Centennial Gaming In The Great War – The Campaigns Of 1918: Part Four

May 14, 2018 by oriskany

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We’re back once again for another look at centennial gaming in the Great War. Through the course of this series, my friend Sven Desmet (BoW: @neves1789) and I are putting a “tabletop focus” on the spring and summer battles of 1918 – engagements that shaped how World War One would end, and how the 20th Century would unfold.

Great War Part 4A

Read The Series Here

So far we’ve looked at wargaming in the Great War in general, the St. Michael Offensive of March-April 1918, and the Fourth Battle of Ypres in April and May 1918. Combined, these offensives represent a determined German effort to win the war on the Western Front before new American forces could arrive in decisive quantities.

These German pushes had, for the first time since 1914, put much of the Western Front in motion. The St. Michael Offensive had caved in the British front at the Somme, while subsequent offensives like the “Georgette Offensive” (April 9th) had hit the line in Flanders, sometimes held by French, Belgian, Australian, and even Portuguese troops.

Great War Part 4B

As we saw in Parts Two and Three, the Allies were hideously mauled by these attacks, especially the British. Nonetheless, they managed to prevent a German breakthrough toward Amiens, from which the Germans could threaten British access to the Channel ports and destabilize the whole northern half of the Allied line. Amiens had to hold.

Hold it did, with the Germans stopped at a small town called Villers-Bretonneux, which changed hands repeatedly in a series of bitter battles. French reinforcements were poured into these threatened sectors, while further north in Flanders the line also began to stabilize after the Battle of Lys.

The Blücher Offensive

The Germans Turn South

It was these French reinforcements that concerned the German commander, Erich Ludendorff. Quickly he whipped up what was supposed to be a diversionary attack further south, with his First and Seventh Armies driving between the cities of Soissons and Reims, aiming at the Chemin des Dames region along the Aisne River east of Paris.

Great War Part 4C

This would be the “Blücher Offensive,” which opened against the French Sixth Army on May 27th. The objective was to rattle the French and draw French reinforcements away from the threatened British and Belgian sectors further north. Then, new German attacks could build on what “Michael” and “Georgette” had already achieved.

But the Blücher Offensive was stunningly successful beyond even the wildest German expectations. Two French divisions (21st and 22nd) were all but annihilated were they stood. German stormtroopers and follow-on infantry crossed Aisne River and pushed all the way to the Marne River, now within potential striking distance of Paris.

Ludendorff had a decision to make. Should he exploit this unexpected success, or stick with his original plan? The road to Paris seemed all but open. When the French Prime Minister asked the commander of the French Sixth Army what remained to stop the Germans, he replied “nothing but dust.”

Great War Part 4D

The overall French commander (and C-in-C of Allied armies), Généralissime Ferdinand Foch, was surprisingly unconcerned. He maintained that so long as the width of the German breakthrough could be contained, they would be unable to exploit it beyond a critical point.

In this, Foch was actually correct, but the fact remained that German armies were barely forty miles of Paris. The city was under German artillery fire, and practically nothing stood in their way. Finally, the French urged the Americans (commanded by General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing) to send in some of his newly-arriving American divisions.

This was actually a bit of a risk. Debate still simmered between Allied generals as to how the new American divisions would be used, where would they deploy, and who would actually command them. Would they be attached as reinforcements to British and French armies? Or fight on their own as an integral American force?

Great War Part 4E

Such questions would have to wait. For now, the US 3rd Division was shoved into the line along the Marne River…just in time. They halted the German advance at Château-Thierry in a rather bloody repulse as the Germans tried to cross a railroad bridge over the river. For the immediate present, a further crisis was averted.

Shaking off the bloody nose, the Germans shifted their next big attack eight miles to the west. Now even closer to Paris, they began a push toward wooded hills around the town of Belleau in preparation for yet another try at cracking the French line, reinforced by more American infantry, this time of the US 2nd Division.

Yet not all the Americans on the imminent “Belleau Wood” battlefield were technically US Army troops. The 2nd Division included the 4th Brigade of the US Marine Corps, including 5th and 6th Marine Regiments. It was for these Marines that Belleau Wood would become much more than a battle. For United States Marines, to this very day…

Great War Part 4F

…Belleau Wood is legend.

Battle Of Belleau Wood

Making Of A Legend

In the opening days of June, German General von Conta’s IV Reserve Corps (Seventh Army) resumed their southwest advance. Two of his divisions, the 197th and 237th, pushed toward Belleau Wood, steadily driving against the rapidly-splintering French. The US 2nd Division, still arriving, tried to deploy a new defensive line amidst the confusion.

The French tried one more counterattack on June 3rd, which quickly broke down. As the remnants of their 164th Division fell back past the American positions, their officers approached the Americans of 2nd Battalion / 5th Marine Regiment with news of a general withdrawal. A Marine company commander entered legend with the reply...

“Retreat, hell! We just got here!”

Just a quick footnote, sharp-eyed readers may note that this is the same 2nd / 5th Marines featured so prominently in our recent Vietnam Tet Offensive series, particularly at the Battle of Hue in January and February 1968.

Great War Part 4G

Such bravado would soon be put to the test. For the next two days, the US 2nd Division, Army and Marines alike, would see off repeated German attacks trying to come down off the heights of Belleau Wood. Particularly fierce fighting would come at Les Marnes Farm, the precise closest point the Germans would ever come to Paris in 1918.

But the Germans could push no further. Soon two new French divisions arrived, the 167th to the north and the 34th to the south, to bolster the embattled Americans. More fighting came at Les Marnes Farm, where Germans of the Saxon 26th Jäger Regiment recovered an American body and finally realized they were up against US Marines.

On June 6th the Allies went over on the offensive. The French 167th would launch the main assault, with the Marines supporting on the right. The objective was Hill 142. Yet the Americans were overconfident from their defensive successes. The didn’t conduct good field reconnaissance and definitely weren’t practised in modern assault tactics.

Great War Part 4H

The Marines advanced in neat lines, with bayonets fixed, over open fields of tall wheat strewn with red poppies. One NCO, Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly (who’d already won the Medal of Honor is previous wars), gave the famous cry...

“Come on, you sons of bitches! You want to live forever?”

Sure enough, German machine gunners had a field day, and casualties were horrific. The Marines would take a foothold in Belleau Wood but at a shockingly grim cost. At least one company commander was killed instantly, and another NCO would win the first Marine Medal of Honor in World War One, fighting off German counterattacks.

Over the next few days, the Germans struck back at the new American positions, but to no avail. Again, the Battle of Belleau Wood was in deadlock.

Great War Part 4H

Over the next two weeks, the Americans and Germans would trade ferocious attacks, followed by counterattacks, followed by counter-counterattacks. German and French artillery ravaged the beautiful hunting preserve, turning Belleau Wood into a surreal tangle of smoking, splintered trees. June 10th through to the 15th would see the heaviest fighting.

The Germans were grimly determined, dug in, and no stranger to battlefields of the Great War. Beyond the Marine, Army, and French lines, they thought they could see the road to Paris and maybe even an end to the war…and fought accordingly.

The Marines, meanwhile, were not as experienced, sometimes even attacking in the wrong direction after losing their bearings in the smouldering, misty woods. But they smashed any position they hit, often with bayonets, rocks, or bare hands, fighting with a ferocity that diaries and letters home prove genuinely unsettled the German veterans.

Great War Part 4J

Finally, on June 26th, 3rd/5th Marines cleared the last of Belleau Wood. Without this covered high ground anchoring their lines, the overall position of the German IV Corps became untenable and a slow withdraw was soon underway.

Of course, the Marines played only a small numerical part on the overall battle. The 4th Marine Brigade was only part of US 2nd Division. Meanwhile, the rest of US 2nd, along with the US 3rd Division, plus several French divisions, all paid steep losses and contributed greatly to the final result.

But the Marines had made an indelible impression on the European battlefield. The Germans reported they fought like “dogs from Hell.” Whether the exact term was “Höllenhunde” (hounds of Hell) or “Teufelshunde” (devil dogs) – the sobriquet “Devil Dog” is carried with fierce pride by every United States Marine to this day.

Great War Part 4K

The French were also impressed. Belleau Wood was renamed “Woods of the Marine Brigade.” The entire 4th Brigade was awarded the Croix de Guerre. To this day (100 years ago this month), members of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments still wear the French “fourragère” decoration on the left shoulder.

They’d paid for such honours. By the time the battle was over, the Army and Marines of 2nd Division had lost 1,811 killed among almost 9,800 total casualties, a shocking two-thirds of their beginning strength.

As for the Germans, their advance on Paris was well and truly stopped. Ludendorff had already racked up a staggering butcher’s bill with his 1918 offensives, first with St. Michael, then Georgette, then Blücher. One more attack, code-named the Gneisenau Offensive, had already been put down by French and American forces.

Great War Part 4L

Now it would be time for the Allies to strike back. The action would shift away from Paris and back north in Flanders, where British, Belgian, Australian and French troops would launch the Fifth Battle of Ypres, and finally shove the German line back toward an ultimate conclusion of the Great War.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the Blücher Offensive and the Battle of Belleau Wood. What famous units do you admire from the Great War? Have you ever considered trying to recreate their battles on the table top?

Post your comments or questions below, and keep the conversation going on Centennial Gaming in the Great War!

"For United States Marines, to this very day, Belleau Wood is legend..."

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"“Come on, you sons of bitches! You want to live forever?”"

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