18-25th of July and 26th of July to 3rd of August.
The offensive on the Marne and in the Champagne was to be the
last German offensive of the war.
The thunder of the preparatory bombardment had died
away, the rolling wall of fire had come to an end, the forward rush of the
infantry had bogged down.
Once again the enemy artillery was pounding the German
positions, once again red flares shot up and the enemies bombardment changed to
a rolling barrage, once again the French infantry attacked a series of
destroyed positions manned by exhausted, battered, hungry German soldiers.
The doomed German offensive on the Marne was followed
right away by a French counterattack at Soissons
and Reims. Foch´s sharp eye had noticed the
weakness in the salient that stretched across the Marne
and he planned to attack the salient on both flanks.
Ludendorff expected this and planned to pull his
troops back onto the Northern bank of the river but Foch was faster.
The dark Forests of Villers Cotterets were the perfect
place to build up reserves and hide tanks, the same was true for the wooded
slopes an to the South of Reims on the other side of the salient.
On the 18th of July, after a stormy night, all hell
broke loose on the German soldiers of the 9th and 7th armies.
The forests spewed out all that had been hiding in its
shadows. Countless shells then masses of infantry following a rolling curtain
of fire. Tanks burst out of the forests and into the open fields beyond. To the
north of the Aisne the French attack was
halted, to the South it tore into the German defensive positions.
320 tanks rolled forward smashing all in their paths
and spitting bullets. They passed through the infantry ripping holes in their
ranks. French aeroplanes dove on the Germans emptying their belts of machine
gun bullets on the men below. Points of resistance were crushed as if hit with
iron hammers as the mechanical colossus advanced.
Was it a breakthrough? No!
The German counter attack divisions appeared,
batteries of field artillery set up ready to engage the tanks then sent shell
after shell into the monsters destroying a number and forcing many more to turn
back. The French infantry was robbed of its protective shield and left alone in
the open, perfectly grouped for the German artillery...
The German infantry re-established it’s defensive
line, the tank attack had been beaten off.
On the Reims side of
the salient the gains were much more modest. The French made little more than a
dent in the German lines.
By the evening of the 18th the counter offensive had
been stopped dead in its tracks.
The losses of men and material had not been disastrous
for the Germans. The one major negative point was that the French had pushed
close enough to bombard Soissons,
an essential transport hub for the Germans inside the salient.
Ludendorff decided to abandon the far bank of the Marne which the troops did on the night of the 18th-19th
without the French noticing the withdrawal.
In the following days the Germans succeeded in
fighting off a series of French local attacks often accompanied by tanks. It
was however clear to the high command that it was not possible to continue to
hold the salient indefinitely and that the front line had to be shortened.
The difficult task of a controlled withdrawal took
place over the days that followed without major losses. The salient was
flattened through a series of withdrawals in which the Germans kept the
initiative not letting the French determine the pace.
On the 3rd of August the graduation of the front was
over. The Germans dug in behind the Aisne and