51: Fall Offensives Pt. 1


As the summer of 1915 came to an end the French and British planned to launch one more effort before winter set in.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 51. Before the episode begins I would like to thank Holger from Frankfurt for his donation this week. He also sent over some really cool translated German soldier letters from the war, seeing the images of the originals I have no idea how he possibly read that handwriting. Also, I have a big correction to make from last week as pointed out listener David from Seattle. Last episode I said, and I quote “Nelson could have probably figured out what a captain was trying to say with his flag hoisted signal in 1914 just as well as he did in 1812, as long as he wasn’t mostly blind in 1914 of course.” The goal here was to make a reference and joke to two facts of Nelson’s career. The first was his disobeying of orders at the battle of Copenhagen where he said he couldn’t see the signal to retreat after using his blind eye to look through the telescope and the second was the reference to the fact that by the end of his life Nelson was having eyesight problems in his one eye that could see. Unfortunately the reference was far too obfuscated and, of course, Nelson wasn’t even alive in 1812, having died in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. So basically, I botched that whole sentence. Thank you again to David for pointing that out.

This week, for the first time in over three months we find ourselves back on the Western Front. This episode begins a series of episodes on the fall offensives by the French and British forces in France and it will be the largest, and last, offensive of 1915 for the Entente forces. Since it has been awhile since we were on the Western front let me take just a moment to recap what had happened in 1915 up to this point. Over the first 6 months of the year the French and British had attacked several times in the Artois and Champagne regions of France. These attacks, while heavily supported by men and artillery, were never very successful. The German defensive lines and tactics continued to improve faster than the Entente’s offensive abilities so the result were attacks that aren’t too dissimilar to what we discussed last month on the Italian front. The forces would attack, maybe have some success, only to be thrown back by the next set of counter attacks. These attacks did have impact outside of the battlefield, and that is where we will start the episode today, with a discussion of how the failures of the Spring had effected France and its military leader Joffre.

The failures of the spring attacks in Artois was just the last in a long line of offensives that Joffre said would win the war before they didn’t. These repeated promises and failures began to have an effect on the political leadership of France and they became more and more vocal in their concerns with the war and how it was being ran. I think when I say those words the first thing that modern people think of is that they were probably angry that Joffre was attacking too much, but this wasn’t universally the case. On June 22nd some leaders in the French government commented that they were disappointed that Joffre had stopped the attacks in Artois after so much blood had already been spilt, they thought he should keep attacking. On June 23rd President Poincare, Prime Minister Viviani, and Minister of War Millerand attended a meeting with Joffre and his senior most generals. The general purpose of the meeting was to discuss French strategy and operations but the political leaders were there because they were concerned. Criticism of the army within the government was growing, and because of this they wanted to confront Joffre about the problems the army was causing. There top criticism wasn’t about how he was leading the war, or what the armies were doing, but instead the fact that he kept promising a huge breakthrough and every time he promised it and failed it was very harsh news for the leaders back in Paris. They suggested that it would be better to simply say that the attack was designed to achieve a smaller objective, and if that turned into more that would be fantastic. One thing that both the army and the politicians were agreed upon was that the offensives had to continue. I believe this is very important to remember when the military leaders during the war are criticized for the constant failures of the attacks. They weren’t standing upon their mountain screaming to attack when everybody else disagreed, everybody agreed that attacks should continue. Around this time the British leaders were pushing for a defensive on the Western Front while moves were made elsewhere, but if there was one thing all of the French leadership could agree on, it was that staying on the defensive on the Western front was a bad idea. Poincare would say “All believed that if we remain on a pure and simple defensive, we will expose ourselves to massive and incessant attacks.” It is funny that he should say this in 1915 because it was probably one of the few times in the war when it absolutely was not true. In June almost all excess German resources were in the East hammering away at Russia, the earliest that they could have been back and attacking in the west would have been very late in the year.

While the French government was growing weary of the constant promises of victory, Joffre, in his own personal documents and memoirs seems to also be starting to doubt whether or not the decisive breakthrough he had been searching for was still possible. In general, Joffre started to believe that the most that could be hoped for were significant gains along the front in specific locations. He also begins to use a word around this time in official communications that would come to define the struggles of 1916 and a word that would come to define the war as a whole. Dictionary.com gives the definition as “a wearing down or weakening of resistance, especially as a result of continuous pressure or harassment” and the word is, of course, attrition. Joffre would begin to use the word during the summer of 1915 with the important caveat that he believed that France would win a war based on attrition, but not alone. If attrition was to work than it was important for France to take advantage of her greatest strength, her allies. Large offensive operations had to be launched everywhere as often as possible and with the greatest amount of effort. This constant pressure upon Germany and Austria-Hungary would slowly but surely wear them down. That is a view at a very high level, but he also was thinking about attacks on a smaller level as well. By the time the war was a year old the French had a lot of failed attacks to look at to try and determine why they failed and one of the big reasons that Joffre pinpointed was “If our infantry is stopped, it is less because their offensive force is finished than because the exploitation of their initial success has not been pushed far enough and fast enough.” This was an astute observation and looking back we can see it was a big problem and would be for the entire war. Offensives were making initial gains, all of the attacks we will talk about over the coming weeks will, but they just won’t be able to keep going. It would be years before anybody would solve this problem. During the long summer another fact was in play in the French high command that urged action beyond what was good for France and what France needed, that fact was the Russian situation. Joffre would write in his memoirs that while some of the members of the French General Assembly, were criticizing him for attacking too much the Russians were constantly criticizing him for not attacking enough. All of these factors, the failure of the attacks, the feeling in the General Assembly that there were too many attacks, and the constant promises of victory meant that as the Summer of 1915 was coming to an end the political situation in France was less stable than it had been since the war started. The Viviani government, that had been in the leading role and strongly supported for over a year, was beginning to lose that support. The ramifications of this subtle degradation of support, and the eventual fall of the Viviani government, are coming and we will discuss it in a later episode.

With the political situation sorted out for now lets do a quick review of some of the lessons that the French had learned during their attacks since the beginning of the war, or at least the lessons that they thought they had learned. The first was that the attack needed to be on a wide front. If they attacked on a single axis the German response could also be on the a single axis which made it far easier for the attack to get bogged down. If the goal was to push a significant distance through the line the rupture created by the first attack had to be on a large enough area that it couldn’t be closed off quickly, if it was wide enough and deep enough the Germans wouldn’t be able to seal it off quickly and might have to withdraw on an even larger front because their positions would be compromised. The next lesson, that we have talked a bit about already was that the French had to find a way to keep the momentum of the attack going by quickly feeding in more men and material. Getting the enemy off balance with the first hit was easy, keeping them off balance while the attack moved forward, especially once the infantry moved beyond artillery cover, was the hard part. The third lesson, was that, finally, Joffre was starting to believe that the small actions along the entire front when large attacks were launched were no longer necessary. Since the beginning of 1915 when attacks were launched in Artois and Champagne small, theoretically, supporting attacks were launched everywhere. The idea was that it would keep the Germans from bringing in reinforcements. The smaller attacks hadn’t achieved this goal since they didn’t have the resources to pull in a lot of German troops. So instead, moving forward, all French resources would be concentrated into just a few attacks without any side shows. Those were the lessons that Joffre, and most French generals, had taken from the previous attempts to breach the German line, so what would they do with these lessons. Joffre was aware of the support problems beginning to develop in Paris and there was also pressure from the government that he should consult strongly with his generals before ordering attacks. While Joffre wasn’t keen on political interference he did bow to this request. Joffre went into the initial planning of the next offensive wanting an attack on a broad front but before deciding when, where, or how he consulted his generals, specifically Foch, Castlenau, and Petain. He consulted via letters sent on June 27th to the generals, with particular focus on Foch and Castlenau who were the commanders in Artois and Champagne respectively. In the letters he asked for their opinions on launching attacks in their areas of operations. He also wanted some details on what the Generals would plan to accomplish in the attacks and what benefit the results would have for the French war effort as a whole. Foch and Castlenau had roughly the same numbers of troops and guns so they should be able to make their case for why their area should get focus on reasonably similar ground. Both Foch and Castlenau knew that it would be likely that one would have the priority in the coming offensive while the other would be a large supporting attack so they were mostly arguing for priority in reinforcements and supplies.

Foch wrote back two lengthy responses to Joffre’s request. Both of them reiterated the same points of discussion from earlier attacks. If he could capture just a few small pieces of Vimy Ridge it would be easy to push the Germans off of the rest of it. That had been the entire purpose of the earlier attacks in Artois and would be the focus of the next set. Foch also always liked to point out that his objectives were relatively close to the French lines whereas in Champagne the offensive would have to advance much further before reaching a truly critical objective. Foch advocated for smaller attacks with less grandiose objectives that could be quickly captured and then held against German attacks. The objectives would always be within range of the French artillery for protection. Foch believed that this method would result in the best results with the fewest number of casualties. Foch did put in a caveat in his plans and that was the fact that he would be unable to launch his attacks without British support to the north. The British line met Foch’s just to the north of the French 2nd Army and it was imperative that they attack to keep the Germans from concentrating all of their reinforcements on Vimy Ridge. We will talk about the British in a few minutes and the long discussions necessary to bring them in to the French plan. Castlenau wanted large attacks on a large front these attacks would catch the Germans off guard and keep them off balance which would allow the French to capture a lot of territory quickly. Castlenau expressed these feelings in his letter back to Joffre in plan that, in the end, looked almost identical to the earlier attacks in Champagne, another attack through Perthes and onward to the plain and railways beyond. In these two generals you can see another example of what I believe to be the most important French problem of 1915, a lack of imagination and originality. The same objectives with the same attacks over and over again. Joffre had also reached out to Petain for his opinion on what to do next. Petain, the junior member of the list, favored a more defensive approach with some small attacks like Foch was advocating for, but only when it was for an area of real importance. He strongly believed they shouldn’t just try and capture some ground to capture some ground, it should always have a purpose. Joffre wasn’t a huge fan of these opinions, particularly when Petain weighed in that he thought that large attacks in either Artois or Champagne would simply be a waste. Petain believed that the war was transitioning into a war of attrition and laid out what he thought that type of war should look like in this quote “The war has become a war of attrition. There will be no decisive battle as in other times. Success will come eventually to the side that has the last man. The only objective we should seek is to kill as many Germans as we can while suffering a minimum of losses.” Knowing the course of events of what is to come, and especially in 1916 at Verdun, Petain was ahead of his time. Earlier in this episode I mentioned that even Joffre was beginning to suspect that the war was becoming one of attrition, but he disagreed with Petain on how best to prosecute such a war, he believed that the large attacks were the best way to trade German deaths for French deaths at the best ratio. While Joffre had been asking his Generals what they thought, his staff was also conducting studies of their own to determine the best course of action and once again, just like they had at the beginning of 1915, they came to the conclusion that the best places to attack were in Artois and Champagne. Robert Doughty, the author of Pyrhhic Victory, believes that the conclusion to this investigation was more than a little bit of Joffre Pandering. I agree with this assessment, his staff was essentially just reinforcing Joffre’s own opinions on what he wanted to do. In preparation for the attack Joffre told Foch and Castlenau to prepare strong positions and to limit action on their fronts as much as possible for the time being to try and provide the men with some rest before the next phase of the war began. The date for the attack was set for August, and the objectives of both armies in Artois and Champagne would be an old refrain. In the north in Artois the 10th Army would attack against Vimy ridge, it would be a secondary attack to what was happening in Champagne. In the south in Champagne the objective would be the village of Perthes and then onto the Mezieres railway junction. Due to various delays it was pushed back to September and then all way to September 25th. Part of the plan, an integral and important part of the plan ,was the British, and the French had managed to get them onboard with the idea. So before we begin the battle lets take a look at how that was accomplished.

Joffre began the process of getting the British involved in the fall offensive months before the attack began. Way back in June 1915 he started laying the groundwork by writing three letters to France’s Minister of War Millerand. In the first letter he asked to be given overall command of all allied troops, French, British, and Belgian. This would be a common request by French leaders but wouldn’t end up happening until 1918 when the war was almost over. The second letter to Millerand complained, for probably the 100th time, about the British sending resources to Gallipoli instead of the Western Front. The Third Letter outlined and emphasized the fact that Sir John French was also opposed to the use of resources at Gallipoli and could be a useful ally for Joffre and Millerand when trying to get the British to increase their commitment on the continent. This would come into play at a meeting in July. On June 29th Joffre sent a letter to Millerand requesting he arrange a meeting of all of the allied commanders from all nations at the French headquarters at Chantilly sometime soon. Kitchener was scheduled to be in France the first few weeks of July so it made since to arrange at meeting during that timeframe. The meeting would be scheduled for July 7th and every country allied with France would be represented with Russia, Belgium, France, Britain, Italy, and Serbia all sending representatives. We have actually talked about this meeting twice already from the Russian and Italian perspectives in episode 41 and 46 respectively. The conference was attended not only by military representatives from the countries but also by civilian leaders like British Prime Minister Asquith and Millerand. Joffre began the meeting by outlining what he saw as the priorities and secondary priorities of the Allies with the Western Front, the Italian Front, and the Russian front being the three most important. All of the representatives agreed to trying to have everybody join in a joint action which would increase the pressure on Germany and Austria and after this agreement was noted Joffre began to unveil his plans for his large fall offensives. At this meeting he believed that the attacks would be launched in Late July, but as we discuss above this would get pushed several months to September. Joffre was very careful in his choice of words during this meeting, as were all of the French representatives. They were so careful because they, and everyone else at the meeting, knew that the French had made some pretty hefty promises before the Spring offensives, words like breakthrough and war winning were used to describe the earlier plans so Joffre, Millerand, and all of the French in attendance believed it was important that it appear that these new plans were aiming for something different. Essentially, they wanted to make sure that nobody got the idea that the French were just replaying the same failed plans over and over again, which was pretty much exactly what they were doing.

On the second day of the conference most of the political leaders departed and the military leaders stayed behind to discuss details. Joffre and French went into a private meeting to discuss how they might work together. They both agreed that offensive preparations should continue for the Western Front and Joffre unveiled his more detailed plans for the next attack to French. French agreed to them in principal, and he agreed that the British should take some part. After this private meeting they both put increasing pressure on the British leadership in London to send more resources to France to assist in the upcoming attacks. At this point it was a constant struggle for French to keep more troops from being moved to Gallipoli, this being July it was right as the plans for the great August offensives on the peninsula were being developed and the request for more men for the attacks kept getting stronger. The best tool that Joffre and French had was the argument that Russia needed help, and as the attacks in the east grew stronger this argument continued to gain in importance and weight. Across the channel in London most of the leaders believed that it would be better for the British to wait until 1916 to launch any further large operations. By the time the new year came around some of the troops recruited after the war started would be ready for action and it would give time for British manufacturing to catch up with the army’s demands. While this tug of war for British resources continued the temporarily united front of Joffre and French began to unravel. As Joffre got down to the brass tacks on exactly what he wanted the British to do in the fall some disagreements developed. Joffre wanted the British to attack at La Bassee while French wanted to attack further north. French thought his troops would have a better chance further to the north, but as they got further away from Foch’s army they would be less and less help to the French. With this disagreement unresolved there was a meeting on July 17th between French and British generals to go over the general plan for the attacks and there was resistance from General Haig. Haig would be the primary commander of the British forces used for the attack and whe he began to hear details he raised several objections. The two most important would be that the ground he was supposed to attack over was far too open which would result in his troops being exposed, he also didn’t think he had enough men to meet the objectives set in front of him. But even with these objections the plan remained the same. By mid-August a big milestone was reached when Kitchener was talked into agreeing with the planned offensive and gave it his support. It was important to get Kitchener’s buy in for the offensive because he was the man most able to get the resources that Haig would need. It appears however that Kitchener never really believed that the offensive would be successful, but he felt that he had to bow to the commander on the scene as to the best course of action. When Churchill strongly complained Kitchener would reply “unfortunately, we have to make war as we must, and not as we should like to.” The extra resources that French hoped Kitchener would provide wouldn’t just be used for the attack but also to take over more of the line from the French. The French had a lot of resources, but not infinite, and getting the British to take over more of the line was important because it let the French give more resources to Castlenau in Champagne. The piece of the front that the British would take over would be near a river in northern France that you may have heard of, it was the river Somme. This area, south of Arras, was being held by the French 2nd Army that would be moved to Champagne. It was thanks to the creation of the British Third Army that the troops were available to man the line and they would move in during the summer of 1915 and in this one movement the battlefield that would become so infamous in 1916 was for the first time occupied by British troops. These troops also included the first appearance in France of the New Army or Kitchener divisions. These men were raised after the start of the war and were very, very green, but were trained enough to take up space in what should be a quiet sector. The exact area where the British would be attacking, thanks to the continual objections of Haig and the waffling of French, wasn’t nailed down until fairly late in the game. Joffre did eventually manage to bring French over to his side and the British would attack at Loos on ground that was strategically completely worthless to the British, but also an area where they could provide great assistance to the French. Around the middle of August French wrote a letter to Joffre that put Joffre in a panic for a few days. The letter was a bit cryptic and was interpreted to mean that French was no longer going to put his full commitment into the attack. This got both Joffre and Foch very excited and they quickly wrote a letter to Kitchener to complain. On August 22nd French reaffirmed his commitment to Joffre, and reconfirmed that he would be ready to start the attack the second week of September and that he would be using all of the previously agreed upon troops. It doesn’t appear that French ever actually considered backing out, it is just one of those unfortunate moments where written communications were misread. So, as the calendar moved into September the British and French were putting the polishing touches on what would be their largest coordinated battle so far. I will end this episode with a bit of a preview of what is the come. On the topic of the plans for the battle and the battle itself the official British histories say that Sir John French was “compelled to undertake operations before he was ready, over ground that was most unfavorable, against the better judgement of himself and of General Haig.” I hope you have enjoyed this episode, have a great week.