General situation on the Western Front
After the end of the fighting on the river. Ena ("German divisions in 56 kilometers from Paris") a monthly operational pause began on the Western Front, during which both sides actively prepared for new battles. The overall situation in the second half of June - early July was not in favor of Germany. Despite the huge losses suffered by the Anglo-French forces in the first half of 1918, their military-economic and human potential was not in a state of such a crisis as in Germany. Due to the colonial empires, England and France were still able to replenish the troops, equip them with everything they needed. American divisions, armaments and military equipment arrived in France in a continuous stream. If at the beginning of the year, the number of American troops on the Western Front was about 200 thousand people, by the end of June it increased to 900 thousand, and in July it exceeded 1 million people. And if the Germans still had superiority in the number of divisions (German 207 versus Allied 188), then by the number of fighters the balance of forces was in favor of the Entente.
At the same time, the forces of the German army were significantly undermined, there were not enough reinforcements to replenish units to full-time staff. The human resources of Germany were exhausted by the war. Most of the battalions disbanded the fourth company, which resulted in a decrease in the number of infantry divisions. But even higher alarm from the high command caused a drop in the morale of the troops. The lack of decisive victories, fatigue from the trench warfare, heavy news about the lives of relatives in the rear (hunger, an acute shortage of basic consumer goods, etc.) increasingly affected the mood of the soldiers. Discipline fell. During the spring offensive, the soldiers, occupying a place not ravaged by the war, indulged in drunkenness, gluttony, marauding, robbed and destroyed what they could not carry. And all this to the detriment of hostilities. In a secret report to the military minister from 9 in July 1918, Mr. Ludendorff pointed to the growing number of unauthorized absences, manifestations of cowardice, refusals to obey commanders. Anti-war sentiments among the soldiers transferred to the West from the Eastern Front (Russia) were especially strong.
At the same time, the military industry of the Second Reich was still working at full capacity. The number of guns in field batteries has been increased from 4 to 6. However, for these guns there were neither horses nor personnel. Problems began with the supply of fuel, engines and rubber.
At the same time Germany could not hope for the help of the allies. Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey were depleted and exsanguinated by the war even more. The German command still had 32 infantry and 4 cavalry divisions in the East, but the German military-political leadership still hoped to hold on to the conquests in Russia, plundering the occupied territories. Therefore, Berlin did not want and could not transfer these troops to the West.
The futility of the German offensive operations in the spring - early summer of the 1918 of the year and the failure of the Austro-Hungarian offensive of 15 - 23 of June on the Italian front (“How Italian Piave Caymans Smashed the Austrians”), as a result of which the overall military-political and strategic position of the Central Powers deteriorated significantly, they posed the question to the ruling circles of the German bloc: is it even possible to end the war with victory? June 24 Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs R. Kühlmann stated in the Reichstag that the war cannot be ended "only by purely military means, without any diplomatic negotiations." Nobody supported this statement at that moment. The generals insisted on the continuation of the war. Publication of the text of the speech was banned, and Kühlmann was forced at the request of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who insisted on continuing the offensive, to resign.
British heavy tank Mark V
Plans for Germany. Preparation of the operation
The German High Command still overestimated its strength and the results of past attacks. It believed that the Anglo-French troops were also depleted, bloodless, and incapable of carrying out large offensive operations. It was planned to carry out another offensive on the Western Front with decisive goals, to the complete concentration of the American army in France. The victory was supposed to restore the morale of the army, improve the internal political situation in the country and, if not win the war, then at least incline the enemy to an honorable peace.
The main strategic goal of the German army was still the defeat of the British armies in Flanders. However, before the 6 th and 4 th German armies were so large allied forces that it was difficult to be confident of success on this sector of the front. After the June offensive, the majority of the allied reserves of the Germans were located in the Reims area and to the north. Considering this circumstance, as well as the need to eliminate the threat to the flanks of their troops stationed in the Marnian ledge, already at the beginning of June, the Germans began to think that before the attack in Flanders, they should attack the French in the Reims region. The German command hoped to pull as much as possible from the British front, and then resume the offensive in Flanders.
The 7-i, 1-i and 3-i armies of the army group of Crown Prince Wilhelm were involved in the operation. The 7 and 1 armies were to advance around Reims in converging directions. The 7 Army received the mission to force the Marne in the Dorman area and move east towards Epernay. The 1 and 3 armies were to break through the enemy front east of Reims, force the river. Vel and tread on Chalon. The inner flanks of the 7 and 1 armies were to converge in the Epernay-Conde area.
The offensive, scheduled for July 15, 1918, to raise the morale of the troops was demagogically called the “battle for peace”. The strike of the 4 and 6 armies in Flanders was scheduled two weeks after the Marne offensive. It was decided not to carry out special measures to mislead the allies by demonstrative actions in other sectors of the front, in order to create the impression of a decisive attack on the Paris direction.
The 88 German divisions 15 (in the first echelon), 48 guns, 27 mortars and about 6353 airplanes were concentrated on the chosen section for the offensive from Château-Thierry to Massiž 2200 km wide by 900 July. The French 6-th, 5-th and 4-th French armies had 33 infantry and 3 cavalry divisions (18 - in the first echelon), 3080 guns. The terrain did not favor the advance of the 7 Army. She had to force the Marne, then move south of the river through a wooded area, rugged by numerous ravines and hills that rise above the valley of the river to 170 m, and very convenient for conducting defensive actions. There were no serious obstacles to the advance of the 1 and 3 armies.
In preparing for the offensive, the German command did not make any changes to all previous instructions and instructions, believing that they had fully passed the test. The instructions issued by 9 June required infantry, energy, and perseverance from the infantry. At the same time, it was recommended to avoid overcrowding during attacks and to indicate the effectiveness of large infantry groups supported by escort artillery and machine guns. Special attention was paid to the preparation for crossing the Marne. For this purpose, a large number of pontoons for the transport of infantry and materials necessary for the construction of bridges were transported secretly from the enemy. As in previous battles, the main rate of the Germans was on surprise. However, this time, by the beginning of July, the Allied reconnaissance accurately determined the place of the impending strike, and the sapper captain of the 13 of the German army captured by July 7 indicated the time of the offensive.
German aircraft patrols the front line during the Second Battle of Marne
Thus, the Allied Command knew the plan and the timing of the German offensive. The French command in the directives of June 24 and July 2 shifted the center of gravity of the defense from the first position to depth. In accordance with these instructions, the advanced positions of the 6, 5 and 4 of the French armies were engaged in poor security (up to one battalion from each division), which organized the nodes and nests of resistance. The area was contaminated with poisonous substances, and the approaches were shot through with artillery fire from the main resistance line. The defense received the task of breaking up the ranks of the advancing enemy with machine-gun fire. At a distance of 2-3 km from the leading positions, the main resistance position was held, where the main forces of the infantry divisions were located. This position consisted of three lines of trenches and had numerous refuges. In 2-3 km from the position of the main resistance was the second position, intended for hull reserves. Also, at the depth of 8-10 km, the third position for the army reserves was prepared, based on which they had to counterattack the attacking enemy. All French artillery was also located in depth. As a result, the leading positions on which the entire burden of enemy artillery preparation fell were not taken by the troops.
In addition, the allies on the northern flank in the Viller-Kotter forest concentrated an army reinforced with a large number of armored vehicles for the counterblow. On July 15, at night, unexpectedly for the German forces occupying the starting positions for the offensive, French artillery opened powerful warning fire. For several minutes, she intensively shelled German positions, command posts and troop concentrations. Then the fire weakened somewhat, but did not stop. However, the Germans did not change their plans and went on the offensive.
Campaign 1918 of the year. French theater. The result of two attacks and position by the end of June. Source: A. Zayonchkovsky. World War 1914 — 1918
In the 1 hour of 10 minutes, German artillery began training from all guns and mortars. The main part of the shells hit the empty place. During the artillery preparation, which lasted for 3 hours of 40 minutes, the sappers of the 7 of the German army began preparations for crossing the Marne. With great difficulty and loss, they brought the pontoons to the river, but when trying to cross over to the other bank, they were met with strong machine-gun fire from French forward positions. Bearing losses, small forward units of the German divisions landed on the south bank of the Marne by 3. Under their cover began crossing the main forces. Bridge bridging, however, was slowed down due to the shelling by the French artillery of the banks of the Marne. Therefore, in almost all divisions ferries were arranged, on which suitable units were transported to the opposite shore. At dawn, a smoke screen was installed over the Marne Valley, which significantly reduced losses, facilitated the transfer of troops on pontoons and laying bridges.
At 4 hours and 50 minutes, German artillery organized a fire wall, under the cover of which the Germans launched an assault on French positions. Not meeting any serious resistance, the troops of the 1st and 3rd German armies quickly advanced 3-4 km, overcame the advanced positions, but unexpectedly ran into the strong resistance of the French artillery and mortars to the positions of the main resistance. In fact, the allied artillery did not suffer during the artillery fire. The 7th Army, having crossed the Marne, advanced a little further. She overcame the advanced positions and partially the position of the main resistance of the French, delving into their location at 6-8 km, but was also stopped by powerful Allied fire on defense. In addition, on this day the Allied extremely active aviation. So, with the break of dawn, 60 French bombers took part in raids on the 7th Army crossing the Marne, which significantly delayed its progress, especially the transport of guns, without which the German infantry was not able to break through the enemy defenses.
85 thousand Americans and part of the British forces were promptly deployed to help the French. Attempts by German troops to continue the offensive on July 16 and 17 were unsuccessful. Already on the afternoon of July 16, the German high command stopped the advance of the 1st and 3rd armies, and the next day ordered the withdrawal of the 20th army on the northern shore of the Marne on the night of July 21-7. Having stopped the offensive on both sides of Reims, the German command immediately began to transfer artillery to Flanders to inflict a decisive blow on the British troops. But the Germans could no longer carry out this operation. On July 18, the command of the 9th German Army, from the testimonies of two French defectors, it became known that the Allied counterattack from the area of Ville-Cotter would soon follow. Almost at the same time, reports came from the leading German positions that large French forces were being advanced from the Willer-Kotter forest tanks.
As Russian military historian A. Zayonchkovsky noted, “the results of the so widely conceived and so carefully prepared offensive were very insignificant: 1-I and 3-I armies advanced by 3-4 km, 1-I - by 5-8 km, the Germans captured 18 000 prisoners, but Reims remained in the hands of the French. "
The plan of the operation of the Germans in the region of Reims was well conceived and elaborated. However, this time the Germans could not organize a surprise offensive, the enemy knew about the plans and terms of the enemy operation; the Allies prepared a flexible and deeply echeloned defense, which the Germans did not open in time and did not expect to meet; allies prepared forces for counterattack; the Germans did not have the former decisive advantages in forces and means, since simultaneously with the attack on Marne, an offensive in Flanders was being prepared, and the Anglo-French forces intensified thanks to US assistance. Thus, the error of the German command shows at least the dispersion of forces in two divergent directions: in the 4 and 6 armies on the way to the coast at the front in 100 km there were 49 infantry divisions, and in 7, 1 and 3- th army - 45 infantry divisions. Having organized the force of the Marne well, the German army during the offensive ran into strong opposition from the Allied artillery, which did not suffer from artillery preparation, and aviation, also experienced considerable difficulties in supplying troops on the southern bank of the river. In general, the German command underestimated the enemy and overestimated their strength.
Militarily, apparently, the Germans again needed to level the front and, as in 1917, move on to strategic defense, hoping for the exhaustion of allied forces in bloody storming of powerful positions. So, one could hope for a comparatively acceptable peace, while Germany still has an efficient army.
In strategic terms, the failure of the Marne offensive meant the final collapse of the German High Command’s plan for the 1918 campaign of the year - to bring the war out of a positional impasse and to achieve, if not a decisive victory (to drop the British army into the sea and force France to capitulate), then at least such success that forced would Entente go to Germany's profitable world. In the organization and conduct of combat operations, the German command achieved great tactical successes, but they did not have enough forces to develop them. German offensive operations were carried out on separate sectors of the front, they were separated by a large period of time. But the German command was unable to organize a series of simultaneous attacks crushing the entire front of the Union (such as the offensive of the Russian South-Western Front in the summer of 1916) due to lack of strength.
Thus, the local successes achieved by the German army on the Western Front from March to June 1918, and the seizure of space, did not have strategic importance. Moreover, the ledges formed in the front line only significantly worsened the position of the German army. German troops again stretched the front, their military order exhausted. New positions and shelters were worse prepared and equipped than the Hindenburg line. Also, German troops during the so-called. The “spring offensive” suffered huge losses - about 1 million people were killed, wounded, captured and missing. Bloodless Germany could not quickly compensate for these losses, its human reserves were running out. Thus, the monthly need for replenishment was calculated in the summer of 1918 in 160 thousand people, but it could be satisfied only on 60 thousand people. As a result, the high command, in order to maintain the combat capability of many units, was forced in the summer of 1918 to disband the 24 divisions. And the remaining troops, not having won a convincing victory and sustaining heavy losses, lost their previous fighting spirit. There was no hope of victory.
French soldiers in battle