The ‘Song of Craonne’: The Legacy of Robert Nivelle

When I chose to take on the subject of Robert Nivelle I envisioned creating a summary of his life, much like what  you could already find on a number of websites. But instead I have found myself focusing on the event which immortalised him in military history, the ‘Nivelle Offensive’. Having just visited the region in which Nivelle is most remembered in I was eager to engage deeply in this historical event. My time in Northern France this summer was used to discover new and interesting historical avenues and as such I chose to cover the ‘Nivelle Offensive’ and take a look at the man behind it. Nivelle much like us all had his fair share of failures and successes, within this post I am going to focus on perhaps his greatest failure. However I will also cover some of his successes in an attempt to show the two sides of this fascinating historical figure.

Robert Nivelle was a French military colonel of an artillery regiment when World War One began. Repeated success under his direction led Nivelle to create a respected and distinguished military reputation. This is no better encapsulated but by his meteoric rise from commander of an artillery regiment in 1914 to becoming commander-in-chief of the French armies in just 26 months. His success in Verdun was the pinnacle of his achievements. In May 1916 he was appointed commander of the Second Army at Verdun. Nivelle achieve great success on the battlefields of Verdun using creeping artillery barrages and counterattacks. Decisive victories in October and December of 1916 led Nivelle himself to be appointed commander-in-chief of the French armies. It also convinced him that a massive use of military force was the formula which would achieve victory in World War One.

However a turn of fortune was now about to tarnish Nivelle’s reputation. Nivelle immediately began planning an offensive which he believed would pave the way for allied victory. The ‘Nivelle’ offensive was a Franco-British invasion involving more than one million soldiers. The main offensive was the decisive push by French troops on the Chemin Des Dames, a deeply defended ridge between two river valleys. However the planning and preparation of such a decisive offensive was fraught with difficulties. Doubts from politicians and most prominently the new French War Minister Paul Painleve who only provided limited support for Nivelle, therefore his authority was undermined before the offensive could even begin. However Nivelle found support by creating morale and a newfound sense of optimism among his troops, advertising the offensive as the final stroke of the war and estimating the causalities at a maximum of 10,000. However Nivelle’s optimism could perhaps be is most significant weakness and even come to be regarded as ignorance. The determination of Nivelle to carry out this decisive stroke in the course of the war led to a blind ignorance towards considering a change of plans. The Germans had previously captured almost the entire plans of the offensive on April 6th yet Nivelle remained ingrained in the plans and would not consider adapting. This ignorance was the start of Nivelle’s most famous failure.

After two postponements of the attack due to adverse weather conditions, the ‘Nivelle Offensive’ launched on April 16th 1917. Immediate reports pointed to success, advances were being made and prisoners had been taken.  However these quickly changed to reveal the devastating truth. Fierce battling witnessed 40,000 men killed in the first 3 days, 90,000 wounded and 5,000 taken prisoners. The morale quickly vanished from troops and the optimism that this was the final stroke of war turned to bleak discouragement. Resentment brew outward criticism of those in command, complaints of poor planning, inadequate preparation and stubbornness in the high command began to be voiced. The conditions of the battling itself also produced resentment towards higher command from the troops. Complaints of the weather and poor artillery usage were also expressed by the frustrated troops. The mood of the French army was encapsulated by the Deuxieme Bureau, a bureau involved in obtaining intelligence on the enemy saying to the French chamber ‘the only thing left to do is make peace’. As a result of appalling conditions some French troops organised mutinies. On May 3rd Second Colonial Infantry refused to move into line shouting ‘down with the war’, however the ringleaders of this protest were quickly round up and arrested. This was the first outburst from the exhausted, hopeless and beaten troops and it was certainly not the last General Nivelle had to deal with as the mood was quickly spreading through the troops.

The French army was pushed to its limit and as such troops began to resist orders by their superiors. It was said that when troops were moved to the front at the River Aisne they made bleating sounds like ‘lambs to the slaughter’. A further rumour was that the French 2nd Division arrived at the front drunk and without their weapons. Nivelle was accused of over confidence in his strategical decisions leading to heavy losses and many believing he had a disregard for casualties. On May 15th after a disastrous campaign General Nivelle was sacked and succeeded by Philippe Petain. The ‘Nivelle Offensive’ was called off on May 16th. The results of the failure were devastating, 317,000 troops had become casualties from the offensive, of which 187,000 were French. However sixty one square miles of German territory were captured and 20,000 were taken prisoner. But the troops remained both sorrowful and bitter towards the ‘Nivelle Offensive’ and the war itself. By the end of May mutinies in the troops had grown rapidly, they were directed at the conditions of the war but also of the stupidity of higher civil and military administration. A review of the evidence has shown the mutinies arose from the hope and belief at the promise the offensive would be the final stroke of the war and the belief there would be no more than 10,000 casualties. The reality of a bloody fiasco produced the French army uprisings. Military authorities quickly stopped these mutinies were a mixture of repression and conciliation. With only 3% of the mutineers who took part in the most serious disorders being executed by firing squad.

The immortalisation of the failure of the ‘Nivelle Offensive’ and the subsequent mutinies among the troops is summarised by the ‘Song of Craonne’. Linked to the village of Craonne, a village on the Chemin des Dames ridge. Despite Craonne being a more successful attack by French troops in the Chemin des Dames on 4th May 1917 the song preserved the dejected troops in history. The song pre dated the 1917 mutinies and was sung several months before the mutinies themselves and expressed bleak hope surrounding the war and alluded to the mass disobedience which eventually took place. However the song has become synonymous with the disgruntled mood of the troops in the Spring of 1917. The song expresses elements of fatalism by the line ‘we have all been sentenced to die’ showing the despondent mood towards the war. Allegedly the French High Command offered a large reward for the composer to be identified, however nobody ever came forward and the composer remained anonymous. The song was officially banned in France from 1917 until to the 1970s but could not be enforced effectively and remained among the troops and anti-war movements.

The ‘Song of Craonne’ memorialised the failure of Robert Nivelle which led to French troops erupting into munity and remains a symbol of anti-war attitudes. However it would not be fair to tarnish Nivelle’s reputation entirely. It has been argued Nivelle was used as a scapegoat for wider failings but instead it was the indecisiveness of civil and military officials overlooking the war which led to the bloody fiasco of the ‘Nivelle Offensive’. French casualties were also smaller in number than those which occurred at the Battle of Verdun. But Nivelle had put himself to the sword, the boasting and over confidence of Nivelle leading up to the offensive meant when losses far exceeded expectations Nivelle and his reputation had to pay the price.

Yet regardless of whether Nivelle should be chastised as a failure the ‘Song of Craonne’ remains a defining and immortalising symbol of the failures of General Nivelle and the ‘Nivelle Offensive’.

You can listen to the ‘Song of Craonne’ and understand the lyrics further with the links below:

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