On April 16, 1917, the Aisne valley saw the start of the biggest French offensive since 1914. It was on a limestone plateau called Ladies' Way that the General Nivelle, Commander-in-Chief of the French armies, has chosen to focus his efforts. It is two French armies (5th and 6th, ie nearly 30 divisions and 200 tanks) which are set in motion on this day, with in mind these few words from the Generalissimo: the hour has come, confidence, courage and Long live France! The Chemin des Dames offensive turned into a fiasco and cost Nivelle his command, replaced by Pétain. She will be largely responsible for the mutinies of 1917.
A badly started offensive
Appointed Commander-in-Chief in December 1916, General Nivelle, confident in the numerical superiority of the Allies, decided on a major offensive in order to break through the German lines. His plan provides for a first Franco-British offensive in Artois which would aim to secure a large part of the German forces. But the main attack would in fact take place in the Aisne, the objective being to seize the Chemin des Dames, a ridge road between the Aisne and Ailette rivers.
After the armies of Generals Micheler and Mangin have pierced the lines, and the heavy artillery will have destroyed the German rear over several kilometers in depth, a French army held until then in reserve, will exploit the breakthrough. However, even before the offensive was launched, two events compromised its success. Indeed, on March 16, General Ludendorff decided to shorten the German front and made his troops retreat by some forty kilometers, thus completely modifying the planned assault terrain. In addition, a number of French generals, such as Pétain, and politicians, did not believe in this plan and contributed to weakening Nivelle's position. But the decision to launch the offensive is nevertheless maintained.
The plan for this offensive, which must break the front of a German army that we think was exhausted after the bloodletting of Verdun, is after all classic. After intense artillery preparation, the forces concentrated in a space of 30 km must break through enemy lines and advance under the protection of rolling fire. Operation is entrusted to an army abundantly supplied with cavalry troops. From the outset, the success of such a plan is compromised. The German army is fully aware of French intentions and enjoys excellent defensive positions as it holds the slopes and overlooks the French units. On the other hand, the overcast weather made the planning of artillery preparation risky, which will prove to be much less effective than expected.
The battle of the Chemin des Dames turns into a fiasco
The British offensive in Artois began on April 9, but failed to sufficiently secure the German army. The French Chemin des Dames offensive, launched on April 16, encountered greater difficulties than expected from the start, in particular due to bad weather and terrain, while the artillery preparation was not sufficient. The first day is indeed extremely murderous. However, some land gains were made, especially on the Craonne plateau, Berry-au-Bac, Hurtebise and Laffaux, thanks to Mazel's 5th army and the 6th commanded by Mangin.
But the French did not manage to break through and suffered very heavy losses: 147,000 men in two weeks, including 40,000 killed. Half of the French tanks, engaged for the first time, are destroyed. The operation was suspended on April 21, but occasional attrition attacks continued. The importance of the human losses and the weariness of the hairy people in the face of an offensive presented by Nivelle as decisive, led to a movement of mutinies in the French army, the first of which took place on April 17. In the space of a few days, there were nearly 40,000 mutineers.
The offensive was then stopped definitively and the next day, May 15, Nivelle was replaced by Pétain, who, from his appointment, set about restoring the situation both military and moral. He thus satisfied certain demands of the soldiers and launched a victorious offensive in October, the Battle of Malmaison, in order to restore the confidence of the army. However, in May 1918, the Germans, during their last major offensive, broke through the front of Chemin des Dames, to reach the Marne.
A perfect illustration of the inability of the military elites of the time to return to war of movement on the Western Front, the Battle of the Chemin des Dames remains with Verdun one of the most tragic episodes of the Great War.
- Le chemin des Dames: Spring 1917, by Yves Buffetaut. Ysec Editions, 2017.
- Le chemin des dames, by Pierre Miquel. Editions Retrouvées, 2018.