The Repulse of the Prussians

E24 of Collected Articles

The ‘last gasp’ German assault in July 1918

The story board of the events

In March 1918, the new Russian regime signs a peace treaty with Germany. Now German troops can be moved west to defeat the Allies before all 42 US divisions can reach France.

However the 42nd Division of the 42, created from the National Guards of 26 States, has already reached France. At a press briefing, Colonel Douglas MacArthur refers to the 42nd being like a ‘rainbow’ as it is drawn from across the United States.

Gaining experience of trench warfare, on the 9th of March, its 168th Iowa Regiment carry out the first ‘Rainbow’ raid.

Meanwhile General Henri Gouraud , the ‘lion of the Argonne’, the ‘hero of Gallipoli’, returns to the Champagne region east of Rheims ( whose slopes are known as ‘lousy Champagne’) to command the French 4th Army.

MacArthur refers to this one-armed leader as ‘le lion d’Afrique’.

In April, the Kaiser’s Spring Offensive plunges through the British lines, using a new tactic of by-passing strong points to overwhelm the rear areas,

Once these assaults lose momentum the German high command turns its attention to another offensive towards the Marne and Paris. They prepare for the ’Sieges-sturm’, the stroke of victory.

French General Petain on the 2nd of July devises a defence-in-depth trap, in response to the new tactic, to ensnare the expected German assaults. Marshal Foch orders its implementation.

Gouraud, sceptical at first, then begins to plan the trap based on an intensive defensive battle, called the Champagne Defensive, issuing his plans on the 6th of July for the infantry and the artillery.

The original first line is to be left empty save for a few soldiers to observe, warn, and rake the on-coming enemy with machine-gun fire. These soldiers know they are manning the ‘sacrificial trench’.

Behind the trench are mine-fields to be shelled by artillery.

An intermediate line of strong points one mile behind, manned by the French and some US soldiers, is to slow the German impetus as its storm-troopers pass by.

Another mile on is the main defence line, the first combat trench.

Meantime the Rainbow Division has moved to Champagne to join with the 4th Army.

Being driven to see the Rainbow Division, Gouraud’s first contact with its soldiers is his car hitting Private Burnett, though fortunately not fatally.
On the14th of July at around 21.00 hrs, a French reconnaissance group penetrating well behind German lines captures an officer. His written orders reveal the German attack is to start on the 15th of July.

Gouraud takes a gamble that the orders are not fake and implements a French bombardment of 1,000 guns on German areas at 23.30 hrs that night.

10 minutes past midnight, as in the written orders, begins the most intensive German bombardment of the Great War, it can be heard 160 km away in Paris. The bombardment continues until dawn.

As the storm-troopers begin to leave their trenches at 04.15 hours, the surviving French soldiers in the sacrificial trench fire rocket flares to warn that the assault is starting. The French heavy artillery opens up on the German trenches packed with troops.

The mainly elite Prussian troops reach the sacrificial trench and are puzzled by the lack of French bodies. They strip the dead and dress in their tunics to confuse the French infantry.

Beyond the sacrificial trench the storm-troopers find themselves in the mine-fields. The French heavy artillery lays a screen of explosions behind them and lighter cannon such as the 75mm guns pour shrapnel shells into the midst of this ‘killing zone’ of wasteland.

As the Prussians start taking enormous casualties they become ‘exhausted, unco-ordinated and scattered, incapable of going further without being reorganized and reinforced’.

Trying to escape the shelling by moving forwards they then are lashed by machine gun fire from the strong points, acting as ‘lice in the seams of the garments’.

Some eventually reach the first combat trench where hand-to–hand fighting takes place with the French and American infantry before the storm-troopers are repulsed.

Once the attacks lose their impetus the French 13th and the US 167th Alabama Regiments counter-attack without awaiting formal orders – driving the enemy beyond the sacrificial trenches.

In the battle 1,600 Americans are killed or wounded. The Prussians have their most devastating defeat since the Napoleonic Wars. The Champagne Defensive, also known as the Gouraud Manoeuvre and as the 4th Battle of Champagne, is the decisive Allied victory of 1918.

After it, though German units continue defending strongly, turning woods into redoubts, house into forts and villages into fortresses, nevertheless they are pushed back towards the German frontier until the Armistice is signed on the 11th of November.

Having been postponed from the 14th July the French divisions celebrate Bastille Day on the 19th July.

!n 1915 an exploding Turkish shell critically wounded Gouraud in Gallipoli at the moment his soldiers were about to break through the last enemy line. They never regained their morale after his being taken back to France. Gallipoli became and remains a British Empire nightmare.

In the first Oscar-winning film, ‘Wings’, the French general decorating the two US flyers on the airfield was modeled on Henri Gouraud – a kepi, a large beard and a missing right arm.

The defence and counter-attack tactics learned in Champagne became the ‘great by-pass of the Southwest Pacific’ used by General MacArthur to defeat the Japanese in World War II.