The Aftermath of Nivelle

John Terraine describes how the Allied offensive of spring 1917 promised victory but ended in failure and mutiny.

The ten-month battle of Verdun ended in a blaze of glory for France. On December 15th, 1916, the ‘Groupement Mangin’, which had retaken Fort de Douaumont and Fort de Vaux in October, attacked again on a ten-kilometre front and in four days took 11,000 prisoners and 115 guns. This was a splendid salute to France’s new Commander-in-Chief, General Robert Nivelle, appointed only three days earlier.

It was Nivelle who had conducted the October counter-stroke, and this latest coup had also been planned under his direction and authorized by him. His enthusiastic subordinate, General Charles Mangin, addressed his troops in an Order of the Day on December 18th:

...After the battles of October 24th and December 15th, delivered on ground which offers exceptional advantages to the defence -increased by the weather - no one can doubt the possibility of overcoming an enemy who is both numerically superior and possesses a formidable artillery; by meticulous artillery preparation, careful use of ground and the co-operation of a vigilant air force, brave and well-trained infantry have the power to break through and then manoeuvre, under the high command of General Nivelle. We have the method, and we have the Chief. Success is certain.’

In a gloomy passage of the war, when everything seemed to have arrived at an ominous and intractable equilibrium, such words struck a hopeful note. Ebullient, aggressive, but also methodical, and a copious letter-writer, Mangin described his battle technique to his wife in characteristic racy style:

‘I box in the first line with 75s; nothing can pass through the barrage; then we pound the trench with 155s (6-inch guns) and 58s (3-inch mortars)... When the trench is well turned over, off we go. Any Boches who are still there are ours. Generally they come out in groups and surrender.

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