World War I, which came to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, is today but a faint, sinister memory, recalled only by red poppies and barely noticed Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day ceremonies. Lest we forget…
The Western Front, December, 1916
After twelve months of unimaginable slaughter, the battle of Verdun was over. Nearly one million French and Germans were dead or wounded. France rallied to the cry: “On ne passe pas! They shall not pass! An entire French generation perished in the hellish inferno of exploding shells, machinegun fire, flamethrowers, and poison gas, but the Germans had been held.
The battle’s epicenter, forts Douaumont and Vaux, were retaken by French General Robert Nivelle and his deputy, General Charles Mangin, known to all as “the Butcher." The haughty Nivelle, a gunner, had perfected a technique of infantry advancing on the heels of rolling artillery barrages. By this novel method, French infantry was able to storm German trenches while most enemy troops were still sheltering in their bunkers. At Verdun, Nivelle’s new tactic had surprised the Germans dug in around Vaux and Dauaumont, and forced them into a sharp retreat.
The triumphant Nivelle, France’s new hero, was appointed commander of the entire Western Front. Nivelle was convinced he could win the war in one decisive stroke by breaking through German lines in Champagne between Soissons and Reims. “We have the formula," Nivelle boasted, “victory is certain."
France’s 5th and 6th Armies were ordered to smash through the German 1st and 7th Armies, which were dug into a very strong, fortified, 50-mile long position along a narrow crest of hills above the River Aisne known as the Chemin des Dames. This strategic barrier had been the scene of many battles through history, from the days of Charlemagne to Napoleon. Once breakthrough was achieved, the two French armies were to drive on the old fortress city of Laon, and then northward into Belgium.
The four-division Canadian Corps, stationed in Flanders near Arras, 60 miles to the northwest, was ordered to support Nivelle’s offensive by launching a diversionary assault near Lens.
16 April 1917
The message went out to the French troops: “The hour has come! Courage, confidence. Nivelle."
Thousands of French heavy guns, including 405mm monsters, poured massed fire and gas shells on the German positions in the biggest bombardment seen on the Western Front since Verdun and the Somme. A steady rain of shells deluged the German lines, churning up the earth like a giant plough. The French were convinced no enemy troops could have survived the titanic bombardment.
Tough and cocky as always, Gen. Mangin, proclaimed: “the day after tomorrow, my headquarters will be in Laon."
At dawn, hundreds of thousands of French infantry went over the top, preceded by Nivelle’s “secret weapon" of rolling barrages 100 meters ahead of the advancing troops, and some 200 tanks. Not since the heady days of the battle of the frontiers in 1914 had regiments of blue-uniformed “poilus" charged forward with such glorious “elan," sword bayonets fixed, battle standards unfurled, bugles calling, drums beating, crying, “Vive la France!"
In war, a clever enemy is rarely surprised more than once by innovative tactics. The Germans, well aware of Nivelle’s impending offensive, secretly abandoned their front lines. The huge French artillery barrages thus fell on empty trenches and thin air.
The regiments of French infantry surged like a vast tidal wave of blue across half a mile across no-man’s-land, reached German forward defenses on the Aisne, and found them… empty.
As the confused French milled about, or sought shelter in the ruined trenches, thousands of concealed German Maxim machine guns and hundreds of batteries of artillery dug in above on the Chemin des Dames opened murderous fire into the packed French ranks. German gunners knocked out 150 French tanks. The French attack, now halted, became a monstrous massacre. Caught in the open on a 50-mile front, entire battalions were mowed down; whole regiments were turned into bloody pulp by German shrapnel. Attempts by valiant French units to storm the Chemin des Dames and silence the murderous German machine guns were halted by a wall of steel.
By the next day, the French had lost 120,000 casualties, twice the British losses on the first two days of the catastrophe of the Somme. Nivelle had predicted only 10,000 dead and wounded, and planning medical support accordingly. Wounded French soldiers stormed the few field hospitals in the rear.
Undeterred by human mercy or military sense, and heedless of cost, Nivelle and “Butcher" Mangin kept hurling their men at the Chemin des Dames. After a month of fruitless attacks, French casualties in what became known as the Second Battle of the Aisne reached 187,000.
To the northwest, in the ugly coal fields and slag heaps of Flanders, the Canadian Corps sought to draw off German forces reinforcing the Aisne front by launching large-scale frontal attacks against heavily fortified German positions on Hill 70 near Lens. In this bloody, but almost forgotten action, over 10,000 Canadians died or were wounded, toll exceeded only by the 16,000 casualties at Canada’s Calvary, Passchendaele.
Nivelle finally conceded defeat and was replaced by General Philippe Petain, who had rallied the army in the darkest days of Verdun. But Nivelle had broken the French Army on the wheel of the Chemin des Dames. Troops being marched to the front began singing rebellious songs and baa’ing like sheep going to slaughter.
Early in May, as stories of the massacre on the Aisne spread, the veteran 21st Div., which fought heroically at Verdun, mutinied and refused to go into battle. The division was decimated in the old Roman form of unit punishment, mutiny ringleaders were summarily shot or sent to Devil’s Island. The 21st returned to battle on the Aisne — and was slaughtered.
This horror ignited massive mutiny along the entire front. By June, 54 divisions — half France’s Army — had mutinied and refused to fight. Only two reliable divisions stood between the Germans and Paris. Incredibly, German intelligence never learned of the mutinies until months later — the greatest intelligence failure of World War I.
The mutinies were ruthlessly put down by General Petain. To this day, France still keeps secret the number of mutineers executed in 1917 “to give courage to the others." The figures range from hundreds up to 50,000. According to some reports, entire mutinous battalions were ringed by field guns and massacred at point-blank range.
Tragically, had Germany learned of the mutinies, the war might have ended in 1917 by negotiations or a German drive on Paris. All sides were exhausted and war-weary, but no one dared make the first move towards peace.
Had the war ended in a draw in 1917, Germany’s collapse and defeat the following year would have been averted — and along with it, the cruel injustice of the Versailles Treaty, and the postwar rapacity of the victorious allies. If a fair peace had come in 1917, there would have been no Adolf Hitler to seek revenge for Germany’s humiliation, no Jewish Holocaust, no communist revolution in Russia, no Stalin and his White Holocaust of Catholics and Muslims, and perhaps not even Mao.
At the Chemin des Dames, tragedy heaps on tragedy. It was all very long ago, but we should still weep today, both for the brave soldiers who fell on both sides, and for suffering mankind.