16/4/1917 The disappointing first day of Nivelle’s offensive

Today is the day of Nivelle‘s great offensive in the Chemin des Dames sector. Hopes are high that the French troops will be able to smash through the German lines. The enemy has been battered by artillery and British attacks at Arras should have drawn away much of their reserves. The French infantry are now to advance behind a creeping barrage. And they will be supported by tanks, deployed by the French for the first time.

Nivelle is so confident of great success today that his men’s first day targets are some 8 or 9 kilometres behind the German front line. His men are expected to advance at a rate of 2 kilometres an hour and are carrying three days worth of rations. The tanks are loaded with vast quantities of petrol so that they can keep moving forwards.

However, the battle does not go as well as hoped. The Germans have heavily defended the sector in anticipation of the French attack. A strong deployment of German fighter planes makes it difficult for French aircraft to successfully spot artillery targets. And the weather is appalling, cold and wet. The tanks underperform, initially outpacing their infantry supports but then showing a worrying tendency to catch fire; by the end of the day almost all of them have been destroyed or stuck in mud.

By the standards of Western Front battles, the assault is still remarkably successful in terms of ground gained. In some areas the French advance as much as 5 kilometres. But they fail to completely break through the German lines and suffer ruinous casualties. Given Nivelle’s claims that this would be the assault that wins the war, the results are gravely disappointing. Nevertheless, he orders that the attacks continue in the hope that over the next few days his men will achieve their breakthrough.

image sources:

French St Chamond tank (Wikipedia)

German troops under attack (Dinge and Goete, Things and Stuff) this may be a staged photograph

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