Thanks to Charles Fair, who sent us this document, part of : "Histoire Officielle Britannique 1918" Vol 3 par Brigadier J.E. Edmonds
Since the General Staff letter already drafted very nearly appeared to meet the case, he decided to sign and send it. He told Lieut.General Du Cane, however, to add verbally that if British troops were needed to exploit a success they should of course be used, but it must be borne in mind that after doing his utmost to collect troops to meet Crown Prince Rupprecht's attack against the Second Army, he could only muster nine divions in front line and six in support, two of the latter being half-trained American and one a second-class division containing " C 3 " men. General Foch was delighted with the first part of the verbal message, and next day replied to the letter that: the battle had been engaged under favourable conditions on an 80-mile front, and that its magnitude and place forbade the enemy to consider any large attack against the British front "for " the moment "; an attack on a reduced scale seemed to be in preparation on the Bailleul (10 miles south-west of Ypres)-Merckem (7 miles north of Ypres) front, and immediate measures to meet it should be taken; since the rest of the British front was not threatened it could be " milked " without danger to provide troops to deal with the above attack; and if the XXII. Corps were sent back it could not arrive for six or eight days ; this would make it too late for the Flanders battle and also prevent it from continuing to play its part in the Marne battle.
On the 17th, east of Reims, General Gouraud gained a little more ground. Between Reims and the Marne the German attack made no progress, only one enemy regiment claiming to have made any advance. To the south of the Marne, although fighting continued in which both sides attacked and counter-attacked, no change took place in the situation; another division was sent to General Berthelot, and he was promised the British XXII. Corps. The destruction of the German bridges over the Marne continued, and the casualties among German engineers trying to repair them and among the troops and trains trying to cross the river " reached a terrifying height ". At 5.30 pm (German time) the Chief of the Staff of the Seventh Army telephoned to the Crown Prince's headquarters that only one solution was possible: the speedy withdrawal of the three corps which were beyond the Marne. At 7.25 pm General von Boehn stopped further attacks by his Army. At midnight O.H.L. agreed to the gradual withdrawal of the troops in the bridgehead, " but withheld the final order for the moment". Ludendorff still hoped at least to " pinch out " the Reims salient. General Mangin's counterattack launched in the morning of the 18th was to render impossible the fulfilment of this last hope.
It was not finally settled until midday on the 17th, when it was evident that the German offensive was held up, that the French Tenth Army (General Mangin) and Sixth Army (General Degoutte) should attack early on the 18th, as originally arranged, and that the Ninth, Fifth and Fourth Armies (Generals de Mitry, Berthelot and Gouraud), farther east, should join in and that the Ninth should regain the ground near the Marne just lost to the Germans. Agents' reports and prisoners' statements had led the Germans to expect a great attack on the 14th July, the French National Fête day, but, as nothing materialized either on that date or on the three following days, at Seventh Army headquarters " the situation was no longer regarded as strained and an attack in grand style as no longer probable ". According to an entry in the war diary of the German Crown Prince's Group of Armies: " The French attack against the west front of the Ninth and Seventh Armies on a front of roughly thirty miles was not expected either in such breadth or in such weight. It was believed that the enemy would continue his local attacks on the same scale as before our offensive [of the 15th July], but it was not believed he had so far recovered that he could so soon carry out an offensive on so large a scale. The reports and prisoners' statements of the assembly of tanks and troops in the woods of Villers Cotterêts were thought to refer to movements in connection with the continuation of local attacks, a full-dress attack was not regarded as imminent."
General Pétain had on the 12th July laid down the outline of the attack as follows : The operation has as its object the reduction of the ChAteau Thierry salient by means of the two lateral thrusts towards the plateaux situated north of Fere-en-Tardenois. It should, as a minimum, deprive the enemy of the free use of the railway and road junctions in
Soissons and improve the trace of our front between Reims and the Marne (freeing of Reims)." For this purpose, the Tenth Army " is to break through the German front south of the Aisne in the general direction [eastward] of Oulchy le Château ", whilst simultaneously the Sixth Army is to attack [north-eastward] in the direction of the plateau south of Breny-Armentières [2-1/2 miles east of Breny] ", and, on the other side of the salient, south of the Vesle, the Fifth Army " is to endeavour to break the enemy's lines by pushing [north-westward] towards Arcis le Ponsart [5 miles south of Fismes] ". The rupture of the enemy front was to be exploited with the maximum of speed, so that the inner flanks of the two attacking groups would meet in the neighbourhood of Fère-en-Tardenois ; the three Armies would then advance to the east-west line, Rosnay (7 miles west of Reims)-Arcis le Ponsart-plateaux north of Fère-en-Tardenois-Hartennes-Dommiers.
During the 11th-13th July, in a series of small attacks, the 128th and 48th Divisions, in the centre of the French Tenth Army, had again pushed forward, this time from the edge of the Forest of Villers Cotterêts to the eastern side of the Savières stream, a confluent of the Ourcq. General Mangin pressed for permission to attack at once. General Pétain fixed the 18th as the probable date for the attack of the Sixth and Tenth Armies; but he sent no warning to the Sixth, in view of the expected German offensive.
The deployment of the Tenth Army was begun on the 14th ; it was interrupted for a few hours owing to General Pétain's counter-order, already mentioned, but was completed, as was that of the Sixth Army, with nearly five hundred tanks in all, during the 16th and 17th. The great woods around Villers Cotterêts, which have a frontage of 13 miles from La Ferté Milon to Dommiers, afforded excellent cover, but every measure of precaution was taken to hide the assembly of so many troops and so much apparatus. The superiority of the Allied air forces was invaluable in preventing the enemy from learning very much by air reconnaissance. Facing the 24 divisions of Generals Mangin and Degoutte, the four American divisions being double the strength of the others, were 19 German divisions, 11 in front line, 7 in second line, and 1 in Army reserve.
The night of the 17th/18th was sultry and dark after an evening of heavy rain, the roads through the forest were pitch-black tunnels, the trees dripping. The watercourses and ditches alongside the narrow tracks and roads were full, and the ground near them soft and wet. The final preparations were thus rendered difficult and much confusion ensued, so that the troops were in position only just in time.'
The Moroccan Division, with the American 1st and 2nd Divisions on either side of it, was the spearhead of the attack. Day dawned at 2.30 am, but until 9 am, when the morning mist dispersed, the light was poor.
The artillery of the French Armies opened first on the eastern wing, the Fourth Army at 4 am; that of the Fifth and Ninth followed at 5 a.m., but only a certain number of local actions ensued; the Ninth Army was to make its effort next day. The artillery of the Sixth and Tenth Armies opened fire simultaneously at 4.35 a.m.. In the case of the latter Army, where, owing to preliminary action no serious obstacle was to be expected, the barrage immediately crept forward, the infantry keeping close to it; the tanks followed and aided the infantry to encircle and then rapidly reduce the isolated resistance of the enemy outposts. In the Sixth Army the enemy's trenches were bombarded for three-quarters of an hour before the infantry advanced.
General Mangin had effected a complete surprise. The Germans did hear sounds as of motor vehicles from one village near Dommiers on the extreme left of the attack, and had fired light balls and put down a barrage, but suspected nothing serious. After dawn the same sounds were reported by sentries farther to the north and to the south. Then at 3.15 a.m. two French deserters came over to the outposts of the 3rd Bavarian Regiment, and stated that there would be a general attack between 4 and 5 a.m. It was 3.30 a.m. before the company commander in Dommiers heard the news; 3.45 before it reached the battalion ; 3.50, the regiment; 4.00, the brigade; and 4.10 before the division sent out the alarm, too late.
What happened is best and most easily grasped by a sketch glance at the map. The French made steady progress. At 7.15 a.m. General Mangin ordered up the II. Cavalry Corps and directed General Robillot to make preparations to push through in advance of the infantry to Fere-en-Tardenois, in the rear of the Germans defending the Marne. " Before midday " it was evident at the German Crown Prince's headquarters that the divisions in the line on the west face of the salient had been driven in and even the supporting divisions heavily engaged. At 10.54 a.m. an order was sent to the Seventh Army to reorganize resistance " on the general line Soissons-Hartennes-le Plessier Huleu-Latilly-heights north of Château-Thierry ", actually occupied on the 21st. In giving this order, the Crown Prince pointed out that there was no question at present of the fighting divisions retiring to the line defined. If they did, they must hold it to the last. At the same time, he ordered a second back line to be prepared, about five miles in rear of the one above named; it started near Venizel, east of Soissons, and passed south by Droizy-Coincy-Epieds to Chartèves (5 miles E.N.E. of Château-Thierry). Both back lines were to be strongly held with machine guns. At 11.45 a.m. he ordered the evacuation of the bridgehead south of the Marne, for which all preparations had been already ordered by General von Boehn at 9.40 a.m.. A message was sent to General von Eben (Ninth Army) to make sure of the retention of Soissons and the heights to the south-east, as it was essential for the issue of the battle. They were held until the 3rd August.
By noon, the first Franco-American rush being over, there was a pause ; the situation seemed to the Germans to be well in hand, and General von Eben began to make arrangements for a counter-attack next day. But in the late afternoon the attack was resumed by General Mangin's right and centre, and the enemy reinforcements on the ground had to be used to form a South defensive flank.
The Fourth, Fifth and Ninth Armies were " not altogether inactive " and made a little progress; their turn was to come next day; but when, towards 1 p.m., General Maistre was informed by G.Q.G. that he must not count on the free disposal of the British XXII. Corps, he " telephoned and telegraphed [to G.Q.G.] that there was a risk of a catastrophe, as the situation of the Italian Corps rendered an immediate relief indispensable, and a contrary decision might lead to the loss of Reims " ; he demanded that the British XXII. Corps should be placed at his free disposal. Owing to General Pétain being away from his headquarters, there was some delay, but at 10 p.m. General Godley, who bad been warned that he might have to relieve the Italian Corps, received orders from the French Fifth Army to concentrate the 51st and 62nd Divisions in rear of the Italians, who were reported to be " in an exhausted and shaken condition ", with a view to relieving them. Accordingly, during the night of the 18th/19th nigth and the early morning of the 19th, the two divisions, carrying two days' " debusing rations ", crossed the Marne at Epernay, and, after an arduous march, concentrated in the southern part of the Montagne de Reims forest, moving up in the evening to a preliminary position.
During the morning General Berthelot (Fifth Army) had met Lieut.-General Godley and his two divisional commanders at the headquarters of the Italian II. Corps, when arrangements for the impending relief were being discussed. He told them that, in view of the success of General Mangin's Army, all efforts must be made to prevent the Germans from withdrawing troops from the Fifth Army front to oppose the Tenth Army. He therefore called on the XXII. Corps, instead of carrying out a deliberate relief of the Italians, to attack through them on the following morning (20th). He produced a plan for an attack on a two-division front, based on the assumption that the German withdrawal was already in progress-but events showed that they intended to dispute every inch of ground. In spite of the short notice and obvious difficulties which this entailed, especially on account of the differences of language and staff methods, Lieut.-General Godley and his divisional commanders accepted the plan without demur and soon dispelled the prevalent French idea that the British could only act with great deliberation. Theoretically, the hinge of the German salient was the proper place to attack, but the originators of the scheme took no more account of the difficulties of the ground than had the drafters of Plan XVII., when they launched an offensive into the Ardennes in August 1914.
On the 19th there could be no surprise, and the French and Americans found themselves faced by rows of machine guns hidden in the high crops and bushes, with only fieldgun barrages to aid in overcoming them. Notwithstanding, the French Tenth Army and left of the Sixth added another two or three miles' advance to the four-mile gain of the first day. In the Marne bridge head the Germans during the night of the 18th/19th had got the greater part of their guns, transport and stores back across the river ; the Ninth Army, however, did not attack on the 19th, as ordered, on account of " the non-arrival on the field of " two battalions of light tanks ", so the German fighting troops south of the Marne maintained their position through-out the day, and all the wounded were removed and sent across the river. The Fifth Army on the 19th also made only slight progress, " always meeting with obstinate resistance " and, similarly, the Fourth Army, east of Reims, gained but little ground, all interest being concentrated upon, and all reinforcements sent to, the Château Thierry salient.
On the 20th the Tenth and Sixth Armies continued their advance on the right and in the centre ; but near Soissons, where the enemy put in two fresh divisions, were unable, in spite of the use of tanks and attacks eight times renewed, to break the German defence. General Mangin, however, had done more than the first task required of him; he had taken over 15,000 prisoners and 400 guns, and made it easy to prevent the Germans from using the junction of railways at Soissons, which was the principal cause of their evacuating the Château-Thierry salient. On this day the Ninth and Fifth Armies were to join in, taking the offensive on the whole front from the Jaulgonne bend to five miles short of Reims. " In the Fifth Army the fighting was " extremely severe; the Germans opposed an obstinate resistance and certain places counter-attacked." The enemy having retired across the Marne in the course of the night, completing the evacuation by 4 am on the 20th, "the Ninth Army found the ground in front of it empty" and " without difficulty, advanced to the banks of the Marne ". Soon after 9 A,m. General Pétain directed that the maximum of troops should be withdrawn from the Ninth Army " to maintain with the utmost energy the " thrust of the Fifth Army on the one hand, and support the " right of the Sixth Army on the other ".
The British 62nd and 51st Divisions certainly found the fighting severe, and the conditions different from those to which they had been accustomed, owing to the woods and the almost total absence of trenches, and they did not enter the fray under favourable conditions. Owing to the delay of the French Fifth Army in issuing detailed orders, it was not until 4.45 p.m. on the 19th, when it was too late for much reconnaissance, that the corps orders for the attack at 8 a.m. reached the divisions. They were to be supported on the right by the 2nd Colonial Division, and on the left by the French 9th Division. The ground ahead was that over which the British IX. Corps had operated seven weeks earlier, but it was unknown to the XXII. Corps and distinctly favourable to the defenders. The river Ardre was to be the directing line and the dividing line between the two divisions. Its valley, two to three thousand yards wide, was open, arable land, with standing corn, two feet high, which concealed the German defences, but with soft marshy patches on both sides of the stream, here, in its upper course, only 6 to 8 feet wide and fordable. The valley was bounded on each side by ridges, the western buttresses of the Montagne de Reims, rising to a height of 200-300 feet, crowned with dense woods with very few rides in them, and with undergrowth so thick that the men had the greatest difficulty in forcing their way through it, whilst the bastion-like spurs on the edges of the woods afforded ideal positions for the German machine gunners to rake the valley. The main feature of the latter, indeed, as seen from the British lines, was that it seemed blocked by the spur, extending right down to the Ardre, on which stands the salient of the Bois de Reims projecting southwards towards Cuitron. Opposite, on the western side, the long hill on which is the Bois d'Eclisse flanked the valley. On the eastern side of the stream, the slopes of the ridge were steep and devoid of cover, but on the western they were more gradual and dotted with small copses. Sunken roads athwart the direction of attack offered ready-made facilities for defence. The villages of Marfaux and Chaumuzy in the valley, and the commanding bare summit of the Montagne de Bligny, an outlier of the Bois d'Eclisse ridge, lost since the IX. Corps had left the scene and now four miles from the front line, gave the enemy three strong centres of resistance ; the smaller villages of Cuitron, Espilly, les Haies and Nappes, perched high on the spurs of the wooded ridges, also afforded useful assistance in this way. The houses in all of them were still standing and the cellars afforded good cover.
Owing to the amount of traffic on the roads, which were exceptionally dusty, the night approach march of over six miles was so slow and tiring that it was well after daylight before the troops reached the forming-up line. Intercommunication in the woods presented many difficulties, so the divisional engineers were directed to cut paths and lay tapes. The barrage provided by the French and Italian field and heavy artillery (39 batteries of 75-mm. and 14 of 155-mm.), already in action covering the Italian II. Corps, opened punctually at 8 a.m. ; but, owing to uncertainty as to the exact jumping-off line, it fell too far ahead of the troops. In consequence, many enemy machine-gun posts were left untouched. Moreover, owing to the activity of these posts and the difficulties of the ground, the barrage, moving at a hundred metres in four minutes,was soon still farther ahead of the infantry. It had been arranged that as soon as the barrage reached the " Green Line ", about 11/2 miles ahead, it should halt for twenty minutes, and the divisional artillery of the 62nd and 51st Divisions, acting on their own initiative, should then assume the main responsibility for covering the further advance, although the French and Italian guns would continue to fire up to their extreme range. Like the infantry, but without maps and without guides, consigned to destinations of whose names the inhabitants professed complete ignorance, so that many unnecessary miles were added to the march, the guns were hustled onto the field; but the opportunity for their independent action did not arise.
The four French and British divisions of the Fifth Army went forward as in open warfare against a series of defended localities, just as the Germans in October 1914, during the Race to the Sea, had attempted to dislodge the French from the fortified villages of the Arras front, and similarly failed. The present difficulties were greater, for the enemy's front, a line of resistance covered by outposts which, where not overcome by the barrage, withdrew as the Allies approached, bristled with machine guns and presented a far greater volume of fire and fewer targets than in 1914.
The barrage had gone on, there was no plan to deal with each locality by concentrated artillery fire, no plan to gas the woods, and ten minutes after zero enemy artillery fire fell and continued to fall on all the avenues of approach.
The 62nd Division (Major-General W. P. Braithwaite) had the 187th and 185th Brigades in front line, and the 186th in support, 2 1/2 miles in rear, ready to leap-frog the leading brigades when they had captured the first objective, five miles from the starting line. The right of the 187th Brigade captured Courmas, which was almost in the front line, but no sooner did the troops emerge from the western edge than they came under devastating fire from Commetreuil Château beyond it's, as well as enfilade fire from the woods on the left. The 2/4th York and Lancaster actually captured the château, but was driven out again. This wing then attempted to work round by the right and reached Bouilly, but after arrival there was turned out by a counter-attack preceded by a severe artillery bombardment. Though supported by the greater part of the reserve brigade, no advantage could be gained, The left of the 187th Brigade could make little progress in the thick woods on the northern side of the Ardre valley, for although the enemy riflemen disappeared when the British came into view, the machine gunners remained. The 185th Brigade, too, was unable to overcome the defenders of the two villages of Cuitron and Marfaux, which formed a long, broadside-on continuous street, and to reach them meant crossing eight hundred yards of open ground under terrible machine-gun fire from the front and right. A few men are said to have pushed on to the latter village, but by 11 a.m. the brigade was brought to a standstill. Aproposal was made in the afternoon to attack the Cuitron-Marfaux line from the north, through the woods, with the remaining two fresh companies of the reserve brigade, after a howitzer bombardment; but reconnaissance showed that the attack would stand no possible chance of success. So, during the night, the 62nd Division was reorganized less than half a mile in front of its morning position. The French 2nd Colonial Division, on its right, had made no advance whatever.
The attack of the 51st Division (Major-General G. T. C. Carter-Campbell) made better progress at first than that of the 62nd. The early fighting had to be carried out entirely in the great Bois de Courton, which lies on a wide, flat ridge, with its northern slopes falling sharply down to the Ardre. About two thousand yards from the front line the Bois narrowed to the width of a mile ; beyond lay open slopes dotted with villages, small collections of farm buildings and copses. The 154th Brigade and the 153rd Brigade, in the front line, with two miles of front to cover, each had its three battalions in column, the second having to pass through the first at an intermediate line and take the first objective, and, similarly, the third battalion to advance to the final objective. Progress at first was good; but direction was lost in the Bois-even beaters find it hard to keep line and direction in a wood which they know-and on reaching its northern edge Marfaux on the far side of the Ardre was mistaken for Chaurnuzy, and some confusion arose. On the right, outside the Bois, Bullin Farm and Espilly, with the Bois d'Aulnay between them, prevented further headway being made, whilst enfilade fire from the uncaptured Marfaux swept the ground; so a defensive flank towards the river was formed. At one place only, in the zone of the 153rd Brigade, was the German line of resistance pierced, but there a counter-attack by two battalions restored the enemy situation. On the left, the French 9th Division (General Gamelin), one of the best French divisions, was unable, in spite of several attempts, to reach Paradis, a collection of buildings at the southern side of the Bois where it narrowed, and, falling back, exposed the flank of the 51st Division, which then had to give some ground. But counter-attacks were repulsed, and after a day of close fighting the 51st Division dug in a mile in front of its jumping-off line.
The attack of the two British divisions had done no more than drive in the enemy outposts and reach the line of resistance. Some five hundred prisoners and a large number of machine guns, fought to the very last, had been captured, but the casualties had been heavy.'
It was obviously the best policy to continue the pressure on the hinges of the German salient, particularly on the Soissons side, and during the 20th the French High Command was concerned in increasing the flow of reserves to the left of the Sixth Army, and even more to the Tenth Army. Permission was obtained from General Foch to employ the British 15th and 34th Divisions; the American 82nd bivision (Major-General W. G. Haan) was ordered up from Alsace to move behind the Tenth Army; the American 42nd Division (Major-General C. T. Menoher), from Champagne, behind the Sixth; and the French 12th and 25th Divisions, which were en route from the eastern part of the front, were assigned to the Tenth Army.
In a long telegram General Pétain directed the Fifth Army to march on Fismes by both banks of the Ardre; the Ninth Army, leaving only a minimum force south of the Marne, to endeavour on its two wings to push north of the river ; the Sixth Army to take the direction first of Fère-en-Tardenois and then of Mareuil, farther to the northeast; and the Tenth Army, covering its left flank securely on the Soissons side, to make its principal effort towards the Vesle on either side of Braine. The telegram ended with the words, " Everyone will understand that no respite must be allowed to the enemy until the objectives have been attained ". Later, General Pétain transferred the XXXVIII. Corps from the Ninth to the Sixth Army, and left General de Mitry on the Marne with only the III. Corps in a " rôle d'expectative ". In communicating these instructions to the Sixth and Tenth Armies, General Fayolle added, " it is not merely a matter of driving the enemy from the Château-Thierry pocket, but also of cutting off his retreat to the north and capturing the bulk of his forces ".
During the day air reconnaissances reported important movement of enemy columns northwards and considerable traffic blocks at Fère-en-Tardenois and Oulchy.
The German commanders were quite aware of the dangers of the situation, and, as the Marne bridgehead had been evacuated, felt that " the time had come for the reduction of the salient according to plan". At 11.20 a.m. orders were issued to Winckler's, Schoeler's and Kathen's corps, holding the line from near Chartèves on the Marne above Château-Thierry to a few miles north of the Ourcq, to withdraw the front between these points some five miles during the night. This new line was to be manned in the course of the afternoon by reserves ; the artillery was not to change position until after dark; at 10 p.m. the line of resistance was to be abandoned, and an hour later the outpost position. How soon the next step of retirement would be initiated would depend, it was stated, on the state of evacuation of material, and the situation on the flanks. Directions were also given, in view of the later retirements, to prepare a number of back lines, to which code names were assigned.
In view of the turn which the situation in the Château-Thierry salient had taken, Ludendorff this day came to the conclusion that the " Hagen " attack, against the British, would not be possible within measurable time. Crown Prince Rupprecht had informed him by telegram that " the decision of the War could certainly not be expected from a weakened, narrowed and considerably less well mounted attack, particularly against a foe who knew the German intentions, had made his preparations accordingly near Ypres, and stood ready to counterattack near Arras ". Ludendorff, therefore, replied that " in view of the situation of the German Crown Prince's Group of Armies, which, as far as can be foreseen, will absorb a still greater amount of troops, and in view of the possibility of a British offensive action, the Hagen .operation will probably never come to execution ". He reserved, however, the right to return to the plan and carry it out " should the general situation permit; in the meanwhile Crown Prince Rupprecht's Group of Armies would remain on the defensive ".
The success of the French counter-attack of the 18th July was a severe blow to Ludendorff. As recently as the 9th July, in reply to a question, he had assured Admiral von Hintze, the Foreign Secretary, that his offensive of the 15th would " finally and decisively conquer the enemy ", and gave the reasons for his belief. He admitted in his memoirs I that " the attempt by means of German victories to force the nations of the Entente to ask for peace had been shattered before the arrival of American reinforcements. . . ."
"The offensive powers of the Army had not been sufficient to beat the enemy decisively before the Americans were on the spot with large forces. I was clearly conscious that as a result our general situation had become very serious."
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