WWI Centennial: Operation Mars Fails

Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 305th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

After a cataclysmic week beginning with the biggest bombardment in history on March 21, 1918, Germany’s spring offensive Operation Michael—chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s final gamble to destroy the Allies before American troops arrived in Europe in large numbers—had conquered a large part of northern France but was now in danger of stalling. To the south the massive Eighteenth Army had captured Montdidier but outrun its rail supply lines, and by the end of March faced new threats as French commanders Henri Philippe Petain and Ferdinand Foch moved up the First, Third, and Tenth Armies to plug the gap with the British Expeditionary Force to the north.

WWO Operation Mars
Erik Sass

In the middle of the expanding German salient the Second Army captured Albert but faced supply problems over the wrecked Somme battlefields of 1916, with shell shortages again slowing the offensive. Meanwhile British resistance stiffened as the Third Army under General Byng dug in before Amiens and Arras. Australian troops arrived in emergency troop convoys, once again enabled by the BEF’s fleet of requisitioned London buses. Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, remembered day and night travel along tiny roads leading the battlefield:

"We’re in a long stream of buses; miles of transport, all leading south. Away on the horizon, clouds of dust. We know that the roads are jammed with traffic as all available modes of transport are rushing men, guns, shells, and food south. Village after village flits by as our cloud of dust rolls over them and we are gone. Night is upon us and still the buses move on."

The arrival of Allied reinforcements on all three sides of the German salient made a breakthrough increasingly improbable, as French and British troops fought savagely to reestablish contact and contain the German thrust (below, British troops with barbed wire).

British troops in World War I with barbed wire
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Desperate to restore Operation Michael’s momentum, on March 28, 1918 Ludendorff ordered Operation Mars, a second planned offensive by the German Second and Seventeenth Armies against the British Third Army around Arras. Mars, an attack by 11 German divisions against British defenses along the Scarpe River, was intended to initiate a German pivot northeast, beginning just south of Arras, threatening to envelop the British Expeditionary Force from the rear and cut it off from its sources of supply, the English Channel ports (below, the ruins of the Arras cathedral).

Arras cathedral, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, the British Third Army had taken elaborate precautions, beginning with the effective adoption of “defense in depth,” a strategy pioneered by the Germans, in which most troops remained in a reserve zone behind a lightly held “battle zone,” consisting of multiple trenches and strongpoints to break up attacking enemy formations and sap their momentum. Elsewhere Operation Mars called for renewed attacks by the German Eighteenth Army against the French forces guarding Amiens to the south, but here the Germans found the French holding the well-prepared Amiens Line of heavy fortifications, first constructed in 1915.

The result was a complete failure, as the German attack collapsed in less than a day. Fighting continued along the front for another week, until Ludendorff finally called off the offensive on April 5. In his diary entry on March 30, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, described intense combat as German attacks were brought up short by determined French defenders:

"It’s evening, I’m writing down my impressions of this day, which must have been the nastiest of any blessed day in the whole war, full of many dreadful situations, each one following closely on the one before: At 7:30 our infantry attacked, and by way of reply to that a hail of machine-gun fire comes out of Le Mesnil, worse than I’ve ever known … I bring the battery up behind, and now we’ve got so much shrapnel raining down on us that you can hardly see or hear anything. The machine-gun fire, chattering away at us from only a few hundred meters' distance, keeps on as heavy as ever. All hell has been let loose. The French seem to be transformed; they must have thrown completely fresh, properly rested troops into this sector, and a large number of them too."

Sulzbach and the Germans soon found that the French Army, relatively rested and now recovered from the 1917 mutinies, was beginning to show its teeth again, thanks in part to stockpiled artillery:

"We pull up a steep track on to a plateau … And up there it’s a witch's cauldron, compared with which the business we had before was child’s play: machine-gun fire and small-arms fire so strong that it might have been thousands and thousands of enemy gun-barrels being trained on our one battery. The concentration of fire is so heavy that all we can do is lie on the ground beside the guns, with the infantry hardly 300 meters in front of us … Meanwhile, in spite of the bad weather, enemy planes have been appearing over our lines, flying at a low altitude in heavy swarms of 20 or 30 in a bunch."

On the other side, Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, described seeing French field guns lined up in huge numbers:

“Alongside and behind us are several batteries of French 75mm guns and farther behind are many French batteries of heavier guns and howitzers. I have never seen so many guns massed together. In one place they were lined up, wheel to wheel, resembling a wall of guns.”

And John Hughes, a Canadian officer, described one young soldier’s reaction to the mindboggling bloodshed:

"One lad in the car going to the CCS was very sick. He seemed to be trying to throw his insides out. We asked him where he was wounded. He said he was not wounded, only sick. 'I have killed so many men this day I am sick with the blood I have spilled. They came on in waves,' he said. 'We mowed them down. There was great pile of them in front of our machine guns. We had to fall back and get a new position. Again and again they came on. They died, oh how they died by the hundreds. Oh my God, I will never forget those dead,' and he was sick again."

Fighting raged on for several more days, however, and Lynch, the Australian private, described fighting near Dernancourt, about 10 miles east of Amiens, in his diary on April 2, 1918:

"My head is lying on the parapet now. I feel my body shake to each crushing shell. Dust and clods rain down everywhere. In front, a sea of mad, flaring shell bursts. I watch the railway embankment. A perfect rain of shells is on to it. A black length of railway line leaves the embankment and comes turning and screwing towards us, tossed by the shells. I can hear it humming through the air before it crashes 50 yards ahead. I’m watching the village. Our shells are crashing into it. It’s a mass of dust and collapsing walls. I catch the fleeting glance of forms running from a burning, tottering house … Now I am watching the railway embankment again. Two shells land together. Two black funnels of earth and smoke viciously kick upwards. Something spinning and turning in the dust cloud. A man—with neither head nor arms, flying high above the embankment. Still the barrage keeps on. Still the air is vibrant with the paralyzing roar of the crashing detonations of exploding shells."

To the south the Allies halted the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux, although the Germans came within seven miles of Amiens. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described crossing the former Somme battlefield on their way to join the German offensive in the south:

"Within a 60-kilometer radius there was hardly a house standing—nothing but rubble and ruins. The fields were covered with overgrown shell-holes. Between them were the crosses of the fallen. If you had not seen it yourself, you would not be able to form a picture of the damage … A bridge led across the river. It had been repaired by German engineers. To the west of the bridge, I could see the first dead English soldiers. From up ahead came the continuous thunder and boom of the artillery. On all our faces you could read a dread of the future. People call us ‘heroes,’ a wonderful name which seldom—and in a manner of speaking, never—reflects reality."

Conditions for ordinary soldiers were awful on both sides, with freezing rain and flooding trenches once again the norm. Hanson recorded their circumstances in his diary on April 4:

"We arrived back to find that our tarpaulin had been commandeered by the officers and that we poor Signallers were again shelterless during a night of torrential rain. Behind the ridge we made a roof of straw which kept off some of the rain, but did not prevent us becoming soaked to the skin … My mother would go insane if I told her about things like this. Hell cannot be much worse than this, for everything contrives to break our spirits. Personally I feel tonight that I don’t care which side wins the war."

By the time Operation Michael ended on April 5, the Eighteenth Army and Second Army had penetrated over 40 miles and captured over 1000 square miles of territory. The offensive caused 240,000 Allied casualties, including 90,000 taken prisoner—but Germany, which couldn’t afford to lose any more manpower, suffered just as much, with 250,000 casualties for the offensive.

Meanwhile the Allies agreed to the appointment of the French general Ferdinand Foch as supreme commander of the Allied forces, to better coordinate the Allied response to this and future offensives, and the top American commander, General Pershing, offered as many American troops as he could muster wherever the British and French needed them—an offer that was immediately accepted.

But Germany’s strength was far from spent. With Michael canceled, Ludendorff turned his attention to the next offensive, Operation Georgette—an attempt to smash the rest of the British Expeditionary Force in front of Ypres, already the scene of three horrific battles. The next blow would fall on April 9, 1918.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

Thomas Franklin Vaughns, 99-Year-Old Former Mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen, Just Received Five Army Medals

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

After his service in the Korean War, Thomas Franklin Vaughns was so desperate to come home that he didn’t stick around to collect his National Defense Service Medal. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that now, at the age of 99, Vaughns has finally received it.

Along with the Korean War medal, Arkansas Congress members also presented Vaughns with four replacement awards for his service in World War II: the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal-World War II, the Good Conduct Army Medal, and the Honorable Service Lapel Button. Vaughns had initially received these after the war, but misplaced them in the decades since.

Vaughns was a mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, serving the U.S. at a time when the military made it difficult for African Americans to do so. Segregation in the armed forces didn’t formally end until 1948, two years after Vaughns was discharged the first time.

“You are the ultimate patriot and the ultimate hero because you served when even by law and by practice many said you couldn’t and you shouldn’t,” Arkansas state representative Vivian Flowers said during the ceremony. “There was discrimination on every level of society and you served despite that.”

After the Korean War, Vaughns returned to Arkansas and started setting community youths on the path to success through his work with AmeriCorps VISTA, Delta Service Corps, and 4-H Clubs of America. Some of his former mentees even attended the medal ceremony. Ben McGee recalled how Vaughns helped him and his two brothers through college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB).

“I had 20 cents in my pocket. I got on this campus and never got a penny from home in four years,” McGee told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “I got on work study, got in the agriculture department, and worked every evening on the college farm.”

Vaughns firmly believes in the importance of education, and estimates that he’s probably helped 80 to 90 students pursue degrees at UAPB; he refers to them as “my kids.”

"He’s a hero in every sense of the word," Arkansas senator John Boozman said of Vaughns. "Not because of his military service—that’s part of it—but he’s a hero because of the way he’s lived his life."

12 Surprising Facts About Red Dawn

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

On August 10, 1984, Red Dawn stormed into theaters. The Cold War-era film envisioned a WWIII-like scenario of what it would look like if Communist Soviets and Cubans invaded a small Colorado town, and what might happen if a group of teenagers fought back with heavy artillery. The cast included then-unknowns Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, and Charlie Sheen, plus rising stars Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell (who had co-starred in 1983’s The Outsiders), plus veteran actors Powers Boothe and Harry Dean “Avenge Me!” Stanton.

John Milius, who had been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Apocalypse Now and who had co-written and directed 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, directed Red Dawn from a script—originally named Ten Soldiers—written by future Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds. With a budget of $17 million, the film—the first to be distributed with the newly formed PG-13 rating—grossed $38.3 million. Here are some things you might not know about Red Dawn.

1. John Milius rewrote the script of Red Dawn.

Kevin Reynolds wrote Red Dawn while still a student at USC film school. MGM optioned the script and asked Milius to direct it. “I brought the writer in and said, ‘This isn’t going to be easy for you to take because, you know, you’re kind of full of yourself, but I’m going to take this and I’m going to make it into my movie, and you’re just going to have to sit back and watch, and it may not be too pleasant,” Milius told Creative Screenwriting. “My advice is to take the money you have and spend it on a young girl. Enjoy getting laid and write another script. Because this isn’t going to be fun to watch.’”

Milius said Reynolds’s script was similar to Lord of the Flies. “I kept some of that, but my script was about the resistance. And my script was tinged by the time, too. We made it really outrageous, infinitely more outrageous than his vision. And to this day, it holds up, because people ask, ‘What’s that movie about?’ And I say that movie’s not about the Russians; it’s about the federal government.”

2. Milus had a very unique way of auditioning actresses for the film.

Red Dawn co-casting director Jane Jenkins explained that Milius would ask each auditioning actress “What would happen if you were in the wilderness and you were starving? Could you kill a bunny?” “And he’d always say a bunny, not a rabbit,” Jenkins said. “And he’d say, ‘Could you kill a bunny and skin it, and eat it?’ And the girls were horrified at that suggestion, and needless to say didn’t go any further. The girls who said, ‘Well, if it were life or death …’ got to go on and read for the parts they eventually were going to play.”

3. Red Dawn was described as "the most violent movie ever made."

After the movie was released in 1984, The National Coalition on Television Violence deemed Red Dawn “the most violent movie ever made.” They said it contained 134 acts of violence an hour, and they rated it X. “This summer’s releases are the most violent in the history of the industry, averaging 28.5 violent acts an hour,” the Coalition said. They also gave X ratings to Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

4. Milius put Patrick Swayze in charge of Red Dawn's cast.

Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, and Doug Toby in 'Red Dawn' (1984)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Because Patrick Swayze was older than most of the actors, and because he had more acting experience than them, Milius trusted Swayze to control his co-stars. “Milius is a very intense director,” Swayze said in the Red Dawn commentary. “He’s a very wonderful director, but we had to call him the General and he called me, he says, ‘Swayze, you’re my lieutenant of the art. I’m directing these little suckers through you.’ He put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and I took it really seriously.”

5. The U.S. military named an operation after Red Dawn.

In 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, Army Capt. Geoffrey McMurray named the mission Operation Red Dawn. “Operation Red Dawn was so fitting because it was a patriotic, pro-American movie,” McMurray told USA Today. A commander in the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division had already named the target farmhouses Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2, so McMurray said the name made sense.

6. Milius knew Hollywood would "condemn" him for making the film.

“I knew that Hollywood would condemn me for it,” Milius said in the Red Dawn commentary. “That I’d be regarded as a right wing warmonger from then on, uncontrollable and un-housebroken.” Milius supposedly left one of his guns on his desk while journalists interviewed him, so he demonstrated his ideals well.

“I was the only person in Hollywood who would dare do this movie,” he said. “Hollywood was very left-wing. But I have a lot of contractions. I’m a militarist and an extreme patriot at times, so I believe in all of that rugged individualism hogwash.”

7. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did not get along.

Not all the actors were thrilled with Milius's decision to put Swayze in charge of the cast. Swayze told Daily Mail that he butted heads with Jennifer Grey in particular, who disliked how he ordered her around. “At the end of Red Dawn, however, when we shot her character’s death scene, she seemed to warm to me,” he said. “It's a tender scene and, as I stroked her hair, it was truly emotional. I think it endeared me to her, and it was clear she and I had chemistry together.” Almost exactly three years later, the pair’s chemistry would ignite the dance floor in Dirty Dancing.

8. Patrick Swayze got frostbite.

Filming in Las Vegas, New Mexico, sometimes meant extremely cold conditions. So cold, in fact, that Swayze ended up with frostbite. “I got frostbite so bad in my hands and my toes, that now if my hands and fingers get the slightest bit cold it feels like someone’s shoving toothpicks under my fingernails,” he said in the Red Dawn commentary.

C. Thomas Howell had a different perspective on the cold temperatures. “You know it’s cold when you’re forced to spoon Charlie Sheen,” he said. “That’s what we were forced to do: to huddle together and pretend we liked each other.”

9. William Smith frightened Charlie Sheen.

William Smith played the Russian Colonel Strelnikov, but in real life he had been a Russian Intercept Interrogator for the CIA. “He was terrifying,” Sheen said in the Red Dawn commentary. “I don’t know if he was in character the whole time, but you couldn’t talk to him on the set. You just kept your distance. But it worked in the movie—look how brilliant he is in the film. He’s an imposing force.”

10. Milius thought Red Dawn was a "zombie movie with Russians."

In the ‘80s, the Cold War was in full swing, and the world lived in fear of a nuclear attack. (Not totally unlike today.) “Red Dawn the film was about the impending possible reality, which at that time was an actual fear of the Soviet Union invading this country,” Milius told Mandatory. “People actually thought that way. That’s why I made that movie, that’s why people liked it. The fear was real and it played on that. That’s what made it an exciting movie.”

Milius compared the film to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “In this case, I made a movie of the same vein but with Russians. It’s like a zombie movie with Russians. That’s what it was like at the time. People were paranoid about aliens and people were paranoid about Russians. It was Close Encounters with Cold War Russians.”

11. The studio cut a love scene between Lea Thompson and Powers Boothe.

In the Red Dawn commentary, Thompson described a “beautiful love scene” between her and co-star Powers Boothe, who was 13 years older than her. “I say, ‘I’m going to die before having made love. Will you please make love with me?’ We said okay, and disappeared out of frame. And they took the scene out of the movie, which was sad because it explained my character. It was a nice scene.”

12. Fans still yell "Wolverines!" at C. Thomas Howell.

Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze, and C. Thomas Howell in Red Dawn (1984)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

One of the most iconic lines in the movie comes from C. Thomas Howell’s character, Robert. From a mountaintop he shouts “Wolverines!” which is the name the guerilla group gives themselves. It’s also the name of their high school mascot.

“I get that about twice a week in real life,” Howell told USA Today in 2012. “And about 40 times a day through Twitter.” He said in real life he doesn’t shout back, “but on Twitter, I cannot help typing a ‘Wolverine’ with a few exclamation points on it.”

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