‘Backs to the wall’

Social revolution and collapse of the autocratic Tsarist regime in Russia were unlamented in democratic America but released Germany from the problem of a war on two fronts. Internal lines of communication facilitated the rapid transfer of fifty battle-hardened divisions, some 500,000 men, from the Eastern to the Western front. In five consecutive months of 1918, German armies struck a series of five hammer blows (Fig. 10). Novel Hutier Tactics involved a sudden artillery barrage of high explosive and gas shells, concentrated on Allied gun batteries, immediately followed by attacks with infiltrating groups of storm troops. On March 21 sixtyfour German divisions swept across the old Somme battlefields of bitter memory and overwhelmed the British Fifth Army. By April 1 the Germans occupied a 60 km-deep salient.

Fig. 10 – The five German offensives of 1918.

French and British armies were placed under the command of Marshal Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929). On March 28, recognizing the crisis, Pershing placed the AEF at Foch’s disposal. On April 9, in their second onslaught, the Germans assailed the Ypres sector in northern Flanders and advanced 20 km. British, Commonwealth and French forces with, in Haig’s words, their ‘backs to the wall’, eventually managed to stabilize the newly-formed salient. On May 27, 1918, German forces, in a third great attack, swept south over the battle-torn Chemin des Dames plateau and across the Aisne river, pushing back the French and a recuperating British Corps. At this time there were only six American divisions in France. On May 28, as the Germans advanced south toward Château-Thierry, the AEF launched a counter-attack on the western flank of the developing salient. The 28th. Infantry Regiment, 1st. Division took the heights above Cantigny village, about 100 km to the north-west of Château-Thierry (Fig. 10), and then successfully beat off heavy counter-attacks by seasoned German troops. Although of limited military importance, this was the first major attack to be made by the AEF and its success gave a great boost to morale. However, a state of crisis was developing with frightening rapidity. In five days, the Germans made a 50-km deep breakthrough southward and reached the northern suburbs of Château-Thierry. Paris lay about 90 km to the west. The French government began to make plans for its evacuation to Bordeaux in the south.

Château-Thierry, then a small town with 7,500 inhabitants, lies on both sides of a bend of the river Marne (Fig. 10). The Germans fought their way through the northern parts of the town, meeting dogged opposition from French Colonial troops. As they approached the river on June 1, leading German units suddenly came under deadly fire from Hotchkiss machine guns of an AEF unit, the motorized 7th. Machine Gun Battalion, 3rd. Division. These men had been rushed to Château-Thierry and their holding actions enabled the French to destroy two bridges and prevent the enemy from crossing the Marne. (When the Germans launched their first offensive on March 21, the 3rd. Division had still been training in North Carolina: it arrived in France in early April). The 3rd. Division then joined up with French forces to the east along the river Marne and the German advances began to lose overall momentum. Two subsequent German offensives in July against French sectors brought relatively minor gains (Fig.11).

Fig. 11 – Machine gun post in railroad shop at Château-Thierry: Company A, 9th. MachineGun Battalion: June 7, 1918 (Courtesy of the US National Archives: 530730)

The five offensives cost the German army 800,000 casualties. Shock troop numbers were badly depleted. During the summer ‘Spanish influenza’ broke out amongst the poorly fed and tired rank and file. Time was wasted in plundering, particularly when vast Allied stockpiles of quality supplies were overrun. Ironically, military success meant that the German army now had to hold an additional 100 km of front line.