In the summer of 1918 the German Army would try two more times to crack open the Western Front.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 165. Colin, Charles, Richard, and Howard. This episode I would like to call out the podcast’s website. It has been a long time since I have talked about it but it has episode notes for every episode, including sources, maps, and a full transcript. Also before we get started, next episode will be another listener questions episode and while if you are listening to this you are too late to get your question into episode 166 feel free to send it in and I will answer it in the future. You can send questions via the podcast’s Twitter account at Twitter.com/historygreatwar, on Facebook at facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar or through good old fashioned email at email@example.com. This episode represents our last on the German Spring offensives. We are going to spend the first half of the episode focusing on some of the first actions of the American Expeditionary Forces, when we will move on to discuss the last two German offensives which would be codenamed Operation Gneisenau and Operation Friedensturm. Then we will spend just a bit of time discussing the offensives in total. In Episode 167 we will shift focus over to the Allied attacks that began in late summer 1918, and that will take us all the way to the armistice. Before any of that though, I think we should talk about the Paris gun, because the Paris Gun is really interesting and so I think we should talk about it.
One of the most famous elements of the German Spring offensives was an artillery gun that would come to be called the paris Gun. This piece of artillery was 210mm in caliber and had a barrel 118 feet long. This massive size, and the 432 pounds of gun powder used to fire it meant that its 264 pound projective could be fired to a range of at least 80 miles. When it was fired the shell would leave the barel at 5,500 feet per second. Now, I know that 5,500 feet per second is really hard to visualize or comprehend. For some pieces of reference, that is 10 times faster than the French 75mm artillery gun, 7 times faster than the bullet of the Lee-Enfield rifle given to British infantry, also, that is 3,750 miles per hour, so basically, really fast, really really fast. The stresses that this firing put on the barrel meant that it had to be made out of a special alloy developed by the Krupp factory, because a normal barrel would have exploded. The length of the barrel meant that it had to be braced by a special cable system, and it could only fire 50 shots before it had to go through a maintenance process to make sure it would still function. During its flight the shell would reach a maximum height of 25 miles, this was so high, and the arc was so long, that when trying to calculate where the shell would land the Germans had to take not only the Earth’s curvature into account, but also its rotation speed. This was quite the gun, and it was of course firing on Paris, from some woods almost 80 miles away.
The first shell from the gun would arrive in Paris at around 7:20AM on March 23rd. It would hit the Place de la Republique. It should be noted that the Germans were not really targetting specific areas where their shots, just short of going for the center of Paris. The second shell would hit about 20 minutes later, and this time it would land near the Gar de L’Est. At first, the French did not even really know what was happening. It took hours before they realized that it was problems an artillery piece that was doing the damage, and this was determined only after they examined the shell fragments. In total the Paris gun would fire 367 times, and in total it would kill 260 people. Eventually, after the Germans were forced to retreat in August it was impossible to continue the firing since even the massive Paris gund was pushed out of range. In terms of actual results, it was kind of disappointing. From the very beginning it was a terror weapon, not at all dissimilar to the V1 and V2 rockets that would be fired on London during the Second World War. And while it did cause some terror and panic in Paris it never really had a huge impact on the war.
At the height of the panic around the German attacks Pershing had agreed to let American units serve within the French army and since that time Petain had been eager to take advantage of the American units. The first division to arrive was the American First Division, the Big Red One. Before moving north the First had been positioned near St. Mihiel south of Verdun but it had been mvoed west and north to help the French. They were positioned very close to the tip of the salient produced by Operation Michael and they were placed in this position because it was believed that the Germans would attack them soon. Interestingly enough it would not be this division that would first be in serious combat with the Germans but instead the ones that took their place to the south. This would be the American 26th division and it was because of the fact that it took over for the 1st that it would be the first American division to see large scale combat against the Germans. The action would be, in essence, just a very large raid, and it would be launched by the Germans early in the morning on April 20th. In this attack several thousand German troops would follow behind a creeping barrage and since they were shielded by fog they were able to capture the village of Seichprey. During the attack two companies of Americans essentially ceased to exist, but later in the day other American units would arrive and they were able to launch a counter attack that retook the village. Overall this was seen as a huge American victory, even though they had lost more men and some territory, because they had at least mostly contained the German attack.
While the 1st Division had been moved into the French lines there was also a lot of discussion about where other American troops could be placed along the line. Both the French and British wanted more American troops, for obvious reason. During a meeting on May 1st the disagreements about how best to distribute the American troops became the topic of conversation and a pretty heated conversation developed between Haig and Petain. Foch would try to reduce the argument by saying that there would be plenty of Americans to go around, and he also declared that after June 1st both the British and French would receive equal numbers of them. Pershing, who was also present at the meeting, had to speak up at this point. He had originally agreed to give American units to the other armies at a time of great crisis when it appeared that the situatoin was very serious. But now it was clear that the other leaders were planning to continue to take more men as long as they could and this was just not what Pershing had signed up for. The other Generals also wanted Pershing to continue to send over mostly just infantry troops, not too many support troops or too much equipment, just men that could hold rifles in the trenches. All the Generals knew that if the Americans focused mostly on infantry they would not be able to create large American units, due to the lack of support and logistics troops, and the infantry would therefore be dependent on the British and French. Pershing made it clear that this is not what he wanted to happen, and as the front stabilized, and then shifted back into the favor of the Allies he would become far more adamant with his demands.
While there were all kinds of discussions happening about the future, Pershing and his generals also wanted to get into the fight, and not just on the defensive, but instead to launch their own attack. For this first offensive Pershing would get together with General Bullard, who was the commander of the First division. They wanted to launch an attack and while technically they were under the command of the French, and specifically General Debeney, he would put his full support behind the effort. For the target of this attack the Americans would choose the village of Cantigny, which was near the positions of the 1st Division. This was right at the tip of a small salient into the American lines, which made it the perfect target for an attack. The regiment that would lead the attack was brought out of the line to receive special training, terrain was found for them to practice the assault on, they practiced following a creeping barrage, they instructed the men on how to work with tanks that would be provided by the French, basically everyhing that would be needed for the attack. The Americans would essentially be as prepared as they could be for the attack, the French were even throwing in some artillery support with General Debeney promising 250 guns, including some heavy pieces that were larger than anything the Americans had. Now, I want to make clear that this was not a major attack, it was just being executed by one division and the village itself was not very importaant, but for Pershing, Bullard, and the other American leaders it was an important step since it was the first large attack that they would launch. If it was successful it would go a long way to proving that the Americans were ready for more than just holding the line and taking up space on the front. Pershing also hoped that it would prove that American troops should be concentrated together into their own army so they could launch their own, far larger, attacks.
The attack was scheduled to begin on May the 28th and if you remember back to last episode this was just one day after the Germans launched Operation Blucher-Yorck against the French between Reims and Soissons. It was because of this that the American attack would be robbed of much of the assistance that they had been promised by the French, because it was all on its way to meet the Germans. Most importantly this meant that the heavy artillery and the aircraft that Debeney had pledged to the attack were gone but this did not deter the Americans, and even with the reduction in firepower they still moved forward. The early hours of the attack would go quite well, and during the early morning the Americans were able to capture the village of Cantigny by 7AM. The advance would then continue up the ridge on the other side, and again it would be captured quickly and efficiently. Things were going great, the attack had only cost 50 American casualties, and they had even taken 100 German prisoners. However, as always during the war, the first push was really just the beginning and once the American advance ended the Germans would spend about 4 hours preparing their counter-attack. During these hours the Americans frantically prepared defenses, which were important protection from German shells. Throughout the day the bombardment would continue before the German infantry would finally attack in the early evening. Over the course of several hours the Germans would launch multiple attacks but most of them were poorly coordinated with their artillery. This made the defense far easier for the Americans and while they were pushed hard, they would eventually beat back the German attacks. In these defensive efforts the American casualties would balloon to over 1,000. When it was all over it had still been a small attack, but an important victory for the Americans.
One action that I mentioned last week probably deserves a bit more detail, and that is the American defense of the French village of Chateau-Thierry. During the last few days of May and the first of June the Germans began to move toward Chateau-Thierry, in A World Remand G.J. Meyer would explain why “The essential next step was to get men, guns, and supplies across the Marne, in position for a direct move on Paris. To do that the Germans needed bridges. Which is what made the town of Château-Thierry, almost directly in the path of the German advance, suddenly loom large. There were two bridges at Château-Thierry, substantial bridges carrying rail and motor traffic, and only one French colonial division was available to keep them out of German hands.” The first troops to arrive would be some machine gun battalions which would arrive first because they had their own transportation. They would arrive on the scene on May 31st, just in time to take part in the defense of the city from the German attack. Over the coming days more American troops would arive that would prevent the Germans from taking the bridges over the river. This was a critical area of defense and the American forces had been able to meaningfully contribute to its defense. This action was overshadowed by everything else that was happening due to the German Blucher-Yorck operation that we discussed last week, but it was another important contribution from the AEF. While Blucher-Yorck would be a failure in the end, the Germans were still not done and instead decided to try once again, this time in an attack called Operation Gneisenau.
After Blucher-Yorck ended the Germans had to make a decision about what to do next. With how many casualites they had sustained it was getting to the point where it was difficult to mass a sufficient number of men to launch large attacks, but they had to do something since the Allies were not defeated and were not yet at the negotiating table. There were still multiple areas where they could launch an attack. They could try again in Flanders, they could try to increase the size of the Michael salient, they could try to push closer to the Paris through the salient created by Blucher-Yorck. Each of these areas still have tradeoffs. In Flanders, and just in the north in general, the British and French were quite strong, in the south the attack might be easier, but it would be required to advance further to meet any meeainingful objectives. There was one area where this was not the case though and that was in the area between the Michael and Blucher-Yorck salients. With a German advance having happened on both sides sort of by default a French salient has been formed that jutted and might be able to be cut down to size by a German attack. If this attack was successful the two salients would be joined together which would greatly increase the ability of the German army to move troops laterally along the front. The date for this effort was put for June 9th which meant that they did not have long to prepare since there would be just a few days between the end of Blucher-Yorck and the beginning of Gneisenau. Unlike during previous attacks where the French had been caught off guard by the German attacks they would have good intelligence for Gneisenau due to German prisoners, aerial observation and most importantly German wireless signals. On June 2nd a French Captain had broken the German wireless code and this allowed the French to listen in on almost all German wireless traffic. What they heard was that the attack was scheduled to begin on June 7th, it would later be delayed which they would learn from German prisoners who deserted before the attack began. Interestingly, during these last German there as often an increase in the number of Germans voluntarily giving themselves up in the days before an attack was scheduled to begin, which was not a good sign for the German army. All of this information allowed the French to launch a counter-barrage right before the Germans would attack, and at the point of greatest German vulnerability due to how many troops were packed into the front lines.
Even with information about where and when the attack would occur the Germans were still able to make some initial success. The attack would be launched on a front 33 kilometers wide, with 11 divisions in the front lines and 7 following behindd. They would meet far less resistance than expected on the first day, and would advance almost 9 kilometers while taking several thousand French prisoners. While this was similar to previous attacks, it is also where the similarities ended. This time the French had been able to retreat in a far more orderly fashion, which meant that they would be able to recover far more quickly. They were also able, critically, to destroy the bridges over the river Oise. This meant that when the Germans reached the river on the second day of their attack they had a hard time pushing further. This meant that on the second day, after an advance of just 5 kilometers the Germans were stopped, and unlike on previous efforts there would not be a third day of German advances. Instead, the French were preparing a larger counter-attack that they prepared for over night between June 10th and 11th, at 11AM on the 11th after just a half hour bombardment the four division French attack went forward. They would not advance far, just 3 kilometers but they would take over 1,000 prisoners. This would not come close to recapturing all of the ground lost at the start of the German attacks, but it did seriously disrupt any German plans to continue the attack and when they did try again on the 12th they would be almost stopped cold. After this failure the offensive was cancelled and once again the Germans found themselves with more territory captured, but with little else to show for their efforts. They had been able to inflict 40,000 casualties on the French, while only suffering 25,000 of their own, but by this point these types of numbers did not matter very much. The most important outcome was that for the first time during the Spring offensives a quick counter attack had been launched, and had been successful, while the Germans were still attacking instead of after they had ground to a halt. The German leaders were not clueless, they could see that their army was fading, but they still had more effort left in them, and they would be given a month to prepare.
The fifth German attack would have the official codename of Marneschutz-Reims which I, quite fortunately, do not have to say again because it is better known as Friedenssturm or just peace storm. This would be the largest German attack since the opening day of Michael it was a giant pincer move around Reims. There would be 52 divisions committed to the attack, basically every spare man that the German Army had at this point in the war, and they would be joined by 900 aircraft and over 6,000 guns on a front of 119 kilometers. While the number of guns was quite large, due to the width of the attack the density was not as high as during previous efforts. The Germans would also meet a larger number of Allied guns due to how wide the attack was. The attack would be focused both to the west and east of Reims on the Marne and in Champagne. The goal was to free up the Reims railways for usage by the GErmans. In the previous weeks they had been able to free up one railway into the salient created by Blucher-Yorck but it was only a single tracked line and did not provide the required capacity for the Germans forces that relied on it for supplies. It was for this reason that Ludendorff’s hand was forced, he could either abandon the salient which was a political and morale based impossibility or the Germans could try to take Reims. While this attack was massive, it was one again also a setup for another attack, once again to be launched in Flanders. This time the second attack would be called Hagen. This was to have been the sixth German attack of the year, and it was believed, again, to be the decisive one. It would be smaller than Friedenssturm, but it was thought to be sufficient since Friedenssturm would pull the British and French forces south. Once the attack in the south was often the Germans would rush troops to the north and on August 1st Hagan would be luanched. It would require all of the efforts of the German railways a lot of work to pull it off, but it could hopefully be done. They would never know if they were truly up to the task, because Hagen would never happen, for reasons we are about to discuss.
On the Allied side, while they had done very well stopping the last German attacks they were still not prepared to launch their own offensive efforts and so they braced for another German attack. They were not positive where the Germans would attack, but there was a lot of evidence that it would fall around Reims. One of the reasons there was evidence of this was the shorter darkness hours in July. At the latitude that France is at the shortest nights of the year are in late June and July and this hindered the ability of the Germans to keep their preparations secret since they were so dependent on doing all of their troop movements at night. Even with this body of evidence Petain still had problems convincing Foch that the Germans would attack in th e south because there were also very clear signs of German preparations in Flanders, these preparations were early work on Hagen, but in this case it worked as a pretty good distraction. It would not be until Junly 10th, which was just five days before the attack, that Petain convinced the other leaders that the attack would fall around Reims. While Petain did not have all of the troops he wanted, he did at least have a few generals around Reims who actually listened to him. This meant that to the east of Reims General Gouraud had his Fourth Army arrayed in a defense in depth which would provide far better protection against the coming German attack. This was not true along all of the areas that the Germans would attack, but enough of the front would be properly prepared to present the Germans with some problems. During the week before the attack more French divisions were brought in, with the number of defenders going from 17 in line and 9 in reserve to 20 in line and 15 in reserve in just a week, and those 9 exta divisions would be important.
By the eve of the attack the French had enough information to launch a counter bombardment before the German attack, it would begin about 45 minutes before the Germans were scheduled to begin. When the German bombardment began it had a very similar composition to previous attacks with gas shells, smoke, high explosives all being used during the 3 hour duration. At 4:50AM a total of 27 divisions would go forward and what they found to the east of Reims surprised them, they found almost no resistance and so they stayed behind their creeping barrage and moved forward. Over the first 5 or 6 hours very little resistance was encountered, but at the end of that time something became obvious, the French had abadoned some of the front right before the Germans attacked and they retreated to strong second line positions. Once the Germans ran into these defenses they found it impossible to continue because it was outside the range of most of their artillery. It would take days before the artillery could be brought forward and then the attack restarted. Even in the areas where the French defenses had been more concentrated toward the front the Germans still found that they were slowed down far more quickly than in the past, and by the end of the first day it was clear that something was different this time. German command ordered the attack continued the next day, but even less was gained. While the Germans were having problems the Allies were continuing to bring in a stream of reinforcements. This included 5 American divisions, which was more like 10 European divisions because the American divisions had twice as many men in them as the other armies at this point in the war. By the night of July 18th the German advances would be over, with the balance sheet having another 50,000 German casualties added to it, balanced against 59,000 Allied casualties. In his book With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 David Stevenson would say “Having once more failed to broaden out the southern salient, Ludendorff was thrashing in a trap of his own making, while his army’s casualties since the spring numbered nearly a million. Even if the OHL refused to recognize the game was up, that truth was more and more evident to its men. In the Second Battle of the Marne that had now opened, the reserve of fresh divisions that in June still so perturbed the Allies began rapidly to run down, leaving the Germans with the only option of submitting to their enemies’ assaults until they could endure no more.” It would be at this point that the Allied counter attacks would begin, and that also means that this where this episode and this series of episodes comes to an end.
This has been our ninth episode on the German Spring and Summer offensives in 1918. They had started off the year in a pretty good position with more troops on the Western Front in early March and 3 years of victories on other fronts behind them. Then, over the next four months they had thrown themselves, time and time again, against the Allied defenses. Over their five major offensives the German army strength had fallen from over 5 million to men to just over 4 million, and those numbers were never going to bounce back. The objective had been to win the war, or at least to bring the Allies to the negotiating table, and they had failed. Instead the Allies were even more united than ever, and they were ready to take their turn on the attack. That is where our next series of episodes will begin, with the Allied counter attacks during the Second Battle of the Marne where 4 years after the Miracle of the Marne the Allies would once again stop the Germans and cause them to retreat, only this time the attacks would not end until the war was over.