Robert Georges Nivelle

Robert Georges Nivelle (1856-1924) was the man who perpetrated one of the great debacles of World War 1 was the very model of a general: as confident as he was brave, as imposing as he was arrogant. A mere regimental commander at the war’s beginning, Robert-Georges Nivelle directed the captures of Forts Douaumont and Vaux in the Battle of Verdun in 1916. His celebrity was not to be denied, and he replaced General Joseph Joffre as chief of the French General Staff. Élan and cran (guts) were his watchwords. He charmed his British allies: here was a French Protestant who actually spoke English.

Nivelle immediately announced a war-ending plan that projected a vast rupture at the Chemin des Dames heights north of the Aisne. Everyone, including the Germans, knew its details. The Germans made a deliberate withdrawal, rendering irrelevant much of Nivelle’s scheme. They prepared elaborate in-depth defenses.

Nivelle persisted anyway. The uphill attack in the rain on April 16, 1917, against a well-prepared enemy made insignificant gains, cost more than 100,000 men, and left the war more deadlocked than ever. Nivelle grudgingly resigned. His successor, Philippe-Henri Pétain, immediately had to deal with widespread mutinies in an army that now barely functioned. Luckier than the 32,000 who died on the fire-swept ridges of the Aisne, Nivelle retired to a face-saving command in North Africa.

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