The Third Battle of the Aisne was a battle of the German Spring Offensive during World War I that focused on capturing the Chemin des Dames Ridge before the American Expeditionary Forces arrived completely in France. It was one of a series of offensives, known as the Kaiserschlacht, launched by the Germans in the spring and summer of 1918.
The massive surprise attack (named Blücher-Yorck after two Prussian generals of the Napoleonic Wars) lasted from 27 May until 4 June 1918 and was the first full-scale German offensive following the Lys Offensive in Flanders in April.
The Germans held the Chemin des Dames Ridge from the First Battle of the Aisne in September 1914 to 1917, when General Mangin captured it during the Second Battle of the Aisne (in the Nivelle Offensive).
Operation Blücher-Yorck was planned primarily by Erich Ludendorff, who was certain that success at the Aisne would lead the German armies to within striking distance of Paris. Ludendorff, who saw the British Expeditionary Force as the main threat, believed that this, in turn, would cause the Allies to move forces from Flanders to help defend the French capital, allowing the Germans to continue their Flanders offensive with greater ease. Thus, the Aisne drive was to be essentially a large diversionary attack.
The defense of the Aisne area was in the hands of General Denis Auguste Duchêne, commander of the French Sixth Army. In addition, four divisions of the British IX Corps, led by Lieutenant-General Sir Alexander Hamilton-Gordon, held the Chemin des Dames Ridge; they had been posted there to rest and refit after surviving the “Michael” battle. One of the Battalions within the British IX Corps was the 4th Yorkshire Regiment, and with it, 20 year old Mark Wildon.
On the morning of 27 May 1918, the Germans began a bombardment (Feuerwalze) of the Allied front lines with over 4,000 artillery pieces. The British suffered heavy losses, because Duchene was reluctant to abandon the Chemin des Dames ridge, after it had been captured at such cost the previous year, and had ordered them to mass together in the front trenches, in defiance of instructions from the French Commander-in-Chief Henri-Philippe Petain. Huddled together, they made easy artillery targets.
The bombardment was followed by a poison gas drop. Once the gas had lifted, the main infantry assault by 17 German Sturmtruppen divisions commenced, part of an Army Group nominally commanded by Crown Prince Wilhelm, the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser came to inspect the progress of the battle. He interviewed captured British Brigadier-General Hubert Rees (GOC 150th Brigade, part of 50th Division). The Kaiser was amused to learn that he was Welsh, the same nationality as Lloyd George.
Taken completely by surprise and with their defences spread thin, the Allies were unable to stop the attack and the German army advanced through a 40 kilometres (25 mi) gap in the Allied lines. Reaching the Aisne in under six hours, the Germans smashed through eight Allied divisions on a line between Reims and Soissons, pushing the Allies back to the river Vesle and gaining an extra 15 km of territory by nightfall.
27th May: Enemy bombardment started about 1am 27th May. Heavy gas shelling as far back as Maizy. The enemy broke through on our left and pushed on towards Beaurieux arriving there about 10am. The enemy also came through on our right using tanks over the flat country to the east of Craonne, this party also pushed on towards Beaurieux and surrounded the brigade in the line. The enemy then pushed on towards Maizy. All troops in Maizy and the few who had got out of Beaurieux then made a stand on the hills to the south of the village. At about 11.15am these korps were withdrawn from this position, the next position was held at Glennes and later a line on the hill north of Fismes.
28th May: About 4am the enemy broke through the left and the party withdrew with the French on to Fismes. This party, after using all ammunition were then told to report to Division HQs near Arcis-le-Ponsart. They rested for the night at Div HQ.
4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment War Diary
Victory seemed near for the Germans, who had captured just over 50,000 Allied soldiers and over 800 guns by 30 May 1918. Over the next two days the 4th Battalion further retreated from the German army, first to Romigny and then to Bligny and Champlat. But advancing within 56 kilometres (35 mi) of Paris on 3 June, the German armies were beset by numerous problems, including supply shortages, fatigue, lack of reserves and many casualties.
On 6 June 1918, following many successful Allied counter-attacks, the German advance halted on the Marne, much as the “Michael” and “Georgette” offensives had in March and April of that year.
The French had suffered over 98,000 casualties and the British around 29,000. German losses were nearly as great, if not slightly heavier. Duchene was sacked by French Commander-in-Chief Philippe Petain for his poor handling of the British and French troops.
We cannot know for sure how or when Mark Wildon was taken Prisoner, though perhaps it was during this battle or the lead up to it. At the beginning of operation Michael in March there were 168 men reported as missing and in April the number was 115. What we do know for sure however is that at some point before the end of the war he found his way to Langensalza Prison Camp, over 500km from the Western Front, deep within Germany.