20: Artois and Champagne


This is our second episode covering the events of 1915 so we will of course spend most of the episode talking about what the French did in the last few weeks of 1914.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 20. This is our second episode covering the events of 1915 so we will of course spend most of the episode talking about what the French did in the last few weeks of 1914. Today we will discuss two French offensives, that began at roughly the same point in time, the last two weeks of December 1914. These two offensives occurred in the Artois region and the Champagne region and one of the reasons that they are notable is the fact that they are one of the first large scale French attacks after the line in the west began to settle down and the Germans began to heavily entrench their lines on the front. These battles would be called the First Battle of Artois and the First Battle of Champagne and they will be just the first in a series of battles in these areas during 1915.

In early November the French General Staff, or GQG, began planning for more offensives. Neither the GQG or Joffre believed that the Germans would leave French soil voluntarily so they knew that they would have to attack to push the Germans back. GQG and Joffre considered many different strategies and operations that they could undertake late in 1914 to begin the process of retaking France. One key component in all of these strategies and operations was that the British should take over more of the line from the French. The parts of the line that Joffre wanted the British to occupy were north of Ypres and were currently held by French troops who had ended up there after the Race to the Sea had concluded in early November. There were two big reasons why the French wanted the British to take over this part of the line the first was strictly to free up French troops for the upcoming operations and the second was that the line was arranged in a French, British, French patchwork from north to south and this caused all kinds of logistical problems as both sides had to share the roads and railways behind the front. The British wouldn’t end up being as receptive to this idea as the French hoped but they continued their planning under the assumption that it would happen. The first assessment released by the Operations Bureau of the General Staff was completed on November 15th but Joffre didn’t like it very much so it was never officially approved. He wanted the Bureau to go back to the drawing board, and at the end of November they presented another study around the possibility of an offensive.

The first piece of the Bureau’s assessment was that the small offensives that Joffre had ordered the French generals to continue in the previous weeks, as a way of keeping the fighting spirit of the French troops intact was a massive waste of manpower and munitions. At the same time as they were critical of these small attacks they also were realistic about the fact that there simply weren’t enough resources to make an offensive along the entire front possible. There weren’t enough men or guns or ammunition for the guns to make such an undertaking even remotely possible. What the Bureau would propose was well prepared attacks against specific portions of the front with distinct objectives that would cause the most harm to the Germans. These specific attacks would allow the “Gathering of powerful means of actions” in these areas that would give the attacks the greatest chance of success. The Bureau suggested two attacks the first was an attack in Artois in the direction of Cambrai to be undertaken by the 10th army. They believed that if this attack was launched in late November it had the greatest chance of successfully rending the German line and forcing them to retreat to the Meuse river. The second attack would occur in the south in the Champagne region by the Third and Fourth Armies. The objective of this attack would be to capture the town of Sweep and then Mezieres. When the French troops managed to get to and capture Mezieres they would control the important rail and road ways that ran through Mezieres. These were important to the Germans as they allowed them to quickly and easily move troops and supplies behind the front. These two attacks, one at Artois and one in Champagne would attack the huge German salient, known as the Noyon salient, that protruded toward Paris. The question became which attack should be the primary point of effort. Even with only two large attacks the French would still find it difficult to muster enough munitions to support the infantry so it was originally thought that one attack would be the primary, and would receive the lion’s share of the supplies, and the other attack would just be a supporting attack. They first favored Artois as the primary point of effort, then a week later they began to favor Champagne then a few days later they just decided that both attacks should have equal priority.

Joffre liked the idea of both attacks having equal priority when it came to men and munitions and he began to prepare for both offensives. In hindsight, the French probably would have benefited from focusing on one of the attacks instead of both. However, even with the additional resources it is unlikely that either attack would have achieved the goals set for it. Later attacks in 1915 in the same areas would have greater resources with much the same result. Joffre would even acknowledge the fact that the French may not have enough to pull off both attacks in a letter to Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia when he said that if they were to fail, it would probably be because the French didn’t have the means to make them happen. By late November the preparations were well underway and to go along with these two primary attacks there were also several smaller supporting attacks along the front. The Eighth army would attack to the south of Ypres, the Second army to the north of Peronne, the Third Army in the Argonne forest, and the First Army east of St. Mihiel. These attacks would not be given the resources of those at Artois and Champagne but they had two main objectives, and here I will just quote Joffre “The objective of these actions is twofold: (1) hold the enemy in front of us in order to facilitate the general action of allied forces; (2) make a breach in one or more points on the front, then exploit this success with reserve troops by taking the enemy in the rear and forcing him to retreat.” Before the battles would begin Joffre would send a message to the French troops, and I am quoting again “The hour of attack has sounded; after having contained the attack of the Germans, it is necessary now to smash them and liberate completely the occupied national territory.” This was the beginning of the last great French offensives of 1914.

We will first look at the Artois offensive today, since it started a few days before the one in Champagne. I love this quote from General Fayolle who was the commander of one of the divisions that would take part in the attack. This was written in his diary before the attack began “This project appears stupid, insane to me. . . . Failure will not result in any catastrophe, since we will have our line of trenches from which the enemy will not chase us. But it will result in a terrible consumption of men without any gain.” The worst part of the entire situation is that Fayolle would end up being correct in his predictions for the events that were soon to occur. The attack was scheduled to begin on December 17th with the first objective being Vimy Ridge, just to the north of Arras. Vimy Ridge is a low ridge that began near the small village of Sooshee and then ran to the southeast. Some of the notable hills on the ridge were given numbers to denote them, two of the hills that were the most prominent were Hill 119 and Hill 140. Throughout the war, and especially over the next few years we will be discussing a lot of hills with numeric designations. Numbers were, and still are, often used to denote geographic terrain features that otherwise are too minor to have a common name.

On the east side of the ridge, and behind the German lines were the French villages of Geevaanshee, Vimy, and Farbu. After these villages was a plain and then the village of Doi. This village and the plain on which it sat was the ultimate goal for the attack at Artois. Douai was a rail and road center used by the Germans, and the French hoped that by capturing it they could make the northern sections of the Noiyon salient untenable. The attack would be carried out by three army corps from the French Tenth Army. The primary attack was by the XXXIII Corps commanded by General Philippe Petain. Petain is one of those generals that seems to play at least some part in every single major French battle of the war, even if he didn’t. He will be present here, then at Verdun, then at Arras, then finally as the commander of French forces. But for now he was just a Corps commander, a Corps whose goal was to capture the village of Vimy from the Germans. The XXI Corps would also launch supporting attacks against Sooshee and then hopefully, when that was captured, they would move on to Geevaanshee. To support the attack the French would eventually amass 632 artillery pieces, pretty much every gun that he Tenth Army had on hand plus some given to them by Joffre for the offensive. Before the attack the infantry used some tactics that will come to be used later in the war, that is the digging of trenches progressively closer to the German lines before launching the attack. This was an old tactic used during sieges for centuries. You would have a line of trenches and then dig a trench perpendicular to it toward the enemy. You would go some set distance toward the enemy and then dig another perpendicular trench, this time parallel to the enemies trench line. By doing these actions the French soldiers could slowly move their jumping off point closer and closer to the German lines and thereby reduce the amount of time they were exposed in no man’s land. I am pretty sure this is the first time that it has been specifically called out as a tactic used on the battlefield in the war. It is just one example of many of the tactics learned as far back as Roman times were being adopted to the new realities of the battlefield. After Joffre’s reorganization of the command structure of the French armies General Foch was in overall command of the operation, since he commanded all of the northern French armies. He made it clear to General Maud’hooee, the commander of the 10th army, that it was very important to have careful and thorough preparation for the attack. He also wanted to make sure Maud’hooee didn’t move his attack forward too quickly. Foch would describe the battle as needing to have “the character of a siege with its method and slowness.” This is in stark contrast to the message sent by French commanders in the first months of the war where they believed that the French troops should attack and attack fast and not stop as long as their feet could carry them forward.

The First Battle of Artois would begin on December 17th and right from the start it didn’t go well. None of the attacks met their objectives. The XXI Corps captured less than a kilometer of enemy trench. Just so I am clear, that doesn’t mean they advanced a kilometer, they merely captured a kilometer section of the German first trench line. They were however able to at least hold onto that trench which was better than the XXXIII Corps, who were supposed to make the main thrust of the offensive. They didn’t make any progress at all. After the initial waves of attacks that were costly and achieved very little the French began to concentrate their strength on the small village of Carency. They kept battering away for 10 days until on the 27th they were finally able to advance about 700 meters. Immediately after this 700 meter advance was made the Germans counterattacked during which the French lost most of that 700 meters. The last few days of December and the first few of January saw the attack halted due to inclement weather and on January 5th Joffre effectively ended the attack when he transferred 15 infantry battalions out of the Tenth army and moved them far to the south and into the front in the Vosges Mountains. It would be 8 more days before the offensive was officially suspended on January 13th. The result of the battle was very disappointing to the French. For three weeks of effort and thousands of casualties they had gained, essentially, nothing.

In the south the battle in Champagne wouldn’t go much better. Here the Fourth army, commanded by General Fernand de Langle de Cary a veteran of the Franco-Prussian war, would participate in a battle that would last from December 20th 1914 all the way until March 17th 1915. When giving his orders to the troops he would state “The purpose of the operation is to make a breach in the enemy line.” This breach would be along a 25-mile front from in the Champagne region of France. The goal was to punch a hole in the German lines and reach the rail junction at Mezieres. Much like in the north in Artois the hope was that the capture of this important rail junction would throw the German front into disarray and result in the retreat of the German troops closer to Germany. To accomplish this task the French amassed 250,000 troops against what they believed to be about 150,000 Germans of the Third Army. The French Fourth army contained 4 Corps, the XII, XVII, II, and 1st Colonial Corps. The XII and XVII would play the primary role in the attacks while the 1st Colonial would make supporting attacks to the south. The II corps would be held in reserve, ready to exploit any weakness in the German lines. The attack would be located on the right hand side of the XII Corps and the Left hand side of the XVII corps, right where they came together. Both corps were used, and only part of each corps, because the French believed that by using two attacks by two corps they would have a better chance of success. The theory was that if the first assaults were stopped, or more men were needed to exploit a breakthrough the Corps level commanders could feed in fresh troops and launch additional attacks before having to dip into the Army reserve or having to wait for them to be released from said reserve. Really, this was a pretty good plan, anything to make reserves more readily available was a very important improvement to attack plans. Throughout the first few years of the war, and we will see it time and time again in 1915, even when the German front was broken the reserve troops that were supposed to exploit the breakthrough were not close enough to the line to beat the German reserves arriving in line to close the breach. Unfortunately for the French this wasn’t the only part of the equation that they needed to solve. The French had 700 guns to support the attack, 488 of these were the famous 75-mm gun and the rest were other calibers, some smaller all the way down to 65mm and some larger all the way up to 120mm. The French had also managed to stockpile a sizeable amount of ammunition, at least for this early in the war, with 350 rounds for each 75-mm gun. While this would be dwarfed by other efforts later on, the gunners probably felt like they had almost an infinite number of shells. The plan was to use this ammunition in two different stages. The first stage was a preliminary bombardment to cut the German barbed wire and the second phase would be a brief and intense bombardment of the German trenches right before the infantry assaulted. The first stage was extremely crucial. If the French artillery were unable to cut some paths through the German wire the French infantry would be almost helpless as they tried to advance across no-man’s-land and right into the teeth of the German defenses.

As I said earlier the attack would begin on the 20th of December 1914 when the XVII and 1st Colonial corps would attack their sectors of the front with the XII Corps attacking the next day. On the first day the XVII and 1st Colonial made some small gains, not what was expected, but still enough to call them gains. However when the XII Corps launched their attacks on the second day they ran into a problem. All along their front the artillery had cut some paths through the German wire, but some unluckiness and poor planning on the part of the French meant that all of these paths were covered by heavy German machine gun fire. As the men of the XII Corps were funneled through these breaches the machine guns had an insurmountable advantage. The attacks would continue for several more days with little gain beyond what was achieved on the first day of the attack. With the attacks so far unsuccessful De Langle began shifting his primary focus to the center of the front in the vicinity of the village of Perthes. He planned to launch a new attack on December 30th with a division from the II Corps, to this point held in reserve. Unfortunately for this new attack right before they were getting ready launch the Germans attacked. This attack fell on the far right of the French line and allowed the Germans to capture several lines of trenches and inflict heavy casualties. The French were able to regain most of the lost trenches in counterattacks over the next day, just in time for the Germans to launch another attack. This attack was really four major attacks all launched at the same time across the entire Fourth Army front. This attack drove the French back from most of their gains of the previous days, particularly in their closest positions to Perthes. After being driven back the French again counterattacked, this time they were able to recapture the trenches they had lost in the previous German assault. The French were also able to finally push the Germans out of Perthes. I went through that rather confusing series of events just to demonstrate the seesaw nature of this, and many other battles. This would be the template for most of the trench battles of the coming year. The Entente forces would attack, make some marginal gains which the Germans would then counter attack, generally driving them back from some of the gains, then the Entente troops would attack again then the Germans would counter attack again, so on and so forth. The real crazy thing about these attacks and counter attacks is that the advances would be measured in meters. In the final push by the French that gained them the village of Perthes their advance was only a few hundred meters, and it would be their largest advance of the entire battle. I can only imagine how disheartening it was for the soldiers of both sides, those that survived the attack, to be constantly gaining ground and then losing it. There are stories in the battle of Champagne, and many other battles, of units who finally reach their objective after suffering horrible casualties only to then be annihilated by German counter attacks. The French attacks would continue for the next few weeks, with the Germans counter attacking in kind with the result of very little gain being made by either side before the large attacks were called off on January 13th. Small attacks would continue for another 2 months, all the way into March, with the result of another 40,000 French casualties.

The battle in total resulted in over 95,000 French casualties and 45,000 German casualties. After the battle as he reflected on the course of the battle de Langle believed that the offensive, at least initially, had fit well within the suggested french attack strategy at the time. Instead of masses of men attacking along a long front he had launched a series of attacks against specific points in the line. He began to question the ability of these types of attacks to result in victories for the French. Joffre did not believe that the French strategy was flawed and instead chalked up the failure to “insufficient and too brief artillery support; too few personnel engaged on a front that was too narrow.” In fact that artillery preparation seemed sufficient at the time, but it just wasn’t enough to break through the trenches and would be dwarfed by preparations later in the year. Joffre would write to de Langle shortly after the battle and, as quoted in Pyrrhic Victory by Robert Doughty , he would say “It is only by the shock of incessantly repeated blows against the enemy that you will be able to obtain the success that one has the right to expect of an army as powerful as Fourth Army.”

One final note on the action in the last few weeks of December 1914 before we wrap up the story for today, those supporting attacks I mentioned earlier. They were launched in support of the battles at Artois and Champagne but they didn’t really gain anything. Some of the attacks would end up being launched without any artillery support at all like those launched by the Second Army north of Peronne. In the Vosges mountains the artillery guns of the attacks were so short of artillery ammunition that they couldn’t begin their barrages until the infantry began their advance. In the two battles we showcased today the French couldn’t make any real progress with as much artillery support as could be mustered, I am sure you can imagine how it went for infantry without any artillery support at all.

By the end of the January all of the attacks were winding down. They had gained a maximum of 500 meters and along most of the front the attacks didn’t gain anything at all. The French would begin to learn important lessons when ti came to attacking the Germans in their prepared, entrenched, positions. Their tactics at Artois and Champagne revolved around close coordination between infantry and artillery. They wanted to maintain as much control over the chaos as possible, and the infantry had to maintain a strict time schedule, even if they could have advanced faster. De Langle was one general who began to question this method of attacking and noted that even though he followed these tactics it had not been very successful, he started to consider, much like other generals will in the coming year, that it may be better to do quick, small successive attacks that were focused on small achievable objectives. This will actually be where the Entente tactics end up at in 1917, when they are still attacking a well prepared German army, but we have a long way to go, and many advancements in tactics before we get there. Joffre drew other lessons from Artois and Champagne that will lead the French down a different path. The Germans were having success in their counter attacks when launching across a wide front, just like those against the Fourth Army at Champagne. Joffre wrote to his generals and instructed them to use wider attacks for future offensives. We will get to see these changes in tactics right in the same locations in Artois and Champagne when we revisit them several more times this year. Next week we make our first trip to the Eastern front in 1915 as the armies of Austria-Hungary try to push the Russian army out of the Carpathian Mountains and out of Galicia in some of the worst combat environments I have ever read about

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