The French military officer Robert Nivelle (1856–1924) directed one of the most disastrous offensives of World War I, the so-called Nivelle Offensive of April 1917. During this altercation, fought against the Germans on the war's Western Front, French troops suffered heavy casualties and then engaged in widespread mutiny. At the time, Nivelle had a successful military career behind him and was commander-in-chief of France's forces.
French General Robert Nivelle's long and distinguished military career, which included stints in Africa and southeast Asia, made him one of the heroes of the French war effort up until his fateful commandeering of the World War I action now known as the Nivelle Offensive. Although historic accounts of his actions during the offensive sometimes conflict, Nivelle's mistakes during the Second Battle of the Aisne, of which the offensive was a part, suggested a pattern of hubris. The Nivelle Offensive was launched as an effort to win the war quickly, and when it began to fail, he refused to abandon his goal. The results were disastrous, and Nivelle was relieved of command.
Robert Georges Nivelle was born on October 15, 1856, in the town of Tulle in central France. He came from a military family: his paternal grandfather had fought in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte, and his father, Marie Nivelle, was a lifelong infantryman who eventually attained the rank of major. The family was Protestant, somewhat of a disadvantage in predominately Catholic France but ultimately a positive factor in Nivelle's military advancement: given the secular orientation of the French state, highly religious Catholic officers were somewhat mistrusted. Nivelle's mother, born Theodora Sparrow, was English, and with her help, he became proficient in English and German in addition to French. His multilingual skills would play a role in the events of 1917 because his ability to communicate with English commanders without translators was a significant help in military negotiations.
Nivelle was a product of top French schools. After studying at Saint Omer and Rouen and making top grades, he enrolled at the École Polytechnique in Paris, then France's leading military academy. He went on to study at French army academies for artillery specialists and general warfare, graduating 13th in a class of 72. Commissioned in 1878 as an officer at the rank of sub-lieutenant, Nivelle was sent to Vietnam and saw action as an artilleryman in the inconclusive Sino-French war of 1882–1884 against Chinese and Vietnamese forces in the north of the country. He also served in the campaigns in Algeria and Tunisia that expanded France's colonial empire in North Africa.
The Battle of Verdun was one of the critical clashes of World War I: Germany relentlessly attacked a series of French positions in northeastern France in an effort to break the stalemate of trench warfare that had ground on for much of the previous year. Nivelle played a major role in directing the French response to these German attacks, and his carefully nurtured artillery brigades were crucial in repelling German troops and allowing the French to regain control of several towns they had previously lost. Near the conclusion of the Battle of Verdun, on December 15, 1916, a French ground attack was prepared by a giant artillery barrage of more than one million shells; the French infantry attack that followed routed a German brigade. This phase of the battle also saw the development of the so-called “moving barrage” or “creeping barrage attack,” essentially a coordinated movement by artillery and infantry that was a favorite maneuver of Nivelle's.
The spectacular resistance mounted by French forces at Verdun associated Nivelle with French battlefield heroics in the public's mind, and he proved an articulate defender and promoter of his own decisions. He made friends in high places in the French government, among them Prime Minister Aristide Briand. Dubbed the Hero of Verdun, Nivelle had during one clash issued an order that ended with the words “Ils ne passeront pas!” (“They shall not pass!”). He seemed the natural choice to succeed Marshal Joseph Joffre as commander-in-chief of the French forces, and he was named to that position in mid-December of 1916.
In the spring of 1917, Nivelle laid plans for what would become known as the Nivelle Offensive, a bold attempt to crush German positions on the Aisne River and thus bring a quick end—within 48 hours, Nivelle claimed—to the devastating war. The plan relied on the trio of techniques that had served him in the past: a huge artillery bombardment would soften the German line and transition to a moving barrage as the French infantry attacked. Nivelle was so confident of success that he bragged openly to journalists about the plan, and he did not attempt to adjust after the Germans reportedly captured papers relating to his scheme during an April 4 skirmish. Several commanders questioned his plan, including British Field Army Marshal Douglas Haig, who was tapped to lead a simultaneous British attack at Arras, and French president Raymond Poincaré, but they were ignored because Nivelle had the full confidence of Prime Minister Briand.
As events played out, the Second Battle of the Aisne (also known as the Battle of the Chemin des Dames, after a local road), in which Nivelle's offensive was carried out, lasted from April 16 to May 5 of 1917 and was a disaster. Historians disagree about the exact cause of the failure, with some pointing to infighting among top French command ranks, but it is clear that Nivelle underestimated the depth to which German forces were dug in at hillside positions and thus impervious to his artillery barrages. The force of 1.2 million infantrymen he sent into battle encountered heavy fire, with 30,000 paying with their lives during the first ten days. Ultimately, French forces suffered 135,000 casualties while scoring only small advances, and the Great War would drag on for another 19 months.
The battlefield losses suffered by the French might have been higher had not thousands of soldiers—as many as 40,000 according to some estimates—disobeyed orders during the attack. Although Nivelle was popular at the outset, discontent along the French lines had been rising since Verdun, where entrenched troops suffered in abysmal living conditions. The diary of French corporal Louis Barthas called Nivelle a mass murderer and noted that his speech (as quoted by the London Independent) “aroused no enthusiasm. On the contrary, it only demoralized the soldiers, who heard nothing but another terrible threat.” A song then circulating among French soldiers contained the lines “Now it's your turn, all you big shots, to climb the ridge, because if it's war you want, pay for it with your own skin.” Although authorities offered a million-franc reward and an exit from military service to whoever identified the song's creator, no one stepped forward to claim it.
The mutiny spread to 130 French regiments, and eventually, some 3,400 soldiers were charged with insubordination. Although 629 were condemned to death, only 75 were ultimately executed. On May 5, 1917, Nivelle was replaced by Pétain, who responded to low morale by circulating a photograph of himself eating actual troop rations and immediately pulled French forces back to defensive positions. Neville was sent to a command post in French North Africa in December of 1917 and spent most of the remainder of the war there. Monitoring the army's use of military armaments, he advocated for the development of new French tanks, and these would produce impressive results in the last months of the war. Shortly before the end of the war in November of 1918, Nivelle returned to France.
In 1920 Nivelle served on the French Superior Council of War and was a representative of the French military during U.S. celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the Protestant pilgrims. While those who now visit the Chemin des Dames will find no commemoration of Nivelle's offensive, film buffs would compare the basis of director Stanley Kubrick's 1957 film Paths of Glory to the mutiny the offensive produced. While little regarded by the public, Nivelle was defended by some historians, who contended that his willingness to shoulder the blame for the offensive allowed other military leaders to retain the respect of their troops. He died in Paris on March 22, 1924.
Clayton, Anthony, Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914–18, Cassell, 2003.
Uffindell, Andrew, The Nivelle Offensive and the Battle of the Aisne 1917: A Battlefield Guide to the Chemin des Dames, Pen & Sword Military, 2015.
Independent (London, England), June 9, 2014, “When the Lambs Refused to March to the Slaughter,” p. 24.
International Herald Tribune, April 17, 2007, Rick Smith, “Quietly, France Marks a Battle and a Mutiny,” p. 2.
History Learning Site, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-one/military-commanders-of-world-war-one/robert-nivelle/ (November 5, 2017), “Robert Nivelle.”
History of War, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_nivelle.html (November 5, 2017), J. Rickard, “Robert Georges Nivelle (1856–1924), French General.”