The failed offensive of the French Army on Chemin des Dames Ridge


In December 1916, after three years of stalemate on the Western Front, Robert Nivelle became the new commander-in-chief of the French Army, replacing a General Joseph Joffre exhausted by the failed offensives in Artois (1915), Champagne (1915) and on the Somme (1916). Nivelle promised his political masters a decisive victory on the Western Front by the end of spring 1917, planing to breach the front in a short offensive lasting twenty-four to forty-eight hours... The section of the front chosen for the attack was Chemin des Dames Ridge in the region of Aisne.

In the middle of March 1917 German command launched Operation Alberich, a strategic withdrawal to the front between Arras and Soissons. Amounting to a retreat of seventy kilometres in some places, the operation was the idea of General Erich von Ludendorff who named it after the invisible dwarf of German legend. Similarly, the fortified line known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line was known to German high command as the Siegfried Stellung another reference to German mythology.

Carefully prepared and perfectly executed, Operation Alberich reduced the length of the front and allowed the Germans to establish themselves behind seemingly impregnable fortifications comprising rows of trenches protected by extensive barbed wire entanglements and deep concrete bunkers bristling with machine gun nests. The withdrawal was preceded on 21 February by an operation to destroy anything that could be of use to the advancing Allies. French civilians living in the affected zones were forced from their homes and sent to the rear, their villages systematically dynamited and planted with mines, communications destroyed and trees felled. Ludendorff's reasoning behind this scorched earth policy was to prevent the Allies from exploiting any feature of the landscape to launch an attack.

The general staff of the French Army were slow to realize the deadly intent behind the German withdrawal, comforting themselves with the idea that it was a sign of weakness on the part of the enemy. Over the next few days they completely replanned the opening stages of the offensive but failed to receive reliable information from reconnaissance as to the real strength of the German defences. To make matters worse at the beginning of April the Germans learned exactly where the French offensive would start and thus removed any element of surprise.

Between the 6 and 16 April French artillery fired five million shells on the German position, of which 1,500,000 were large-calibre shells. Two diversionary attacks were carried out in the days leading up to the main offensive, one on 9 April by the British and Canadians in the Arras-Vimy sector and the other by the French at Saint-Quentin. The French Army planned to field nearly one million men in the battle, including 10,000 Senegalese infantry and 20,000 Russians.

The infantry attack began on 16 and 17 April, in freezing weather, on a forty kilometre long front, and was a total disaster: the French infantry on Chemin des Dames Ridge and the plains of Champagne was summarily mown down by the German machine guns. A second attack on 5 May confirmed the absolute nature of the defeat and by the eighth it was deemed to be an utter fiasco. A week later General Philippe Pétain replaced Nivelle at the head of the French Army.

On 20 May the first of several mutinies broke out among the regiments which had fought on Chemin des Dames Ridge and close to 150 units stationed at the rear refused to move to the front. The heavy losses and the disappointing outcome of what was hailed a decisive offensive were undoubtedly the source of the mutinies, or perhaps more precisely the refusal to take part in further pointless attacks because in all other matters the officers were still in control and the soldiers continued to hold the front. The suppression of the mutinies was massive but not without restraint; of the 450 men sentenced to death only twenty-seven were executed, the French president Raymond Poincaré exercising his right to grant reprieves to the remainder. Increased leave and improvements to the living conditions of the soldiers made a return to normal discipline possible by September 1917 and from that moment on the French Army fought without any further incidents.

On 23 October the French succeeded in taking Malmaison Fort, to the west of Chemin des Dames Ridge, in a limited but well-prepared attack. It was a tactical success, with more casualties inflicted on the Germans than suffered by the Allies, which went some way to validating Pétain's leadership. Between 31 October and 1 November 1917 the Germans abandoned their positions on Chemin des Dame Ridge to fall back on a new line of defence north of the river Ailette.

French losses amounted to 17,000 dead, 20,000 lost in action (including prisoners) and 65,000 wounded; German losses were estimated to be in the region of 35,000 killed, wounded and lost in action.

The disaster of Chemin des Dames Ridge dashed all hopes of a "decisive offensive". From that moment on Allied command started to rethink how the war should be pursued. They opted for limited attacks and increased arms production in an attempt to reduce human losses and gain time until the American entry into the war became a reality on the battlefield. The aim of this new direction advocated by Pétain was to industrialize the war. In addition, in an effort to reduce the considerable impact the enemy's artillery had on soldier mortality, Allied command decided on a profound reorganization of their defences so as to limit the exposure of troops on the front line and provide well-protected lines of retreat.

Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
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