Robert Georges Nivelle (15 October 1856 – 22 March 1924) was a
French artillery officer who served in the Boxer Rebellion, and the
First World War. Nivelle was a very capable commander and organizer of
field artillery at the regimental and divisional levels. In May 1916,
Philippe Pétain as commander of the French Second Army
in the Battle of Verdun, leading counter-offensives that rolled back
the German forces in late 1916. During these actions he and General
Charles Mangin were already accused of wasting French lives.
Following the successes at Verdun, Nivelle was promoted to
commander-in-chief of the French armies on the Western Front in
December 1916, largely because of his persuasiveness with French and
British political leaders, aided by his fluency in English. He was
responsible for the
Nivelle Offensive at the Chemin des Dames, which
had aroused skepticism already in its planning stages. When the costly
offensive failed to achieve a breakthrough on the Western Front, a
major mutiny occurred, affecting roughly half the French Army, which
conducted no further major offensive action for several months.
Nivelle was replaced as commander-in-chief by
Philippe Pétain in May
1 Early life and career
2 First World War
2.4 Relations with the British
2.5 French Doubts about the Offensive
2.6 Nivelle Offensive
6 See also
Early life and career
Robert Georges Nivelle, born on 15 October 1856 in the French
provincial town of
Tulle in Corrèze, had a French father and an
English Protestant mother. Nivelle also was a Protestant and
this was a help to him as in the context of the politics of the French
military Catholic piety was a handicap.  He began his service in
French Army in 1878 upon graduating from the École Polytechnique.
Starting as a sub-lieutenant with French artillery, Nivelle became a
colonel-of-artillery in December 1913. During that period, Nivelle
served with distinction in Algeria,
Tunisia and in
China  during
Boxer Rebellion (1898–1901).
First World War
Described as "an articulate and immensely self-confident gunner",
Nivelle played a key role in defeating German attacks during the
Alsace Offensive, the
First Battle of the Marne
First Battle of the Marne and the First Battle
of the Aisne, as a result of the intense artillery fire he organised
against them. Consequently, he was promoted to the rank of general
in October 1914.
General Nivelle in 1916
In 1916 the
Battle of Verdun
Battle of Verdun occurred (21 February – 18 December),
during which Nivelle was a subordinate to Philippe Pétain. When
Pétain was promoted to the command of the French Central Army Group,
Nivelle was promoted to Pétain's previous command of the French
Second Army, which was fighting against the Germans at Verdun, and he
took direct control of the army on 1 May 1916.
Nivelle is considered [according to whom?] to have squandered the
lives of his soldiers in wasteful counter-attacks during the Battle of
Verdun; only one fresh reserve brigade was left with the Second Army
by 12 June. After the Germans captured Fleury on 23 June, Nivelle
Order of the Day
Order of the Day which ended with the now-famous line: Ils
ne passeront pas! (They shall not pass!). Nivelle ordered the
employment of a creeping barrage when the French made their initial
counter-stroke on 24 October. The artillery supporting the infantry
focused more on suppressing German troops as opposed to destroying
specific objects. These tactics proved effective: French troops
re-took Fleury on 24 October, as well as Fort Douaumont, whose capture
by the Germans on 25 February 1916 had been highly celebrated in
Germany. Nivelle's successful counter-strokes were an important
factor behind the decision to appoint him to become the
commander-in-chief of the French armies on 12 December 1916. The
then French Prime Minister
Aristide Briand was extremely impressed by
Nivelle, telling the other leaders at the Rome Conference (January
1917) that during his
Verdun attacks Nivelle had sent telegrams from
various places on the advance, achieving his objectives exactly
according to the predicted timetable.
Nivelle had less power than his predecessor Joffre. He was placed
under the orders of the War Minister
Hubert Lyautey and, unlike
Joffre, Nivelle's authority did not extend over the Salonika
Nivelle's slogan (also attributed to Petain) was: “the artillery
conquers; the infantry occupies”. He believed that a saturation
bombardment, followed by a creeping barrage and by aggressive infantry
assaults, could break the enemy's front defences and help French
troops reach the German gun-line during a single attack, which would
be followed by a breakthrough within two days.
Nivelle’s plan in 1917, was for the British to take over an extra 20
miles of French front to free up French troops, then Anglo-French
wearing-out attacks between Arras and the Oise to keep German reserve
troops occupied, then a surprise attack by French forces on the Aisne,
the "GAR" (Army Group Reserve or Rupture: two armies in the line and
another two (27 divisions) in reserve, 1.2 million men in total) to
exploit the rupture of the German defences that was expected to occur
as a result. The attack would be broken off if it did not
“rupture” the German front within 48 hours.
Looking for an alternative to more months of attrition warfare,
British and French political leaders supported Nivelle's proposal.
Relations with the British
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary
Force (BEF) on the Western Front, had already agreed with
the British would launch wearing-out attacks in 1917, but demanded (6
January) written confirmation of Nivelle’s earlier assurance that if
the plan did not succeed in forcing a general German withdrawal,
Nivelle would take over British line to free up British reserves for
his planned Flanders offensive. By Edward Spears’ account Nivelle
accused Haig of having “une idée fixe” about Flanders and of
trying to “hog all the blanket for himself” rather than seeing the
front as a whole. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister,
backed Nivelle because he thought he had “proved himself to be a
Man” at Verdun.
Field Marshal Haig wanted to delay his attack until May to coincide
with Italian and Russian attacks, but was told to be ready no later
than 1 April, and to take over French line as requested. The British
government ordered him to live up to both the “letter” and
“spirit” of the agreement with Nivelle, and not cause delays,
almost certainly a result of private lobbying by Nivelle.
Lloyd George had a long conversation (15 February) with Major Berthier
de Sauvigny, a French liaison officer in London, telling him that Haig
needed to be subordinated to Nivelle for the offensive, as George
Milne had been subordinated to Sarrail at Salonika, and if necessary
he would be replaced. The British
War Cabinet felt that the French
generals and staff had shown themselves more skilled than the British
in 1916, whilst politically Britain had to give wholehearted support
to what would probably be the last major French effort of the war.
Haig blamed the poor state of the railways, demanding twice the
railway requirements for half as many troops as the French. At the
Calais Conference the railway experts were soon sent away, and
although Nivelle became embarrassed when Lloyd George asked him to
criticise Haig, he agreed to draw up rules for the relations between
the British and French armies, to be binding also on their successors
going forward. He proposed that the British forces be placed under his
direct command (via a British staff at French GQG), not just for
operations but even logistics and food, with Haig sidelined and
forbidden even to make direct contact with London. The British CIGS
Robertson lost his temper when shown the proposals, and believed that
Lloyd George, not the French, had originated them. Nivelle visited the
British generals next morning, and professed astonishment that they
had had no prior knowledge of the plan. As a compromise Haig was given
right of appeal to the
War Cabinet and retained tactical control of
British forces, although Lloyd George insisted – lest the conference
break up without agreement - that he still be under Nivelle’s orders
for the duration of the offensive.
The Germans had recently added 300 battalions to their forces by
intensive mobilisation, and Haig claimed (3 March) that with the BEF
spread more thinly by having taken over line to the south, these
forces might be used to attack at Ypres and cut him off from the
Channel Ports. Assuming Haig was inventing this threat, Nivelle wrote
him a letter, addressing him as a subordinate, and revived the idea of
a British staff at GQG, this time reporting to Robertson, but through
whom Nivelle would issue orders to Haig. Nivelle now demanded that the
BEF be split into two Army Groups or else that Haig be sacked and
replaced by Gough. Nivelle also believed that Lloyd George hoped to
become Allied Commander-in-Chief, a suggestion so absurd that it
caused President Poincaré to laugh.
After further lobbying from Robertson and intervention by King George
V, Lloyd George lost the support of the British
War Cabinet and had to
back down. At another conference in London (12-13 March) Lloyd George
stressed that the BEF must not be “mixed up with the French Army”,
and Haig and Nivelle met with Robertson and Lyautey to settle their
French Doubts about the Offensive
Between 16 March and 20 March 1917, the Germans withdrew from the
Noyon salient and a smaller salient near Bapaume. The French
General Franchet d'Esperey, commander of the Northern Army Group,
asked Nivelle if he could attack the Germans as they withdrew.
Nivelle believed that that action would disrupt his operational plan,
and refused d'Esperey's request as a result. Nivelle has since
been deemed to have missed his only real opportunity to disrupt the
Lyautey resigned after being shouted down in the French Chamber (15
March) and the Briand government fell (19 March). Confidence in
Nivelle's planned offensive did not improve when
Paul Painlevé was
appointed to become the French Minister of War, as Painlevé had
little faith in Nivelle's concepts. Robertson described Nivelle as
a commander “with a rope round his neck”.
Philippe Pétain, over whose head Nivelle had been promoted to become
commander-in-chief, wanted to launch a major attack against the
Germans near Reims. The proposal is considered to have likely
resulted in considerable difficulties for the Germans, but Nivelle
refused because Petain's offensive would delay Nivelle's offensive for
two weeks. General Micheler, commander of the French Reserve Army
Group, which was to exploit the expected breakthrough on the Aisne,
had serious misgivings about the upcoming battle. In a letter to
Nivelle on 22 March, Micheler argued that the French might not break
through as quickly as Nivelle wanted, as the Germans had reserves
available, and had strengthened their defenses along a key sector of
the Aisne. The other commanders of the French army groups also had
concerns, but Nivelle did not make any major adjustments to his
Assisted by Colonel (and former Minister of War) Adolphe Messimy,
Micheler communicated his worries to Prime Minister Alexandre Ribot.
On 6 April, Nivelle met with Micheler, Pétain and several
politicians, including President Poincaré and Minister of War
Painlevé at Compiegne. The investigation made the mistake of
questioning Nivelle's subordinates in front of him.
Painlevé argued that the Russian Revolution meant that France
shouldn't expect any major help from Russia, and that the offensive
should be delayed until American forces were available and could get
involved. Micheler and Petain said that they doubted the French force
allocated to the attack could penetrate beyond the second line of the
German defences, and suggested a more limited operation. Poincaré,
summing up the discussions, said that the offensive should proceed,
but that it should be halted if it failed to rupture the German front.
At this point, Nivelle offered to resign if his plan was not accepted
but the politicians declared their complete confidence in him.
Thus Nivelle's plan went unchanged despite the doubts expressed by the
other generals and he was under greater pressure to achieve decisive
results. Prime Minister Ribot said, "Our hand has been forced: It is
too late to go back".
On 4 April, during a German attack south of the Aisne, the secret
plans of the French assault were captured but Nivelle did not alter
After three postponements, the
Nivelle Offensive began on 16 April
1917. It started a week after British forces had attacked near Arras.
Nivelle made several declarations which improved the morale of the
French troops involved: “L’heure venue! Confiance! Courage! Vive
la France!”. Edmonds claimed Nivelle said “The German Army
will run away; they only want to be off”.
Due to the fact that the preliminary bombardment against the Germans
was markedly less effective than expected, and the lack of a
sufficient number of French howitzers, the desired French breakthrough
was not achieved on the first day of the battle.
Crown Prince Wilhelm, in his memoirs, tells of the wonderment of the
German troops at these futile but heroic attacks: "The commander of a
machine-gun company... described to me the overwhelming view of the
battleground, on which France's best regiments were being destroyed in
continually renewed, hopeless attacks". (Griffiths, p.39)
In the first day of the attack, 16 April, there had been 120,000
casualties; [probable inconsistency with "96,125 casualties by 25
April" indicated infra] Nivelle had said there would be about 10,000.
Nivelle had promised the Government that the attack would either be a
success or be stopped. But obviously he did not have the same
interpretation of 'success' as them; he ordered the attacks to
continue. On the 19th, Minister
Paul Painlevé came to see him to get
the offensive stopped; but Nivelle was convinced that the attacks must
continue. Gradually the whole thing had developed into the Somme-like
action that all had feared. (Griffiths, p.39)
By 20 April, the French took 20,000 prisoners and 147 guns, which was
considered to be "impressive results by the standards of previous
years." However, a decisive breakthrough on the Aisne had not been
achieved. The French had suffered 96,125 casualties by 25 April, the
offensive had led to a shell shortage in France, the French medical
services broke down, and the delay of transporting French wounded from
the front-line was demoralising.
By the end of its first week, the attack was stalled, and Nivelle was
losing control. Micheler convinced Nivelle to reduce the scope of the
offensive, with the goal now only to secure all of the Chemin des
Dames and capture Reims. Nivelle became increasingly depressed over
the course of the offensive as his orders were under a great degree of
scrutiny by the French government. On 29 April, Nivelle's authority
was undermined by the appointment of Pétain as Chief of the General
Staff, and thus the main military adviser to the government. Although
the French captured parts of the
Chemin des Dames
Chemin des Dames on 4–5 May, this
was not sufficient to "repair Nivelle's crumbling reputation."
When the Nivelle offensive ended on 9 May 1917 the French had
sustained 187,000 casualties. Although this was far fewer than the
casualties in the Battle of Verdun, Nivelle had predicted a great
success, and the country expressed bitter disappointment. Pétain
became Commander-in-Chief in Nivelle's place on 15 May. In
December 1917 Nivelle was sent[by whom?] to serve as
Commander-in-Chief of the French army in North Africa, an appointment
which effectively removed him from direct involvement in the conduct
of the war. He returned to
France after the end of the First World War
in November 1918, retiring from the military in 1921. He was
Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour
Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour and the Military
Medal. Nivelle died on 22 March 1924 and was buried in Les Invalides
The British Official Historian wrote that the attempt at breakthrough
had failed but that the French had gained 'considerable advantages'.
"By the 20th of April they had in their hands over 20,000 prisoners
and 147 guns; the railway from Soissons to
Reims was freed, the enemy
had been driven out of the Aisne valley west of the Oise—Aisne
Canal; the German second position had been captured south of
Juvincourt; and in Champagne some of the most important 'monts' had
been taken. The German counter-attacks, successful at the beginning,
were becoming less and less so as time went on. In particular, a great
effort made on the 19th against the Fourth Army, when three divisions
were thrown in between Nauroy and Moronvilliers, failed
Other historians have been less generous about Nivelle's actions
during the First World War. Julian Thompson contends that Nivelle was
"careless of casualties," that he was a "disastrous choice to
Joffre as commander-in-chief," and that the planning for
Nivelle Offensive was "slapdash". In the book World War 1:
1914–1918, the execution of the
Nivelle Offensive is considered to
have been "murderous." David Stevenson says that the attack on the
Chemin des Dames
Chemin des Dames was a "disaster".
Nivelle is also considered positively in some ways. In The Macmillan
Dictionary of the First World War, he is described as "a competent
tactician as a regimental colonel in 1914", that his creeping
barrage tactics were "innovative", and that he was able to
galvanize "increasingly pessimistic public opinion in France" in
December 1916". J Rickard believes Nivelle's push for a greater
development of the tank contributed to its improvement by 1918, and he
also says that Nivelle was a "gifted artilleryman".
Some historians blame the
Nivelle Offensive for starting the French
army mutinies of 1917. Tim Travers states that "the heavy French
casualties of the Nivelle offensive resulted in French army
mutinies", and David Stevenson proposes that "the Nivelle
offensive-or more precisely the decision to persist with
it-precipitated the French mutinies of May and June ".
Mount Nivelle on the Continental Divide in the
Canadian Rockies was
named for him in 1918; summits with the names of other French
generals are nearby: Cordonnier, Foch, Joffre, Mangin, and Pétain.
Knight (9 July 1895)
Officer (21 December 1912)
Commander (10 April 1915)
Grand Officer (13 September 1916)
Grand Cross (28 December 1920)
Médaille militaire (30 December 1921)
Croix de guerre 1914–1918 with 3 palms
Médaille Interalliée de la Victoire
Médaille commémorative de l'expédition de Chine (1901)
Médaille commémorative du Maroc with "Oudjda" and "Haut-Guir" clasps
Médaille commémorative de la guerre 1914–1918
Grand Cordon of the Order of Leopold (Belgium)
Croix de guerre (Belgium)
Officer of the Nicham Iftikhar (Tunisia)
Distinguished Service Medal (US)
Battle of Verdun
Second Battle of the Aisne
Chemin des Dames
^ The First World War: The War To End All Wars. p. 105.
^ a b c d e f g h Rickard, J (20 February 2001). "Robert Georges
Nivelle (1856–1924), French General".
^ Page 80 of The
First World War
First World War Remembered by Gary Sheffield
ISBN 978 0 233 00405 1
^ Simkins 2014, p. 105.
^ a b c Simkins 2014, p. 74.
^ The First World War: The War To End All Wars. p. 74.
^ Simkins 2014, p. 75.
^ Simkins 2014, p. 77.
^ Simkins 2014, p. 78.
^ Simkins 2014, p. 72.
^ a b c d Woodward, 1998, pp87
^ Woodward, 1998, pp86
^ The First World War: The War To End All Wars. p. 75.
^ Simkins 2014, p. 106.
^ Woodward, 1998, p88
^ Woodward, 1998, pp88-9
^ Woodward, 1998, pp90-3
^ Woodward, 1998, pp90-3, 97-9
^ Simkins 2014, p. 107.
^ Roy Hattersley,
David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George (2010) pp 426-33
^ John Grigg, Lloyd George: War Leader, 1916-1918 (2002) pp 35-44,
^ Woodward, 1998, pp=100-2
^ a b Woodward, 1998, pp102-4
^ Simkins 2014, p. 112.
^ a b c The First World War: The War To End All Wars.
^ a b c d e f The First World War: The War To End All Wars.
^ "Marshal Petain" by Richard Griffiths, p38
^ "Marshal Petain" by Richard Griffiths, p39
^ Woodward, 1998, pp106-7
^ a b Falls 1940, p. 498.
^ The First World War: The War To End All Wars. p. 121.
^ The First World War: The War To End All Wars. p. 122.
^ a b c Jukes, Geoffrey; Simkins, Peter; Hickey, Michael (2013). The
First World War: The War to end all Wars. General Military. Osprey
Publishing. p. 131. ISBN 9781782008798. Retrieved
2015-02-07. [...] the totals of 187,000 French and 163,000 German
casualties for the whole offensive were not overwhelmingly high.
Nevertheless, because Nivelle had promised so much, the shock of
disappointment felt by the
French Army and people when the
breakthrough failed to materialise was all the more severe. As a wave
of unrest and indiscipline engulfed the French Army, Nivelle was
dismissed from the post of Commander-in-Chief on 15 May. His place was
taken by Petain [...].
^ a b The 1916 Experience:
Verdun and the Somme. p. 20.
^ The 1916 Experience:
Verdun and the Somme. p. 59.
^ World War 1: 1914–1918. p. 82.
^ 1914–1918: The History Of The First World War. p. 367.
^ The Macmillan Dictionary of the First World War. p. 343.
^ a b The Macmillan Dictionary of the First World War.
^ The Killing Ground: The British Army, The Western Front, & The
Emergence Of Modern War 1900–1918. p. 256.
^ 1914–1918: The History Of The First World War. p. 327.
^ "Nivelle, Mount". BC Geographical Names.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Robert Georges Nivelle.
Blake, Robert (editor); The Private Papers of Douglas Haig
1914–1918, London 1952
Falls, C. (1940). Military Operations
France and Belgium 1917: The
German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line and the Battles of Arras (IWM
& Battery Press 1992 ed.). London: HMSO.
Grigg, John. Lloyd George: War Leader, 1916–1918 (2002) pp 35–44,
David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George (2010) pp 426-33
Lloyd George, David. War Memoirs (2nd ed. 1938) vol 1 ch 50 on "The
Nivelle Offensive" pp 873–908
Simkins, Peter; et al. (2014). The First World War: The War To End All
Wars. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-78200-280-2.
Spears, Sir Edward (1939). Prelude to Victory (online ed.). London:
Jonathan Cape. OCLC 459267081. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
Woodward, David R. Field Marshal Sir William Robertson (Westport
Connecticut & London). Praeger, 1998, ISBN 0-275-95422-6
Commander-in-Chief of the French Army
12 December 1916 - 15 May 1917
ISNI: 0000 0001 1935 7032
BNF: cb106827128 (data)