WWI Centennial: Operation Mars Fails

Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 305th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

After a cataclysmic week beginning with the biggest bombardment in history on March 21, 1918, Germany’s spring offensive Operation Michael—chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s final gamble to destroy the Allies before American troops arrived in Europe in large numbers—had conquered a large part of northern France but was now in danger of stalling. To the south the massive Eighteenth Army had captured Montdidier but outrun its rail supply lines, and by the end of March faced new threats as French commanders Henri Philippe Petain and Ferdinand Foch moved up the First, Third, and Tenth Armies to plug the gap with the British Expeditionary Force to the north.

WWO Operation Mars
Erik Sass

In the middle of the expanding German salient the Second Army captured Albert but faced supply problems over the wrecked Somme battlefields of 1916, with shell shortages again slowing the offensive. Meanwhile British resistance stiffened as the Third Army under General Byng dug in before Amiens and Arras. Australian troops arrived in emergency troop convoys, once again enabled by the BEF’s fleet of requisitioned London buses. Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, remembered day and night travel along tiny roads leading the battlefield:

"We’re in a long stream of buses; miles of transport, all leading south. Away on the horizon, clouds of dust. We know that the roads are jammed with traffic as all available modes of transport are rushing men, guns, shells, and food south. Village after village flits by as our cloud of dust rolls over them and we are gone. Night is upon us and still the buses move on."

The arrival of Allied reinforcements on all three sides of the German salient made a breakthrough increasingly improbable, as French and British troops fought savagely to reestablish contact and contain the German thrust (below, British troops with barbed wire).

British troops in World War I with barbed wire
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Desperate to restore Operation Michael’s momentum, on March 28, 1918 Ludendorff ordered Operation Mars, a second planned offensive by the German Second and Seventeenth Armies against the British Third Army around Arras. Mars, an attack by 11 German divisions against British defenses along the Scarpe River, was intended to initiate a German pivot northeast, beginning just south of Arras, threatening to envelop the British Expeditionary Force from the rear and cut it off from its sources of supply, the English Channel ports (below, the ruins of the Arras cathedral).

Arras cathedral, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, the British Third Army had taken elaborate precautions, beginning with the effective adoption of “defense in depth,” a strategy pioneered by the Germans, in which most troops remained in a reserve zone behind a lightly held “battle zone,” consisting of multiple trenches and strongpoints to break up attacking enemy formations and sap their momentum. Elsewhere Operation Mars called for renewed attacks by the German Eighteenth Army against the French forces guarding Amiens to the south, but here the Germans found the French holding the well-prepared Amiens Line of heavy fortifications, first constructed in 1915.

The result was a complete failure, as the German attack collapsed in less than a day. Fighting continued along the front for another week, until Ludendorff finally called off the offensive on April 5. In his diary entry on March 30, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, described intense combat as German attacks were brought up short by determined French defenders:

"It’s evening, I’m writing down my impressions of this day, which must have been the nastiest of any blessed day in the whole war, full of many dreadful situations, each one following closely on the one before: At 7:30 our infantry attacked, and by way of reply to that a hail of machine-gun fire comes out of Le Mesnil, worse than I’ve ever known … I bring the battery up behind, and now we’ve got so much shrapnel raining down on us that you can hardly see or hear anything. The machine-gun fire, chattering away at us from only a few hundred meters' distance, keeps on as heavy as ever. All hell has been let loose. The French seem to be transformed; they must have thrown completely fresh, properly rested troops into this sector, and a large number of them too."

Sulzbach and the Germans soon found that the French Army, relatively rested and now recovered from the 1917 mutinies, was beginning to show its teeth again, thanks in part to stockpiled artillery:

"We pull up a steep track on to a plateau … And up there it’s a witch's cauldron, compared with which the business we had before was child’s play: machine-gun fire and small-arms fire so strong that it might have been thousands and thousands of enemy gun-barrels being trained on our one battery. The concentration of fire is so heavy that all we can do is lie on the ground beside the guns, with the infantry hardly 300 meters in front of us … Meanwhile, in spite of the bad weather, enemy planes have been appearing over our lines, flying at a low altitude in heavy swarms of 20 or 30 in a bunch."

On the other side, Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, described seeing French field guns lined up in huge numbers:

“Alongside and behind us are several batteries of French 75mm guns and farther behind are many French batteries of heavier guns and howitzers. I have never seen so many guns massed together. In one place they were lined up, wheel to wheel, resembling a wall of guns.”

And John Hughes, a Canadian officer, described one young soldier’s reaction to the mindboggling bloodshed:

"One lad in the car going to the CCS was very sick. He seemed to be trying to throw his insides out. We asked him where he was wounded. He said he was not wounded, only sick. 'I have killed so many men this day I am sick with the blood I have spilled. They came on in waves,' he said. 'We mowed them down. There was great pile of them in front of our machine guns. We had to fall back and get a new position. Again and again they came on. They died, oh how they died by the hundreds. Oh my God, I will never forget those dead,' and he was sick again."

Fighting raged on for several more days, however, and Lynch, the Australian private, described fighting near Dernancourt, about 10 miles east of Amiens, in his diary on April 2, 1918:

"My head is lying on the parapet now. I feel my body shake to each crushing shell. Dust and clods rain down everywhere. In front, a sea of mad, flaring shell bursts. I watch the railway embankment. A perfect rain of shells is on to it. A black length of railway line leaves the embankment and comes turning and screwing towards us, tossed by the shells. I can hear it humming through the air before it crashes 50 yards ahead. I’m watching the village. Our shells are crashing into it. It’s a mass of dust and collapsing walls. I catch the fleeting glance of forms running from a burning, tottering house … Now I am watching the railway embankment again. Two shells land together. Two black funnels of earth and smoke viciously kick upwards. Something spinning and turning in the dust cloud. A man—with neither head nor arms, flying high above the embankment. Still the barrage keeps on. Still the air is vibrant with the paralyzing roar of the crashing detonations of exploding shells."

To the south the Allies halted the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux, although the Germans came within seven miles of Amiens. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described crossing the former Somme battlefield on their way to join the German offensive in the south:

"Within a 60-kilometer radius there was hardly a house standing—nothing but rubble and ruins. The fields were covered with overgrown shell-holes. Between them were the crosses of the fallen. If you had not seen it yourself, you would not be able to form a picture of the damage … A bridge led across the river. It had been repaired by German engineers. To the west of the bridge, I could see the first dead English soldiers. From up ahead came the continuous thunder and boom of the artillery. On all our faces you could read a dread of the future. People call us ‘heroes,’ a wonderful name which seldom—and in a manner of speaking, never—reflects reality."

Conditions for ordinary soldiers were awful on both sides, with freezing rain and flooding trenches once again the norm. Hanson recorded their circumstances in his diary on April 4:

"We arrived back to find that our tarpaulin had been commandeered by the officers and that we poor Signallers were again shelterless during a night of torrential rain. Behind the ridge we made a roof of straw which kept off some of the rain, but did not prevent us becoming soaked to the skin … My mother would go insane if I told her about things like this. Hell cannot be much worse than this, for everything contrives to break our spirits. Personally I feel tonight that I don’t care which side wins the war."

By the time Operation Michael ended on April 5, the Eighteenth Army and Second Army had penetrated over 40 miles and captured over 1000 square miles of territory. The offensive caused 240,000 Allied casualties, including 90,000 taken prisoner—but Germany, which couldn’t afford to lose any more manpower, suffered just as much, with 250,000 casualties for the offensive.

Meanwhile the Allies agreed to the appointment of the French general Ferdinand Foch as supreme commander of the Allied forces, to better coordinate the Allied response to this and future offensives, and the top American commander, General Pershing, offered as many American troops as he could muster wherever the British and French needed them—an offer that was immediately accepted.

But Germany’s strength was far from spent. With Michael canceled, Ludendorff turned his attention to the next offensive, Operation Georgette—an attempt to smash the rest of the British Expeditionary Force in front of Ypres, already the scene of three horrific battles. The next blow would fall on April 9, 1918.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

15 Incredible Monuments That Honor American Soldiers

Getty
Getty

Memorial Day honors the brave men and women who have given their lives in the nation’s armed forces. One fitting way to recognize that sacrifice is to visit a monument dedicated to their service. Though many monuments honoring U.S. veterans are located in Washington, D.C. or Arlington, Virginia, there are memorial sites to visit around the world, each offering a beautiful and distinctive tribute.

1. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier // Arlington, Virginia

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington, Virginia
iStock/sharrocks

No one knows for sure which American soldier rests under the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. The unidentified soldier died in France while fighting a World War I battle, and his remains were interred at the site of the Washington, D.C. monument in 1921. The unidentified soldier was chosen to represent the many American soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. Engraved on the snow-white marble tomb are the words, “Here rests in honored glory, an American soldier known but to God.” Eventually, an unknown soldier from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were also interred (though the Vietnam soldier was eventually identified and moved by his family to a cemetery in St. Louis).

2. The National World War II Memorial // Washington, D.C.

National World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.
iStock/NoDeRog

The National World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004, honors the 16 million members of the U.S. armed forces who served during World War II, the more than 400,000 soldiers who died, and the civilians who worked at home to support the war effort. The entrance to the Washington, D.C. memorial features 24 bronze bas-relief panels illustrating how the war affected the lives of those who fought and those who waited for soldiers to return. A wall of more than 4000 gold stars pays tribute to the lives lost, and 56 granite columns noting U.S. states and territories, split into two-half circles, encompass a pool fitted with fountains.

3. The Korean War Veterans Memorial // Washington, D.C.

Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
iStock/Png-Studio

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is an outdoor monument located near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It commemorates the sacrifices of the 5.8 million Americans who served in the U.S. armed forces during the three-year Korean War. During that period 54,246 Americans died and 103,284 were wounded. The memorial is distinctive because of the 19 larger-than-life stainless steel statues of poncho-clad soldiers that occupy a triangular field, as well as for the black granite memorial wall covered in etchings of National Archives photos.

4. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial // Washington, D.C.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
iStock/vmbfoto

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial pays tribute to those soldiers who were killed or went missing in action during the Vietnam War. The memorial consists of three parts: The Memorial Wall, the bronze Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and The Three Soldiers statue. The wall is actually two walls that stretch almost 300 feet and contain 58,000 names, according to the date of casualty. The Women’s Memorial honors the 265,000 women who served, many of whom were nurses. The Three Soldiers shows the camaraderie between soldiers from different backgrounds while serving their tours of duty.

5. The Marine Corps Memorial // Arlington, Virginia

Marine Corps Memorial Iwo Jima Statue, Arlington, Virginia
iStock/FrozenShutter

The Marine Corps Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, does not pay tribute to a specific war but rather the dedication of Marine Corps members. The bronze statue at this monument may be the most famous and easily recognizable of all U.S. war memorials. It is modeled on a photograph of six soldiers who raised an American flag at Iwo Jima in 1945, an action that symbolized the end of World War II. The memorial is dedicated to the Marines lost in all U.S. wars, as well as those who served with them. The base of the memorial lists every major battle that Marines have fought in.

6. The National Memorial Arch // King of Prussia, Pennsylvania

National Memorial Arch, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
iStock/Delmas Lehman

The National Memorial Arch commemorates the difficult winter endured by General George Washington and his Revolutionary War forces when camped at Valley Forge. Paul Philippe Cret’s design for the 60-foot high arch was inspired by an arch built for the ancient Roman emperor Titus. Located in Valley Forge National Historical Park, the arch was dedicated in June 1917. Inscribed at the top is a quote from George Washington which refers to the winter his troops spent there: “Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery.”

7. The Air Force Memorial // Arlington, Virginia

Air Force Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
iStock/hillwoman2

The Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia honors the service not only of the men and women of the United States Air Force, but also the Aeronautical Division and Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps and all other aeronautics and air corps services. The memorial’s design evokes images of flight, and the stainless steel spires glisten on sunny days and are illuminated by individual light sources at night. At the west entrance, statues of two soldiers stand guard, symbolizing patriotism and power.

8. African American Civil War Memorial // Washington, D.C.

African American Civil War Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
Gareth Milner, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

During the Civil War, more than 200,000 African-American soldiers served in the United States Colored Troops. The African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. tells the story of these 19th-century heroes and commemorates their service with a bronze statue titled "The Spirit of Freedom." The memorial also includes a curved wall inscribed with the names of the men who fought in the war. The accompanying museum’s African American Civil War Memorial Registry documents the family trees of more than 2000 descendants of the people who served.

9. The Women in Military Service for America Memorial // Arlington, Virginia

Women in Military Service for America Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Women In Military Service For America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, honors the 3 million women who helped defend the nation during its almost 250-year history. The memorial honors their service with exhibits, film, and a Memorial Register, which preserves the stories of more than 258,000 women. The memorial features a neoclassical curved retaining wall, a reflecting pool, and an education center, where a roof of glass tablets is inscribed with quotes by and about the women who defended their country. The memorial was dedicated in 1997.

10. The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial // Washington, D.C.

American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
iStock/amedved

The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington D.C. is the first national memorial dedicated solely to disabled veterans. Leaving the battlefield alive did not mean the battle was over for many American servicemen and women—more than 4 million veterans have been injured in the line of duty, and those injuries can profoundly affect their post-service lives. The memorial's 48 etched-glass panels display the stories of these soldiers. At the center of the memorial, which opened in 2014, is a star-shaped fountain and triangular infinity pool, which constantly recycles water. A ceremonial flame stands at the core of the memorial that is located just east of the U.S. Capitol Building and the Botanic Gardens.

11. The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument // Brooklyn, New York

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Brooklyn, New York
iStock/Alex Potemkin

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument may not be one of the best known of the nation’s memorials, but it honors the 11,500 American prisoners of war who died aboard British war ships during the Revolutionary War. Some of the prisoners who died under the terrible shipboard conditions are buried underneath the monument. The monument’s granite Doric column was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, who designed both Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The 100-foot column stands in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and was dedicated in 1908.

12. Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial // Colleville-sur-Mer, France

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, France
iStock/Edward Haylan

Some impressive monuments to the service of America’s soldiers can also be found in other countries. France has a total of 11 cemeteries and monuments dedicated to the service of U.S. soldiers, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer is located on a bluff overlooking one of the Normandy beaches that U.S. troops landed on during the Normandy invasion. The 172.5-acre cemetery contains the graves of 9387 soldiers, many of whom lost their lives on D-Day. The memorial has a semicircular colonnade with a bronze statue in the center called the "Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves." A garden to the east features inscriptions of the names of 1557 soldiers who lost their lives during the Normandy campaign but could not be found or identified.

13. Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial // Margraten, Netherlands

The 65.5-acre Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial is located in Margraten on the route German troops used to retreat after U.S. forces liberated the Netherlands. The memorial features a tall tower facing a reflecting pool. At the base of the tower is a statue of a mourning woman that represents the losses suffered during war. Visitor buildings feature engraved military operations maps, a Court of Honor with a reflecting pool, and Tablets of the Missing, which has 1722 names. The burial area is the resting place for 8301 of the nation’s military members.

14. United Nations Memorial Park // Busan, South Korea

United Nations Memorial Park, Busan, South Korea
iStock/Im Yeongsik

The United Nations Memorial Park in the South Korean city of Busan was dedicated in 2013. The memorial park contains 2300 graves of service members from 11 countries. Altogether, 1.7 million U.S. military personnel served during the Korean War, and although 33,739 died in battle, most were reinterred in the United States. Only 36 graves of U.S. soldiers remain in Busan; the American monument on the site reads, “This monument is to the American men and women who gave their lives in defense of the freedom of the Republic of Korea 1950-1953.” The park’s main gate, dedicated in 1966, illustrates the concept of Earthly life growing toward heaven.

15. The Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial // Cambridge, UK

The Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial honors the service of U.S. soldiers in during World War II and was dedicated in 1956. Notable Americans buried or memorialized there include Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the older brother of President John F. Kennedy, and musician Glenn Miller. The curved cemetery has 3809 headstones, and the wide mall of reflecting pools has a chapel. A new visitor’s center, which opened in 2014, offers information about air campaigns carried out during the war, including two large marble maps laying out military plans.

Remains of World War II Soldier From Texas Finally Identified Nearly 75 Years After His Death

Lexey Swall/Getty Images
Lexey Swall/Getty Images

More than 400,000 American service members died in World War II, and decades after the war's end in 1945, more than 72,000 of them remain unaccounted for. As the Associated Press reports, the remains of one World War II soldier who died in battle 74 years ago were recently identified in a Belgian American cemetery.

Private first class army member John W. Hayes, originally from Estelline, Texas, was fighting for the Allied Powers in Belgium in early 1945. According to witnesses, he was killed by an 88mm gun on a German tank on January 4. The military recorded no evidence of his remains being recovered.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a government organization responsible for recovering missing soldiers, suspected that an unidentified body found near the site of Hayes's death and buried in 1948 might be Hayes. In 2018, the agency exhumed the body from a Belgian American military cemetery and analyzed the DNA. Tests confirmed that the grave had indeed been that of John W. Hayes. Now that Hayes has been identified, his body will be transported to Memphis, Texas, and reinterred there on June 19.

Thanks to advances in genetic technology, the government has successfully identified the dozens of World War II military members decades after their deaths. Recently, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency used DNA analysis to identify 186 of the sailors and marines who perished at Pearl Harbor.

[h/t MyHighPlains.com]

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