On 15th November 1916 as the Battle of the Somme came to a bitterly cold end, a meeting was held between the Allied generals at Chantilly just outside Paris. A decision was reached by Generals Haig and Joffre that, on the Western Front, things would recommence in February.
The slow grinding down of the enemy on the Somme had already brought Haig into much criticism from the War Minister, Lloyd George, who believed that the war could be won by taking out German’s weaker Allies on an eastern front. Haig stuck to his guns and instinct: the war would be won when Germany had been defeated and not before.
General Joffre, however, also had his detractors. France wanted a new man, somebody with get up and go, new ideas — the answer to it all. The French government thought they had found him.
General Robert Nivelle was born in 1856 of a mixed marriage, his mother being English. He had studied at the Polytechnic and gone on to become an artillery officer. During the battle of Verdun in 1916 Nivelle had replaced General Pétain who was thought too hesitant and what the French needed was a swift and glorious victory. What Nivelle devised was a method to coordinate enormous fire power with a sufficient punch of infantry to achieve his objective. This co-ordination in artillery fire power became the creeping barrage during later battles of the war.
In October 1916 he had brilliantly retaken the Fort at Douaumont on the Verdun Battlefield using this method and had a few other successes to his name as well.
A star had been born, and with the advantage of his fluent English, Nivelle could not only charm his French masters but also the British. His rise though had been swift and some thought he lacked experience; but they were shunted aside. Nivelle professed to have the answer.
On 13th December 1916 General Joffre was nominated as Technical Adviser to the French Government whilst Nivelle was appointed Commander in Chief of the North and North-East French Armies (As opposed to all French Forces). Joffre was no fool though and realised that if Nivelle was dealing directly with the Allies and Government he was being by-passed and on 26th December 1916 he resigned. Instead of receiving a gold watch, the President resurrected the rank of Maréchal de France and gave him his Baton.
The following day King George raised Sir Douglas Haig to the rank of Field Marshal.
On 7th December 1916 Lloyd George had become Prime Minister and Lloyd George much preferred the song that Nivelle was singing to that of Haig’s. Nivelle proposed that the system of attack he had used at Verdun could be scaled upwards and used on a weaker part of the German line. The enemy lines could be ruptured within 48 hours.
Surprise, severe violence, and speed — that was the secret to winning the war.
In January Nivelle travelled to London to sell his project to Lloyd George. Anything that Joffre had considered for 1917 was in the bin de dust. The French would attack first, on the Oise, he then wanted Haig to attack from Arras and finally the French would smash the enemy on the Aisne at the Chemin des Dames.
Oh ! and we will do this in April rather than February.
Nivelle was a born salesman, he took Lloyd George’s ears and fed them with words such as: victory and most importantly: French Army doing most of the fighting.
Lloyd George was an eloquent man himself and although Haig could write decent orders he never mastered the art of being able to enthuse about them. He was on a losing ticket and Nivelle won the day. Afterwards people would say that Nivelle had talked a good victory but there had never been any proof to his calculations. There were always doubts and Haig was not alone in having them. For the moment Lloyd George was sold on the Frenchman’s plan and wanted to tie Haig into it.
The Field Marshal had already been working on his logistical problems for an attack at Arras and a major headache was the fact that the single track railway system could not cope with the necessary 200 trains a day.
The matter though was already in hand and Haig may well have been surprised when he received a summons to a conference in Calais on 26th February. One of the major subjects of the day would be; the railways.
Lloyd George also attended and after an hour suggested that the railways folk take their discussions elsewhere whilst he and the Generals got down to more important things, such as listening to General Nivelle explain his plans once more.
The General stated that he was not happy with Haig’s idea to include an attack on Vimy Ridge. The Field Marshal explained that Vimy Ridge would be an important defensive position (and also one which the Germans would fight for) and this seemed to satisfy his French counterpart. So ! Lloyd George enquired, how are we going to control all these battles ? Why don’t you let us have your thoughts on paper Monsieur Nivelle.
It didn’t take Nivelle long to have his ideas on paper because he had brought them with him — Haig was being set up. In essence Nivelle wanted the British and Empire troops put under his command and Lloyd George was prepared to let it happen.
This was going too far for Haig so the proposals were watered down a bit. Haig would retain command of his men and their actions but for the duration of the coming campaign he would bow to French requirements first. Haig signed the Calais Agreement under duress, adding alongside his signature that he did not approve of the arrangements.
It wasn’t long though before the British Government realised that the fine detail of who could order what needed ironing out and so, on 13th March another agreement was drawn up and signed in London. A few days later Aristide Briand’s French government fell and a new Minister of War was appointed: Paul Painlevé, and Painlevé didn’t like Neville’s ideas one bit.
In October 1916 RFC pilots had noticed that there seemed to be a lot of digging going on in the area of the villages of Bullecourt and Quéant some 20 kilometres behind the front line. Then an escaped Russian prisoner gave the information that thousands of them were building bunkers for the Germans near St Quentin 50 kilometres to the south of Bullecourt.
Then. on 22nd February 1917 just a few days before the Calais Railways Summit the British had noticed that on the Somme the German front line trenches had been abandoned.
The Germans had begun Operation Alberich which was not simply a retirement to a shorter and more formidable defence line but also the razing of the territory they were leaving. Buildings were dynamited, trees cut down, orchards burnt, bridges blown. Nothing was left intact.
The Germans called their new defensive system the Siegfried-Stellung. The British called it the Hindenburg Line. It worked on the principle of defence in depth with outposts to raise the alarm and reserve divisions waiting in the rear to crush any attack.
General Ludendorff realised that his withdrawal would confuse whatever the Allies had planned for 1917 and the destruction of the ground would make new ones difficult. He had shortened his lines and was in a stronger position.
Part of Nivelle’s great strategy had been for a French attack on the Oise whilst the British advanced on Bapaume. Both these plans had been rendered obsolete over night. Nevertheless he decided that the British would do what they could in the Arras area whilst he continued to plan for his death blow on the Chemin des Dames.
It is not certain if in his self certainty he took in the fact that Ludendorff, by shortening his lines, had gained 14 Divisions with which to repel any attack.
The Nivelle Offensive started to come under more and more criticism. In the east Russia was in a state of revolution and could no longer be counted upon to put pressure on German resources. The United States had just entered the war but they would not be ready for a while yet, but why not wait anyway, argued Painlevé and General Pétain.
Even General Micheler, commanding the Army Group responsible for the French offensive had grave doubts about what his soldiers could achieve. Worse still was the fact that the coming offensive was common knowledge. In February the Germans had captured information about a large offensive on the Aisne and repatriated prisoners were all agreed: talk in the French lines was all centred on one subject — the Aisne.
To the north Field Marshal Haig was well into the process of organising his part of the offensive.
The Battle of Arras would start on 8th April 1917.
On 7th April the news broke at the French GHQ — the Germans had captured a copy of the French plan of attack during a trench raid on the 4th. Ludendorff may well have permitted himself a wee smile — he now knew where the French would be attacking. What his generals didn’t know was that the bombardment going on around Arras was a prelude to a British offensive.
If Ludendorff had been smiling at Nivelle, Haig was about to wipe it off his face.