World War One: Soissons-Two days in Hell

On July 15th, the Germans – 49 divisions strong- lunged again toward Paris, crossing the Marne River between Château-Thierry and Reims and seized a bridgehead four miles deep.

But the military balance had changed. Germany was being drained of fighting men, while the allies were receiving constant transfusions from America. A million yanks had reached France, and great numbers of them fought alongside the French to contain the July 15th attack. In 48 hours, the Germans were thrown back across the Marne with dreadful losses to both armies. That was the Germans’ last offensive on the Western Front; it would be 22 more years before they marched in to Paris.

With the German failure on the south side of their Château-Thierry pocket, General Foch aimed a counterblow at its northern side. His first objective; to cut the Mauberge highway between Château-Thierry and Soissons, over which the Germans were supporting their 40 divisions in the pocket.

Now Commanded by Colonel Neville, who had just returned from the hospital, the Marine Brigade moved up as part of the 2nd (US) Division to join the counteroffensive. Harbord, promoted to Major General, commanded the division; on its left was the First Moroccan Divison. Further to the left was the U.S. 1st Division. All were part of the French Tenth Army and the spearhead of the Allied counterattack. The Aisne-Marne Offensive now staring would continue till the war was won.

The troops were dumped into the great Retz Forest south of Soissons. The Marines made a silent, confused forced night march to reach the jump-off point. The forest roads were jammed with men, trucks and guns. Stumbling forward through the rain and moonless  black, each man clung to the pack of the man in front. Just as the five-minute preparatory barrage began, the last units came up double time.

At 4:35 A.M. on July 18th, the men fixed bayonets; and the three divisions moved forward. In the 2nd Divisions sector, the 5th Marines, led by Colonel Feland, held the left. The dog-tired Marines met the Germans in the oak forest and advanced northeast for three kilometers against their machine guns. They fought the Germans indian-style, moving from tree to tree and shooting snipers out of the limbs.

Two sergeants in the 66th Company of the 5th Marines received the Medal of Honor for bravery during this advance. When the company was stopped by a German strong point, Serbia-born sergeant Louis Cukela crawled out on the flank, circled behind the German position, rushed the machine gun and killed or drove off its crew with his bayonet. Picking up German hand grenades, he blasted out the remainder of the strongpoint destroyed two machine guns and brought in four prisoners. Austrian-born Sergeant Matej Kocak went forward alone, unprotected by covering fire, to wipe out a hidden machine-gun nest. In the face of heavy fire, he attacked the position and scattered the crew with his bayonet. Then he rallied a group of Moroccans who had become separated from their company and led them in destroying another machine-gun nest.

The Moroccan Division crushed heavy resistance with bayonets and knives but was delayed enough to expose the Marines’ left flank to raking German machine-gun fire. The 17th Marine Company was pressed too far north and with some Moroccans took the town of Chaudun.

As the Marines emerged from the forest, the July morning was hot; and soon the men were racked with thirst. Led now by French tanks, they charged threw steaming waist high wheat fields ablaze with blooming red poppies. At Beaurepaire Farm, the division swung to the southeast. The 3rd Infantry Brigade on the Marines’ right was held up until 6 P.M. by a stubborn defense at Vaauxcastille, where fighting was hand-to-hand.

By mid-afternoon, the U.S. 2nd Division’s units were jumbled. Turrill pulled together parts of his 1st Battalion, with some elements of Shearer’s 3rd Battalion and the 8th Marine Machine-gun Company. And joined the 23rd Infantry to clean out the village of Vierzy, where the Germans were making a stand. Marines and Infantrymen assaulted the town from different sides, meeting triumphantly in its streets.

By 7 P.M., the 9th Infantry, reinforced by both Turrill’s 1st and Keyser’s 2nd Battalions, pressed forward again. Stopped by German machine guns, Keyser’s Marines took a pounding from enemy artillery and suffered heavy casualties. By Dark, the Marines and the 3rd Brigade were exhausted, and used up.

On the morning of the 19th, LT. Colonel Harry Lee’s 6th Marines, most of which had been in reserve, took over the lead. The German divisions had been rushed up to halt the offensive at all cost. They cut up the 6th Marines cruelly.

The Marines moved out, with Hughe’s 1st Battalion on the right and Holcomb’s 2nd Battalion on the left and Sibley’s 3rd Battalion in support. Crossing flat, open country, the lead battalions were slaughtered by German artillery, guided by air spotting. The guns knocked out the French tanks. In half an hour, so many Marines had been hit that two of Sibley’s companies were sent to fill in.

Sergeant Don V. Paradis remembered: What few of us were left fell into the foxholes. We even piled on top of each other to seek cover from the murderous shellfire. I laid there with every muscle in my body twitching, hardly knowing what I was doing. We could hear the wounded calling for help, but very little could be done for them until after dark came.

Of the 196 men in his company, 54 were left.

The Germans finally stopped the Marine advance six miles from its starting point and less than a mile short of its objective, the Mauberge highway. It was hopeless to go on; the lead battalions had lost more than 50 percent of their men. The survivors dug in. French units replaced them during the night; and then, the Marines carried out their wounded.

In two days the Marine Brigade had lost 2,015 men killed and wounded; the 6th Marines took two-thirds of the losses. But Foch’s attack had pushed the Germans back from the Marne to the Vasle river and triggered the general retreat of the German army. It had turned the war around. As the German chancellor said, “ The history of the world played out in three days.”

The Marines and the rest of the U.S. 2nd Division moved to the rear, some companies with only 25 or 30 men left. Major General Harbord called them “a victorious remnant.”

On July 26th Brigadier General John A. Lejeune took over the Brigade. The Louisiana- Born Annapolis graduate brought with him as the Brigade’s adjutant LT. Colonel Earl H. Ellis, a brilliant officer destined for a strange fate. A few days later, Lejeune, now a Major General, assumed command of the U.S. 2nd Division. Newly promoted Brigadier General Neville resumed command of the Marine Brigade for the rest of the war.


SOURCE: The U.S. Marine Corps Story; BY: J. Robert Moskin; CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan