Timeline: WW I Central Powers Victory

The Nivelle Offensive was a 1917 Allied attack on the Western Front. The assault was advertised to win the war within 48 hours. French generals also expected to only lose 10,000 casualties during the battle. The reality was far different.

The Nivelle Offensive was, by all accounts, a disaster for the French and British. In retrospect, the Nivelle Offensive is seen as the turning point of World War I. After the disastrous assault, Germans continued to pour in new troops from the vacant Eastern Front, which tilted the odds in the favor of the Germans for the remainder of the war.

The Nivelle Offensive was a three stage plan:

  1. A preliminary attack by the British and Dominion First, Third and Fifth Armies was launched at Arras, known as the Battle of Arras.
  2. The main offensive, led by the French, targeted the Chemin des Dames, known as the Second Battle of the Aisne.
  3. Then the Allies planned linkup of the British and Dominion and French armies, having broken through the German lines. This did not happen as a result of disaster of the Second Battle of the Aisne.
March 20, 1917
Battle of Arras

British artillery begins firing upon the German defensive positions near Arras, France. The artillery bombardment was largely successful. By the even of the actual assault, most German front line trenches were destroyed or had to be evacuated as a result of the of the attacks. The British make tremendous gains in the first two days of the battle.

April 9, 1917
Battle of Arras

The British 12th Division attacks Observation Ridge. At the same time, the 3rd Division attacks Devil's Wood. The British made immense gains in the first two days, which was almost unheard of on the Western Front in World War I.

April 9, 1917
Battle of Arras

Canadian troops begin an assault on the strategically import ridge known as Vimy Ridge. Behind a barrage of artillery and machine guns, the Canadian troops advance several thousand yards and eventually capture the ridge that afternoon.

Thereafter, the British had to settle down and regroup after the crushing succes of the first few days of the battle. Several minor battles were fought over the next month before the decisive battle on May 3.

April 16, 1917
Second Battle of the Aisne

19 divisions of the French 4th and 5th Armies attack the German like along an 80 km stretch from Soissons to Reims. An extensive artillery barrage preceded the assault, but it was largely unsuccessful as German soldiers sought refuge in underground quarries that served as underground shelters for the German army.

On average, the Germans placed a machine gun at 10 meter intervals along the front, which was devastating to the advancing French troops. In the first day of combat, the French suffered over 40,000 casualties and 150 tanks.

The German defenses were situated on high ground overlooking the Aisne River Valley, which gave them a strategically superior position over the German army. This proved vital during the battle.

April 19, 1917
Second Battle of the Aisne

The French try to break through east of Reims, but suffer heavy casualties are easily repelled by the German 7th Army. Thereafter, the French scaled back their assaults, which actually proved more successful.

April 25, 1917
Second Battle of the Aisne

German troops begin to arrive from the defunct Eastern Front, providing further reinforcements against the invading French armies.

May 3, 1917
Battle of Arras

British troops try one last time to break through the German lines near Arras. British and Australian troops attacked, forming a two-pronged assault at the German lines, beginning on May 3. British commanders hoped that attacking two separate would overwhelm the German defenses.

May 4, 1917
Battle of Arras

Neither the British nor Australian prong made significant advances against the German fortifications. As a result, on May 4, the assault was called off and the battle was over.

The battle is considered a British victory, but they failed to break through German lines, which was the main objective of the assault. The Germans managed to hold strong against the assault. British forces suffered over 150,000 casualties during the assault, which compared to the limited territorial gains, was a high price to pay.

May 9, 1917
Second Battle of the Aisne

Facing mutiny and immense casualties, the French Army abandoned the Nivelle Offensive on May 9.

The French sustained 135,000 casualties in the battle while the German army only lost around 35,000 men. The offensive was likely going to be a failure, regardless of the German reinforcements from the Eastern Front, but the new reinforcements made this an even worse defeat for the French troops, especially towards the end of the battle. The French did advance a few km in some places, but, by and large, they made very little progress against the German front and suffered immense casualties in the process.

Ultimately, this is the final time that the French would go on and offensive. For the rest of the war, they would be on their toes and the Germans took the lead role crushing their way towards Paris.

May 15, 1917
Paris, France

Robert Nivelle, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, is replaced by Philippe Pétain. Nivelle championed the Nivelle Offensive and believed that it would be a decisive victory in favor of the Allies. In reality, he couldn't have been farther from the truth.

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