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The Chemin des Dames: responsibilities and evasions of political power

military-Earth thinking notebook
History & strategy
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Why Ladies' Road? The question deserves to be asked, not because of its failure, but because of the context that motivated the operation. If the opprobrium of this failure fell on General Nivelle, Colonel (er) Henri Ortholan is interested in the responsibilities of the political power.

In November 1916, the French army emerged victorious from the Battle of Verdun and, to a lesser extent, the Battle of the Somme. The question then arose as to how the conflict should be followed up. On Joffre's initiative, a status report was made at the interallied conference held in Chantilly on November 15 to study a general plan for the following year. Finally, it was decided "that, from the beginning of 1917, a general offensive would be launched on all fronts, with the maximum means available". As far as the western front was concerned, the British and French armies would attack on a very wide front, from Arras to the Oise.

However, at the end of 1916, despite the success of Verdun, the situation of the Entente and its allies was not very good. Serbia, totally invaded by the central powers, had been out of the game for more than a year. Romania, which sided with the Entente in August, has just suffered a major defeat. After their ninth attack on the Isonzo, Italy have yet to achieve any significant success against Austria-Hungary. Most worryingly, Russia are beginning to show signs of weakness. Despite the impressive initial success over the Austro-Hungarian army, the Broussilov offensive launched on 4 June 1916 ran out of steam and was finally contained by the German army in September. Not only the failure in itself, but also the cost of this offensive, one million men, began to sow doubt in the ranks of the Russian army, whose confidence in the Tsar was deeply shaken. It appears that, sooner or later, Russia may emerge from the conflict. As a result, the victorious German armies on the eastern front will turn to the western front.

Finally, the weight of public opinion was increasingly felt by the French government.

Implicitly, the question therefore arises, for France essentially, to get out of the war before Russia collapses and before, perhaps, the United States intervenes. As long as it has the means to do so, it is absolutely necessary for it to achieve a decisive success in the West.

It is against this background that, less than a month after the Chantilly conference, on 9 December, the French Government resigned and a new cabinet was formed. General Lyautey became Minister of War. The first act of the new government was to set up a five-member "War Committee", composed of the President of the Council, the Ministers for War, the Navy, Finance and Armaments, with the task of "studying and deciding rapidly on all matters relating to the war".

Some upheavals followed these decisions. By decrees of 12 and 13 December, the High Command was reorganised. General Nivelle replaced Joffre at the head of the armies of the North and North-East, and the army of the East, which had depended directly on him, once again reported directly to the Minister for War. The victor of the Marne no longer played any active role in the conduct of operations and, although still General-in-Chief of the French armies, he was now only a technical military adviser to the government and an advisory member of the War Committee. In a word, it is now the Minister of War who is entrusted with the general direction of the war for France, whereas it had hitherto depended solely on Joffre. Moreover, the government did not see fit to warn him of Nivelle's appointment! In the end, he resigned on 26 December.

In appointing Nivelle, the government wanted to respond to a tense political context and the difficult relations with the high command. Since the reclamation of the Marne, the authorship of which no one would dispute, all the offensives Joffre had launched up to 1916 had failed to produce any results, albeit at the cost of considerable losses. He was also reproached for not having been able to prevent the German offensive on Verdun. Furthermore, his attitude of systematically excluding the political world from his operational decisions had largely alienated him.

Thus, the reshuffle, even the ministerial upheaval of 9 December was an opportunity for the government to regain control in every respect. But what successor could be found for Joffre? One could have thought of Pétain, perhaps Castelnau, or Foch... Poincaré and Briand agree on Nivelle. It is true that the latter had just regained control of the forts of Vaux, on October 24th, and Douaumont, on November 2nd, in front of Verdun, even if he owes these two successes largely to General Mangin. Nivelle seemed to be the right man for the job; he was an offensive man, a quality not found in Pétain. And Castelnau and Foch were undoubtedly wrong to have been too close to Joffre. Moreover, Nivelle seems to have "the method" after the successful Verdun deals, a method which, it is thought, would suffice to generalise to a broad attacking front.

A polytechnician, General Nivelle began the war as a colonel, in the same capacity as Pétain. In August 1914, he commanded an artillery regiment at the head of which he had particularly distinguished himself in Alsace. Then, like Pétain, he had continued to rise in rank, taking command of a brigade, then a division, then a corps, and finally an army, the IInd, which General Pétain had commanded before him. There was something comparable in the rise of these two men [1].

As soon as he took command, Nivelle made known his intention to rework the plan agreed upon at Chantilly on the 15th of November. Instead of pronouncing an overall effort on the front that extended from Arras to the Oise, he suppressed an operation planned south of the Somme in order to be able to carry the main effort on the Aisne front, i.e. the one corresponding to the Chemin des Dames. The British would launch an offensive on Cambrai, the Armée du Nord group on Saint-Quentin, these two offensives being simply intended to fix the enemy.

So much is at stake this time for political power that Nivelle does not have the free elbow room his predecessor enjoyed. As much as the latter mounted his offensives as he wished, Nivelle must be held accountable. But when he proposed his offensive plan, very quickly he did not find unanimity in the political world, or even in the military world. And if he needed the help of the British, i.e. Marshal Haig, the latter did not have a very high regard for him.

A conference was held in Calais on 26 and 27 February 1917, at which the date was set for the start of operations in the west, in the early days of April, and it was agreed that for the 1917 campaign on the French front, the British armies would be temporarily subordinate to Nivelle.

At that time, several setbacks occurred.

  • On 15 March the Germans launched Operation Alberich, which consisted in shortening their front by carrying out a strategic withdrawal between Arras and Soissons to a depth of up to 70 km in some sectors. This withdrawal completely disrupted Nivelle's plan and even called it into question. Initially, the British and French had to engage the action on both flanks of a salient, whereas they would have to face an entrenched enemy along a more straight front.
  • On March 19, the Briand government was overthrown. It was succeeded by a government formed by Alexandre Ribot, who took Paul Painlevé, the latter hostile to Nivelle, as Minister of War.
  • And above all, what had been feared was confirmed. Nicolas II has just abdicated on March 15th. If the government that succeeds him, that of Kerenski, wants to honour the obligations of the Agreement, it no longer offers the same guarantees of solidity as the previous one, mainly due to a Russian army that is at its limit. Knowing that Romania could not be counted on in the east for a long time, it was in the west that a way out had to be found.
  • Finally, on April 6, the United States entered the conflict alongside the Allies. While this intervention would relieve the Allies in the war effort, it was not certain that the Agreement would be in control when peace came. But we are not there yet and, in any case, the American army has yet to be built!

It is therefore under these not very encouraging auspices that the Chemin des Dames offensive is planned. And it is undoubtedly at this stage that political power has a major share of responsibility for the decisions taken and their consequences.

It is not, however, for lack of information. We can already see Painlevé sounding out several generals about Nivelle's project and noting their scepticism, which says a lot about the confidence the generalissimo enjoyed among his peers. Worried, the Minister of War convinced Ribot to confront the political and military points of view before a final decision was made. Hence a closed-door dinner on April 2 [2], bringing together Ribot, Painlevé, and Generals Nivelle, Pétain and Franchet d'Esperey.

Colonel Messimy, who was Minister of War in July and August 1914, and who had kept numerous contacts in the political world, then brought to Painlevé a note translating "the opinion of the most reputed chiefs of the army", a sort of petition that does not say his name and does not say much for Nivelle. Hence, at the request of the same Messimy, the convening of a council of war, which quickly met the following 6 April in Compiègne, on the presidential train, during which Nivelle was seen reunited with the French army.respond to the criticisms of the four generals commanding a group of armies [3], in the presence of Poincaré, Ribot and Painlevé, themselves flanked by the ministers of the Navy and Armament [4]. We can discuss in passing on the inelegant principle that consists in making a generalissimo "appear" in front of his great subordinates; with all due respect to Painlevé who was less moved by it [5].

So let us follow Poincaré:

The council of war deals with the entry into the war of the United States, which dates from the same day and opens perspectives of such a nature as to reconsider the offensive. Nivelle, on the contrary, maintains "with great force" that the Germans must not be allowed to take the initiative again. Hence the general agreement not to postpone anything. It was also agreed that if the third lines were not broken through, "we will not persist".

"But if they do break through, will they try a strategic exploitation and engage in a battle in the open country? Here two opposing tendencies appear in the committee. Nivelle, a proponent of exploitation, feels at odds with several of his subordinates. He says that, under these conditions, all he has to do is resign. Everyone protests. Everyone says that the government and the army have confidence in Nivelle. The incident has calmed down and Nivelle no longer speaks of resignation" [6].

Thus, all is well, except that the disagreement seemed to concern, not the exploitation, but the principle of the offensive, and certainly, by way of consequence, the prospects judged questionable of breaking through the German lines, which Poincaré does not say. However, if there were to be a breakthrough, exploitation would quickly come up against the Hindenburg Line, a system that was already solidly organised in depth and to which the Germans had just withdrawn.

Let us then look at Ribot's position [7], when Nivelle offered his resignation:

"[...] In the end, Nivelle offers his resignation because he feels he is being discussed and fears he won't have all the authority he needs over his collaborators. The war minister and I assure him of the government's confidence, insisting on the need to conserve our strength, because we must last and we must not, at any cost, play a sort of game of all-out, at a time when the entry into the war of the United States gives us the certainty of final victory. We are faced with the forced card: it is too late to retreat; therefore we can only allow the General-in-Chief freedom of movement, after warning him and giving him advice of caution'.

It must be clearly understood that it is not a question at our level of passing judgment on the value of Nivelle's strategic conceptions, but of considering their perception by the men who have to know about them. In their eyes, was the offensive of the Chemin des Dames relevant in principle and modalities? Then it is a question of knowing whether or not the decision-maker, i.e. the political power, was right or wrong to maintain it. Finally, should he confirm in his command a generalissimo widely contested by his peers?

Logically, the Compiegne conference should have led to the dismissal or resignation of Nivelle, since he was disavowed, if not little supported, by the generals present. Let us acknowledge him for having offered his resignation, which Poincaré refused, as well as Ribot and Painlevé! A Joffre would probably have slammed the door. In any case, Nivelle remained in office and on that day, April 6, 1917, the decision was made to maintain the offensive.

This is to say that, ten days before the date on which it was to be launched, the responsibility for the decision to maintain or not the Chemin des Dames offensive rested solely with the political authorities. With the decrees of December 1916, it had given itself the means to do so. The era of General Joffre, who was faced with a fait accompli, was over.

However, over and above Nivelle's personality and what looked like an evasion by the political leaders, several factors militated in favour of launching the operation. It was difficult to cancel it, or even postpone it, as his preparations were so far advanced. The resulting disappointment would have had unfortunate results for the army and for public opinion. Moreover, in view of the very recent events that had taken place, launching the offensive was tantamount to maintaining the initiative over an adversary already shaken by the Battle of the Somme and its failure at Verdun. Finally, if Nivelle's resignation had been accepted, who would replace him? This, according to Painlevé [8], would have resulted in canceling the offensive and not honoring the agreements made with the British at Calais.

As a result, the political power, obviously at the foot of the wall and having little choice, simply let it go, which was tantamount to a headlong rush. The above reviews of Poincaré [9] and Ribot alone give the clear impression of this.

Nivelle can also be reproached for having "charmed" the political decision-makers. But what about Joffre in his time, each one having his own methods!

The point is not then to go into the details of the operation itself. On the evening of 16 April, it appeared that it would not keep its promises, since the artillery had not destroyed all the objectives assigned to it and the breakthrough had not taken place. In the following days, Nivelle tried to prevail, but very quickly it became clear that the Chemin des Dames offensive was a failure.

Then there were the consequences which no one could prejudge. There was talk of mutinies; the term is totally inappropriate, there were above all acts of insubordination, men refusing to get into the line to be killed for nothing. Moreover, the supervising officers, well placed to understand the attitude of the troop, were not worried.

However, this offensive was roughly comparable in scale, duration and even losses to the Champagne offensive of 25 September 1915. In fact, it is above all one operation too many. The series of failures recorded by Joffre during 1915 and 1916 had led to its downfall. If the failure of 1917 explains both the rapid disgrace of Nivelle [10] and the crisis that shook the French army, it is well because everyone had based all his hopes on this offensive.

Without a doubt, there were errors in the very conception of the operation and in its preparation, and General Nivelle certainly bears responsibility for this. But shouldn't the political power also bear its own responsibility, already for having appointed him, for having then kept him in his post, and finally for having maintained the offensive? This would explain, all this expressed very cautiously, why the person concerned had regained, thanks to Clemenceau moreover, a position of his rank by being appointed, in December 1917, Commander-in-Chief of the troops in North Africa, where he remained until 1920. A disgrace? Even more so. Many others before him who had already been similarly dismissed, relieved or thanked, would easily have been satisfied with much less. Perhaps it was a bias for the political powers that be not to disavow themselves.

This is where we must quote a passage from Poincaré's memoirs, which is not lacking in interest to explain this rehabilitation. One reads indeed, Poincaré addressing Clemenceau about the offensive on the Chemin des Dames [11]:

"[...] I would ask you, in another vein, to send me the report on the battle of the Aisne [12]. You have returned to Nivelle; it is the reparation of an injustice".

Clemenceau's reply: "Oh! an injustice! I reinstated him because I felt sorry for him. He is less guilty than those who appointed him". It was a stone in the garden of the politicians who were in business in December 1916, and perhaps even in the garden of the officials who had refused his resignation in early April 1917.

Finally, it should be remembered that the man who was nicknamed "the butcher" from the first days of the offensive was, when peace returned, appointed to the High Council of War, elevated to the dignity of Grand Cross in the Legion of Honour and decorated with the Military Medal.


Colonel (er) Henri ORTHOLAN is a member of the Association of Engineers Graduated from Military Infrastructure Schools, an entity associated with Minerve.

1] Finally, a quality which is not negligible when one counts Great Britain as an ally, Nivelle, whose mother is English, speaks English fluently. This being the case, it is not for this reason that he was chosen.

[2] General F. Gambiez, Colonel M. Suire, "History of the First World War"Fayard, Paris, vol. 2, pp. 11 and 15.

3] General de Castelnau commanded the group of armies from the North, General Pétain from the Center, General Franchet d'Esperey from the East and General Micheler the group of reserve armies destined to attack on the Chemin des Dames.

4] According to Ribot, there were no minutes of this conference, Journal d'Alexandre Ribot and unpublished correspondents. , p. 78.

5] Painlevé Paul, "[5 ] Painlevé Paul, "How I named Foch and Pétain"Paris, Librairie Félix Alcan, 1922, p. 52.

6] Raymond Poincaré.At the service of France"T. IX, pp. 107-108.

7] Ribot specifies in footnote: "This meeting of April 6th was, in the spirit of the President of the Republic, to erase the rustle of the General-in-Chief".

8] Painlevé Paul, op. cit. , p. 46.

9]In his memoirs.In the Service of France"we will note how Poincaré approaches the facts. T. IX, p. 107-108.

10] Painlevé immediately replaced Nivelle with Pétain on May 15, 1917.

11]Poincaré, op. cit. T. IX, p. 433.

12] A commission of inquiry was set up after the failure of the offensive on the Chemin des Dames, led by General Brugère.

Title : The Chemin des Dames: responsibilities and evasions of political power
Author (s) : Par le Colonel Henri ORTHOLAN