In July of 1918 the Germans were to launch a last offensive in the Champagne. It was to start at 4:15am on the morning of the 15th of July along a 90km long front stretching from Chateau Thierry to the Main de Massiges. The 300 000 attackers would outnumber the defenders 3:1.
An overview of this offensive with a useful map can be found HERE
Petain had been able to persuade General Gouraud, commander of the 4. Armee, to adopt a new defensive strategy, an elastic form of defence that had similarities to the system used by the Germans in the spring of 1917.
It was a strategy that would have been unthinkable in the preceding years. Petain proposed to abandon the front line a few hours before the enemy attacked, giving up French soil that had cost rivers of blood to defend. He would pull his troops back approximately 3kms to create a line of defence. This way the enemy bombardment would fall on empty lines of trenches and the defending infantry would be fresh and ready for battle.
Right: Adjudant Charles Chedeville volunteered to lead a machine gun section in no mans land
Between the original front line and the new line of defence strong points would be built and manned largely by volunteers. Their job would be to report on the enemies advance, but most importantly, to disrupt the enemy infantries advance, to channel them into corridors where they would be engaged by the French artillery and to delay then so they could no longer advance under the cover of the German rolling barrage. These strong points were considered to be "Write off's" and the saps and trenches leading to the rear were to be gassed to avoid them being used by the Germans as shelters.
On the 14th of July in a raid on the Monts de Moronvilliers 27 German prisoners were taken, some of whom confirmed the date of the coming attack. On the night of the 14th the French infantry quietly left their positions and occupied the new defensive line 3km's to the rear.
It is impossible to imagine the thoughts of the men in the strong points as they watched their comrades march to the rear. The handshakes as old friends parted with empty promises to meet for a beer when the battle was over. The rueful glances as soldiers accepted last letters home from those who were to stay in place..."Just in case...". Then the eerie silence as the men checked their weapons and gas masks one last time before squatting down for a last smoke or swig of wine or spirits as they contemplated the coming storm.
An hour before the German artillery started their bombardment Gouraud´s artillery struck pre-emptively. Explosive shells on the German gun positions, gas on the infantry assembly points.
At 4.15am the German infantry attacked. Arriving at their objective they were surprised to find the trenches empty, their magnificent bombardment had been wasted. As the bombardment rolled forward they chased after it... The French artillery laid a heavy barrage behind them, cutting off their retreat.
By this time the rifles and machine guns from the strong points were firing into the German columns disrupting their advance.
The Iron Cross award document of Emil Stössel, a machine gunner in the Lehr Infanterie Regiment. As part of the 3. Garde Infanterie Division it attacked in the sector where Chedeville was defending.
Trapped between two barrages, in a sea of barbed wire that channelled them into killing zones where machine guns mowed then down it took the attackers three hours to reach the main line of resistance. Once there the attack collapsed, the men were too exhausted to continue, the French artillery was combing the battlefield while the shelters were filled with gas. Isolated groups of French infantry added to the confusion as the men from strong points that been overrun or whose machine gun ammunition fought their way back to the main line of resistance, attacking the stranded German infantry from the rear.
Gouraud had sacrificed 5000 men but von Einem had lost close to 40 000. The effect on the morale of the German soldiers should not be underestimated. The divisions that had attacked had been some of the finest assault divisions in the German army. The toehold they had taken on the 15th was retaken by the French the next day.
Chederville and his men fired until their machine gun ammunition ran out, then fought their way back to the French main line of resistence.
His Croix de Guerre citation reads:
Chedeville Charles, Adjutant 2nd machine gun company. Commanded a machine gun section at the moment of the German attack on the 15th of July 1915. Put up a dogged resistance, rallied dispersed elements and led his section outside the trench line to fight their way through the Germans who were encircling them.
Signed on the 2nd of My 1919 by Colonel de Benoist, Commander of the 101eme R.I.
He was later awarded the Medaille Militaire for his part in the action. The citation reads:
"An ex administrative NCO, he requested the command of a machine gun section which he then led with superb élan and boundless energy. During the enemy attack on the 15th of July 1915 he fought doggedly and fiercely, firing over 20 000 rounds with his two machine guns. He then collected the remains of other combat groups around him and using revolvers and carbines they fought their way through waves of attackers to rejoin their lines."
Above: A special print Iron Cross award document to Unteroffizier Fritz Becker, 10. Kompagnie Lehr Infanterie Regiment. It was awarded on the 1st of August, for the Rheims offensive.