The Second Battle of the Marne
By Michael S. Neiberg. 217 pp. Indiana University Press, 2008 $27.95
Michael S. Neiberg, a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, is emerging as a leading scholar of World War I. Having written two previous books on the war, he recognized the need for a new scholarly work on the Second Battle of the Marne. In this breezy narrative overview, Neiberg demonstrates quite ably that the Second Marne, fought in July and August 1918, was the turning point leading to Allied victory in the war. He also confronts—and punctures—the popular myth that the French army was fought out, demoralized, and ineffective by 1918. In reality, the morale of the French soldiers was surprisingly high by the war’s fifth year, and it contributed much toward the Allied victory at the Marne.
Neiberg argues that the perception of the French army’s ineffectiveness owes more to its failures in 1940 than in 1918. He also emphasizes the multinational character, on the Allied side, of this great battle. British, French, and, most famously, American soldiers all contributed much to victory. Neiberg shows that the Germans really had little chance for success at the Marne in 1918, partially because they could not agree on the ultimate purpose of their offensive.
Neiberg devotes nearly half his pages to explaining the strategic situation in Europe as of 1918. He includes plenty of background information, almost to the point of distraction, on pre- 1918 battles. The rest of the book is a basic chronological narrative of the battle, mainly from the high command point of view, with a special, largely admiring emphasis on Gen. Ferdinand Foch, the subject of a previous Neiberg book.
The combat realities for the average soldier are generally absent from Neiberg’s chapters although, to be fair, he does draw from a few firsthand, frontline accounts to convey the horror of the fighting. These passages are by far his most compelling. As Neiberg himself admits, however, his is far from the last word on the subject, and the reader is left with a sense that his consultation of primary sources—archival soldier accounts, unit records, and generals’ correspondence—could have served to further humanize and enrich the story.
Overall, his rehabilitation of the French army, and his thoughtful analysis of the strategic factors facing key participants in 1918, comprise an important contribution to our understanding of World War I.
Originally published in the Autumn 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.