Chapter fifty-eight: Agitation in the trenches
“There was a glassy quiet. Many of the men seemed oblivious of each other
as they sat about with pondering brows. Then came sargeant Hicks and gave me
that bloody look. Bugger me, I thought. We're going over the top”.
Lance Corporal Frederick Mannig’s papers (IWM)
The guns roared on the Western Front on April 2th, 1917, the day when the Nivelle offensive began. It began with the British, Dominion, Belgian and Portugese divisions storming the Ypres Salient and the Lens-Douai sector. Following the Calais Agreement, the British Expeditionary Force was placed under the command of General Nivelle, the C-i-C of the French Army, for the duration of the offensive planned in April, although General Haig retained operational command of his army. In his desire to conserve the glory for France, Nivelle overlooked how severely the French fighting power had been strained by the battle of Verdun. Soon, his plan grew beyond the original idea. If the original plan was a convergent attack on the great German salient at La Fère-Reims, first against its flanks north of the Somme and south of the Oise, it soon grew out of proportion. First Nivelle asked -in fact, demanded- the British to take over more of the front -south of the Somme- in order to release French troops fro the Champagne blow. Thus, the operation was postponed for a month.
Nivelle stressed to Haig the diversionary nature of the offensives to be undertaken by the BEF, in support of the French Army on the Chemin des Dames. Five days before the main thrust, three armies were to attack the German lines in order to draw away German reserves. Specifically, General Plumer’s Second Army and King's Albert Flanders Army would would pin down German units situated around the Ypres salient, whilst further south, General Gough’s Fifth Army, General Rawlinson's Fourth Army and General Lomax's Third Army would also assault the German front line. Lomax was required by Nivelle to take Cambrai, the capture of which would threaten the German Army’s rear on the Chemin des Dames and draw troops northward; Rawlinson was to attack Cambrai across the Canal du Nord while Gough was to do the same across the River Oise and the Canal de la Sambre. Haig was quite pesimistic about this dual attack and very doubtful about the prospects of success due to the difficulties of launching an attack in an area dominated by interlocking rivers and canals on marshy ground were obvious, but he failed Nivelle to re-orientate the offensive’s focus.
A model of individual armour introduced by the
French Army during the Great War. (1)
“The rushing past of the shells seemed completely detached for the time being
from that peculiar stillnes into which nature sinks after the sun has set. Then I
heard something within me saying ‘You'll get through’ and I clung to that as I
slipt into the trench.”.
Private Jonathan Maze’s papers (IWM).
Before the plan could be put in operation, the Germans had dislocated it. As a consequence of the battle of the Somme, Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff ordered a new defensive system to be built across the arc Lens-Rheims. Anticipating the renewal of the Entente offensives, he hurried the completetion of this rear line and arranged for the utter devastation of thew hole area inside the arc. The Hindenburg Line was built across a salient in the German front, so that by withdrawing to these fortifications the German army was shortening its front. The length of the front was reduced by 50 kilometres (30 miles) and enabled the Germans to release 13 divisions for service in reserve. The withdrawal to the line began (which was called with satirical aptness as Operation Alberich, the name of the malicious dwarf in the Nibelung saga) on the night of March 12, when the German forces began a methodical retirement by stages to the new line, called by them "Siegfried" (2) and "Hindenburg" by the Allies. Suddenly, the salient that Nivelle wanted to attack had vanished.
A well-prepared German trenches and deep dugouts in the Somme before the start of the battle. The strenght an quality of the German earthworks shocked the British, who had seen nothing like them on their own side. The Hindenburg Line surpassed that level.
“I gave the men a good look. They seemed more or less in a trance. Their eyes
were glassy and their faces white as chalk. But the way their mouths were set
gave me confidence. One or two shook hands; and old private, lying down by a
very young corporal, suddenly kissed him on the check and then lay down again
flat. My orderly behind me tugged at my angle. I could see he had something to
say but the din was terrific. He looked very excited. I was thirsty and I kept my
eyes fixed on the clock and I found it funny. It was funny to ive by a watch
minute by minute as if I were going to catch a train”.
Captain William Grant’s papers (IWM).
On 2th April, the diversionary attacks on the Western Front commenced. At dawn, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng’s Canadian Corps attacked the German stronghold of Vimy Ridge, possession of which allowed the occupier to dominate the surrounding area. The preeliminary bombarment, which lasted for a whole week, included the firing of 1.6 million shells by four hundred and eighty 18-pounder field guns, one hundred thirty-eight 4.5-inch howitzers, ninety-six 2-inch trench mortars, twenty-four 9.45-inch mortars, which were supported by 245 corps-level siege guns and heavy mortars. The storm of steel reduced considerably the Vimy position that was potently fortified by intricate trench systems, barbed wire, tunnels and machine gun nests. The Canadians, having been provided to a man with detailed maps and having practiced on a replica ridge, were well versed in the details of the Vimy redoubt, and were provided with adequate protection by a creeping artillery barrage. Advancing behind a creeping barrage, and making heavy use of machine guns – eighty to each brigade, including one Lewis gun in each platoon – the corps was able to advance through about 4,000 yards (3,700 m) of German defences, and captured the crest of the ridge. The exhausted Canadian Corps could not immediately exploit its success, for the day’s fighting had taken its toll on Byng’s victorious soldiers. Four members of the Canadian Corps received Victoria Crosses, the highest military decoration awarded to British and Commonwealth forces for valour (Pvt. William J. Milne; L-Sgt Ellis W. Sifton, Pvt. John G. Pattison and Cpt. Thain W. MacDowell) for their actions during the battle. Nevertheless, the Canadians had achieved a considerable victory.
The Canadians storming the first German trenches at Vimy.
Astride the River Scarpe, Lieutenant-General Haking’s VI Corps and Lieutenant-General Maude’s XIV Corps faced a desert after the German withdrawal. They were inevitably slow in pursuit and their preparations for an attack on this front thrown out of gear. However, both corps assaulted, on April 14th, the German lines after a 48 hour bombardment. Lomax had insisted on maintaining the element of speed and surprise in his plans and reasoned that a lengthy bombardment of the kind needed at Vimy Ridge would be unnecessary along the Scarpe. The intense but short British bombardment proved to be decisive in suppressing the German defenders of Devil's Wood, Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines and the Bois des Boeufs. The ultimate objective of these assaults was the Monchyriegel, a trench running between Wancourt and Feuchy, and an important component of the German defences. Most of these objectives, including Feuchy village, had been achieved by the evening of April 18th, though the Germans were still in control of large sections of the trenches between Wancourt and Feuchy, particularly in the area of the heavily fortified village of Neuville-Vitass.
French troops moving to the front line, where the German machine guns wait for them
Then, on April 9th, 1917, the French army attacked. In addition to the problems caused by the withdrawal, the Germans had shifted additional reserves to the area behind the Chemin des Dames ridge in Aisne. In addition, they employed a system of flexible defense which removed the bulk of the defensive troops from the front lines. Having promised victory within forty-eight hours, Nivelle sent his men forward through rain and sleet. Pressing up the wooded ridge, his men were not able to keep up with the creeping barrage that was intended to protect them. Meeting increasingly heavy resistance, the advance slowed as heavy casualties were sustained. Advancing no more than 600 yards on the first day, the offensive soon became a bloody disaster. By the end of the fifth day, 97,000 casualties (21,000 dead) -2- had been sustained and Nivelle abandoned the attack having advanced around four miles on a sixteen-mile front. For his failure, he was relieved on April 29 and replaced by General Philippe Pétain.
“‘Redmain’ was the name called out and at first there was no reply. It was repeated. ‘Has anyone seen anything of Redmain’? ‘Yes, sir’, cried Pike with sullen anger in his voice. ‘The poor bastard's dead, sir.’ Are you sure of that, Pike' ’ Captain Malet asked quietly, ignoring everything but the question of fact. ‘Are you sure that the man you saw was Redmain?’ ‘I saw him, sir. ’e was just blown to blazes. e’ was a chum o’ mine, sir, an’ I seen ’im just blown to blazes’. Then, with a temporary roll established, the men returned to camp”.
Sergeant Andrew Abercromby’s papers (IWM).
The high hopes raised by the offensive caused the greater reaction, and the troops were weary of being thrown against barbed wire and machine gun. Thus, mutinies occured in the French armies, and no less than 16 corps and 57 divisions were affected. The flame of revolt began in a regiment of the 2nd Colonial Division on May 3, to the tune of such cris as "We will defend the trenches, but we won't attack!". A significant sidelight in that cases of desertion in the French army rose from 509 in 1914 to 27,000 in 1917. The saviour of the situation was Pétain. As soon as he replaced Nivelle, he traveled along the front car for a month, visiting 90 divisions, summoning both officers and men to hear their complaints. He introduced at once inmediate increaess in rations, leave allowances and medical facilities; tours of duties in the trneches were equalized, and rest camps improved. Within a calm was restored -at the price of only 50 executions (4), although more than a hundred of the ringleaders were deported to the colonies.
(1) I'm still trying to find more info about this, to me, quite absurd protection. With things like that, I begin to understand the logic behind the Maginot line.
(2) In fact, the line was subdivided into five areas, named from north to south: Wotan, Siegfried, Alberich, Brunhilde and Kriemhilde (this portion went from near Reims to near Verdun and there was an extension further south from Verdun to Metz, called the "Michel Stellung") Stellungen. BTW, Too much Wagner, isn't it? Poor Brits weren't sure if they were attacking a German line or an opera house
(3) In OTL, the French casualties in those five days were 130,000 (29,000 dead). It took me a while to realize that the French divisions lacked brigades of artillery and of engineers and that I was making a stupid wastage of manpower.
(4) There were 3,427 courts-martial, at which 23,385 men were convicted of mutinous behaviours of one sort or another; 554 men were sentenced to death; 49 men were actually shot; and the rest sentenced to penal servitude. There are some "legends" which explain that whole French infantry units marched to quiet sectors and then deliberately cut to pieces by their own artillery.or machine guards However there is no evidence that this ever happened. Those rumours may be inspired by the case of a rebellious Russian division of the Russian Expeditionary Force in France, that was encircled by French troops in September 1917 at Camp de La Courtine in central France and then fired upon with 75mm cannon. However only 19 rebels lost their lives. To know what really happened in 1917 we shall have to wait to 2017, when the archives on the mutinies will be finally disclosed by the French War Ministry.
@Agent Larkin: Ah, Kylie Minogue will be happy with that
@Sumeragi: I'm very happy to know that. I was worried that there were too much words.
@Deus Eversor: Oh, Russians... they keep going in and out of Van like in a circus... About giving them... they're going to be playing soon in a different "league", so...
@Enewald: Ah, the spambots... and the SOB only spammed here, in this AAR! Why, Mourinho, why?
@Milites: Imagine if I'm worried that I'm going slow in my advance through the Middle East. Thank God for the AsienKorps that stopped me for some time...
@Enewald -2-: Never an Empire was so ethical You'll see than when Finland... Helsinkishire sounds fine to you, ol' pal?
@Nathan Madien: In fact, I had to slow down because, in a test game, I had them finished by middle 1917
@0d5579: Had they allowed me to land unopposed in Gallipoli, we have saved this chain of events...
@MastahCheef: Breaking down each now and then?
@trekaddict: So simple: May 1917.
@0d5579 -2-: Too true...
@StephenT: Indeed, they were a nightmare by themselves. A few were used in Palestine, however...