The Second Battle of the Marne.
The Second Battle of the Marne. Michael S. Neiberg, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2008, 217 pages.
The Second Battle of the Marne moves our understanding of the pivotal World War ! battle forward in ways that should particularly appeal to logisticians.
The preparations for offensive actions in France crippled the operations as much as they helped. The massive artillery preparations that preceded an infantry attack caused so much damage in the immediate battle area that moving forces forward across the battle zone became problematic. Furthermore, transportation infrastructures had matured behind the battle area, making the rapid movement of enemy reserves to the threatened area relatively simple. Every threatened penetration "breakthrough" or the lesser "break in" could therefore be easily thwarted.
The German Spring Offensive of 1918 wilted in part from a dwindling ability to sustain the forces at the forward edge. Studies of the beginning of World War I discuss the centrality of the German railway system to the German Army's efficient mobilization. Broader studies note the importance of the expanded Russian railway system's contribution to Russia's unexpectedly rapid entry into the war.
Few studies have dwelt on the French railway system other than to note that everything ran through Paris. However, Michael S. Neiberg suggests in The Second Battle of the Marne that the French were as adept as the Germans at moving forces laterally along the front. The French rail system delivered men to points close to their tactical sectors almost all the time. Standard interpretations of the battle still hold true. Neiberg, however, expands on the strengths of French logistics.
Moving from a consideration of railroads, Neiberg calls the reader's attention to the critical role of "French industry ... [which] performed truly amazing feats to supply French soldiers with new weapons." (He could have addressed the critical role French supplies played in equipping American Soldiers.) Nieberg then proceeds to detail French tank and aircraft production.
Noting the strength of the artillery assigned to each division, he points to the emergence of an artillery reserve topping 11,000 guns--half of which were heavy-caliber weapons. This reserve belonged to an Army whose main prewar assets were infantry soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets.
As the Germans pushed their offensives forward, they inevitably formed salients. The Germans' capture of the key road and railroad center of Soissons enabled them to sustain the 40-odd divisions holding the Marne salient, but Soissons was near the western shoulder of the line. Neiberg argues that further German success demanded the seizure of Reims because sustainment capabilities through Soissons were barely adequate to support the force required to hold the salient. (As I wrote in Soissons 1918, the vulnerability of Soissons was a major factor in what became the opening move of the Allied Aisne-Marne offensive, the beginning of the second battle of the Marne.) The Germans had to either abandon the route or open the only other available route through Reims. French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch saw that vulnerability and began planning to attack it at the first opportunity. This, Foch divined, meant the capture of three rail centers: Reims, Epernay, and Chalons.
Neiberg argues that while Paris became a German objective later, the Germans understood that the seizure of this rail network was crucial to anything else they might want to consider. Nieberg writes, "Before the Germans could hope for a big victory, they had to improve their supply arrangements." This rail network, not Paris, he argues, was the immediate objective. Without it, Paris was unobtainable.
The rail network should not be viewed as the single cause and single solution to the search for mobility and victory on the Western Front, but Neiberg's presentation is the most logistically focused presentation to appear in many years. The Second Battle of the Marne persuasively shows that logistics considerations trumped all others in this closing campaign on the Western Front. This book is also a good companion to studies of the final campaigns in Palestine and Mesopotamia.
DOUGLAS V. JOHNSON IS A PROFESSOR OF NATIONAL SECURITY AFFAIRS AT THE ARMY WAR COLLEGE STRATEGIC STUDIES INSTITUTE AT CARLISLE BARRACKS, PENNSYLVANIA.