Named in honor of Adelaide and Victoire, daughters of Louis XV, the “Chemin des Dames”, also called the “Battle of the Aisne” or “Nivelle offensive”, was above all a huge battle of the First World War. Mobilizing a million men to break through the German lines, it quickly turned into a tragic and bloody vein. This confrontation was thus remembered as the butchery preceding the great mutinies of spring 1917.
A project symbolizing the hope of a nation
The war had lasted for over two and a half years and the situation in France was worrying. While its American ally did not yet have a real army, the French government saw Russia in the midst of a revolution give up the fight. Morale both front and rear of the front was at half mast when it was not downright clouded or shaken. Robert Nivelle, a simple colonel commanding an artillery group in 1914, quickly climbed the ranks of the military hierarchy thanks to his great feats of arms. He distinguished himself in Verdun in 1916. Charismatic, naturally optimistic and confident, he was chosen to succeed Joffre at the head of the armies in December 1916. He carried with him a daring plan to put an end to the war . Having a numerical superiority on the Western front, Nivelle wanted to strike as quickly as possible. He wanted to break the brutal and massive material front, notably thanks to a new weapon: the tank. He sought to make an advancing breakthrough under the protection of rolling fire to destroy German artillery and supply lines.
However, several obstacles presented themselves, starting with the actions of the German army. She voluntarily retreated her front in order to entrench herself in solid fortified positions. It thus modified the assault terrain planned a few days before the attack. In the camp of the allies, many senior officers questioned Nivelle's chances of success, in particular General Pétain for the French or Marshal Louis Haig for the British. To the mistrust of these generals was added that of politicians like Painlevé, Minister of War since March 1916. Although debates, discussions and other meetings reduced Nivelle's authority as commander-in-chief, the offensive was nevertheless maintained.
The failure of the offensive
It all began after two assaults carried out on April 9 by the English army and then on April 12 by the French army to assess the resistance of the enemy that was thought to be exhausted after the battle of Verdun. A great offensive was being prepared between the Oise and the mountain of Reims, mainly on the heights of the Chemin des Dames. The long preparations of the French artillery gave the German army plenty of time to strengthen itself, especially since it had been made aware of part of Nivelle's plans. It was planned to attack in good weather. However, it was the cold, the mist and the mud which prevailed on the morning of April 16, 1917. Against all odds, the assault was given at 6 am. The infantry and cavalry of the 5th and 6th armies had to cross the Aisne, climb the slope of the Chemin des Dames then cross the plateau to descend to the north and reach the valley of the Ailette. The French General Staff expected to bring its troops to the vicinity of Laon, cutting off the German supply routes between Reims and Soisson.
Faced with a well-prepared German army, above in a maze of galleries and caves, and faced with weather conditions hampering the settings of the artillery and the movement of the troops, the first day of combat ended in an advance 500 meters instead of the expected 10 kilometers. Only 10,000 prisoners instead of the estimated 100,000. At the end of this first day, Nivelle became aware of the failure of his strategy, the breakthrough sought would not succeed. But he still wanted to take the Chemin des Dames and sent the 10th army to reinforce it. Despite the opprobrium of public opinion, He continued operations without success until May 9.
A disastrous toll
In two weeks, the French army counted some 40,000 dead and 90,000 wounded, not to mention the prisoners and the missing. Without reaching Verdun's atrocious figures, it was too much for public opinion and for the soldiers. The great movement of hope that Nivelle had aroused had turned into total disillusionment causing a frightful crisis at the same time political, social and especially military. Indeed, the mutinies were the immediate consequence of this defeat. At least Pétain, who replaced Nivelle at the head of the armies, no longer launched (or no longer dared to launch) his troops blindly in the attack unless he had absolute superiority in material. Unfortunately, this was not the case with the British army, which unnecessarily sacrificed several hundred thousand men at the Battle of Passchendaele in the fall of 1917.
And whether it is alongside Passchendaele, Verdun or the Battle of the Somme, the Chemin des Dames remains one of the most tragic episodes of the Great War.
- Jean-Jacques Becker, Serge Berstein, Victoire et frustrations, 1914-1929, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1990.
- Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, The Great War of the French, 1914-1918, Éditions Perrin, Paris, 2002.
- Nicolas Offenstadt (dir.), Le chemin des Dames, from the event to memory, Éditions Stock, Paris, 2004.