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Breaking Point of the French Army: The Nivelle Offensive of 1917 Review

French assault troops at the Chemin des Dames

French assault troops at the Chemin des Dames

If there was a moment, after the Battle of the Marne, when France itself came to the brink of losing the First World War, it was the Nivelle Offensive. Other battles were potentially disastrous, such as Verdun, and in 1918 the German Spring Offensive had the potential of knocking France’s British allies out of the war, but the Nivelle Offensive was the breaking point of the French army, when after years of bloody and futile struggle at last it started to crack, in the great mutiny of 1917. The failure of the offensive on the Chemin des Dames might not have been as bloodily catastrophic as the offensives launched by Joffre in 1915, or as horrific as the hellscape of Verdun, but it pushed the army over the edge in one last, great, awful, disappointment. David Murphy's book The Breaking Point of the French Army: The Nivelle Offensive of 1917 helps to put in a better light the exact nature of the offensive and which it failed.

Most of the time, the Nivelle Offensive is covered only in passing terms or the effects, and the descriptions of the battle itself are rare. David Murphy helps to correct this by providing a much more detailed look at tactical operations and fighting on the ridge, striking a good balance between compact readability and descriptive length. The complete lack of surprise from poor operational security in the high political circles of Paris and London, the initial push, the bogging down, the tactical problems of the legion of German pillboxes and the difficulty of suppressing reversed slope defenses, the overly optimistic projected rate of advance - all of these conspired against the success of the offensive.

One of the most haunting monuments to the soldiers who fell at the Chemin des Dames, in this case Tirailleurs sénégalais

One of the most haunting monuments to the soldiers who fell at the Chemin des Dames, in this case Tirailleurs sénégalais

It is also excellent in look at Nivelle, who was a competent and capable man, who had proved his worth in artillery fighting from the beginning of the war to Verdun. So why did Nivelle push ahead with the Nivelle Offensive on the Chemin des Dames, despite a steadily deteriorating position with lack of surprise, increasing German reserves, and the original attack location being abandoned by the Germans during the retreat to the Hinenberg line, freeing up both troops and increasing defensive obstacles confronting the French? Nivelle seems to have been afflicted with a degree of obsession and an unwillingness to alter his plans, instead choosing to double down on the offensive. Perhaps driven by his dying chief of staff, D’Alençon, who wished to defeat the Germans before he expired, probably from tuberculosis. He would only achieve bringing tens of thousands of Frenchmen to the grave with him.

The description of the tactical and operational principles of what, and which Nivelle violated - secrecy, terrain, enemy opposition, and which he obeyed, mass and objectives (ie. the German forces opposing him, although he failed to pay sufficient attention to the difficulties of actually attacking them), helps to clarify the broader picture of why it failed. indeed, this is one of the strong points of the book, because the Nivelle Offensive was, by the standards of 1915, not a failure: it had captured important terrain, taken numerous German prisoners and equipment, as well as inflicting casualties that came somewhat close to matching French levels, and French casualties had not been as atrocious as 1915. It was principally in the context of how much Nivelle had over-promised, and under-delivered, that the offensive could be judged a failure - and a catastrophic one.

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This is a final excellent part of the book, the mutinies. Covering the various incidents and the complaints that led to a break down of authority, the phases involved, the measures taken to suppress them - particularly the repressive ones, with the institution of summary military justice - the reforms, and the various operations which the French conducted afterwards, successfully, under Pétain's leadership.

This degree of nuance is a welcome one for better understanding the Nivelle Offensive: it was more than just an outright failure, but rather a product of context and a particular confluence of factors which led to such a catastrophic outcome. It sheds new light on it which other books don’t cover, and provides a framework for understanding of the munities and the transition to Pétain’s army afterwards. A welcome book to understand the French army, political authorities, relationship to the British, and tactical operations on the Western Front in 1917.

It is also notable in observing the deficiencies and failings in the French command and political establishment. Nivelle was an extremely persuasive and charismatic general, who was remarkable capable of convincing people, but there were nevertheless key individuals who objected, such as notably Petain Lyautey, and Paul Painlevé. Political figures such as Premier Ribot realized that the offensive was potentially disastrous, but lacked the courage and decisiveness to countermand or dismiss Nivelle. This dysfunction, where opposition expressed itself by subterfuge, rather than through clear dissent in open meetings. This sheds light on the nature of French command and politics.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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