In 1916, the French military placed General Robert-Georges Nivelle in supreme command. At the time, he seemed like an obvious choice. His successes at Verdun, combined with the prospects of better coordination with the British, contributed to the illusion that he could break the deadlock of the Western Front and force a German surrender. He proposed a spring offensive with utter self-assurance. It proved, instead, to be an unmitigated failure, sapping French strength and morale for several months.
Nivelle’s journey to supreme command had been unusually brief. In 1914, he had led only a single regiment; 27 months later, he was selected to serve as Commander-in-chief of French forces. His leadership at Verdun had made this possible. Objectively, Nivelle’s successes were founded on the effective coordination of infantry and artillery in what is known as a creeping barrage: the artillery range was continually advanced to remain ahead of the infantry while the latter approached the enemy lines. When done correctly, as at Verdun, the attacking infantry was able to assault the enemy position before the defenders had time to resume their normal posture. It was a technique that had enabled Nivelle’s men to recover the ruins of Vaux and Douaumont outside of Verdun; Nivelle was convinced that the same technique could be applied on a vast scale and enjoy comparable success.
Subjective factors also contributed to his swift rise. While he shared with many other commanders such virtues as courage and the ability to inspire confidence in his subordinates, he exceeded most of them in his ability to sway his peers and superiors, both military and political. His social graces and rhetorical skills made him a commander who was able to meet political leaders on their terms and influence them effectively. He was especially well-positioned with his English allies: his own mother had been British, and his mastery of English promised a greater level of Franco-British understanding than had been possible under General Joffre. With far less relevance, Nivelle’s Protestant faith also recommended him in English eyes.
Nivelle sought to reverse the consensus that had been reached between British and French leaders at Chantilly earlier in the year. At the end of 1916, the Entente outnumbered the Germans by a factor of roughly 3 to 2, and the only question concerned the best way to exploit this superiority. At Chantilly, the allies had agreed to continue their existing strategy of attacking the Germans both in France and in Belgium, forcing the Germans to make difficult decisions about which sectors to reinforce. Nivelle wished to concentrate all efforts on a single, strategically significant point, and pledged that the tactics that had prevailed at Verdun could also win the day on the Western Front as a whole.
Even those commanders who were drawn to his argument looked with suspicion on his firmly-stated belief that his plan could end the war in just two days of fighting, but Nivelle won over British Prime Minister Lloyd George, and that support ensured that British forces would be available to carry out his plan. It did not, however, engender greater unity between the two principal allies; conflict between the civilian and military leadership in Britain resulted in a very public dispute, and in the end, the promised British support was limited to this specific offensive. This did not bother Nivelle. He expected this to be the final offensive of the war, and he bolstered his position with a promise to end the offensive if it did not enjoy total success in just two days’ time.
Nivelle’s plan seemed sound according to military theory. The front lines had shifted gradually over the previous two years, resulting in an interlocking series of bulges, or salients, on both sides. Salients are dangerous for a defender, because the attacker can surround the defender on three sides. In the context of the fighting in World War I, this also means more ground on which to site heavy artillery for the attack. Both sides had salients all along the front lines, but in general, the Germans remained on the defensive in the west, and so the Germans faced greater peril from these salients. The largest salient was the one that ran from the river Somme, where French and British forces met, to the river Oise in the south, and then southeast along the Aisne Canal. It was large enough to accommodate a massive build-up of forces, and conveniently, it permitted the British to provide substantial aid with a reduced risk.
The principal effort was to be in the south, along the Aisne Canal, where a road called the Chemin des Dames extended northeast from Soissons and turned east into German-held territory. Four fresh armies, organized as the Reserve Army Group, were tasked for this part of the effort. The British, striking east from their own salient around the city of Arras, were to provide the initial diversion that gave the Reserve Army Group a chance to surprise the Germans, while the French Northern Army Group, positioned between the Somme and Oise rivers, would subsequently attack their section of the front. This was to be accomplished with the same level of cooperation between the artillery and the infantry that had brought great success at Verdun, now expanded to a far greater scale.
The first problem with the plan was the fact that the Germans were just as aware of their vulnerability as the Entente leadership was. All winter they had been hard at work in rectifying this weakness. The French and British had more men and more supplies than the Germans, who were then suffering the beginning of their third year of the blockade. The Germans sought new efficiencies in their defensive positions, preparing a new defensive line deeper in occupied French territory. Called the Siegfried Line by the Germans, but later to be known as the Hindenburg Line among the western Allies, this new trench system was to be far stronger than the existing lines, which had been constructed within sight of the enemy, sometimes under hasty circumstances. Moreover, pulling back to the Siegfried Line would give the Germans 25 fewer miles to defend, enabling as many as thirteen divisions to pull back from trench duty, giving the Germans a substantial pool of men for offensive action or support duties in the future. Operation Alberich, a withdrawal to the Siegfried Line accompanied by the implementation of a scorched-earth policy in the territory being abandoned, started on March 16.
The second problem was the failure of the Entente commanders to respond to the change in circumstances in an adequate manner. In fact, they failed to notice the German withdrawal until March 25. Once this was noticed, British and French forces advanced gingerly in the Germans’ wake. Much of their planning had been invalidated at a stroke. The French Northern Army Group was already in possession of the former German salient almost as far as St. Quentin, while the smaller salient south of Arras was also gone. Active British participation in the offensive was limited to a small area east and northeast of Arras. Planning for support duties, from resupply efforts to the crucially important coordination of the artillery with the infantry, was similarly negated. Realistic politicians in the French government urged Nivelle to abandon, or at least radically change, his plans in light of new circumstances, but Nivelle retained, or at least feigned, an unshakable faith in his plan. The politicians backed down, and the offensive was allowed to proceed.
Thirdly, Nivelle publicized far too much of his intentions. His purpose was to inspire French soldiers, and the nation as a whole, and in the short run he succeeded. British and French senior officers alike shared the same concerns as French politicians, but Nivelle’s promises had their desired effect in the lower ranks, where morale reached levels not seen since the summer of 1914. French civilians joined in their confidence; when Nivelle’s promises were proven empty, however, such confidence was replaced with a corresponding loss of faith in military leadership. Another unintended consequence of Nivelle’s public relations effort was the effective briefing of the Germans in the general outlines of his plans. The practice of conducting trench raids was an important source of intelligence for both sides in World War I, and German raids yielded enough actionable intelligence to ensure that the Germans would be ready for the attack at all of its key objectives.
The British attack began on April 9, following four days of heavy artillery fire. This was a traditional preparation for attack wholly against the spirit of Nivelle’s plan, but it was saved from disaster by the equal violation by the local German commander of Ludendorff’s plans to carry on a flexible defense. The Germans were determined to hold Vimy Ridge, resulting in heavy losses on the first day and the capture of the ridge by British forces. Entente commanders had reasons to hope that the effort would prove a success after all.
The recalcitrant German officer outside of Arras was replaced immediately, and flexible defense procedures were enforced all along the line, effectively frustrating most of the French preparations when Nivelle unleashed his Reserve Army Group on April 16. The forward positions were thinly manned, minimizing the disruption that would be caused by the French creeping barrage. Large concentrations of forces lurked behind the lines, ready to advance when conditions were ripe for a counterattack.
The kind of infantry-artillery coordination that had been so powerful at Verdun was almost certainly doomed to fail in the Nivelle Offensive because such tight planning generally worked only on a small scale, with especially capable forces and good intelligence. The same methods could not be applied to army groups, regardless of their experience, and neither could they be replicated under conditions of poor intelligence. Shortly after the attack began, the Germans succeeded in asserting air superiority, and the French artillery was effectively rendered blind. In spite of Nivelle’s promises that his attack would not become like the Verdun or Somme battles, the offensive descended into a bloody quagmire on the first day.
The French air assets failed to give the artillery the battlefield intelligence it needed. The artillery failed to give the infantry the support it needed, and French soldiers faced well-prepared defenders instead of dazed stragglers. The tanks that were gathered for the attack failed even to make contact with the enemy. French losses reached 40,000 in a single day, with only negligible gains in terms of compensation.
Nivelle persevered for another three days, trying to revive his offensive until the 20th, by which time it was clear that it had failed. The offensive was called off, but it took until May 7 for the French to completely extricate themselves from the fighting, during which time French casualties exceeded 130,000. The British were obligated to begin another supporting attack at Arras on April 23, just to give the French some cover for their retreat. While the British ended the offensive with control over Vimy Ridge, their own casualties approached 150,000.
It was the French, however, who were more adversely affected by the loss. The French Army had believed in the offensive, regardless of what top commanders might have thought, and when it had proven a colossal failure, the army was disillusioned as thoroughly as it had been inspired beforehand. Throughout the summer of 1917, the French Army was paralyzed by mutinies that threatened to end its cohesiveness altogether. Nivelle was reassigned to North Africa on May 15, with supreme command passing to generals Petain and Foch. While the French Army struggled to reassert itself, the Entente war effort was left mainly in the hands of the British. The Nivelle Offensive was perhaps the most disastrous single offensive of the war.
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