Robert Nivelle, the man who planned the spring 1917 Nivelle Offensive, was a hero of the Battle of Verdun and a man who had acquired friends at the highest levels of French politics. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive ended in his sacking as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army and his posting to North Africa where he spent the rest of World War One.
Robert Nivelle was born on October 15th 1856. He joined the French Army in 1878 and specialised in artillery warfare. By 1913, he was a colonel in the artillery and had been involved in campaigns in Algeria, China and Tunisia.
Nivelle started to make a name for himself when the Germans threatened to overwhelm the French forces at the Marne and move on to Paris in 1914. There are a number of reasons why the Germans were halted at the Marne but one of them was the devastating artillery fire Nivelle organised at both the Marne and the First Battle of the Aisne. In October 1914, he was promoted to general in recognition of his achievements. On May 1st, 1916, Nivelle succeeded Pétain as commander of the French Second Army that was fighting at Verdun.
It was at Verdun that Nivelle made his name. The battle had started in February 1916 and was bleeding dry both the French and German armies. Rather than use artillery to destroy German positions, Nivelle used a form of creeping barrage to give protection to the infantry soldiers on the ground. By doing this, Nivelle gained a reputation as a leader who cared about his men and there is little doubt that the morale of the French soldiers who were at Verdun improved by degrees.
However, of the two, it appeared as if the Germans did have the upper hand. On June 23rd, Fleury was captured by the Germans. Nivelle issued his order of the day that ended with the words ‘they shall not pass’. To some French politicians, this seemed to sum up the real spirit of the French Army. By the end of October 1916, Fleury had been recaptured as well as the fort at Douaumont. Nivelle became a national hero and was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the French Army on December 16th 1916.
In the spring of 1917, Nivelle launched what became known as the Nivelle Offensive. Nivelle was a firm believer in saturating the enemy with an artillery bombardment prior to an attack, followed by an infantry assault supported by a creeping artillery barrage to protect the advancing infantry.
Nivelle was convinced that his plan would produce such a devastating attack on the German lines at the Aisne that they would fold within 48 hours with just 10,000 casualties. Numerous French commanders expressed their concerns about the plan, which to many was just too simplistic and did not take into account the solid positions that the Germans had built in the Aisne region that would probably survive an artillery bombardment. Even Haig, who was to command a British and Commonwealth attack on Arras and Vimy Ridge as part of the plan, was not convinced. However, the ‘Hero of Verdun’ had supporters at the highest level – Aristide Briand, the French Prime Minister, gave his plan his full support. President Poincare gave it more limited support and stated that the French should withdraw if the first attack did not succeed.
Nivelle refused to change the plan. However, during a German attack on French positions on April 4th, a copy of the plan was captured. Therefore, the Germans had a very good knowledge of what to expect and prepared accordingly. Even when Nivelle was told that it was highly likely that the Germans had captured a copy of his plan, he refused to change it.
The Nivelle Offensive on German positions along the River Aisne was a failure and led to mutiny in 68 out of 112 French divisions. The inability of the military to deal with the French wounded did a great deal to undermine morale as casualties had to remain at the front as little provision had been made to withdraw them. Senior French officers increasingly questioned the way the offensive was going. On April 29th, Pétain was appointed Chief of the General Staff – an appointment that many viewed as being targeted directly against Nivelle. On May 15th, Nivelle was sacked and Pétain was appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. By the end of the Nivelle Offensive, France had lost 187,000 men in just 5 weeks – over 5,250 men a day.
The French had lost more men at Verdun but Nivelle was a victim of his own claims – the campaign would be over in 48 hours with just 10,000 casualties. The expectation of the French had been very high – and Nivelle failed to deliver.
In December 1917, Nivelle was appointed to serve with the French Army in North Africa and he only returned to France at the end of World War One.
Nivelle retired from the army in 1921 and died on March 22nd 1924.