The Nivelle Offensive of 1917 was one of the most dramatic failures of the Second World War - a massive offensive designed to win a decisive victory without the heavy losses suffered in earlier attacks but that instead caused a collapse of morale in the French army, leading to a series of mutinies that temporarily left it unable to go onto the offensive and terribly vulnerable to any German attack. This in turn forced Haig to continue fighting at Ypres for longer than he would have liked, in an attempt to draw German attention away from the French front.
Nivelle comes across as flawed but not incompetent. His basic plan comes across as a sound attempt to break the deadlock on the Western Front, learning from the mistakes of earlier attacks. Unfortunately everything fell apart in the details, with the attack taking place on an unsuitable sector of the front (after the German retreat on the Somme front meant that the original target area was no longer available), little or no operational security, allowing the Germans to prepare for the upcoming assault, and a reliance on new French heavy tanks that proved to be unsuited for combat on the Western Front. Nivelle lost the support of many key political figures before the offensive even began, but was too popular to remove from office, and the attack went ahead despite plenty of evidence that it could no longer succeed. Nivelle then ignored his own promise to stop immediately if the attack didn’t achieve the promised quick breakthrough, and continued to attack until the morale of the French army began to crack. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is its examination of how Nivelle and his close associates were able to ignore all of the evidence that suggested there were problems with their plan.
The final section of the book looks at the mutinies - how they began, how they spread and what the mutineers wanted, the impact that had on the overall course of the war, and the impressive way in which Petain was able to restore morale and create an army that was able to play its part in the victorious offensives of 1918.
1 - The French Army, 1914-17
2 - The Rise of General Robert Nivelle
3 - General Nivelle and his Plan
4 - The French Tank Programme
5 - The Offensive
6 - Reinforcing Failure
7 - The Mutinies
Author: David Murphy
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military