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The Nivelle Offensive 1917

  • Andrew Suttie

Abstract

Kingsley Martin wrote of the third volume of the War Memoirs that in ‘dealing with the ghastly Nivelle offensive one feels that Mr Lloyd George’s account may have been unconsciously influenced by the fact that he himself was an enthusiastic supporter of General Nivelle’.1 There are few passages in the War Memoirs in which this is more apparent than in that which deals with the Calais conference of February 1917 where, to Robertson’s horror, he attempted to subordinate Douglas Haig and the BEF to General Nivelle. One must doubt, however, that it unconsciously influenced Lloyd George when he was writing this particular section. He had, after all, ample material to provide a full and frank account, but he deliberately omitted the salient facts of this unfortunate episode which reflected little credit upon himself.

Keywords

Ally Strategy Offensive Operation High Command French Army Western Front 
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Notes

  1. 9.
    Trevor Wilson, The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War 1914–1918 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986), p. 441.Google Scholar
  2. 10.
    War Memoirs, III, p. 1449. See also John Grigg, Lloyd George: War Leader 1916–1918 (London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 2002), pp. 28–30.Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    See E.L. Spears, Prelude to Victory (London: Jonathan Cape, 1939), pp. 29–31; Google Scholar
  4. Alastair Home, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), pp. 226–27, 308, 318, 320; Google Scholar
  5. Anthony Clayton, ‘Robert Nivelle and the French Spring Offensive of 1917’, in Brian Bond (ed.), Fallen Stars: Eleven Studies of Twentieth Century Military Disasters (London: Brassey’s, 1991), pp. 52–64.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    Sir William Robertson, Soldiers and Statesmen, 2 vols (London: Cassell, 1926), II, p. 196.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    Ibid., pp. 196–97; Spears, Prelude to Victory, pp. 42–43; Cyril Falls, Military Operations: France and Belgium 1917 (London: Macmillan, 1940), I, pp. 46–51.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    A.J.P. Taylor (ed.), Lloyd George: A Diary by Frances Stevenson (London: Hutchinson, 1971), p. 139.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    See Spears, Prelude to Victory, ‘Introduction’, by Winston Churchill, 13. John Buchan in his history of the war wrote that Lloyd George ‘fell in love’ with Nivelle’s plan and was instantly converted. Lloyd George claims that Buchan was in his ‘fictional mode’ and gave a ‘fanciful picture’ of the meeting; he was ‘inventing his facts’ (which Liddell Hart thought too severe). John Buchan, A History of the Great War (London: Nelson, 1922), p. 436; War Memoirs, III, p. 1492–93; HLRO LG MSS G/212: Liddell Hart Notes on Mr Lloyd George’s Memoirs 1917; Grigg, Lloyd George, IV, p. 36.Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    David French, The Strategy of the Lloyd George Coalition 1914–1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 55.Google Scholar
  11. 24.
    Military Operations 1917, I, pp. 54–55. Robertson was certainly of this opinion, believing that if Haig and Nivelle got together they could settle any problems between themselves without the intervention of the politicians; David R. Woodward (ed.), The Military Correspondence of Field-Marshal Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff December 1915–February 1918 (London: Bodley Head, 1989), pp. 151–52, no. 113, Robertson to Haig, 14 February 1917.Google Scholar
  12. 25.
    Spears, Prelude to Victory, Bertier’s despatch to Generals Lyautey and Nivelle, 16 February 1917, appendix ix, p. 546; see also Lt Colonel Rousset, La Bataille de l’Aisne (Avril-Mai 1917) (Paris and Brussels: G. van Ouest et Cie, 1920), pp. 20–24;Google Scholar
  13. Commandant de Civrieux, L’Offensive de 1917 et le Commandement du Général Nivelle (Paris and Brussels: G. van Ouest et Cie, 1919), pp. 40–41.Google Scholar
  14. 27.
    PRO CAB 23/1/WC79: War Cabinet, 24 February 1917. The minutes of this meeting were also withheld from the King for two days, most irregularly on such a vital issue; Kenneth Rose, King George V (London: Phoenix, 2000 ed.), pp. 202–203.Google Scholar
  15. 30.
    Robertson, Soldiers and Statesmen, II, p. 205; Maurice Hankey, The Supreme Command, 2 vols (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961), II, p. 615; see also Military Operations 1917, 1, p. 55; Google Scholar
  16. Robert Blake (ed.), The Private Papers of Douglas Haig 1914–1919 (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1952), p. 203.Google Scholar
  17. 41.
    See the text in PRO CAB 28/2/IC17 (b): Notes of an Anglo-French Conference held at the Hotel Terminus, Calais, on 26–27 February 1917; see also Military Operations 1917, I, Appendices, pp. 64–65, Appendix 19; Hankey, Supreme Command, II, p. 617; Spears, Prelude to Victory, pp. 153–56; Stephen Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets, vol. I (London: Collins, 1970), pp. 363–64.Google Scholar
  18. 48.
    See HLRO LG MSS 1:/73/2/14: Note from French Embassy, 7 March 1917, which insisted that Haig follow Nivelle’s instructions. There was another factor apart from Nivelle’s ‘tone’ which prompted Haig to appeal to the War Cabinet. In late February the Germans began a withdrawal to the strongly fortified Hindenburg Line (or Siegfried Stellung). This had the effect of shortening the German line by 25 miles, and freed up several divisions for use elsewhere. Haig became convinced that the British front in Flanders and the Channel Ports were now in danger. Haig was wrong and Nivelle, in denying that the Germans had any intentions of attacking in the north, was correct. See French, Strategy of the Lloyd George Coalition, pp. 58–59 and ‘Failures of Intelligence: The Retreat to the Hindenburg Line and the March 1918 Offensive’, in Michael Dockrill and David French (eds), Strategy and Intelligence: British Policy during the First World War (London: Hambledon Press, 1996), pp. 80–84; Google Scholar
  19. Paul Guinn, British Strategy and Politics 1914 to 1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 215; Wilson, Myriad Faces, pp. 445–48.Google Scholar
  20. 55.
    LHCMA Maurice MSS 4/5/78: Lytton to General Maurice, 12 November 1934. See also Terraine, Haig, p. 276 and Grigg, Lloyd George, IV, p. 44. On Lytton, see Keith Grieves, ‘War Correspondents and Conducting Officers on the Western Front from 1915’, in Hugh Cecil and Peter H. Liddle (eds), Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced (London: Leo Cooper, 1996), pp. 728–30.Google Scholar
  21. 77.
    Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, Passchendaele: The Untold Story (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 30.Google Scholar

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© Andrew Suttie 2005

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  • Andrew Suttie

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