1916-1925: America– War and Peace

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Author: Shipley Thomas  | Date: 1918

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Foch Launches His Great Counterattack

AT 4:35 am. [July 18,1918] the stillness of the night was rent with one terrific crash, as every Allied gun from the Aisne to Chateau-Thierry roared with the rolling barrage, and the infantry went over. This was the hour for which every member of the 1st Division had waited so patiently through the grim months of maneuver and trench warfare, for here now, man to man, they were to prove themselves in attack, and to show to all the world that American troops had entered at last on the real mission of hurling back the Germans.

Every step forward was a yard snatched away from the enemy, where yards counted most, for they were closing the neck of a salient.

To General Bullard his promotion had come too soon. He now commanded the Third American Army Corps, and the change had come on the very day before his 1st Division, which he had trained and watched develop under his careful guidance, was to make the attack which would print its name in letters of gold throughout the ages. Brigadier General Charles P. Summerall, who had so efficiently commanded the 1st Field Artillery Brigade of the 1st Division was that night made Division Commander….

There were three objectives laid out in the orders for the attack; other orders were to follow for the attacks on the succeeding days. It was an anxious moment, that moment of the jump-off, for to every one along the whole battle line the question came—how much artillery have the Germans massed behind this sector? The barrage started forward, bursting ahead of the infantry and then up went the rockets and flares from the German front lines calling for their own artillery to put down a protective barrage. On went the Allied barrage and behind it the waves of infantry of the leading battalions. A minute later came the German artillery reply, but it was not strong; it was apparent that they did not have many guns on this front. Forward swung the Allies on a five-mile front, following their barrage, but that day the barrage was not as close protection as it had been at Cantigny, for the gunners did not dare to lay their fire too close to the infantry since they had not fired a single registration shot and were firing solely by map. This gave the Germans time, after our barrage had passed them, to come up and man their machine guns before our infantry came upon them. The Allies passed the front lines without any check. There were no trenches except little shell holes, there was no wire, the front line was not well organized. Evidently the Germans in their two weeks’ occupancy of this line had not thought it worth while to dig in, probably expecting to move on toward Paris almost any day.

The Germans certainly had put into practice all the theories of open warfare. That first line was nothing more than an outpost line, thinly held and meant only to check an advance long enough to warn the second line, and get them out of their dugouts and into the positions. But this time there had been no warning. There was no Allied artillery preparation during which the German troops in the second line could be led stoically out of the dugouts and into their fire positions. Also there was no warning from the higher staff that an attack was expected. The Germans were taken completely by surprise. And the Allied soldiers who were making the attack that morning were the first to realize it. The Germans had been outwitted and it would be easy going for the Allies, until the Germans got themselves together and recovered from their surprise. Accordingly to every man it came that he must push on at top speed, that no machine-gun nest which got into action between our barrage and our infantry should be allowed to check that rush, and that the infantry must keep up behind the barrage as close as they could, to prevent this.

Then came the second German defensive line, and that was almost as easy as the first had been. The defenders were few and far between. What machine guns there were in action were silenced by the swift rush the Allied soldiers made to stop them. Sweeping ever forward went the line. Meanwhile the second wave of the leading battalion stopped on the second German line to mop it up. They were well repaid for their pains. That second line was full of Germans in dugouts who had not been notified in time to get out to their positions before the Allied waves were upon them. The moppers-up took a heavy toll of them—in German prisoners—ten here, fifteen there, fifty in a cellar, a hundred in that cave, so that the score soon ran into the thousands. Usually they came out without any fuss on hearing that unmistakable challenge of the mopper-up. But there was one cave that the leading battalion of the 26th Infantry passed over out of which shots kept coming. The second wave tried to surround the cave and this drew machine-gun firing. Try as they might, no one could get within range of the mouth without drawing a great deal of attention. This was holding up the second wave when one of the big French tanks came along. The officer sent word to the tank to come over and help clean out the cave and in a few minutes the tank was waddling up to the mouth like a huge turtle, while the machine-gun bullets bounced off its thick sides. Down into the mouth of the cave it went firing all its guns. All was silent for a moment, and then the tank backed out, and following it came a column of German infantry, their hands held up over their heads. Six hundred prisoners including a colonel came out of the cave, and a shame-faced lot they were to be caught in a hole like that. But it was still more strange to see the consternation on their faces when they saw the Americans. The surprise of that attack was written on the face of every one of those prisoners, and with it was the dread lest the stories be true that the Americans killed all the prisoners they took.

By 5:35 a.m., one hour after the attack began, the assaulting lines were on their "First Objective," that blue line on the official map where the barrage was to stand for so many minutes, while the assaulting waves were reorganized, the front rank filled up, while the moppers-up were busy cleaning out the German second position. But this time the infantry did not have to "dig in." Very soon the barrage, which was bursting out in front while the heavies were pounding the next line of German resistance, would move on and with it would go the infantry. The Allies had progressed well in that first hour. The 1st (Regular) Division had swung swiftly across that flat plateau, meeting very little resistance, and the Second (Regular and Marine), when it came out of the wood, after its final rush to get in the line, found that it was ahead of the French division on its right and left, and the whole line was moving along as per schedule.

Then the barrage started forward again. The Allied guns were shooting at almost their extreme range now, and the barrage was placed well ahead of the infantry, for the zone of dispersion increases with the range. Then, too, some batteries were not firing, for the Allied artillery was now moving forward, a battery at a time and this thinned down the barrage. Still, the advancing waves pressed on, and now the tanks were there to help them. As soon as a ’German machine-gun nest opened its fire, word was sent to the nearest tank and it headed for the nest and began firing its sawed-off 75-mm. gun and all its machine guns, and the Allied infantry rushed the spot as soon as the German fire slackened. The German resistance was stiffening but was not yet fully organized. This the attacking troops realized, and they realized also that speed and still more speed would be the salvation of that day. Every yard they went forward meant a yard lost to the Germans, but more than that, every minute that they lost meant stiffer resistance on the German third line which they were approaching. It was the first great attack for the Americans, and to both the French and the Americans there was that feeling that they had been selected from all the Allied strength to make this decisive blow which, as the news spread, would cheer the hearts of millions in all the Allied countries, who the day before were silently wondering when Paris would fall. To be the picked troops, champions of all the Allies, and to be fighting alongside the famous 1st Moroccan Division with its Foreign Legion, was incentive enough to those officers and men of the 1st and 2nd Divisions, from the Regular Army and the Marine Corps, to bring out the greatest qualities of heroism in pushing the line forward….

But not alone to the infantry is the credit for that swift advance due. The field artillery of those three divisions also did heroic work in that attack. Heedless of personal danger, they limbered up the guns and took them forward along the shell-swept roads, across the fields on which the German artillery was beating and went into battery behind the infantry. As soon as the attack began, all attempts at screening of movements, all camouflage for batteries was abandoned. Speed in getting the guns forward so that the infantry should have all the protection that it was possible to give them, speed in bringing up caisson after caisson of ammunition so that those guns should never be silent, and speed in running forward observation officers with telephones, were the watchwords with the artillery that day. The batteries fired from each position until the range became too great; then one by one they limbered up, and went forward at a gallop to the place where the battalion commander, coolly sitting his horse on that shell-torn field, gave them orders to put the battery into action. Swiftly the guns were unlimbered despite the hail of German machine-gun bullets and high explosive; and the horses were scarcely led away before the guns were in action, so perfect was the teamwork of gunners and drivers. The roads, once the attack started, were a mass of transports moving forward. Every road out of the forest was choked with the trains of a division, while through them all galloped the artillery. It was once more "Forward the Guns," that old cry of open warfare almost forgotten in the three years of trench warfare. To see the guns go forward is a sure sign of victory.

The other sure sign of victory was the stream of walking wounded and the prisoners moving back across the plain in little groups slowly finding their way to the rear, the wounded acting as guards for the prisoners, and the prisoners supporting the wounded to the aid station. Meanwhile the stretcher-bearers followed the advancing waves in search of the more seriously wounded, and as they found them they carried them to the nearest road where in groups on litters, or on blankets over rifles, they waited the first caisson, slat wagon, or empty ambulance going to the rear. And for many it was a long wait that day. There had been no time to arrange for extra ambulances, and the division had to use its ambulances not only to gather the wounded forward, but also to transport them back to the railroad where the train lay to take them to southern France. But, though the delays were long, there was never a murmur of protest from those white, drawn faces of the wounded as they lay there in the hot glare of the July sun on the flat plateau.

By noon of the first day, the Allies had advanced across that great plateau, half the distance to Soissons. Apparently the German defenders had been caught unawares, and the Allied infantry had broken through. Everywhere the line was advancing swiftly, and meeting practically no resistance. It was just possible that the break through had been complete. If so, the entire German garrison of this sector had either been captured or killed. The total tally of prisoners seemed to warrant this assumption. They came pouring in to the divisional headquarters in great columns, and as the divisions had flashed back the news, the conviction grew that the Allies had pierced the main battle front. If this were the case, then here was the great opportunity for cavalry to go in and roll up the flanks. Therefore, General Mangin decided to send in his army reserves, two regiments of Cuirassiers, the elite of the French cavalry. One regiment was to charge through the advancing lines of the 1st Division, while the other went similarly through the 2nd Division.

Meanwhile the infantry, with the exception of the extreme flanks, had progressed to the line of the last objective for that day. On this line they halted, under order, while the artillery was being moved up to support them. Immediately upon halting, the lines were organized, units regrouped, and the front echeloned in depth, to prevent counter-attack. In other words, as soon as the final line for the day was reached, the advancing infantry waves halted. Under orders the men immediately lay down, while the officers and sergeants regrouped those men about them. An outpost line was immediately sent forward a few hundred yards, consisting of a few men with automatic rifles, while the remainder of the attacking troops were formed in two main defensive lines, several hundred yards apart. The machine guns were put in position in the rearmost of these lines.

This was the situation, late in the afternoon of the first day of the attack. By a series of most gallant infantry charges, half of the great plateau towards Soissons had been cleared of practically all the German defenders, and the infantry had halted and was echeloned in depth. The extreme flanks were still heavily engaged, but in the center it seemed as though the infantry had broken through. While the artillery was moving forward at a gallop, there came moving majestically out of the forest of Retz, two columns of splendid cavalry.

It was one of the most inspiring sights of the war. On they came, at a slow trot, their blue steel helmets flashing in the sun. Like a triumphal parade, each man in a new blue uniform, with button, bit and spurs burnished bright, rode proudly across that wheat-covered plateau as though in review before the whole world. Apparently heedless of the German shells from the heights beyond, they swept across the newly won ground. Through the artillery, through the infantry supports they went, and as they passed the rearmost line of the infantry, the colonel turned in his saddle and shouted the command. Every trooper drew saber, as the column spread out fanwise into line of battle. Raising his saber the colonel signalled the charge. The lethargy of the trot vanished. Each trooper jabbed his spurs into the horse’s flank, and the line sprang forward at the charge. On they went towards the Allied infantry outpost line, and then, of a sudden, there sounded the sickening tatoo of hundreds of German machine guns. The charging cavalry was literally cut to pieces. The handful still mounted tried vainly to reform, but it was evident that not until every machine gun was taken, could cavalry hope to get through. This was to be an infantry battle.

By six that evening of the 18th of July the center of the Allied line was on its "Third and Day’s objective." The Moroccans and the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division which adjoined them were on the line and had dug in. The 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division and the 153rd French Division, however, were still heavily engaged in the Missy ravine, while the 2nd Division was held up in front of Vierzy. The Missy ravine cut into the flat plateau, a deep narrow ravine running north, filled with trees and brush, and the Germans had organized it for defense with all their tactical skill. The 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division had cleaned out their end,—the shallow end and the head,—but were unable to advance until the French cleared their end. Thirty pieces of German artillery were captured at the point of the bayonet in the Missy ravine. Since standards are no longer carried in battle, captured cannon are the one great sign of victory. But not alone for this did the 1st Division relish taking these guns, for in them they saw not only the guns which that morning had been firing on the advancing waves, but also they pictured in them all the guns which had been firing on them in the past six months of trench warfare when they were powerless to strike back at them. The capture of the first guns was a gala occasion for the 1st Division. The fighting in the Missy ravine was bitter, hand-to-hand work, for the Germans clung desperately to their positions under orders to hold at all costs until reenforcements were sent.

Meanwhile the 2nd Division, on the right of the Allied line, was held up by a ravine, as was the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division. But in the case of the 2nd Division, the ravine ran almost parallel to the axis of attack while the Missy ravine ran parallel to the front. The 2nd Division had run into this ravine very soon after emerging from the wood, and had fought its way up the ravine all day long. This ravine towards its head forked into a Y and at the head of the eastern arm of this Y lay the village of Vierzy. The railroad from Villers-Cotterets to Soissons ran up this ravine and at Vierzy entered a tunnel through the plateau. The tunnel was about a mile in length and the other end of it was the broad valley of the Crise. This valley was the real objective of the Allied attack. The Crise flowed due north down its valley and joined the Aisne at Soissons, and in the valley lay not only the railroad but also the Soissons-Chateau-Thierry highway. Soissons lay at the juncture of these two valleys—the Crise and the Aisne. The Allies were attacking across the broad, flat plateau which ended abruptly overlooking both valleys and the city of Soissons. If the Allies secured this plateau, Soissons, the railroad center and the meeting point of six national highways, the center of the German supply system for the Marne salient, would have to be abandoned by the Germans. In their initial assault, the Allies had gained half of this plateau, but now that the German resistance had stiffened somewhat, the Allied lines were held up before Missy-aux-Bois on the north and before Vierzy on the south. This was at 6 o’clock on the evening of July 18, the first day of the attack. General Harbord ordered an attack at 6:30 p.m. The 9th and 23rd Infantry, supported by the 5th Marines, in one great sweeping advance, captured the hill and town of Vierzy and the tunnel, and established the line beyond their objective….

While this attack was going on, the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division (28th and 26th Infantry Regiments) fought their way doggedly through the underbrush and tricky defiles of the Missy ravine. Tanks were of but little assistance there, and by nightfall, the town of Missy-aux-Bois was captured and the line extended slightly beyond the town and beyond the Missy ravine. Further advance was stopped by machine-gun fire from the hill northeast of the town. That night the 26th and 28th Infantry Regiments dug in on the line, while in the twilight on the rising ground in front and to the left of them, just across the Paris-Soissons road, they could plainly see German machine gunners bringing their pieces up and putting them in position….

The staffs had an enormous task that night which would have been difficult had the short hours of darkness been quiet. But throughout the night the Germans shelled the area behind the lines with all the artillery that was within range. Then to add to this, the first German support to reach this sector was their air service. Late that afternoon, Baron Richthofen’s "Circus," those unmistakable red-nosed planes whose number appeared to be as the sands of the sea, quickly drove the Allied planes from the sky. Then, after locating all the Allied positions for their artillery, they flew back over the lines and bombed the transport on the roads, and shot up with their machine guns the Allied infantry, defenseless in their little shallow holes. The activity of these enemy planes seemed to increase with the coming of darkness, when the Allies began moving bodies of troops about. The German planes flew low and dropped great balls of light suspended in the air by parachutes, and, by the light of these, which lit the whole plateau like daylight, they were able to bomb the Allies with great effect. Yet, through it all, the drivers on the carts with the ammunition, food and water (the scarcest thing on the hot dry plateau) never faltered, but pushed ahead with only one thought in mind—to get their loads forward to the troops, to get water forward to their companies.

At 4 o’clock in the morning of July 19, under cover of another rolling barrage, the Allies attacked along the whole front; but during the night the Germans had put in all the reserves in the area, and the resistance that morning was much stiffer than it had been the day before. Especially was this true of the northeast corner of the plateau. It was this corner that the Germans had to hold at all costs, for the loss of it meant to them the loss of Soissons; so during the night they had sown this three-mile square with machine guns backed up by artillery. Access to this corner of the plateau from Soissons was easy for the enemy as the Paris-Soissons highway bisected that corner of the plateau between the Missy ravine and the Crise valley which the Germans chose to defend to the end. When the Allied advance began that morning, therefore, it was met by a withering fire from in front of the 153rd French Division and the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division, and the remainder of the Allied attack which was ahead of these two units received an enfilading fire on their left flank which, added to the frontal fire, made that day’s advance very difficult. The 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division had again the most difficult part of the whole Allied sector, for it was on its front that all these German machine guns had been planted, where the terrain best suited this kind of defense. In front of the 2nd Brigade the plateau rose gently, and just below the crest of the rise the Paris-Soissons road ran diagonally across the front. This gave the Germans plunging fire on the attacking waves; nevertheless the 2nd Brigade went on.

As soon as the situation was sensed, all the available tanks were rushed to the aid of the 26th and 28th Infantry Regiments, which were making such heroic attempts to cross the road and reach the hilltop. The arrival of the tanks made things go more easily. They waddled over the road and up the slope, shooting up every machine-gun nest that lay concealed in the tall grass, but as they reached the summit they met a swift end. The Germans had left several 77-mm. field guns on the far side of the slope, and, as the tanks came up on the skyline, the Germans put them all out of action by direct fire. The presence of these guns was not known to the Allies, as all the Allied airplanes had been driven from the sky. The Allied infantry, which had followed the tanks closely, was now on the crest of the low hill. It seemed impossible to advance, for the slightest movement brought a hail of bullets which cut down every one standing. The artillery was then brought up closer, and under cover of short bursts of fire, little by little the line was advanced, and by night, at the terrific cost of more than 3,000 officers and men, it had reached the head of the Ploisy ravine. The 1st Brigade and the Moroccans also met stiffened resistance that day. The fire from their front was determined, but what stayed them was the galling, flanking fire which enfiladed them from the left (just where the Germans were expected to counterattack); this held their gain for that day down to one mile, and they were forced to stop at the head of the Chazelle ravine.

In the sector of the 2nd Division, the 6th Marines (who had been held in corps reserve during the first day) leap-frogged the remainder of the division, as they were still fresh, and alone followed in support by the 2nd Regiment of Engineers, the 6th Marines attacked at 4 a.m. and with their usual dash and reckless driving swept over the remaining two miles of wheat-covered plateau, through, into and past machine-gun nests, until they reached the Chateau-Thierry road. They had met bitter German resistance all the way, had fought their way along yard by yard, but they had not stopped until they reached the road. Once on the road they met the full force of the German resistance. Time after time, by repeated assaults, they reached the road only to be thrown off again; finally they dug in, facing the village of Tigny, which lay just west of the road. They had accomplished their mission, and won immortal glory, for the road now lay in No Man’s Land and the communications between Soissons and Chateau-Thierry were cut. On the night of the 19th of July, therefore, the Allied advance rested its right (south) on the Chateau-Thierry road, at Tigny, whence the line ran northwest across the heads of the Chazelle and Ploisy ravines, where it turned sharply to the west back to the Missy ravine.

That night, the 2nd Division was relieved by the 58th French Division. It had cut the road to Chateau-Thierry in the face of the utmost resistance of von Hutier’s attacking army. The four enemy divisions it met and defeated, in its magnificent dash across the plateau in those two days, were the pick of the entire German army, who had been selected to make the assault on Paris. Against these the 2nd Division (Regulars and Marines) advanced eleven kilometers (7 miles); but in so doing the losses were very heavy. The Germans threw every man they had into the line to save this position, and the taking of the plateau was accomplished at a cost of 183 officers and 4,742 men, total casualties. The 2nd Division captured more than 3,000 prisoners (of whom 2,125 were credited to the 23rd Infantry) belonging to eleven German regiments, and in addition to this captured 75 guns and countless machine guns….

On the morning of the 20th of July, the third day of the Allied attack, the assault was carried forward and again and again the last of the three American battalions to be put in the line advanced resolutely only to have the ranks thinned and very little ground gained at each attempt. The Germans were making a desperate stand. Machine gunners of the Prussian guards lay in the small clearings they had made in the wheat, and as the waves of attacking troops approached they loosed off belt after belt of ammunition, firing at top speed, regardless of the certain death that would come to them when the Americans came through that galling fire. There were no prisoners taken in this fierce assault. The Germans fired until they were killed. Still the Allies advanced. Each rush gained some ground. Commands were shattered, but the discipline and the heroic gallantry of the troops carried them on, until finally they crossed the crest of the knoll, where they stopped and dug in….

That afternoon Major General Summerall went all over the lines. His 1st Division had been ordered to take Berzy-le-Sec and though the ranks were thin, with but few officers left, he decided to take the town next morning. Accordingly, during the night, the ranks of the 26th and 28th Infantry of the 2nd Brigade were recruited on the field of all available men—cooks, kitchen police, orderlies, clerks from Regimental Headquarters, military police, and engineers—and with what was left of each of the infantry regiments all were grouped together for the final assault. At dawn, on the morning of July 21, the fourth day of the historic attack, the artillery of the 1st Division skillfully played on the treacherous wooded defiles which led down into Berzy-le-Sec, while the infantry doggedly worked its way forward into the very teeth of the German machine guns, but always continued the advance. Finally General Buck, who commanded the 2nd Brigade, took personal command, and Berzy-le-Sec was captured in a magnificent charge…. The 1st Brigade (16th and 18th Infantry) had crossed the Chateau-Thierry-Soissons highway and railroad and with the Moroccans by assault had arrived on the high plateau of Buzancy. This was a veritable fortress, which the thinned ranks, on this the fourth consecutive day of the attack, were called upon to storm. Regardless of the cost they took the hill; the 18th Infantry alone took more prisoners than it had troops left in its assault battalions. The Germans were pinched out of the pocket and the Allies commanded the city of Soissons….

The loss of Soissons was the greatest defeat the Germans had suffered since 1917. It meant that the entire Marne salient would have to be abandoned, and it would show to all the world, both friend and foe, that a crushing defeat at the hands of the Americans had been administered to the German army.

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Chicago: Shipley Thomas, "Foch Launches His Great Counterattack," 1916-1925: America– War and Peace in America, Vol.12, Pp.97-116 Original Sources, accessed July 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3XDE2V6K6I51CZ1.

MLA: Thomas, Shipley. "Foch Launches His Great Counterattack." 1916-1925: America– War and Peace, in America, Vol.12, Pp.97-116, Original Sources. 6 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3XDE2V6K6I51CZ1.

Harvard: Thomas, S, 'Foch Launches His Great Counterattack' in 1916-1925: America– War and Peace. cited in , America, Vol.12, Pp.97-116. Original Sources, retrieved 6 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3XDE2V6K6I51CZ1.