Thanks to Mr Paul Greenwood, who wrote and gave us this texte
Because of Russia's collapse in 1917, Germany was able to transfer some thirty divisions to the western Front. These divisions would have to be used to force a speedy victory, for now that America had joined the Allied side, German forces would be outnumbered by the middle of 1918.
The German Command started to plan massive offensives for the Spring of 1918 to divide the Allied armies, drive the British into the Channel, then turn their attention to the French if they had not already collapsed.
The first of those offensives, code named "Michael", fell on the British sector, weakened by lack of reinforcements spread along an extended sector, on March 21st. Gough's Fifth Army was badly mauled, and was forced into retreat across the devastated Somme battlefield for five whole days.
Foch, by now placed in Supreme Command of the Allied forces, demanded that the troops under pressure were to continue the battle, rather than risking a complete collapse by attempting a relief under battle conditions. The British divisions with the greatest losses were promised a spell to recuperate in a quiet sector as soon as possible, and indeed some units were sent north to the Lys valley - unfortunately just in time to receive the full fury of a second German offensive provided by von Quast. Again Foch held back his reserves, not knowing where the next blow might fall, and having faith that the British would somehow "hold on".
By the end of April, having suffered two major assaults, the unfortunate divisions were so battle worn that Foch arranged for them to go the the Chemin des Dames sector, used by the French themselves to rest their own troops.
France had now seen two of her Allies - Italy at Caporetto and Britain on the Somme and around the Lys, suffer tremendous set-backs, and a belief grew that is was only France herself who was capable of withstanding full-scale German assaults.
However, when all Ludendorf's efforts to break the line in the March and April offensives failed, the attempts to force a quick victory started to meet problems. Reserves and war materiel were no longer plentiful, but it was still planned to use the Bavarian Crown Prince's Army Group to mount a massive "Hagen"offensive, break the line, hold back the French and force the British into the sea.
But first, Ludendorff argued, the enemy's attention would have to be drawn elsewhere and his reserves moved from Flanders before Rupprecht's final destructive offensive could fall on Haig's forces. So by mid-April the German Crown Prince's Army Group north of the Aisne and Vesle was told to prepare (taking every precaution against discovery), "Blücher", the code name for an offensive to be launched against the Chemin des Dames' ridge.
This, in turn, meant that the loss of four weeks while supplies were gathered and troops were made ready had to be weighed against the fact that Allied strength was growing all the time - but if it meant "Hagen" would bring final victory, it was a worthwhile risk.
Foch and Haig both expected Ludendorff to attack again where he had almost succeeded - where the French and British sectors met, or to open another offensive further north in Flanders. The Supreme Allied Commander needed enough reserves to forestall the expected attack by making his own, and if he had strength for that, there would be more than enough to throw back Rupprecht if the German attack came first.
After the devasting attacks of March and April Britain had rushed 140,000 soldiers across the channel, but Haig's Army needed time to recover. Indeed, in April Haig was so short of men that he was forced to disband four more divisions, parcelling them out to help make good battle losses and lack of replacements held back in Britain by Lloyd George from the beginning of the year. Foch's protests at these further reductions combined with his half-hearted commitment of reserves during the British traumas of March and April increased British suspicions as to his motives, and added to the resentment felt about comments in the French press about supposed British inadequacies.
Foch's search for reserves saw him at odds with Pershing as well. During the emergency American infantry and machine gun units had been attached on a temporary basis to French and British divisions. Pershing, suspecting this was yet another plot to divide up his forces, dug in his heels. His task was to build all-American divisions, and use them to form an all-American army. Even when the British, French and Italian Prime Ministers met him at Abbeville on May 1st, he would not be turned from his aim.
Foch therefore started to move the available reserves he had north, round Amiens. Pétain, worried as usual about the safety of Paris, tried to keep back the last few divisions defending the capital, but was overruled both by Foch and by Clémenceau. So as Foch massed his troops in the Santerre region, Ludendorff's storm-troops were secretely moving in the opposite direction towards the Aisne where those British divisions scarred in the March and April battles had been sent for their promised rest-period, and the British IXth Army Corps, (21st, 50th, 8th and 25th Divisions), found itself holding a quiet section of the line above the Chemin des Dames on the right of four French divisions.
Conditions there were utterly different from those of the Somme or the Lys valley. The Champagne countryside had been quiet for months, and after March and April, May must have seemed like paradise. Before long, however, both British and United States' intelligence sources were warning of a projected attack along the Chemin. These warnings were ignored - ignored even when prisoners taken on May 22nd told of a German build-up. But then, when days later, two escaped French prisoners reached a British trench with the same story, French Intelligence changed its mind. Unfortunately, the French Military Operations Section did not. Indeed, French Sixth Army Headquarters told American Intelligence as late as May 26th it saw no preparations that would enable an attack to take place tomorrow the following day.
This was hardly surprising. The Germans had concealed their preparations with meticulous care. The whole attack area had been sealed off, ammunition stored in camouflaged dumps, troops hidden in the woods and guns not brought up until the night of the 25th.
The man in charge of the French Sixth Army defence was Denis Duchêne. An unpleasant man (Pierrefeu, at French Headquarters said he had "une humeur de dogue, un grondement perpétuel, tout de suite les gros mots à la bouche, sans raison"), Duchêne's staff worked under constant pressure. He had ordered no raids to find out enemy intentions. His Divisional Commanders, finding themselves well in front of the natural barrier of the Aisne, and told not to give way even by a step and with orders to mass their troops and artillery forward, making the river a potential trap behind them, protested.
The protests, like the warnings from U.S. and British Intelligence, were ignored.
However, early on the 26th the French took two prisoners. One, a private, said there would be an offensive within hours: the other, a junior officer, denied it. When taken into different rooms and given "special interrogation", the officer, told that his fellow prisoner had confessed that ammunition had already been issued, and being reminded that to give false information rendered him liable to be shot as a spy, told all he knew.
But now it was mid-afternoon. Warning was sent immediately to the front line to make whatever preparations were possible, but back at headquarters Pétain knew it would be days before reinforcements could arrive in any strength.
The front above the Aisne should have been lightly held, and the main strength positioned further back as the countryside below the Aisne was fare more suitable for defence. Again, Duchêne had chosen to ignore Pétain and d'Espérey's insructions. He had placed the mass of his troops and artillery along and in front of the ridge, had few plans to hold the Aisne line, and none at all to defend the ridge between the Aisne and Vesle. He also flung his reserves into the battle too early, where they were lost in the melée, instead of using them to form a defensive line to the rear.
Meanwhile the Germans were planning a "feint" attack below Amiens - "Tarnopol" - to take place on the same day that von Bülow's and von Böhn's offensive was to start on the Chemin des Dames, hoping that this would confuse Foch as to which was the main assault.
At 1 am. on the 27th May, 4000 artillery and mortar pieces, fired two million high explosive and gas shells against a 30 kilometre length of the Chemin des Dames. The bombardement was so violent that many survivors were driven mad. After two and a half hours of this treatment, two complete German armies advanced on the few weakened Allied divisions and demolished them. What might have been the difficult first stage of crossing the river Aillette had been so carefully planned that, crossing by means of specially built footbridges, the attackers were occupying the Allied forward positions within five minutes of the barrage lifting. Once again, as in March and April, the Germans had the advantage that fog hid their movements, and, unbelievably, that the croaking of a huge army of frogs in the valley hid the sound of their approach.
Fifteen fresh divisions, with another seven in support, fell upon the four French divisions and three of the four weakened British holding the front. Among them, the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, a unit of the 8th Division led by Lt.-Colonel Anderson-Morshead, had been told to hold the Bois des Buttes near Pontavert. It obeyed orders. Surrounded, the troops fought on until late morning. A IXth Corps' Special Order signed by Bernard Montgomery (a Major on the Corps' staff at the time) included the words, "There is no doubt that this battalion perished in masse. It refused to surrender and fought to the last." The French Sixth Army commander wrote that "when the British trenches were subjected to a fierce attack the 2nd Devons repelled successive assaults with gallantry and determination until a late hour ... the few survivors of the battalion, though isolated and without hope of assistance, fought to the last man with unhesitating obedience to orders. The whole battalion - colonel, twenty eight officers, five hundred and fifty NCOs and men offered their lives in ungrudging sacrifice ..." The 5th (Gibraltar) battery of the 45th Royal Field Artillery met the same fate in the same area, continuing to fire until overwhelmed.
German observation balloons were rising from the Allied front line only a matter of minutes after the attack started, but on the British right, the 45th Algerian Division, not directly attacked, was able to form a pivot upon which the IXth Corps' line hinged, retreating under constant threat that the left wing would be turned and all four divisions overwhelmed. Fortunately the hill country west of Reims helped the fighting withdawal, and resistance prevented the German breach from widening too much. The providential arrival of the 19th British Division at Chalons within a few days gave much-needed assistance, but the constant fighting reduced the strength of five British divisions now involved to that of one. By now the 21st Division had almost ceased to exist, and as the men retreated they found themselves under a constant barrage of invective from the area's inhabitants.
Away on the British left the French line disintegrated in the first day of the attack. The central division simply disappeared - overwhelmed by five German divisions that submerged it on their way down to the Aisne. Crossing points were captured along a sixteen kilometre stretch of the river by 10 am. Duchêne's staff had failed to blow all the bridges in time, and the Germans were beyond the Aisne, almost entirely unopposed, by noon. By evening they had crossed the Vesle at Courlandon. No other advance in the war had ever taken so much ground in a single day.
Forced towards Soissons, the French tried to hold back the German right wing, but on the second day of the offensive, German shock troops were still on the move in open country, their start line 24 kiolometers behind them.
In spite of Pétain's attempts to bring up reinforcements, the Allied situation continued to worsen. The tattered divisions on whom the attack had first fallen, along with the reserves first thrown into the battle, were driven across the Ourcq at Fère-en-Tardenois by May 29th. By then, Pétain, without any reference to Foch, had denuded the Montdidier area of reserves, and was asking for the Tenth Army, and all the Flanders reserves. Foch could only agree to what the French Commander in Chief had already set in motion, and in the face of such a crisis, he even allocated the Tenth Army to Pétain. Fierce German assaults continued against the French below the Ourcq, and by evening of May 30th, after a gap of four years the Germans, on the Marne again at Château-Thierry and with Paris in their sights, had reached Vaux and were occupying Belleau Wood with French reinforcements from further north yet to arrive. On May 31st, Pétain was again demanding that the French reserves be sent from Flanders, and the American units training in the British zone to be moved south.
The British could not but compare this speedy movements of reserves south with their treatment by Foch during the March and April attacks when reinforcements had been both sparse and tardy, and it brought a lively exchange of views on the subject when Haig and Lord Milner met Foch and Clémenceau in Paris. This meeting did, however, do a good deal to "clear the air" and to bring about a new understanding between the Allies.
On the British side there was far more sympathy for the French in their hour of trial, while French criticism of British shortcomings were suddenly silenced in a subdued atmosphere that even the posthumous award ot the Croix de Guerre to the Devons and the Gibraltar battery could not entirely disperse.
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