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New on the Great War: Why the Spring Offensive 1917 failed

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

The bloody Western Front battles of 1916 showed that even if you won, you lost. For minimal territorial gains, hundreds of thousands of troops were killed or wounded by shot and shell. With both sides dealing with a growing manpower crisis, British, French and German commanders would attempt to develop new tactics for another year of fighting. And one ambitious French general would soon put them all to the test in what he expected would be a war-winning offensive. https://youtu.be/2foTijS7NyQ

By early 1917, despite 2 and a half years of fighting, the Western Front hadn’t moved very far. The Germans had mostly held their early war gains in 1915 and 1916, and inflicted terrible casualties on the British and French – but they were themselves running short of manpower as well. In late 1916, Chief of the Admiralty Henning von Holtzendorff warned the Chancellor: “[The] war demands a decision by autumn 1917 if it is not to end with a general exhaustion of all parties and thus disastrously for us.” (Coombes 17)

The Entente also wanted to end the war in 1917. The French, who had a much larger army than the British, planned a spectacular launch to a large multi-front offensive to push the Germans out of France. French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre devised a plan in November 1916 that called for offensives on the Italian and Russian fronts to support a major Franco-British push in the West. New British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was unimpressed, and called the plan a “complete farce”:

“It repeated all the bloody stupidities of 1915 and 1916 [and] the old fatuous tactics of hammering away with human flesh and sinews at the strongest fortresses of the enemy.” (Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory, 314)

By January 1917 things had changed: Russia and Italy were not able to sustain a major offensive, and Joffre had been replaced by General Robert Nivelle. Nivelle was brimming with confidence after his victory at Verdun, and tweaked the plan to fit his style: mass artillery followed by infantry assaults on narrow fronts. His plan included a British diversionary attack around Arras, to force the Germans to divert their reserves. Once the Germans were distracted in the north, the French army would launch the main attack against the Noyon Salient, along the Chemin des Dames. Nivelle expected it would be a knockout blow.

British commander Field Marshal Douglas Haig, however, was concerned by rumours his forces would fall under French leadership:

“It would be madness to place the British under the French, and … I [do] not believe our troops would fight under French leadership… [I am prepared to] be tried by Court Martial [rather] than betray the Army by agreeing to its being placed under the French.” (Coombes 34)

Eventually, after threats of resignation on both sides, they compromised. The British First, Third and Fifth Armies would support the French attack, but they would remain under British control. Haig also demanded more time to prepare and wanted the planned February start to be moved to May. The compromise solution was April.

So the Entente was set to break open the stalemate on the Western Front in April 1917. But the German Empire was also making plans that would make it a much tougher opponent to beat.

In 1914 and 1915, German doctrine had favoured the offensive, but its huge losses in 1916 caused a change. While the Entente could mostly replace their casualties with fresh replacements and colonial troops, German losses were not so easily replenished. So German commanders reluctantly accepted a move to the defence was necessary.

In September 1916, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Generalleutnant Erich Ludendorff took over the entire war effort, and they soon realized the situation in the West was extremely difficult for Germany. Staff officer Hermann von Kuhl noted a conversation to this effect in his diary in 1916:

“I spoke … with Ludendorff alone (about the overall situation). We were in agreement that a large-scale, positive outcome is now no longer possible. We can only hold on and take the best opportunity for peace. We made too many serious errors this year.” (Foley 157)

One of these German mistakes was keeping too many men crammed into the frontline trenches, where they were vulnerable to Allied artillery. Instead, the Germans developed new principles of ‘elastic defence in depth’ in a December 1916 document called The Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare.

Instead of holding a strong frontline at all costs, the Germans would now allow the Entente to enter into a deeper defensive zone, where German positions would be split into three sectors. The first was the Vorfeldzone, consisting of one or two lightly defended trenches. These trenches were fine for day-to-day trench warfare, like raids and sniping, but the troops would withdraw from them if the Allies attacked in force. The battle zone, the Grosskampfzone was the main line of resistance. This would consist of new lines of trenches, but also reinforced hardpoints, buildings, bunkers, pillboxes, and obstacles.

Behind this, would be a rear battle zone, with more trenches, support facilities, and units ready to counterattack. These troops were to wait for the attackers to exhaust themselves and outrun their artillery support, before launching aggressive counterstrikes and taking back any lost ground. These formed the principles of the new doctrine’s elasticity: the Germans would bend, withdraw, and then snap back.

The Germans also focused on how to better use terrain on the defensive, especially reverse slopes The Germans had learned that machine guns placed on the downward slope of a hill were actually more useful for the defence than placing them on top of the hill. Despite a shallower field of fire, they could surprise attackers and remain protected from enemy artillery behind the crest of the hill.

German divisions were also deployed differently. Stellungsdivisionen would be arranged as three regiments abreast, with each battalion manning a different sector from front to back. This allowed easier coordination and communication to withdraw or counter attack.

But perhaps the most drastic change in the German defense in the West was Operation Albrecht, a major withdrawal across the Noyon Salient in February and March 1917. German forces abandoned their extended front line and moved back to the freshly-constructed Hindenburg line, built with the new defensive principles in mind. The new line was also significantly shorter, and up to 72 kilometres further east, which freed up 13 German divisions. When Entente forces cautiously followed them, they found the Germans had destroyed anything and everything of use in their wake. A British officer recalled his experience – including booby traps:

“From a captured German [operation] order it appears that our patrols entered the hostile trenches only one hour after they had been vacated; pretty sharp work… The German trenches we have taken over are deep, well constructed and surprisingly dry… Masses of beer bottles (unfortunately empty) are strewn about, and guncotton, attached to shell cases and grenades, has been left ready to explode when picked up or accidentally kicked. We have lost five casualties in this way.” (Coombes 22)

The Germans adjusted their tactics after Verdun and the Somme, but the British army had also learned from its mistakes and now looked for new ways to break the trench deadlock.

After the fighting in 1916 failed to break the stalemate, British officers identified their own army’s tactical shortcomings.

One of these was that British troops often advanced in linear fashion to maintain cohesion and ease of command. The British had hoped that their artillery could destroy the Germans before the infantry left its own trenches, but the Somme showed this was not the case.

Another issue concerned command. When advancing troops came under fire, confusion and panic often set in. NCOs and junior officers would wait for orders from higher up, but in many cases their superior officers were either overwhelmed, had been killed, or communication had been cut.

To counter this, British empire troops began to adopt new assault tactics that relied more on tactical movement at the platoon level. Troops were now to advance in open formation, moving from cover to cover. To deal with issues of command, the command structure was decentralized and junior officers could now take more initiative in leading their units. Attacking enemy strongpoints from the flanks and using enfilade fire was now a priority as well. Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Julian Byng reminded his officers of the importance of decision-making:

“In an emergency the man who does something is sometimes wrong; but the man who does nothing is always wrong”. (Cook 48)

New weapons also began to reach British front line troops. In 1916, they often lacked the firepower to defend captured trenches against German counterattacks. 1917 British platoons had a lot more firepower, including specially trained bombers and rifle grenadiers, as well as one light Lewis machine gun per 60 man platoon. Heavy machine guns would also be used on the assault to provide suppressing fire.

British reports also singled out the artillery of 1916 for criticism. On the Somme, artillery barrages were spread along a wide front and consequently could not destroy the German defences as intended – especially targets behind the front lines like enemy artillery. Another problem was faulty ammunition. Many shells were duds, and had older fuses that did not explode at the moment of impact, which meant they didn’t cut German barbed wire very effectively.

In 1917, the British introduced a new instantaneous fuse, no. 106, and improved coordination between artillery and observation especially aircraft. British gunners also began to prioritise a counter-battery fire, with the help of new methods like flash spotting and sound ranging. The rolling barrage technique also became more refined with better synchronisation and control. At the Somme, each British gun covered 50m of German front, but at Arras, it be one per 20m.

The British also became more active in underground warfare. They dug more tunnels under no man’s land to place mines under German positions, and dug subways to move troops to their jumping off trenches under cover.

On April 9, 1917, the diversionary British offensive began, called the Battle of Arras in English and the Osterschlacht bei Arras in German. 18 British divisions, 3000 guns and 48 tanks went over the top, so let’s take a look at what went right and what went wrong for British and Empire troops in the fighting that followed.

In the opening stage of the Battle of Arras, the Canadian Corps’ attack at Vimy Ridge proved to be one of the most successful British actions. The Germans had fortified defensive positions on the ridge, which dominated the surrounding area, but the Canadians, with British infantry and artillery support, captured most of it in just one day.

British and Canadian artillery smashed the Germans positions on the ridge, which allowed the Canadian infantry using the new small unit tactics to capture the first German lines of defense fairly quickly. New Canadian units then ‘leapfrogged’ through the first exhausted wave, and continued to assault the next German lines. Shell shocked and disorganised, surviving German troops surrendered in large numbers. 17-year old Herman Kraft was one of the 4,000 captured during the battle and left a partly fanciful account of his captureg:

“Our sergeant ordered us up the stairs, himself going first. Suddenly he yells, ‘Tommies!’ and fell back dead, tumbling down the stairs… One of our ‘old hands’ (he was twenty-two) came down the stairs and told us to abandon our weapons and come up… as the position was hopeless, and the English were all over us. I walked up the stairs [to] a huge Tommy who was brandishing a baseball bat […] One of the soldiers wore no helmet and had no hair apart from a small tuft on top of his head. He also had white and red paint on his face and was very fearsome looking. I then realised that he was a Red Indian, and our captors were Canadians.” (Nicholls 83)

By the end of April 9th, nearly the entire ridge was in Canadian hands.

A lot had gone right for the Canadians. The new tactics allowed for a rapid advance, and the counter battery fire had almost eliminated German artillery, since 83% of German gun emplacements had been identified before the battle. Canadian troops like Private Bill Tapper of the 38th Battalion were glad for the help:

“We went over supported by the Lahore Divisional Artillery, and were they Crackerjack! Why, the Germans had been beaten before we got there, it was a walkover!” (Nicholls 89)

Vimy Ridge was far from a walkover, but the Germans also made mistakes. German command was unable to fully implement the elastic defense in depth, and kept reserves too far behind the front lines to counterattack while they still had the chance. The loss of a position like Vimy did not bode well for the German army.

The Canadian Corps took Vimy Ridge as planned on April 9, but not all the opening attacks of the Battle of Arras would go as smoothly. South of Arras, near the village of Bullecourt, the Australians and New Zealanders ended up having a more difficult time.

British 5th Army commander General Hubert Gough was anxious to get the ANZAC Corps into the fight near Arras, but his artillery support was delayed. So he decided to rely on the support of a dozen tanks to spearhead an attack along a 1km wide front, and crush the enemy wire the artillery had not yet been able to destroy. The tanks had little time to prepare, but they moved out towards No Man’s Land in the early hours of April 11. They did knock out some German machine guns positions, but most of the machines bogged down or were knocked out before the wire. Australian Major Percy Black reportedly called out to his men “Come on boys – bugger the tanks!” (Nicholls 157), and the infantry attacked on its own.

Although some forces broke through the line, they were too weak to push further. Bullecourt, a key position in the German defence, held out. With exhaustion mounting, the Germans launched counterattacks, in some cases getting behind the Australians and cutting off their lines of retreat. The ANZACs were pushed back to their starting lines and the assault failed.

So what went wrong? Gough’s impatience had led to a lack of preparation, while there was also a lack of communication with the artillery, who often believed German positions had been captured when they had not. Australians, like Lieutenant-Colonel E. Drake-Brockman of the 16th Australian Infantry Battalion, blamed the tanks:

“The tank crews seemed to know little or nothing of an attack by infantry and nothing whatsoever about the particular operation they were to participate in. For instance, in the case of No. 2 Tank, the tank commander had not even synchronized his watch, his time being five minutes behind true time as given to the infantry. Further, tank crews did not even know the direction of the enemy.” (Nicholls 159)

Of the 11 tanks committed to the battle, only 2 survived.

On the German side, unlike at Vimy Ridge, the defence in depth at Bullecourt held out. Strong points like the village itself fired on the flanks of the ANZACs as they approached, and the Germans timed their counterattacks well to hit the exhausted Australians at just the right moment.

So the British offensive around Arras in April 1917 had some successes, like Vimy Ridge, and some disappointments, like Bullecourt. But of course it was a diversion, and the main Allied effort was focused on the Aisne sector. Even though the Germans had changed the line through their strategic withdrawal in March, General Nivelle’s offensive went ahead anyway.

The French plan involved three army groups, two-thirds of the French army in the west. The Reserve Army Group would lead the assault, with the Central and Northern Army Groups providing supporting and diversionary attacks. Two armies of the Reserve Army Group would attack the German line in the Aisne sector, with the goal of breaking through within 24-48 hours. A third army would then pass through the breach and act as a “Masse de Manoeuvre” – and lead a battle of manoeuvre in the German rear.

Nivelle planned to use his successful Verdun tactics on a larger scale. Instead of a broad, methodical advance, which gave the enemy time to redeploy, he wanted to achieve narrow penetrations and breakthroughs with massive artillery support. Nivelle felt that high morale and an “offensive spirit” were essential to overcome enemy obstacles, and then broken German lines could be rolled up on either side. Nivelle did not lack confidence after his success at Verdun:

“The experience is conclusive; our method has proven itself.” (Doughty 324)

But Nivelle had his critics. British liaison officer to the French, Edward Spears, questioned the tactics as well as Nivelle’s experience commanding larger formations:

“What remained to be seen was whether the glorified raids of Verdun were applicable on a large scale ... above all whether [Nivelle] was strong enough to keep his head in the lonely and dizzy height of supreme command.”g (Lupfer 33)

The French also introduced some tactical changes, but the focus wasn’t on reforming infantry assault since the French had already done so - it was now on increased firepower. They increased the number of light machine guns to 16 for every 250 men. Even though Nivelle was sceptical about tanks, the Reserve Army received 160 Schneider and 16 Saint Chamond tanks.

The French command concentrated its efforts mostly on artillery, and they had around 6,100 guns in position by January. They planned to increase the speed of rolling barrages to hasten the breakthrough and especially the all-important maneuver stage that would follow it.

However, as April approached, Nivelle’s own subordinates lost faith in the plan, especially General Joseph Micheler, the commander of the Reserve Army Group. He pointed out the German withdrawal had changed the situation on the ground, but Nivelle felt it made little difference. General Philippe Pétain questioned the impact of massive but localised artillery attacks on such a broad front:

“Even the waters of Lake Geneva would have but little effect if dispersed over the length and breadth of the Sahara Desert.” (Doughty 339)

Perhaps most concerning was evidence the Germans knew of the coming attack. Nivelle had a reputation for lax operational security, and spoke openly of the coming offensive – and on April 4th, Germans captured documents revealing French plans.

The French plan for a quick breakthrough based on concentrated firepower was ready, despite internal reservations and the likely loss of the element of surprise. Nivelle ordered the offensive to begin as planned on April 16, but promised to call it off if there was no breakthrough within 48 hours. Nivelle himself reckoned it would only take three.

Following a massive 14-day preparatory barrage, the Reserve Army Group’s Fifth and Sixth Armies attacked a 40-kilometre front around the Chemin des Dames ridge at 6 AM on April 16, 1917. They captured the first German line and reached the ridge within the first hour, but the German defenders badly mauled the advancing French, who came up against uncut wire and concrete emplacements. The Senegalese troops of the 10th Colonial Division suffered particularly high casualties, with an entire battalion almost wiped out when they came up against a reverse slope position – just as the Germans’ elastic defense tactics envisioned. The commander of the II Colonial Corps, General Blondat, recalled the effects:

“Infantrymen… [descended] into the valley of the Ailette [River]. There, they were welcomed and fixed in place by the deadly fire of numerous machine guns that, located on the [reverse side of the] slope, outside the reach of our projectiles, have remained undamaged… In general, the troops suffer considerable losses in a few minutes, particularly in leaders, and [after] not succeeding in crossing this deadly zone, halt, take cover, and at some points withdraw to the first trench to their rear.”g (Doughty 350/351)

The second French assault wave then went in, but it got tangled up with the retreating first wave. That afternoon the tanks helped capture the village of Juvincourt, but they were vulnerable targets and the Germans knocked many of them out.

With the French infantry struggling, the Germans launched counterattacks. In many places the French troops held their modest gains, but casualties were mounting. Where French troops had advanced, they had to stop if neighboring units’ struggles left their flanks exposed. By the end of the first day, the French troops were forced to dig in in terrible conditions. Morale, especially among the colonial troops, plummeted.

The French tried again to break through starting the next day. They did make some gains and take more than 5000 Germans prisoner, it was clear to both sides by the 20th that the attack had failed.

German officer Hermann von Kuhl later wrote of his certainty the battle had been won:

“The first two days had decided the fate of the offensive. Since the breakthrough had not occurred immediately, it would never occur.” (Foley 172)

Many things had gone wrong for the French. Firstly, the weather was abysmal, slowing the advance and preventing artillery observation. And in any case, the Germans had practical air superiority which limited French aerial observation. The defenders had also been heavily reinforced, in some areas doubling the number of divisions - a fact noted by French intelligence. Where French artillery did play a role, the creeping barrage was too fast, and left the infantry exposed in its wake. In some cases, the Germans had time to repair breaches in the wire breaches by the time the French infantry attacked. The Germans’ vast tunnel networks under the ridge also gave them some protection from the 11 million shells fired by French guns. Since the French command expected a short battle, ammunition stocks quickly dried up which limited the support the artillery could give. More importantly, however, the German elastic defence had worked as intended.

The French continued to try to advance into May, but the Chemin des Dames offensive broke down. 134,000 French troops were killed, and tens of thousands of French troops mutinied.

So Nivelle’s war-winning offensive had failed along the Aisne, and the British attack to support it had some local successes but failed to draw German reserves away from the French.

The Battles of Arras and the Aisne both started with some gains, but ended in grinding attritional fighting. The Allies could take more ground than they could in 1916, but they hadn’t yet solved the riddle of trench warfare. Some tactical successes held out the promise of helping the Allies turn the tide in the future, but in spring 1917 they could not achieve their objectives of decisively breaking the German lines.

Nivelle was replaced in May, and has come under particular criticism for the failure. He seems to have been affected by so-called ‘strategic blinkers’, the inability to deviate from a long established plan when new information came to light. After arguing for months with Field Marshal Haig, as well as his own colleagues, he stubbornly defended his plan against any alteration. When informed of German reinforcements in the sector, he simply said it meant the victory would be even more impressive, and when the Germans shortened the front he refused to adapt. Lloyd George, who had supported Nivelle, later changed his mind:

“General Nivelle in December was a cool and competent planner. By April he had become a crazy plunger.” (Doughty 345)

On the other hand, it must be said that if Nivelle’s plan had gone ahead in February, as he originally wanted, it could have been more successful. The French would have had the element of surprise and the Germans would still have been overstretched in the Noyon salient before their withdrawal.

But perhaps most damaging of all, Nivelle saw the German defenders as a passive force which would not behave proactively. He also assumed they would fight in the same manner as they did at Verdun in 1916, which they did not. The new German tactics allowed them to maintain initiative even on the defence, and quickly dictate the flow of the battle. In 1917, Nivelle learned the hard way that in battle, the enemy also gets a vote.

We’d like to thank Mark Newton for his help with this episode. As usual, you can find all our sources for this episode in the video description. I’m Jesse Alexander and this is The Great War, a production of Real Time History and the only Youtube history channel that will bring back the phrase “Crackerjack!”.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Cook, Tim, “Storm Troops: Combat Effectiveness and the Canadian Corps in 1917” in Dennis, Jeffrey & Grey, Peter (eds), 1917: Tactics, Training and Technology: the 2007 Chief of Army's Military History Conference, (Canberra : Australian History Military Publications, 2007)
  • Coombes, David, Bloody Bullecourt, (Barnsley : Pen & Sword Military, 2016)
  • Doughty, Robert T, Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War, (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2005)
  • Doughty, Robert A, “How did France Weather the Troubles of 1917?” in Dennis, Jeffrey & Grey, Peter (eds), 1917: Tactics, Training and Technology: the 2007 Chief of Army's Military History Conference, (Canberra : Australian History Military Publications, 2007)
  • Farr, Don, A Battle Too Far: Arras 1917, (Warwick ; Helion & Company, 2018)
  • Foley, Robert T, “The Other Side of the Wire: The German Army in 1917” in Dennis, Jeffrey & Grey, Peter (eds), 1917: Tactics, Training and Technology: the 2007 Chief of Army's Military History Conference, (Canberra : Australian History Military Publications, 2007)
  • Lupfer, Timothy T, “The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War” Leavenworth Papers, No. 4, Combat Studies Institute
  • U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, (Fort Leavenworth, KS : 1981)
  • Nicholls, Jonathan, Cheerful Sacrifice: The Battle of Arras 1917, (London : Leo Cooper, 1990)
1917 The Great War

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