A French soldier pictured in the ruins of a shattered village along the Aisne, in early May.
April 20 1917, Rheims–Nivelle had promised when proposing his offensive, that if it should not succeed, it would be called off within forty-eight hours. This appealed to the politicians (especially Lloyd George), who were wary of a repeat of the months-long bloodbath of the Somme or of Verdun. However, now, more than four days into the offensive, there was little sign that Nivelle wanted to, or even could, halt the offensive. Part of this was tactical necessity; as certain positions were very exposed or under active counterattack by the Germans, a halt to the fighting could not be called unilaterally. Mainly, however, Nivelle realized that to call the offensive off entirely would be to admit failure and all but end his military career.
Therefore, the fighting, and the pretense of an overall offensive, continued. Nivelle wrote to the British: “Although the progress of the attack is less rapid than we had hoped…I anticipate no halt to the operation.” On April 20, Nivelle directed further attacks for the time being to be directed on small scales, at more local objectives. However, he continued to hold out hope that another big push would achieve the desired breakthrough, and ordered more troops into the front lines in preparation for a major attack.
In the first ten days of the offensive, the French suffered 134,000 casualties (the bulk of it on the first day alone), for gains that only served to straighten the German line. The French medical service had been expecting at most a sixth of this number, and was overwhelmed. Many of the wounded could not be attended to properly, or were left out in the rain and the German bombardment. The Germans had suffered as well, losing over 16,000 PoWs and somewhat fewer overall casualties than the French, but the impact on French morale was palpable.
Two men in 1974 claimed to be taking a leisurely drive through the Picardi region of Aisne, France, when they stopped in a village to examine five black eyed beings. According to researcher David Weatherly, “The appearance of the five characters was as strange as their behavior. They were all just over four feet tall. They were dressed alike with long garments that almost reached the ground. These garments were decorated with multicolored spots. The beings themselves had earthy yellow skin and long hair that fell down their backs and to their waist. Their noses were compressed inwards, and their eyes were described as enormous, solid black hemispheres, the size of billiard balls.” The men drove away in terror when the being closest to their car gestured for them to come closer.
May 3 1917, Soissons–There had been the occasional sporadic mutiny since the second day of the Nivelle Offensive. On the morning of May 3, these reached a new extent, with essentially the entire 2nd Colonial Division participating in an act of “collective indiscipline.” As in previous instances of mutiny, the division was scheduled to return to the front lines for another attack. When forming up to march to the front, large numbers of soldiers simply refused to carry their packs or take up their weapons. When questioned as a group by their officers, shouts were heard in reply: “We’re not marching, my lieutenant,” “Down with the war!” “We’re not such fools as to attack against uncut barbed wire or unshelled German trenches.”
Facing this widespread and uniform resistance, the division’s commanders realized that normal discipline would not work; there were simply too many to punish. A few officers who were known to be trusted by the men were sent around in an attempt to convince the men. While the soldiers made it clear they were unwilling to take part in another offensive, ultimately most were swayed by an appeal to duty to their fellow soldiers; by going up to the front lines, they would be taking the place there of a division that had been on the front lines for far too long. “The troops in the line are exhausted, they await your coming anxiously. We must not fail Frenchmen who are your comrades – they have never failed you.”
While a few soldiers were obstinate and were arrested by MPs, the remaining troops began their march towards the front line that night. The mutiny was, in the end, successful; the soldiers had convinced their officers that they could not be relied upon in an attack upon German lines. The 2nd Colonial Division, though it would defend the front lines from the Germans, would participate in no further attacks during the Nivelle Offensive.
Fernand Cuville, The altar of the cathedral Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais protected with sand bags. The building was heavily damaged during World War I . Soissons, Aisne, France, 1917 . Autochrome Lumière
French soldiers pictured a few days later, as the fighting in Champagne continued.
April 17 1917, Moronvilliers–Nivelle’s great offensive, had, by nightfall on the 16th, failed to capture the objectives that had been slated for 9AM. Nivelle had promised that if the offensive did not work, it could be quickly called off with minimal casualties, unlike last year’s months-long bloodbath on the Somme. However, it could not be so quickly called off, for a variety of reasons. Foremost was the political one; Nivelle (now with his career on the line) was convinced it would still work, and continued to order attacks on yesterday’s targets–although they were (at least for the time being) more limited in scope, focused on the Chemin des Dames. On a tactical level, the defense and securing of the few positions taken yesterday did require additional attacks to shore them up.
Despite the failures along the Aisne, a major supporting attack scheduled for the 17th went forward anyway. In Champagne, the Fourth Army attacked in the hills around Moronvilliers, east of Rheims. As along the Aisne, they managed to take the first German line but failed to progress further; fighting would continue here for more than a month, but the French would advance no more than two miles.
It was clear to many observers that Nivelle’s days were numbered. Though hardly an impartial observer (having been sidelined concurrently with Nivelle’s rise), General Foch accurately predicted, in a conversation with British General Wilson that Nivelle would soon be sacked in favor of Pétain, “who will play a waiting game until the USA come…say a year hence.”
The infantrymen, who had had such confidence in Nivelle before the offensive, sensed this as well. In an incident that would become the first of many, seventeen men simply abandoned their posts rather than participate in another failed attack along the Aisne. This was to be the first of the “French Mutinies,” in which French soldiers refused to participate in attacks. Despite the name, the incidents were rarely violent–far closer to strikes than mutinies.
Soissons - Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes by Martin Via Flickr: The Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes was founded by Hughes Le Blanc for a community of Augustinian Canons in 1076. The Romanesque structures of the early years got replaced by buildings erected in Gothic style from the 13th century on.
During the Hundred Year´s War, the abbey got heavily fortified. The town was looted and burned down by the troops of Charles VI of France (aka “Charles the Mad”) in 1415. About a century later the town suffered severely, when it was under siege of the armees during the Wars of Religion.
Prussian troops conquered Soisson in 1814. The Franco-Prussian War (1870/71) creating a lot of damage, shell fire in WWI destroyed again most of the Soissons. The towers of the Abbey were not hit at that time.
The abbey was already ruined earlier. After the French Revolution the nave of the church was used as a quarry. Other buildings of the former convent got converted into barracks. An explosion inside the ammunition dump in 1815 left the facade in the state seen (from east) today. To the left are the ruins of the cloister - and the undamaged refectory.
Two German soldiers pick their way through a temporarily abandoned French trench in Chemin des Dames picking any useful items they can find off the British and German corpses that litter it. The closest German is wearing the overcoat of a British sergeant. May 1918