52: Fall Offensives Pt. 2


The great fall offensives in Artois and Champagne are launched and the results are disappointing.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 52. Thank you this week to Victor from Australia for his donation. For the listeners who follow the show on Facebook you may have seen my somewhat lengthy list of 1916 sources, the cost of which make me more and more thankful for donations. If you enjoy the show consider leaving it a review on iTunes, or Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. It is a great way to spread the word about the show and I would be very grateful. Last week we discussed the build up to the fall offensives on the Western Front. The French hoped to launch two attacks, one in Artois, and one in Champagne. These attacks would be massive, the largest of 1915 and their goals were to capture Vimy Ridge in Artois and to capture valuable railway junctions in Champagne. This would be the Second Battle of Champagne and the third battle of Artois. Today we will look at how these offensives went after they were launched in September 1915. This week we will be focusing on the French actions while next week we will spend the episode examining the British efforts at Loos. Without further delay, lets jump in.

In Champagne there would be 27 divisions attacking, to achieve this number Joffre had to shuffle troops all around the front to free up the 2nd Army, commanded by General Petain, who would be moved into Champagne and put under the command of Castlenau for the attack. Facing these 27 divisions would be just 7 German divisions which were covering a front of 42 kilometers, I’m not sure on the exact math of how thinly stretched they were but “very” probably fits the bill here. The French planned to launch attacks very similar to the previous attempts just on a larger area and with more men. Castelnau sought to punch a hole through the German front that would be at least 12 kilometers in depth on a front that was 28 kilometers wide. He believed that it was only if he could make a hole that big that he would be safe to move in his reinforcements without interference from German artillery. He hoped that if that 12 kilometer by 28 kilometers hole could be created by the set of troops in the attack that he would be able to constantly feed in more troops to keep it going. Part of this plan was the use of a very large second wave of troops, to hopefully keep the advance going. This second wave wouldn’t be sent forward until the first line of German trenches had been secured by the first wave. The hope was that the second wave wouldn’t be as entangled in the first German line and would provide the momentum necessary to keep the attack going into the second line. The first attacks would be centered on Perthes, just like before, and would be launched by the 4th and 2nd armies under General d’Langle and General Petain respectively. Backing them up would be over 2,000 pieces of artillery including 750 heavy guns. These guns would launch a long bombardment prior to the attack, a bombardment which would include asphyxiating gas rounds. In the north, in Artois, there would be 19 infantry divisions attacking. The most important of these troops were the men of the 10th army commanded by General d’Urbal. The army was in prime position to take Vimy ridge and was at most 1,200 meters from the top of the ridge. Certainly within striking distance. Foch outlined his plans on July 15th to d’Urbal with objectives like in previous battles, capture some of the ridge then push the Germans off the rest. One thing that wasn’t similar to the previous attacks was the number of men, this time there would be less than during the Second battle in the spring. d’Urbal was concerned about the fact that he had the same objectives with less men to try and achieve them. He would write to Joffre and Foch “it is my duty to call to your attention the reduction of means at my disposal…But the task remains the same, an arduous effort against an enemy warned and on guard; this situation will necessitate considerable and prolonged efforts and will result in great losses among the attacking infantry” Foch and Joffre disagreed, believing d’Urbal to have more than enough troops to accomplish the goals set before him. In fact, as Foch and d’Urbal continued into detailed planning the front on whicch the 10th army was attacking kept growing, spreading its strength thinner and thinner. By the time the plans finalized the 10th army would be attacking on a front of 32 kilometers with just 19 divisions. For those keeping track this meant that there were less troops in Artois attacking on a wider front than in Champagne, not a great recipe for success in a war when concentration of strength was so important. They would also have much less artillery, around half as much with just 1,000 guns to back them up. I have said from the beginning that these attacks occurred on September 25th, but that is now when they were originally scheduled for, it was originally supposed to begin on September the 8th but it slipped to the 15th and then to the 25th. The biggest problem for the French was getting Petain’s army ready to go in Champagne. It is no small thing to take an army off the line, move it to another part of the front, and then get it all ready to go on the attack.

During all of this delay the French tried to find a way to hide their preparations and a lot of these efforts revolved around Petain’s army. Petain was a rising star on the French side, and the Germans knew that as well as anybody else. Which his army went missing off the front the question became where it was going, because it was very likely that where ever that was would be the location of an attack. The French tried to get the Germans to believe that the attack was happening far to the north by having Petain noticeably visit those areas. This ruse doesn’t seem to have worked very well. It seems that the weight of the preparations occuring in Artois and Champagne were such that the Germans rightfully saw through the ruse. Before the attack would begin Joffre would send a note to the Generals involved with the request to send it down to the men “Three-quarters of all French forces will participate in the battle. They will be supported by 2,000 heavy artillery pieces and 3,000 field pieces for which the provision of munitions surpasses greatly those at the beginning of the war. Every chance of success exists, particularly if one remembers that our recent attack near Arras was made by fifteen divisions and 300 heavy pieces.” On the German side, they had continued to improve their defenses along the entire front during the summer, this included deeper, stronger, dugouts with more concrete, more wire, and more strongpoints for machineguns. With the signs of the coming attack in Champagne and Artois they began beefing up their defenses in the two regions. Then, one it was delayed for almost an entire month, they used that time well to further improve their defenses. During the summer of 1915 the Germans were also putting a much greater emphasis on defense in depth, with fortifications for up to 3 miles behind the front line. This meant that while it might be easier for the attacks to take the first set of trenches, it would be much harder for them to break all the way through, hopefully they would just make it through the first line but no further. The Germans were also refining their artillery tactics, they planned several different types of bombardment to be used during the battle. While there was the bombardment of the front right before the attack, which was standard, after the attack had started the German artillery’s goal was to create a curtain of steel in no man’s land. Previously they would have focused on the attacking troops but now the goal was to try and cut off any surviving attackers from getting reinforcements. All of these new tactics would come into play in the upcoming battles.

At 9AM on the 25th the artillery firing on the lines at Champagne reached their crescendo, after days of firing all of the guns were now firing at maximum rounds per minute and for 15 minutes this firing rate continued. At 9:15AM the men began their attack. All of the soldiers of the first wave surged forward and there are even some reports, not sure I believe them, of some French regiments marching forward with flags flying and their bands playing. As they moved forward they quickly overran the first line of trenches that had been most affected by the bombardment and things were, up to this point, going quite well. The slim resistance put forward by the German defenders for the first line of trenches meant that the action was going just as well as anybody on the French side could have expected. There are also some reports of French artillery dropping on the second line of German trenches just as the French troops took them away from the Germans. This is the best example of how well the attack was going so far. The pre-planned artillery fire was designed to move to the second line to soften it up before the attack was made, the fact that it was hitting after the trenches had already been taken, while tragic, meant that things were going very well. Along most of the front the French had advanced up to 4 kilometers, through trenches that had been completely wrecked by the artillery. On the German side there was some real panic that the French were going to break through, even as the attack reached the second set of trenches. Apparently Falkenhayn was in the area around this time, and after the commander of the German Third Army began to consider a retreat he was relieved on the spot. His replacement was ordered by Falkenhayn to hold the second set of trenches at all costs. Falkenhayn was also ordering reinforcements into the area and they were now converging from all directions. He knew that if the French were just slowed for another day the crisis would be past. The advance had brought the French troops to the second set of German trenches, and also to the limit of the prebattle artillery caused desolation. The second set of trenches had not been hit as hard by the barrage and were now filled with German reserves who had been moved forward to meet the French. And against these reserves the French attack ground to a quick halt. The French artillery just wasn’t able to do enough damage at this distance to keep the attack going. As the 25th ended Castelnau moved forward the VI Corps into the area of the greatest advance, unfortunately for these troops making their way forward, and for all of the troops on the front during the evening it began to rain and would continue to rain off and on for the next several days. On the next day the French attackers were in a situation that was very different than what they had experenced the day before. Instead of pulverized trenches that were manned only by stunned defenders they were instead facing German trenches that were well manned, well armed, and had barely touched by artillery fire. The Germans were also 100% ready for the French, and that included their artillery. Even with the greater difficulties facing the French troops they launched multiple attacks throughout the day. Some of these attacked even managed to reach the German lines, but they never had the strength to hold onto their gains against German resistance. The problem, beyond the men and machine guns and artillery was the fields of barbed wire the Germans had prepared in front of their second defensive line. During the first days of attacks the barbed wire had been shattered by artillery making it easy to pass through, but here that was not the case and the French had to slowly find their way. When the 26th ended the French were in much the same place as they had been at the beginning of the day. During the night artillery was moved forward in preparation for attacks the next day, but the attacks on the 27th would be even less successful than those on the 26th. Before the next attacks on the 28th Petain would make his first mark upon the battle. He did this by refusing to attack with the men currently in the line on the 28th, men that had been attacking for three days, he would say of these men “their losses have been considerable, their leaders have for the most part disappeared, and their offensive value is greatly reduced” After Petain made his refusal he was visited by none other than Joffre himself who appared personally at Petain’s headquarters to order him to continue the attack. Also on the 28th Robert Doughty, in his book Pyrrhic Victory, describes a sad story of misinformation. During the night there was a false report that reached Castelnau’s headquarters that a breakthrough had been achieved in the 4th army’s sector. Believing that this was his chance Castelnau ordered the 6th and 7th corps forward in a night attack to take advantage of the situation. Their goal was to widen the non-existent breach and their attacks failed horribly, with heavy heavy losses. To quote Doughty on what happened next “For reasons that are incomprehensible, the false information became even more exaggerated. After receiving reports that the breach had been enlarged, Castelnau reported to Joffre on the 29th that three infantry divisions had passed through the opening” It wasn’t until late on the 29th that Castelnau learned the truth, there was not breach in the line, and all of the attacks had failed. Castelnau, undeterred, planned another attack on the 30th, but again Petain refused to launch the attack. In 5 days of fighting the French had accomplished quite a bit on the first day, then very little since. There would be a resumption of the attacks in October, but first, lets check in with what was happening in Artois.

In Artois, with so many previous attempts by the French, and the importance of Vimy Ridge, the Germans had been preparing their defenses since the spring attacks had ended. There were more trenches in the huge network of defense on the ridge, these included fields of barbed wire, more machine gun nests, more hardened shelters. While the defenses were strong they were very then on troops to man then, with just a few divisions to defend the area against the French advances. The artillery fire in Artois began a week before the attack, with the bombardment starting on the 18th on some parts of the front. For an entire week the fire would continue until the attack began at 12:25PM on the 25th. In The Great War Peter Hart quotes a Sergeant Emile Morin “Without hesitation we lept over the parapet. Immediately men were hit and fell back heavily into the trench. Straining every sinew, the survivors threw themselves towards the enemy, screaming. The bullets come from everywhere. I hear the rattle in my ears, an endless banging. The barrage of artillery shells fall close around us. The noise was indescribable, terrifying explosions erupt everywhere, and acrid smoke rises up.” Much like in Champagne the initial onrush of French troops managed to capture the first German trench in several places. In some areas they were even able to make it to the top of the ridge. Unfortunately, also much like in Champagne, nowhere were the french able to make it through the second set of German trenches. The infantry that advanced the furthest often found themselves cut off and quickly driven back by German counter attacks. All of the real gains for the day were made on the north side of the attacks which were driving towards Souchez, on the south side of the French attack the troops were often pushed back to their starting points by the end of the day. Late in the afternoon it also began to rain, which just made it more difficult to support the troops that had advanced the furthest. With the initial attacks either over or bogging down d’Urbal switched his attentions to what he planned to do the next day to follow them up. He wanted to pursue attacks only in the north where the successes had been and Foch agreed to this. So, the next day the attacks resumed at 1:10PM and again there were some early successes. Souchez was captured and there were a few small gains made against the ridge. Even though the attacks had been successful d’Urbal and Foch had used the absolute last of their resources to make it happen and now they needed help from Joffre, they needed more men and artillery ammunition. When they sent a letter to Joffre asking for these pieces of assistance the message that was sent back to them said that there weren’t enough resources to allow it. Joffre would tell them to “Stop the attacks of the Tenth Army but avoid giving the British the impression that we are letting them attack along. The attack of the Tenth army may succeed but this will be at the price of new quantities of munitions and new divisions that the commander in chief cannot provide now because they are needed elsewhere to exploit success” Essentially, Joffre was putting the attacks in Champagne, and their need for resources, above the attacks in Artois. This was in accordance to the plan, the attacks in Artois was always seen as the secondary attack, but, and this was important, the deal with the British was that they would attack as long as the French did. So Joffre needed the French troops in Artois to at least appear to be continuing their attack so that the British would continue which would theoretically help the main French efforts in Champagne. On the 27th the French attacked again, with what little resources they had and only with 2 corps of troops on a small front. This prompted the British to demand more support from the French in Artois and they sent a message directly to Joffre saying that if the French didn’t up their game then they were going to halt their attacks. Foch met with Sir John French to guarantee that the French would keep up the pressure on their front, and that they would even bring in troops from the south to Free up a British division currently holding the line so that it could be used in further attacks. On the night of the 27th, after the failure of the earlier attack, there was a great French success with the capture, by night attacks, of Hill 140 and 119, these were the highest points on Vimy ridge and would have been a great prize for the French to capture. The Germans knew of their importance and stopped at nothing to try to get them back. Attack after attack, followed by constant artillery fire on the French forces at the top of the hill finally drove them off. On the 29th Foch and French met again to discuss further attacks. They both agreed to continue, with the caveat that they both needed at least a few days to rest the men and to move in the material necessary to continue. We will catch back up with the October attacks in Artois after we look at the October attacks in Champagne.

After the September attacks in Champagne had been stopped Castelnau knew that he had to give his troops a breather and take some time to bring in reinforcements before continuing. Joffre hesitated when it came to giving more resources to Castelnau and even considered calling off all of the attacks. Eventually he did decide to move more troops into Champagne and to give more artillery ammunition, but these shells came with a very important disclaimer. They were the last ammunition that Joffre had, the supply depots were not empty. Realizing that his resources were much smaller now Castelnau shrunk the front on which he was attacking to just 12 kilometers ,and the also shortened his goals accordingly. The goal would now be to push the German line back just 3 kilometers to the Py River. Early on the morning of October the 4th the artillery preparation started and it continued until October the 6th when the attack was launched. This attack would be notable for the largest usage of the creeping barrage up to this point in the war. This involved artillery slowly moving forward right in front of the French infantry, or at least that was the goal. At this point in the war they were having a lot of issues getting the speed of advance just right and making sure that the speed was adjusted based on the success or failure of the infantry. When the French attacked a bit before 5:30 in the morning they ran into a wall of German made steel. There was more German artillery to meet the attack than there had been on the first day of the September attacks and this meant that after a full day of attacking the French forces under de Langle and Petain accomplished, nothing. After the failure of the initial attacks Castelnau ordered for them to be renewed the next day but both de Langle and Petain refused to continue. They based this refusal on the claim that it was simple impossible for the troops to gain anything by further attempts. Castelnau, with no other option, ordered the armies to consolidate what they had gained and to launch no further offensive attacks. After this order was given Castelnau wrote to Joffre “the operation has not succeeded. It can be resumed only after a new preparation, more complete than that which was accomplished on October 4 and 5.” On October the 7th, Joffre officially cancelled the actions in Champagne. In Artois the original plan had been to only pause the attacks for a little over a day and continue them on October the first. As this day came and went the level of reinforcements required just hadn’t been able to reach the line so the attack was delayed. The first delay was primarily due to the British, since the division that the French had promised to free up had not been able to be relieved. Then the second delay was because the French insisted on capturing a small mining pit on the axis of their advance before the full renewal of the attack. There were then several more delays that pushed the attack all the way back to October the 10th, a full 9 days after it was suppose to begin. Even this date wouldn’t end up being the final one. On the 9th the Germans attacked in the area where the French and British armies came together, and they were able to push the line back. This meant that some preparations for the British had to be essentially restarted and the British attack was delayed until the 13th. The French didn’t want to wait that long though and they decided to attack on the 11th and after an artillery bombardment that lasted just 2 hours the attack went forward. As we have discussed a few times this year already, these last gasp bombardments were often short not due to any great plan but simply because they didn’t have the shells left for lengthy preparations, this was the story here as well. The French would fire off, in the first few hours of the attack, just about one quarter the number of rounds that had been fired during a similar timeframe during the earlier attacks. The attacks would be called off by d’Urbal after just 4 hours. Instead of using my own words to describe how the attack went, I will just quote from Foch’s official report “progress was almost nil, and the attack did not yield the expected results. Preparation by heavy artillery insufficient. Attack conducted by exhausted or already sorely tried troops. Enemy forewarned and strongly reinforced with artillery, unleashing at the slightest indication of attack terrible barrages.” Foch wanted to try one more time for two reasons, in some places his men were just 100 meters from the top of the ridge, and the British were going to attack 2 days later and he hoped this would give him a bit of an advantage that would let his troops succeed. He asked Joffre to give him more artillery and ammunitions, double the amount that he had on hand at the time, Joffre told him no and he should consolidate whatever he had at the moment. So, on the 11th of October the great French attacks were over. Next week we will dig deeper into how the British attacks at Loos went during the same timeframe. And then during the next episode we will look at the aftermath of the failed fall offensives before having a bit of a discussion about the Western Front as a whole during 1915. I hope you have enjoyed listening, and have a great week.