167: The Hundred Days Offensive Pt. 1 - Second Battle of the Marne


The German offensives are over, the Allied offensives are about to begin.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 167. This episode I would like to thank everyone who follows the podcast on Twitter. I try and post interesting things on Twitter from time to time, so if you want to see things I find interesting, check it out at twitter.com/historygreatwar. This is it, the start of the last big series of episodes before we arrive at the armistice on November 11th 1918. Over the next 9 or so episodes we will see the German offensives come to an end, the Allied counterstroke on the Marne, and then the general attack that would take the Allies all the way to November. During this period, often called the 100 Days the Western Front would blow right open with the Allies attacking from Verdun to the sea and the Germans frantically trying to fend them off. There would be huge casualties on all sides during this period, with hundreds of thousands of Germans also taken prisoners, but for the first time in 4 years the Entente troops, now joined by the Americans, would acheieve real, and obvious, victories on the Western Front. Our story today starts before the Second Battle of the Marne, which we will then cover, then next episode we will move our focus to the first large planned Allied offensive of 1918 at Amiens. Then we will stped a few episodes focusing on the Americna efforts at St. Mihiel and then the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Then finally we will close out the series by looking at the general offensive that would be launched all along the front and which will take us all the way to the armistice. Today, we focus on the Marne, where French, American, British, and even a few Italians would stop the Germans in front of Paris and then begin the process of driving them back. While the German attacks had been quite successful, they had not won the war, and not it was time for the Allies to hit back, and they would hit back very hard. But before we dive into that, we are going to take a look at two different items which are sort of side stories, the first will be the Battle of Hamel and then a quick check in on the Americans and what they were doing back at home to try and increase their contribution to the war effort.

The story of the Battle of Hamel revolves around one man, General John Monash. Monash had entered the war as the commander one of Australia’s first combat brigades, and like so many other Australians he would be present at Gallipoli. His brigade would be on the Gallipoli beaches from the very first day and all the way until the end. Monash would then take part in the Battle of Messines Ridge and the later the assault on Passchendaele in late 1917. After Passchendaele he would find himself in command of the Australians Corps and he would still be in that position until the Battle of Hamel occurred. Monash gets extremely high marks from a lot of historians for his leadership and strategic abilities. Liddel Hart would say that Monash “had probably the greatest capacity for command in modern war among all who held command” which is probably the highest marks you can possibly receive as a military leader. I am not going to go into great detail about the Battle of Hamel itself, in reality it was a pretty small effort over a piece of ground that was only marginally important. It was successful though, with the Australians taking all of their objectives in just an hour and a half, which was pretty good but not totally unhread of. What makes Hamel special is really the position that it occupies in the wider narrative about the war. It is often referenced as the point where the entire learning process of learning that the British had been going through for the entire war starts to pay off and all of the lessons that they learned really came together and everything just sort of clicked. New Mark V tanks, with better armor, speed, and endurance were available and were used well. They were then combined with infantry and artillery tactics that really complemented the armored vehicles and aircraft to produce a true combined arms operation. Hamel is often called the first truly modern battle for this reason. The Australians were so successful that information about the battle would be printed out and distributed to every British officer, and it would be made the model of future efforts. It was a well planned and executed attack, but it did not completely revolutionize warfare, instead it was just the final iteration on the British forumula that they had been working on since at least 1916, and it was one that could work quite well, Monash was just able to take all of the puzzle pieces and figure out the best way to put them together.

While so much was happening Europe during the middle of 1918 the war was also finally coming home to America in ways that had not been felt before. With the Entente screaming for more troops, and it looking like the war was going to stretch into 1919 there were more and more urgent registration drives across the country. The second registration drive required every male and that turned 21 during 1918 to register while the third required all males between 18 and 45. This this drive was combined with compulsory registration for the draft which still occurs to this day with the added process of training for all graduating male students being provided after they left high school. This would greatly increase the number of men that would be available to the American army over the next 12 to 18 months. On a political elvel Congress was still working very closely with Wilson, and the passage of the Sedition Acts, which we discussed briefly last year, expanded on the powers that had been given to the government in the Espionage Acts. The Sedition acts would once again contain language that was very broad and could be used in just about any situation. There was also growing disquiet throughout the agricultural areas of the country and the price controls that had been put in place on several different items. This was badenough for the farmers, who could have gotten many times the amount of money they were receiving if they were able to sell their goods on the open market, but the government restrictions were limited to just a few industries which meant that the price of some goods required to grow the food in the first place, like fertilizer, were not controled which made it very difficult to turn a profit. All of these changes were being felt in America, the Allied country that would be least effected by the war. I bring this up now because there was an important under current in late 1918 throughout the war, and that was a growing war weariness. It would not be felt by all of the Allies in the same way and certainly not on the level that was experienced by Germans and Austrians, who were basically without food, but it was there and it would influence the course of events. It would also cause some catastrophic changes to world power structures after the war was over.

During the last two weeks of June the Germans were preparing for their Friedenstum attack, and this gave the French and British a chance to catch their breath. This break also gave Foch time to sort out the situation, and by the time that the Germans did attack the front was in a very different position than it had been during the previous months. Even though Foch was optimistic about the situation, the other army commanders were not. Haig, whose army had been in almost constant action since March 21st, believed his army was too disorganized and Petain believed that his army was completely exhausted. It was only in Pershing that Foch found somebody of similar mind, but Pershing was concerned that his troops may not be completely ready to take on large scale offensiives. Something that is important to note is that even though Foch was optimistic about the situation he did not believe that the French could win the war in 1918. Foch, along with most other Allied commanders, believed that the final campaign of the war would not take place until 1919. This would turn out to be one of the few times during the war that the Allied commanders would overestimate, instead of underestimate, the strength of the Germans.

While he did not have the support of all of the army leaders, Foch still began to lay the groundwork for future attacks, and these preparations began as far back as May 1918. During that time he assigned staff officers to begin to study and plan for future actions on the shoulders of the salients that had been created by earlier German attacks. He hoped that this would setup for strong late summer offensives, then a larger one in the fall, which would provite the Allies with good positions that could be used during the next year. On July 12th this mindset began to trickle down to the other armies with Petain publishing an order that read “Henceforth the armies should envisage the resumption of the offensive. Commanders at all echelons will prepare for this; they will focus resolutely on using simple, audacious, and rapid procedures of attack. The soldier will be trained in the same sense and his offensive spirit developed to the maximum.”

With the preparations for a counter-attack beginning, information about a possible German attack began to trickle in. this was in the time before Friendensturm was launched, and the fact that the French knew that the German attack was coming allowed them critical time to setup the counter-stroke. After doubts went away about the possibility of the information being fake, preparations began in earnest. troops were brought down from the north, and even Petain was more optimistic than normal about the situation, he would late write that “The month’s respite, which had followed the battle of Matz, had enabled us to train and rest our divisions. In material our superiority had become undeniable; we had sufficient artillery and munitions; we coudl count on our heavy tanks and especially our light tanks against an adversary lacking similar weapons; our aviation incontestably dominated that of the adversary.” Some French commanders were very ready to go, and one of them was our old friend General Mangin. He was in command of the 10th Army which would play a pivotal role in any French attacks in the area, and he wanted to go soon. Petain was still fixated on the french actions being counter-attacks, launched only after the Germans had attacked again and only when attacks could be launched all along the Marne salient.

As we discussed last episode, the German attack would begin on July 15th and while it would advance a few kilometers in some areas, in others it would be stopped very quickly, especially east of Reims. However, to the south of the city things did not go as well for the defenders, with too many men being placed in the front lines and close to the German artillery. This caused Petain to begin requesting that some of the troops that were setup for the counter-attack be released to meet the German advance. Foch completely forbid this, adamant that the troops should be kept together for the strongest possible attack. So instead of breaking up these forces other areas of the front had even more troops pulled from them, including some Americans. This was a calculated risk by Foch, making his defensive troops weaker to allow for a stronger counter-attack, in this case the gamble would pay off.

So what, precisely, were these forces that were ready to make this big move, well they were from 5 French armies. Mangin and the 10th would be the primary point of the attack with 16 divisions. Just to be clear this is the same Mangin that was removed from command earlier in the war, then reinstated, then removed again, then reinstated again. His ability to keep coming back to command was mostly due to his relationship with Foch, they got along very well, in this case his stint in command would work out quite well. Two of his divisions would be American, the 1st and the 2nd, and they would be part of the French 20th Corps. They would be joined by overwhelming superiority in artillery, aircraft, and tanks. There would be 500 tanks joining these attacks, the most yet seen during a single offensive. Many of these were the lighter tanks that were favored by the French, as opposed to the much heavier ones that the British had been using during the war. Overall, the Allies enjoyed a numerical superiority in pretty much every meaningful regard, and they would make use of it on a frong of almost 105 kilometers. Their objective would be to cut off the base of the German salient on the Marne and to encircle any troops left inside, if they were successful it could completely change the course of the war.

The attack, when it began, caught the Germans by surprise. Part of the reason for this was simple overconfidence, believing that the Allies were in a much worse position than they actually were. Another reason for this was the complete dominance of the skies over the front by the Allied air forces, with over 1,000 aircraft being brought in for the attack. Regardless of the reason for this surprise, it would allow for significant early progress. On many ares of the front he French and American troops captured their objectives in just a few hours and then during the first day some units would advance as much as 5 miles. They woudl also capture thousands of prisoners along the way, with the 10th army alone capturing 10,000 German troops. The next day it continued, although at a slower pace. The American troops joining in the attack did not get highly graded on their tactics, with one writing saying that “the Americans perished in the same way that all the parties involved in the war had perished during the first years of the war: side by side and wave after wave….At the risk of exaggeration, it can thus be said that the army of the United States set off to battle in 1918 as if the Great War had just begun, and had to discover the hard reality of trench warfare all over again.” But even with less than optimal methods, they were able to keep up with their other Allies. Overall the attack was considered a huge success by the French and a key part of that success was the German withdrawal that followed.

Crown Prince Wilhelm was in command of this area of the front and he ordered a withdrawal from teh tip of the Marne salient on July 24th. However, after learning of the order Ludendorff then cancelled it, he just was not yet willing to start giving up ground voluntarily. It would take just a few days before he was forced to change his mind as the Allies continued to push further and threaten the troops within the salient. After the order was given it would take just a week before the German troops were back on the rivers Aisne and Vesle, roughly where they started in the spring. This movement allowed most of the men and equipment to be properly evacuated from the salient before it was lost and it also allowed the Germans to strengthen their defensive line, since it reduced the overall length of the front by almost 45 kilometers. Before they ordered the retreat the defense of the salient had cost the Germans 110,000 casualties, with 39,000 of that number being prisoners. For the French the German retreat removed the threat to Paris, but it cost more than 95,000 French casualties along with 37,000 from their allies. A small note here, and a correction from the last episode, there were actually Italian troops that participated in the Second Battle of the Marne. Last episode I said that they were not involved on the Western Front, which was quite silly since I had already done the research for this episode and this information was right there in my notes. There were several Italian divisions that would take part in the Second Battle of the Marne, with some British and American troops fighting alongside them.

A critical piece of the story about the Second Battle of the Marne is what it did to the German mindset about the war. The Germans had just spent most of 1918 preparing for their attacks, and now they had been forced to give up most of the gains from one of those efforts. From a numbers perspective this was necessary, with their numerical superiority from March having evaporated both from their losses and from the continual increase in Allied troops. It has been quite awhile since I have used a quote from A World Undone by G.J. Meyer, but here it makes a triumphant return to give a good summary of the numerical situation at this time. “The balance of power had shifted. In March the Germans had had three hundred thousand more troops than the Allies, but between the start of Michael and the end of July more than a million of those troops, a large proportion of them the prime young men trained as storm troops, had been killed, wounded, or captured. The British and French lost half a million men each, and the French, like the Germans, had almost no replacements. But the Americans were continuing to arrive in France at a rate of more than a quarter of a million a month, and they were going into action.”

One enemy that the Germans had not planned on facing would start to cause great harm to the army during the summer of 1918, and this was Influenza, which woudl rear its ugly head several times in 1918, including in June and July. This was teh beginnign of what would come to be known as the Spanish flu, a worldwide influenza epidemeic that would spread around the globe and kill millions between 1918 and 1920. We will have several episodes dedicated to the epidemic later this year, but for now we need to discuss how it was affecting the German army during the summer of 1918. During June over 130,000 German soldiers would find themselves sick with the flu, and in July that number would balloon to 375,000. This flu came in the form of a three day fever, generally with temperatures reaching around 103 degrees Farenheit. One thing to keep in mind here is that this was not the far more dangerous, and far more deadly, varient of the flue that would sweep the world later, most of the people who contracted this summer flue would recover fully. This was good for the soldiers but for the German army the sheer number of men that had to be brought out of the line and cared for over these months was a serious burden and a serious problem for the army as it tried to man the front with an ever decreasing number of soldiers. It would also effect all of the other armies in Europe during 1918, but the Allies had more men to spare.

Even after the Allied counter attack started Ludendorff still had some hope that Hagen could still be launched in Flanders. In fact, as soon as Friedensturm was called off he travelled north to meet with Crown Prince Rupprecht who would be in command of the Army Group that would execute the Flanders operation. Artillery was also already on its way north to participate, and the only thing that was left to do were final preparations. Discussions between Ludendorff and Rupprecht would continue while they tried to determine the best path forward for the attack. They were having some problems because the situation had decisively changed since the earlier efforts. The German army was not what it was before and more importantly the British defenses in Flanders were far more prepared than before previous attacks. Even though Ludendorff desperately wanted to launch this attack, as the situation in the south continued to develop he was forced to admit that the German offensives were over.

This admission was important, because it called into question everything that had come before. If the Germans could not longer attack, due to numbers, or fatigue, or whatever then the Germans probably needed to make some serious changes. Up to this point their decision making process had been driven by the fact that they wanted to hold as much territory as possible when they pushed the Allies to the negotiating table, and now it was clear that the war was not going to end. This caused many German commanders to question why they were holding onto all of this new territory. This included Colonel Lossberg, long considered the best defensive mind in the German Army. At this point he was the chief of staff of the Fourth Army in Flanders, and he believed that a retreat from all of the gains of 1918 was necessary in order to shorten the German defensive lines. This would allow the troops to be rested, and just as importantly it would buy the Germans time. There was an even more radical group of Generals that believed that the Germans should retreat all the way to the lines between Antwerp and the Meuse, basically forfeiting most of their gains not just from 1918 but even 1914. Ludendorff initially completely ruled out these options, with the largest concern being morale. Already, with the retreat from the Marne salient there were serious discipline problems occurring in the German army, with some supply trains being targets of armed groups of deserters and a serious uptick in the number of Germans captured by the Allies. There were attempts to suppress these types of actions by force, but at its core this was just an example of how far the morale of the German army had fallen in 1918. One German soldier, Georg Bucher, would say that by this point in the year “We had nothing left to hope for, even our last desperate hope, the hope of victory, had deserted us.” Ludendorff was also considering the political dimension of a retreat, if it became clear that the German army was giving up so much territory it is possible that there would have been a political crisis in Berlin. Both of these factors prevented a wholesale German retreat, at least for the moment.

With the German offensives over, and the initiative clearly on the side of the Allies the question was simple, what would they do next. To try and determine what that would be Foch assembled all of the Allied commanderd, Haig, Petain, and Pershing on July 24th. The goal of this meeting was to determine what the path forward looked like. There were now new inputs into these decisions when compared with their previous meetings. The front felt fluid in a way that had not been true since 1914, they had just beaten the best that the Germans could throw at them and then threw them back, and the American troops were truly in the fight. Foch started pushing for a huge set of coordinated offensives along the front. Haig would lead a force agains Amiens, Petain would continue the attacks north across the Marne where success was already being seen, Pershing would attack the St. Mihiel salient which had been present in the French lines south of Verdun since 1914. Eventually, the three leaders would agree to launch these efforts. These attacks would all be launched, but they would not all be easy, even with the advantages enjoyed by the Allies the German Army still had some fight left in it as G.J. Meyer explains in his book A World Remade “A new pattern was emerging. Sorry as the state of the German army was, even under the most terrible circumstances its commanders could rely on a hard core to go on fighting to devastating effect. It remained capable of inflicting hard punishment on its advancing foes, not least on the Americans, with their fatal combination of fierce bravery and inexperience.” These events are where our story will go next, and it will begin next episode with the first of two episodes covering the Allied attack at Amiens and the Black Day for the German Army.