The Nivelle offensive was conducted by French and British forces on the Western Front of World War 1. The French intended for the offensive to be decisive by breaking through the German defences in the Aisne area within 48 hours. Although the offensive was tactically successful, with the French and British forces capturing territory previously occupied by the Germans, the Entente forces did not manage to achieve their primary strategic objective: the attempt to force a decisive battle on the Germans failed. The failed offensive led to mutinies in some units of the French Army and the dismissal of Robert Nivelle as the Chief of the General Staff.
Nivelle was confident that the tactics he had used at Verdun would bring him success on a larger scale. There he had relied on narrow front attacks in which the artillery created a narrow corridor through which the infantry could push forward. Now, at last, he believed the French had enough heavy, long-range guns to attack on a wide front, allowing a single, crunching thrust to be made by the French Fifth and Sixth Armies. The heavy artillery would then be moved forward as quickly as possible to maintain the momentum, forcing a complete breakthrough by the Tenth Army.
Nivelle had convinced the politicians, but it would not be these august gentlemen climbing out of the trenches. And there is no doubt that there was a fractious mood abroad among the French troops. The ordinary French soldiers were becoming war-weary. In ordering them forward for yet another great new offensive, Nivelle was risking more than he realized.
While the Entente were agreeing to reopen the offensive on ground already fought across, the Germans were making the necessary preparations to give up that ground altogether. In September 1916 work had been set in hand to construct a ‘final’ position behind the Somme battlefield, with the object of shortening the line and economising force. By January the new line, collectively known as the Hindenburg Line, was complete and by March it was fully occupied.
The Battle of Arras, although a diversionary operation, was a huge undertaking in itself. The plan was that the First Army, commanded by General Sir Henry Horne, would capture Vimy Ridge rising up three miles northeast of the city of Arras. Meanwhile the Third Army, commanded by General Sir Edmund Allenby, would drive forward towards the hill of Monchy-le-Preux with the intent of breaking through the main German defensive lines across the River Scarpe and allowing a thrust southwards towards Croisilles and Bullecourt. Many lessons had been learned from the Somme, and artillery was at the heart of the plans.
The Battle of Arras would prove a particular trial for the Royal Flying Corps, charged with photographing the battlefield to record every new development and flying endless artillery observation missions to direct the guns on which the operations depended. The problem for the RFC was that the battle had come too early in the year for them to upgrade their sadly ageing aircraft with new models better able to hold their own against the new German aircraft such as the Albatros scout. The British drove forward, accepting casualties in order to obtain the photographs needed in the run-up to the offensive.
Vimy Ridge was a high point commanding the plain to Douai and the east. Its capture was the task of the Canadian corps. Aerial reconnaissance provided the photographic images on which the planning could be based, and later reported progress as the attack went in; beneath it engineers tunnelled into the chalk to lay charges beneath the German front line. The capture of Vimy Ridge was a national triumph for Canada. The deterioration in the weather slowed the attack in subsequent days. However, the battle of Arras achieved its principal strategic objective: the Germans doubled their strength in the sector within a week.
The assault by the Third Army up the Scarpe Valley to the hills around Monchy-le-Preux is a more dramatic story. The counter-battery arrangements had worked perfectly and the British troops crashed through the initial German defences. As the first wave of the assault divisions began to slow to a halt so the next wave pushed on for a total of three and a half miles. But then the advance faltered. For all their technical and tactical improvements, the British still had neither the method nor the means to completely break through the German defence system.
The Battle of Arras then moved into the depressing secondary stage which seemed to blight so many British offensives. The snowy weather helped to slow down attempts to capitalize on the moment and by the time they made a fully fledged renewed assault the Germans were ready for them. The fighting centered on the villages of Monchy-le-Preux, Wancourt and the old Roeux chemical works, but the Germans held firm.
Haig was expected to keep up the pressure, with the upshot that a huge nine division attack was thrown together with the bare minimum of planning and preparation for the Second Battle of the Scarpe. It may have been a major offensive but it was woefully under-resourced in comparison with the original attacks. The Germans had by this time learned most of the lessons that could be gleaned from the earlier fighting. The fighting was bitter; in essence the British made a painful blood sacrifice in the cause of diverting attention from the French offensive further south.
Even worse was an attempt by General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army, who had only just struggled through the wasteland left by the retreating Germans, to launch an attack on the new Hindenburg Line in the Bullecourt sector. By the time the aftershocks had died down it became clear that the British were not going to break through to achieve any more major tactical objectives. In any event, they had already performed their diversionary role for Nivelle’s great offensive at Chemin des Dames.
The dominating village of Monchy le Preux, perched on high ground in the center of the battlefield, was captured, although the British were unable to make immediate progress eastwards, beyond Monchy, to Infantry Hill. As German reserves closed gaps in the line, the British advance lost momentum.
The German defences were primed and ready when nineteen divisions of French infantry attacked on a wide front all along the Chemin des Dames front stretching from Soissons to Reims. To make matters worse for the French, the artillery barrage was ineffective as their observation flights had been dogged by the severe wintry weather, while the Germans were protected from much of the shelling by their plethora of deep shelters, supplemented by deep quarries scattered around the sector. On top of the Chemin des Dames above the Aisne River the French at first made only trivial gains.
The French had also taken a step forward and were using tanks for the first time. Their Schneider CA (Char d’Assaut) tank was armed with a 75 mm gun and two Hotchkiss machine guns, had a crew of six and a theoretical speed of 5 miles per hour. In all, eight battalions consisting of 132 Schneider tanks were employed in the assault on Berry-au-Bac, but they suffered heavy losses from the German artillery.
As the Nivelle Offensive continued, some gains were made over the next few days. But such gains as were made still came at a great cost. The aims of the operation had to be scaled down, with no more wild talk of ending the war, but rather of completing the far more localised objective of capturing the Chemin des Dames Ridge. Further progress was made and the French took the Ridge, along with an impressive 28,500 prisoners and 187 guns.
In Champagne, the Central Army Group also opened its subsidiary offensive and its Fourth Army, commanded by General François Anthoine, took several important heights over the next four days. These were impressive results by the standards of previous years but there was no decisive breakthrough on the Aisne.
The failure of the French offensive freed Haig from the formal shackles of Nivelle’s leadership. Yet at the same time the scope of the French defeat, coupled with the scale of the mutinies, forced his hand. The difficulties of combining the theoretical necessities of good generalship with the draining, insistent pressure of events are neatly demonstrated by the planning process for the Third Battle of the Scarpe and Second Battle of Bullecourt, both launched in May. Even where there were localized successes, the high casualty rate meant that such victories were pyrrhic indeed.
In many ways Nivelle’s Offensive was not a disaster per se, but it seemed so because of the damaging hyperbole he had used to promote it. The 48-hour pledge in particular made him a hostage to fortune. The French politicians were, of course, horrified. This was not the outcome they had intended when they had dismissed Joseph Joffre. Philippe Pétain was appointed Commander in Chief of the French Army, while the ebullient Ferdinand Foch was appointed Chief of General Staff.
Nivelle’s ultimate fall was probably inevitable. Under his tenure, the French Army had finally reached the end of its endurance. Too many Frenchmen had already died for their country and, if the war continued, many more would share their fate. In just over a week from 16 April another 30,000 had been killed, 100,000 wounded and 4,000 were missing. More than a million French families had been thrown into mourning by the war; millions more had to face the return of their badly wounded sons.
Even in the months leading up to the Nivelle Offensive, morale had not been good in several regiments, particularly in the infantry, which had borne the brunt of the carnage. Now many soldiers looked abroad to the recent Russian Revolution for inspiration as to what could be done. As the Nivelle Offensive fell apart, the French Army began to boil over. Discontented mutterings and vehement complaints led to incidents of indiscipline that contravened all military regulations. The level of desertions increased rapidly, with thousands of individuals absenting themselves from the line.
At the time, French commanders admitted the mutinies to be ‘acts of collective indiscipline’. Later, historians have called them ‘the mutinies of 1917’. Neither form of words exactly defines the nature of the breakdown, which is better identified as a sort of military strike. ‘Indiscipline’ implies a collapse of order. ‘Mutiny’ usually entails violence against superiors. Yet order, in the larger sense, remained intact and there was no violence by the ‘mutineers’ against their officers. There were also specific demands: more leave, better food, better treatment for soldiers' families, ‘peace’ and an end to ‘injustice’ and ‘butchery’.
Soon most of the French Army was affected. When the crackdown began in early June there were mass court martials at which 23,385 men were convicted of various degrees of mutinous behaviour, of whom around 500 were given death sentences, although the vast majority of these were commuted. Pétain favored a reasonably moderate approach as he sought to repair the morale of the long suffering soldiers by the twin means of ending large attacks – at least in the near future – and introducing regular, longer and more equitably distributed leave.
Pétain saw the summer of 1917 as a period of healing and rebuilding; the French Army was not yet broken and, under his careful stewardship, it would regain much of its martial ardor within a matter of months. Pétain accepted that an entirely defensive posture would benefit only the Germans. But offensives in future would be strictly limited, relying heavily on artillery and designed to incur the minimum possible losses. Development work also continued on the tank.
The French Army recovered sufficiently by late August to deliver a well-planned assault at Verdun which led to the recapture of the heights of the Mort Homme and Cote 304. Another attack, at Malmaison in October, saw the French win possession of the crest of the Chemin des Dames ridge on the Aisne. Nevertheless these were limited affairs in the overall context of the struggle in France and Belgium.
In general, the objects of the mutinies had been achieved. The French army did not attack anywhere on the Western Front, of which it held two-thirds, between June 1917 and July 1918, nor did it conduct an ‘active’ defence of its sectors. The Germans, who had inexplicably failed to detect the crisis of discipline on the other side of No Man's Land, were content to accept their enemy's passivity, having business of their own elsewhere, in Russia, in Italy and against the British.
The Battle of Arras marked a midpoint in the development of British offensive tactics. They had learnt a great deal but they still had much to discover. And what of the cost? The Battle of Arras was an exceptionally painful experience for the BEF. It had begun so well but then the desperate flailing to distract attention from the French failure led to terrible losses of around 150,000. For the French Army, Nivelle’s offensive had proven to be more than it could bear: it needed to be reorganized, rested and the soldiers’ morale had to be improved.