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The Victory of Soissons


Fifth Marines Attack July 18, 1918, Under Terrific Enemy Counter-Barrage. Second Battalion Takes Verte Feuille Farm. First Battalion Captures Chaudun. Third Battalion and Auxiliaries Seize Vierzy. Sixth Marines Gallantly Carry On. Second Division, Including Fourth Brigade of Marines, Advances Over 6 Miles, Captures 3,000 Prisoners, 11 Batteries of Artillery, More than 100 Machine-Guns, Minenwerfer and Supplies. With First Division Definitely Turns Tide of War for Allies.
BY MAJOR EDWIN N. McCLELLAN, OFFICER IN CHARGE, HISTORICAL DIVISION, U. S. M. C.

ON July 11, 1918. Brig. Gen. James G. Harbord, commanding general of the Marine Brigade, received notification of his appointment as a major general, and two days later left on a five days' leave of absence. As Col. Neville had been evacuated to a base hospital after leaving the Chateau-Thierry sector, Lieut. Col. Harry Lee assumed temporary command of the brigade. Maj. Gen. Harbord and Col. Neville both returned in time to enter the Aisne-Marne offensive, the former in command of the Second Division and the latter in command of the Fourth Brigade.

Of the six Allied offensives taking place in 1918 on the Western Front, designated by the Americans as major operations, the Fourth Brigade of Marines, with the other units of the Second Division, participated in three, the first being the vast offensive known as the Aisne-Marne, in which the Marine Brigade entered the line near Soissons.

On July 17, 1918, the first Moroccan Division and the First and Second Divisions of American Regulars were hurriedly and secretly concentrated. by terribly fatiguing, forced night marches over roads jammed with troops, artillery, and tanks. through rain and mud, in the Bois de Retz, near Soissons. Headquarters of the Fourth Brigade was established at Vivieres.

The getting to the "jump-off" on time for this operation will always share in Marine Corps history with the glorious victory that followed.

Early on the morning of July 18, 1918, Marshal Foch threw these three picked divisions at the unsuspecting Germans with overwhelming success, and again on the following day.

A brief description of the first attack on July 18, 1918, is contained in the History of the Fourth Brigade. reading substantially as follows:

Late during the afternoon of July 17, 1918, orders were received that the Fourth Brigade of Marines would attack at 4:35 a. m. on July 18. 1918. The Fifth Marines were designated to attack, with the Sixth Marines following in support. After considerable difficulty, due to the darkness and the congestion of the road leading through the forest, the Fifth Marines arrived at the jumping-off position.

The Allied artillery preparation had been going on since 4:35 a. m., increasing in intensity until just before the hour set for the attack, which was 6:00 a. m., when the Fifth Marines attacked under a teriffic enemy counter-barrage. The advancing waves burst through the barbed-wire interlaced among the trees of the forest and soon carried the enemy's front line. Overhead shrapnel caused most of the losses that day. The secondary positions were speedily taken and many prisoners and much materiel captured. The First Battalion, Fifth Marines, occupied the extreme left of the Second Division line with the 49th Company in combat liaison with the Moroccan Division of French Colonials on the left. To the right was the Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, with the 51st Company acting as liaison company with the Ninth Infantry of the Third Brigade on the right. The Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, speedily took Verte Feuille Farm and thus gained their first objective.

The ravine at Vierzy, France.

Here the Sixth Machine Gun Battalion of Marines arrived after an all-night march, having been forced to carry all its guns, ammunition and machine-gun equipment by hand. Companies of the Machine Gun Battalion were assigned their combat missions. At the crossroads two kilometres north of Beaurepaire Farm the attacking waves of Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, changed direction to 115 degrees and soon had carried the advance so far as to reach the artillery positions of the Germans. The troops were continually subjected to machine-gun fire and the bombs from enemy planes circling low overhead. At the ravine running north from Vauxcastile strong machine-gun resistance was met and the Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, paused while tanks worked around them and broke the opposition. Owing to the rapidity of the advance the companies of the battalion by this time had become somewhat scattered and stretched from Maison Neuve Farm to Vauxcastile. Late in the afternoon the final objective of the Second Batallion, Fifth Marines, had been carried and the night was spent in the ravine running northwest from Vierzy. In the meantime, a company of the First Battalion, Fifth Marines, found its left exposed, swerved to the left, and after stiff fighting, captured Chaudun. Late in the afternoon of July 18, 1918, a platoon of the 49th Company of the Fifth Marines, three companies of the Third Battalion of the Fifth Marines, and the Eighth Machine Gun Company of the Fifth Marines attacked and captured the town of Vierzy, after which a line was formed extending north from this village. Following the advance of the Fifth Marines, both the Division and Brigade Headquarters had moved forward, the Division being established at Verte Feuille Farm and the Brigade in a cave in Vierzy. In the meantime. the Sixth Marines had followed the attack and advance of the Fifth Marines about three kilometers in rear of the attacking troops.

The Journal of Operations, Second Division. describes the division's fighting on the 19th as follows:

Line held by the Third Brigade following attack of evening of July 18th ran about three kilometres west of SOISSONS-CHATEAU-THIERRY road and parallel to it, from the old French trenches southwest of CHARANTIGNY to a point on the Vierzy-Tigny road two kilometres west of TlGNY. Field Order No. 16, Second Division, 3:00 a. m., July 19th, directed that the attack take the line HARTENNES, ETAUX (inclusive), BOIS de HARTENNES to BOIS de CORNCOlS (inclusive). Artillery preparation by Second Artillery Brigade to begin at 6:00 a. m. according to orders of the C. G. of the artillery brigade. The infantry attack was to be made by the Sixth Marines and the Sixth Machine Gun Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Harry Lee. The First Battalion, Second Engineers, was designated as support. Passage of the lines was to be effected at 7 :00 a. m., the troops then in the line to remain there until the attack had attained its objective.

At 3:15 the afternoon of July 19th the Commanding General sent word to General Ely that he had directed Colonel Lee to dig in where he then was and to hold. "Please let the troops know that their work is considered to be very gallant and that the failure of the troops on our left and right to keep pace with our advance makes it necessary to dig in and hold the line as it now is," General Harbord wrote.

Although the orders for the attack contemplated a passage of the lines at 7 :00 a. m., this was not actually accomplished until about 9 o'clock. At 6:46 Colonel Lee reported to his Brigade Commander that he was at the railroad station at Vierzy with his three battalions and three Machine Gun Companies, 6th, 73rd and 81st. Colonel Lee reported favorable progress for the first hour of the advance. The First Battalion, Second Engineers, in line when the Sixth Marines passed through, followed them in the attack. Various reports came in during the morning indicating that Tigny had been captured, but these proved untrue.

Colonel Lee attacked with all three battalions in line, First, Third and Second, from right to left. Heavy casualties were reported from all attacking units, and constant calls for reinforcements came back. At 11:45 Colonel Lee sent this message to the Division Commander: "Reports indicate growing casualties, amounting heavy, say about 30 per cent. Seventy-eighth Company by runners say have only one platoon left. All are requesting reinforcements and M. G. and Chauchat ammunition. First Battalion reports no French troops on right, and are held up 300 yards in front of Tigny. Have in line from right, First, Third and Second Battalions, Reserves, Battalion Engineers, Headquarters Company and two companies Sixth Machine Gun Battalion have ordered line dig in."

The Chief of Staff sen t the following to Colonel Lee at 1.30 p. m.:

"The Division Commander desires that you dig in and entrench your present position and hold it at all costs. No further advance is to be made for the present. He desires to congratulate your command upon its gallant conduct in the face of severe casualties."

The Division was relieved the night of July 19th-20th by units of the French 6th and 11th Tirailleurs.

The American commander in chief in his first report stated:

The place of honor in the thrust toward Soissons on July 18 was given to our First and Second Divisions, in company with chosen French divisions. Without the usual brief warning of a preliminary bombardment, the massed French and American artillery, firing by the map, laid down its rolling barrage at dawn while the Infantry began its charge. The tactical handling of our troops under these trying conditions was excellent throughout the action. * * * The Second Division took Beaurepaire Farm and Vierzy in a very rapid advance, and reached a position in front of Tigny at the end of its second day.

In his final report he stated:

General Petain's initial plan for the counterattack involved the entire western face of the Marne salient. The First and Second American Divisions, with 'the First French Moroccan Division between them, were employed as the spearhead of the main attack, driving directly eastward, through the most sensitive portion of the German lines to the heights south of Soissons. The advance began on July 18, without the usual brief warning of a preliminary bombardment, and these three divisions at a single bound broke through the enemy's infantry defenses and overran his artillery, cutting or interrupting the German communications leading into the salient. A general withdrawal from the Marne was immediately begun by the enemy, who still fought stubbornly to prevent disaster. * * *

The Second Division advanced 8 kilometers in the first 26 hours, and by the end of the second day was facing Tigny, having captured 3,000 prisoners and 66 field guns. It was relieved the night of the 19th by a French division. The result of this counter offensive was of decisive importance. Due to the magnificent dash and power displayed on the field of Soissons by our First and Second Divisions the tide of war was definitely turned in favor of the Allies.

Major General James G. Harbord, commanding the Second Division in this operation, describes the two days' fighting of his division in these words:

It is with keen pride that the division commander transmits to the command the congratulations and affectionate personal greetings of General Pershing who visited the division headquarters last night. His praise of the gallant work of the division on the 18th and 19th is echoed by the French high command, the Third Corps commander, American Expeditionary Forces, and in a telegram from the former division commander. In spite of two sleepless nights, long marches through rain and mud and the discomforts of hunger and thirst, the division attacked side by side with the gallant First Moroccan Division and maintained itself with credit. You advanced over 6 miles, captured over 3,000 prisoners, 11 batteries of artillery, over 100 machine guns, minnenwerfers, and supplies. The Second Division has sustained the best traditions of the Regular Army and the Marine Corps. The story of your achievements will be told in millions of homes in all Allied lands to-night.

Following the advance of the first day, brigade headquarters was moved forward to a cave in Vierzy.

Colonel Logan Feland was in command of the Fifth Regiment during the Aisne-Marne offensive, near Soissons, and continued in command of it with the exception of two days in July, 1918 (when Brigadier General Lejeune commanded the Fourth Brigade and Colonel Neville the Fifth Regiment), until March 21, 1919, when he was relieved by Colonel Harold C. Snyder, who retained command until the date of demobilization.

The Fourth Brigade was relieved about midnight July 19, 1918, and after remaining in a reserve position until July 22, 1918, marched to an area farther in the rear, but still in a reserve position, brigade headquarters being established at Taillefontaine. After final relief from this active sector the brigade was billeted July 24-25, 1918, in an area around Nanteuil-le-Haudouin, brigade headquarters being established at Nanteuil. The brigade remained in this area until july 31, 1918.

On July 25, 1918, Brig. Gen. John A. Lejeune arrived, and assumed command of the Fourth Brigade on July 26, 1918, General Orders, No. 16, reading as follows:

I have this day assumed command of the Fourth Brigade. U. S. Marines.

To command this brigade is the highest honor that could come to any man. Its renown is imperishable and the skill, endurance, and valor of the officers and men have immortalized its name and that of the Marine Corps.

Brigadier General Lejeune retained command until July 29, 1918, when he became commanding general of the Second Division, relieving Major General Harbord, who left to assume command of the Services of Supply. Colonel Neville, on this latter date, resumed command of the Fourth Brigade.

 
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