The Nivelle Offensive
An advance German machine gun position preparing to fire on French infantry.
April 16 1917, Berry–For days, the French artillery had been pounding the German lines along the Aisne. With one artillery piece for every 20 feet of front, a third of them heavy guns, the French, from Nivelle down, believed there would be no way that the Germans could withstand the barrage. However, due to poor artillery spotting, German defense-in-depth, and extensive underground construction along the Chemin des Dames, most of the German positions beyond the first line were intact when the barrage halted at 5:58 AM on April 16.
The French infantry began to advance two minutes later, with the barrage resuming ahead of them. The first minutes of the offensive went well, largely because the Germans had already all but abandoned their first line. Despite this, the French had difficulty physically advancing over the ground, still strewn with barbed wire and torn to pieces by the artillery assault. Pounding rain (and occasional snow) did not help, nor did the fact that their packs were overburdened with multiple days’ worth of provisions that Nivelle thought necessary for the subsequent advance beyond the German trenches and the reach of French supply lines. Soon, the barrage, advancing at 30-40 yards a minute, outstripped the French infantry, subjecting them to uninterrupted German machine gun fire.
On the Chemin des Dames, the Germans often came out of their underground caves and bunkers after the French had advanced overhead, attacking them from behind. While this had also occurred at Vimy Ridge, here, in conjunction with German counterattacks from their third line, quickly threw the French into disarray. Local retreats were countermanded, and more reserves continued to pour in on the original timetable, when the first attacks had largely not yet succeeded. Only the French supremacy in artillery prevented these masses of clogged infantry from being excellent targets for the Germans. Further attacks were ordered, but generally went worse than those in the morning, on many occasions being bombarded by their own confused infantry. General Mangin’s Senegalese corps suffered over 60% casualties, earning him the nickname of “broyeur de noir” (literally “black crusher,” also idiomatically “pessimist”).
The battle was to be the first use of French tanks in battle. However, due to mechanical and logistical difficulties, they could not be deployed until the early afternoon. Much lighter than the British tanks, the French tanks were easily taken out by German artillery, with many simply exploding into fireballs. Those that survived intact often became stuck in mud or fell into enemy trenches, not being long enough to bridge them themselves. In the one instance where they did reach their objective, they had outstripped their infantry (who were understandably reluctant to follow these exploding machines) and wandered aimlessly in the woods for some hours.
By the end of the day, after extensive German counterattacks, the French had advanced no further than a few hundred yards, and had not taken any significant portions of the German second line. Casualties were more than ten times what had been expected.
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Sources include: E.L. Spears, Prelude to Victory; John Keegan, The First World War.