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)

4/5/1917 Robertson and Pétain agree on attrition, Haig continues to dream of a breakthrough

Nivelle‘s Chemin des Dames offensive has failed. French efforts are still continuing there but his bold claims that the attacks would smash through the German lines and bring the war’s end into sight have been proved hollow. Unrest is beginning to spread through the French army, with many units proving reluctant to obey orders.

Allied military leaders meet today in Paris to consider how now to proceed. Robertson, the British army’s chief of staff, and Pétain agree that a breakthrough cannot be achieved this year. However, they estimate that their men’s efforts are inflicting considerable casualties on the Germans. They resolve now to avoid further attempts at breaking through the enemy lines and instead focus on inflicting attritional damage on the enemy. Smaller scale offensives backed up by artillery will wear away the Germans, inflicting more losses on them than the Allies will suffer. And because of the French army’s problems, most of these efforts will have to be made by the British.

The British are still attacking at Arras, though efforts there are starting to wind down. The next British attack planned is to take place at Ypres. And although Haig pretends to agree with Robertson and Pétain that this will be a battle of limited objectives, he still intends that this will in fact be a breakthrough battle. He hopes that his men will be able to clear the Germans from the Flanders coast and begin the liberation of Belgium.

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)

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.

15/7/1916 Verdun: the French push back

At Verdun the last German offensive has failed. The French have held Fort Souville and the town of Verdun remains out of German reach. Germany has no more reserves to send to renew the offensive at Verdun, as every available man is needed to face the Allied offensives at the Somme and in Galicia.

German positions at Verdun are now dangerously advanced. It would make sense to retreat to ones more readily defensible. However German commanders fear that doing so would betray the men who have died to capture them.

The end of German attempts to seize Verdun does not mean the end of the battle. Artillery continues to blast each side’s men into oblivion. French counter-attacks intensify as they attempt to recover lost ground and push the Germans back from Verdun, in case they should attempt to renew their offensive. However these assaults are costly, to Pétain’s mind needlessly so. He orders his subordinates to halt their counter-attacks until he is ready to strike a great blow against the enemy.

The Germans have taken some 250,000 casualties since the start of the battle, to 275,000 for the French.

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French troops (Les Français à Verdun)

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)

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)