The Second Battle of the Aisne was one of the more disastrous French offensives of the First World War. It was the brainchild of General Robert Nivelle, who had replaced Joffre as the French commander in chief in November 1916. He was an artillery officer who had made his name during the later phases of the Battle of Verdun.
Nivelle was unwilling to resume the war of attrition that had dominated on the Somme and at Verdun during 1916. Instead he wanted to create a gap in the German lines and break out into their back area, a return to the strategy of 1915. He also intended to return to the battlefields of 1915, combining a British attack at Arras with a French attack on the Aisne.
Nivelle believed that he could use his artillery to destroy the German lines. In earlier attacks the artillery bombardment had concentrated on the German front line, often allowing Allied soldiers to capture it. Unfortunately even in 1915 the Germans had constructed an elaborate defensive system with a second line of defences as far as three miles behind the first. The second line had survived the bombardment intact, bringing the Allied advance to a halt. Nivelle planned a massive artillery bombardment that would target the entire depth of the German lines. The French infantry would then advance behind a creeping barrage that would help to protect then from German attack. Any surviving pockets of fierce German resistance would be bypassed and dealt with later, while the advance continued on into the undefended ground in the German rear. This was cause a “rupture” in the German lines.
Nivelle was a great self-publicist. His confidence in the plan spread amongst his troops, especially after the first day of the Battle of Arras (9 April) had seen the British and Canadians capture Vimy Ridge, advancing as far as three miles in places. Unfortunately Nivelle had taken to confidently expounding his plans to anyone who would listen, most notoriously at dinner parties in London during a visit in January 1917. This combined with lax security to warn the Germans of what was coming.
The German defences on the Aisne had been under construction for nearly three years. Nivelle was planning to advance four and half miles on the first day of the offensive. The main German defences by April 1917 were a further mile to the rear! The German plan depended on defensive in depth. The front line trenches were virtually abandoned, used for observation only. Behind them was a maze of machine gun nests, some constructed in shell holes, some in reinforced concrete bunkers. The reserve divisions, whose job it was to stop the French offensive, were out of range of the French artillery, at least 10,000 yards behind the front line.
The French committed 800,000 men to the battle. The initial assault was launched by the Sixth Army under General Charles Mangin (on the left) and the Fifth Army under General Olivier Mazel (on the right). On 20th April they were joined by General Denis Duchêne’s Tenth Army. They were supported by 3,810 artillery guns, although there was a relative shortage of howitzers.
The German line was held by 650,000 men, 21 divisions in the front line and 15 counter attack divisions. The line was held by General Max von Boehn’s Seventh Army on Chemin des Dames and Fritz von Below’s First Army to the east.
The preliminary bombardment began on 2 April. It did not have the required effect on the entire depth of the German defences. When the main attack went in on 16 April, the French infantry were able to capture the lightly defended front line, but found the intermediate defences largely intact. Very few of the 200 French tanks played a part in the battle – 150 were either destroyed by German artillery or got bogged down in the mud.
On the first day the French advanced on average 600 yards. On the second day they captured the Chemin des Dames road, itself the objective of earlier battles. The French advance made most progress on the left, where the German front line turned north. The French Sixth Army pushed the Germans back up to four miles. The problem was that this still left the German rear defensive lines intact. The offensive continued for five days before it began to bog down. Different sources give different casualty figures for the battle, but by 20 April it is possible that as many as 130,000 casualties had been suffered (although the official figures were rather lower). By then 20,000 German prisoners and 147 guns had been captured. German casualties during the battle were probably higher than the French, with 163,000 men killed, missing, wounded or captured. On several occasions during the First World War attacking would turn out be less costly than defending.
Compared to many earlier battles, the first five days of the Second Battle of the Aisne had been successful, but the cost had been high. In five days on the Aisne the French had lost as many men as in a month at Verdun. This was too much for the French soldiers to endure. Nivelle had promised a war winning offensive and a rapid breakthrough. Discontent began to rise in the army, manifesting itself as a reluctance to go into the front line.
Nivelle’s authority was fading. On 29 April Pétain was appointed Chief of the General Staff and on 15 May, after more limited successes on the Aisne, Nivelle was replaced as Commander-in-Chief by Pétain, with Foch as Chief of the General Staff. Pétain immediately cancelled the offensive and turned his attention to restoring the crumbling morale of the army.
The collapse of French morale after the Second Battle of the Aisne would have tragic results further up the line. The British attack at Arras had to continue for longer than was sensible. In the late summer and autumn of 1917 the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele) went ahead despite the lack of a matching French offensive, partly to prevent the Germans from launching an attack on the vulnerable French sector of the line.