6/5/1918 Ludendorff ponders his next move #1918Live

Ludendorff‘s first two phases of his spring offensive have battered the Allies, particularly the British, but they have not broken them. And the offensives have been costly for the Germans, who have lost many of their elite stormtroopers. The numerical advantage nevertheless remains with the Germans, whose numbers have been buttressed by men brought from the Eastern Front since the peace with Russia. But this advantage will not last forever: there are now some 430,000 American troops in France and more arriving every day.

Ludendorff knows that he has to defeat the Allies soon before the balance of forces shifts decisively against him. But where should he attack? He still sees the British as the more vulnerable of his enemies. In Flanders they lack strategic depth: a breakthrough here could throw them into the sea. But thanks to Ludendorff’s recently concluded Georgette offensive Flanders is awash with Allied troops, with French soldiers reinforcing the British. Another attack in Flanders now would just turn into an attritional bloodbath, something Ludendorff needs to avoid at all costs.

Nevertheless, Ludendorff is fixated on Flanders: an offensive here offers his best chance to destroy the British. But first his men will stage diversionary attacks further south against the French in the Chemin des Dames sector, site of the disastrous French offensive last year. These limited attacks will draw the French down there, after which the main blow will hit the British in Flanders.

This means that for now there will be a lull, as it will take a few weeks for the Germans to get their men and guns in place to attack in the Chemin des Dames. In that lull the Allies will just have to wait nervously as they wonder where the blow will fall.

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map (Mental Floss WWI Centennial: “With Our Backs To The Wall”)

27/10/1917 La Malmaison: a French offensive on the Chemin des Dames #1917Live

The main Allied effort on the Western Front is taking place at Ypres, where British-led forces are battling the Germans and mud. The French are playing a supporting role in that battle, but they are also carrying out their own offensives elsewhere. In the Chemin des Dames sector over the last few days they have been carrying out a local offensive with limited objectives. Advancing behind a creeping barrage, French troops managed to seize the German-held village of La Malmaison, despite the failure of many of their tanks in the soft ground. German counter-attacks have failed to dislodge the French, who have been able to advance further in the following days. French casualties were not light but appear to have been greatly exceeded by those of the enemy.

For the French commanders this limited success is a further indication that the dark days of the mutinies are now behind the French army. For the Germans meanwhile the battle is disconcerting. They begin to plan a withdrawal to more readily defended positions. Ludendorff also decides that the aggressive French posture means that it would be foolhardy for him to send more men to exploit the recent successes at Caporetto on the Italian front.

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French troops after the battle (La Croix: 1917 Année cruelle, année charnière)

map (Wikipedia: Battle of La Malmaison)

9/5/1917 Nivelle sacked, his offensive halted, the French army in danger of collapse

Nivelle had promised that his offensive in the Chemin des Dames would give France a decisive victory, one that would bring the end of the war into sight. Instead the battle has been a bloodbath, with the French suffering some 187,000 casualties in the battle to date. German losses in this short battle have also been astonishingly high at 167,000.

The Germans have taken their losses while holding the line against French attacks. French losses have resulted from futile attempts to break through the enemy lines. Nivelle’s promises of easy victory grate on men who feel they are being sent to their deaths for no purpose.

Disorder and indiscipline are spreading through the French army. Units are refusing to move up to the front. Others have arrived at the front drunk and without their weapons. Men are deserting and refusing to obey orders. Some units have elected councils, ominously similar to the Soviets that have spread through the Russian army.

For now soldiers are not attacking their own officers or refusing to defend positions against the Germans, but the fear of the army commanders and the politicians is that the army is now at the brink of a complete collapse. Nivelle’s offensive is brought to a final halt. Nivelle himself is hustled out of his job as commander on the Western Front. His replacement is Pétain, who led the defence of Verdun in the early stages of the battle last year. The hope is that he will be able to restore the fighting spirit of the army and once more save France.

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French soldiers (Dying Splendor of the Old World)

20/4/1917 The failure of Nivelle’s offensive

Nivelle‘s great offensive in the Chemin des Dames sector has failed. The French have made gains of up to 7 kilometres in some areas since the battle’s start, extremely impressive by Western Front standards, but they have taken enormous numbers of casualties and failed to break through the enemy lines. Nivelle had promised an easy victory that would smash the Germans so badly that it would bring the end of the war into sight, so modest gains paid for by unexpectedly high casualties are a great disappointment.

Today a shortage of ammunition forces a temporary halt to French offensive efforts. Privately Nivelle admits that a breakthrough will not be achieved. French goals now are limited to securing the gains that have been achieved.

As a result of Nivelle’s failure, France’s allies are being called upon to increase the pressure on the enemy. The British will have to restart their offensive at Arras, originally intended solely to divert German attentions away from the Chemin des Dames. And in Italy, Cadorna finds himself being urged to bring forward his next offensive against the Austro-Hungarians on the Isonzo.

17/4/1917 As the Nivelle Offensive continues, the cracks start to show in the French army

Nivelle’s offensive in the Chemin des Dames sector continues. Nivelle himself may still be confident that the offensive will break through the German lines but the battle is increasingly being seen as a disaster by everyone else. Nivelle and his staff predicted at most 15,000 French casualties in the entire battle but his army has already suffered several times more losses than that. Medical services are being completely overwhelmed.

Nivelle may have assumed that his men could bear any losses and continue with the battle. But now there are signs that this might not be the case. Men marching to the front bleat like sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse, with occasional shouts against the war and the army’s leadership being heard. Desertions and incidents of petty insubordinations increase markedly. Nivelle had promised an easy victory. The bloody failure to deliver it could be the anvil on which the French army breaks.

image source (Charter for Compassion)

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.

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French St Chamond tank (Wikipedia)

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

6/4/1917 Nivelle insists that his offensive goes ahead

It had been agreed that the Allies would attack the Germans and Austro-Hungarians more or less simultaneously in an attempt to overwhelm them. Britain is scheduled to attack shortly at Arras as prelude to the main French offensive in the Chemin des Dames sector later in the month. However, the Italians are not yet ready for another attack on the Isonzo and the Russians will not be able to attack until the summer (with the recent revolution raising doubts as to whether they will be able to attack at all).

Meanwhile, on the Western Front the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line has raised doubts as to the desirability of a major offensive there. The German withdrawal to a shorter line means they have more reserves with which to meet any offensive and the French will also find themselves up against the Germans’ prepared positions. Some wonder whether the Chemin des Dames offensive remains feasible.

One person who remains convinced of the need for an offensive is Nivelle, France’s Western Front commander. He makes the point forcefully today in a meeting with President Poincaré and Painlevé, Minister for War. The Germans must be attacked before they complete further strategic withdrawals. The French must attack to show their allies what they are capable of. He remains confident that his assault will be able to smash through the German lines and bring the war to an end.

Nivelle threatens to resign if the offensive is called off. This would cause political chaos, so the politicians let him have his way. France will attack.

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Robert Nivelle (Valour Canada)