the Germans, preventing them from achieving the kind of gains seen at the start of the previous battles. While some progress is achieved, there is no breakthrough. By the end of the day it looks disturbingly like the Peace Offensive has failed.

Western Front map (Wikipedia: Third Battle of the Aisne)

Offensive map (Wikipedia: Second Battle of the Marne)

30/6/1918 Time begins to run out for the Germans #1918Live

Dragoner-Stoßtruppen
The Germans are preparing for their next offensive on the Western Front. Although Ludendorff is still intending to drive the British into the sea in Flanders, the next assault will hit the French in the south, with some 40 divisions to attack on either side of Reims. Ludendorff has dubbed this battle der Friedensturm (the Peace Offensive), hoping to convince his battered troops that this is the one last push that will somehow bring the war to an end.

The fighting since the start of the offensives has been devastating. The Germans have suffered some 800,000 casualties since the first assaults in March. Their gains in the first four offensives have stretched their frontline from 390 to 510 kilometres, which leave them vulnerable if the Allies should regain the initiative. The Germans are also being hit hard by the new influenza pandemic, which in the last month has led to some 135,000 military cases on the Western Front, far more than the Allies have suffered. Very few of these men have died, but while they are sick they are unable to fight.

German casualties have afflicted the elite stormtrooper units most severely. Ludendorff has replenished their ranks by taking men from ordinary units. This has however diluted the quality of the stormtroopers and left other units depleted and less able to perform their functions.

The Allies have taken great casualties too in the offensives but they seem to have a deeper well of manpower, while American troops are continuing to arrive in Europe in great numbers. All in all time is running out for Ludendorff: if his next offensive does not break the Allies then it looks disturbingly like Germany will lose the war.

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Stormtroopers (Drakegoodman on Flickr)

17/6/1918 Ludendorff prepares for Round Five #1918Live

French counterattacks have forced the Germans to halt their Gneisenau offensive after only few days. Compared to previous stages of the Kaiser’s Battle, the gains from Gneisenau have been minimal. Now Ludendorff starts to plan the next attacl. Germany’s Quartermaster-General still hopes to end the war with a crushing blow against the British in Flanders, but his attention keeps being drawn further south. He decides to prepare for two simultaneous offensives either side of Reims, one in the Marne valley and the other in the Champagne region. These will be the final diversions, after which he will unleash the stormtroopers in Flanders.

Time is no longer on Ludendorff’s side. He will not be able to launch his next attack until July. Meanwhile American troops are arriving in France in ever increasing numbers and the Allies have more spring in their step, increasingly confident that they are successfully withstanding Germany’s worst. German troops meanwhile are suffering from a slump in morale. In March when Ludendorff launched the first phase of the Kaiser’s Battle, German morale was high: the soldiers believed they were taking part in the battle that would bring the war to a victorious end. Now after four offensives and enormous casualties victory seems no closer and the men are less keen to throw away their lives in Ludendorff’s pursuit of illusory goals. Incidents of insubordination are increasing to an extent that alarms German army commanders.

The men at the front are nevertheless mostly still obeying orders. This is less true of men being sent from Germany to join their comrades in the line. Soldiers on trains to the front are almost in a state of revolt, attacking anyone trying to impose discipline and stoning station commanders. They are also deserting in huge numbers, with troop trains often losing a fifth of their complement in transit.

Ludendorff blames socialist malcontents in Germany for the army’s growing discipline problem. He continues to hope that victory is just round the corner, with the next offensive, or perhaps the on after that, being the one that finally breaks the Allies. After that the shiftless elements at home can be dealt with.

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map (100 Years Ago Today, @CenturyAgoToday on Twitter)