Forest of Retz

1 September 1914

The Rear Guard action by the 4th (Guards) Brigade

At this moment in the war the British Army was still in the process of retiring in front of a numerically superior enemy, a retirement which had been taking place since the very first encounter at Mons.

Just north of Villers-Cotterêts within the Forest of Retz you will find the Guards' Grave Cemetery and a small monument dedicated to the men who fell here.

The 4th (Guards) Brigade was covering the retirement of the 2nd Division, with the Irish Guards and 2nd Coldstream, under Lt Colonel Hon George Morris of the Irish Guards in the front line and the 2nd Grenadiers and 3rd Coldstream in second line at Rond de la Reine. (This is actually the clearing just after the Cemetery and the site of the monument).

German advances forced the Guards back and they formed a line along the ridge which runs from left to right as you look up the hill with your back to the British Cemetery

The Guards' Grave The Guards' Grave

We are used to seeing photographs of desolate forests reduced to a few gnarled stumps, but of course in the early months of the war these forests were much as they are today with thick undergrowth and the fighting became highly confused.

The casualties for the Brigade were heavy with a loss of over 300 men and two platoons of the Grenadier Guards lost to the last man at the Rond de la Reine itself.

The small cemetery contains the graves of 98 Guardsmen including Lt Col Morris who was killed in this first major engagement of his regiment. The small monument on the bend was erected by the mother of 2Lt George Cecil of the Grenadier Guards.


The 2nd Battle of the Marne

On 21 March 1918 in a bid to win the war before the recently arrived American Army could make its full impact felt, The German Army launched a massive assault against the British 5th Army in the area of the Somme.

Initially the British lost all cohesion and collapsed against the battering blow, but little by little the German advance was slowed down and halted, but the Germans had retaken in days what the British had struggled to take for months.

This first offensive was halted on 6 April, but three days later on the 9th a second blow fell on the British in the Ypres salient.

The failure of these two hammer blows to crush the British once and for all placed Ludendorff in a dilemma. He was utterly convinced that if he could beat the British then the French would simply seek terms. To try, however, a third operation against the British along the Ypres salient would require an attack elsewhere against the French. This would keep both of the Allies guessing and prevent them from gathering their reserves.

To this end on 27 May 1918 Ludendorff launched Operation Blücher against the French positions on the Chemin des Dames, the scene of General Nivelle's crushing defeat the year before.

Chemin des Dames Chemin des Dames

At 01:00 hours more than 4 000 pieces of German artillery opened up on along a 30 kilometre front against the French 6th Army. It is reckoned that over the next three hours two million shells fell on the French targets, neutralising their artillery and impeding the possibility of launching any form of counter attack.

General Duchêne, the commander of the 6th Army had flaunted General Pétain's orders to form a defence in depth and had his major units not only up front but on the German side of the River Aisne.

The result was a swift advance for the Germans and a shattered defence for the French. By the end of the month the Germans had punctured the French lines by up to 50 kilometres creating a salient around Château-Thierry. On 9 June Duchêne was relieved of his command and replaced by General Degoutte.

On 4 June the German advance was finally brought to a halt and with the aid of the American forces coming into the front lines counter attacks were launched

The Americans at Belleau Wood The Americans at Belleau Wood

To the west near Noyon it became evident to the French that another assault was about to be made. Prisoners revealed that it would take place on 9 June against the French 3rd Army. This time the French Generals had their defence well laid out with lightly held forward positions with reserves ready to lead counter offensives once the right moment had been ascertained. The German Gneisenau Offensive was launched just after midnight and the French retreated before it for some kilometres.

The advance however did not make spectacular gains as the others before it had done, and Marshall Foch, the Allied Commander in Chief, was ready to make his counter attack.

Mangin's Offensive Mangin's Offensive