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)

26/10/1917 Canadians take their turn being killed at Passchendaele #1917Live

At Ypres, a recent British and ANZAC attempt to advance on Passchendaele has failed. Now the Allies attack again. The British and the antipodeans have been so battered by previous efforts that now it falls to the Canadians to take the leading role. But the Canadians are no more able to advance on Passchendaele than their predecessors. Even without the guns of the Germans, it has become extremely difficult to move across the water-sodden battlefield and the attacks make minimal progress.

An attack by Belgian and French forces to the north of the Ypres salient is somewhat more successful. The Germans are pushed back and several of their pillbox defensive positions captured. The Belgians and French prepare to push on tomorrow. The Canadians and British meanwhile lick their wounds and plan to renew their advance on Passchendaele in the near future.

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Mud (Copwick: images of Poelcapelle and the Passchendaele battle site)

9/10/1917 Poelcapelle: an Allied attack at Ypres fails #1917Live

The latest attack at Ypres takes place today, an attempt to further extend the Allied position with Poelcapelle at the centre of their crosshairs. The last few attacks have been relatively successful, with ground gained and significant casualties inflicted on the Germans (albeit also at considerable cost to the Allies).

Good weather played a significant role in previous successes. Now however the weather has broken. British airmen find it harder to observe and guide down artillery on German positions. The infantry find if extremely difficult to move forward across an increasingly muddy battlefield. Mud also makes it difficult to keep the guns firing. And the tanks find themselves unable to manoeuvre in the morass into which they are to advance.

The result is that the British and their Commonwealth allies suffer terrible casualties and make almost no gains. The only real success today happens on the British flank, where French troops trudge through the mud behind a slowly creeping barrage, achieving their limited objectives with relatively few casualties. Overall this is a day of failure, though British commanders may at least take some satisfaction from the knowledge that the Germans too have suffered great losses in containing the attack.

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Mud (Copwick: images of Poelcapelle and the Passchendaele battle site)

26/8/1917 French gains at Verdun

French troops have been attacking at Verdun, looking to recover ground seized by the Germans in the terrible battle last year. The fighting has been tough and the gains modest, but the French have recaptured Mort Homme and Côte 304, both scenes of carnage in 1916.

In the fighting since the 20th, the French have captured a large number of German prisoners (some reports say around 10,000) but have also suffered a great number of casualties themselves. However the willingness of the French troops to endure these losses suggests that Pétain‘s efforts to revitalise the French army after this year’s mutinies are paying off.

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Verdun, Félix Vallotton (Wikipedia: Félix Vallotton)

map (Wikipedia: the Battle of Verdun)

20/8/1917 Return to Verdun: France recaptures the Mort Homme #1917Live

The French army has been wracked by unrest since the failure of Nivelle’s offensive in April. Since he took over from Nivelle, Pétain has tried to restore order in the French army by punishing the ringleaders of mutinies but also attempting to address the grievances of soldiers: providing them with more leave, better food, an improved wine ration and generally moving towards treating them with the kind of respect that citizens of a republic should expect from the state.

Pétain has also promised that his men’s lives will not be thrown away on futile large scale offensives. He has said that major attacks by French forces on the Western Front should wait until the arrival of large numbers of American troops and the production of enough tanks to spearhead any assault. But in the meantime French troops have started engaging in more limited offensive action. French troops have taken part in the mainly British offensive in Flanders, where their performance suggests that Pétain’s efforts to restore the army’s fighting spirit are paying off.

Now the French stage another local attack, back at Verdun where Pétain first came to prominence. By the end of the battle last year, the French had recovered much of the ground lost in the initial German offensive. Now the French attack again, hoping to recover some more. After several days bombardment, today the infantry attack. The going is not easy for them, as they are attacking strongly fortified positions and the Germans respond to their attacks with their new mustard gas. Nevertheless, in savage fighting French and Moroccan troops capture the Mort Homme (Dead Man Hill), scene of desperate combat last year. French casualties are not light; nor are those of the enemy.

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map (Graphic Firing Table – Decisive Battles: Verdun 1916)

Postcard of French soldier relaxing with friend (Metropostcard – Belligerents and Participants in World War One: the Republic of France  pt2)

18/8/1917 Third Ypres: mud

British and French forces are attacking to the north of Ypres. Despite the recent unrest in their army, the French have made the best progress but neither of the Allies are doing very well. Unseasonal rain has turned the ground into a quagmire, making it difficult for the troops to move forward.

Because of the waterlogged nature of the ground, the Germans have built pillboxes for themselves rather than relying solely on trenches. The British had hoped to attack these with tanks, but the mud has made it impossible for them to get beyond their own lines.

The Allies make some gains, though they lose some of these to German counter-attacks. In view of the terrible weather conditions they now call a temporary halt to the offensive, hoping that a break in the rain will allow the ground to dry out somewhat, at which point the attacks can resume.

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Mud (WW1 World War One Ieper 1917)

Escorting German prisoners (Wikipedia: Battle of Langemarck (1917))

15/6/1917 Pétain attempts to conciliate French mutineers

Unrest continues in the French army. By now around half of the units on the Western Front have been affected, with soldiers refusing orders to attack or to move up to the front line. There have also been instances of desertion and disorders but thus far there are no reports of soldiers attacking their officers. Soldiers are also continuing to defend positions against the Germans. The mutiny has forced the cancellation of a French offensive that was scheduled for the 10th of June at Malmaison and has obliged the British to take the leading role on the Western Front.

Pétain has ordered mass arrests in order to crush the mutiny. Ring-leaders are being court-martialled and in some cases sentenced to death, though most of these death sentences are being commuted. Pétain is also attempting to restore the confidence of the men in their commanders. He orders an end to large-scale attacks. Soldiers conditions are to be improved. They are to be provided with better food and wine and to spend less time in the front-line trenches. More generous leave arrangements are put in place.

Pétain takes it upon himself to visit the soldiers and explain the improvements he is putting in place. To many he is a persuasive figure, having earned their respect during the early days of the fighting at Verdun.

The unrest in the French army is not over by any means. Pétain knows that it will be some time before his army is ready to attack the Germans again. But perhaps he is able to begin hoping that the worst of the mutiny is over and the army is beginning to be ready once more to continue the prosecution of the war.

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Pétain meeting with some soldiers (Poppycock: the Real First World War)