Primary Documents - Karl Rosner 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 the text of an account by Karl Rosner of how news of the battle was received by the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II.
Click here to read General Gouraud's appeal to his forces at the onset of the battle. Click here to read 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 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 semi-official German press statements published in July and August 1918 on the outcome of fighting at the Marne. 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.
Karl Rosner on Kaiser Wilhelm II's Reaction to Allied Counterattacks at the Second Battle of the Marne
As the King mounts the steps before the entrance, Marshal von Hindenburg comes to meet him - dignified, stately, without haste, without hesitation. Only one cavalry officer, his adjutant and son-in-law, follows him at a considerable distance.
The King stretches out a hand to the General and nods his head vigorously. His lips move but his voice fails him. A thousand conflicting thoughts seize his mind. All the bitterness of the past few tortured days he has stored up till now, brooded over it, carried it with him until he might unfold it all here to Hindenburg. He wants to unburden everything.
"Your Majesty has seen much in these hard days," says Hindenburg; "the war has shown a hard face. I am happy to welcome Your Majesty here again, and if Your Majesty commands - ?" He glances through the open door.
The King nods. He wants only one thing - to hear, to be alone with Hindenburg and know the truth, to learn how they think matters will develop. He hastens into the villa.
General Ludendorff is
seated at a desk poring over papers. He glances up, lets the monocle
fall from his eye, rises quickly, and advances toward the King.
The King says, to start conversation: "You have had a strenuous tour, Excellency."
The General notices the nuance. "Excellency!" Ordinarily he is addressed as "General" - "my dear General." Does this mean anger, disgrace? That matters as little to him as a fly buzzing in the distance.
Hindenburg interrupts: "I believe that Your Majesty may desire first of all our opinion as to how we got into the critical situation in which we are at present."
The King nods. His eyes close. The Marshal's words are much too slow for his burning impatience. Hindenburg briefly explains the army's plight. The King exclaims: "The men went back on us?"
Hindenburg meets his gaze quietly and continues: "We thought that the drafts sent to the divisions which were fighting southwest of Soissons, would have put up a stronger resistance than they did. The troops gave way and we have lost many prisoners."
He pauses to ponder for a moment, and resumes his account of the fighting: "Your Majesty knows that they attacked us with several hundred whippet tanks. These are apparently a newly perfected type of small, speedy tank which rush behind our lines and convert themselves into machine gun nests. The result was that almost immediately our front lines were broken at several points. The men ahead were fighting and defending themselves as best they could, when suddenly they were taken unawares by the rattle of hostile machine guns in their rear. During the ensuing confusion the men did not know just what had happened, except that they were surrounded; and they lost their heads. It was not until we brought up supports from the rear and got our second line into action that we could check the enemy, after heavy sacrifices, and organize a new line. That is the course of events as we now understand them "
The King nods, remains silent, tugs at his coat, then asks abruptly, dryly: "Will the new line hold?"
The Marshal stands four-square, huge, unmoved. "That really cannot be foretold, Your Majesty. Our line is between the Aisne and the Marne, and a big enemy offensive is before us. It may go on for days. We have certainly got to count on new attacks on a grand scale, and have, as we are discovering more plainly every day, to reckon with at least a dozen fresh assaulting divisions in the enemy's first line. They must have reserves behind those."
Perturbed and excited, yet eager to appear firm and deliberate, the King asks again: "So we shall retire still farther - give up more ground?" But his voice fails him, and the words escape him ungraciously, almost rudely.
He checks himself carefully and continues: "I merely beg you to bear in mind, in dealing with this situation, the effect upon the very restive sentiment back home in Germany as well as upon the Allies and the rest of the world. We have to meet increasing criticism and antagonism at home with every day that passes. The significance of this opposition cannot be overestimated - in the interest of the throne."
Marshal Hindenburg observes with professional calm: "Certainly, Your Majesty, these things weigh heavily enough upon our hearts. Naturally I am occupied first and foremost with the purely military responsibilities confided to our care and loyalty, with the safety of the army, with accomplishing our military object "
A pause ensues.
Turning deliberately to General Ludendorff and then back again to the King, Hindenburg continues: "Perhaps my comrade - ?"
"Certainly," replies the King curtly, suddenly recalling his thoughts. What Hindenburg had told him had not soothed his nerves. He has something more in his mind. He regards Ludendorff alertly, with a defiant light in his eye. Ludendorff clears his throat and stiffens slightly.
"I beg to impress upon Your Majesty that I received news that the enemy had broken our line only this morning, while discussing our new Flanders' offensive. This painful surprise -" The King suddenly raises his head and interrupts. "Then we were all thoroughly taken by surprise?" This short, bitter question flashes out like a challenging thrust. The King is angry and threatening.
But the General continues his first line of thought as if nothing had happened: "The surprise was not in there being an attack. We expected that from the moment our advance East of Rheims was halted, and Marshal Foch had his reserves at his disposal. The surprise was in the failure of our front line, and the extent of the enemy's initial success."
The General steps over to the chart table, adjusts his monocle, and glancing at the map before him, continues: "The danger in which we are placed by the depth of the enemy's penetration makes it our first task to strengthen the lines at this point - at any cost against further assault. It is a pivotal position defending the whole Seventh Army, fighting in the Marne elbow. Unless we can feel certain of our Western flank, we cannot undertake further operations around Rheims, or withdraw in an orderly way from the South bank of the Marne. So long as we are not in safety at that point, or until we can erect a new front which is safe from the assaults of the enemy, we are not complete masters of the situation and cannot resume the initiative. Here is where we have got to settle things. Here we must decide our further plan of campaign."
The King listens with distrust and suspicion. One sees the cloven hoof thrust out again. His blood rises. So! Fortify the line, but if that does not succeed, surrender more territory - establish a new front - eventually withdraw from the Marne! The blood rushes to his face! He taps with his foot! Tumultuous passions master him!
A second retreat from the Marne! An unexampled humiliation! And what of the world, which he sees as a circle of evil, spiteful spectators, surrounding the stage on which he has fought and wrestled for his kingdom for four years? A second and unrecallable check! A new front! But where?
The old line on the Aisne? Or the Meuse? And then the Rhine? He sees the end yawning before him - the black spectre from which he had averted his face and shut his eyes in horror so many times that day.
A fearful vision floats before him - the disorganized, embittered armies streaming homewards - the shock of disappointment to the nation already shattered and crushed by its sacrifices and privations - the rising of unchained agitators - the breaking forth of the millions who have avidly awaited this moment for years!
Summoning all his resolution, in order not to lose his composure, he blurts out at last: "No! I trust we shall not give up a single foot of the soil we have won!"
As they leave the room, a young officer is waiting with a paper in his hand to be approved by Ludendorff. It is the text of the evening telegram of the Wolff Bureau. The King takes it from Hindenburg's hands and reads:
BERLIN, OFFICIAL, July 18, 1918.
The French attacked with heavy forces and tanks between the Aisne and the Marne and made some gains. Our reserves have been brought into action.
He handed the sheet back without a word. How harmless it sounded. And yet, unless God works a miracle, this is the turning of the tide!
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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