How 3rd Infantry Division became the "Rock of the Marne"

By Pfc. Dustin StarkDecember 5, 2023

History of the Second Battle of Marne
A memorial commemorating the 3rd Infantry Division’s participation in World War I hangs inside the division’s headquarters at Fort Stewart, Georgia, July 15, 2022. Soldiers assigned to 3rd ID were tasked with halting a German advance along the Marne River during the Second Battle of the Marne July 15, 1918, where the division earned its nickname “Rock of the Marne.” (Photo Credit: U.S Army photo by Pfc. Dustin Stark, 50th Public Affairs Detachment) VIEW ORIGINAL

By early 1918, World War I was slogging along as a back and forth battle between the Allies and the Germans. Germany's military was proving its strength and was able to strangle the failing Russian Empire to the point where an armistice negotiation was required. Germany was also dangerously close to capturing Italy and taking the city of Venice.

However, by Spring of 1918, Germany’s momentum had begun to slow, even as Great Britain and France found themselves struggling to defend against German aggression. In the hope of reinvigorating their slowing campaign, Germany's military leaders made the decision to launch three different military offensives between the months of March and June. Great Britain and France needed an ally if they hoped to stop the German offensives. In late May, the 3rd Infantry Division deployed their troops to France to assist their beleaguered allies with the hopes of turning back the ferocious German fighting force. The 3rd ID’s historic fight against the German Army changed the course of the war and led to the Allied Forces’ victory.

In order to understand the heroic stand that the 3rd ID would make with their French and British allies, one must look a little further back. In March of 1918, the British Army had positioned troops along the Champagne region of France, planning for a German invasion. British scouts soon noticed an unusual amount of military traffic around the French city of Arras. Arras was a huge objective for the German Army as the city allowed easy access to key French ports and could serve as a staging point for an attack on Paris, a key objective for the Germany Army. If they could control the capital city of France, it wouldn’t take much to put the rest of France under German control. On March 21, a German force led by Gen. Erich Ludendorff, the commanding general of the German Army, commenced the assault on Arras, known as “Operation Michael.” The battle lasted 15 days and was successful for German forces at the time. Their military was able to take over almost 3,000 kilometers of French territory, however Allied forces led by the British Expeditionary Force were able to complicate German logistics and strategic success.

Germany’s next objective was to take over the city of Hazebrouck. Located in what was known as the Plain of Flanders, Hazebrouck was a pivotal city that provided easy transportation, having railways all throughout France. Germany viewed taking control of this city as a necessity as it would allow easy transport of materials to their forces, while also limiting ways the Allies were able to receive supplies. Germany's first objective was to take control of the Plain of Flanders in order to push Allied forces away from the region. In April, the Germans attacked the city of Ypres in Belgium, in what was known as “Operation Georgette.” This was a tremendously complex fight, and many proxy battles would commence along the Lys River. During this battle, the German forces were able to penetrate through Allied lines, but ultimately failed to meet their desired objective by late April due to inclement weather. In comparison to their previous offensive, Germany was only able to take 16 kilometers of French territory.

After this failed attempt, German forces abandoned the idea of attacking Paris from the north, as they perceived the deterrence from the Allies to be too strong. The Allies were soon able to catch onto Germany's next plot as it seemed most of the German assaults were centered around rivers leading up to Paris. The Germans’ next attack took place on May 27 alongside the Aisne River. This was Germany’s third offensive, which was given the codename “Blucher-Yorck.” Several battles would take place along the Aisne River resulting in the Germans taking 2,300 square kilometers of land from the French and coming within nearly 60 kilometers of Paris. At the time, though, Germany was not able to continue their advance any further due to exhaustion and lack of supplies.

With assaults along the Aisne River failing, the Germans had to push their attacks further south. Ludendorff was running out of ideas and new opportunities fast. The only conclusion Ludendorff could come to as a last resort was to push toward Paris by taking control over the Marne River. June 9 would commence Germany's final offensive, which was codenamed “Gneisenau.” By this point in the war, Germany had taken control of the area known as Belleau Wood, near the Marne River. Although the area had little-to-no strategic advantage, it was still considered a stepping stone toward their final objective. Before the German forces were able to march toward Paris, they were met by American forces attempting to take back the occupied area, which the Americans did win back at a cost of around 5,000 Soldiers.

Ludendorff still had his heart set on taking Paris by means of marching up the Marne River. He knew that Allied forces would be positioned along the river, so he drew up a plan, which consisted of staging several attacks throughout France with the hope that the Allies would reposition their forces away from the river. On July 15, the plan commenced with an attack on the city of Reims. Initially seeing the early signs of success, Ludendorff was not aware that the 3rd ID was camping out at the river while French forces went to Reims to bolster their forces there. This would be a turning point in the war.

With nearly twice the personnel in the region than their enemies, the German forces could still counter the Allied forces in Reims, but French troops obliterated German forces in the area while taking little damage amongst their ranks. As this staged attack went on, German units were working their way up the Marne River, until they encountered the 3rd ID.

A frenzied fight, known as the Second Battle of the Marne, ensued with 3rd ID holding their ground against an overwhelming German force. Despite throwing tremendous assets at the Allies in this region, the German Army’s only success was capturing the city of Mezy, which lies along the Marne River. However, by July 17, the Allied forces were able to seize back the city before the enemy could advance into Paris.

The Germans final push for control of the region took place July 18, when the Germans began their attack on the city of Chateau-Thierry, a strategic stronghold that the Germans had eyes for throughout the war. The city was in close proximity to their previous objective, Reim. The German's plan was to approach Chateau-Thierry from Argonne Forest. This was viewed as an easy win for Germany because they believed that Allied resources were limited and the majority of their forces were in the back of the battle area helping out with defense measures. However, the Allies weren’t there just to defend and realized that a strong offense was the only way to drive German forces out of France. Before Germany could carry out their plan, the Allies launched a series of offensives. Although the Germans were able to reach the French city, they again encountered the 3rd ID. The battle, and the last hope for German victory, only lasted a day and resulted in a devastating loss for the German war effort. This was a major success for Americans and the Allies as German forces were pushed away from the area of the Marne River.

The 3rd ID proved to be a cornerstone of the defense of the Marne River and the entire region. The division’s valiant stand against a large German force marked a turning point in the war. This proved to be the last time the German Army was on the offensive during World War I. As a result of their heroics during this battle, 3rd ID troops came to be known as the “Rock of the Marne” and their motto “Nous Resterons Là” (We Shall Remain Here) was cemented.

By November 1918, World War I was over. Germany never reached Paris. The courageous acts from the Dogface Soldiers would live on in history and the division is still known as the “Rock of the Marne.”