Robert Nivelle, as a daring artillery officer, was a hero of the Battle of the Marne in 1914 – “when he drove his regiment’s guns through disintegrating French infantry to engage the Germans at point blank range”[1] – and, after replacing Pétain as commander of Second Army, was the ultimately successful “victor of Verdun” – and a self-publicist whose “Ils ne passeront pas!” became a resonant national slogan.  He replaced unimaginative and faltering Joffre, who in 1916 had left Verdun weakly defended and prioritised the Somme, as commander-in-chief in December 1916 and confidently offered a plan to destroy the enemy through “a decisive battle which engages all his available forces”.[2]  At Verdun, the recapture of Forts Douaumont and Vaux seemed to show he possessed “the formula” (“la bataille de rupture”, attacking with “violence, brutality, and speed”) to break the stalemate on the Western Front.  He would “use his artillery to blast a narrow corridor through the German lines” with infantry rapidly following up to exploit the enemy’s shattered defences.[3]  The Noyon salient on the Oise that he hoped to attack was straightened by the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917.  But Nivelle persisted with the second element of his plan, an attack on the Chemin des Dames.  This ancient road ran along the high ridge on the north bank of the Aisne, north-west of Rheims, and most of it had been in German hands since September 1914.[4]

Unfortunately for the French, Germany’s withdrawal had allowed a redeployment of troops that strengthened the defences on the Chemin, a process enhanced by poor security – “everyone was so talkative” – which alerted the Germans to the location and time of the intended attack.[5]  Nivelle also seemed oblivious to the fact that the terrain made an attack extremely difficult: the ridgeline rose to 180 metres in height and (in the west) the Aisne, up to 50 yards wide, and a network of canals offered additional obstacles.  These problems, in combination with poor weather (cold and wet, and foggy conditions which inhibited aerial reconnaissance) and the formidable German defences, built during more than two years of continuous occupation, would cause the failure of the offensive.

The French attack began with registering of the artillery from 2 April 1917 and proceeded to sustained shelling from 8 April, but the German positions on the reverse (northern) slope of the high ridge could be reached only by the biggest guns.  The infantry finally went forward at 06.00 on 16 April, almost a million men advancing on a front of nearly 40 kilometres.  Far from surging beyond the Chemin des Dames, however, the attackers were cut down and halted by machine-gun and artillery fire – “What slaughter! … the machine-guns stopped us dead.  Within ten or fifteen minutes the company had been cut to pieces”[6] – and General Mangin’s creeping barrage, advancing at the “insane pace” of 100 metres every three minutes, ran too far ahead of the infantry.  The hopes of a breakthrough were rapidly dashed, with the third and strongest line of German defences not breached.  Over the course of three days, the offensive yielded small, local gains, up to 6 or 7 kms.  They included the Aisne valley in the west (from which the Germans retreated on 18 April to consolidate on the Chemin) and 3-4 kms of the middle part of the Chemin (near Hurtebise Farm), at the cost of thousands of casualties.[7]

The accounts of those who visited the area in 1919 were generally lacking in technical detail, but their descriptions of the devastation left behind, with the land characterised as moonscape or desert, spoke eloquently of the ferocity of the contest.  Charles Seymour saw only destroyed villages, shell holes and craters:

We pushed on up the road to Laon.  As one goes north the desolation becomes almost complete.  Of course this ground was fought over several times between 1914 and 1918, and there is little left of the villages.  The ground is like the surface of the moon through a telescope, simply a mass of shell-holes, merging into each other, with the subsoil churned up.  We went on past Fort Malmaison at the western end of the Chemin des Dames, and to Chavignon [Chavonne?] where the permanent trench line ran at the time of the German advance a year ago.  The whole territory has been no-man’s-land at one time or another and is nothing but craters and masses of tangled wire.  I suppose that some of the craters must have come from mines as they are at least 25 feet in diameter.[8]

James Shotwell headed north from Rheims into land that “is simply the symbol of the whole vast desolation”.  What was once prosperous farming country was now “for about fifteen or twenty miles an uninhabited desert.  Through it ran continuous lines of trenches with white chalky parapets, stretching over fields as far as the eye could see, unendingly, with barbed wire entanglements in all directions.  Not a soul in sight.  Absolute silence.  We stopped for lunch by a trench side and the only sign of life was the song of a meadow lark.” The American went on to give a helpful description of the topography as well as the destruction wrought by the battle:

[W]e swung up the hill to the flat top of the long ridge that runs east and west about two or three miles from the Aisne and parallel with it.  It is this which constitutes the great natural bastion known as “Chemin des Dames” – the Ladies’ Roadway.  When we got to the hilltop we had hoped to follow the roadway of the Chemin des Dames itself along the whole hillcrest.  But our car got only a few car-lengths on that road, the most famous in France, for all trace of it has disappeared, at least at the eastern end, in a wilderness of shell craters…  [S]outh of us lay the Valley of the Aisne and the trench-guarded plain toward Rheims as far as the eye could carry; and from the height of four hundred feet or so, with a level country below, one can see for many miles.[9]

Two villages, Berry-au-Brac and Craonne, drew the attention of visitors in the eastern part of the battlefield.  At the former, tanks had been deployed in unprecedented numbers on the first day of the battle – “Tanks: steel monsters … Can anyone stand up to these machines?  No, it’s absolutely impossible.  So victory is certain! …  The end of the war! … With tanks, why not?  Can you stop a tank or kill it?”[10] – but mechanical unreliability, vulnerability to artillery and confused thinking about how they could liaise with the infantry combined to make the initiative a complete fiasco.[11]   Nearby, one of the primary French objectives was the hill village of Craonne.  It was overlooked by the German positions on the California plateau and the French who attacked it on 16 April suffered heavy casualties and were beaten off.  During the next three weeks of sporadic fighting the village was obliterated.  If Shotwell was surprised by the ruined state of Berry-au-Brac, it was the reduction of Craonne to “extra high piles of dust and stone” that left him astounded:

A little later, we came to a stream crossing the road and on the temporary bridge I asked an old woman how much farther it was to Berry-au-Brac.  She gave a wave of her hand at the pulverized stone piles near and said, in a tone that struck us all, “Berry-au-Brac, c’est ici.”  There are no walls left high enough to have a roof, none over six or seven feet.  The old woman was the only person in sight.  The stream was the Aisne.  We crossed it, verging toward the hilly country which the Germans held so long.

Just beyond Berry-au-Brac, we turned west to a gaunt hillside, which had been visible from away across the plain, the famous heights of Craonne, at the east end of the Chemin des Dames.  Imagine a hill about four or five hundred feet high of chalky rock, so pulverized that it was simply a great pile of chalk powder slightly discolored with ground-up rubbish which had been blown into it, not an inch of it that had not been smashed by heavy shells, and not a blade of grass nor even a sign of any ruin; nothing but a vast pile of powdered refuse.  That was the height of Craonne.  The road had been repaired up the hillside so the car could take it, and on the edge of the slope we halted by some extra high piles of dust and stone, suddenly realizing we were in what had been the town of Craonne.  It was as much worse than Berry-au-Brac as Berry-au-Brac was worse than Rheims.  Nothing was left above ground, though here and there one could make out cellars, especially where they had been used for dug-outs.  I walked up what was once the village street…[12]

In July 1919, Margaret Hall, too, discovered that nothing remained of Craonne.[13]  There was similar devastation at the western end of the Chemin, where the French artillery pounded the nineteenth century Fort Malmaison into rubble.  Jan Smuts, taking a break from his vain struggle to mitigate the harshness of the German treaty, travelled to “the blood-stained battlefields of yesterday” on 20 June 1919 and found that “Malmaison is now nothing but a hill-top with huge craters inside, looking like the extinct volcano it is.” [14]  Seymour and his party “had lunch just opposite Fort Malmaison.  It was without exception the most desolate spot I ever visited; for minutes at a time absolute dead silence, not a bird of any kind; only the reports of shells or hand grenades which are being fired by the Annamites, who are just beginning to clean up.”[15]  Hall found the area still littered with abandoned weaponry, including trench mortars and machine guns, and other debris, making the Chemin des Dames impassable for cars; she walked to Malmaison, now “a very much destroyed fort”.[16]

One feature of the battlefield was the system of “Stollen” (underground bunkers), natural caves and caverns created by past quarrying for stone.  These shelters protected the Germans from preliminary bombardment and often “stay behind” units emerged and attacked the advancing French, after they got through the relatively light defences of the German first line, from the rear.  A French officer described one such engagement: “We advanced in the morning, but when we got through, the Huns were coming out of holes and shooting us in the back.  Many were killed or wounded.”[17]  Seymour was struck by the enormity and complexity of one of these shelters (“abris”), possibly the largest, the Caverne du Dragon, on the Chemin near Craonne:

We got out frequently to go into the trenches, which are falling in fast, and into the abris.  One of these was enormous, said to hold several thousand men.  We went in quite a way, as far as we dared, with lights.  It is made of infinite galleries, all far underground, part of it out of a quarry.  It is whitewashed, electric-wired, with large halls and small sleeping quarters; beds made out of boards and chicken wire, or simply masses of straw.  I took a sign, “Galerie Maud’huy”, showing that the French had evidently held it last or for the greater part of the time; but there was some German equipment left.[18]  Horse bones were in what looked like the stable, with cavalry equipment; and several kitchens, from which we took a poker for Chatham.  We also took some entrenching tools from the outside trenches for the children…

Seymour showed more interest in souvenir-hunting than in the military significance of these shelters, although his enjoyment was diminished by the fact that “the real prizes” had already been taken and, possibly, by the danger of being blown to pieces:

Some of the dugouts are lined with a sort of canvas which has all the air of grass cloth and is as clean as a drawing room.  Some of them have doors and windows made out of munition boxes with oiled paper instead of glass.  The dugouts were full of all sorts of stuff most of which we did not like to touch as we were not sure whether or not they might be traps.  We picked up all the German helmets we could carry, got some new gas masks, bayonets, etc., and I found some German paper-covered novels and a German army hymn book.  The French had evidently taken the real prizes such as field glasses and revolvers.  The place was thick with hand grenades and I hope they send some one to clean it up before some crazy people blow themselves to pieces.[19]

Describing his experience in Craonne, Shotwell showed a measure of sympathy for the ordinary German soldier:

[I] entered a hillside dugout, walking straight in for about a hundred feet.  It was well-timbered, with a very narrow passage and would not hold many men.  Just under the brow of the hill were corrugated iron sheds with bunks in them.  In one there was a kitchen with a range, in others I noticed the installation of electric lights and little stoves to make the quarters cozy; but they were as poor sheds as one would care to pass a night in, let alone live in through a winter on the desolate hillside.  German helmets and other spoils of war were lying about.[20]

On one occasion, visiting Fort Brimont at the eastern end of the battlefield, Margaret Hall’s empathy with the French peasantry, who had lost everything, was more than might have been expected from a rich American heiress.  She saw “nothing but desolation, nothing growing, trenches, barbed wire, shell holes, all mixed up together for miles and miles…”  Whilst Rheims was a “horrific sight”, it was also “big and rich, and you feel that the people may have a little something besides what you see there, but in the little villages you know you are looking on everything they have left in the world – a pile of debris…  Often the destruction of towns is so complete that it is impossible to tell where their house stood.  In one village I saw the other day, the only place to make a garden was on top of four graves, and there it was being made.”[21]

Nivelle, having failed to achieve the promised breakthrough, resorted to limited assaults, with specific objectives, an approach which merely brought continuing high casualties without the prospect of significant benefit.  The attacks on Fort Brimont (in the east) and Craonne were renewed and the latter (but not Brimont) fell to the French on 5 May – or, rather, the position fell, since the village no longer existed.  The same applied to the Moulin de Laffaux – on a high hill a few kilometres west of the Chemin – where the French seized the shattered remnants of the ancient mill on 6 May.  Woodrow Wilson and his companions in March 1919 “visited the famous Moulin de Laffaux, which was before the war one of the most noted points of interest in all of northern France, and which is now simply a mass of ruins and broken stone.  This territory is distinctly historic as during the entire war almost daily engagements had been fought.”[22]

The battle formally ended on 9 May 1917 and Nivelle was dismissed and replaced with Pétain on 15 May.  French losses were officially put at 134,000 casualties for 16-25 April alone.  The extravagant hopes for success had been dashed and the fragile morale of the French army collapsed.  The famous mutiny (or “collective disobedience”) followed, when perhaps 30-40,000 poilus refused orders to move up (or return) to the trenches.  Some soldiers carried red flags, sang the Internationale or rioted, and a few attacked their officers (mostly by throwing stones).  2,910 desertions were reported for May-June 1917.  554 men who had “refuse[d] to advance to be butchered” were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to death, but only about 25 (though some estimates are higher) were eventually shot.[23]  One beneficial result, either of the failed offensive or the mutiny, was the French abandonment of the idea of a military breakthrough: Pétain deprecated Nivelle’s “risky obsession with rapid results” and he determined to launch only limited, bite-and-hold attacks to ensure “minimum losses”; he would be “lavish with steel [artillery], stingy with blood”.[24]

In one such attack, the French finally captured Fort Malmaison in October 1917 and this enabled flanking fire on the German positions on the Chemin: on 2 November, therefore, the Germans withdrew to a new line across the Ailette, just a few kilometres north of the road but no longer on the formidable ridge.[25]  The French finally had all of the Chemin des Dames.  This was a mere footnote, however, for Nivelle’s offensive, whatever the eventual outcome, had been an unqualified and disastrous failure.

[1] Anthony Clayton, ‘Robert Nivelle and the French Spring Offensive of 1917’, in Brian Bond, ed., Fallen Stars: Eleven Studies of Twentieth Century Military Disasters (London, Washington, New York, 1991), 52.

[2] Nivelle’s briefing, 30 December 1916, in Ian Sumner, They Shall Not Pass: The French Army on the Western Front 1914-1918 (Barnsley, 2012), 145.

[3] David Murphy, Breaking Point of the French Army: The Nivelle Offensive of 1917 (Barnesley, 2015), 36.  ‘Niveleur’ means to level, so Nivelle was known as ‘Nivelle le niveleur’, Nivelle the leveller.  Ibid., 171n45.

[4] The Chemin des Dames, like this part of the Aisne, ran east-west, so the French attack would come from the south.

[5] Yves Buffetaut, The 1917 Spring Offensives: Arras, Vimy, le Chemin des Dames (Paris, 1997), 116.

[6] From one French corporal’s account of the advance on Craonne, in Sumner, They Shall Not Pass, 149.

[7] The map here is from Clayton, Paths of Glory, 126.

[8] Letters from Charles Seymour, 197, Seymour to Mr and Mrs Thomas Watkins, 7 April 1919.  Chavonne saw a fierce struggle before the Germans pulled back on 18 April 1917.

[9] Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, 247-48, Diary, 6 April 1919.

[10] A French infantryman’s view, quoted in Sumner, They Shall Not Pass, 150.

[11] Murphy, Breaking Point of the French Army, 97-101.  Buffetaut, The 1917 Spring Offensives, 148-53.  Tim Gale, The French Army’s Tank Force and Armoured Warfare in the Great War (Farnham and Burlington, 2013), 39-52.

[12] Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, 247-48, Diary, 6 April 1919.

[13] Hall’s memoir, July 1919, in Higonnet, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 168.

[14] W. K. Hancock and Jean van der Poel, eds., Selections from the Smuts Papers (Cambridge, 1966), IV, 240, Smuts to Margaret Gillett, 21 June 1919.

[15] Letters from Charles Seymour, 197, Seymour to Mr and Mrs Thomas Watkins, 7 April 1919.  The Annamites were Vietnamese conscripts who fought in many First World War battles, including the Chemin des Dames in May 1917.

[16] Hall’s memoir, July 1919, in Higonnet, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 166.

[17] Buffetaut, The 1917 Spring Offensives, 180.  See also ibid., 157.

[18] General Louis de Maud’huy commanded the forces which recaptured Craonne and eastern end of the Chemin des Dames, including the Caverne du Dragon, in September 1914, but the Germans held them from January 1915 until May (Craonne) and June (the Caverne) 1917.

[19] Letters from Charles Seymour, 197-98, Seymour to Mr and Mrs Thomas Watkins, 7 April 1919.

[20] Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, 248-49, Diary, 6 April 1919.

[21] Hall’s memoir, 12 November 1918, in Higonnet, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 75-76; ibid., 149, April/May 1919.

[22] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Volume 56, 198, Diary of Dr Grayson, 23 March 1919.

[23] Buffetaut, The 1917 Spring Offensives, 184.  Murphy, Breaking Point of the French Army, 121-40 (“butchered” (128), Lord Bertie of Thame).  Sumner, They Shall Not Pass, 159-69.  Greenhalgh, The French Army and the First World War, 201-16.  Clayton, Paths of Glory, 130-37.

[24] Greenhalgh, The French Army and the First World War, 218-22.  Murphy, Breaking Point of the French Army, 142-43.  Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory, 355-58, 366-67.

[25] Greenhalgh, The French Army and the First World War, 240-45.