The Nivelle Offensive started in April 1917 and continued until May 1917. The huge offensive, involving 1.2 million men, was the plan of Robert Nivelle, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. By the time the Nivelle Offensive was over, tens of thousands of Allied troops had been killed or wounded; the French Army had been pushed to mutiny in over half its divisions and Nivelle had been sacked.
The logic behind the Nivelle Offensive was not dissimilar to the logic behind the Somme campaign in 1916. Nivelle believed that a huge and overwhelming attack against the Germans would result in victory within 48 hours with just 10,000 casualties.
Nivelle had achieved popularity among French politicians as the man who had recaptured the fort at Douaumont during the Battle of Verdun. Not only had this made him a national hero, it also led to Nivelle getting support for his ideas at the very top – such as Aristide Briand, the French Prime Minister. When Nivelle announced his plan for a huge attack on German lines that would be so overwhelming that it would swamp them within 48 hours, Briand announced his support for it. Hubert Lyautey, the French War Minister, was not so keen and resigned. Sir Douglas Haig, mindful of what had happened at the Somme, also opposed the plan. Regardless of this, it went ahead.
Nivelle’s plan was for a major assault by French forces in the Aisne region supported by a secondary attack by British forces at Arras, Vimy Ridge and at Bullecourt on the Hidenburg Line.
The attack started on April 9th 1917 and lasted until May 16th.
Whereas the Canadians took Vimy Ridge by April 12th, the Australians suffered badly at Bullecourt.
Haig halted the attack by the British and Commonwealth forces on April 14th as he waited for news of how the French were doing.
In fact, the French were doing so badly in the Second Battle of the Aisne that mutiny had started to break out among its men. Great pressure was put on Haig to restart the British and Commonwealth attacks so that pressure could be taken off the French in the Aisne. When the offensive was called off on May 16th, the French army had been pushed to its limit. It is said that as some French troops were moved to the front at the River Aisne, they made bleating sounds to their officers like ‘lambs to the slaughter’. Another story was that the French 2nd Division arrived at the front drunk and without their weapons.
Over 130,000 casualties were sustained by the British and Commonwealth forces while the French suffered 187,000 casualties; 317,000 in total in just five weeks fighting. This would equate to about 10,000 men killed or wounded for each day of fighting. Land was captured from the Germans – sixty-one square miles and 20,000 Germans were taken prisoner.
Nivelle was sacked as Commander-in-Chief on May 15th and replaced by Philippe Pétain.
French casualties at the Battle of Verdun were greater than those at the Second Aisne. So why was Nivelle replaced – especially as 20,000 Germans had been captured along with 147 German artillery guns? It was because people had expected so much more as a result of the boasts/promises made by Nivelle himself. When these failed to materialise, Nivelle had to pay the price. Whereas the French had expected large casualties at Verdun, they had been told that the Germans would collapse on the Western Front within 48 hours of the start of the offensive and that there would be no more than 10,000 casualties. With over 300,000 casualties, Nivelle’s reputation was severely undermined. It was left to Pétain to reinvigorate the French Army on the Western Front while Nivelle was posted to Africa in December 1917.