Photo by Molly Cooke
A memorial commemorating the 3rd Infantry Division’s participation in World War I hangs inside the division’s headquarters, July 19 at Fort Stewart.
The Second Battle of the Marne Solidifies the Division’s History
As 1918 began, World War I was continuing as a back-and-forth battle between the Allies and the Germans. The German army was proving its strength and was able to strangle the failing Russian Empire to the point where an armistice negotiation was necessary. Germany was also dangerously close to capturing Italy and taking the city of Venice.
However, by the spring of 1918, Germany’s momentum had begun to wane, even as Britain and France struggled to defend themselves against German aggression. Hoping to revive their sluggish campaign, German military leaders made the decision to launch three different military offensives between March and June. Britain and France needed an ally if they hoped to stop the German offensives. In late May, the 3rd Infantry Division deployed its troops to France to aid its beleaguered allies in hopes of rolling back the fierce German fighting force. The historic fight of the 3rd ID against the German army changed the course of the war and led to victory for the Allied forces.
To understand the heroic position that the 3rd Division would take against its French and British allies, we must look a little further back.
In March 1918, the British Army had positioned troops along the French region of Champagne, anticipating a German invasion. British scouts quickly noticed an unusual amount of military traffic around the French town of Arras. Arras was a huge objective for the German army because the city allowed easy access to the main French ports and could serve as a starting point for an attack on Paris, a key objective for the German army. If they could control the capital of France, it wouldn’t take much to bring the rest of France under German control. On March 21, a German force led by General Erich Ludendorff, the Commanding General of the German Army, launched the assault on Arras, known as “Operation Michael”. The battle lasted 15 days and was a success for the German forces at the time. Their army was able to gain control of almost 3,000 kilometers of French territory, but the Allied forces led by the British Expeditionary Force were able to complicate German logistics and strategic success.
Germany’s next objective was to take control of the city of Hazebrouck. Located in what was called the Plain of Flanders, Hazebrouck was a pivotal town that offered easy transportation, having railways throughout France. Germany viewed the takeover of this city as a necessity as it would allow easy transportation of materials to their forces, while limiting the means by which the Allies could receive supplies. Germany’s first objective was to take control of the Flanders Plain in order to drive Allied forces away from the area. In April, the Germans attacked the town of Ypres in Belgium, in what was called “Operation Georgette”. It was an extremely complex fight, and many proxy battles would start along the Lys River. During this battle, German forces were able to penetrate through Allied lines, but ultimately did not reach their desired objective by late April due to bad weather. Compared to their previous offensive, Germany was only able to take 16 kilometers of French territory.
After this failed attempt, the German forces abandoned the idea of attacking Paris from the north, as they felt that the Allies’ deterrent was too strong. The Allies soon succeeded in seizing Germany’s next plot as it seemed that most of the German assaults were centered around the rivers leading to Paris. The next German attack took place on May 27 along the Aisne. This was the third German offensive, which received the code name “Blucher-Yorck”. Several battles would take place along the Aisne River, which would result in the Germans taking 2,300 square kilometers of land from the French and being almost 60 kilometers from Paris. At the time, however, Germany was unable to continue its advance due to exhaustion and lack of supplies.
The assaults along the Aisne having failed, the Germans had to push their attacks further south. Ludendorff was quickly running out of ideas and new opportunities. The only conclusion Ludendorff could come to as a last resort was to push towards Paris by taking control of the Marne. On June 9, Germany’s final offensive would begin, codenamed “Gneisenau”. By this point in the war, Germany had taken control of the area known as Belleau Wood, near the Marne. Although the area had little to no strategic advantage, it was still seen as a stepping stone to their end goal. Before the German forces could march towards Paris, they were met by American forces attempting to retake the occupied area, which the Americans recaptured at the cost of around 5,000 troops.
Ludendorff always wanted to take Paris by going up the Marne. He knew that the Allied forces would be positioned along the river, so he devised a plan which involved staging several attacks throughout France with the hope that the Allies would reposition their forces away from the river. On July 15, the plan begins with an attack on the city of Reims. Initially seeing the first signs of success, Ludendorff was unaware that the 3rd ID was encamped by the river while the French forces moved to Reims to reinforce their forces there. It would be a turning point in the war.
With nearly twice as many personnel in the area as their enemies, the German forces could still counter the Allied forces at Reims, but the French troops wiped out the German forces in the area while suffering little damage to their ranks. As this organized attack continued, the German units moved up the Marne until they encountered the 3rd DI.
A frenzied fight, known as the Second Battle of the Marne, ensued with the 3rd ID holding firm against an overwhelming German force. Although it deployed enormous assets against the Allies in this region, the only success of the German army was the capture of the town of Mezy, located along the Marne. However, on July 17, Allied forces were able to retake the city before the enemy could break into Paris.
The final German push for control of the region came on July 18, when the Germans began their attack on the town of Château-Thierry, a strategic stronghold the Germans had their eyes on throughout the war. The city was close to their previous objective, Reim. The German plan was to approach Château-Thierry from the Argonne forest. This was seen as an easy victory for Germany as they believed Allied resources were limited and the majority of their forces were in the rear of the combat zone to assist with defensive measures. However, the Allies were not there solely to defend themselves and realized that a strong attack here was the only way to drive the German forces out of France. Before Germany could put its plan into action, the Allies launched a series of offensives. Although the Germans were able to reach the French town, they again encountered the 3rd DI. The battle, and the last hope of German victory, lasted only one day and resulted in a devastating loss to the German war effort. It was a major success for the Americans and the Allies as the German forces were pushed back from the Marne area.
The 3rd DI proved to be a cornerstone of the defense of the Marne and the entire region. The division’s valiant stand against a large German force marked a turning point in the war. This turned out to be the last time the German army was on the offensive during World War I. As a result of their heroism during this battle, the troops of the 3rd DI became known as the “Rocher de la Marne” and their motto “Nous Resterons Là” (We’ll Stay Here) was cemented.
In November 1918, the First World War was over. Germany never reached Paris. The brave deeds of the Dogface Soldiers would live on in history and the division is still known as the “Rocher de la Marne”.