Nivelle’s failure

Nivelle’s failure was no greater than that of others, indeed rather less. He took more ground than Joffre did in his offensives or than Haig did at Arras. But Nivelle had promised more. Instead, he had carried the exhausted French army beyond breaking point.

(A.J.P. Taylor)

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Nivelle Offensive was that, despite its failure, there were so few consequences for its instigator, Nivelle himself. Yes, his career as a commander was over, and for a man who was so ambitious and had such tremendous self-belief this must have been devastating, but, as was the case with so many failed First World War commanders, there would be no court-martial or further sanction.

There was, however, a Commission of Enquiry, which met in a series of sessions from August to October 1917. Its brief was to ‘study the conditions in which the offensive of 16–23 April took place in the valley of the Aisne and to determine the role of the general officers who exercised command’. It was an investigative commission only and had no power to impose any sanctions. It was headed by General Brugère and the other two members were Generals Foch and Gouraud. None of these officers had served under Nivelle during the offensive and were deemed suitable to carry out the inquiry due to their seniority. Nivelle did not attend all the sessions and submitted some of his testimony in a series of memoranda. Generals Micheler, Mazel and Mangin also attended to give evidence. Painlevé was deeply disappointed with the remit of the commission and later dismissed its report as mere ‘rose water’.

Some time was spent considering Nivelle’s overall principles, with Foch expanding on how Nivelle’s concepts were flawed and how continuing the Somme offensive might have been more fruitful, perhaps even resulting in victory in 1917. The testimonies of Nivelle’s subordinate commanders followed a pattern. Micheler, Mangin and Mazel all confessed to having had doubts about the plan and its operational security but they had ultimately felt obliged to follow orders. Mangin, now thoroughly disillusioned with his former chief, referred to Nivelle’s Napoleonic attitude, while Mazel was described as ‘cold and reserved’ throughout the proceedings. Pétain, who had initially not been invited to attend, also obtained a hearing, during which he trotted out his previous criticisms. It seems that he was making an effort to disassociate himself from all blame, although it can be argued that he should have been more forceful in his opposition in March and April.

The commission also sought out the report prepared in early 1917 by Nivelle’s former chief of operations, Colonel Renouard. This report had contained pessimistic predictions regarding the offensive’s likelihood of success and several staff officers had read it. Interestingly, the members of the commission found that the report had been removed from the files.

The commission’s final thirty-page report is an excellent source for historians as it unpacks the development of Nivelle’s plan throughout its span. The role of the subordinate generals is also outlined and some, such as Mangin, are given credit for their performance. General Duchêne could not be criticised, it was stated, as his army’s offensive had never truly got under way. Ultimate responsibility rested, the report concluded, with Nivelle.

Other aspects of the plan also drew severe criticism. The presiding generals concluded that the logistical measures necessary to maintain the artillery supply, and hence the barrage, had not been put in place. The medical services were singled out for particular criticism as they had inadequate personnel in place to evacuate wounded from the battlefield and then too few field hospitals and transport facilities.

Further points were also discussed that contributed to the offensive’s failure. These included:

•  inadequate artillery preparation;

•  poor performance by the tanks;

•  weather;

•  lack of operational security;

•  the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line; and

•  the availability of German reserves.

Mention was also made of the activities of ‘defeatist’ and pacifist elements within France. The report made positive mention of the ‘magnificent élan’ and performance of the troops. The message was clear: the cause of the defeat lay not with the troops themselves but with their senior commanders. It was perhaps the commission’s president, General Brugère, who best summed up the main problem in a letter to Poincaré, in which he stated that Nivelle ‘had not been up to’ the demands of senior command.

Paradoxically, the Germans also formed an investigative group to examine the French attack. It reached many of the same conclusions as the French inquiry. The Germans paid special attention to the deployment of the tank force, commenting, ‘We can only conclude that the main striking force of an offensive resides in tanks and it is a question of developing the other arms in such a way that they can keep up with them.’ The German general staff would pay much attention to tank actions during the First World War as they developed new operational doctrines during the interwar years. This process would ultimately produce the tactical methods of ‘Blitzkrieg’.

The issue of casualties was a major feature of the French inquiry. In the offensive’s early phases losses were being estimated at around 96,000 in total, killed, wounded or missing. It is now clear that these initial calculations were underestimated. During the worst phase of the army mutinies the losses were deliberately downplayed in the hope of minimising the public and political outcry. During wartime it was also difficult to get accurate casualty numbers due to various battlefield factors and the enormous pressures faced by administrative and medical staff. However, it would appear that there were some attempts to conceal the extent of the casualties. For example, casualties from the Russian brigades were not initially factored in, while lightly wounded who returned to their units were also not counted. Most modern accounts give the figure of 134,000 casualties, which includes 100,000 wounded, 30,000 killed and 4,000 missing or taken prisoner. A post-war study by the 1er Bureau of the GQG calculated the numbers to be much higher, and factored in losses for the whole of the operation from 16 April to 10 May and also included those who suffered light wounds. This gave significantly higher totals of 48,000 dead, 120,000 wounded and 4,500 taken prisoner or missing. The Canadian historian G.W.L. Nicholson calculated as many as 187,000 losses in total. Such casualty rates represented the worst losses since November 1914. The debate about the final casualty figures still continues. Due to the fact the GQG withheld the casualty figures at the time, the idea that the true total was much higher has endured. Some French sources claim 200,000–250,000 men killed.

Can the Nivelle Offensive be considered anything other than a failure? In the light of such casualty figures it is obvious, by any sensible criteria, that it was a costly failure. Yet at the time there were attempts to cast it in a more positive light. Estimates of the numbers of German casualties vary but some sources claim as many as 163,000 total casualties, including more than 28,000 taken prisoner. More than 180 German artillery pieces and over 400 machine guns (some sources say 1,000) had been captured, along with 149 Minenwerfer and much other equipment. Some territorial gains had been made and key terrain features captured, while the Sixth Army’s advance was one of the biggest French advances since the war had settled into trench warfare in 1914. The army was firmly rooted on the Chemin des Dames and these new positions would facilitate further actions in the summer of 1917. In the wider context of the French army’s experiences in the First World War, this could be cast in a positive light. The wasteful offensives of 1915 had, for example, achieved less for similarly high casualties.

The key issue that made Nivelle’s failure so disastrous in 1917 was the timing of it. The French army was on the brink of exhaustion at the beginning of the offensive and was then pushed beyond endurance to breaking point. And the suffering and sacrifice did not bring the promised victory. Such failures had been absorbed by the army and the French nation in 1914, 1915 and 1916, but by 1917 there was simply no room for further failure.

The aftermath of the events of 1917 also demonstrates that the ties binding the French government, army and people together in the war effort were in a critical state after this failure. In his classic study of military strategy, On War, Carl von Clausewitz developed the concept of the ‘trinity of war’: the synergetic relationship between government, people and army that is necessary if a nation is to successfully conduct a modern war.

This principle was developed by later strategic theorists during the twentieth century and it remains largely true today. Alexandr Svechin, writing in the 1920s in the context of First World War and the recent Russian revolution and civil war, summed up this principle simply by stating that ‘war may be waged only by the will of a united people’. It is glaringly apparent that, at the time of the Nivelle Offensive, this ‘trinity of war’ had broken down in France. The relationship between the government and the military commanders was dysfunctional. The politicians were trying to exert more control over the military but their efforts were often ill-considered and largely ineffectual. Also, there was a lack of consistency; Painlevé found his efforts thwarted by colleagues within government, including Premier Ribot, who believed in Nivelle and his plans.

Within the military, the subordinate commanders never united in a concerted effort to oust Nivelle, despite their misgivings about him and his plans. He had his critics, yet the tendency was for generals to air their grievances privately to the politicians and the press while failing to present a united front at crucial meetings in order to have Nivelle removed. A greater loyalty to their own profession and the principles of command did not allow senior generals to unite and demand Nivelle’s removal. Svechin later summed up the dysfunctional nature of the French political–military relationship during the run-up to the offensive:

Officially the operation was greatly approved and everyone glorified the successes that would be achieved but then wrote confidential letters to influential politicians asking them to keep the army from launching an operation that had absolutely no chance of success. However, they did not have the civic courage to repeat these doubts in front of Nivelle at a special meeting called by Minister Painlevé.

The mutinies that broke out in the wake of the failed offensive are ample proof that the rank and file of the French army had lost faith in their senior commanders. In this fractured relationship, command and control systems and military discipline broke down. The French public were also in a state of discontent with the politicians – all politicians, regardless of faction or party – and with how the war was being run. In the spring and early summer of 1917 this discontent erupted in strikes and protests that broke out across France. The French people sympathised with the poilus in the trenches and supported their mutinies as they had lost faith in the government and the military leaders. Ultimately, all the links within the crucial ‘trinity of war’ had broken down. By June 1917 France had ceased to function as a united nation at war.

In a wider context, the Briand government had also allowed itself to be drawn into a damaging political contest between British politicians, in particular Lloyd George, and senior British commanders. It could be argued that, like a contagion, the dysfunctional aspects of the French government and military also affected the political–military relationship of the British.

Alongside these wider ramifications, debate has continued as to why the offensive failed. The 1917 inquiry identified many of the key issues, which can be summed up as a combination of failings in leadership, choice of terrain, planning and preparation. Also, Nivelle had allowed himself to be drawn into what would now be referred to as ‘mirror-imaging’ – effectively, he expected the Germans to conform to his plans as to how the offensive would unfold. As A.J.P. Taylor put it, ‘the Germans did not conform to Nivelle’s requirements’.

Perhaps inevitably, Nivelle himself has remained the focus of criticism. Yet even if one accepts that he was ultimately responsible for the failure, further questions remain as we are faced with a general who was demonstrably intelligent but who nevertheless acted in a seemingly irresponsible manner. Using modern ‘Principles of War’ criteria to examine the offensive, it can be shown that, in some respects, Nivelle can be considered to have performed well. The concept of ‘Principles of War’ has been in circulation since classical times and by the First World War had been codified by many armies. While there are variations in criteria in different nations, the modern US scheme identifies nine main principles:

Principles of war

Mass

Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time

Objective

Direct every military operation towards a clearly defined, decisive and attainable objective

Offensive

Seize, retain and exploit the initiative

Surprise

Strike the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he is unprepared

Economy of force

Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts

Manoeuvre

Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power

Unity of command

For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander

Security

Never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage

Simplicity

Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding

It is possible to assess Nivelle’s plan using these criteria. With respect to ‘Mass’, Nivelle had assembled a very large force and in that respect he scores well. Also, it is clear that he thought that he was fulfilling other criteria such as ‘Objective’, ‘Initiative’, ‘Manoeuvre’ and ‘Economy of Force’. In reality, any objective analysis of these principles at the time should have made it clear to him that he was not planning comprehensively to fulfil these requirements. For example, his objective was the German reserve armies and their artillery, and while that may have seemed clear enough to Nivelle, he paid too little attention to the defences and forces that the French formations needed to fight through to reach this objective. Also, as the offensive stalled, new objectives in the shape of key terrain features began to dominate the battle in a classic example of ‘mission creep’. This in turn affected the ‘Economy of Force’ principle as French formations became bogged down in these secondary fights.

It is possible to disassemble Nivelle’s plan using other criteria to illustrate how operational realities contradicted elements of his plan. While he was confident that he was seizing the initiative and was convinced of the primacy of the offensive, he was not assessing the opposition or the battlespace correctly or objectively. His over-controlled approach to his staff and his intolerance of dissent exacerbated this lack of objectivity.

The principle of ‘Surprise’, in a First World War context, was simply not achievable for Nivelle due to the long preparatory barrage. In terms of ‘Security’, his plan was dangerously compromised owing to his own indiscretions and those of others, and also through the capture by the Germans of operational plans. Nivelle’s difficulties with his subordinate commanders should have indicated that he was far from achieving ‘Unity of Command’.

So, although Nivelle may not have assessed his situation using such precise criteria, it is still somewhat perplexing that he did not reflect on the viability of his plans at some point in an objective manner, especially given the increasing level of dissent among his army group commanders. It is difficult to explain. To an observer, it seems to be an example of what Norman Dixon, in his classic book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (London, 1975), referred to as ‘obsessional neurosis’. As Nivelle’s plans advanced, he increasingly identified with them and became intolerant of dissent. His profound confidence and self-belief meant that he could not assess his own plans objectively, and his efforts to convince politicians and generals only served to increase his belief in his own abilities. As the offensive neared, he became increasingly inclined to assess intelligence and reach conclusions that fitted his own plans, and these assessments ran counter to the actual implications of the information being presented. While Nivelle had never been inclined to factor in others’ opinions and assessments of his plan, by March 1917 it would seem that he had ceased to heed the opinions of his subordinate commanders. The one exception to this was, of course, Colonel d’Alançon, who was similarly obsessed with carrying out the plan. Equally, his close association with Mangin did not result in an objective assessment of the military situation. Mangin’s ‘can-do’ attitude and his indifference to casualties only facilitated the process. Nivelle’s mindset was neatly summed up by the historian Anthony Clayton:

The undoubted virtues he had shown before 1917 turned to touchy, rigid, and over-controlled behaviour when under the stress of Supreme Command, with consequent errors of judgement, rejection of unpalatable information, stereotyping of outgroups, an authoritarianism based on a wish for showy assertion and, when failure became evident, scape-goating.

Yet was Nivelle deserving of all the blame for this disaster? He was the architect of a military failure of vast proportions, but it could also be argued that the conduct of the politicians and also his subordinate commanders enabled his flawed military decision-making process. At a political level it is obvious that officials of both the Briand and Ribot governments had profound misgivings, yet they failed to remove Nivelle. This is particularly true in the case of Painlevé, who as Minister for War never believed in Nivelle’s plan and yet, despite the fact that he sought the opinion of dissenting generals such as Pétain and Micheler, could not follow-through on plans to remove him. Accounts of the succession of meetings called to discuss the plan would make for comical reading, had this political indecision and lack of willpower not resulted in such tragic circumstances. The manner in which the subordinate commanders voiced their dissent also ensured that the plan went ahead. While they shared their doubts privately with politicians, especially Painlevé, there was a distinct lack of willingness to push the point forcefully at the various key meetings. Even Pétain would not openly support the last-minute attempt to oust Nivelle in April. Norman Dixon refers to this as ‘a terrible crippling obedience’. Similar tendencies had been seen during the Boulanger and Dreyfus affairs: under pressure from politicians, the press or the public, senior commanders closed ranks. In this case, while senior commanders might have opposed Nivelle’s plans, their loyalties to the army and their brother generals meant that they did not push the point as strongly as they should have done.

Ultimately the committee of inquiry would treat Nivelle quite lightly, perhaps due to the politicians and senior commanders being aware of their shared responsibility. An unpacking of the whole affair in an inquiry would have been messy indeed and no one would have emerged unsullied. For Nivelle, the sanction was reasonably light. In December 1917 he was appointed as commander-in-chief in North Africa and this role removed him from the Western Front for the remainder of the war. In July 1919 he was not invited to the official victory parade in Paris but remained in Algeria, presiding over victory celebrations there. Yet after the war he gradually returned to favour. He remained in touch with David Lloyd George and, in a somewhat surreal aside, the pair later exchanged photographs. Despite the events of 1917 and their consequences, the two men still seemed to share a level of regard for each other. The Australian historian Elizabeth Greenhalgh also noticed a peculiar entry in the index to Lloyd George’s memoirs in which Nivelle is described as ‘unfortunate as Generalissimo’. This was an understatement indeed.

Nivelle was subsequently given two military commands within post-war France and in March 1920 was appointed as a member of the war committee (conseil superior de guerre). Due to his command of English, he was sent to America in 1920 as part of the French delegation to the tercentenary celebrations to commemorate the arrival of the Mayflower in America. During this tour he was well-received by the American public. In December 1920 Nivelle was awarded the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur.

Despite the interest of French scholars in Nivelle, he remains an oddly opaque figure. Denis Rolland, the premier French historian of the First World War, subtitled his biography of Nivelle ‘L’inconnu de Chemin des Dames’ (‘The unknown of the Chemin des Dames’). This can be interpreted in various ways, yet it could be argued that Rolland has hit on one of the central paradoxes about Nivelle. At a certain level we know much about him – the formulation of his plan, his interactions with politicians and fellow-generals. Yet Nivelle ‘the man’ remains a total mystery. Behind the overconfident bluster, it is extremely hard to get a sense of the man or to hear his ‘voice’. Accounts by third parties are largely unsympathetic and, although much of his correspondence survives in various archives, he never wrote a volume of memoirs. We are left considering a figure who showed promise and considerable ability in 1916 but who went on to plan what was arguably France’s worst military disaster of the war. Surviving accounts of planning meetings suggest an over-confident general prone to bombastic outbursts and implausible promises. Yet he managed to convince a succession of political and military leaders of the soundness of his plans for a considerable period. It seems that Nivelle will remain a somewhat mysterious figure.

Nivelle died on 22 March 1924. In June 1931 his ashes were placed in the governor’s crypt in Les Invalides in Paris. This commemorative ceremony for Nivelle and fifteen other marshals, generals and admirals included both Catholic and Protestant religious services, a military parade and a 75-gun salute and concluded with an address by the then Minister of War, André Maginot. Considering the damage caused by the Nivelle Offensive to the French army and indeed to France itself, this rehabilitation of Nivelle was generous. However, he has yet to be commemorated with a statue in France and, given the painful associations with his period as commander-in-chief, it seems unlikely that this will change.

The figure perhaps best placed to shed real light on Nivelle, his close associate Colonel d’Alançon, died in September 1917. A bitterly disappointed man, d’Alançon had left the GQG along with Nivelle and returned home on sick leave. A few months later he was dead. Like Nivelle, he remains a largely silent figure. His impact on his brother staff officers was mixed. Perhaps Jean de Pierrefeu best summed up d’Alançon’s complex character:

Of all the actors in this war of position he was, in my eyes, the most original. He was a romantic figure, consumed with ambition, hardly to be measured by our ordinary standards. This silent man, for long modest and retiring, suddenly resolved to tempt Fortune with a spirit and a will worthy of the days when adventurers carved out kingdoms for themselves. By his strength of will, his inspired enthusiasm, his facility in dealing with great events, he always reminded me of a Napoleon devoid of genius.

General Mangin remained remarkably tight-lipped about Nivelle after 1917, at least in public. Yet in many ways he fared better than his former commander. Despite his reputation as ‘the Butcher’ among French troops, Mangin returned to service in 1918 and took command of the Tenth Army. He later played a significant role in the Second Battle of the Marne (15 July–6 August 1918) and received a measure of political and public approval for his performance in the final campaigns of the First World War. His attitude remained grimly realistic. He could perhaps be given credit for summing up the battlefield experience of so many First World War generals when he stated: ‘Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.’ Following the war, Mangin’s Tenth Army occupied the Rhineland, where he created some controversy owing to his attempts to encourage the inhabitants to create a ‘Rhenish Republic’ separate from Germany. He also angered local mayors by pressuring them to establish official brothels for the use of his troops. Mangin died suddenly in Paris in March 1925, apparently the result of acute appendicitis combined with a stroke, although some alleged that he had been poisoned. He was buried in Les Invalides. When German troops entered Paris in 1940 Hitler ordered that his statue be destroyed. In 1957 it was replaced by a new statue.

It is worth considering for just a moment some of the potential outcomes of the events in the summer of 1917. While the practice of engaging in counterfactual history is often problematic, if not a complete waste of time, it is interesting to reflect on the possible further ramifications of Nivelle’s failure in 1917. This reverse pushed the army into a state of open mutiny and it ceased to function effectively. The collapse in military morale coincided with a period of public disillusionment and political turmoil. To suggest that France was in a state of near-collapse and as a result was close to dropping out of the war is not mere idle supposition. Indeed, Field Marshal Haig wrote of the possibility of France ‘falling out’ during the height of the crisis in 1917. The greatest fear of the Ribot government was that revolution would break out in France as it had done in Russia. This would in all probability have taken France out of the war and left Britain and Belgium to continue the fight alone in Europe while awaiting American support. In turn, the Americans would not have been in a position to provide meaningful support until 1918. Would such a strategic situation have forced the Allies into a negotiated peace with Germany and Austro-Hungary? Peace, yes, but on the terms of the Central Powers?

At the very least it can be seen that the French army’s collapse came at a crucial moment in the wider strategic context. By May 1917 Russia’s ability to assist in the war effort was looking increasingly doubtful. The October Revolution would move Russia towards a separate peace with Germany and Austro-Hungary. Despite British and French efforts to keep Russia in the war, this would become a reality with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. By 1917 Italy was also in a state of near-collapse, while Romania had already dropped out of the war. The year 1917 had opened with a spirit of Allied optimism, but by the summer and autumn it was becoming increasingly obvious that there would be no Allied victory yet. The Nivelle Offensive was one of a series of Allied setbacks that would continue until the end of the year, with the British army suffering its own martyrdom at Passchendaele. Rather than emerging victorious, for the Allies 1917 became a period of grimly hanging on until the Americans could arrive in force and until war industry could provide more tanks, aircraft and other military materiel.

For France, the losses incurred during the offensive were significant, and it could be argued that in the final analysis they were also unnecessary. It was, quite simply, an offensive that should not have gone ahead. In this, it was in keeping with several other ill-conceived Allied efforts during the war. It added yet another large contingent to France’s growing total of war casualties. By the end of the war France had suffered more than 1.3 million fatal casualties. More than 3.2 million soldiers had been wounded, with more than a million of them permanently disabled. More than 600,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner, some of who would return home and decrease the numbers of ‘missing’. Thousands had been classed as missing, many of whom were, of course, dead. This pushed the total of fatal casualties higher. It is unlikely that the true number of casualties will ever be accurately calculated as proper figures were not kept during the war. Also, many of the wounded died from their injuries after the parliamentary report on casualties was completed in the summer of 1919 and so were not included in the figures. Whichever figure one chooses, the scale of French losses is depressingly large. After the war a French officer calculated that a formation of troops equalling the number of French war dead would take eleven days and nights to march past the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in parade formation.

This number of casualties obviously had a major impact on France in the years after the First World War. In demographic terms, it resulted in a collapse in both marriage and birth rates. In the years up to 1914 France had been concerned that German births would ensure that the French would be outstripped in manpower terms. This now became an absolute reality. In military terms, it translated into a defensive mindset and later fostered the development of the Maginot system of fortifications. In any future war France would need to rely for its defence on a series of fortifications, on a grander and more modernised scale than the Verdun forts. From the 1930s it was also envisaged that this system of fortifications would be backed up by a scheme for mobile defence using tanks. While the development and basic wisdom of the Maginot scheme are still much debated, the impulse that drove it had a certain clear logic. France expected another war and from the 1920s found itself increasingly isolated and devoid of immediate allies. It seemed that it would face a future German attack alone, at a time when its supplies of manpower were finite. The Maginot plan, and a programme for acquiring allies in Eastern Europe, seemed like sensible policies. The manpower issue also resulted in a fall in the size of the French labour force, with corresponding falls in industrial production. This was particularly true in respect of iron and steel production, which had knock-on effects for weapons production.

The whole defence issue would remain a contentious subject for inter-war French governments, played out in national debates and contests between the right-wing Bloc National and the leftist Cartel des Gauches. The Poincaré government of 1922–24 took a hard-line stance regarding German war reparations and sent more than 40,000 troops to occupy the Ruhr in the hope of forcing payment. This resulted in the Dawes Plan, which made provision for phased payments by Germany. In 1924 a moderate socialist government was elected but proved to be disorganised and riven by internal factions. Poincaré was returned to office in 1926 and pursued a radical economic policy before retiring from politics in 1929. The post-war years saw much political turmoil in France, and in the early 1930s the factions of the extreme left and right flourished due to the difficulties of the Depression. This coincided with hugely differing views between political parties and factions as to how to approach strategic and defence issues. The short life of the leftist Popular Front government of 1936 was dominated by economic and labour issues, while its policy with regard to the civil war then raging in Spain served to further illustrate the fractured nature of French politics and society. The Daladier government of 1938 instigated new armaments programmes and also tried to accelerate existing ones but France still struggled to keep pace with German military expansion.

The political and economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s ensured that a long-term, coherent strategic policy was impossible. It should also be remembered that these events took place in a country that had been ravaged by war. Millions of francs needed to be spent on reconstruction owing to the fact that so much French territory had been devastated between 1914 and 1918. The evidence of war was apparent to all in the shape of destroyed towns and villages, ruined farms, the shell-damaged landscape and the dangers of unexploded ordnance. This damage needed to be repaired, and agriculture and industry needed to be re-established. Many people were unwilling even to imagine that another war was possible. Getting over the ‘Grande Guerre’ and trying to repair France would occupy not only the next few years but the next few decades.

Alongside the physical damage wrought on France, the human damage was also obvious to all. A whole generation had suffered in the war, and France had become a country with hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. The war wounded, many of them showing evidence of terrible wounds, became a feature of French society. While most towns and villages soon had their own war memorials, they also had a grim reminder of the war in the shape of veterans who were limbless, sightless or otherwise maimed.

The war had created a scar across the French landscape and a wound deep within the psyche of the French people. The desperate years of 1914–1918 had been marked by grim defence against a series of German offensives. Equally costly had been the many futile offensives launched by French generals themselves. Indeed, the Russian strategist A.A. Svechin later singled out the French offensive strategy on the Western Front for particular criticism. During 1915 and 1916, Svechin argued, alternative strategies could have been pursued in Italy and the East, in what he referred to as the ‘Paris–Salonika–Vienna–Berlin logic of attrition’. Ultimately, the French allowed operational and tactical interests to supersede strategic imperatives. All the Allies were complicit in this to some degree but France, with the largest Allied army on the Western Front, had the most to lose by being drawn into this cycle of pointless and futile offensive actions.

Within the catalogue of failed French offensives, the Nivelle Offensive holds a special (but unenviable) place owing to its costliness and sheer futility. Quite apart from the dashed expectations of the French nation, the timing of the disaster caused huge concern. It seemed inconceivable, at this late point in the war, that senior generals could still plan and execute such disastrous attacks. Had no lessons been learned since 1914? One of the positive dividends of the failure of the Nivelle Offensive was the very clear signal sent to the army commanders by the government, the public and the soldiers themselves that this type of offensive had to stop. The crisis of 1917 signalled an end to a certain type of generalship. While there would be later failures and reverses, the strategy of limited offensives initiated by Pétain would become the norm for the French army for the remainder of the war. Nivelle’s offensive marked the end of a particular, brutal learning curve.

Since the end of the war in 1918 generations of French scholars have studied the ‘Grande Guerre’ and its impact on France. They include figures such as Pierre Renouvin, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, Jean-Jacques Becker, Denis Rolland, Guy Pedroncini, Nicholas Offenstadt and many others. Non-French scholars, such as Robert M. Doughty, Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Ian Sumner and Anthony Clayton, have also made the French army during the war the focus of their particular attention. While the Nivelle Offensive is not explored in huge depth in every case, a common feature is that it is singled out as a particular example of poor generalship resulting in needless losses.

The legacy of the Nivelle Offensive for France has been long and difficult. In the run-up to the centenary of the offensive in 2017 it will be fascinating to see how these painful events will be commemorated. In recent years efforts have been made to focus on the plight of individual soldiers, and to commemorate those involved in the army mutinies. The centenary will no doubt expose all the difficulties associated with commemorating lives lost in a military failure. For France, the Nivelle Offensive remains the epitome of military futility – a doomed plan driven by an overly ambitious and flawed general.

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