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Failure of the Nivelle Offensive

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.

Today in 1916: Russian Expeditionary Force Arrives in France
Today in 1915: Armenians Besieged in Van

Sources include: E.L. Spears, Prelude to Victory; Richard M. Watt, Dare Call it Treason.

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.

Entire French Division Mutinies

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.

Today in 1916: Russian Forces Reach Mesopotamia
Today in 1915: American Tanker Gulflight Torpedoed by German Submarine

Sources include: Richard M. Watt, Dare Call it Treason.

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 Capture Eastern End of Chemin Des Dames

A Saint Chamond tank; its short tracks made crossing uneven terrain unnecessarily difficult.

May 5 1917, Craonne–The German positions on the Aisne were centered around the Chemin des Dames, “the ladies’ path,” (originally named for two daughters of Louis XV) running along a ridge overlooking the river.  These heights were supposed to have been taken on the first day of the Nivelle Offensive, but nearly three weeks later it was still mostly in German hands.  Local attacks continued to maintain the French tactical position, but Nivelle still hoped that another major push could take the heights and push beyond.

This attack, originally scheduled for April 23, was repeatedly pushed back due to logistical confusion.  The French supply arrangements had assumed they would not still be fighting a major battle here three weeks after the initial offensive.  The large numbers of wounded overwhelmed the French hospitals, leaving casualties stranded near the front lines for days.  The mutinies among French troops were not yet widespread enough to affect Nivelle’s timetable, though they were a growing concern.

Finally, on May 5, the French attacked, and took the ridge and the eastern portions of the Chemin des Dames.  They were supported by 48 new Saint Chamond tanks, French heavy tanks armed with a machine gun and a 75 mm gun.  These tanks were highly unwieldy: it was very hard to navigate them over obstacles, and aiming the 75 mm gun required turning the whole tank.  Nevertheless, they proved relatively effective; only six were lost during the day, though many may have gotten stuck.  The French captured 6000 PoWs, but any further progress beyond the Chemin des Dames was quickly halted by German counterattacks.

Today in 1916: Villistas Raid Texas During Cinco de Mayo
Today in 1915: Italian Nationalist Poet D’Annunzio Calls for War

Sources include: Richard M. Watt, Dare Call it Treason.

April 16, 1917 - The Nivelle Offensive Begins

Pictured - “En avant !” French soldiers go over the top, April 16 1917.

“The artillery conquers; the infantry occupies.” This was the mantra of Robert Nivelle, France’s commander-in-cheif as of Joffre’s dismissal in December 1916. Nivelle had led the successful French counter-offensive at Verdun, where he had crafted a successful strategy, smashing in German positions with huge artillery bombardments, and then covering the advancing infantry with creeping bombardments that swept any remaining defenders away. Now France’s top soldier, he promised he could replicate his victories on a wider scale.

Nivelle’s target was the Aisne, in a region called the Chemin des Dames, named after a road traveled by the daughters of Louis XV. Nivelle promised wild success, claiming that with his new tactics the Germans would be irreversibly crushed. Several short, sharp assaults, that could be halted if they did not succeed - not that he expected anything other than total victory.

The BEF to the north had launched an assault on Arras in support of Nivelle’s attack, but the troubles the British ran into should have been a warning to the French military. Both British and French politicians, however, eagerly looked to Nivelle to end the dreadful (and politically unpopular) war of attrition.

After a number of delays because of bad weather, Nivelle’s battle went ahead on April 16. The general had amassed twenty divisions from two armies - the Fifth and Sixth - alongside 3,810 guns and 128 brand new French tanks, the hulking, boxy Schneider CA1. A third army was held in reserve, a fourth earmarked to give support and trick the Germans into thinking the main push would come east of Reims.

But the tactics of Verdun would be much harder to replicate on a grand scale. The French artillery failed to cut the German wire, just like the British on the Somme a year earlier. The creeping barrages were difficult to coordinate, they needed to proceed according to carefully-planned time tables, but often they left the infantry far behind. By the time the troops had reach the German trenches, the artillery had already moved far away. One African division reached the German trenches to find their enemies undisturbed and waiting, machine-guns fully loaded. “Decimated by machine gun fire,” wrote one historian, “Senegalese troops break and flee.”

Nivelle hoped to advance a full six miles on the first day. Most of his men only made it six hundred yards. Many parts of the operation met disaster. The French planes were bested by German Albatrosses, bring “Bloody April” to French pilots. The tanks performed miserably. Of 128, thirty-two were knocked out on day one. The German defenses were also much better than they had been at Verdun. Since 1916, the Germans adopted a technique of “elastic defense,” building multiple lines of trenches and strongpoints that supported each other, rather than one single defensive line. Rather than standing and dying, German troops could fall back from one position to another, shooting the French to pieces as they tried to keep up. On the Aisne they had four heavily fortified sections of the Hindenburg Line.

To the French army’s credit, it did make some successful advances, just nowhere near to the scale promies. The Fifth Army penetrated over 3 miles and captured Juvincourt, the next day the Sixth captured a German position Fort Condé. But in their wake they left a trail of corpses. NIvelle had expected 15,000 casualties, he already had lost almost 100,000.

flickr

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.

Today 100 years ago the second battle of Arras started

The Battle of Arras (also known as the Second Battle of Arras) was a British offensive on the Western Front during World War I. From 9 April to 16 May 1917, British troops attacked German defences near the French city of Arras on the Western Front. The British achieved the longest advance since trench warfare had begun, surpassing the record set by the French Sixth Army on 1 July 1916. The British advance slowed in the next few days and the German defence recovered. The battle became a costly stalemate for both sides and by the end of the battle the British Third and First armies had suffered about 160,000 casualties and the German 6th Army 125,000 casualties.

For much of the war, the opposing armies on the Western Front were at a stalemate, with a continuous line of trenches from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. The Allied objective from early 1915 was to break through the German defences into the open ground beyond and engage the numerically inferior German Army (Westheer) in a war of movement. The British attack at Arras was part of the French Nivelle Offensive, the main part of which was to take place on the Aisne 50 miles (80 km) to the south. The aim of the French offensive was to break through the German defences in forty-eight hours.[4] At Arras the British were to re-capture Vimy Ridge, dominating the plain of Douai to the east, advance towards Cambrai and divert German reserves from the French front.

The British effort was a relatively broad front assault between Vimy in the north-west and Bullecourt to the south-east. After a long preparatory bombardment, the Canadian Corps of the First Army in the north fought Battle of Vimy Ridge and took the ridge. The Third Army in the centre advanced astride the Scarpe River and in the south, the Fifth Army attacked the Hindenburg Line (Siegfreidstellung) but was frustrated by the defence in depth and made few gains. The British armies then engaged in a series of small-scale operations to consolidate the new positions. Although these battles were generally successful in achieving limited aims, they were costly successes.

When the battle officially ended on 16 May, British Empire troops had made significant advances but had been unable to achieve a breakthrough. New tactics and the equipment to exploit them had been used, showing that the British had absorbed the lessons of the Battle of the Somme and could mount set-piece attacks against fortified field defences. After the Second Battle of Bullecourt (3–17 May), the Arras sector then returned to the stalemate that typified most of the war on the Western Front, except for attacks on the Hindenburg Line and around Lens, culminating in the Canadian Battle of Hill 70 (15–25 August).

Further French Attacks as Mutinies Begin

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.

Today in 1916: Final Attack to Relieve Kut Begins
Today in 1915: British Take Hill 60 After Sappers Detonate Mines

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; John Keegan, The First World War.