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World War I Western Front (1917) - Part 4

World War I Western Front (1917) - Part 4

Events that took place in the fourth year of WWI

Political changes had considerably influenced allied strategy on the Western Front. Asquith’s British administration, which had been compelled to change from its original Liberal composition to a coalition because of the Dardanelles mishandling, had fallen at the end of 1916 and David Lloyd George had been installed as prime minister. In France, Joffre was promoted in December to serve as military adviser to the government, in effect retiring him from chief command, and Robert Nivelle was installed as chief of general staff, with responsibility for directing the war in the west.


Index of content


Unrestricted Submarine Warfare Resumes

In January 1917, President Wilson appealed to the belligerents to agree on “peace without victory.” Although Britain and Austria-Hungary responded favorably to the appeal, Germany boldly announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Shortly after the announcement, a U.S. warship, the Housatonic, was torpedoed and sunk, and President Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, 1917. On the 26th, he asked Congress for authority to arm U.S.-flagged merchant vessels and to take all other military measures to protect American commerce.

The United States would pursue what Wilson now termed a course of “armed neutrality.” A military preparedness movement began throughout the United States, with young men voluntarily reporting to various training camps. Wilson also encouraged American industry and commerce to assume a war footing, and he created several emergency federal agencies, including the Council of National Defense, the Civilian Advisory Committee, and the Shipping Board.


The Zimmermann Telegram

In February 1917, British intelligence authorities turned over to President Wilson a telegram that had been intercepted between Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann (1854–1940), and the German ambassador to Mexico. Transmitted on January 16, 1917, the Zimmermann Telegram (as it came to be called) authorized the ambassador to propose a German-Mexican alliance to Mexican president Carranza. In return for a declaration of war against the United States, Mexico would receive Germany’s support in the reconquest of its “lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” Carranza was also to be asked to invite Japan to adhere to the anti-American alliance.

Although U.S.-Mexican relations had been strained of late, President Wilson had recently made many conciliatory gestures toward Mexico, and Carranza was therefore in no mood to fight with the United States. If the Zimmermann Telegram fell on deaf ears in Mexico, it opened eyes in America when President Wilson published it on March 1, 1917. One month later, on April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war.


Allies in Crisis

The Americans were about to enter the Great War at a low point for the Allies. Every major Allied offensive had failed, and the Central Powers had received vast areas of Allied territory. Worse, the Germans knew it would take many months for the United States to mobilize effectively. This gave the war renewed urgency, spurring Erich Ludendorff to mount a series of all-out offensives against the war-weary and depleted Allies before U.S. troops arrived in substantial numbers.

France did its best to refresh an aggressive spirit. In December 1916, when General Joffre was replaced by Robert Nivelle as army commander-in-chief, Nivelle proposed to use the “Verdun formula”, the coordination of intense artillery bombardment with advancing infantry, to attack the Germans along a broad front. He meant to break that front in such a manner that the rupture could be immediately exploited and all reserve troops overcome.

Nivelle planned for the British to make preparatory attacks north and south of the old Somme battlefield at Arras and Bapaume, with Cambrai as the aim. This would draw out the German reserves. In the meantime, French forces would launch the major offensive north of the Asine in Champagne in an attack that would combine, as Nivelle put it, “great violence with great mass”. Meaning intense artillery bombardments (the violence) followed by massive frontal attacks (the mass).

Unfortunately for Nivelle, Ludendorff had thoroughly sensed the meaning of Nivelle’s having replaced Joffre. Ludendorff therefore strengthened his defenses by establishing a third line of defenses, well out of range of the French artillery. It was called the Siegfriedstellung, the Siegfried Zone, or, more commonly by the Allies, the Hindenburg Line and Ludendorff confounded the Allies by withdrawing to this new position, as much as 32 kilometers (20 miles) behind the original German front line.

The withdrawal was completed by March 16, 1917. The towns that lay within the territory evacuated by the Germans, including Bapaume, Péronne, Roye, Noyon, Chauny, and Coucy, were left to the Allies, after having been rendered totally uninhabitable. The Germans mined the roads, destroyed the trees, poisoned the wells, and blew up houses and other buildings. They sowed the ruins with an array of booby traps. The Hindenburg Line itself was ingeniously fortified and seemed all but impregnable.


The Nivelle Offensive

General Nivelle refused to note the recent developments. On April 9, he ordered the commencement of the British preliminary attack at Arras. Indeed, the attack went remarkably well at first. At the northern end of the 15mile battlefront, Vimy Ridge was taken by the Canadian Corps, but the British reserves could not exploit this breach because of congested conditions in the rear lines. Although the British gamely sustained the attack until May 5, by that time German resistance had been augmented sufficiently to repulse all assaults against the line, and the advances made in the first five days of the British offensive would be the total of the British advance for the entire battle.

Nivelle launched the principal attack in Champagne on April 16, moving along the Aisne River front from Vailly east to Craonne and Reims. His strength was massive, at 1.2 million men and 7,000 guns. But the great Nivelle offensive was destined for disaster. The element of surprise, which had showed its value time and time again, had not been achieved, or even sought. Worse, the French artillery could not be coordinated effectively with the infantry advance.

The result was horrific slaughter as the French infantry struggled to attain the Chemin des Dames Ridge, a feature that dominated most of the sector. Despite all that had gone wrong, the French forces took the first German line before they were stopped. It was, however, an advance of only 550 meters (600 yards), whereas Nivelle’s plan had called for an initial thrust of 10 kilometers (six miles). In five days, Robert Nivelle had lost 120,000 French soldiers, killed and wounded. He captured 21,000 or more German prisoners, but other German casualties were relatively light.


The French Mutinies

The Nivelle offensive not only failed against the Germans but also provoked a widespread mutiny within the French army, beginning on April 29. There was no violence against commanders, just mass refusal to move up or attack. During the first three weeks of May, word of the rebellion traveled swiftly through the long trench line. By June, mutinies hit 54 French divisions, and only two reliable divisions stood between the Germans and Paris.

If French military strategy was less than brilliant, the forces of French censorship were extraordinarily effective. French counterintelligence successfully blocked all news of the mutiny, keeping not only the French people but also General Ludendorff in the dark for weeks. By the time Ludendorff caught wind of dissent in the French ranks, the British under Haig had renewed attacks to distract him and his army.

In the wake of the disastrous offensive and the mutinies that followed, Robert Nivelle was removed from command and replaced by Pétain. He moved swiftly to address the troops’ grievances, and gradually he restored order to the army.


The Battle of Arras

While the Nivelle offensive faltered, Haig, now commanding the British forces on the western front, renewed the offensive at the Battle of Arras to draw off some pressure from the French. Once the French mutinies began, Haig was forced to assume the burden of action on the western front.


The Third Ypres Campaign

Haig planned a strategy for a Third Ypres campaign hoping to achieve objectives that were of great concern to the British, if only of minor interest to the French:

  • To aid British shipping by attacking U-boat pens believed to be in Belgium, at Ostend and
  • To show the Germans that the Allies had no intention of waiting for the Americans before pressing an offensive.
  • To keep the focus on the western front. The British government of Lloyd George, discouraged by the deadlock, had turned increasingly to the Italian front and the Middle East for a breakthrough. Haig believed it dangerous to draw off needed strength from the western front.
  • To achieve Britain’s original stated aim of having entered the war, the restoration of Belgium as a sovereign and neutral state.

Before a full-scale offensive could be launched from the Ypres salient, the high ground dominating the area, the Messines-Wytschaete ridge, had to be secured. Haig chose General Sir Herbert Plumer (1857–1932) and his Second Army to assault this position. The battle had been thoroughly planned and was brilliantly executed; on June 7, the ridge quickly fell into British hands. Haig had every reason to be optimistic.


Action at Passchendaele

But the success of Messines was not to be repeated. Organizing the major assault took more time than expected, creating a fatal lag between the initial inroads made at the Battle of Messines and the principal assault. When Haig finally began the operation, he did so with the biggest artillery preparation of the entire war, beginning on July 18, 65,000 artillery shells from 3,091 guns. This time, however, the shells fell directly on the territory, staked out for the British advance. The bombardment cratered the poorly drained ground, which the heaviest rains the region had seen in 30 years transformed into a bog.

The infantry assault wrought through the mud against devastating German defenses. Bogged down, machine-gun fire slaughtered the British and by airborne strafing attacks. A new gas, mustard gas, was also used. It caused intense chemical burns on contact with skin, eyes, and the lining of the human lungs.

Despite monumental difficulties, the British infantry took Passchendaele Ridge and Passchendaele village by November 6. Of Belgium, only eight kilometers (five miles) had been regained. The cost was 300,000 British dead and wounded, plus 8,528 French casualties. German losses were also high, however, at 260,000.


The Battle of Cambrai

Haig seemed unaffected by the terrible cost of Passchendaele and immediately ordered General J. H. G. Byng’s (1862–1935) Third Army to attack at Cambrai, France, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the site of the Belgian battle. This time, terrain conditions were highly favorable for the attackers, and Byng did not precede the assault with an artillery preparation, so both the element of surprise and the excellent ground were preserved.

For the first time in the war, large numbers of tanks (200 units) were used. At first, the attack went well, and an eight kilometer (five-mile) breach was torn into the Hindenburg Line. But just as Byng was ready to exploit the breach, his tanks broke down in large numbers. This gave time for German reinforcements to plug the gap, which the British cavalry and infantry follow-up now proved too weak to breach. On December 3, Haig ordered a partial withdrawal. Both sides suffered approximately equal casualties, about 45,000 each (including 11,000 Germans and 9,000 British taken as POWs), and no territory was permanently gained by either side.


The Russians Withdraw

On the eastern front, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Revolutions of 1917 undermined the already disastrous Russian war effort. In March 1917, Czar Nicholas II (1868–1918) abdicated the throne, and the Russian Duma appointed a Provisional Government, which gave way in October 1917 to a communist regime led by Vladimir I. Lenin (1870–1924).

Among the very first acts of the new Soviet government was the conclusion of a “separate peace” with Berlin. Negotiations resulted in an immediate armistice on December 15, 1917, which was formalized the following year by the two treaties of Brest-Litovsk. Russia was out of the war, and Germany could now concentrate virtually all of its troops on the western front.


United States Mobilization

On May 18, the Selective Service Act of 1917 was signed into law; 23.9 million men were registered for the draft over the next two years, and 2.8 million, most between the ages of 21 and 30, were actually drafted. In 1916, the U.S. Army mustered 133,000; by Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, 4.5 million men were in army uniforms. Spectacular as it was, the mobilization took more time than the Allies thought they could afford.

America had entered the war in April 1917, and the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), General John J. Pershing (1860–1948), arrived in Paris with a small staff on June 14. A massive transport effort was organized to bring the bulk of the U.S. Army to Europe, but Pershing declared it would be February 1918 before they could commit an effective American force to battle.

The Allies, especially the French, demanded that U.S. troops be turned over to French command as they arrived. Pershing stoutly resisted this attempt to fritter away American lives in piecemeal fashion. With great difficulty, he persuaded the Allies to allow him to merge his forces into viable units under American command. By the end of 1917, only 175,000 U.S. troops were in Europe. In the meantime, Ludendorff had launched his all-out offensives.


The Ludendorff Offensives

Once the Schlieffen Plan had collapsed in 1914, German strategy became increasingly defensive on the western front. The idea was to let the Allies wear their armies down in fruitless attacks on well-defended German trenches. By the winter of 1917–18, however, Ludendorff realized that the impending approach of massive American manpower on the western front required a push for decisive victory as soon as possible. A defensive strategy would not accomplish this, he reasoned, and so he set about mounting the massive concentration of a series of offensives.

Using troops freed up from the eastern front, Ludendorff instituted a rigorous training program designed to convert soldiers who had been accustomed to defensive warfare to troops capable of aggressive offense. The best of his trainees he assigned as shock troops to spearhead the assaults.

A brilliant if mercurial strategist, Ludendorff understood that the British and French were typically at cross-purposes. The British were perpetually concerned about maintaining lines of communication with the English Channel ports, whereas the French focused on protecting Paris. Ludendorff exploited this divergence of purpose by driving a wedge between the two allies. This accomplished, he would concentrate on destroying the British army, which would force the French to negotiate a favorable peace.

WWI (1914-1918)
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