On July 15, 1918, the Germans began what would be their final offensive on the Western front in World War I. The attack on the French Fourth Army east of Reims was stopped on the first day by fierce French in depth resistance. The attack on the Sixth Army west of Reims fared better, making a breakthrough across the south bank of the River Marne. Reinforced by British forces and 85,000 American troops, the French Sixth Army brought the German offensive to a grinding halt on July 17.
The Germans had shot their bolt and now it was time for the Allies to launch a counteroffensive with twenty-four French divisions, four British divisions, two Italian divisions and eight American divisions. (The American divisions were twice the size of British and French divisions and thus were the equivalent of sixteen French divisions.) The counter-offensive was a complete success capturing 800 artillery pieces, 30,000 German troops and inflicting an additional 139,000 German casualties. French observers highly praised the American troops for their elan and their willingness to accept high casualties in order to take ground. German reports noted defects in American attacks due to inexperience, but also routinely mentioned that the Americans fought with great tenacity and courage. Here is an extract from General Pershing’s report on the battle:
The enemy had encouraged his soldiers to believe that the July 15th attack would conclude the war with a German peace.
Although he made elaborate plans for the operation, he failed to conceal fully his intentions, and the front of attack was suspected at least one week ahead.
On the Champagne front the actual hour for the assault was known and the enemy was checked with heavy losses. The 42nd Division entered the line near Somme Py immediately, and five of its infantry battalions and all its artillery became engaged.
Southwest of Rheims and along the Marne to the east of Chateau-Thierry the Germans were at first somewhat successful, a penetration of eight kilometres beyond the river being effected against the French immediately to the right of our 3rd Division.
The following quotation from the report of the Commanding General 3rd Division gives the result of the fighting on his front:
Although the rush of the German troops overwhelmed some of the front-line positions, causing the infantry and machine-gun companies to suffer, in some cases a 50 per cent loss, no German soldier crossed the road from Fossoy to Crezancy, except as a prisoner of war, and by noon of the following day (July 16th) there were no Germans in the foreground of the 3rd Division sector except the dead.
On this occasion a single regiment of the 3rd Division wrote one of the most brilliant pages in our military annals. It prevented the crossing at certain points on its front, while on either flank the Germans who had gained a footing pressed forward. Our men, firing in three sections, met the German attacks with counter-attacks at critical points and succeeded in throwing two German divisions into complete confusion, capturing 600 prisoners.
The Marne salient was inherently weak and offered an opportunity for a counter-offensive that was obvious. If successful, such an operation would afford immediate relief to the Allied defence, would remove the threat against Paris and free the Paris-Nancy railroad.
But, more important than all else, it would restore the morale of the Allies and remove the profound depression and fear then existing.
Up to this time our units had been put in here and there at critical points, as emergency troops to stop the terrific German advance. In every trial, whether on the defensive or offensive, they had proved themselves equal to any troops in Europe.
As early as June 23rd and again on July 10th at Bombon, I had very strongly urged that our best divisions be concentrated under American command, if possible, for use as a striking force against the Marne salient.
Although the prevailing view among the Allies was that American units were suitable only for the defensive, and that at all events they could be used to better advantage under Allied command, the suggestion was accepted in principle, and my estimate of their offensive fighting qualities was soon put to the test.
The selection by the Germans of the Champagne sector and the eastern and southern faces of the Marne pocket on which to make their offensive was fortunate for the Allies, as it favoured the launching of the counter-attack already planned. There were now over 1,200,000 American troops in France, which provided a considerable force of reserves.
Every American division with any sort of training was made available for use in a counter-offensive.
General Petain’s initial plan for the counter-attack involved the entire western face of the Marne salient. The First and Second American Divisions, with the First French Moroccan Division between them, were employed as the spearhead of the main attack, driving directly eastward, through the most sensitive portion of the German lines, to the heights south of Soissons.
The advance began on July 18th, without the usual brief warning of a preliminary bombardment, and these three divisions at a single bound broke through the enemy’s infantry defences and overran his artillery, cutting or interrupting the German communications leading into the salient.
A general withdrawal from the Marne was immediately begun by the enemy, who still fought stubbornly to prevent disaster.
The First Division, throughout four days of constant fighting, advanced 11 kilometres, capturing Berzy-le-Sec and the heights above Soissons and taking some 3,500 prisoners and 68 field guns from the 7 German divisions employed against it. It was relieved by a British division.
The Second Division advanced 8 kilometres in the first 26 hours, and by the end of the second day was facing Tigny, having captured 3,000 prisoners and 66 field guns. It was relieved the night of the 19th by a French division.
The result of this counter-offensive was of decisive importance. Due to the magnificent dash and power displayed on the field of Soissons by our First and Second Divisions the tide of war was definitely turned in favour of the Allies.
Other American divisions participated in the Marne counter-offensive. A little to the south of the Second Division, the Fourth was in line with the French and was engaged until July 22nd. The First American Corps, Maj. Gen. Hunter Liggett commanding, with the Twenty-sixth Division and a French division, acted as a pivot of the movement toward Soissons, capturing Torcy on the 18th and reaching the Chateau-Thierry-Soissons road on the 21st.
At the same time the Third Division crossed the Marne and took the heights of Mont St. Pere and the villages of Charteves and Jaulgonne.
In the First Corps, the Forty-second Division relieved the Twenty-sixth on July 25th and extended its front, on the 26th relieving the French division. From this time until August 2nd it fought its way through the Forest de Fere and across the Ourcq, advancing toward the Vesle until relieved by the Fourth Division on August 3rd.
Early in this period elements of the Twenty-eighth Division participated in the advance.
Farther to the east the Third Division forced the enemy back to Roncheres Wood, where it was relieved on July 30th by the Thirty-second Division from the Vosges front. The Thirty-second, after relieving the Third and some elements of the Twenty-eighth on the line of the Ourcq River, advanced abreast of the Forty-second toward the Vesle.
On August 3rd it passed under control of our Third Corps, Maj. Gen. Robert L. Bullard commanding, which made its first appearance in battle at this time, while the Fourth Division took up the task of the Forty-second Division and advanced with the Thirty-second to the Vesle River, where, on August 6th, the operation for the reduction of the Marne salient terminated.
In the hard fighting from July 18th to August 6th the Germans were not only halted in their advance but were driven back from the Marne to the Vesle and committed wholly to the defensive.
The force of American arms had been brought to bear in time to enable the last offensive of the enemy to be crushed.