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.

image source:

French soldiers (Dying Splendor of the Old World)

29/4/1917 Unrest in the French army brings Pétain to the fore

Just a month ago Nivelle was telling anyone who would listen that his Chemin des Dames offensive would smash the Germans and bring the end of the war into sight. Unfortunately the assault proved a disastrous failure. No breakthrough was achieved and the French suffered horrendous casualty levels. In the nine days of the battle the French took 134,000 casualties, two thirds of their losses in the whole of the Somme last year.

Now the French troops are beginning to crack. Suspecting that their commanders are throwing away their lives for nothing, units are becoming increasingly mutinous. Men are disobeying orders, particularly ones to move up the front. Officers are seeing their authority breaking down, though for now the soldiers are showing no sign of deserting en masse or refusing to fight if attacked by the Germans (who remain unaware of the discontent in French ranks).

The failure of his offensive means that now the politicians are turning on Nivelle. The process of edging him out of command of the army begins now with Pétain‘s appointment as his chief of staff, effectively Nivelle’s replacement. Pétain earned the respect of the men at Verdun. The politicians hope that he can restore the fighting spirit of the army.

Pétain hopes to win over the men by listening to their concerns about bad food and lack of leave. He orders an increase in the wine ration and an improvement in its quality. He also promises an end to the wasteful offensives that have thrown away French lives for no good purpose. But concessions are only one weapon in Pétain’s arsenal. He also proposes carefully targeted repression to root out and deal severely with troublemakers within the army.

image sources:

French soldiers (Roads to the Great War)

Philippe Pétain (Wikipedia)

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)