|Nivelle (Left) with Joffre at Souilly (Verdun HQ), 1916|
Robert Nivelle (1856–1924) started the war as an artillery colonel. By December 1916 he would be the commander-in-chief of the French Armies on the Western Front. He had proved himself an unusually gifted gunner and excelled at the Marne and Aisne Battles of 1914, subsequently earning promotion to the command of the 61st Reserve Division and later the III Corps on the eve of Verdun. His meteoric rise accelerated after he replaced General Pétain as commander of the Second Army, responsible for the defense of Verdun and the rollback of the German gains. His "formula," which worked at Verdun, involved a saturation bombardment to suppress enemy artillery and defenses, a deep initial infantry penetration behind a rolling artillery barrage to displace the enemy, and a rapid followup advance to exploit and expand the breakthrough. The "formula," however, had been applied over a 5-mile-wide front at Verdun in 1916. How would this work on the main section of his 1917 offensive, the key 25-mile-wide front line just below the Chemin des Dames?
Nivelle's approach for 1917 was first shared with the transmission of 16 December 1916. He wrote that, first, breakthrough to the enemy's lines as far as the main lines of his heavy gun batteries was possible in 24 to 48 hours, on condition that the operation be mounted as a single, sudden action.
Second, the artillery preparation had to cover a zone of about 8 kilometers deep to include all the enemy's heavy batteries, hence modern rapid-firing and mobile guns had to be pushed as far forward as possible, and if necessary, the destruction completed by the long guns.
Third, the rupture must be followed immediately by a bold lateral exploitation to destroy gun batteries, to occupy the enemy's lines of communication, and to ensure the capture of enough railways to be able to resupply themselves.
Finally, a bridgehead must be established as far forward as possible to cover the concentration of troops needed to take the battle to any remaining enemy forces. In sum—breakthrough, followed by lateral exploitation—all to be carried out speedily, hence to be prepared in minute detail beforehand. Infantry advances were to be carefully regulated involving single bounds by different units, with rolling artillery barrages supporting the attack. Despite the fact that the 1915 battles and those on the Somme in 1916 had attempted to follow much the same principles, Nivelle seems to have convinced his political leaders (and Lloyd George) that somehow, under his command, things would be different in 1917. The fighting in October and December 1916 at Verdun, however, had proved to him that the method worked. He was confident that his successful recapture of Forts Douaumont and Vaux had given him the “formula” for success against the German army.
Nivelle's operational plan involved the BEF, France's Northern (Oise-Aisne sector), and the renamed Reserve (Chemin des Dames sector) Army Groups. On 30 and 31 December 1916 the two army group commanders received their instructions. They were to bring about “the destruction of the principal mass of enemy forces on the Western Front, by means of a decisive battle waged against all the enemy's available forces, and followed by an intensive exploitation.” North of the Northern Army Group, the British were to attack north of Bapaume as far as Arras and Vimy Ridge.
The main task for the offensive fell to the Reserve Army Group, which was to exploit the opening success of the BEF and Northern Army Group by making a violent attack, aiming to conquer, right at the start, the entire zone occupied by the enemy's artillery and pushing troops through the breach thus created.
Group commander Joseph Micheler, however, was skeptical of the scheme. Micheler had political connections, including the ears of fellow skeptics Senate president Antonin Dubost and war minister Paul Painlevé. Nivelle's subordinates were encouraged by the politicians to speak up against the plan. Matters came to a head on 4 April at a conference Painlevé had demanded during which Nivelle threatened to resign if the offensive was canceled. The war minister yielded after extracting a promise (not subsequently honored) that Nivelle would stop the offensive if the anticipated breakthrough did not occur within 48 hours. The final (hoped-for) aim for the Reserve Army Group was to reach the line Craonne–Guise, with help from the Northern Group St. Quentin, while the British continued toward Cambrai and Le Catelet. Of course, we know now in hindsight that this was all something of an episode of magical thinking. Nivelle neither had the right “formula” nor had he the quality Napoleon most valued in his generals—luck.
Source: "Summing Up 1916: The French Perspective," Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Over the Top, December 2016