Historian John S.D. Eisenhower described it as ‘the turning point’. And certainly many of the key American participants of the time said they felt a decisive shift against the German Army after the Battle of Soissons in July 1918. Patrick Gregory has been looking at how US troops on the Western Front spearheaded Allied counter-attacks 100 years ago.
American heavy artillery used in the capture of Soissons (Image: US National Archives & Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)
July 1918 was to prove a watershed moment in the ebb and flow of World War I and its rhythm of movement back and forth. On 15 July, the Quartermaster General of the Imperial German army Erich Ludendorff launched his fifth – and as it would turn out final – offensive of that spring and summer. Yet, what he had hoped would mark his armies’ ultimate breakthrough moment instead proved to be the opposite. Operation Friedensturm, the Freedom Offensive, would stall and in its wake the tide would finally begin to turn in the Allies’ favour.
Ludendorff was to resume his Aisne-Marne assault of May and June when he had originally hoped to break the Allied lines, sending German troops cascading down around the city of Reims and down towards the Marne.
Within hours his troops had crossed the river – one of the main gateways to Paris – east of the town of Château-Thierry. But in their path stood the US 3d Division, part of the French Fifth Army. At the army’s core were two American Expeditionary Force regiments whose resolute defence of their sector was to see them later nicknamed the Rock of the Marne: Ulysses Grant McAlexander’s 38th Infantry and the 30th Infantry headed by Colonel Edmund Luther ‘Billy’ Butts. The two regiments repelled the attackers across the valley of the Surmelin River which ran into the Marne six miles east of Château-Thierry.
A destroyed bridge at Château-Thierry, circa 1918 (Image: Henry L. Graves Papers, State Archives of North Carolina/Flickr Commons)
And now, with the German offensive effectively held, Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch could focus his full attention on the counter-offensive that he had been planning some 20 miles further north.
Foch had picked the area south of the important transport hub of Soissons to turn the tables on Ludendorff’s forces and eat into the salient created in the Aisne-Marne area by the German assaults of May and June. His aim, to try to push German divisions back beyond the Vesle and Aisne rivers from where they had attacked back then; offensives which for a period had threatened Paris itself.
Accordingly, Foch directed that key units be gathered up in the Retz (or Villers-Cotterêts) forest south-west of Soissons, as part of the French Tenth Army. Key to the operation, was the army’s XX Corps which was to lead the offensive, with the AEF 1st and 2d Divisions on either flank, and with the hardy 1st Moroccan Division at its centre, comprised of a battle-hardened group of north African and Foreign Legionnaire troops.
It was from this area, at 0435 on Thursday 18 July, that the attack began. Advancing eastwards behind a mix of light, medium and heavy artillery, the three divisions concentrated their firepower on the area south of Soissons, aiming to sever the key road and rail links from Soissons down to the Marne. By the end of the first day the assault had succeeded in penetrating German lines by up to four miles in places. The Second Brigade of the 1st Division on the northern flank sustained counter attacks in the course of the day as it attempted to cross the Missy Ravine.
A total of some 1,500 overall AEF casualties were reported on day one, a number set to double the next day as enemy forces dug in and as the Allied attackers could count on less in the way of support from the tanks which had started out with them.
Nonetheless, the American divisions strove to keep up the pace of their attacks. The 2d Division, pushing into the southern part of the attack zone sector, covered an impressive area, in spite of a rising casualty toll. Seven miles of ground was gained by them in just over 24 hours before they were told to rest. By 21 July the XX Corps had driven well beyond the road leading from Soissons down to Château-Thierry, as German divisions began withdrawing from the salient.
No one obvious end point to the Soissons and Aisne-Marne campaign can be easily pointed to or a single moment of ‘victory’ isolated. It was not all over in one go. The German presence did not evaporate entirely in the weeks ahead. But the speed and aggression of the AEF units had marked an important military achievement. For the first time in 1918, Ludendorff’s men found themselves on the retreat and no further offensive would be mounted by them in the remaining months of the war.
These were still early days for the Americans in the conflict, as late in the day as it was for the Allies overall. The first full US-led assault had only taken place two months earlier at Cantigny 20 miles south of Amiens; and that had been followed by the fighting in around the Marne, including the Marines’ bloody encounter in Belleau Wood in June. Fighting order was still being learned and mistakes made on the battlefield. Heavy casualties had been sustained in all the conflicts to date: a mixture of poor planning; insufficient artillery support; and problems of transport and supply.
But what was not in doubt was the Americans’ bravery on the battlefield. The troops’ willingness to fight had been tested in often arduous conditions and they had proved themselves to ready for conflict.
“It is not often possible to say of wars just when and where the scales wavered, hung, then turned for good and all”, said General Robert Lee Bullard of the Battle of Soissons, as he singled out the work of his divisions in the fight. It was a sentiment echoed by George Marshall, who, as an operational strategist, first distinguished himself with the US forces in WWI.
“The entire aspect of the war had changed. The great counteroffensive on July 18 at Soissons had swung the tide of battle in favour of the Allies, and the profound depression which had been accumulating [was dissipated] and replaced by a wild enthusiasm throughout France and especially directed towards the American troops who had so unexpectedly assumed the leading role in the Marne operation.”
There was an immediate follow-up to the Aisne-Marne victory.
On July 24, Ferdinand Foch met the American, British and French army commanders – John Pershing, Sir Douglas Haig and Philippe Pétain – to call for a return to the offensive at other key points on the Western Front.
The Allies delivered their next blow against the weakened Germans on August 8. The British-led attack at Amiens was remembered by Erich Ludendorff as ‘the Black Day of the German Army’. It was the start of the ‘Hundred Days’ – the offensives ending World War I.