The Second Battle of the Aisne was the main part of the Nivelle Offensive of April 1917. Robert Nivelle’s plan was for a huge attack on the German forces along the River Aisne, which would, he stated, be successful in 48 hours with the loss of just 10,000 men. Nivelle argued that the defeat would be so shattering for the Germans that they would sue for peace.
Nivelle had made his name at the Battle of Verdun in 1916 as the commander who had recaptured the symbolic Fort Douaumont and who had issued the famous command “they shall not pass”. Nivelle was a great believer in a massive artillery attack prior to an infantry attack protected by a creeping barrage. In December 1916, Nivelle was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the French Army and he set about devising a plan that combined the mighty punch of an all-out artillery onslaught with a massive infantry attack that was supported by the artillery. This plan became known as the Nivelle Offensive. Despite opposition to his plan from some senior French army commanders (such as Pétain), Nivelle had the support of the Prime Minister, Aristide Briand.
On April 4th a seemingly inconsequential attack by the Germans against French lines took place. However, the Germans captured a copy of the plan for the Nivelle Offensive. Such a prized document gave the Germans a huge advantage. The area around the Aisne River that was held by the Germans was littered with many deep quarries. The Germans also knew that the attack would be preceded by a large artillery onslaught – 7,000 guns in all. Therefore, they moved as many men as was possible into the quarries while the bombardment took place. They also placed 100 machine guns in every kilometre of the front giving them a devastating amount of fire.
On April 16th 1917, nineteen divisions of the French 5th and 6th Armies attacked German positions on the Aisne along an eighty kilometres front. They faced a German army that was well dug in using fortified defensive positions that were built on higher ground – a major advantage in an infantry attack, especially with the density of machine guns that the Germans had. On the first day of the attack, the French lost 40,000 men.
On April 17th, the French 4th Army made a secondary attack on German lines. This was also repelled.
It was ironic that the creeping barrage, so favoured by Nivelle, was incorrectly used and the barrage that should have dropped in front of the French actually landed among them, killing many. Those who were not killed or wounded had to attack well placed German positions with no artillery cover as the shells were dropping behind them.
Regardless of these setbacks, Nivelle pressed on and refused to scale down the attacks, which continued into May. There were successes - part of the Hindenburg Line was captured at Chemin des Dames – but at great expense.
Nivelle did eventually scale back the size of the attacks but all attacks were finally called off on May 9th. Though the French had captured land previously held by the Germans (in places they had advanced about 5 miles) and had captured 147 German artillery guns and taken 20,000 German POW’s, they themselves lost 187,000 men. The French army was in disarray and mutinies were experienced in 68 out of the 112 divisions in the French army.
Nivelle was sacked as Commander-in-Chief and replaced by Pétain. At the end of 1917, Nivelle was posted to North Africa where he remained until the end of the war.