With so many French and British troops moved north to meet the previous German attacks, Ludendorff begins his next attack in the south.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 164. This week I would like to thank everyone who has left a review for this show on iTunes. Even though the iTunes podcasting monopoly is slowly decaying it is still, by far, the most popular method of listening to the show, and reviews help us find new listeners. If you haven’t left a review for the podcast on iTunes, or wherever you listen from if it allows reviews, you can help the show by leaving one today. This episode continues our series on the German Spring offensives of 1918 and after the first two attacks, Michael and Georgette, targetted the British for thei third effort the Germans would move south. This meant an attack against the French, and it would have the code name of Blucher-Yorck. This offensive would once again push the Allies to a point of crisis which would result in further changes to both the command structure at the highest levels and it would prompt greater particiption from the Americans. It would also be the last German attack that would see any kind of real success, even though they would launch two more attacks before they were done for the war.
After the relative failure of Georgette the Germans wanted to continue the attack, and Ludendorff believed that Flanders would still be the decisive theatre, but there were now a lot of French and British troops which had shifted north first to meet Michael and then Georgette. Because of this shift Ludendorff would look south and activate Operation Blucher-Yorck which was once again an attempt to pull reinforcements, this time primarily French reinforcements, back to the south. This was the goal of the attack, at least in theory, but on the German side there was some disagreement about what Blucher-Yorck was designed to accomplish. Ludendorff seems clear that the attack was simply another step in preparing for the eventual defeat of the British in Flanders. In his post-war accounts Ludendorff says that the attack was designed to keep the initiative on the German side, to use up more Allied forces in general, to pull troops to the south, and finally to rest the Germans troops in the north so that they could be used for another attack in the future. However, these goals did not precisely translate down the chain of command and much like with Michael there was some messaging that this attack was the one that would win the war, not just another setup for an attack somewhere else. This would all become even more confusing when the attack, as we will discuss later in this episode, became very successful. In my research I have come out with a sneaking suspicion that Ludendorff may be trying to shape the narrative on the Blucher-Yorck attack with his postwar memoirs. I generally can’t shake the feeling that, much like Falkenhayn and Verdun, Ludendorff thought that Blucher-Yorck might win the war, but when it did not in fact do this he began to claim that it was never supposed to. The primary point in this direction is that it would be a huge success, much larger than any attack afterwards so it is hard to see how it could have just been a diversion from the real effort to the north, where there were only exhausted troops to try and attack again. But, that is just a theory but one that makes a lot of sense in my mind. Back to Blucher-Yorck though, one of the big reasons that it would be so successful is because the Germans had time to properly prepare. unlike for Georgette where there had only been a few days to play the attack for Blucher-Yorck the Germans would have almost a month. There was also properly infrastructure to support these preparations, with multiple rail lines running into the area of the attack. The Germans hoped that the gigantic preparations for the attack would offset the other problems that were unavoidable for an army that hd been forced to absorb 350,000 casualties in the span of about a month and a half. They also had one more advantage, they would start the attack on the Chemin des Dames and then shift to the area around Noyon, which meant that they would be advancing toward Paris, and for the Germans, nothing felt as good as advancing towards Paris.
For the first time in 1918 the French would be the primary target for the German attacks, which was a situation they had been preparing for since 1917. Before 1918 even began the French believed that there were 4 major operations that the Germans could launch in 1918: an attack on the Western Front, an attack against Italy, an attack against Salonika, or an attack through Switzerland. The Swiss operation is interesting, they were basically concerned that the Germans would create another Belgium situation, only in the south. Then once through the Swiss territory the Germans would attack both Italy and France. As far as I know this was never a real option that the Germans seriously considered, I do find it interesting that the French were quite concerned about it. While the French could not know exactly what the Germans were going to do, Petain believed that it was critical that the British and French prepare to weather the coming storm as well as possible. This would hopefully allow the Italians to recover from Caporetto and for the Americans to continu to arrive in ever greater numbers. He also, of course, beliebed that it was critical that the French army improve its defenses. He would also begin pushing for the French to adopt the defense in depth that all of the other armies on the Western Front had already adopted. To this end he published two different documents to instruct his armies on how to implement these new defensive arrangements: “Defense Actions of Large Units in Battle” and “Directive No. 4”. The defenses outlined in these two documents were very similar to what the Germans were doing, and what the British were trying to do, and because of this similarity I won’t describe them here. While this was a smart move, Petain had issues getting his commanders on board. Many of the French generals were very concerned about losing more French territory, even if it was just temporary. This meant that Petain would spend months trying to get the generals on board, and never really succeeding. While, at times, Petain could not force his generals to do some things, what he could do to prepare for the German attacks was to pull together a large reserve of divisions and there would be 39 divisions in this reserve at the start of the year. This reserve gave him the power to react to a German attack and also gave him the ability to keep other French divisions fully manned by disbanding divisions from the reserve to send their men to other units, this helped to reduce the effects of the French manpower problems in early 1918.
I don’t want to paint too rosey of a picture about the French situation though. They were having serious manpower problems that were only going to get worse as the year continued. The more pessimistic French estimates said that the French would have to disband 25 divisions before the end of the year just to keep the other divisions at a reasonable strength. Even with these problems, when the British were attacked the French were called upon to send divisions north to assist, and they answered this call as any good ally would. By the time of the German attacks on the Chemin des Dames during Blucher Yorck of th 103 divisions that the french had on the western front 45 of them were north of the River Oise. This meant that the majority of the French front, from about Noyon to Switzerland, was held by jsut 60 divisions. In terms of density this meant that from the Oise to the North Sea there was a British, French, or Belgian division for every 4-5 kilometers of front and then another division in reserve for every 6 kilometers of front. To the south of the river Oise though, all the way to Switzerland, there was one division for every 12 kilometers and then one in reserver for every 23. All of this combined just pointed to the fact that the French were spread very thin, and that most of the reserves that Petain had built up to meeting a German attack were now in the north. This all made Petain very concerned, but he did not get much assistance from Foch in addressing these concerns. Foch was just as focused on the north as the British were, and on top of this focus he was already planning for offensives. He would find support for these plans in many French generals who, even at this point in the war, believed that the French should continue to launch attacks. Petain, of course, completely disagreed with this belief, a disagreement that would continue for the rest of the war.
A critical piece of the Germans plans was once again based around railways. However, in this case the railway centers that were to be captured were not targets in an attempt to rob them from the enemy but instead they were targets so that they could then be used by the Germans themselves. In this case there were also two of these rail centers, Soisso and Reims. Without these two cities the Germans would be sort of advancing into a sack, with Reims and Soisson at the top. If they could capture them then the sack would spill open and supplies could be rushed forward on the rails. If they could not be captured then the German offensive would have to end due to both lack of supplies and inability to expand the base of the salient that the attack would create.
The French troops that would bear the brunt of the first German attacks were positioned on the Chemin des Dames. Here they would be under the command of General Denis Duchesne, and Duchesne had made some, quick frankly bad decisions. Back near the end of 1917 Petain had instructed his generals to construct a defense in depth, however Duchesne was one of the generals that decided not to do this. This objectiion was based on two primary reasons, the first was the fact that he believed that it was dangerous to yield ground on the way to Paris and the second was that it would be demoralizing for the French troops to voluntarily give up any French territory. While you could probably argue that these were actual problems, behind these reasons was really just an old school mindset. It had been proven time and time again that defense in depth was the only way to properly meet a late war attack due to the strength of the artillery involved, but Duchesne just did not want to move in that direction. What this meant for the troops at the front is that they were packed into the front line trenches, with the entire set of defenses, including the artillery, all within 5 miles of the front. For those of you with good memories, you may remember that this was roughly the distance that the Germans had easily advanced during Operation michael due to the strength of their arillery. Not only were these positions entirely too close to the front, they were also just poorly positioned. The primary line of resistance was on the crest of the Chemin des Dames, rather than behind the hill, and this was almost as important of a mistake as not implementing defense in depth because it allowed the Germans complete and uninterrupted observation of the French positions. This would in turn allow precise and perfect placement of the artillery barrage. All of these arrangements were maintained even after the French had a pretty good idea that the Germans were about to attack in the area due to information gathered from prisoners. The picture of the German attack would continue to develop in the last few weeks of May but there was little reaction from the French. The only thing that they did not know was the precise date of the attack, a piece of information they would not learn until the day before the attack was launched on the night of May the 27th.
The German infantry attack would begin at 4AM and while most of the 50 German divisions involved had been involved to at least some extent in Michael and Georgette they had the advantage that they greatly outnumbered the British and French defenders. For the defense the British and French had just 11 divisions in the front lines and then 5 arranged behind. With 50 divisions attacking just 16 the numerical advantage produced quick results. near the center of the attack a wide gap developed between the overwhelmed French 22nd and British 50th divisions and through this gap masses of German troops pushed through. In this area of the front the Germans reached the Aisne river, which represented at 6 kilometer advance, in just 6 hours. In fact, along almost the entirety of the front the Germans would capture the crest of the Chemin des Dames by 9AM and were then on their way down the other side. By mid-day there were areas that the Germans had pentrated 5 miles and were across the Aisne river completely. Just the fact that the Germans were able to get across the river so quickly represented a massive mistake on the side of the British and French defenders. There were 80 bridges across the river on the front of the attack, and they were critical to getting across the river. On the first day of the attack one of the jobs of the defenders was to blow the bridges, but not one of them would be properly destroyed. Back at headquarters Duschene kept moving troops forward without any real idea of where they were going or what they would find when they arrived. The only effect of these movements was to make the second line of defenses een easier to capture since the troops that were supposed to man them had been sent forward. By the time that night fell over the battlefield the Germans were moving across the river Vesle, which was west of the Aisne. In an attempt to keep the attack going the Germans tried to keep going all night, but this proved to be impossible. By the time that the German advance ground to a halt out of sheer exhaustion the Germans had advanced 12 miles, or 16 kilometers, on a front 25 miles wide all in just one day. These advances were just as large as the biggest advances on March 21, so things were looking good.
After the successe of the first day, and then continued success on the second Ludendorff pushed more and more troops forward while trying to keep the attack going. On the second day alone the Germans would capture 20,000 prisoners and over the next 3 days the advance would contineu almost uninterrupted. This situation would caues many French leaders to consider May 30th and June 1st 1918 as some of the absolute worst of the war. By June 1 the Germans were over 50 kilometers deep into Allied territory and they had taken the city of Chateau-Thierry. On that same day Petain would write to Foch that “Since May 27th the batle has absorbed 37 divisions, including 5 British. Seventeen of these divisions are completely exhausted, of these two or three may not be able to be reconstituted. 16 have been ingaged in 2, 3, or 4 days. Four were engaged yesterday. five others are arriving or will be engaged between May 31 and June 2.” While the French were running out of men everything seemed great on the German side, but they were once again hampered by their lack of pursuit capability. They had once again punched a huge hole in the line but they were having a hard time capitalizing on it.
With the french front in such disarray Petain blamed Foch. Over the previous months so many troops had been moved from the south to the north that now Petain said that Foch had robbed him of the resources to stop the Germana attack. For his part Foch almost immediately ordered 2 armies to be moved back south and while these troops were on the move far more drastic options were being considered by the French leaders. One idea included abandoning all of Northern France and placing the new line of resistance on the River some. Another, less drastic, plan involved abanonding smaller, but still very large swaths of Belgium and Northeast France so that more troops could be brought south in defense of Paris. Petain even ordered the French commanders in the north to start determining evacuation routes just in case it became necessary. To say things were looking girm would be an understatement.
On June 1st there was a meeting of the Supreme War Council, and it was apparently quite a lively one with several important topics discussed. One of these topics was the idea of having the Americans shift their shipping from America and isntead of sending the entire set of men and material needed for their army, which included a lot of non-combat personnel, they should instead just send the infatnry. Pershing initially resisted this idea, but eventually agreed to shift most of the American shipments in June and July to just focus on combat troops. Pershing was concerned that this would reduce the ability of the Americans to operate independently, and he was correct, by skipping so many personnel used for logistics and support of the army later in the year the AEF would feel the pain by not having the required men to support the combat troops. While the French and Americans were scrambling to get things together the Germans launched several more attacks in the first week of June, many of these were stopped without too many German gains, but by the time that they launched their final attacks the Germans were just 60 kilometers from Paris. AS the German troops got closer and closer to Paris the allure of the city pulled them harder and harder. By the time that the Germans were as close as they were in the first week of June the lead German divisions woul djust get orders refering simply to ‘the further march forward in the direction of Paris.’ Petain would tell Foch that his troops may not be able to hold the Germans back and that ‘the situation is therefore quite serious.’ This was a huge political problem for the French military leadership and when news of it hit the Chamber of Deputies there were called for Foch and Petain’s dismissal. Clemenceau would defend them by saying that “These soldiers, these great soldiers, have good leaders, great leaders, leaders worthy of them in every respect.” While they would both keep their jobs, just the idea that the Chamber of Deputies was discussing possible dismissal goes to show how much panic was running through the streets of Paris.
Before we move forward we need to talk about the contribution of the American troops to the battle in the first days of June. Most of our discussion so far has been wrapped around the number of Americans in Europe, and the fact that there were more arriving every day, but their effect on the other armies in the war was beyond just a simple headcount. Here is one French officer who would describe the Americans as they arrived at the front “The spectacle of this magnificent youth from across the sea, these youngsters of 20 years with smooth faces, radiating strength and health in their new uniforms, had an immense effect.” The 2nd and 3rd American divisions would be the first to arrive at the front to meet the german attack. The first troops to arrive were a machine gun battalion which arrived at Chateau-Thierry late on May 31st. They were instrumental in halting the initial German attacks and as more troops arrived in the following days they would hold the line against repeated German efforts to get the advance moving again. Once the Americans had arrived they would continue to fight in the areas around Chateau-Thierry for week. The most famous of these units would be the brigade of the Marine Corps which would fight in Belleau wood starting on June 4th. This confrontation would be etched into the legend of the Marine Corps, with Captain Lloyd Williams providing perhaps the most iconic quote from an American officer during the entire war. When the Captain’s Marine Unit arrived at the front they found that the French were retreating back through their positions. The French informed the Americans that they should also retreat, to which Williams responded “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.", and with that response Williams would enter the Pantheon of the U.S. Marines. While the Americans were now arriving, the Germans were also at a point where they had to call off their attacks. The key problem was that the Germans had been unable to capture Reims. If Reims had fallen to the Germans it is likely that they would have been able to continue the advance because it would have allowed supplies to flow forward, but it remained occupied by the French. By June 3rd the leading German units had completely outran their supplies, and with more and more enemy troops appearing on the front the only option was to stop the attack, at least for the moment. So while the Allies were scrambling around, trying to bring as much strength as possible to bear against the Germans, the German advance was getting weaker and weaker, and eventually it had to end.
When the attack was officially over the Germans could add another 100,000 casualties to their 1918 totals. They had inflicted 25,000 casualties more than that on the French, British, and Americans, but of course, as we have discussed many times, trades like this were not in the favor of the Germans. The upside was that the German army had once again executed a giant advance, proving that Michael had not been a fluke, and they had also captured a lot of French territory. But it also meant that they now had more front than ever to pman and defend, and to accomplish the defense they had fragile supply lines and barely any defenses. Perhaps the smartest move would have been to just abandon the gains, since they were not greatly important, but that was politically impossible, and probably would have caused some serious morale problems within the Army as well. And so the Germans were forced to just do the best that they could in what was, in reality, an extremely exposed position. To add onto these problems large units of American Soldiers had been involved in fighting for the first time and they had acquitted themselves quite well at places like Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood. Next episode we will dig a bit more into the first combat actions for the Americans and these discuss the fifth and final German offensive of 1918, and what would turn out to be their last of the war.