Operation Alberich
German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line
9 February - 20 March 1917
author Paul Boșcu, February 2018
Operation Alberich was a German planned withdrawal that took place in France on more easily defensible positions.

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Operation Alberich was a German operation on the Western Front of World War I. It was a planned withdrawal to the shorter and thus more easily defensible Hindenburg Line. The withdrawal eliminated two salients which had been formed in 1916 during the battle of the Somme, between Arras and Saint Quentin and from Saint Quentin to Norron.

The scheme for the rearward movement was code-named Alberich, after the malicious dwarf of the Nibelung Saga. This was appropriate since the withdrawal was accompanied by a 'scorched earth' policy. Through the whole of the area being abandoned, the Germans felled trees, blew up railways and roads, polluted wells, razed towns and villages to the ground and planted countless mines and booby-traps. While children, mothers and the elderly were left behind with minimal rations, over 125,000 able-bodied French civilians were transported to work elsewhere in the German-occupied zone.

The British and French approached the new year with a considerable degree of confidence. The Entente leaders had no idea that revolution would first cripple and then remove their Russian ally from the war. All they knew was that the Somme and Verdun campaigns had been horrendous experiences for the German Army, while the Russian Brusilov Offensive had put it under additional pressure on the Eastern Front. There was a hope – a conviction, even – that the German Army must be approaching exhaustion.

The chief effect of two years of bombardment and trench-to-trench fighting across No Man's Land was the creation of a zone of devastation of immense length – more than 400 miles between the North Sea and Switzerland – but of narrow depth: defoliation for a mile or two on each side of No Man's Land, heavy destruction of buildings for a mile or two more, and scattered demolition beyond that.

At Verdun, on the Somme and in the Ypres salient, whole villages had disappeared, leaving a smear of brick-dust or piles of stones on the upturned soil. Ypres and Albert, sizeable small towns, were in ruins; Arras and Noyon badly damaged; the city of Rheims had suffered heavy destruction and so had villages up and down the line. Beyond the range of the heavy artillery, 10,000 yards at most, town and countryside lay untouched.

In the zone of German occupation, the military government ran an austere economic regime, driving the coal mines, cloth mills and iron works at full speed, requisitioning labor for land and industry and commandeering agricultural produce for export to the Reich. For the women of the north, desperate for news of husbands and sons away at the war on the wrong side of the line, managing by themselves, the war brought hard years.

The transition from normality to the place of death was abrupt, all the more so because prosperity reigned in the ‘rear area’; the armies had brought money, and shops, cafes and restaurants flourished, at least on the Entente side of the line.

In the French ‘Zone of the Armies’, a war economy boomed. Outside the ribbon of destruction, the roads were full of traffic, long lines of horse and motor transport going to and fro, and in the fields, ploughed by farmers right up to the line where shells fell, new towns of tents and hutments had sprung up to accommodate the millions who went up and down, almost as if on factory shifts, to the trenches.

The generalship of the First World War is one of the most contested issues of its historiography. Good generals and bad generals abound in the war's telling and so do critics and champions of this man or that among the ranks of its historians. In their time, almost all the leading commanders of the war were seen as great men. Between the wars their reputations crumbled, largely at the hands of memoirists and novelists whose depiction of the realities of ‘war from below’ relentlessly undermined the standing of those who had dominated from above. After the Second World War this view prevailed, although there were attempts to salvage the reputation of a particular general or another.

After the Second World War the assault on reputation was sustained, in that era by historians, popular and academic, particularly in Britain, where British generals continued to be portrayed as ‘donkeys leading lions’, as flint hearts bleeding the tender flesh of a generation to death in Flanders fields, or as psychological misfits.

There were counterattacks, particularly to salvage the reputation of Douglas Haig. Little ground, however, was won back. By the end of the century the generals, who had stood so high at the end of its Great War, had been brought, it appeared, irredeemably low by a concerted offensive against their names and their works.

It is difficult today not to sympathise with the condemnations, worse or better informed as they have been, of the generals of the First World War. In no way – appearances, attitude, spoken pronouncement, written legacy – do they commend themselves to modern opinion or emotion. The impassive expressions that stare back at us from photographs do not speak of consciences or feelings troubled by the slaughter over which those men presided, nor do the circumstances in which they chose to live: the distant chateau, the well polished entourage, the glittering motor cars, the cavalry escorts, the regular routine, the heavy dinners, the uninterrupted hours of sleep.

There are grounds on which criticism of the war's generals may be held unfair. The first is that many generals did expose themselves to risk, which it was not necessarily or even properly their duty to accept. Among British generals, thirty-four were killed by artillery and twenty-two by small-arms fire. The second is that, although the practice of establishing headquarters well behind the lines was indeed a ‘novelty’ in warfare, it was one justified, indeed necessitated by the vast widening and deepening of fronts. Indeed, the nearer a general was to the battle, the worse placed was he to gather information and to issue orders.

Is destruction of life ever bearable? By the beginning of 1917, this was a question that lurked beneath the surface in every combatant country. Soldiers at the front, subject to discipline, bound together by the comradeship of combat, had means of their own to resist the relentless erosion. Whatever else, they were paid, however poorly, and fed, often amply. Behind the lines, the ordeal of war attacked senses and sensibilities in a different way, through anxiety and deprivation.

The individual soldier knows, from day to day, often minute to minute, whether he is in danger or not. Those he leaves behind – wife and mother above all – bear a burden of anxious uncertainty which he does not. Waiting for the telegram, the telegram by which ministries of war communicated to families word of the wounding or death of a relative at the front, had become by 1917 a never-absent element of consciousness. All too often, the telegram had already come.

In Germany, in Britain and even in France, so grievously wounded by loss of life in defence of the homeland, public opinion in support of the war nevertheless remained intact. Terrible though the nation's sufferings were, there was still no thought of accepting an unsatisfactory outcome.

The president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, had tried to end the war by serving as a mediator, and had asked each side to indicate its terms in December 1916. The Germans, who not unreasonably felt they were winning, replied by insisting on what might be termed the status quo ante plus: Everything to be as it had been in 1914 with a new set of rules for Belgium, Serbia suitably chastised, and reparations made. The Entente responded by demanding the dismemberment of Germany and Austria, and then blamed German arrogance for scuttling the process. The French and English staked everything on the success of the upcoming Nivelle offensive.

Wilson asked each side to set out the terms necessary to its future security. Germany replied in anticipation, making no concessions at all and emphasising its belief in impending victory; the tone of the reply was much influenced by the recent capture of Bucharest and the collapse of the Romanian Army.

The Entente response was equally uncompromising but precisely detailed. It demanded the evacuation of Belgium, Serbia and Montenegro and of the occupied territory in France, Russia and Romania, independence for the Italian, Romanian, Czechoslovakian and other Slav subjects of the Austrian and German empires, the ending of Ottoman rule in southern Europe and the liberation of the Turks' other subjects. It was, in short, a program for the dismemberment of the three empires which constituted most of the Central Powers alliance.

Only states that retained a high degree of political unity could have responded with such confidence to a call for an end to hostilities in the 28 months of a terrible war. Such unity prevailed, in France and Britain alike, despite radical changes of personnel in both their governments.

In the autumn of 1916, military and political leaders met at Chantilly and in Paris where it was confirmed that the Western Front would again be the main theatre of Entente operations. David Lloyd George succeeded the discredited H.H. Asquith as Prime Minister. On the French side Joseph Joffre was replaced as Commander-in-Chief by General Robert Nivelle. In Nivelle's plan it was envisaged that British and French forces would carry out preliminary attacks between Arras and the Oise to pin down German reserves. The principal blow would now be delivered by the French on the Aisne.

Appalled by the huge casualties on the Somme and anxious to explore strategic options beyond the Western Front, Lloyd George was critical of General Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force and of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson. But, because his own political power base remained insecure, he stopped short of actually removing them.

An articulate and immensely self-confident gunner with an English mother, Nivelle was convinced that his recent artillery tactics, if applied on a much bigger scale, would at last bring the Entente genuine victory on the Western Front. He believed that a massive saturation bombardment, followed by a creeping barrage of great depth and by furious infantry attacks, would suffice to pierce the enemy's front defences and help his troops to reach the German gun line in a single bound. A decisive 'rupture' or breakthrough would then surely follow within two days.

Joffre, the hero of the Marne, had come under increasing censure in the French Chamber of Deputies for French losses and setbacks in 1916 - especially those at Verdun. To deflect criticism away from his government, the French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, induced Joffre to retire, sugaring the bitter pill by making him a Marshal.

Haig, who was promoted to Field-Marshal, at first found Nivelle 'straightforward and soldierly' and, although he had some reservations, initially supported the new scheme in general terms. The BEF had been assigned only a subsidiary role in the offensive, yet, in order to release French formations for Nivelle's offensive, was being asked to take over an additional 20 miles of front, as far south as the Amiens-Roye area. Haig, however, was primarily concerned with his cherished Flanders offensive. He was prepared to cooperate in Nivelle's grand scheme as long as the projected operations in Belgium were not compromised.

Eager to seek any plausible alternative to more long months of attrition, the Entente political leaders were all too willing to be swayed by Nivelle's seductive proposals. For instance, Lloyd George – while willing to shift the emphasis of British strategy and reinforce peripheral war zones – nevertheless accepted that the German Army must be defeated on the Western Front and was therefore content to approve Nivelle's ideas. If the new French plan was successful, Lloyd George could bask in reflected glory but, if it failed, his own case for an alternative strategic approach would be greatly enhanced.

The Nivelle methodology lacked a certain subtlety as it envisioned a huge accumulation of artillery to create an crushing bombardment under the cover of which two French armies would smash their way through the German lines before a third army burst through the breach. This was indeed an ambitious plan and there was a cautious response from Haig, who had concerns over the requirement on the BEF to take over the section of line stretching south from the Somme to the Oise River. Yet he was more than willing to allow the French to resume the main burden of the war effort.

Nivelle had a considerable ability to sell his plans: ‘Our goal is nothing less than the destruction of the major part of the enemy’s forces on the Western Front. We will achieve this only as the result of a decisive battle which engages all his available forces, followed up by an intensive exploitation. In the first and second phases, this means that we will have to break through his front, then beyond that breach engage any of his forces we have not yet fixed in other regions, and finally turn the bulk of our attacking force against his main lines of communication, forcing him into speedily abandoning his current front lines or accepting further combat under the most adverse of conditions. We will achieve these results by using a portion of our forces to fix the enemy and breach his front, then by committing our reserves beyond the point selected by me for the breakthrough.’ (General Robert Nivelle, General Headquarters)

When it came to dealing with politicians, Nivelle was far more persuasive than most of the more reserved generals that they had hitherto encountered. His vision of swift, certain success entranced Lloyd George in particular, who saw this as a way to avoid a prolonged bloodbath such as the Somme. And so it was that Nivelle’s plan was accepted as the centerpiece of Entente efforts in 1917.

Lloyd George gave a far greater drive and energy than his predecessor to prosecuting the war. In order to win Conservative support he had promised not to interfere in the strategic direction of the war, but nevertheless remained a firm devotee of Easterner operations that left him well adrift of his professional advisers. When he promulgated his vague ideas for an offensive in Italy at the Conference in Rome, they were soon crushed by a combination of the British and French High Commands. The Italians, especially, took a dim view of being thrust forward into such a prominent role.

At the same time, Lloyd George was able to hold back Haig, who would have liked more consideration of his long-standing plans for a major offensive in the Ypres area. Given Lloyd George’s aversion to the prospect of more British casualties in the mire of the Western Front, this plan was also discarded.

Lloyd George soon glimpsed an opportunity to turn Nivelle's increasing irritation with Haig to his own account and thereby weaken the influence of his generals. When a conference was convened at Calais it rapidly became evident that Lloyd George had conspired with the French in an attempt to make the British Commander-in-Chief permanently subordinate to Nivelle. An outraged Robertson threatened to resign and Lloyd George chose to avoid a full-blown political crisis by watering down the Calais proposals. The BEF would keep its distinct identity and Haig would be subordinate to Nivelle only for the duration of the coming offensive.

The incident did little to encourage closer cooperation between the British and French armies or boost the prospects of a unified command. It also deepened the underlying antipathy between Lloyd George and his senior commanders on the Western Front. Increasingly, the British political and military establishments were finding themselves at loggerheads. This was a dangerous state of affairs.

Haig and the British GHQ were furious: ‘If the big French attack is indecisive in its result, then inevitably, as the war goes on, our army will become the biggest on the Western Front (unless Lloyd George sends everybody off on side-shows), and there is bound to be interminable friction. If the French attack fails altogether, we shall have the whole weight of the German Army on the top of us, and the position will be even more difficult. If Joffre were still in command of the French and they were putting the British Army under him there might be some justification for it, for he has all the experience of the war behind him, but Nivelle is new to the game, with far less experience of actual fighting than Douglas Haig, and, according to what we are hearing from French officers, he does not seem to have the confidence even of his own generals.’ (Brigadier General John Charteris, General Headquarters, BEF)

Haig would survive in high command to the very end of the war, despite a loss of confidence in him by Lloyd George that, by the end of 1917, was almost total.

During the winter of 1916-1917 the BEF made strenuous efforts to disseminate the lessons it had learned on the Somme and to make appropriate improvements in its fighting methods, particularly in its artillery and small-unit infantry tactics. These months were notable for the publication of two important manuals. These manuals would help refine infantry tactics. It would be some time before the full impact of these changes was felt, but there would be clear, if not yet universal, signs of improvement in the BEF's infantry tactics in 1917.

The issue of Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action helped to lay the foundations of the coordinated all-arms tactics that would prove so effective in the final months of the war. This was followed by the no less influential Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action, which heralded a major change in the emphasis of infantry tactics from the company to the smaller sub-unit of the platoon.

The first elements of two Portuguese divisions began to arrive in France early in January 1917 and were subsequently attached to the BEF.

The French Army would be able to deploy 110 divisions on the Western Front. This slight increase was more apparent than real, for there was no rise in the number of infantry battalions available. Nevertheless, the French artillery arm was still growing. In addition, the production of tanks was now in hand and the St Chamond and Schneider models would play a part in the Entente spring offensive of 1917.

The French had likewise profited from the tactical lessons of 1916 but both the fighting capacity and morale of the French Army were unquestionably more brittle after the ordeal of Verdun.

Germany was not the only nation that was suffering in 1916. The French Army had suffered heavy casualties during the Battle of the Frontiers; it had fought a series of painful offensive battles in 1915; then it had not only endured the long agony of Verdun, but also played a considerable part on the Somme.

The French had been constructing tanks, and would have hundreds of them to put into action in April, as would the BEF. Moreover the Entente continued with their fantasy that the Germans, already on the ropes and suffering heavy losses, had now lost the will to fight as well.

Germany similarly witnessed growing disagreements among her military and political leaders. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Chancellor, favored a negotiated peace settlement, while Paul von Hindenburg, Chief of the General Staff, and Erich Ludendorff – his 'First Quartermaster-General' and de facto controller of Germany's war effort – were still totally committed to outright victory. Public opinion in Germany in early 1917 would have undoubtedly viewed anything less than a clear-cut victory as a betrayal of all who had shed their blood in the national cause. Germany's immediate future, however, looked far from bright.

Ever since the war began, the German Army was outnumbered, and the male population of military age was a finite resource. Although their superior military preparation and competence had so far brought the Germans success, there was a temptation among the Entente to believe that surely the pressure would tell in the end.

Germany’s accumulating military problems were matched by straitened economic conditions caused by a combination of the Royal Navy blockade and the exorbitant cost of war. Foodstuffs and clothes had to be severely rationed.

In Ludendorff’s mind, the surest path to victory would be to hasten Britain's collapse by ordering a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against Entente and neutral shipping. Such a policy carried obvious risks. The United States, angered by previous U-boat campaigns, might this time enter the war against the Central Powers. Ludendorff, however, judged that the U-boats would achieve the necessary result before America could fully deploy her considerable military and industrial potential against Germany.

In the end Ludendorff's arguments held sway. It was decreed by the Kaiser that unrestricted submarine operations should begin.

Because they were outnumbered, the German commanders decreed that they would remain on the defensive on the Western Front for the foreseeable future. The condition of the German Army at the end of 1916 was causing its commanders and senior staff officers great anxiety. When 1917 began, most of the German divisions in France and Belgium formed part of two Army Groups, commanded by Crown Prince Wilhelm, the Kaiser's son and heir to the Imperial throne, and Crown Prince Rupprecht.

At the time of the conference at Chantilly in mid-November 1916, the Entente outnumbered the Germans in infantry divisions on the Western Front, with 169 divisions against 129. Of the Entente divisions, 107 were French, 56 were British and six were Belgian. Despite having suffered terrible losses on the Somme, the BEF continued to expand in the following months.

About 60 percent of the German divisions on the Western Front in 1916 had also been through the mincing-machine of the Somme, a battlefield which one staff officer described as 'the muddy grave of the German field army'. It did not help matters that much of the pain the Germans had suffered on the Somme had been inflicted by the relatively inexperienced citizen-soldiers and staffs of the expanding BEF.

Hermann Von Kuhl, the distinguished Chief of Staff to Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria's Army Group, warned on 17 January 1917 that 'we can no longer reckon on the old troops; there is no doubt that in the past summer and autumn our troops have been fearfully harried and wasted'. Rest and training, he advised, must come 'first and foremost' in 1917.

Although the Germans decided to create more than a dozen new divisions, this could only be done by reducing existing establishments or drawing upon reserves. The increase therefore represented an organizational or administrative adjustment rather than a real reinforcement.

For the German High Command, the overall outlook was bleak: they had no option but to stand on the defensive. But this did not mean that they were passive; indeed, they had conducted a root and branch re-assessment of their defensive tactics in view of the increasing evidence that both the British on the Somme and the French at Verdun had begun to master the existing tactical configuration: ‘The course of the Somme battle had also supplied important lessons with regard to the construction and plan of our lines. The very deep underground forts in the front line trenches had to be replaced by shallower constructions. Concrete pillboxes (which, however, unfortunately took a long time to build) had acquired an increasing value. The conspicuous lines of trenches, which appeared as sharp lines on every aerial photograph, supplied far too good a target for the enemy artillery. The whole system of defence had to be made broader, looser and better adapted to the ground.’ (General Erich Ludendorff, General Headquarters)

Germany's decision to remain on the defensive in the west was made easier by the strides made in the construction of the fresh positions which were being established 25 miles to the rear of the existing front and which incorporated all the basic principles of the new doctrine of flexible defence in depth. The key stretch extended from Neuville Vitasse, near Arras, through St Quentin and Laffaux to Cerny, east of Soissons. The system – named the Siegfried Stellung by the Germans but called the Hindenburg Line by the British – was essentially a series of defensive zones rather than a single line.

Any force approaching the line would first face an outpost zone, around 600 yards deep, which contained concrete dugouts sheltering small detachments of storm troops. The latter were deployed to mount instant counterattacks and check the momentum of an enemy advance.

Behind the outpost zone was a main 'battle zone' which ran back some 2,500 yards and included the first and second trench lines as well as many concrete machine-gun posts with interlocking fields of fire. Counterattack divisions were placed immediately to the rear of the battle zone. Subsequently two more zones were added, giving the system a depth of up to 8,000 yards.

The trench lines were protected by thick belts of barbed wire, laid out in a zig-zag pattern nearest the front trench so that machine-guns could cover the angles of exit. The Germans also built the Wotan Stellung, a northern branch of the Hindenburg Line, between Drocourt and Queant, near Arras.

Several officers were involved in the development of these techniques, but the key proponent was Colonel Fritz von Lossberg. He was despatched as a senior staff officer to many of the areas most threatened by imminent French or British offensives. The reorganization of the German defences on these principles represented an enormous investment of time, manpower and materials.

From a military standpoint, withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line made sense for the Germans, but even Ludendorff wavered, fearing that retirement might adversely affect the morale of German soldiers and civilians. The move was forced upon him by Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the Army Group commander in whose sector the Hindenburg Line was largely located.

Already under renewed pressure from the British Fifth Army on the Ancre, Rupprecht and his outstanding Chief-of-Staff, von Kuhl, informed Ludendorff that the present positions were poor and that the troops were in no state to endure a repeat of the 1916 Somme battle. The order for retirement was issued accordingly on 4 February 1917.

The main phase of the retirement commenced and was largely completed within four days. The evacuation of the Noyon salient, and the withdrawal from the smaller salient near Bapaume, shortened the German front by 25 miles, freed 14 divisions and seriously disrupted Entente plans for the spring. It was not easy for the allied armies to advance rapidly across a devastated region after the most severe winter of the war but it can equally be argued that the pursuit of the Germans was too cautious.

The preparations for the French Northern Army Group's subsidiary part in the spring offensive were, in fact, well in hand and General Franchet d'Esperey, its commander, had sought permission to attack vigorously as soon as possible in order to catch the Germans at a critical moment. Nivelle, however, would not countenance major revisions to his own operational plan and refused to sanction anything other than a limited assault to capture the German front position. Thus he missed his only real opportunity to upset the German withdrawal.