The Second Battle of the Marne Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

General Pershing issued this report on the Second Battle of the Marne and the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces in the month after the battle. The Second Battle of the Marne began with the last German offensive of the war and became the first widely successful Allied offensive on the Western Front. Outside the city of Reims, France, on July 15, the Allies stopped a two-pronged attack designed to take the city and split the French Army. Three days later, on July 18, Allied troops attacked the German line along the Marne River, taking them by surprise. After three days of intense fighting, the Germans lost the territory gained during their successful Spring Offensive of 1918. It was the beginning of a series of engagements that pushed the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line, a defensive position established early in the war, until even that was broken through by the end of September 1918.

Summary Overview

General Pershing issued this report on the Second Battle of the Marne and the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces in the month after the battle. The Second Battle of the Marne began with the last German offensive of the war and became the first widely successful Allied offensive on the Western Front. Outside the city of Reims, France, on July 15, the Allies stopped a two-pronged attack designed to take the city and split the French Army. Three days later, on July 18, Allied troops attacked the German line along the Marne River, taking them by surprise. After three days of intense fighting, the Germans lost the territory gained during their successful Spring Offensive of 1918. It was the beginning of a series of engagements that pushed the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line, a defensive position established early in the war, until even that was broken through by the end of September 1918.

Defining Moment

In July 1918, the German High Command had become convinced that the path to a decisive German victory was through Flanders, the area stretching from northern France into Belgium. Allied troops were heavy in that region, however, and so the decision was made to launch an attack farther south and then strike in Flanders, when Allied strength had been diverted away from there. These plans were discovered by the Allies, however, who knew of the attack a week ahead of time.

On July 15, twenty-three German divisions attacked Allied troops in the Champagne region to the east of the city of Reims, while another seventeen divisions attacked to the west of Reims. The attack to the east was halted by the end of the day, while to the west, the Germans managed to cross the Marne River at several points. During this attack, the US Third Infantry Division earned a lasting nickname and the highest praise from General Pershing: the division held the Germans back from crossing the Marne amid retreating French troops, earning them the nickname “Rock of the Marne.” As German soldiers crossed the Marne around them, the division fought on three sides, and casualties were very heavy.

By July 17, the German advance had stalled, and General Ferdinand Foch, the Allied commander, planned a massive counterattack to begin the next day. On July 18, with no artillery barrage to warn the Germans of the attack, the combined French and American armies, with the support of tanks and aircraft, hit the German infantry and artillery positions along the Marne. Over the next three days, despite heavy losses and significant German resistance, the Allies pushed the Germans into retreat back across the Marne to positions along the Aisne River, costing them all of the gains they had made during the Spring Offensive.

Casualties at the Marne were extremely heavy on both sides. Germany lost 168,000 men, and the Allies lost a combined 120,000 men, but the battle had its intended effect for the Allies. Not only would the Germans never mount their offensive in Flanders, they would never have a significant large-scale offensive again and would be in retreat for the remainder of the war. The Second Battle of the Marne marked the beginning of a series of Allied attacks that drove the Imperial German Army back from strategic points all along the Western Front.

Author Biography

John Joseph Pershing was born in Laclede, Missouri, in 1860. He was a precocious student and became a teacher after graduating from high school. In 1880, Pershing attended college at the North Missouri Normal School and two years later applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He struggled as a student, but was commended by his instructors at West Point, graduating thirtieth in a class of seventy-seven.

After West Point, Pershing was assigned to cavalry units in the West and Southwest, and in 1892, he was appointed instructor of military tactics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In 1896, he served as the regimental commander of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment of African American “Buffalo” soldiers. Pershing fought in Cuba at the Battle of San Juan Hill and, beginning in 1899, was stationed in the Philippines during the Philippine-American conflict. From 1903 to 1917, Pershing held a variety of military and diplomatic posts, and was also sent to Mexico in search of the revolutionary Pancho Villa. Against standard military protocol, President Woodrow Wilson promoted the young Pershing to brigadier general in 1906, angering many senior officers in the process. When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Pershing was put in command of the American Expeditionary Forces. He arrived in France in June 1917, in preparation for large-scale deployment that fall. After the war, Pershing published his memoirs, My Experiences in the World War, which won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for History. Pershing died in July 1948 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Document Analysis

This report is written in a fairly straightforward style and begins with Pershing’s description of the German plan to attack on July 15. In his description of the attack, however, he takes the time to point out that the Germans had thoroughly lost the element of surprise. The enemy, in treating victory as a foregone conclusion, had misled their soldiers into believing that this would be the last battle of the war, resulting in a victory for Germany. Since the day, and in the case of the attack on the Champagne front, the hour was known, Germany was “checked with heavy losses.” To the west, however, the Germans were “at first somewhat successful” and pushed through the French lines. Fighting on this front provided General Pershing with an example of American soldiers’ courage, contrasted with retreating French troops. Pershing does not hesitate to point out when French lines are broken or their initiatives fail. Though veiled, these examples served Pershing’s desire to prove that his men were as good as or better in the field than the more experienced French troops. American soldiers were still arriving in July 1918 and were considered by some other Allies as green and inexperienced. Pershing praised the Third Division’s stand at the Marne as “one of the most brilliant pages in our military annals,” and quoted at length from their commander’s report.

Pershing summarized the counterattack along the Marne and used its success as evidence that, whatever the other Allies may think, American troops were ready to take the offensive. He offers a lengthy explanation of his position that American troops should fight together under American command, not be used “here and there” as emergency reinforcements to other armies. In Pershing’s opinion, the US Army had proven itself to be “equal to any troops in Europe.” Once Pershing had convinced the Allies that his men were up to the task of participating in large numbers in an offensive capacity, the attack was launched on July 18. Pershing’s enthusiastic response to their success is clear, as he describes how three divisions “at a single bound” broke through the enemy lines and “overran his artillery.” The Germans, though in retreat, continued to resist, and “fought stubbornly.” It was because of the “magnificent dash and power” of the American soldiers that this counteroffensive–a powerful antidote to the “profound depression and fear then existing”–was successful. The remainder of Pershing’s report details the results of other attacks along the front, all of them successful. Although Pershing does not discuss casualties, except in the very broadest terms, he is quick to point out the “desperate fighting” and “stubborn opposition” that American and Allied soldiers encountered. Though this report is a record of ultimate success, it is tempered by Pershing’s acknowledgement of the cost of that success.

Essential Themes

The primary theme of Pershing’s report is the rightness of his argument that American troops, led by American commanders, could excel not only in a defensive capacity, but also on the offensive. Pershing holds up the performance of his men against that of the French Army, which retreated as the Third Division held fast. With the right leadership and strategy, he believed that the US Army could hold its own with any other Allied force.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Browne, George Waldo. The American Army in the World War: A Divisional Record of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. Manchester, NH: Overseas Book Company, 1921. Print.
  • Greenwood, Paul. Second Battle of the Marne, 1918. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife, 1998. Print.
  • Lloyd, Nick. Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I. Philadelphia: Basic, 2014. Print.
  • Palmer, Alan. Victory 1918. New York: Grove, 1998. Print.
Categories: History Content