Germans (center) surrendering as Canadian reserves advance across Vimy Ridge.
April 9 1917, Arras–Since the beginning of the year, the British had been planning an attack around Arras, to be conducted a week before Nivelle’s major French offensive on the Aisne further south. The ground had been fought over before; the French had attacked here in May 1915, but had ultimately failed to make substantial gains. The attack had originally been planned for Easter Sunday, April 8, but had been pushed back a day to April 9 due to inclement weather in the previous week. There would be two major attacks: the Canadian Corps under Byng at Vimy Ridge, and the British under Allenby further south around Arras. Both had been meticulously planned; large caves had been excavated to protect the attacking soldiers from any German counter-barrage, and they would proceed up to the first line of trenches by tunnel without exposing themselves to enemy fire. The infantry, especially those in the Canadian Corps, had been carefully trained, and knew their objectives well, allowing them to keep the offensive going even if their officers were killed or communications broke down.
Four days of bombardment had cut barbed wire, severed German communications, and destroyed many of the German trenches (if not their more fortified positions). At 5:30 AM on April 9, the barrage began again, but it lifted and moved back behind the German lines only three minutes later. Gus Sivertz, a Canadian with the first wave that had already crawled into no-man’s land, recalled:
I looked ahead and saw the German front line crashing into pieces; bits of men, timbers, lumps of chalk were flung through the air and, blending with the shattering wall of fire, were the Hun SOS signals of all colours. We didn’t dare lift our heads, knowing that the barrage was to come flat over us and then lift in three minutes.
The Canadians seized most of the first line of trenches with little resistance, often securing them well ahead of schedule. However, the timing of the subsequent barrages, which had been worked out with clockwork precision, prevented the Canadians from advancing before their set timetable. Even if there were no Germans in front of them, they would be advancing into their own barrage. This theme would repeat throughout the day, though the Canadians did advance as planned, in places up to four miles.
On the northern end of their advance, the Canadians did run into some difficulties. One section of the German first line was spared from the barrage by the request of the local CO of the infantry, who wanted the trench intact as defense against German counterattacks; these Germans were only rooted out when flanked on both sides. Additionally, Vimy Ridge itself had networks of underground tunnels which the artillery could not touch. In some places, the Germans, realizing they were trapped, surrendered quickly. In one instance, a Capt. McDowell captured 77 Germans single-handed, pretending to give orders to non-existent troops behind him, then ordering the Germans out in small groups to his waiting men on the surface; he would win a Victoria Cross for his effort. Elsewhere, the Germans put up more of a fight and it would take many hours to clear them out; the Canadians’ northernmost objective was not taken until that night.
The Germans were not able to recover and counterattack quickly, as they had kept their reserve far away from the front line, up to 15 miles in places. While this kept them safe from Allied artillery and airplanes, it meant they could not launch a counterattack before the Canadians had secured their positions; unlike in 1915, Vimy Ridge would stay in Allied hands. The mandated pauses in the advance prevented the Canadians from pushing forward beyond their objectives, however, until late in the afternoon, by which time the first German reserves had arrived, and the commanders on the spot were reluctant to take the initiative. A tentative effort to break out onto the plains beyond Vimy Ridge with cavalry was quickly beaten back.
The British under Allenby, further to the south, had similar successes. This attack used more tanks; the few ones allotted to the Canadians got stuck in mud and proved useless. These tanks proved more useful, but all of them had been knocked out of action by noon. Advancing several miles, they had opened a four-mile long complete gap in the German lines, but would not make any further advance beyond the occasional patrol that day.
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.
British artillery firing at German barbed wire defenses.
June 24 1916, Albert–After nearly six months of preparations, the Allied effort on the Somme was finally to begin. The French need to hold the Germans off at Verdun meant that the British would responsible for the vast majority of the offensive. On June 24, a massive, one-week bombardment of the German trenches began. It was hoped that the length of the bombardment would completely destroy the German lines (and perhaps leave the date of the infantry offensive unclear for any surviving Germans).
Over 2000 guns would fire over 1.7 million shells over the next week. The lighter guns were focused on destroying the barbed wire in front of the German trenches, while the heavier guns were to silence German batteries and destroy the German trenches and fortified positions. The British anticipated that this week-long bombardment would obliterate the German line completely, but the results would prove otherwise. A third of the shells were duds and did not even explode. The shells directed at the wire only detonated upon hitting the ground, so they knocked the wire around rather than cutting through it, as intended.
The Germans had heavily fortified their lines, including the construction of massive, thirty-foot dugouts to house their troops on the front lines during such bombardments, and even the heaviest British shell could not penetrate them. British reconnaissance raids over the next days reveled that the Germans “appear to remain in these dugouts all the time and are completely sheltered” from the barrage.
Nearly 100 years after their heroic deeds, two World War I Army veterans were awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honor, on Tuesday. Historians say Sgts. William Shemin and Henry Johnson hadn’t been properly recognized for their bravery under fire.
Discussing Sgt. Shemin’s service, President Obama says he “couldn’t stand to watch” as wounded comrades lay on the battlefield, in “a bloodbath.” Shemin “ran out into the hell of no-man’s land” three times to drag soldiers to safety.
Obama tells the story of Johnson’s bravery under fire after his position came under attack. It started with a “click,” the president says — the sound of Germans cutting through barbed wire.
“In just a few minutes of fighting, two Americans defeated an entire raiding party,” Obama said.
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