WWI Centennial: The French and Americans Advance On a Broad Front

H.D. Girdwood, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
H.D. Girdwood, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 314th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JULY 26-AUGUST 5, 1918: FRENCH AND AMERICAN ADVANCE ON BROAD FRONT

In the two weeks following the fatal failure of Operation Marneschutz-Reims and the pivotal Battle of Chateau-Thierry from July 18-22, 1918, the climactic Second Battle of the Marne saw the German Seventh and Ninth Armies conduct a fighting withdrawal from the Marne salient under continuous pressure from the French Fifth, Sixth, Ninth and Tenth Armies. Beginning with the French Tenth Army’s opening surprise counter-attack on July 18, French and American infantry went into battle supported for the first time by hundreds of tanks and coordinated air support, pioneering the combined arms tactics that would come to dominate much of 20th-century warfare.

Map of the Western Front, July 1918
Erik Sass

The retreat gave up territory previously conquered by the Germans during Operation Blücher-Yorck, from which they had threatened Paris, boosting morale among the Allies and sending German confidence to new lows. After months of doubt, American fighting prowess at Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry helped reassure French and British political leaders that the worst was over. With more Americans arriving every day, shifting manpower ratios meant the Germans no longer enjoyed numerical superiority on the Western Front. The total number of active German divisions fell from 251 in May to 239 in July (American divisions were twice the size of European divisions, while most German divisions were understrength or second-class “trench” rather than “attack” divisions). The Franco-American victory in the Second Battle of the Marne set the stage for a second Allied offensive near Amiens, mounted by the British Expeditionary Force on August 8—a devastating blow which German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff remembered as “the black day of the German Army.”

Graph of Allied divisions in World War I July 1918
Erik Sass

The Second Battle of the Marne was many American troops’ introduction to modern mass warfare, as they pushed the Germans back from the Marne River and across its northern tributaries, the Ourcq and Vesle. They converged on the town of Fère-en-Tardenois, with support from French heavy artillery (the Americans were also armed with French field artillery in the form of the famous 75-millimeter field gun). Elmer Sherwood, an American soldier with the 42nd (Rainbow) Division, described the savage fighting, a return to the incredibly bloody opening days of the war:

“It is open warfare, every man for himself out there. The Germans have the advantage of being on the defensive and they use their machine guns almost exclusively, raking the fields with them, but we are always advancing and destroying them. Our artillery has difficulty in keeping up with the advance but we make short work of the machine guns when we get up. Of the 75 batteries, sometimes a gypsie gun (single) is sent up with the infantry and it fires into the Boche positions.”

American troops often outran their own supply lines, leaving them with little to eat besides emergency rations and whatever they could forage from the ruined countryside. American units experienced the attrition typical of the fiercest fighting during the First World War. Sherwood noted on July 27:

“I have talked to some doughboys from the front lines. Three fellows asked where they could find a kitchen; had had nothing but a box of hard tack for four days. Their capt and two lieutenants were killed and 90 percent of their company had been put out of action.”

Like their European peers before them, the Americans encountered countless scenes of horror across the shattered landscape. Sherwood described the aftermath of battle at Chateau-Thierry:

“I saw an American today lying there and one of his legs was 50 feet away. A German with half his face blown away lay there, black now and rotting with maggots pouring from his wound, and in his discarded coat was found his picture as he had once been, a big fine-looking youngster, pictures of his folks were there too. Could any thing be more terrible? But it is common these days.”

Sherwood later wrote in his diary that “the odor of dead things permeated the atmosphere everywhere.” Another doughboy recalled how, near the front where the American 26th and 42nd Divisions were engaged, “I probably saw a thousand or more of our American soldiers with every conceivable kind of wound—some with legs or arms blown away, some with eyes shot out, many with chins gone, others with every muscle in their bodies shaking as with palsy, shell-shocked, some with bodies burned by gas so badly that they were black” (below, U.S. Marines with gas masks). And an American sergeant surveying the aftermath of fighting at the River Ourcq on August 3, 1918 noted, “I have seen more dead Americans in this little time than I ever did before in all my life, and the smell was so bad that nearly all of the men put handkerchiefs over their faces.”

World War I marines with gas masks, July 1918
U.S. Marine Corps Archives, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Many of the American troops movements were conducted at night, in hopes of maintaining secrecy, and with it the element of surprise. But, as always, night marches presented their own array of unique miseries. On August 4, 1918 Vernon Kniptash, another soldier the 42nd Division, wrote in his diary:

“Since the last writing things have been more or less a nightmare and I don’t remember any of the events in the order in which they occurred. It’s been days of fighting and nights of hiking. We just can’t keep up with the Bosche; he’s retreating so fast. A night hike is terrible. The roads are jammed with traffic and when the column does move it’s a nail-like affair. A kilometer an hour is good time. You walk 10 minutes and then you’re held up for 20. It’s sure aggravating, to say the least. Men are continually getting lost from their organizations and there’s confusion everywhere.”

Robert Patterson, an American soldier in the 77th Division, also deplored the endless night marches as American troops moved up to the front:

“These moves in the dark were to avoid observation by enemy airplanes. All night marches are alike. At the start the men are in high spirits, singing, laughing, and cracking jokes. By midnight the gaiety begins to die down, and by two or three o’clock it has vanished. The only sound then is the shuffle of feet and curses at the stones and ruts in the road. If it is raining, nothing is more cheerless than a night march.”

As bad as things were for ordinary Allied soldiers, they were even worse for their enemies. German troops faced severe food shortages and the demoralizing consequences of defeat, in addition to the influenza epidemic now sweeping their tired, undernourished ranks. There was now a widespread recognition in Germany that government propaganda portraying Americans as undisciplined rabble, incapable of fighting, was far off the mark. Evelyn, Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in the German countryside, wrote in her diary in July 1918:

“Another discussion touched on the extraordinary way in which Germany has always underrated the importance of the danger coming from America, almost the whole country making fun of and laughing at the idea of an American army … I wonder why they did not listen to the few wise people who perceived the danger of the American intervention in all its sinister meaning, as it is now proving to be the final undoing of Germany.”

On July 29, 1918, the German officer Herbert Sulzbach lamented in his diary that the Marne River seemed especially unlucky for the Germans, having delivered two historic defeats:

“It’s the Marne down there, yes, the Marne, that’s done this to us once again! It began down there with the loss of Chateau-Thierry, then it moved up to Fère-en-Tardenois, and now here. We feel terribly depressed and filled with pain at having to give up all that ground which was so dearly paid for, all the more since we held the line here so brilliantly. My God, we thought July was going to be different!”

On August 1 Sulzbach added, “really and truly, after these last few days, and particularly after the last 24 hours, I feel completely at the end of my tether. You really can’t call this the human race any more.” Two days later he expressed feelings of exhaustion and despair, undoubtedly shared by millions of young men his age across Europe:

“Four years of war have thus been spent in the field. By degrees I’ve reached the age of 24, and the splendid years of one’s youth are being spent on this mad business of killing. The finest time our lives is tearing away from us. Now and then you have your somber thoughts—no wonder after these 48 months.”

Of course, it wasn’t just German soldiers grappling with fear and despair. A generation of young men and women had been forced to stare death in the face every day for four long years, with psychological effects that would linger and shape the course of 20th-century history. Eric Evans, an Australian soldier, wrote in his diary on July 25, 1918:

“Today I have rewritten my letters to Mother, Father, and Dot to be posted in case of my death. I’m sending them to London this time. I feel quite heavy-hearted somehow now. God grant the letters will never be of any use. I am far from ready to die and have far too much to live for … I am as ready as I ever will be and yet no man is ever totally ready to enter into a duel with death and his own emotions.”

The war had also left an existential divide between veterans and civilians that would prove to be one of the most significant social and political divisions in post-war Europe. John Tucker, a British soldier, reflected on civilians’ failure to understand soldiers’ experiences, even at this late stage of the war, predicting that the gap would remain forever. “I found it irritating to mix with civilian men, feeling that those who had been in the [civilian] services were a different breed, with nothing in common with me,” he wrote. “They did not belong to the great brotherhood and could not possibly understand us.”

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

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

11 Facts About Robert the Bruce, King of Scots

Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn
Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn
Edmund LeightonCassell and Company, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The subject of a recent Netflix original movie called Outlaw King, Robert the Bruce is one of Scotland’s great national heroes. Get to know King Bob a little better.

1. Robert the Bruce was a polyglot who loved telling stories.

He likely spoke Scots, Gaelic, Latin, and Norman French, and was an avid reader who loved studying the lives of previous monarchs. According to a parliamentary brief from around 1364, Robert the Bruce "used continually to read, or have read in his presence, the histories of ancient kings and princes, and how they conducted themselves in their times, both in wartime and in peacetime.” In his free time, he would recite tales about Charlemagne and Hannibal from memory.

2. Despite his reputation as Scotland’s savior, he spent years siding with England.

The Bruce family spent the 1290s complaining that they had been robbed of the Scottish Crown. That’s because, after the deaths of King Alexander III and his granddaughter Margaret, it was unclear who Scotland's next monarch should be. Debates raged until John Balliol was declared King in 1292. The Bruces, who had closer blood ties to the previous royal family (but not closer paternal ties) considered Balliol an usurper. So when tensions later flared between Balliol and Edward I of England, the resentful Bruces took England’s side.

3. He murdered his biggest political rival.

John Comyn is killed by Robert Bruce and Roger de Kirkpatrick before the high altar of the Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, 10 February 1306
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

One of the leading figures standing in the way of Robert the Bruce’s path to Scotland’s throne was Balliol's nephew, John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch. In 1306, Robert arranged a meeting with Comyn in the Chapel of Greyfriars in Dumfries, Scotland. There, Robert accused Comyn of treachery and stabbed him. (And when word spread that Comyn had somehow survived, two of Robert’s cronies returned to the church and finished the deed, spilling Comyn’s blood on the steps of the altar.) Shortly after, Robert declared himself King of Scotland and started to plot an uprising against England.

4. He lived in a cave and was inspired by a very persistent spider.

The uprising did not go exactly according to plan. After Robert the Bruce killed Comyn in a church, Pope Clement V excommunicated him. To add salt to his wounds, Robert's ensuing attempts to battle England became a total failure. In the winter of 1306, he was forced to flee Scotland and was exiled to a cave on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland.

Legend has it that as Robert took shelter in the cave, he saw a spider trying—and failing—to spin a web. The creature kept attempting to swing toward a nearby rock and refused to give up. Bruce was so inspired by the spider’s tenacity that he vowed to return to Scotland and fight. Within three years, he was holding his first session of parliament.

5. He went to battle with a legion of ponies.

For battle, Robert the Bruce preferred to employ a light cavalry of ponies (called hobbies) and small horses (called palfreys) in a tactic known as hobelar warfare. In one famous story, a young English knight named Sir Henry de Bohun sat atop a large warhorse and saw Robert the Bruce mounted upon a palfrey. Bohun decided to charge. Robert saw his oncoming attacker and stood in his stirrups—putting him at the perfect height to swing a battleaxe at the oncoming horseman’s head. After slaying his opponent, the king reportedly complained, “I have broken my good axe.”

6. He loved to eat eels.

Robert the Bruce
iStock.com/fotoVoyager

Robert the Bruce’s physician, Maino de Maineri, criticized the king’s penchant for devouring eels. “I am certain that this fish should not be eaten because I have seen it during the time I was with the king of the Scots, Robert Bruce, who risked many dangers by eating [moray eels], which are by nature like lampreys," de Maineri wrote. "It is true that these [morays] were caught in muddy and corrupt waters.” (Notably, overeating eels was considered the cause of King Henry I England’s death.)

7. His underdog victory at Bannockburn proved that quality could defeat quantity.

In 1314, Robert the Bruce defeated King Edward II’s army at Bannockburn, sending England (as the popular anthem Flower of Scotland goes) “homeward tae think again.” It was a surprising victory; the English had about 2000 armored horsemen and 15,000 foot soldiers, compared to the Scots's 500 horsemen and 7000 foot soldiers. But Robert the Bruce used geography to his advantage, forcing the English to attempt crossing two large and boggy streams. The victory was a huge turning point in the Scottish War of Independence and would help secure Scotland's freedom.

8. He’s firmly intertwined with the Knights Templar mythology.

Treasure hunters speculate that in the 14th century, the Knights Templar fled to Scotland with a trove of valuables because they received support and protection from King Robert the Bruce. Thanks to his help, they say, the Knights were able to hide gold and holy relics—from ancient Gospel scrolls to the Holy Grail—in secret spots across the country (including in Rosslyn Chapel, of The Da Vinci Code fame). But there is little evidence to support these colorful myths. Templar scholar and medieval historian Helen Nicholson said that any remaining Knights Templar were likely hanging out in the balmy climes of Cyprus.

9. He’s still donating money to a Scottish church.

Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

After the death of his second wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert the Bruce decreed to give the Auld Kirk in Cullen, Scotland—now the Cullen and Deskford Parish—a total of five Scots pounds every year. That's because, in 1327, Elizabeth had died after falling off a horse, and the local congregation generously took care of her remains. Robert was so touched by the gesture that he promised to donate money “for all eternity.” To this day, his bequest is still being paid.

10. Parts of his body are buried in multiple places.

Robert the Bruce died on June 7, 1329, just a month before his 55th birthday. The cause of his death has been a source of much discussion, and disagreement, but most modern scholars believe that he succumbed to leprosy. His funeral was a rather elaborate affair that required nearly 7000 pounds of candle wax just for the funerary candles. Following the fashion for royalty, he was buried in multiple places. His chest was sawed open and his heart and internal organs removed: The guts were buried near his death-place at the Manor of Cardross, near Dumbarton; his corpse interred in Dunfermline Abbey; and his heart placed inside a metal urn to be worn around the neck of Sir James Douglas, who promised to take it to the Holy Lord.

11. His heart was the original “Brave Heart.”

Unfortunately, Sir Douglas never made it to the Holy Land: He got sidetracked and took a detour to fight the Moors in Spain, where he was killed. Before his attackers reached him, Douglas reportedly threw the urn containing the king’s heart and yelled, “Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee.” The heart was soon returned to Scotland, where its location was forgotten until a team of archaeologists discovered it in 1921. It’s now interred in Melrose Abbey.

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