Printemps 1918 : les offensives allemandes

Brothers in arms on Mount Kemmel: a French colonel and two English colonels surrounded by officers from their regiments
Corps 1
Spring 1918: The morale of the French is put to the test by the German offensives
Corps 2


The last fires of the Battle of Picardy had hardly been extinguished when a new German offensive began in Flanders, near Armentières, on 9 April. It was to be short but violent. From the first day, the German assault drove the Portuguese troops from the field. Two days later, the Messines ridge was overrun and, once again, reinforcements were sent to the British front. Foch, named Commander in Chief of the allied forces on the 14th, called in his reserves. The battle raged until the beginning of May on the Hills of Flanders, mostly on Mount Kemmel, where extremely violent bombardments rained down. Once again, Ludendorff's advance was blocked. Dunkerque, which had been under threat for a while, was now out of reach.

Des Flanders au Chemin des Dames Of course, the immediate outcome of these two "batterings" was significant: the British army was hit badly, 1,600 cannons were seized and more than 120,000 soldiers were taken prisoner. The Germans advanced deeper by about 70 kilometres and were 80 kilometres from Paris and 60 from the sea. But strategic success was not to be: Ludendorff was unable to take Paris, nor even Amiens, and failed to divide the allied armies. So he devised another plan. Taking advantage of the 80 reserve divisions not yet committed, he was to launch his own offensive against the French army. On 27 May, a hurricane of fire beat down on the French lines along the Chemin des Dames. The German attack was launched at dawn. By the evening it had reached Fismes, having advanced by 20 kilometres and taken the whole of this famous position, once reputed to be unassailable. In the French General's Quarters, consternation reigned: Pétain's directives stipulating that they wait for attacks on the second position were not applied and they were taken by complete surprise, even a few hours into the offensive. Many, including Foch himself, thought that Ludendorff would try to destroy the British army. A good number of reserves had also been gathered in the northern part of the front between Flanders and Picardy.Local operations had been launched in these sectors as well, such as the one on 28 May to the west of Mondidier, where American troops, supported by French tanks, took the village of Cantigny. This modest initial success would soon be made complete by offensives of greater magnitude, where the young American divisions would make their name.

By the 29th, the German divisions had reached Fère-en-Tardenois and were threatening Oulchy-le-Château, about 35 kilometres from their starting point. On the 31st, they reached Château-Thierry and the river Marne, less than 80 kilometres from the capital. Some of the Mountain of Reims fell the same day. The general in command in Reims even considered abandoning the city. Pétain immediately called for divisions to take on the assailants, but Foch would only give them sparingly, convinced that the Germans had not given up on their large-scale offensive in Artois and Flanders, against the English front. However, the allied generalissimo had not been wrong at all: Ludendorff had wanted to prevent the French from coming to the aid of the British again, but the magnitude of the success was such that he changed his plan and decided to concentrate his efforts in the direction of Paris. But, despite the violence of the offensive and the weakness of the allied reserves, the military position was not exactly the same as it had been in the month of March: Foch and Pétain first of all made sure that the two flanks of the pocket were solidly held, to the north, at the edge of the Villers-Cotterêts forest and to the east, around Reims. The first American divisions could now be sent into action and throughout May and June the marines brigade fought at Bois Belleau, near Château-Thierry.

In addition, the power of the allied war industries was starting to make itself felt: the provision of artillery had become sufficient to organise real "barrages", which impeded the assailants. There were enough lorries to transport thousands of men and the convex shape of the front was to the advantage of the Allies, who were making the most of the railway line.On 19 June, the battle resumed. The Germans attacked along the Matz, a small tributary of the Oise. Two days later, after progressing about ten kilometres, they had to stop. Better still, General Mangin organised a counter attack that regained some of the lost ground. Clemenceau against the defeatists: "I am making war" It was in the parliamentary frontlines that anxiety was most acute. Clemenceau's critics burst forth from every side, though mostly from the left. They were sometimes contradictory, the "Tiger" being accused of both neglecting government affairs with his frequent journeys to the front and behaving like a dictator.

Clemenceau knew that his presence at the front had assumed great importance for his soldiers and generals, as well as for the Allies. He was the chief architect of the single command of March-April 1918, and a military setback from General Foch would put his government in danger and have immediate repercussions on that of Lloyd George. In fact, the setbacks of the 27th and 29th May created an absolute storm in parliament: the chairman of the Senate, Dubost, the socialists and the republicans increased discussions in the Chamber and in the Senate, accusing military chiefs and the government of inaptitude and incompetence and Clemenceau himself of dictatorship. This last accusation was nothing new, the "Tiger" having already been given similar names during his previous term of office between 1906 and 1909. Such criticisms were, however, not without foundation: with time taken up by frequent trips to visit the armies and inter-allied conferences, the Council chairman was hardly one to let scruples get in the way where members of parliament were concerned. He often left things to his young chief of staff, Georges Mandel, while still maintaining hold of all the power, directly (he was both Council chairman and War minister) or indirectly through people he could count on (Pichon in Foreign Affairs and Leygues in the Navy etc.). A few days later on 4 June, he had to defend his military chiefs, as they were violently attacked in the Chamber. Standing up to speak, the "Tiger" rose up against the "defeatists" and reaffirmed his intentions: "We will be victorious if the public powers are up to their task. I will fight before Paris, I will fight in Paris and I will fight behind Paris." This energetic speech reaffirmed his intentions and MPs' confidence in the government was maintained.It was about time, because in the capital, the morale of Parisians was on the wane. Since March, it had been one offensive after another and the one at the end of May had taken the enemy almost as far as during the invasion of 1914. The immediate consequence was a wave of departures to the provinces, probably several hundred thousand people between March and June 1918. In a less impulsive and deeper way, the continuing conflict was beginning to break down people's determination, all the more so since there was nothing to indicate that it could all be over within the year. Of course, everyone dearly wanted peace, but the vast majority were not ready to take it at any price. Furthermore, according to observers, the population remained calm, even in the face of the aerial bombardments of January 1918 and fire from long-range weapons from March onwards.

The general situation was the same in the provinces, despite major strikes of a clearly revolutionary nature in the Loire. In the armament factories in Roanne, Saint-Étienne, Saint-Chamond and Rives-de-Gier, more than 50,000 workers stopped working between the 18th and the 28th May, demanding an end to hostilities and peace negotiations. But this sometimes violent movement was not sustained, stirring up disapproval instead. (1)So the people seemed to maintain their confidence. Numerous factors could explain this attitude, most importantly, the arrival of American troops (2) and the fact that the supplying of provisions to the people was quite well organised (3). Being less strict and more intelligent with censorship and regularly providing Parisians with information about the German advances during March and May, even with a certain delay factor, helped avoid the spread of alarming false reporting. For the majority of French people, sacrifices made during the four years of the war could only lead to a peace that would be, if not victorious, then at least advantageous.

Notes (1) C/f J. J. Becker: The French in The Great War, Paris, Robert-Laffont, 1980 (2) Arrivals increased steadily in 1918: 83,000 soldiers in March, 117,000 in April, 244,000 in May, 276,00 000 in June, in July the United States army was one million men strong(3) The government paid constant attention to them; problems of supplying provisions could quickly lead to a decline in morale