Mangin's Offensive

General Charles Mangin

As soon as the German Gneisenau Offensive had ground to a halt in June 1918 Marshall Foch, the Allied Commander in Chief, prepared to make his counter attack.

To lead it he summoned back to power General Mangin, who had been held in disgrace since the debacle on the Chemin des Dames and in which he had played a leading role.

Chemin des Dames Chemin des Dames

This was a move not without risk on Foch's part, but Mangin had a reputation for aggressiveness (leading to his nickname of The Butcher) and that was something the hour called for.

At 16:00 hours on 10 June Mangin was given command of the XXXV Corps plus five reserve Divisions. Suffering no delays from his commanders Mangin counter attacked along the Matz Valley at 10:30 hours the following morning. The French had some success but within 24 hours it was apparent that the German defences were for the moment to strong, and further attacks were called off.

Mangin however had made his mark and within a few days he was back in command of an Army - the 10th - made up of the I, XI, XX, and XXX Corps.

Within the ranks of the XX Corps were the 1st and 2nd US Divisions as well as the famed Moroccan Division - which itself included a Battalion of the Foreign Legion as well as the Russian Brigade, made up of Russian soldiers who had remained loyal to the Allied cause.

The decision was taken that Mangin would lead the counter attack on the morning of 18 July which must have kept the Germans waiting and wondering what had happened with their intelligence reports for an attack on the 14th July (The French National Holiday).

Between the 11th and 13th July Mangin's men had indeed made a few small thrusts to even up the line here and there but what the Germans did not realise was that in great secrecy the 10th Army was moving into the Forests of Retz and Villers-Cotterêts. The equivalent of 24 Divisions of Infantry, 1500 guns and more than 300 tanks. The night of the 17th was foul with a constant downpour of rain leaving the the soldiers still trying to get into position soaked through.

On the opposite side of the Château-Thierry salient General Degoutte's 6th Army was also readying itself for action.

Mangin's Observatory

Within the Forest of Retz and well sign posted from the N2 Route Nationale between Soissons and Villers-Cotterêts, you can find a monument at the position of Mangin's Observatory throughout the ensuing battle.

The XX Corps acted as the spearhead for the attack with the Moroccan Division in the centre and the Americans either side. The barrage opened up at 04:35 hours with the Infantry immediately following the creeping barrage. The surprise was complete and over the next few days the 10th Army made great gains before encountering heavier resistance as it pushed steadily on towards Soissons.

A monument near the village of Buzancy recalls the actions of the US 1st Division in the advance towards Soissons and of the heavy toll in casualties which they suffered.

US 1st Division Monument at Buzancy US 1st Division Monument at Buzancy

By 20 July Mangin's 10th Army was finding it hard going south of Soissons but crucially they had done enough to ensure that the vital rail link there was now untenable, and that even the reserve system was now under French bombardment. This in itself was one of the major reasons over the next few weeks which convinced the German High Command that they would have to evacuate the Château-Thierry salient.

With the Allies now counter attacking on a daily basis, Ludendorff found that his dream of launching the final hammer blow against the British was going to have to be put on hold and in all probability postponed indefinitely.

On 22 July two British Divisions arrived to carry out reliefs within the 10th Army. The 15th Division relieved the 1st US Division in the XX Corps, whilst the 34th Division relieved the French 38th Division in the XXX Corps.

The Official History recounts how the Americans left their Field Hospital behind for 4 days to assist the Highlanders, however, some lucky soldiers who wandered into French Medical ambulances found themselves recuperating in the south of France.

General Foch now ordered General Pétain to press on with all possible might against the western flank of the salient. However rather than just trying to push eastwards they were to push south eastwards in order to pre-empt any attempt at an orderly withdrawal similar to 1917 when the Germans had laid waste to the land.

The British were thrown into the battle immediately advancing towards Buzancy in the case of the Highlanders of the 15th Division and towards Grand Rozoy in the case of the 34th Division.

On 25 July Villemontoire was captured by the French 67th RI a regiment raised in Soissons. A monument commemorating this act by the local boys can be found on the edge of the village not far from the CWGC Raperie Cemetery.

Raperie Cemetery Raperie Cemetery
 

Buzancy 28 July 1918

By 28 July 1918 the 15th Division found themselves opposite and required to take the village and Château of Buzancy.

To try and allay German fears other villages in the general area had also been subjected to sudden bombardments for the preceding 18 hours. It was intended that by midday on the 28th the Germans would have become wearied from the constant alerts for attacks that never materialised.

The plan was for five companies of the French 91st RI to attack the wood and a stronghold south of Buzancy whilst the Scots would attack the village itself. The attack was fixed for 12:30 hours and 8th Bn Seaforth Highlanders and 1/5th Bn Gordon Highlanders would lead the assault.

Despite the lack of cover for the advancing soldiers the Château was soon taken, but the village proved to be a harder nut to crack and was reminiscent of some of hard slogs on the Somme in 1916.

Almost every house in France has its cellar and the Germans had swiftly turned each in Buzancy into strongholds requiring the Highlanders to fight their way through the streets, house by house, cellar by cellar. Engineers were used to detonate charges whilst a French flame-thrower team proved their value in clearing the buildings.

By 13:30 hours the Brigade had captured all of its objectives but on their right there was still no sign of the 91st RI. By 15:35 hours, word had got through to General Reed in command of the 15th Division that the 91st RI had been back by the strong point in front of it and could make no progress. This left the Highlanders in a precarious position.

German counter attacks and barrages were falling on them as they were forced to retire back across the open ground to prevent themselves being surrounded. Six hours after they had launched their heroic attack Highlanders found themselves back in their starting lines.

The Division counted the days fighting as one of the most gruelling it had ever undergone. No small words from a unit that had been in the thick of the fighting since the Battle of Loos in September 1915.

Before further plans to take the village could be formulated the 15th discovered that they were being moved to the right and swapping places with the French 87th Division.

A few days later following the German withdrawal and an Allied advance to the Vesle River, the 15th were finally brought out of the line and relieved by the French 17th Division. In writing to General Reed some weeks later General Gassouin wrote of his soldiers admiration for what the Highlanders had achieved at Buzancy, the evidence of their feat of arms being evident throughout the village. To this end he had requested his engineers to erect a small monument in honour of the gallant Scotsmen.

The monument was initially erected at the point to which the furthest fallen Highlander had fallen, however it has since been moved into the Buzancy Cemetery for safe keeping.

The inscription

In a simple statement the inscription reads:

Here the noble thistle of Scotland will flourish forever amongst the roses of France

17th French Division
to
15th (Scottish) Division

Buzancy Military Cemetery Buzancy Military Cemetery
 

Longpont

Having visited the Mangin Monument within the Forest if you return northwards along the main road (The N2) you will see almost immediately on your right the D2 Road towards Longpont.

Longpont Longpont
Forest of Retz Forest of Retz