The Nivelle Offensive

The Nivelle Offensive

The Nivelle Offensive began in April 1917 and continued for one month. Involving 1.2 million troops, the plan was developed by Robert Nivelle, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. Sadly, by the time the offensive was over, it had led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Allied troops, the French Army had been driven to mutiny and Nivelle had been sacked.

The Nivelle Offensive was developed using similar logic to that used to develop the plan for the Somme - an overwhelming attack on the German Army would result in victory for the Allies within just 48 hours with fewer than 10,000 casualties.

Nivelle had already achieved popularity among French politicians after recapturing the fort at Douaumont during the Battle of Verdun, which led to him being considered by many a national hero. It also meant he had strong support from many people at the top including Aristide Briand the French Prime Minister.

When Nivelle announced his plan to defeat the Germans, Briand immediately announced his support. French War Minister Hubert Lyautey did not agree and resigned over the matter, and Sir Douglas Haig also expressed concerns, but the plan went ahead nonetheless.

Robert Nivelle

Nivelle’s plan involved a major assault by French forces on the Aisle region, which would be supported by a secondary attack by British troops at Arras, Vimy Ridge and on the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt.

The attack began on 9th April 1917 and lasted until 16th May. The Canadians were successful in there part of the plan, taking Vimy Ridge by 12th April. However, the Australians suffered badly at Bullecourt.

Haig made the decision to halt the attack by the British and Commonwealth forces on 14th April as he awaited news from the French soldiers.

He soon learned that the French were doing so poorly in the Second Battle of Aisle that mutiny had started to break out, so pressure was put on Haig to restart the British and Commonwealth attacks to relieve pressure on the French.

When the offensive was officially called off on 16th May 1917, the French Army had been stretched to its limit and had even labelled themselves ‘lambs to the slaughter’ when they were moved to the front at the River Aisle.

More than 130,000 casualties were suffered by the British and Commonwealth forces, with the French suffering 187,000. This worked out at around 10,000 men killed each day across the five-week assault. The attack resulted in 61 square miles of land being taken from the Germans but only 20,000 German troops were captured.

Following the end of the offensive, Nivelle was sacked and Philippe Pétain replaced him as commander-in-Chief.

The outcome of the Second Aisle and the Nivelle Offensive were actually not as bad as the outcome of the Battle of Verdun. However, many argue Nivelle was sacked as the country had such high expectations of him compared to the other commanders. The French had specifically been told by Nivelle, a trusted hero, that the Germans would collapse on the Western Front within 48 hours and that there would be no more than 10,000 casualties. Both of these claims were extremely far from the trth and his reputation was undermined.

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Nivelle Offensive". HistoryLearning.com. 2019. Web.