[Part I of this two-part article appeared in yesterday's Roads to the Great War]
The general chosen to replace Joffre is the only man with a Western Front battle named after him. Joffre had preferred Robert Nivelle to the cautious and demanding Pétain of May 1916 at Verdun, and he recommended Nivelle to Briand at year's end. Since Briand, at that moment, was expecting Joffre still to play a role as the government's “technical advisor,” it seemed prudent that Joffre and the new c-in-c should be able to work together. Furthermore, Poincaré much preferred the Joffre-Nivelle strategy of seeking the decisive battle in 1917, with the aim of capturing strategic German territory, over anything the other candidate, Pétain, might propose.
Briand knew that Pétain would not work willingly with Joffre; moreover, Pétain favored small, local actions with limited aims. Briand wanted a “new spirit” in his rejigged cabinet and favored Nivelle as being more likely to infuse the high command in similar manner. Besides, Pétain was not acceptable politically. He had insulted Poincaré by saying “we are neither commanded nor governed,” and suggested that the head of state should act as a dictator to get things moving. When Poincaré exclaimed, “But what about the Constitution?” Pétain replied, “Bugger the Constitution.”
Yet his dislike of Pétain's politics was probably a less important factor in Poincaré's eyes than his wish for Nivelle's more aggressive attitude. Some saw the choice of Nivelle as a risk. Influential Nivelle staff officer Maurice Pellé, who was sacked from GQG at the same time as Joffre, thought that Foch would have been a safer bet. One could put up with Foch's speechifying because of his energy, but with Nivelle it was impossible to know whether he would be as successful as c-in-c as he had been in his earlier command positions. Nivelle's ascent had certainly been a rapid rise from colonel of artillery at the beginning of the war. Thus, he had no experience of dealing either with politicians, or with Haig and the British, or with the staff at GQG, although he was breveté; that is, he had passed staff college (in 1889).
Moreover, Joffre had clearly hoped to retain some influence behind the scenes by pushing someone whose rise had been so rapid that he had not had time to create his own political following. Joffre was overheard at GQG saying that Nivelle would be a “devoted and obedient lieutenant,” and, although Nivelle lacked the “authority to give orders to those who yesterday were his chiefs,” he (Joffre) would “cover” him with his own authority. Joffre's hopes were soon dashed. Indeed, he was sent off to the U.S. when the Americans declared a state of war with Germany on 6 April 1917 and was thus well out of the way when Nivelle's offensive began on 16 April.
Nivelle had to deal with more than his political masters in Paris, because he was immediately thrown into dealings with France's allies, in particular with Britain's new prime minister, David Lloyd George, who was sure that he did not want the 1917 campaign to become another Somme. Armies other than those of Britain were to do the fighting! Hence the Rome conference in January 1917, during which Lloyd George tried unsuccessfully to get the Italians to undertake a major campaign. Lloyd George thought that French generals were, on the whole, better than the British, and if Nivelle and the French insisted on carrying out their plan for the 1917 campaign, then there was little reason to oppose it since it gave the main role to the French Army. Nivelle asked to speak with Lloyd George as he was returning through Paris to London, but the prime minister refused to discuss strategy with him unless Haig and Robertson were also present.
All in all, Nivelle took command at a time of great change, which made his task much more difficult. The move of GQG from Chantilly to Compiégne and the personnel changes (a new chief of staff, General Pont, and some new heads of section) added to the difficulties of commanding men who had been his superiors in 1914 and 1915. Yet, despite his inexperience, Nivelle made a good impression at the start of his command. After Joffre, who had seemed increasingly tired and weighted down by responsibility, Nivelle was a breath of fresh air, younger and more energetic, self-confident but kindly. Liaison officer Edward Louis Spears thought he gave “an impression of vigor, strength and energy.”
Source: Over the Top, December 2016