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)

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.

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French soldiers (Roads to the Great War)

Philippe Pétain (Wikipedia)

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)

20/3/1917 Germany’s Western Front withdrawal continues as the Allies prepare to attack

The war continues on the Western Front in France and Belgium. German troops are withdrawing in phases from the exposed Bapaume and Noyon salients to the strongly prepared defensive position dubbed the Hindenburg Line by the Allies. As the Germans retreat, they leave behind a desolate landscape in which they have destroyed anything that might be of use to the enemy.

The French and British are moving into the abandoned German territory but they must always be on their toes. The Germans have left behind booby traps to catch any of their enemies who let down their guard. They also mount the occasional counter-attack on the advancing enemy. Overall the effect of their withdrawal is discomfiting to the Allies, who cannot but feel that the Germans are up to something. Nevertheless, the Allies are happy to use the Germans’ devastation of their abandoned territories for propaganda purposes.

Meanwhile the Allies are planning their own major strokes against the Germans. In April Nivelle, the bold new French commander, is to attack the Germans in the Chemin des Dames sector, while further to the north the British (and their Commonwealth allies) will attack at Arras. Nivelle in particular is confident that this combined assault will smash the Germans, though some are beginning to wonder if he might perhaps be a tad overconfident.

Although they are not due to attack until early April, the British start preliminary shelling at Arras today. They hope to have the German positions well softened up by the time the infantry have to go forward. Of course, the intensified shelling also has the effect of suggesting to the Germans that an attack might be in the offing.

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Athies after its abandonment by the Germans (Wikipedia; the huge crater was left by the Germans, though the damage to the buildings may result from Allied artillery)