The French 1917 Offensive in Context of 1914-17

The written histories of the French army during the opening months of the First World War often focused on the battle of the Marne in September 1914, a battle that it was crucial for the Allied armies to win. In contrast, the opening phase of the fighting along the French frontier with Germany has received remarkably little attention. In accordance with Plan XVII, the majority of the French troops were sent eastwards to deploy opposite the frontier with Germany, the direction from which the German army’s main thrust was expected. Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the French had built fortresses along their eastern frontier. It was expected that the Germans would attempt to avoid these and attack from the Metz area of Lorraine, and Plan XVII allowed the French army to deploy and react to any German incursions.

Of course, the Germans had opted instead for a strategy of envelopment; the much-discussed Schlieffen-Moltke Plan allowed for the German army to send a large force, in fact the main effort of this attack, in a wide sweeping manoeuvre through Belgium. This group of armies would, it was hoped, sweep past Paris and into the rear of the main French armies. The French, sandwiched between two German army groups, would be destroyed in a decisive battle. This short campaign would then allow the Germans to turn eastwards to deal with the Russian army, which, it was thought, would be mobilising much more slowly. With the benefit of hindsight, the numerous flaws in the German plan seem obvious but it should be borne in mind that similar plans for large-scale enveloping manoeuvres were to prove successful on the Eastern Front, in particular at Tannenberg in August 1914.

Joffre was not unaware of the possibility of a German attack through Belgium but he refused to believe that this would be the main German effort and as a result sent just a single army to cover his left flank to the north. This was the French Fifth Army under General Charles Lanrezac. Joffre would cling stubbornly to this belief as the early battles developed, refusing to believe the reports from commanders on the spot that they were facing the bulk of the German army in its advance through Belgium.

Joffre also planned for a series of vast spoiling offensives that would shut down any German plan. The first of these would be launched into Alsace, the Saar and Lorraine. The line of eastern fortifications would force the Germans to attack through the Trouée des Charmes (the Charmes Gap), an unfortified area between Toul and Epinal, and this would allow Joffre to concentrate his forces to respond. A second wave of French offensives would be launched towards Metz and, if the Germans came through Belgium, he would attack through the Ardennes and detach the German right wing from the rest of the army. France was, after all, numerically weaker in the field and these plans allowed for the possibility of gaining local numerical superiority. Joffre was confident that his plans would be successful and this would allow the five French armies to contain and isolate the German forces in Belgium while also engaging their central group of armies along the eastern frontier. Within the French strategy there was, however, a dangerous tendency towards ‘mirror imaging’ when predicting German moves. Perhaps the single biggest flaw in Joffre’s plans was his assumption that the Germans would conform to his ideas as to how they should deploy. The result was to be a near disaster.

Mobilisation began in France on 1 August 1914 and deployment followed the minutely detailed timetables of Plan XVII. France called up twenty-seven year classes for service, while also deploying its standing conscript army and available colonial troops. Over 4,000 trains carried these men across France to their designated railheads and from there they covered up to 30km per day in route marches to their deployment areas. At this early phase of the war French troops were still dressed in what can only be described as nineteenth-century military splendour. The infantry wore red trousers and their uniforms were topped with a red kepi. In the weeks that followed, officers would lead attacks wearing white gloves and waving swords. The French cavalry similarly wore red breeches but topped their uniforms with a polished brass helmet, complete with plume. Cuirassier regiments wore polished breastplates. The opening battles would show how unwise it was to advance on the enemy wearing such distinctive and visible uniforms.

The initial French attack took place on the extreme right flank of the French army when VII Corps of the First Army, supported by a cavalry division, was sent to occupy Mulhouse. This would gain a foothold on the Rhine and allow for later operations. On 7 August VII Corps duly crossed the frontier but its commander, General Bonneau, was far from audacious as local intelligence reports alarmed him with accounts of an Austrian outflanking move through Switzerland. Nevertheless, his troops advanced with determination and after a six-hour battle overcame German resistance at Altkirch with a bayonet charge, as per regulations – but at the cost of over a hundred men killed. Bonneau sent a telegram directly to the Minister of War, Adolphe Messimy, in Paris, trumpeting a great victory while also by-passing the chain of command. The next day Bonneau took Mulhouse without further fighting but on 9 August his position began to unravel. He was ejected from Mulhouse by a series of counterattacks by the German Seventh Army (von Heeringen) and was beaten back to the vicinity of the fortress at Belfort. Soon after, Bonneau was removed from command. This initial phase of attacks had opened promisingly, only to quickly disintegrate into a veritable rout. The organisation and firepower of the German forces had overwhelmed the French formations. The French artillery had proved ineffective while the standard infantry weapon, the much-lauded Lebel rifle was found to be outdated. The Lebel proved to be overlong and poorly balanced, while its tubular magazine made reloading much slower. These problems were exacerbated by battlefield conditions. The French senior commanders had been shown to be wanting, while at regimental level officers found that there were too few maps and communications were poor. The tendency for infantry and cavalry to put in spirited attacks, while awfully gallant, also resulted in significant casualties.

In the immediate opening phases of the war there was little time to process such lessons. The early battles of August 1914 – referred to collectively as the ‘Battles of the Frontiers’ – comprised four simultaneous battles in Lorraine, the Ardennes forests, Charleroi and Mons. The fighting developed as the French army conformed to Plan XVII and the Belgian and British armies also deployed in an effort to counter the unfolding German plan. French offensives into Lorraine and the Ardennes followed a pattern that mirrored General Bonneau’s experiences and they were repulsed by tactically superior German forces.34 In front of Nancy, the French prepared to contest the German advance, only to find that their southern flank in the Ardennes was exposed. Full-scale retreat followed on 23 August. As the northern wing of the French army at Charleroi also retreated, alarming gaps began to appear in the Allied line. When the BEF retreated from Mons, a gap opened on its right between it and its nearest French support. By 24 August all of the Allied armies were being pushed back from the German advance, despite desperate rearguard actions such as at Le Cateau on 26 August.

In Paris these developments were met with considerable alarm. On 27 August the Union Sacrée coalition government was formed under Premier René Viviani but any public confidence in this act of political unity soon disappeared as the government was evacuated from Paris on 2 September and sent to Bordeaux to escape the worsening situation. It is estimated that as many as 500,000 Parisians followed the example of their political masters and left the city.

The First Battle of the Marne, fought between 5 and 12 September, ultimately stabilised the Allied situation. It was, in fact, a series of battles fought out along a 150km front that stretched from Compiègne to Verdun, while at the same time other actions were developing on the eastern front in Lorraine. These desperate days saw convoys of taxis used to ferry over 6,000 reservists to the front. The key moment came on 4–5 September, during the prelude to the main battle, when General Gallieni realised that General von Kluck’s First Army was swinging away from Paris and exposing its left flank. This provided an opportunity for a French counter-stroke. Thereafter, now also hampered by poor communications, the German commander Helmuth von Moltke found his plan falling apart. The French armies and the BEF stubbornly held their ground south of the Marne river, and when Colonel Hentsch, a German staff officer, ordered a general retreat of the German First and Second Armies on 9 September, the battle was as good as lost. The German armies re-established themselves over 60km away along a line on the Aisne river, which would be the scene of another battle (the First Battle of the Aisne) later in September.

While this battlefield success was hailed as the ‘Miracle of the Marne’, it was obvious to both sides that the inconclusive end to these opening phases meant that the war would not be a short affair. Both the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan and Plan XVII had failed to bring a decisive victory. In a similar vein, the commanders and armies of both sides had exhibited problems in terms of battlefield command, communications, training and equipment. Joffre, who was lauded as the ‘hero of the Marne’, had shown great calm in the face of the rapidly deteriorating situation, yet he had also displayed a certain slowness and lack of imagination. In the months that followed, a series of battles was fought in northern France and Flanders as the Germans and Allies sought to outflank each other in the phase of fighting that came to be known as the ‘Race to the Sea’. By the end of 1914 the front was static, with trench lines running from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. A large tract of France was occupied by German forces, which over time developed more elaborate defences and trench systems. For the next four years French commanders would try to figure out how to eject these German forces from French soil. It was a problem that confounded many a high-ranking French general, and in the immediate sense Joffre showed himself unequal to the new battlefield conditions.

It was during the early battles of 1914 that Robert Nivelle first came to popular notice. At the outbreak of the war Nivelle was an obscure colonel, commanding a regiment of artillery. Born in Tulle in 1856, he was the son of a French officer; his English mother was the daughter of one of the Duke of Wellington’s officers. Following training at the École Polytechnique, Nivelle was commissioned into the artillery in 1878 and later attended the cavalry school at Saumer (1881). His early service was in the artillery and he served in Tunisia and also in the Boxer Rebellion in China. In 1908, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he was posted to Algeria. In 1912 he was promoted to full colonel and commanded both the Fourth and Fifth Artillery Regiments in the years before the war.

During the Alsace Offensive in 1914 Nivelle displayed great skill in the deployment and use of his guns, and during the Battle of the Marne (5–12 September 1914) he displayed great bravery and coolness under fire. During this battle Nivelle realised that the infantry brigade to his front was beginning to disintegrate and as the terrified infantrymen began to stream to the rear, he limbered up his guns and drove them forwards through the retreating troops. Technically speaking, it was exactly the opposite of what he should have done at that moment. But instead of ordering his unit to safety in the rear he deployed his regiment of 75mm guns and engaged the advancing Germans over open sights. At point-blank range he coordinated an intense fire on the German troops, halting their advance and stabilising his section of the line. It was a courageous act; indeed, Nivelle never lacked personal courage. In the First Battle of the Aisne (12–15 September 1914) he again laid down a devastatingly effective fire on German formations. In reality, what we refer to as the Battles of the Marne and the First Aisne consisted of a series of dispersed and confusing actions but Nivelle performed well throughout this period, especially at the engagements at Crouy and Quennevières.

Nivelle’s actions brought him to the attention of Joffre, who was impressed by his initiative and offensive spirit. In November 1914 Nivelle was promoted to command of a brigade, and in February 1915 was promoted again, to command of a division. Thereafter, his rise was nothing less than meteoric, and in December 1915 he was appointed to command III Corps of Pétain’s Second Army. By 1916 Nivelle had established a reputation that made him a contender for the commander-in-chief’s position. He would be the prime architect of the disastrous events of 1917. Nivelle was highly intelligent and an excellent artillery officer. He was extremely effective in coordinating artillery at regimental, brigade and divisional level. But it could be argued that his later promotions took him beyond his abilities and out of his ‘comfort zone’ as an artillerist.

For Joffre, the immediate problem was how to break the German lines and restore a war of movement. From late 1914, and throughout 1915, he followed a programme for offensive action. These offensives came to be characterised by the increased use of artillery, successive attacks by the infantry and high casualty figures. In late 1914 Joffre initiated his First Champagne Offensive, which ran from 10 December to 17 March 1915. This intense phase of fighting saw separate battles developing along a wide front, including three battles for the town of Perthes alone, with further fighting around Noyon and Givenchy. Supplementary attacks took place at Verdun, Artois and Woëvre. By the end of the campaign the French had advanced to a maximum depth of 2km into the German lines. French casualties stood at more than 90,000 killed, wounded or missing.

Unperturbed, Joffre turned his attention to the Artois sector. He was convinced that the Germans were sending forces to the east to counter the Russians and felt sure that he could break the line there. His Artois Offensive was launched on 9 May and ran until 19 June, and incorporated the British First Army under Haig. There were some significant successes. The French preceded the attack with a five-day preliminary bombardment and Pétain’s corps covered more than 5km in 90 minutes in one assault towards Vimy. The British attack at Neuve Chapelle on 9 May was preceded by minimal artillery preparation, however, and resulted in 11,000 casualties. Later French and British attacks made minimal gains. When the offensive was finally shut down, the French had lost more than 100,000 casualties.

Despite shell shortages and the difficulties of coordinating such large-scale attacks, Joffre persisted – with similar results. The Artois–Loos Offensive and the Second Champagne Offensive, which ran simultaneously from 25 September to 6 November, resulted in 48,000 and 145,000 French casualties respectively. By the time these two offensives had been called off in early November, the French army and the BEF had suffered over 320,000 casualties collectively.

In light of such enormous losses, it became increasingly obvious to political leaders that they needed to exert greater control over the military commanders, in particular Joffre. While the military complained about the difficulties on the Western Front, German success in the Baltic during their Vilnius Offensive in September 1915 spurred the Viviani administration to try to gain control of the war. Yet the politicians would be thwarted in these efforts. Since early 1915 Viviani had been pressuring Joffre to allow deputies to visit the front on tours of inspection but permission was not forthcoming. The government also wished to free up French forces for a campaign in Serbia but Joffre would not release them. The final straw was Bulgaria’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers in October. This occurred despite the best efforts of the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, to keep Bulgaria on the Allied side. Exasperated and looking increasingly ineffectual, Viviani resigned in October 1915. He was succeeded by Aristide Briand, who would fare no better.

In the aftermath of such huge casualties the French army hoped for a period of rest and recuperation during the winter months of 1915/16 but on 21 February 1916 the Germans took the battlefield initiative to launch a massive offensive against Verdun. This bloody battle would run in several phases and last until December. As a result, it became the longest battle in human history. Both sides allowed themselves to be drawn into a contest over objectives of questionable strategic value. For France, the battle would later define the struggle against Germany. In the decades after the war the ‘300 Jours de Verdun’ would be depicted as an existential battle and an iconic period in French history. French efforts on the Somme in the summer of 1916 were largely successful, indicating that the army was developing tactically but the Verdun battle overshadowed all other efforts. This is unsurprising. When the battle finally wound down in the winter of 1916, the French had suffered more than 550,000 casualties. To a modern reader, such casualty rates are simply beyond comprehension. Yet in his plans for 1917, Joffre was intending to unleash a further series of offensives.

Nivelle was also to play a significant role in the French army’s struggle to maintain its grip on Verdun. At the outbreak of the battle he was still in command of III Corps in Pétain’s Second Army. In April 1916 he mounted a series of attacks with III Corps on the right bank of the Verdun sector and achieved some success. But it was not without cost. Once again Nivelle’s offensive spirit came to the attention of Joffre, who was impressed with Nivelle’s confidence and ‘can do’ attitude, which was in striking contrast to the pessimism of Pétain. Joffre saw an opportunity and promoted Pétain to command the Groupe d’Armées du Centre (Central Army Group or GAC) and on 27 April 1916 Nivelle was promoted and appointed to command the Second Army. In less than two years Nivelle had been promoted from colonel to lieutenant-general.

At a time when the French people needed positive news from the Verdun front, the choice of Nivelle to command the Second Army seemed a wise one. Apart from his capabilities as a soldier, Nivelle knew how to handle visiting pressmen and politicians and had a flair for providing well-timed quotes for the press – what we would refer to today as ‘sound-bites’. After the German capture of Fleury on 23 June 1916, and at a particularly desperate time for the French, Nivelle concluded his order of the day with the inspiring line ‘Ils ne passeront pas!’ (‘They shall not pass!’). This was trumpeted from the headlines of newspapers and later became a national slogan that would be used on recruiting posters and in army bulletins. Nivelle was not without his critics, however, and some criticised him for the casualties incurred in his counter-offensives.

It is worth taking a moment to discuss some of the other personalities associated with Nivelle at this time. One of his divisional commanders was General Charles Mangin, who commanded the Fifth Infantry Division, made up largely of colonial troops. Mangin was an extremely tough and competent soldier, who had seen much campaigning in the colonies before the war. He had been wounded three times in various campaigns and had served in Mali, Senegal, Tonkin and in the Fashoda expedition of 1898. In the immediate pre-war years Mangin had pushed strongly for the establishment of a ‘Force Noire’, effectively an army of black troops made up with regiments from France’s colonies in Africa. In 1910 he published a work on the subject. Within Mangin’s central idea lurked his belief that African and Arab troops were less imaginative and less sensitive to pain and suffering. It now seems evident that he apparently also viewed them as expendable, or perhaps just more expendable than metropolitan troops. To modern sensibilities, Mangin’s views can only be seen as intrinsically racist and insensitive but at the time he was considered to be a successful commander and was valued by Nivelle within the Second Army. During the summer of 1916 Mangin had pushed some reserve units to their breaking point and there were calls for him to be removed, but Nivelle intervened on his behalf and he remained in command. Among the common soldiers Mangin was known as ‘the Butcher’ and his callous tendencies would become apparent once again during the 1917 offensive.

An equally dark and somewhat mysterious figure was Lieutenant-Colonel Audemard d’Alançon (often referred to as d’Alenson in English sources). D’Alançon occupied the role of chef de cabinet for Nivelle. This was a uniquely French appointment, combining the roles of military secretary and chief of staff. The two men had first met in Algeria before the war and it is now recognised that d’Alançon had a major influence on Nivelle in the planning of operations. D’Alançon was suffering from a terminal disease – tuberculosis according to contemporary accounts – and as a result he was driven by an overwhelming desire to see the war concluded with a French victory in the limited span still allotted to him. He was also a firm believer in the potential of offensive action and he supported Nivelle’s offensive actions at Verdun. He would later be a prime mover in the 1917 offensive, pushing Nivelle’s agenda despite the doubts that were mounting on all sides. Edward Spears wrote that he was ‘far more acute and intelligent than would have been gathered from his appearance and he was no mean judge of men’. At a more negative level, Spears noted that he:

Urged constantly, such was the frenzy of his haste, that the tempo of the attack and the speed of the preparations should be increased, until the impression one gained ceased to be that of high authority prescribing dispatch but rather of an uncontrolled force like a swollen torrent rushing madly onward.

His French counterparts expressed similar concerns. They found that d’Alançon pushed for offensive action while also acting as a shield for Nivelle against the doubts expressed by senior officers. General Micheler referred to his ‘keen intelligence and character’ but also was concerned about his influence over Nivelle, stating that d’Alançon seemed often divorced from reality, showing a marked tendency to twist facts to fit his desired reality. Jean de Pierrefeu, who served on Nivelle’s staff in 1917, was equally critical of d’Alançon and later wrote that:

Colonel d’Alançon had the true gambler’s temperament, as was proved by his reply to Colonel Fetizon, deputy-chief of the Third Bureau, a calm methodical man of considerable common sense, who had asked, ‘And if we fail? What then?’ D’Alançon replied, ‘Well, if we fail, we will throw our hands in.’ We certainly lived in a gambling atmosphere.

These tendencies would reappear during preparations for Nivelle’s offensive in 1917. The Nivelle–Mangin–d’Alançon partnership resulted in further offensives during the later phases of the Verdun battle. Having organised the counterattacks on the right bank of the Verdun sector in April 1916, Nivelle now focused his attention on Fort Douaumont, which had been lost to the Germans in February. Quite apart from its symbolic value to the French, the fort stood on a height at 1,200ft and dominated the surrounding area. Despite this dominant position and its comprehensive defences, the fort had fallen to the Germans quite easily. To add further insult, the Germans also captured Fort Vaux in July and Nivelle’s attempt to recapture this fort was beaten off with such high casualties that Pétain forbade any further attempts to recapture the forts. However, during July Nivelle continued to mount counterattacks against the German assaults. Mangin mounted a particularly effective counterattack before being stopped in his tracks, with heavy casualties, on 11 July.

While it is easy to criticise such offensives, the alternative was to allow the Germans to break through and exploit. Nivelle also persuaded Pétain to allow him to engage in further efforts to retake the forts but accepted the caveat that he had to engage in very thorough preparations. In the weeks that followed, Nivelle engaged in massive artillery preparations, gathering more than 500 additional guns, including two 400mm railway guns, in his planned attack zone. These were to support the Second Army’s existing artillery. Ultimately there would be one artillery piece for every 15 yards of front, with over 15,000 tons of shells stockpiled. The assault troops rehearsed over ground prepared to resemble the approaches to Fort Douaumont and their advance would be preceded by a creeping barrage once the attack began. On 19 October a three-day preparatory bombardment began, which targeted not only Douaumont but also other known German positions and lines of communication in that zone. This bombardment proved accurate and devastating, while the use of gas shells proved extremely effective.

By the time the infantry assault began on 24 October 1916 the fort had been rendered virtually untenable due to the intensity of the barrage and had already been partially evacuated. A thick mist aided the attacking troops while the creeping barrage moved ahead of their advance. The light artillery fired 70 yards ahead of the advancing French infantry, while the heavy artillery fired 150 yards ahead. The whole movement was coordinated using field telephone communications and the barrage lifted in stages to allow the troops to advance. The troops crossed the devastated landscape at a rate of about 25 yards per minute and on reaching the fort Mangin’s divisions (made up of Moroccan and Senegalese troops and units of Coloniale infantry) cleared the defences using flamethrowers. Nivelle repeated this success at Fort Vaux on 2 November and in a subsequent eight-division attack on 15 December he pushed the Germans back a further 3 miles and captured more than 9,000 prisoners. The key to Nivelle’s success seemed deceptively simple: methodical preparation followed by massive and focused artillery bombardment. But unlike in previous offensives, this artillery fire was concentrated along narrow corridors to create lanes for the attacking infantry.

In the context of this vast attritional battle that had ground down the French army and nation throughout much of the preceding year, these successes seemed little short of miraculous. Criticism over continuing these attacks as winter drew on, and the casualties incurred, was lost amidst the general public rejoicing. Nivelle became a national hero and received much attention in the French press. The Briand government, which was looking increasingly threatened, also made much of this new public hero.

It has been repeatedly suggested that Nivelle’s fellow generals, and in particular his immediate commander, Pétain, disapproved of his methods. Yet at this time Nivelle was keeping step with Pétain’s own philosophy of thorough preparation followed by a focused attack for a specific and limited objective. In this context, Nivelle’s methods had potential for success. Problems would occur in 1917, however, when he tried to develop attacks based on these principles but on a vast scale. His success in 1916 imbued Nivelle with the vast confidence that would later prove so damaging. To his staff officers he announced ‘We now have the formula’, while in his parting address to the Second Army he announced ‘The experience is conclusive, our method has proved itself.’ Nivelle would later refer to these tactics as the ‘Verdun Method’, while in the press it was referred to as ‘Nivelling’.

By late 1916 new armaments programmes were supplying better equipment to the French army. There was more and better artillery, while at battalion level there were increased numbers of weapons such as trench mortars, light machine guns and flamethrowers. New infantry doctrine was drawn up to reflect this and lessons were incorporated based on German infiltration tactics. On the surface at least there was much to be confident about.

The French army was still wedded to the idea of the offensive and this would have dangerous consequences in 1917. Also, it became increasingly obvious to any observant staff officer that the troops were exhausted. Morale in the winter of 1916/17 was at an all-time low. This was against a backdrop of discontent on the home front and political uncertainty. All the indicators should have urged for caution but instead Nivelle precipitated perhaps the biggest gamble undertaken by the French army during the war.

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