Friday, 28 April 2017

The Battle of Arras

To visit the magnificent Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, looking east across the plain of industrial northern France, is to appreciate the huge significance of this position
Perhaps surprisingly, both Churchill and Buchan make the ironic point that had the politicians not resolved to remove Joffre and appoint Nivelle, the usual battering ram attritional approach launched early in 1917 might have caught the Germans on the hop. Joffre and Haig had agreed in late November 1916 that the next big push would start in February – the British from Vimy to Bapaume, and the French from the Somme to the Oise. Could it have succeeded? We shall never know, for as we have seen Joffre was removed and replaced by the white tornado of Nivelle. Instead of working with a man he had come to trust and respect, Haig now had a new opposite number, and it made life difficult for him. Although his own preference was for a decisive action in Flanders later in the year, he was committed to an attack to support Nivelle’s new plans for the Aisne – what would become known as the Third Battle of Arras. It was to commence eight days before Nivelle’s own main stroke.

In stark contrast to 1914, when the entire British Expeditionary Force amounted to two army corps, Haig was now in command of five armies on the British section of the Western Front*. Of the five, the 1st and 3rd were mainly involved at Arras. It wasn’t just the numbers that had changed. In materiel and in artillery tactics the BEF was now a formidable force, backed as it was by growing numbers of tanks and increasingly effective air support.
This battle had a clear beginning (on 8th April) and a fairly clear end some eight weeks later. It had two distinct phases. The first of these had great initial success, which continued against strong resistance until the end of April. This phase saw the most impressive co-ordinated action by the British military in the war to date. The second was a more attritional secondary action. It was less successful and suffered greater losses. It included one of the war’s most heroic and bloody actions at Bullecourt.
Arras had been like a ghost town since the ravages of 1915. Buchan likens it to Ypres, as a frontline town that was required as a funnel for all men and machinery moving to the east, between the two rivers, Scarpe and Cojeul (see map). However, it was not as devastated as Ypres, and beneath its streets a subterranean network created from drainage and quarry works allowed up to 50,000 men to assemble protected from sight or fire. It was the French who had died here in their thousands in 1914 and 1915, and in fighting for Vimy Ridge, but it was new terrain for the British, who had lost their own thousands at Loos, Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge to the north in 1915, and to the south on the Somme in 1916. They faced the same resolute German opponents, although the latter were somewhat preoccupied with their own strategic withdrawals to the Hindenburg positions. In particular, the Germans needed to reach and fortify the Drocourt-Queant ‘switch’ line immediately north of the Siegfried line, known to the men as the ‘Wotan stellung’ (see map).
The Third Battle of Arras - April-June 1917
The British front line for the battle ran for twelve miles (compared with nineteen at the Somme) from Givenchy-en-Gohelle at the northern end to Croisilles in the south. Nearly 200,000 British troops (but including large numbers of Canadians and Australians) would attack, with several divisions in reserve positions. Three weeks of careful preparation preceded the attack, with bombardment, wire cutting and ‘spotting’ of German artillery positions - all carried out more effectively than at the Somme. So, when zero hour came – at 5.30am on Easter Monday, 8th April – the troops were able, at last, to advance almost with ease behind a protective barrage of artillery. They took all of their first positions within an hour, and by 9am the Canadian corps had swarmed on to the plateau of Vimy Ridge. By the evening the attackers had carried a number of formidable German defensive positions, and breached their third lines on a front of 2.5 miles. They held the villages of Bailleul-sur-Bertholte, Athies and Feuchy. The next two days brought further advances against the German rearguard actions, until another familiar enemy – bad weather – intervened to take the impetus out of their attack. After the enforced regrouping and consolidations, major actions soon returned. Firstly, the main French assault on the Aisne began on the 16th, prompting supporting and distracting activity at the British southern areas. Then on 23rd April a new attack from the centre of the front, from Gavrelle to Guémappe, was launched. In four days the infantry pushed right up against the Wotan line, which had not yet been completed.
By this stage, the failure of Nivelle’s great plan to the south was impacting on this battle. As we will see in the next post, the French were nowhere near their targets at the lower end of the Siegfried line. An Allied conference in Paris on 4-5th May signalled the end of Nivelle’s influence,  and agreement for Haig to pursue his preferred option of a major attack through Flanders. Haig’s satisfaction at this outcome would have been tempered by the difficult position in which he now found himself. Firstly, he was in a major battle, and must hold what he had, while simultaneously switching resources northwards towards Ypres. Secondly, he had to keep applying pressure to the Drocourt-Quéant switch line (Wotan) in order to provide some relief to the French to the south, in danger of collapsing. This second, more attritional, phase of the Battle of Arras was launched along most of the front on 3rd of May. It soon resolved itself into three costly actions at points of high importance to the Germans. These were: Fresnoy (held by the Canadians); Roeux, and Bullecourt (held, just, by the Australians), and in each place fierce fighting brought heavy casualties to both sides. The most severe fighting raged for four weeks around Bullecourt, with ground repeatedly taken, lost and re-taken.  The Germans brought their crack storm-trooper tactics into play against the dogged and formidable Australians. The battle came to a standstill in early June, with Bullecourt in firm control of the Australians.
Now the centre of gravity changed. The Germans became aware of Haig’s moves towards Armentières and Ypres, and responded accordingly. To the south, the French army was on the verge of mutiny, and placed into purely defensive mode. The third battle of Arras was over.

The battle was a win for the British in terms of their performance; their tactics; the numbers of German prisoners and heavy guns captured, and their fracture - in two places - of the new ‘impassable’ Hindenburg line. However, (again) it had not produced the strategic breakthrough towards Lens and Douai that Joffre and Haig hoped for in their November plans. Neither (through no fault of Haig or his men) had it enabled Nivelle’s own breakthrough. British and Empire casualties exceeded 150,000 (German losses were similar). If this figure was mercifully lower than the horrific numbers of the Somme campaign, it is sobering to realise, nevertheless, that this was equivalent to losing the entire BEF of August 1914.

* They were: the 1st (led by General Horne); the 2nd (Plumer);  3rd (Allenby); 4th (Rawlinson), and 5th (Gough)

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Western front early 1917

Robert Nivelle in 1916 -
during his meteoric rise
 Between the seismic events in Russia, and the diplomatic shenanigans in the USA consequent on unrestricted U-boat warfare, the Western Front assumed an unaccustomed low profile in the press front pages in early 1917. However, there was a lot going on, particularly the build up to one of the great catastrophes of the war - the Nivelle Offensive
We have seen how Joffre was replaced as Commander in Chief of the Allied armies on the Western Front in late 1916 (see Post 4/1/17). Disillusionment and war weariness amongst the general public in France and to a lesser extent in Britain increased the tension and manouevring within the Governments. As the new British Prime Minister, Lloyd George was eager for change. He held Joffre and Haig largely responsible for the futile offensives of 1915 and 1916 with their unacceptably high casualties. A divided and fractious French parliament made for a nervous unstable government. The prime minister Briand was in a precarious position and desperate for a change of fortune. Both were impressed by the newly appointed Commander in Chief – Robert Nivelle, and his confident plans for a devastating breakthrough. He proposed a sharp thrust through the most vulnerable point of the German salient, using his artillery techniques refined at Verdun; after that he would break out behind the German lines on both sides with cavalry and tanks. This was a move away from Joffre and Haig’s attempts to break through on broad fronts. Nivelle did not impress everyone. More senior generals were well connected and expressed their scepticism about Nivelle to politicians.

Robert Nivelle. By the time Nivelle was promoted to the top job in the French Army, he was a national hero on account of his successes at Verdun (see Post Verdun 7. 15/12/2016). Born in Tulle in 1856 to a French Officer and an English mother, he had attained the rank of colonel in the artillery by the outbreak of war. His courage and élan in the battles of the Marne and the Aisne was noted, and in early 1915 he was given command of a division. His star was in the ascendancy, and by December he was leading III Corps of Pétain’s 2nd Army at Verdun. Ironically it was Joffre who promoted the likeminded soldier to replace the cautious Pétain as commander of the 2nd Amy in April 1916, when he promoted Pétain sideways to lead the central army group.  Nivelle’s rise had indeed been meteoric. His tactical advances, with rapid movements behind creeping barrages added convincing victories at Verdun in late 1916, making him a surprise choice to replace Joffre in December. He was supported by two key figures. Militarily, his right hand man was General Mangin (see Post Verdun 6 6/4/2016), known to the poilus as ‘The Butcher’. Mangin’s ruthless sacrifice of men for ground in July 1916 had led to calls for his removal, but Nivelle backed his man resolutely. Politically, a more shadowy figure was Nivelle’s chief of staff - the aristocratic Marcel Eric Audemard d’Alençon. Already seriously ill in 1916 (he would die in September 1917), he was in a hurry to play a part in a final victory over the hated invaders, and intrigued behind the scenes – in army and in government – to promote Nivelle’s views to the detriment of opponents.
Nivelle’s (barely) two years of high rank rendered him a novice strategically, but his energy, eloquence and confidence were highly convincing – at least initially. Within months this confidence would be seen as vainglory and bluster, but for now, he held sway*. He had the support of such senior military figures as Maginot, and even Joffre.  Warnings from more senior generals that he was bound to fail (particularly from Pétain, Castelnau and Franchet d’Esperey, who had been passed over in his favour) were politely rebuffed.
Early on Nivelle met Lloyd George and impressed the latter with his sure plans and fluent English. Lloyd George invited him to London to present to the War Cabinet, thereby starting a cynical and none-too subtle process to undermine Haig’s authority. Nivelle eagerly adopted the suggestion that Haig should be his subordinate – he already thought this way, and his plan required the British to launch a supporting action at Arras. For his part, Haig was favourably impressed by Nivelle at their first meeting. He thought him a plain speaking soldier with success and energy behind him, and was willing to make plans for a complementary action supporting Nivelle’s main thrust.  But, as he found himself being undermined in London, and recipient of peremptory communications from French GQG, their relationship unraveled faster than even Nivelle’s own fate.
In Calais on 27th February the leaders of Britain and France** met to discuss the details of Nivelle’s plans. Included in this was ‘unity of command’, and under pressure from the French, Lloyd George did propose that Haig should subordinate himself as an army group commander under Nivelle’s orders. Later that night Haig and Robertson confronted Lloyd George, indicating that they would resign and face court-martial rather than comply. The cornered politician backed down.

The Hindenburg Line. Shortly afterwards, Haig’s struggle to retain his authority received a boost from an unexpected quarter – the German withdrawal to the ‘Siegfried’ line. Since November 1916, aerial reconnaissance had identified major activity several miles behind the front lines of the Somme battle. This turned out to be groundworks for a new defensive line (being dug out by Russian prisoners of war in the biggest construction project of the entire war). The effect of this new line, which ran roughly north-south for seventy miles from Arras to Soissons, was to straighten the large Noyon salient, bulging into France towards Amiens. The whole new line of the Western Front became known as the Hindenburg line, after its creator, but sections were named for Teutonic mythical figures. The Siegfried line, the strongest section ran from Cambrai to St Quentin. The next section to the north, from Cambrai to Lille, was to be the Wotan line. Hindenburg and Ludendorff saw several advantages of this move, particularly at a time when their attention was glued on the events in Russia and the U-boat war at sea. Most importantly, their shortened line could be defended by fifty less divisions of troops, enabling them to create a large strategic reserve that could be used for reinforcement and damaging counter-attacks against attempted advances. Secondly,  the new line enabled them to select even better defensive vantage points than they had held to now (in the centre of the Noyon salient, the dogged persistence of the British at the Somme had finally pushed them out of some of their best positions). Thirdly, their own communication lines would be shortened, whereas for the Allies, they would be extended into territory where German scorched earth tactics would make life as difficult as possible for them. Hindenburg was confident that this line could hold off any assaults, at least until Britain was brought to her knees by the U-boats.
Removing the Noyon salient
released 50 Divisions of German
Thus, over several weeks from February to April 1917, the Germans gradually conceded ground in a series of controlled withdrawals towards their new positions. The British and, to their south, the French found themselves taking villages with relative ease. By the time they reached Bapaume (the original day 1 objective of the Somme battle) and Peronne, they found themselves in countryside not destroyed and pock-marked by shell fire; where trees stood instead  of charred matchsticks. But they also found that all communications and all sources of food and water had been destroyed, and they found evidence of German brutality towards the bewildered French residents. The new front line ran at first to the east from Arras, then almost due south past Quéant, in front of Cambrai and St. Quentin, and past la Fère to Soissons on the river Aisne.

All of this had implications for Nivelle’s own plan, but now his hubris and weaknesses began to show. Initially he refused to acknowledge the news of German withdrawal. When this became reality, he refused to modify his own plans. Although Haig profited to some extent by gaining permission to move one of his armies to the north to his preferred campaign ground in Flanders, Nivelle would not budge from the main assault. His choice for the key point of his attack would prove disastrous, and would become, as we shall see, infamous – le Chemin des Dames, above the river Aisne.
*Nivelle’s mantra re his tactics at Verdun was “the experience is conclusive, our method has proved itself”. This ‘Verdun method’ was dubbed  ‘Nivelling’ by the press.  

**Briand, Lyautey (War minister) and Nivelle for France, and Lloyd George, Robertson (CIGS) and Haig for Britain