Primary Documents - General John J Pershing on the Second Battle of the Marne, July-August 1918
The Second Battle of the Marne - which ran from 15 July to 4 August 1918 - was intended as Germany's final major attempt at breakthrough on the Western Front prior to the arrival of ever-increasing U.S. troops on the battlefield.
In the event the battle proved a significant Allied victory. Once it became clear that the Germans had not only failed in their aim to win the war in the offensive, but had in fact lost ground, a number of German commanders, including Crown Prince Wilhelm, believed the war was lost.
Reproduced below is an extract from U.S. Commander-in-Chief John J Pershing's official report summarising U.S. participation in the battle.
Click here to read French General Henri Gouraud's appeal to his forces at the onset of the battle. Click here and here to read semi-official German press statements published in July and August 1918 on the outcome of fighting at the Marne. Click here to read a German memoir focusing on the events of 15 July. Click here to read Pershing's Special Order of the Day, dated 27 August, in which he praised the role played by his forces. Click here and here to read contrasting statements regarding the effectiveness of the Allied counterattacks, issued by chief German strategist Erich Ludendorff. Click here to read the official address given by French General Charles Mangin on 7 August 1915, directed to U.S. First and Second servicemen who, assisting Mangin's French Tenth Army, participated in the Allied counter-attacks launched on 18 August. Click here to read the view later given by Mangin concerning the turning point of the Allied counterattack at the Marne. Click here to read the official address given by French Sixth Army General Jean Degoutte to French and U.S. troops towards the close of the battle, on 9 August 1918, in which he praised the conduct of American forces. Click here to read an account by Karl Rosner of how news of the battle was received by the Kaiser.
General John J Pershing on the Second Battle of the Marne, July-August 1918
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.
The First and Third Corps now held a continuous front of 11 kilometres along the Vesle. On August 12th the Seventy-seventh Division relieved the Fourth Division on the First Corps front, and the following day the Twenty-eighth relieved the Thirty-second Division in the Third Corps, while from August 6th to August 10th the Sixth Infantry Brigade of the Third Division held a sector on the river line.
The transfer of the First Corps to the Woevre was ordered at this time, and the control of its front was turned over to the Third Corps.
On August 18th General Petain began an offensive between Rheims and the Oise. Our Third Corps participated in this operation, crossing the Vesle on September 4th with the Twenty-eighth and Seventy-seventh Divisions, and over-coming stubborn opposition on the plateau south of the Aisne, which was reached by the Seventy-seventh on September 6th.
The Twenty-eighth was withdrawn from the line on September 7th. Two days later the Third Corps was transferred to the region of Verdun, the Seventy-seventh Division remaining in line on the Aisne River until September 17th.
The Thirty-second Division, upon its relief from the battle on the Vesle, joined a French corps north of Soissons and attacked from August 29th to 31st, capturing Juvigny after some particularly desperate fighting and reaching the Chauny-Soissons road.
On the British front two regiments of the Thirty-third Division participated in an attack on Hamel July 4th, and again on August 9th as an incident of the Allied offensive against the Amiens salient. One of these regiments took Gressaire Wood and Chipilly Ridge, capturing 700 prisoners and considerable material.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
Flak was a term used to describe anti-aircraft fire.
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