Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 274th installment in the series.
April 16, 1917: Nivelle Offensive Fails, Lenin Arrives In Petrograd
The French General Robert Nivelle experienced a meteoric rise and fall in 1916 and 1917, soaring from his original position leading the Third Army Corps to command of the Second Army, then commander of all the French armies in northern France, before plunging to discredit and disgrace – all in a little over a year. The massive offensive that bore his name, launched on April 16, 1917, was supposed to be Nivelle’s crowning achievement, a master stroke that would shatter the German lines, end trench warfare and reopen the war of movement; instead, it was a disaster that nearly destroyed the French Army.
Nivelle’s rapid rise through the ranks reflected the desperation of France’s civilian leadership, as successive Ministers of War and the Chamber of Deputies cast about for anyone with a plausible plan to break out of the bloody stasis of trench warfare. Nivelle appeared to be just such a savior, having first captured the nation’s imagination amid the horror of Verdun, where he won fame for the stunning success of his push to retake Fort Douaumont, the strategic linchpin of the battle.
Nivelle’s victories at Verdun relied heavily on artillery. Like most of his peers, Nivelle was convinced that infantry assaults should be preceded by a punishing bombardment of enemy positions to break up barbed wire entanglements, flatten trenches, knock out machine guns, and put the opposing artillery out of action; after the infantry went over the top, bombardment of the enemy’s rear areas would disrupt communications and block reinforcements from arriving.
Nivelle went further by massing long-range artillery on a few narrow areas of front during the preparatory bombardment, in order to totally destroy German defenses to a depth of several miles, creating corridors of devastation through which French infantry could advance in relative safety behind a “rolling barrage.” The barrage – actually a double bombardment by both heavy artillery and 75-millimeter field guns – was intended to create a sweeping wall of fire in front of advancing infantry, forcing the enemy to take shelter or abandon their trenches, thus shielding the attacking troops from counterattacks. If his plan worked, French infantry would be able to cross multiple German trench lines, now virtually undefended, and penetrate all the way to the enemy artillery, achieving a “breakthrough.”
After this, the infantry would turn to the sides and attack the exposed enemy flanks in both directions, widening the breach even further and enabling fresh troops to rush forward and wreak havoc in the enemy’s rear. In fact, in addition to the three French armies making the main attack along the Aisne River near Reims (the Sixth, Fifth and Fourth) Nivelle held two entire armies, the Tenth and First, in reserve to exploit the planned breakthrough, hoping ultimately to reopen the “war of movement,” in which the Allied armies would cut off and destroy all the German forces in northern France.
It was a breathtakingly ambitious plan, based on innovative tactics that had worked at Verdun, and Nivelle’s personal confidence and charisma helped persuade many French civilian leaders that the game was finally about to change. In fact the Nivelle Offensive was tragically out of step with reality, as some skeptics warned at the time, including Philippe Petain, who had organized the defense of Verdun and now commanded the Central Army Group, and Alfred Micheler, commander of the new Reserve Army Group, which would make the main attack.
For one thing, Petain argued that Nivelle’s plan for concentrated bombardments, which had worked so well in the 40 square miles of the Verdun battlefield, was unworkable on the much larger scale of the Western Front: there just wasn’t enough long-range artillery to guarantee destruction of the enemy’s defenses in widely separated corridors. Further, the Germans had adopted a new defensive doctrine for the entire Western Front to counter this very threat, called “defense in depth.”
Formulated by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his close collaborator, quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff, the new defensive strategy included the construction of a third and fourth line of trenches behind the existing ones, manned by troops freed up by the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Perhaps most importantly, the new doctrine minimized losses by moving troops back from the frontline trenches, holding them in reserve in the rear trenches, from which they could stage counterattacks on exhausted attackers.
However Nivelle brushed these concerns aside, arguing that the British attack at Arras would help pin down German defenders – and warning that canceling the offensive would ruin the Allies’ first real attempt at close strategic coordination, making it unlikely the British would submit to French demands again. Meanwhile the Russian Revolution in March 1917 made it necessary to attack as soon as possible, before the Germans could take advantage of the chaos in Russia by shifting troops to the Western Front. Finally, Nivelle dismissed the idea that France should wait for help from the United States, noting (correctly) that American entry into the war wouldn’t have any real impact on the ground before 1918. While Petain continued to argue against the offensive, at their final meeting with Nivelle on April 6, 1917, France’s civilian leaders reluctantly agreed to proceed.
“Worse Than Verdun”
On April 9, 1917, the same day the British infantry went over the top at the Second Battle of Arras, 5,350 French artillery pieces of various sizes, including 1,650 heavy guns, began shelling German positions, firing an astonishing 11 million shells by May 5. At 6 a.m. on April 16, 1917, a total of 33 infantry divisions in the French Fifth and Sixth Armies, along with a smaller number of troops and 63 new Schneider tanks from the Fourth Army, attacked German positions on 45 miles of front along the Chemin des Dames (the “Ladies’ Road,” named for the path along the heights of the Aisne used by the daughters of Louis XV, and the battlefield where trench warfare began in 1914), preceded by the all-important creeping barrage. Ten more divisions in the Tenth Army waited to plunge into the breach behind them, bringing the total number of men involved to 1.2 million – if all went according to plan.
It did not: almost immediately, it became clear that while long-range French artillery had succeeded in cutting corridors across the battlefield in some places, the Germans were frequently able to repair barbed wire entanglements before the French infantry attacked. Even worse, the Germans were expecting the attack, thanks to captured documents and aerial reconnaissance. And as at Arras – and so many First World War battles – bad weather just added the misery.
The French attack was most successful on the right, where the Fifth Army advanced about six miles in its center by April 20, 1917, while the Sixth Army’s left wing advanced nearly four miles by the same time. The cost was astronomical, however, and everywhere else in the Aisne sector the French assault ran into a wall of German barbed wire and machine gun fire. One French tank officer painted a dramatic portrait of the initial assault:
It was still raining, and the already soft ground was progressively turning into sticky mud. How were we going to fare in such terrain at the time of the attack? Suddenly, a green star shell rose against the pale morning sky. It was followed by a second shell, but a red one… It was with deep emotion, in the dawn’s early light, that we saw at some distance the wave of tiny blue-coats rushing up the slopes of Mont Cornillet, whose top was shrouded by numerous explosions. We were holding our breath. Poignant moment! Our men’s wave, unbroken a moment ago, presently moved on in echelons, spread out again, and then progressed in a zigzag motion. Here and there, the men would crowd together without advancing, having met some obstacle we couldn’t see, most likely one of these accursed, still intact barbed wire networks.
As the weather took a turn for the worse the first French wounded came streaming back, telling of hopeless attacks on impenetrable defenses, with heavy casualties:
A snow squall swept our position. Our first wounded soldiers were coming in, men from the 83rd Infantry Regiment. We gathered round them, and learned from them, that the enemy positions were very strong, the resistance desperate. One battalion did reach the top of the Cornillet… but it was decimated by fire from intact machine gun positions, and was unable to withstand the enemy’s counter-attack… “We just couldn’t keep moving,” an alert corporal shouted, while using his rifle as a crutch. “Too many blasted machine guns, against which there was nothing doing!” “The Boches certainly knew we were going to attack there,” the lieutenant went on, “their trenches were jammed.”
The first day of the Nivelle Offensive ended with over 40,000 French casualties (approaching the British toll of 53,000 on the first day of the Somme). Over the next few days more appalling slaughter brought only minor gains, and by April 20 it was obvious the Nivelle Offensive had failed decisively. Fighting would continue until May 9, including a series of smaller operations to even out the line and secure observation posts, but by April 25 French civilian leaders were already planning to sideline Nivelle.
The debacle so complete that even mid-ranking officers were refusing to carry out orders for foolhardy attacks, according to the French soldier Louis Barthas, who noted one incident in his diary on April 19, 1917:
But fate had it that I would witness a conversation between our Colonel Robert and a general on horseback who told him, “Colonel, it’s your regiment’s turn to move up and attack. Head for the front line right away.” Our colonel yanked the pipe from his mouth, let fly a stream of saliva, and, to my great amazement, replied deliberately in a gruff voice, “General, look at these men and the state they’re in. Do you think they don’t know they’ve run into an insurmountable obstacle? The first day, they could have marched ahead. But not now. And me neither.” Not many colonels would have had the courage to make this kind of reply, to spare the lives of his men…
The same officer objected again when ordered to attack a heavily fortified position on April 26, according to Barthas, who wrote:
When the colonel learned about the mission assigned to his regiment, he rose up, eyes flashing furiously, in front of this parade-ground officer, and with a voice of thunder he roared to him… “Tell your general that he makes me mad as hell. I’ve had enough of these orders and counterorders the past week. Tell him that my regiment is not going to attack until the barbed wire has been blown to bits. Yes, and tell him that if I’m holding them up, let them come and tell me!”
But they were only able to avoid battle for so long. In late April Barthas took part in fierce fighting southeast of Reims:
The Germans, having decimated our troops at the Chemin des Dames, brought up masses of artillery against us. They fired furiously upon our lines. It became worse than Verdun. I saw one soldier carried off, raving mad. The lieutenant commanding the 17th Company lost his wits and had to be evacuated. Right behind us, the 47th Regiment, which had ended up taking, or rather encircling, the German strongpoint, wasn’t able to capture all the defenders, who sought refuge in the underground corridors, no doubt expecting to be rescued in a counterattack by their own side. We blocked up all the exits with walls of sandbags and threw asphyxiating grenades into the strongpoint, which henceforth stood as silent as a tomb. Oh, isn’t war fine to behold?
In the first days of May, Barthas was present for a German counterattack, beginning as always with withering artillery bombardment:
When we arrived at the wood’s edge, we stopped, terrified. Enormous, monstrous shells, more terrible than lightning bolts, were tearing up, shredding, decapitating giant, hundred-year-old trees. We saw them wrenched from the ground, twisted, and broken, as if by a giant cyclone. The whole forest seemed to be complaining, groaning, cracking under the blows of a Titan’s cudgel. Suddenly, from every corner of the wood, we saw artillerymen of the 47/2… fleeing as they had the Germans right on their coattails. “We’ve been sold out, betrayed!” they said. “As soon as we change our positions and camouflage them, they’re targeted and bombarded.”
Altogether the ill-fated offensive cost France 187,000 casualties, including 29,000 killed and 118 tanks lost. The British contribution to the offensive, the Second of the Battle of Arras, cost France’s main ally on the Western Front 160,000 casualties, including killed, wounded and missing. On the opposing side, during the paired offensives the Germans suffered a total of 288,000 casualties in all categories, or about four-fifths the Allied total of 347,000.
This brought total French losses in the war to date to around 3.3 million casualties, including a horrifying 1.2 million dead, equal to about 3% of its prewar population, and the country was now approaching the limits of its manpower. Unlike previous failures, no amount of Allied propaganda could persuade the French public the Nivelle Offensive was a success by any measure. Marjorie Crocker, an American serving as a volunteer nurse in France, struck a gloomy note in a letter home on July 4, 1917: “Every one now admits, even French officers, that the spring offensive was a failure, and the loss of life was something terrible, worse than Verdun; also that the Germans have the upper hand now in a military way.”
It came as no surprise when the civilian leadership sidelined Nivelle in favor of Petain, the pragmatic pessimist of Verdun, who in May 1917 would find himself facing an even more dangerous task: quelling widespread mutinies in the French Army touched off by the disastrous defeat, which raised very real fears of revolution and defeat.
Wresting Control of the Air
Adding to the Allies’ woes, the month of April 1917 also brought a surge in German air power, as a new generation of German planes including the Halberstadt CL.II and Albatros D.Va, the latter armed with two machine guns, swept Allied aircraft from the sky.
The onslaught was led by the German “ace” Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” whose “Flying Circus” (a group of 20-45 experienced fighter pilots, formally organized as the Jagdgerschwader 1, or “hunting wing” in June 1917) used wolf-pack tactics against outnumbered French and British rivals, scoring 644 kills of enemy planes over the course of the war. The unit adopted bright colors on their planes to ease identification in battle, although this also made them recognizable to enemy pilots, as Richthofen noted:
It occurred to me to have my packing case painted all over in staring red. The result was that everyone got know my red bird. My opponents also seemed to have heard of the colour transformation… They were the first two Englishmen whom I had brought down alive. Consequently, it gave me particular pleasure to talk to them. I asked them whether they had previously seen my machine in the air, and one of them replied, “Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it ‘Le petit Rouge.’”
Richthofen alone scored 80 kills by the time of his death on April 21, 1918, sometimes claiming multiple victims in a single combat. He recalled one encounter on April 2, 1917:
I was still in bed when my orderly rushed into the room and exclaimed: “Sire, the English are here!” Sleepy as I was I looked out of the window, and really there were my dear friends circling over the flying ground. My Red Bird had been pulled out, and was ready for starting… Suddenly one of the impertinent fellows tried to drop down upon me… After a short time I had got him beneath me… He tried to escape me. That was too bad. I attacked him again, and I went so low that I feared to touch the roofs of the houses of the village beneath me. The Englishman defended himself up to the last moment… He rushed at full speed right into a block of houses… My comrades were still in the air and they were very surprised, when we met at breakfast, when I told them that I had scored my thirty-second machine.
Later that same day, Richthofen shot down another plane, although this time the pilot was lucky enough to survive and be taken prisoner:
Although there were nine Englishmen and although they were on their own territory they preferred to avoid battle. I thought that perhaps it would be better for me to repaint my machine. Nevertheless I caught up with them. The important thing in aeroplanes is that they shall be speedy… My opponent did not make matters easy for me. He knew the fighting business, and it was particularly awkward for me that he was a good shot… A favourable wind came to my aid. It drove both of us into the German lines. My opponent discovered that the matter was not as simple as he had imagined. So he plunged, and disappeared into a cloud… I plunged after him and dropped out of the cloud and, as luck would have it, found myself close behind him… At last I hit him. I noticed a ribbon of white petrol vapour. He must land, for his engine had come to a stop…
Losses in the Allied air forces reflected the new German air supremacy: the number of French and Belgian planes shot down more than doubled from around 75 in March to 201 in April 1917, while the number of British planes shot down soared from 120 to 316, including 75 lost in four brutal days from April 4-8 during the lead-up to Arras. Although both the French and British were hurrying production of new planes, including the French SPAD S.XIII and the British S.E.5, F.2.B. Bristol, and Sopwith Camel fighters, for the time being the Germans controlled the skies over the Western Front, including the Aisne sector.
Lenin Arrives In Petrograd, Mass Desertions From Russian Armies
Some 1,300 miles to the east, the Russian Revolution took another in a series of dramatic turns with the return from exile of the Bolshevik leader Lenin to Petrograd, adding another volatile element to the already combustible mix, as the Provisional Government competed with the Petrograd Soviet for legitimacy and authority.
Lenin’s journey from Zurich to Petrograd was made possible by German intelligence operatives, who advised the government to provide transportation for Lenin and several dozen other Russian radicals, in the hopes that they would make trouble for Russia’s new Provisional Government, thus paralyzing the Russian war effort. The German military arranged a special sealed train for Lenin and his compatriots across Germany to the Baltic, where the party took a ferry to Sweden. From here they proceeded by train to the Finnish border, where they crossed over into Russian territory in sleighs before boarding another train to Petrograd, arriving there on April 16.
Immediately on returning to Petrograd, Lenin launched an attack on two fellow Bolsheviks, Stalin and Kamenev, for articles published in the party newspaper, Pravda, advocating cooperation with the Provisional Government. Scarcely off the train, Lenin lashed out: “‘What have you people been writing in Pravda ? We saw several issues and were very angry with you…” Lenin clearly meant to take a much more confrontational stance towards the “capitalist” regime, as revealed in his “April Theses,” which openly advocated the immediate overthrow of the parliamentary government, the end of the war, and “All power to the Soviets!”
For all his pandering, Lenin’s program met with a skeptical response when he presented it to the Soviet in a speech at the Tauride Palace (above), where his proposals were greeted with heckling and boos; one deputy exclaimed that they were the “ravings of a madman.” Clearly, the time wasn’t yet ripe for Lenin’s planned second revolution. But the situation was rapidly becoming more favorable, thanks in part to a huge increase in the number of deserters streaming back from the Eastern Front to civilian areas. Desertion was nothing new in the Russian Army, with over a million men roaming the countryside and big cities by the end of 1916, but it rose sharply in the wake of the revolution, especially once the authority of officers to punish men was abolished. The president of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzyanko, estimated an additional 1.5 million men deserted in 1917, and some estimates put the number as high as two million for the year. Over a million more would join them in 1918 (below, a Russian soldier tries to stop a deserter).
Despite the risk of execution, desertion was a fairly common event in all the armies fighting the First World War, with around 150,000 deserters from the German Army, 240,000 from the British and Commonwealth armies, 250,000 from the Habsburg Army (in large part reflecting Austria-Hungary’s myriad ethnic tensions) and an incredible 500,000 from the forces of the Ottoman Empire, or nearly one in five Turkish recruits.
Of course, these numbers aren’t surprising in view of the extreme psychological duress experienced by most soldiers in the trenches, which also manifested in the growing incidence of “shell shock” (now recognized as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder). In 1917 a German psychiatrist describe a typical case of shellshock:
Case 421. Officer at the age of 25… In 1917 dugout blocked by a direct hit. Tried to dig himself out with his comrades. These comrades were slowly losing their energy. They died presumably through suffocation. The patient cannot specify the way they died. He also felt the growing lack of breath. A second shell opened the blocked dugout, which saved the patient. Since then states of nervous anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, general nervousness. Patient feels repeatedly breathless, thinks he has to die from suffocation.
Amid these horrors, the risk of execution often paled next to the prospect of further suffering. In many places desertion was relatively easy, especially in rural areas with minimal administration and policing. In many circumstances desertion was a desperate final resort for low-ranking soldiers who were powerless against abusive officers. These deserters weren’t necessarily disloyal, but were liable to extreme penalties just the same, as reflected in a diary entry by the British soldier Edward Roe for December 11, 1915, describing an execution in Gallipoli:
Execution of Private Salter at 7.15 am. This youth barely 19 years of age was shot by twelve of his comrades for taking “French Leave” from his Regiment on two occasions and attaching himself to the Anzacs. Not by any stretch of the imagination could my comrades or I catalogue it as desertion, as ‘twas impossible to desert from the Peninsula even had he so desired. Our position in comparison to the position that the Anzacs held was as heaven compared to hell. He therefore did not seek safety; he absconded because his life was made a hell by the CSM [Company Sergeant Major] of my Company [“D”]. In barrack room parlance he was “sat upon”. I was one of the firing party; he was marched from a dugout about 80 yards away, to a kind of disused quarry where the final scene was enacted… The doomed youth was tied up to a stake, his grave already dug. His last request was, “Don’t blindfold me”.
Another British officer, T.H. Westmacott, recorded an execution for desertion in April 1916:
The man had deserted when his battalion was in the trenches and had been caught in Paris. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was remitted, and he was sent back to his battalion. He did so well in the trenches that he was allowed leave to England. He deserted again, and after being arrested was sent back to his battalion in France, where he was again sentenced to death. This time he was shot… The condemned man spent the night in a house about half a mile away. He walked from there blindfolded with the doctor, the parson and the escort. He walked quite steadily on to the parade, sat down in the chair, and told them not to tie him too tight. A white disc was pinned over his heart. He was the calmest man on the ground… On the word “Fire!” the man’s head fell back, and the firing party about turned at once… The company was then marched off. The body was wrapped in a blanket, and the APM saw it buried in a grave which had been dug close by, unmarked and unconsecrated.
Altogether the British Army executed 306 soldiers for desertion and other crimes over the course of the war, while the French executed 918 and the Italians 750. The low number of executions in proportion to total incidents suggests that military officials were generally inclined to leniency whenever possible, doubtless out of fear of stirring up resentment among civilian relatives. In fact, some soldiers were chronic deserters, like the incorrigible Edward Casey, an Irish Cockney in the British Army, who cheerfully admitted to deserting whenever he got the chance in his memoirs. Casey recalled facing a drumhead tribunal after one incident:
Later, I was standing before the OC [Officer Commanding] and the Batt. Sgt. Major read the charge, “Absent without leave. How do you plead?” [I said] “I admit I went for a little walk.” “Little walk!” roared the Sgt Major, “ten miles! You were running away! Right Casey, you are sentenced to five days Field Punishment No. One.” I said to myself, “That’s better than the front.” As usual I was wrong again… They varied the punishment. The first day I was placed on the ground. The guard then got tent pegs, with ropes attached… I was spread-eagled for one hour in the morning and one at night… Twice daily I was subjected to this punishment and, for variation, my wrists were handcuffed to my ankles.
Deliberate self-injury was another popular gambit to escape service in the frontline, although it required special care to make it look like the wounds had been inflicted by enemy fire. Edward Roe, a British soldier stationed in Mesopotamia, wrote in his diary on February 8, 1917, wrote of an unsuccessful attempt:
Two weak willed men who were unable to stand the strain shot themselves through the hearts of their left hands this morning. They were lacking in foresight, as they did not use a folded sandbag or a first aid dressing over the muzzles of the rifles, with the result that all around their wounds the flesh was badly scorched with cordite. This gave the ‘show away’. The empty cases were also found in the chambers of their rifles. Owing to shock they failed to unload. Blowing trigger fingers and big toes off is getting ‘played out’. Those wounds were inflicted with a view to getting away from the firing line.
Resistance could also take a number of less dramatic forms, including lollygagging and cowardice on the battlefield. Paul Hub, a low-ranking German officer, described one incident at the Somme in September 1916, when his men suddenly proved hard to locate:
We must have lost 40 per cent of our company today. Many of my men were so exhausted that I couldn’t get them to do anything. I ordered an NCO to follow me but he threatened to shoot me. I had him arrested. We were then ordered to defend Combles and dig trenches in the open, but it was almost impossible to persuade even a few of the men to come with me. As soon as I got them out of one ditch, they simply disappeared into another. We had managed to collect a few men when the firing restarted and they all disappeared again. There are no trenches here, only craters with waterproof covers pulled over the top. The men knew this and were reluctant to submit themselves to almost certain death.
In extreme cases, disobedience might escalate to “fragging,” or the murder of officers by their own troops. While hardly widespread, and harshly punished whenever possible, the practice was not unknown – and in some cases the murderers got away with it. Louis Barthas recalled an incident in which French soldiers lynched military police officers when the latter stopped them from going AWOL to buy food:
But this zeal in carrying out such a rigorous and absurd duty irritated the poilus, who went out in groups and administered some hard knocks to the gendarmes with stout clubs. But these reprisals went too far. One day they found two gendarmes swinging from the branches of a pine tree, with their tongues hanging out… Far up the chain of command, they were moved by this incident. At roll call, for three days straight, they read and reread a note from the general-en-chef praising the tough and thankless job that the brave gendarmes carry out, earning the respect of all. The officers couldn’t repress the guffaws and sarcastic comments which welcomed this reading. “If they find their jobs too tough and thankless,” said a voice, “then they should come up to an outpost one time.”
Occasionally the attackers killed the wrong victim, according to the British author Robert Graves, who recorded one bloody mishap on May 23, 1915:
Two young miners, in another company, disliked their sergeant, who had a down on them and gave them all the most dirty and dangerous jobs. When they were in billets he crimed them for things they hadn’t done; so they decided to kill him. Later, they reported at Battalion Orderly Room and asked to see the Adjutant… Smartly slapping the small-of-the-butt of their sloped rifles, they said: “We’ve come to report, Sir, that we’re very sorry, but we’ve shot our company sergeant-major.” The adjutant said: “Good heavens, how did that happen?” “It was an accident, Sir.” “What do you mean, you damn fools? Did you mistake him for a spy?” “No, Sir, we mistook him for our platoon sergeant.” So they were both court-martialled and shot by a firing-squad of their own company against the wall of a convent at Béthune.