27/12/1916 Empty honours for Joffre

Joseph Joffre commanded France’s armies at the start of the war, but recently he was promoted to the meaningless position of general-in-chief of the French armies, with Robert Nivelle taking over command of the French forces on the Western Front. If Joffre thought that he would still be able to direct the war effort, he finds himself sadly mistaken. His post has no authority attached to it and he is completely removed from the process of real decision-making.

Nevertheless, Joffre remains popular in the country at large. People remember the calm fortitude he displayed during the darkest days of the German invasion of 1914 and his direction of the Battle of the Marne, which threw back the enemy from the gates of Paris. In honour of his past efforts and to sugar the pill of his effective sacking, the French government now formally promotes him to the rank of Marshal of France, the army’s highest rank. He is the first marshal of France’s Third Republic.

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Joseph Joffre (Wikipedia)

12/12/1916 Nivelle succeeds Joffre as France reshuffles its generals

France’s political leaders have had enough of Joseph Joffre, the army’s commander on the Western Front. Joffre’s calmness arguably saved France from defeat after the disastrous early battles of August 1914, but he appears unable to prosecute the war to victory. Now the politicians want a more vigorous approach to the fighting on the Western Front, so Prime Minister Briand has Joffre sacked. Or, rather, he has Joffre promoted to a meaningless position as general-in-chief (not commander-in-chief) of the French army and technical adviser to the government.

Joffre’s replacement as commander of the French armies on the Western Front is Robert Nivelle, the commander of the recent French counter-attacks at Verdun. Nivelle has leap-frogged over more senior commanders, including his own commanding officer, Philippe Pétain, who had commanded at Verdun during its desperate early stages. Unlike Pétain, Nivelle is an attacking general who has recaptured much ground from the Germans at Verdun, albeit at considerable cost. The politicians hope that his offensive vigour will now be applied to the French army as whole in their efforts to drive the Germans from France next year.

23/6/1916 Verdun: “Ils ne passeront pas!”

Brutal fighting continues at Verdun, with the Germans pressing the French hard. They hope that this final onslaught will carry them all the way to Verdun itself, shattering French morale. The Germans are using a new secret weapon: phosgene gas, code-named “Green Cross”, against which French gas masks are not fully effective.

By late afternoon the Germans have secured the village of Fleury. The fortified position at Thiaumont is also in their hands. They are now only two and a half miles from Verdun. There are more reports of desertions on the French side, an indication that French resolve is beginning to break.

Pétain attempts to project calmness to his subordinates, but he telephones Joffre’s headquarters, to warn that the army is on the brink of collapse. He calls again for the British offensive on the Somme to be brought forward. Joffre likes people to think that nothing worries him, but he fears the consequences of German victory at Verdun. He diverts another four divisions from the Somme to stop the Germans, making the forthcoming offensive there an almost entirely British affair.

Nivelle is the local French commander at Verdun. As the day closes, he attempts to rally the French with an order of the day making the usual threats of harsh measures against anyone who fails to do their duty. He ends with an exhortation to hold the line and halt the Germans: “Ils ne passeront pas!”

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German assault troops at Verdun (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

French reinforcements (Les Français à Verdun)

23 June map (Les Français à Verdun)

22/6/1916 Verdun: as the Germans attack, French politicians become restive

At Verdun German assaults are continuing. The Germans are attacking the village of Fleury as a prelude to an attempt on Fort Souville, after which they hope to press on to Verdun itself. While the battle was initially conceived by Falkenhayn as an attritional struggle, where the French army would be broken by the amount of casualties inflicted, Verdun has now become something else. Both sides have lost so many men in the fighting that the battle is being fought to vindicate their deaths. Neither the French nor the Germans can give in without risking a collapse in morale. The battle has become a desperate battle of wills between the two armies.

In Paris the Chamber of Deputies is restive. The parliamentarians are concerned at how the war is being conducted. The Chamber meets in secret session. Many deputies are scathingly critical of the army’s senior commanders (including Joffre himself) and of the government for sheltering them. It seems for a time that Aristide Briand’s government will be brought down but he manages to remain in office for the moment. However the Chamber refuses to pass a motion supporting Joffre’s efforts. The army’s commander in chief remains in office for now, but the political winds are beginning to turn against him.

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Explosion (Les Français à Verdun)

The Chamber of Deputies (Le Figaro; the illustration depicts a French parliamentary debate from 1919)

11/6/1916 “Verdun is menaced and Verdun must not fall”

At Verdun the Germans are continuing to press forward. They have reached the village of Thiaumont and are threatening to overrun the last French defences before the town itself. The Germans have also deployed the fighter ace Oswald Boelcke and a large number of aircraft to the battle, in an effort to regain control of the skies.

Pétain commands the sector of which Verdun is part, though direct control over the battle is now exercised by Nivelle, his subordinate. At the start of the battle Pétain was ambivalent as to whether it was essential to hold Verdun. Now though he sees its retention as vital. He writes to Joffre, who has been denying reinforcements to Verdun in favour of the planned Anglo-French Somme offensive. “The capture of the city would constitute for the Germans an inestimable success which would greatly raise their morale and correspondingly lower our own,” he writes. If the blood spent to hold Verdun turns out to have been spent in vain then the French face the prospect of a general collapse in fighting spirit.

Pétain is also irked that the French are fighting and dying while the British appear to be sitting on their hands. He urges Joffre to have the British attack on the Somme brought forward.

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Philippe Pétain (Les Français à Verdun)

5/6/1916 The Somme turns into a British show

At Chantilly last December the Allied military leaders agreed to launch coordinated summer offensives in an attempt to overwhelm the Central Powers. The British and French then decided to launch a joint offensive in July at the junction of their armies in the Somme valley. Originally the French were to make the main efforts here, with the British in a supporting role. But the demands of the Verdun bloodbath mean the French keep having to reduce their commitment. Joffre was originally offering some 39 divisions for the offensive, but by the start of the month he had to reduce that to 20, to the British commitment of somewhere between 25 and 30 divisions.

Now, with the renewed German offensive at Verdun, Joffre tells the British that he can spare just 12 divisions for the Somme offensive. This means that the character of the battle is transformed. The British are no longer playing second fiddle to the French: they will be the ones making the main effort.

19/4/1916 Joffre kicks Pétain upstairs

At Verdun the French are managing to withstand the German onslaught. The local commander there, Philippe Pétain, has become a national hero thanks to his steady leadership. But he is less popular with General Joffre, the commander in chief of the French army. Joffre sees Pétain as too cautious and too focussed on the defensive. Now that the Verdun crisis appears to be over, Joffre wants a commander there who will start taking the fight to the Germans. Joffre is also fed up of having to keep feeding men into the Verdun battle; he wants as many men free as he can for the summer’s Anglo-French offensive along the Somme.

Pétain is too popular to sack, so Joffre hits on a novel solution to his problem. Today Pétain is informed that he is being promoted to command the army group that includes the Verdun sector. The new commander of the French at Verdun is his subordinate, General Robert Nivelle, a man whose commitment to the offensive makes him far more appealing to Joffre. Pétain is despondent, fearing that Nivelle’s promotion will mean needless death for the men he has been commanding. But he can do nothing to prevent his replacement by Nivelle. The handover is to be completed by the 1st of May.

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Joffre, Nivelle, Pétain (Grande Guerre : territoriaux bretons et normands du 87 DIT) (I think the picture of Pétain is post-war)

10/4/1916 Verdun: Joffre pays a visit

Yesterday at Verdun the Germans attacked on both banks of the Meuse but the French line held. In his order of the day, Pétain notes that the German assault yesterday was broken but warns that they may attack again today. He calls on his men to repeat yesterday’s successes and ends with words echoing Joan of Arc: “Courage, on les aura!” [“We’ll have them!”]

In fact the French receive a stroke of luck today as the weather breaks, with rain falling down on the battlefield. It makes life miserable for soldiers in their flooded trenches and shell holes but it also makes it increasingly difficult for the Germans to renew the assault.

Meanwhile Pétain is receiving a possibly unwelcome visitor: Joffre, the French commander in chief. Joffre has been pressing Pétain to launch a counter-attack in force against the Germans. He visits the sector on the east bank where Nivelle has been staging local counter-attacks. These have incurred great casualties but Joffre is impressed with Nivelle’s fighting spirit. Joffre now encourages Pétain to supply Nivelle with more troops. Pétain demurs; he does not share the general French officer corps’ fondness for bloody counter-attacks.

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On les aura! (Grande Guerre : territoriaux bretons et normands du 87 DIT)

5/4/1916 Verdun: Joffre yearns for the French to strike back

Fighting at Verdun continues. On the west bank of the Meuse the Germans make some minor gains. On the east however they suffer a reverse. French forces stage a counter-attack, recapturing a wood that had recently fallen to the enemy. The fight is of no great consequence in and of itself, but it pleases Joffre, France’s commander in chief. He has been frustrated by the primarily defensive posture of Pétain, the Verdun commander. Now he looks favourably on Robert Nivelle, the corps commander whose men staged the counter-attack; this is a man far more to Joffre’s liking.

Both sides are suffering horrendous casualties at Verdun but both Joffre and Germany’s Falkenhayn are convinced that the other is having the worse time of it. Each has fixated on the idea that the other has taken around 200,000 casualties (the actual figures at this stage are roughly 89,000 French and 82,000 German). For Falkenhayn this fantasy is comforting, as it suggest the French are on the brink of collapse. For Joffre, though, it is frustrating. If the Germans shattering themselves on the French anvil, why is Pétain not exploiting this opportunity with determined counter-attacks?

11/3/1916 Italy attacks along the Isonzo

The German offensive at Verdun has put the French under considerable pressure. To relieve it, Joffre is looking for his Italian and Russian allies to launch diversionary offensives on their fronts. Italy’s Cadorna wanted to wait until the spring thaw is further advanced but he could not resist Joffre’s pleading. So it is that Italian artillery has been pounding the Austro-Hungarians for the last two days along the Isonzo line. Now the infantry surge forwards.

The Fifth Battle of the Isonzo proceeds like its predecessors. The Austro-Hungarians offer dogged resistance. The Italians suffer heavy casualties and make minimal gains. What gains the Italians make are often lost to enemy counter-attacks. That an advance of a hundred metres up Mount Sabotino is seen as a major victory gives an idea of the static nature of the Isonzo’s bloody stalemate.