The Nivelle offensive of April 1917 was one of the most disasterous Allied attacks of the First World War, ending in near total failure and breaking the morale of the French army. The battles on the ground were accompanied by large scale aerial battles in which the Allies suffered such heavy casualties that the month became known as ‘Bloody April’.
This book differs from most on First World War aviation in that it doesn’t focus on the clashes between individual aircraft (mainly fighters) that are often the topic of such books. Instead the focus is on the bigger picture, looking at the organisation of the British, French and German air services, their overall plans for the battle, how they were equipped, how their men were trained, and how effective those plans were during the battle.
The equipment of the opposing sides emerges as one of the key elements in the German success – their new generation of fighters, and in particular the Albatros D.III, outclassed most of their Allied opponents, giving the Germans a major advantage in most of the battles. Newer more capable Allied aircraft were beginning to enter the battle, but not in large enough numbers to influence its result.
The RFC was in a pretty poor state during these battles. Its most famous problem was that pilots were arriving at the front with only 35 flight hours of training, less than half as much as their French and German equivalents, while British observers were given almost no specialist training at all. Less well known is that the RFC was also using largely obsolete aircraft, with the worst example being the B.E.2. British combat losses at Arras in April were twice those of the French on the Chemin des Dames.
On the French side poor tactics were at least partly to blame – the French air commander, Commander de Peuty, decided to use his fighters on large scale sweeps well behind the German lines, in the hope of provoking them into battles that would allow the superior French numbers to prevail. Unsurprising the Germans refused to play along and instead sent their fighter units to attack the French observation aircraft operating along the front line (on the British front the Germans realised that they outclassed the British patrols and did attack, inflicting heavy losses).
The section on the campaign itself does a good job of tying events in the air to the battles on the ground. What we see here is that Allied observation aircraft often managed to do their job, but with unsustainably high losses. The outnumbered Germans appear to have lost less than half as many aircraft in combat as their opponents.
We finish with a good section on how the three sides adapted to the lessons learnt in the air in April 1917. On the British side we see much better aircraft start to appear. On the French side the use of deep fighter sweeps was abandoned and more training in army cooperation introduced. On the German side we see the creation of ever larger fighter formations and the formal introduction of ground attack units.
Airpower in 1917
Aftermath and Analysis
Author: James S. Corum