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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.