Marshal Foch and the Second Victory of the Marne
By Raymond Recouly, Captain X
[Scribner's Magazine, December 1918]
The German army, mightily strengthened in morale as well as materially through the defection of Russia, and in full possession of all its resources and means of offense, fell upon the English with terrific force on the 21st of March, 1918, and upon the French on the 27th of May. Although the decisive victory for which Germany longed was not won, she achieved very important success. In some places the German front was pushed forward for fifty kilometres; a large number of prisoners were taken, also rich booty in supplies of every sort, machine-guns and artillery of all calibres.
The heroism of the French army, which allowed itself to be cut to pieces rather than surrender any vital points, succeeded finally in stemming the German flood, but in the meantime the enemy had drawn disquietingly near Amiens, which it was essential that we should hold in order to keep in communication with the English army; he was also approaching Paris, where the almost daily bombardment of "big Bertha" made even outsiders fully aware of the width and menace of his advance. Two of our important railways, almost indispensable for the movement of our troops, ran from Paris to Calais by way of Amiens, and from Paris to Nancy by Châlons; the first was under the fire of the enemy's artillery, and the second had been cut altogether.
The Germans were determined, at whatever cost, to pursue their advantage and to press onward, first in Flanders, and then between Montdidier and Compiègne. They were halted, but there was every indication stopped; they concentrated their forces, regrouped their divisions and drew their reserves closer, in order to launch a third great attack.
It is not necessary to pore over the map in order to see that the Allies could not afford to lose much more ground. Any new advance of the German army would bring it dangerously near Paris, or if made in the region of Amiens-Abbeville, communication between the French and English armies would be imperilled.
The third German onslaught was on the 15th of July, when Ludendorff threw all his forces against the Allied lines, from Château-Thierry as far as the Main de Massiges, to the east of Rheims. But this time the furious assault was stopped short; advance was impossible except at one point of our centre, and almost at once Foch delivered a thrust in return which was irresistible and overwhelming. The French and American troops counterattacked on the 18th of July, and from the first this counter-offensive, which took the Germans completely by surprise, was a brilliant success. The enemy, jostled and confused, abandoned a wide stretch of territory, losing many thousands of prisoners; and as their communications were threatened they made all haste to retreat, falling back from the Marne, which they had so imprudently crossed, as far as the Aisne. Thus they lost nearly all the ground which they had wrested from us, and the great railway from Paris to Nancy was ours again.
But that was only part of Foch's scheme. In Picardy, on the banks of the Somme and of the Oise he repeated the same masterly stroke which had succeeded in Champagne. Again the Germans were surprised, and again our troops advanced, taking many prisoners, and this time the other great road from Paris to Calais was given back to us.
In the course of one month the situation had completely changed. In the beginning the Germans seemed to have won; they trumpeted forth their victory, and announced that the inevitable end of the war was close at hand. Now they were vanquished, and forced to acknowledge their defeat. They had pushed forward, and now they were being pushed back. They had threatened the most vital points of the Allies, and now in their turn they were in danger, forced into a general retreat, of which the scope and gravity became each day more evident.
It would be in vain to search the pages of military history for another example of such a sudden change, for none can be found. It is this reversal of conditions which we call, and with full justification, The second victory of the Marne. To the same extent as in the first victory of 1914 the situation of the Allies, from seeming almost desperate, became favorable materially and also as to morale; the pressure of the German power was broken and the liberty and the civilization of the world were saved. It shall be my endeavor to indicate concisely the chief outlines of this second victory, and to point out the various factors, psychological as well as strategic, by which, to my mind, it was determined.
The chief problem in a war where the armies are intrenched, so that their lines stretch without a break for hundreds of kilometres, is to pierce the enemy's front, and the breach once made to widen it, following up the first success in such a manner as to force him to stand upon the defensive. This problem is complex and difficult in the highest degree, and it is not to be wondered at that different commanders should have felt their way, changing their methods, and even their principles, in the attempt to find a solution.
I remember having long discussions upon this important question with one of the greatest fighting men of our day, General Ratko Dimitrief, a Bulgarian by birth, who, however was in the Russian service, and the brilliant commander of a large army upon the front of Riga. His whole career had been intensely interesting and exciting. After passing all his youth in the Russian army he went back to Bulgaria, where his military talent showed itself so unmistakably that he was given the task of organizing the Bulgarian troops and preparing, them for war against Turkey. When that war broke out, Ratko Dimitrief, at the head of the first Bulgarian army, carried out a manoeuvre so admirable that it will bear comparison with the finest of Napoleon's. He crossed the Balkans, by mountain passes which were supposed to be inaccessible, fell suddenly upon the Turks, who were completely taken by surprise, and won the great victory of Kirk-Kilissé. This first smashing blow led to the success of the whole campaign.
At the beginning of the present war, Ratko Dimitrief, who was not looked upon with eyes of favor by King Ferdinand on account of his sympathy with Russia, took service again in the Russian army, where the Czar gave him first the command of an army corps and then of an army, which he led from one victorious fight to another during the invasion of Galicia. In January, 1917, I found myself at Riga, having been sent on a mission to the Russian front, and I was in the habit of passing my evenings with the General, who was delighted to be able to discuss the war with a French officer.
He said to me once: "I have given a great deal of thought to the problem of the best way to pierce an enemy's lines, and I am convinced that Staff officers are on the wrong track when they seek a solution only by accumulating artillery, and by using it in an intense and prolonged bombardment. By dint of thinking too much about the means at their command, they end by forgetting the element of surprise, which always has played and always will play a leading part in the game of war. When you have hammered away, day after day, at a certain sector of the enemy's front, it is as if you told him that you mean to attack him there. It is a sort of visiting-card which you leave in order to let him know that you will soon begin an assault. The enemy, thus forewarned, makes his arrangements accordingly. He masses his reserves at that point, and when your attack is launched, sooner or later it is checked.
"In my opinion," continued Ratko, "another course should be followed. The solution of the problem consists in bringing a dozen or fifteen good divisions into more or less close proximity to the spot where you mean to strike. That being done, it is, above all, important that the attack should be a surprise, after a brief but violent preparation by your artillery. The enemy should be dazed by the force of your impact and the brutality of your sudden blow. His line once broken, you must push on at once with redoubled speed, in order to widen the breach still further."
Since then I have often remembered these prophetic words of Ratko Dimitrief, for the course of military events has proved that he was right. Early in 1917 a British army in the neighborhood of Cambrai made a surprise attack which had the greatest success. The famous Hindenburg line was broken through in rather a wide sector, but as the English had not sufficient reserves they could not follow up their advantage.
The German Staff, which on account of the treachery of the Russians had a large number of available reserves, sought to solve the problem in the manner suggested to it by the English. According to its view, the two essential points were: first, a surprise attack by a strong force, and, second, a short but intense artillery preparation, not so much meant to demolish the enemy's defenses as to destroy their occupants by the use of poisonous gas-shells.
General von Hutier, who has one of the best brains on the Prussian Staff, was ordered to try out this method on the Russian front at Riga, as a sort of dress rehearsal; he did so, and the result was very satisfactory.
Early in March last specially trained German divisions began to assemble in a radius of about a hundred kilometres in the country around Saint-Quentin. The most careful precautions were taken to disguise their movements; the troops were absolutely forbidden to march during daytime; any fires in the camps were forbidden also, and no communication was allowed between their front and rear.
In their two first attacks the German army was thus enabled to profit by an element of surprise which counted for a great deal in its success, and, besides that, their furious bombardment with asphyxiating shells made our first lines absolutely untenable.
These German successes had at least one good result—-they led to the unity of command. The Allied governments at last decided upon an indispensable measure, which it would have been greatly to their interest to have adopted long before; there was to be a sole responsible commander on the western front.
It is only bare justice to M. Clemenceau to say that his influence had great weight in this decision. The choice fell upon General Foch, and none could have better deserved it.
Foch's principal characteristic is an admirable flexibility and clearness of mind, to which is added a dauntless and imperturbable spirit. It is at the most critical time, when a situation seems to be desperate, that he is most captain of his soul; his hand holds the rudder in a firmer grip than before, and he forces events to follow the dictation of his will.
I happened to be in his army, at the centre of the French front, during the first battle of the Marne. There are in every battle, as in every war and every revolution, strongly marked points of bifurcation, when circumstances, instead of following what is apparently their determined course, might have branched off in a different or an entirely opposite direction. These points of bifurcation may be called the moments of history. I use the word in its etymological sense; momentum is the weight, sometimes feather-light, which turns the trembling scale. It is at these moments that the impulse of a born leader makes itself felt. If he is sufficiently energetic and far-seeing he will not allow himself to be carried along without resistance; he rises to the height of his fortune, and, like Brennus, throws into the scale the weight of his sword.
In the evening of the 8th of September, the most critical day of the first battle of the Marne, the situation of Foch's army seemed hopeless. The centre and the whole of the right wing had been forced violently backward by the Germans, so that the front, instead of being horizontal, appeared oblique and bevelled. The left wing only held because its two divisions still clung with savage obstinacy to the extreme outer edge of the high ground, near Mondement; one was the 42d; commanded by Grossetti, the other the Moroccan division (in which I was) under Humbert. If these divisions fell back, if they loosened their hold on the plateau and allowed themselves to be swept back into the plain, the centre of the French armies would be broken.
But fortunately Foch was there. It was in that most critical moment, with three-fourths of his army pushed back and his losses enormous, that his genius conceived and immediately carried out the manoeuvre which decided our great victory. Taking Grossetti's division on his left, he threw it abruptly by what our military men and chess-players call a "mouvement de rocade," against the flank of the German army, which projected at that point in a sort of pocket or triangle. This division, one of the best in the French army (it was, made up of regiments from Verdun), fell like a thunderbolt upon the flank of the Boches, who did not expect to be attacked from that quarter. Surprised and thrown into disorder, they were forced to fall back with all speed in order to escape disaster.
The battle was won, not only by this masterly manoeuvre, but by the strength, of Foch's will; he was able to transmit to the minds of those who carried out his orders, and to the troops under them, the ardent and imperious confidence with which his own soul was filled.
Foch applied there, in the heat of action, a maxim of Joseph de Maistre's which he had often quoted to his pupils when he was professor at the Ecole de Guerre: "Battles are won or lost in the minds of those who fight them. No battle is lost until it is believed to be so.
The appointment of Foch as Generalissimo of the Allied armies had a twofold meaning. It meant the complete co-ordination of these forces in the hands of a man who had no equal in the science of strategy, and it meant also and above all that that science would be applied in the conduct of the great and decisive battle which must soon be fought. It was absolutely certain that Foch would not confine himself to defensive positions, but that he would attack at the right time and would not be willing to receive blows without paying them back with heavy interest.
As the German successes of March and April had been due to surprise, as well as to skilful tactics, the first thing to do was to be fully prepared against a repetition of the same methods. And there it was that the keen, sane, and systematic genius of Pétain, who was commander-in-chief of the French army, came into play. Pétain had an instinct for organization, he paid the utmost attention to all details, and he had also the faculty of quickly finding ingenious solutions for the most difficult and unexpected problems.
It was above all imperative to discover at any cost where the German troops were concentrated, and to know what sector, and at what time, they proposed to attack anew. Our intelligence service and those connected with our staffs whose business it was to collect information redoubled their efforts and their precautions. The German plan was ferreted out. It was found that they meant to attack in Champagne, and all signs showed intense activity of preparation on the enemy's part.
The French and American troops were on the keenest alert. Toward the end of June it was definitely known that the attack in Champagne was definitely decided upon. On the 6th of July the indications were still more exact, and the next day, July 7, General Gouraud, who commanded the fourth French army, gave out a stirring order of the day to the French and American troops under him, exhorting them to stand firm against the impending attack.
On the 10th of July our intelligence service reported that the date fixed for this attack was the 14th or 15th, whereupon our Staff proceeded to probe into the German lines by vigorous raids, in order to ascertain positively whether this information was correct. In the evening of July 14 one of the most successful of these probings was carried out by a French detachment, led by one of our lieutenants. He rushed boldly into the German trenches, and, thanks to the prisoners whom he brought back, we found out everything, down to the most minute details. It was the most wonderful haul that could possibly have been made, and through it we knew that the German artillery preparation was to begin at ten minutes past midnight; at a quarter past four in the morning the infantry would leave the trenches and advance, protected by a creeping barrage.
The names of the heroes to whose coolness and daring we owed this most valuable information ought to pass down to posterity. They were Lieutenant Balestier, Sergeant Lejeune, Corporals Hoquet and Gourmelon, and Private Aumasson. General Gouraud himself fastened the cross of the Legion of Honor upon the breast of Lieutenant Balestier, and never had it been won more worthily.
That same night at eleven o'clock the General ordered our artillery counter-operation to begin, and by half past eleven every battery in his army was in full blast with a furious, barrage, meant to forestall and disconcert the German attack. This terrific cannonading during the night of July 14 was plainly heard in all the region around Paris.
THE DEFENSIVE BATTLE
In the great combat which was now beginning, and which was to prove one of the decisive battles of the war, the strategic plan of General Foch was the following:
To hold back the enemy and prevent him from gaining any ground; those were the tactics of defense. This result once attained, and the German assaults broken up, counter-attacks were to be made with the utmost vigor by all of our available forces, taking advantage of the perilous position in which the German army had placed itself on account of the enormous "pocket" which it had made between Soissons, Château-Thierry, and Rheims. These two parts of the battle were closely linked together, and one was as important as the other. In order for the counter-attack to succeed it was necessary that the defense should be proof against any assault. Every reader will understand that it is impossible for many reasons to set forth here in full all the details which went to make up the ingenious system of defense which had been devised by General Pétain; it may suffice to say that its leading idea was to allow the Germans to launch their first assault into space, as it were, by causing his own first line to fall back slowly, reserving his chief defensive for the second and third. In a fencing-bout, when you have to deal with an opponent whose game consists in lightning-like and repeated thrusts, it is the part of wisdom to give way in time, yielding as much ground as is absolutely necessary at the moment when he makes his thrust. His rapier, instead of reaching your breast, finds itself in empty air, and in that moment your counter-thrust is made.
But whether it be a question of fencing or of war, everything in this manoeuvre depends upon the way in which it is carried out, and in order to profit by this defense to its fullest extent a leader of the highest degree of talent and troops, of the first order are indispensable. The units left in the first line are of necessity sacrificed; their duty is to die if need be where they stand, after holding back the enemy's attack by every possible means, so that when he reaches the second line his ranks will be already thinned and his first wind and strength exhausted.
The soldiers under General Gouraud and General Berthelot made this sacrifice of their lives with the courage of Stoics.
The Germans launched their great attack from Château-Thierry as far as the Main de Massiges. A glance at the map will show what their objectives were: They proposed to overflow the country to the right and left of Rheims and the Montagne de Rheims, by a double enveloping movement to overcome the defense of that city, and afterward to push on to Epernay and Châlons. Their shock divisions expected to reach these two latter cities on the first or second day of the battle. It is easy to see that a German advance on Châlons was a grave menace to the Allies, as it would imperil the safety of communications between our army of the east and that of the north.
The French army was most fortunate in having for the guiding spirit of its defensive battle, on whose forces the chief weight of the German attack must fall, one of our greatest leaders and most skilful trainers of men, General Gouraud, a hero worthy of the famous phrase: "The mere sight of him, made men brave."
In all our armies there is no chief possessed of more influence and more personal magnetism; when he is with his troops a miraculous growth of devotion, heroism, and sacrifice springs up among them into a rich harvest.
The reason is not far to seek; his whole life has been made up of devotion and sacrifice to duty and to his country.
On the 15th of July, at a quarter past four in the morning, as day was breaking, the troops of the Kronprinz left their trenches and flung themselves against the French lines. Our plan of defense, which had been thought out to the last detail, worked to perfection; the battle went on and developed exactly as the French commanders had foreseen. The signallers on our first line threw up warning rockets at the approach of the enemy, and immediately our barrage-fire fell upon the German first positions. Our first line, meant to be yielded, was only feebly manned, but every man therein was a hero, and their intrepid officers were prepared to lay down their lives for France. They all knew, officers and men, that nine-tenths of them would die in their tracks; it was their task, as I have said, to hold back and disperse the first attack of the enemy, and they fulfilled their mission to the end. Many heroic deeds were done which will never be known, while others belong already to history. At Mont-sans-Nom, for instance, half a platoon—made up of fifteen or twenty men at most, commanded by a captain, held on from five o'clock in the morning until six o'clock at night, besieged and almost submerged by the German flood, but managing to keep in touch with the rear by means of carrier-pigeons and wireless telegraphy. A major in command of a battalion was not far away, also hemmed in at his post with all his men. By nightfall they had exhausted an their ammunition; when the order to retire came from their division, the major, the captain, and their handful of men opened a way for themselves with their bayonets and arrived at our line with fourteen prisoners. These islands of French resistance, of which there were many, stopped, divided, and scattered the oncoming German waves of assault, as they were meant to do, so that when they came upon our principal line of defense, two or three kilometres further back, their force was three-quarters spent and they did not succeed in seriously encroaching at any point on General Gouraud's front.
By noon the French commanders had a very distinct impression that the victory was ours; a general commanding an army corps remarked in popular language that we "had broken the beast's paw." This was then the situation: To the right, on Gouraud's front, our advance formations were holding on to their shelters; in the centre the enemy had only reached our intermediate positions; on the left he had got as far as the old Roman road, and the woods to the southeast of Prunay.
The check of the German attack was from that time a foregone conclusion. The Kaiser, as we knew from our first prisoners, had been watching the battle from Ludendorff's house at Blanc-Mont, no doubt waiting for the approaching time when he should make his entry into Châlons. But that entry never came off, any more than his entry into Nancy—or into Paris!
In the evening of July 16 General Gouraud issued an order of the day to his army announcing the victory. In this army there was an American division, fighting among our poilus and giving every proof of splendid courage. The young American soldiers, of whom many were under fire for the first time, bore themselves like veterans. In one trench where they fought side by side with French chasseurs, the dead bodies of more than sixty Germans were found in a stretch of a couple of hundred yards.
The defense made by General Berthelot's army, which held the left sector between Rheims and the Marne, was equally energetic, equally full of heroism. The German effort was especially furious at this point; their encircling manoeuvre, which had for its objective the capture of the Montagne de Rheims and of the city, had another as well; General Fritz von Below aimed at breaking the front of Berthelot between the Marne and Rheims, just as Von Einem sought to break Gouraud's front between Rheims and the Main de Massiges.
The German attack was launched with extreme violence. Our lines, which were held by French and Italian troops, wavered somewhat before the formidable thrust; the Italians lost the wooded slopes of Bligny and Champlat, and we were forced back to the outskirts of the forest of Rheims. But we stuck firmly to our second positions, on which the enemy could make no impression.
On the left-hand sector, which lay along the Marne, between Château-Thierry and Mareuil, another German army, led by Von Boelin, had rather better success. Six of their divisions managed to cross the river between Jaulgonne and Verneuil, and climbed the heights to the southward. Fierce fighting took place around the villages of Reuilly and Courthièzy, and by the end of the day our men had been obliged to yield some ground. The Germans gained a foothold in the villages of Saint-Agnan and La Chapelle-Monthodon, and by July 15 their advance south of the Marne had reached five kilometres at this point. On the other hand, further to the left, west of Fossoy, the American troops had thrown the Germans back across the river.
The enemy, having gained a local success, immediately sought to push it farther, by enlarging, toward Epernay, the pocket which he had dug out on the left bank of the Marne, but vigorous counter-attacks on our part soon succeeded in winning back part of this ground, and the villages of Saint-Agnan and La Chapelle were ours again. In vain Von Boehn redoubled his efforts; he only got possession of the hamlet of Montvoisin, ten kilometres from Epernay.
The situation on the evening of July 17 was very much in our favor, and the great defensive battle was three-fourths won. It is easy to divide into three sectors the wide front over which it was spread:
1st. On the front of Gouraud's army, between Rheims and the Main de Massiges, the Germans were completely checked.
2d. On Berthelot's front, between the Marne and Rheims, our lines had been somewhat bent back, but our second positions were untouched, and already the French and Italian troops, not satisfied with having made a stout resistance, were getting back some of the ground which they had lost.
3d. Along the Marne, between Château-Thierry and Cailly, the Germans had been able to get six of their divisions across the river, but these troops were unable to follow up their advantage, and, that being the case, their position to the south of the stream seemed perilous.
Taking it altogether, our Generalissimo, Foch, had every reason to be satisfied on that evening of July 17. The German push had been stopped short. The enormous salient which their successful offensive of the 27th of May on the Chemin-des-Dames had made into the French lines was no longer an advantage unless they should be able to enlarge and make use of it for further advance. If that was not possible, the salient was a serious drawback, since it laid them open to flanking attacks. Now, Foch was a past master in that particular kind of fighting, as he had shown at the first battle of the Marne.
The Boche being thus held at every point, the hour for a counter-attack had manifestly come. It was now time for the Generalissimo to pass from defensive to offensive warfare, which is, according to Napoleon, "the most difficult of all the operations of war, for which the right moment can only be grasped by a man of the highest talent!"
FOCH'S RETURN THRUST
One of the chief reasons why Germany will lose this war (and she has lost it already) is because she has made gross mistakes as to the psychology of her enemies; of France, in the first place, then England, and after that America; and she has also entirely underestimated the military strength which each of these countries could bring to bear against her. These errors, and this faulty reckoning, doom her to defeat; if we should seek for the causes which have led to them, we might find some such explanation as this:
The Germans enjoyed a flourishing material civilization, but they had no moral civilization whatever.
The way in which they provoked this war, their obscene barbarity of conduct, in which officers and soldiers are alike, the innumerable crimes which have marked their passage through Belgium and France—cities burned to the ground, systematic and wanton destruction of ancient monuments, thousands of innocent people massacred, thousands more reduced to famine or carried into hideous slavery, desecration of religious symbols and graves of the dead, authorized and organized pillage and defilement—all of these make up the most monstrous offense against justice and humanity which has ever been committed by a great people, and for this they are one and all responsible, from the Kaiser down to the meanest of his subjects.
The world has been pushed back for twenty or even thirty centuries, and because much of the harm done is irreparable those who have wrought it must be severely punished. We should be lacking in our most sacred duty to our dead and to the generations which are yet to come if, through fatigue or moral weakness, we should allow the war to end without the infliction of signal punishment.
That long list of misdeeds could not have been committed if the Germans had had any true morality, or any real morale. And if a man has no moral standards himself, how can he measure and appreciate those of his enemies? He can form no idea of them; what Bismarck called "those imponderables," are for him nonexistent. This shadowy domain of the moral forces, from which, however, they rule the world, is an unknown country to the Germans; they grope about in it, go astray, and in the end lose themselves. At the outbreak of the war, misled by appearances and only accustomed to look at the outside of things, they stupidly decided that France would fall to pieces in a few weeks; they had not the slightest idea of the inexhaustible reserves of courage, energy, and resistance on which our country could draw.
The Germans have not understood the English character, and still less that of the Americans. They believed that the worship of the Almighty Dollar was so firmly established in America, and love of comfort and peace so deep-rooted, that nothing would induce the United States to go to war. They could not understand the American idealism, of which we have now in France such a magnificent example—an army of nearly two million men who within a year have rushed to take part in this new crusade against barbarism; against those who have been "faithless to humanity."
We shall see that the Germans made the same mistakes in psychology and in underrating the strength of their adversaries at the second battle of the Marne which we have just won.
They were convinced that the French army was incapable of resistance, and still more of making a counter-attack. Their successes of the 21st of March and the 27th of May had gone to their heads, until they were fairly bursting with vanity; they believed that the Allies were only fit to be their butt and would continue to be maltreated without hitting back. That explains their overwhelming surprise at the French counter-offensive in July.
Foch's plan, which was at the same time very simple and extremely ingenious, consisted in taking advantage of the salient formed by the German front, in order to throw against their flank, between Soissons and Château-Thierry, two French and American armies, those of General Mangin and General Degoutte. Final orders for the attack were given on the night of the 17th and 18th. Mangin's army stretched between the Aisne and the Ourcq; that of Degoutte from the Ourcq to Clignon, where it joined the American troops. A furious storm during the night fortunately hid the last preparations for the advance.
The Boches, who had no idea that anything was going to happen, were all snugly underground in their dugouts, when, at the appointed time, thirty-five minutes past four, thousands of guns began a thunderous cannonade, and at the same moment our infantry flung themselves forward, led by an army of tanks. The surprise of the Germans left nothing to be wished for. By noon Mangin's men had reached "Saconin-Breuil and Vierzy; they swept past Chaudun, Villers-Hélon, Mauroy-sur-Ourcq. Whole German staffs were captured in their headquarters; cannon were counted by the hundred, prisoners by the thousand, and farther to the south Degoutte's army and the American troops were having a like success.
The Germans, stunned by this overwhelming blow, hastily brought up their reserves, but to no purpose; on the 19th the Allied troops continued to advance, and Mangin reached the heights which dominated Soissons.
This triumphant advance was followed by immediate results. The German General Staff, conscious of peril, began to call back those divisions which were at the southern extremity of the salient, an operation which the French and American troops took care to interfere with by attacking all along the line, from Soissons to Rheims. During the night of the 19th and 20th the German divisions which had succeeded in crossing the Marne found themselves harassed and attacked from all sides. Incessantly pounded by our artillery and tormented by our aviators, they were forced to recross the river on shaking foot-bridges, which were demolished every few minutes by the fire of our guns. The roads were blocked by a dense swarm of retreating columns and supply-trains, on which our aviators and artillery poured tons of projectiles. At daybreak on the 20th the French and American troops lined the southern bank of the Marne.
That day Mangin and Degoutte pursued their course eastward; between Rheims and the Marne Berthelot continued to gain ground. We had already taken twenty thousand prisoners and four hundred guns, and the American divisions on Degoutte's right had gained a foothold on the plateau of Etrepilly, which overlooks Château-Thierry. This town, the birthplace of La Fontaine, the most national of all our poets, was set free by the Americans on the night of the 20th and 21st, after having been in the hands of the enemy for fifty days. On the 21st, 22d, 23d, and 24th of July our offensive advance became still more marked. The army of Mangin got as far as Oulchy-la-Ville; Degoutte went well beyond the road leading from Soissons to Château-Thierry. At the southern end of the salient the Americans crossed the Marne at many places between Château-Thierry and Dormans, and pushed boldly forward toward the north in the forests of Fère and Ris.
It was only natural that the fighting should have raged most fiercely between the Marne and Rheims, for there was the pivot of the German resistance; if that was carried his retreat would become a disaster. Berthelot's army, which was reinforced by English divisions, had therefore a very stiff task, for the Germans threw in three of their finest divisions, choice troops which they had been keeping in reserve. The struggle lasted until the 26th, when the Germans, worn out, at last made up their minds to retreat, and General Gouraud seized the opportunity to retrieve, by a brilliant stroke, some of the ground which he had voluntarily given up at the beginning of the battle.
In the night of the 26th and 27th the enemy was in full retreat on all the line from the valley of the Ourcq, southeast of Oulchy-le-Château, as far as the valley of the Ardre, above Bligny. We took Fère-en-Tardenois. The Germans, although they had been obliged to diminish their salient, still strove to hold on to their two pivots of Soissons and Rheims, but on the 29th one of these pivots was rudely shaken by General Mangin. On the 1st of August the Allied armies renewed their attack, with the object of throwing the mass of the enemy's forces back to the Vesle, and Mangin's army, reinforced by British troops, carried the villages of Grand-Rosoy, Beugneux, and Hartennes. The Germans were obliged to evacuate Soissons, as it was in imminent danger, and on the 2d of August, at six o'clock in the evening, the chasseurs of General Vuillemot made their entry into the city. On all the front our advance continued. Ville-en-Tardenois was regained, and in the morning of the 3d we held the banks of the Aisne and the Vesle from Soissons to Fismes, the outskirts of which were occupied by Americans. In twenty-four hours we had advanced ten kilometres, and had retaken more than fifty villages.
On the 4th of August, after very severe fighting, the Americans got into Fismes.
After the 5th of August we were in possession of the southern banks of the Aisne and the Vesle, from Soissons to Rheims, and the masterly manoeuvre which Foch had started on the 18th of July had come to an end as far as that part of the front was concerned, and with the most inspiring success. The salient which the Germans had driven into our lines after their victory of the Chemin-des-Dames was reduced to a quarter of what it had been, and their losses in prisoners and in guns were grave. But those material losses were nothing compared to the serious injury to their morale. Ludendorff was stunned by the formidable blow dealt him by Foch; he appeared to have lost all initiative, and the situation was entirely reversed. The German army, instead of attacking, had now to suffer our attacks; the High Command seemed to be disabled and incapable of pulling itself together for any effective reaction. The High Command of the Allies, on the other hand, had never been in more magnificent form.
THE AMERICANS IN THE BATTLE
One of the essential characteristics of this battle must always be the part played in it by the Americans. For the first time on European soil a large number of American troops, formed into divisions, found themselves engaged in a military operation on a very large scale; they were about to undergo a decisive ordeal. From this ordeal they came out with flying colors, in every sense of the words. The gallantry with which they fought, the skill of their officers, the heroism, of the men, excited the wonder and admiration of every Frenchman who came into contact with them. Many of my comrades were delighted to bear witness to their valor and coolness. General Degoutte was for a long time in Morocco, commanding the celebrated Moroccan division, which is one of the glories of our army; all its regiments have the "fourragère," and their flags are decorated with the Legion of Honor. In speaking of the American division which fought at Château-Thierry the general declared, "I couldn't have done better with my 'Marocaine' and General Gouraud said of the men: "They are as good as the best of our poilus.
General Pershing, in the ringing order of the day which he issued to his troops after the victory, designated a certain number among them; the 1st, the 2n, the 3d, the 4th, the 26th, the 28th, the 32d, and the 42d divisions—eight in all.
The American Staff is sparing of details touching the very brilliant role played by its units; it thinks more of preparing for the success of to-morrow than of celebrating the conquests of yesterday, and this is easily understood. But in the meantime, before the full official account is published, I may give here a few stories which I have gathered from French officers regarding the heroism of the young Americans.
Take, for instance, the divisions which were echeloned on the southern bank of the Marne, between Château-Thierry and Jaulgonne. When the German attack was launched they made an admirable defense; at one part of the front be between Fossoy and Crezancy the enemy was stopped short. He had more luck, however, to the eastward, where he pushed aside some French troops, and crossed the river. The Americans, finding their right flank menaced, made a bend five kilometres long in their positions, fighting on the defensive all the way. They carried out this difficult manoeuvre under heavy fire with great coolness, and held their positions until the 20th of July, when the German retreat began. The Americans then hurled themselves in pursuit, and two days later the villages of Jaulgonne, Chartèves and Mont-Saint-Père were taken. There was very stiff fighting on the wooded hills which rise above Charmel; in the night of the 25th the Americans overran the village, and when the dawn came they were masters of the hill crests. On the 27th they reached the source of the Ourcq, and carried Ronchères. After twelve days of steady fighting since they left the bank of the Marne, they found themselves in a very difficult country, on the south border of the Meunière wood; and there they were relieved.
Another division went into action on the slopes of Ronchères on the 30th of July, and fought its way steadily in the direction of Fismes, reaching there on the 5th of August. It is an interesting detail that this division was largely made up of regiments from Wisconsin, and among them were many German-Americans, who proved their loyalty to their adopted country by shedding their blood for it.
It was on the evening of the 30th of July that they attacked the wood of Grimpettes, after a short artillery preparation, and occupied its southeast corner. The Germans resisted obstinately, counter-attacking with vigor, and pushing back the American front-line formations. The fighting became more and more bitter; much of it was hand-to-hand. The next day, the 31st, the Americans managed to seize all the wood, crushing the nests of machine-guns meant to stop their progress to Cierges. That village, which lay in a hollow, was drowned in asphyxiating gases; instead of trying to go into it, the Americans went round, and with one great rush took the northern slopes above. Then, after a short pause, they cleared out the wood of Joublets, while, at the same time, a French division advanced on Leroy, coming out of the Meunière wood.
On the 1st of August the Americans sprang forward again, to find themselves faced by very serious obstacles—the Reddy Farm and Hill 230. But they had shown, ever since they came into the fighting, that they had a talent for manoeuvres and were already versed in infantry tactics; they were also masters of the art of rushing a position, and skilful in the use of machine-guns, automatic rifles, and field-mortars. Again they were more than a match for the Germans, and Hill 230 was carried at the first assault, the Americans taking seventy prisoners; after that the enemy stole off, leaving only a weak rear-guard, which was instantly swept away. Toward evening on the 2d of August the Americans were north of Dravegny, having pushed on for six or seven kilometres. For three days their infantry had been fighting continuously, notwithstanding the great difficulty of getting food, as there was only one very narrow road for all the supply-trains, and that was soaked by heavy rains. Notwithstanding all drawbacks, they went steadily on, until the line which passes Bouleaux was reached, and here the Germans faced them again; they had a large number of machine-guns and their artillery swept all approaches.
It was, therefore, necessary for the Americans to turn back upon themselves with all caution and have recourse again to manoeuvring. The division turned all the enemy's bases, and succeeded in getting as far as the sloping ground north of Saint-Martin, having made a bend seven kilometres deep.
A last and greatest effort brought these fighting men to Fismes and the valley of the Vesle, but at the cost of heavy sacrifices. The 4th of August saw very heavy fighting; the Germans held Fismes in force, but the Americans kept up a steady fire with their field-mortars and some 37-mm. guns, and by nightfall were within a kilometre of the village. Heavy rain fell all night long, making the task before them, still harder, but when day broke again, after their artillery had somewhat prepared the way, they made their final assault. Fighting in the village was from house to house and hand to hand; each group of walls was an island of resistance to the steadily oncoming flood, but when night again fell the job was almost done; the Germans only held the northern end of the village, and the next day they were driven out of that and across the Vesle. The division had left Ronchères on the 30th of July; in six days it had fought its way successfully for 18 kilometres, ending up with the difficult feat of taking Fismes by assault.
And here let me give, only too briefly, a mere sketch, of the brilliant work done by what was known as "the Yankee Division," which had the honor of relieving, in Belleau Wood, the American Marine Corps, which there won immortality.
The Yankee Division held the sector northeast of Château-Thierry, between Bussiares and Vaux, on the road from Château-Thierry to La Ferte-sous- Jouarre, having on its right and left two French divisions. On the 18th of July, at thirty-five minutes past four in the morning, they attacked with vigor, although somewhat handicapped because their left wing was far behind the right and therefore forced to advance very rapidly in order to straighten their line. The village of Torcy was carried in an hour, the Germans being taken quite by surprise; Belleau and Givry were occupied, and the railway reached. The fighting in Givry was very grim. Hill 193, which was to have been taken by the French on the American left, held out, and the Americans were, thus exposed to a heavy enfilading fire, from which they lost heavily. At last this hill was carried, thanks to the help of the Americans, and the forward push went on; the villages of Epieds and Trugny were taken by storm, and the division reached the road from Jaulgonne to Fère-en-Tardenois. In six days it had advanced a distance of 17 kilometres, taken 248 prisoners, a heavy 210-mm. cannon and many machine-guns, thus deserving, as did all the other American divisions, the splendid praise given them by Foch when he received the representatives of the Allied press. "As to the Americans," he said, "you may say that they are admirable soldiers; I have only one fault to find with them—they want to go forward too fast—I am obliged to hold them back. They want to push on all the time, and kill as many Germans as they possibly can."
When these gallant American divisions received their baptism of fire, fighting magnificently beside the war-hardened French troops, a decisive moment in the war had been reached. The comradeship, the brotherhood between the French and the Americans was strengthened upon the field of battle, and their blood, shed side by side for the same just cause, sealed forever the union of these two great nations.
THE STRATEGY OF FOCH, AND HIS PURSUANCE OF THE VICTORY
When this great victory of the second battle of the Marne had been achieved, General Foch, on the proposition of M. Clemenceau and with the concurrence of the President of the Republic, was given the rank of Marshal of France, and never was this high reward better deserved. M. Clemenceau's letter recalled with eloquent exactness the many claims of the new Marshal to the gratitude of France, and not of France alone but of all the Allies and the whole world: "Paris freed from danger, Soissons and Château-Thierry reconquered by main force, more than 200 villages set free, 35,000 prisoners and 700 guns taken—those are the tangible results of the manoeuvre magnificently conceived by the High Command, and carried out by his incomparable leaders."
Foch received his Marshal's baton on the 7th of August. He had just beaten the Kronprinz of Germany, and he proceeded forthwith to beat the Kronprinz of Bavaria. The battle of Champagne was won; he was now to win the battle of Picardy. The great salient which the Germans had made in our lines, from the south of Arras nearly to Soissons, gave him the opportunity of a new manoeuvre as brilliant as his first had been. In the morning of the 8th of August the 4th English army, commanded by General Rawlinson, and the 1st French army, under General Debeney, attacked from the west of Amiens to the south of Montdidier. The tactical move was the same as before; after a short but fierce bombardment the infantry threw themselves upon the German lines, supported by a host of tanks. Again the enemy was taken completely by surprise, and the success was amazing; in two days the 1st French army advanced a distance of fourteen kilometres, and took 4,000 prisoners. Nor was the success of the British army less remarkable—13,000 prisoners fell to their share. The town of Montdidier was won back by the French, and one victory followed another in a manner that was almost startling; in a few days the Germans lost 40,000 prisoners and 700 guns.
These great gains had hardly been reported when Marshal Foch, with the large view of genius, undertook to broaden the field of action still further. Humbert's army followed that of Debeney into the fighting, and the German army fell back before it. Then it was the turn of Mangin's army, which was on the other side of the Oise, to give the enemy smashing blows; at one stroke, on the 20th of August, he advanced four kilometres and took 8,000 prisoners. Finally, he attacked the Massif de Saint-Gobain, a mountain mass which is the keystone of the German defenses in France, and is "nibbling" away at it, little by little.
Meanwhile the great battle was steadily widening toward the north as well as the south. One after another the British lines began to blaze; below General Rawlinson's army, that led by General Byng; then below him the army of General Home, and further north General Plumer's army—one after another they came into action. Under these repeated blows, coming from all sides, the Germans staggered and weakened, and a general retreat began, leaving in our hands thousands of prisoners, guns by the hundred, and innumerable stores of munitions. This strategic movement of Foch's, in which he moved his armies as a, skilful chess-player does his pieces, must always, be considered as one of the finest achievements of the war.
While I write the battle is still going on, and there is every reason for the highest hopes. Already the lump sum of prisoners taken is not far from 150,000, and the captured guns are numbered by thousands.
For these amazing results we are indebted to the unity of command and to the genius of Foch. The plan of his strategy was classic in the simplicity and breadth of its design, while every detail was carefully and ingeniously worked out, the result being that the varied evolutions of his many different armies followed each other and worked as smoothly as the parts of a well-regulated machine.
Compared to his, the strategy of the German commanders seems poor, limited, and without breadth of view. Let us set aside the victories cheaply won over the Russians and Rumanians by Hindenburg and Mackensen, and look at the German strategy on the French fronts. Even after he had committed the ignominious crime of invading Belgium, Von Moltke, chief of the General Staff, was beaten by Joffre at the Marne in 1914. His defeat was so marked that the Kaiser himself removed him from his command. In 1916 the Germans attempted to take Verdun by the sheer weight of masses of men in a frontal attack, there being almost no strategy employed, and that attack failed also. Two years later they made two new offensives which during the first few days met with undeniable success, but when their advance was once checked they could not carry it on again; when they were unable to make the definite break in the French lines for which they had hoped, they seemed merely to mark time, thus losing precious days which gave their adversary an opportunity to pull. himself together again. As to their third attack, on the 15th of July, which I have just outlined, it ended for them in a bloody and disastrous defeat, and was for the Allies the beginning of their final success.
The Allies will have won the war not only because their morale is finer than that of the Germans, but because of their superiority in military science, and for both those reasons they have every confidence that the victory thus won will be complete and lasting.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald