By April 1917 the Allies and the Central Powers had been locked in the stalemate of trench warfare for nearly three years. Numerous offensives had failed to break through at a terrible cost in men. New tactical and technological innovations were developed with some success. General Robert Nivelle, the French commander in chief, was convinced that he’d developed the ‘formula’ to break the deadlock. Nonetheless the offensive he planned was destined to fail from the beginning, with catastrophic consequences for the French Army.
Nivelle built on his experiences of fighting at Verdun, where he had carried out meticulously planned, small scale surprise attacks that struck at the weak points in the enemy line, with overwhelming violence.
Nivelle believed his method could rupture the German lines and achieve a breakthrough within 24 to 48 hours. Assaulting on a narrow front an artillery barrage would blow a passage through the German lines. The infantry would then pour through the gap into open ground, outflanking the Germans.
However at the end of February 1917 the Germans began the process of shortening their defences, pulling back to the infamous Hindenburg Line, leaving a trail of destruction in the former occupied territory.
This changed the whole make up of the French offensive, as they now had to attack much stronger positions on the Chemin des Dames ridge-line, over 600 foot up the Aisne valley. Intelligence on the new positions was poor so the French had no idea what awaited them. The meticulous planning that characterised the Verdun attacks was now gone.
Surprise was also lost. The Germans launched a trench raid on 4 April and captured details of the plan. In all likelihood the Germans had got wind of the offensive long before that. If they hadn’t they were alone. It was widely spoken of in Paris, and Neville was also notoriously indiscreet.
Much of this was pointed out to the French commander at two separate meetings with his generals, but he talked the dissenters round. Neville interpreted the German withdrawal as a victory and that he had them on the run. He also pointed out that only the offensive could give victory.
The French Army had continuously been in search of a “messianic” figure since Napoleon, to deliver something fantastic. They wanted to believe that Nivelle’s plan, for all its faults, would win the war for France.
There was also growing unrest at home and in the ranks, as war weariness increased, fuelled by German propaganda. The government wanted to end the war before France followed Russia into revolution. Neville’s charisma and enthusiasm managed to instil hope once again in the French Army, after it had endured the meat-grinder of Verdun.
The start of the offensive was delayed by appalling weather, however by 16 April 1917 it could not be delayed any longer. The British had launched diversionary attacks at Arras and would be left in an impossible position if the French did not attack as planned.
Hampered by driving rain and spread over too wide an area the artillery barrage only destroyed the front line German trenches. It failed to destroy their reserve, or their positions on the reverse slop of the Chemin des Dames ridge-line. The French troops had to slog uphill, through mud, barbed wire and machine guns. In many sectors they were completely pinned down and where they advanced were subject to ferocious German counter attacks from every direction.
It is estimated that the French suffered over 130,000 casualties, for the sake of modest territorial gains and a few thousand captured Germans. The offensive dragged on until Mid-May, but it was clear from the first day that the offensive had failed and with it the last hope of the French Army went.
No longer willing to die in pointless attacks French soldiers began to mutiny. Although they continued to hold their positions at the front, troops resting in the rear refused to go back up the line and rioted. The disorder continued from May until the end of June 1917. When Pétain, who had replaced Nivelle, regained control, he shot the ringleaders, but introduced reforms that improved the conditions of the troops. However the French never mounted a full scale offensive again.