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The Western and Italian Fronts, 1917

Strategies for 1917

In planning their effort on the Western Front in 1917, Britain and France put hope in a French general, Robert Nivelle. Nivelle was an artillery officer who had become a hero at Verdun and famous for his declaration, referring to the Germans, that "they will not pass." He believed he had invented the formula for a successful offensive against the Germans: a massive, denser, creeping bombardment that would breakdown the German defenses, followed closely by a massive assault of troops. He declared that if he did not produce a breakthrough within the first 48 hours of battle he would stop the offensive rather than shed more blood.

The Germans, meanwhile, were planning to cripple Britain with their submarine offensive. They planned to remain on the defensive on the Western Front in 1917, and in places on that front their military secretly withdrew to what was known as the Hindenburg Line – the Germans making their front line straighter, twenty-five miles shorter, and stronger.

On April 5, the French began the shelling as the first step in Nivelle's offensive, shelling that continued to April 15. Meanwhile, on the 9th, a British offensive began that was designed to pull Germans away from the impending French offensive, and it was costly in British lives. Nivelle began his assault with troops on the 16th, and his forces in the center and right flanks advanced a mile and a half or two miles, but his left flank, supported by the first few tanks in warfare, failed. German machine guns continued killing numerous attackers. Nivelle's hoped for breakthrough did not happen. But admitting defeat was too much for General Nivelle. Rather than call off his offensive as he had promised, he pushed on, and the slaughter continued. Weary French soldiers, fed up with the prospect of death and what they believed were government lies about the war, mutinied, led by older veterans of the war. Soldiers being transported to the front ganged up on their officers, against military policemen and against railway men taking them to the front. An entire division that had fought at Verdun refused to go into battle. And the revolt spread to half the French army.

Stretches along the French front were undefended, but the Germans, remaining on the defensive, were not aggressively appraising the enemy lines and failed to notice.

French civilians joined the unrest. People demonstrated in the streets. Labor went out on strike. The French high command managed to keep the rebellion a secret from the outside world. Nivelle was replaced by a general who had long believed in a defensive strategy: Henri Pétain. Pétain doubled soldier leave-times, and he improved their food. He had ringleaders of the mutiny shot or sent to Devil's Island. In some rebellious units, every tenth man was shot as a demonstration that authority had to be obeyed. French troops were told there would be no more offensives. Moved by Germany's renewed submarine warfare, the US had declared war on Germany in April, and by mid-June the crisis in France had passed, with soldiers defending France's entire line and France waiting for the arrival of troops from the United States.

The Germans remained focused on their submarine offensive, which had begun in February and was sinking ships at a rate that posed a great danger to Britain. Lloyd-George urged a new convoy system – convoys of warships to accompany freighters. Most of Britain's admirals resisted the idea, complaining, among other things, that it would put "too many eggs in one basket" and present too big of a target for the Germans. The commander in chief of Britain's navy, Admiral David Beatty, supported Lloyd-George. Admiral William Sims of the United States Navy also supported the convoy system, and the first convoy began at the end of May.

A British offensive in Flanders began on June 7, the primary goal of which was to clear the Belgian coast of Germany's submarine bases. This offensive was preceded by a British artillery bombardment announcing its coming, a bombardment that could be heard in London. Around the Belgian town of Ypres, the British advanced only a couple of miles – another failure. But plans were made for another assault. A preparatory air offensive began on July 11, with 500 British and 200 French aircraft. Artillery bombardment began on July 18. The assault on the ground began on July 31, and it brought no appreciable gains. Bombardments had destroyed water drainage in the area, and with the heavy rains the battlefields had become soft mud and contiguous pools of water-filled shell holes. Men easily sank up to their waists. Movement was most difficult, but the British commander, Douglas Haig, ordered the advance to continue anyway, and by November the British had lost another 300,000 as dead or wounded.

The British and the French had been improving their ability to calibrate artillery barrages, keeping artillery rounds "just over the shoulders" of their advancing troops while keeping the Germans pinned down. And the British had been developing their new tanks – a step up from armored cars and from tractors that had been used to pull artillery. The British had used eleven tanks without success in an attack at the Somme in 1916. On November 20, 1917, the British used a large number of tanks – 381 – for the first time in an offensive near Cambrai, about 40 miles south of Ypres. The tanks ran in front of and with their troops in a surprise attack – an attack without preparatory artillery shelling. A breakthrough was made along a six-mile stretch of front. The British took 7,500 German prisoners and captured 120 guns, with few casualties. They had made a bulge forward in their line against the Germans, but with their previous losses in 1917 they lacked the reserves needed to keep going. Then the Germans counterattacked in a flanking maneuver, and the British fell back.

The Italian Front

An Italian offensive that had been planned to help the French and British had begun in May, with 38 Italian divisions massed along its mountainous front against 14 Austrian divisions. The Italians gained little ground, and they lost 157,000 in dead and wounded and the Austrians 75,000, approximately the number of Union and Confederate dead in the entire US Civil War.

In August, Italy launched its second offensive for the year, while enjoying a two to one advantage in men over the Austrians. The Austrians fell back. German troops again went to the rescue of the Austrians. The Germans wished to see Italy knocked out of the war in 1917, to join Serbia (knocked out in 1915) and Romania (knocked out in 1916). But facing a British offensive the Germans were able to spare only six divisions from its Russian front. A combined German and Austrian counter-offensive against Italy began along the lower elevations on the eastern half of the Austrian-Italian front. And in late October they broke through the Italian line, with a great battle being fought at the little town of Caporetto. The Italians fell back in a rout – more the fault of Italy's military leaders than its rank and file. Some Italian units fought with bravery and determination, but the breakdown of their front against Austria broke their morale.

The unexpected collapse of the Italian front was more than the Germans had been prepared for. The Germans and Austrians were unable to exploit it. Six French and five British divisions arrived in Italy and shored up the Italian defense line along the Piave River, and the war had become more popular with the Italian public as they sought revenge against their nation's humiliation.


The First World War: A Complete History, by Martin Gilbert, 1996

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