1917 - l'Année incertaine

Clémenceau on the front in 1917
Corps 1
1917, the "Year of Uncertainty" Now soldiers on both sides were fighting for a few villages or a ridge. The listlessness of the governments, confusion amongst the troops, the exhaustion of the war machine and the impatience of the people marked the start of this "year of turmoil".
Corps 2

The prolongation of the war and the absence of any decisive military result led to mental, social and political crises on both sides. The defection of Russia allowed the Germans to concentrate on the western front. But the entry of the United States into the war helped the Allies to benefit from American industrial prowess and from fresh troops, although the latter were not immediately operational. On the front, listlessness took hold of the soldiers. A crisis of morale, accompanied by strikes and demonstrations impacted on the people. Price increases, shortages, difficult working conditions, aerial bombardments and bereavements undermined the "home front", in Austria and Germany, as well as in the Entente nations and created a climate that favoured the first attempts for peace led by Pope Benoît XV and the new Austrian ruler, Charles the First. In Germany, the state wanted an end to the costly fighting on the west front and to trap Great Britain into surrendering by rupturing maritime links with America, even if it meant causing conflict with the United States. With a formidable fleet of submarines at his disposal, Wilhelm II ordered all-out submarine war on 1st February 1917. The allied navy suffered the consequences, but the establishment of the convoys, improvements in anti-submarine warfare and the entry of the United States into the war on 6th April helped to slow down the rate of the losses.

The commercial war was lost for Germany, who could not build submarines as quickly as the Allies could sink them. After the recapture of Douaumont, in December 1916, General Nivelle, who succeeded General Joffre as head of the French army, took the offensive again. On the ridges above the Chemin des Dames, between Soissons and Reims, he sought to renew his "rolling barrage" artillery tactic, timed to precede the advance of the infantry. Convinced that he had to break through the front, Nivelle met with scepticism from some leaders, both political and military, such as, for example, General Pétain. He insisted on carrying out his operation, despite the German withdrawal along the doubly fortified "Hindenburg" line. 54 divisions, supported by more than 5,300 cannons, 1,930 heavy pieces and 128 tanks, in action for the first time, had to attack this fortified line. Artillery preparation began on 2nd April 1917. On 9th April the British seized Arras and the Canadians took the Vimy ridge. On 16th April it was the turn of the French to attack. But the Germans were aware of their plan. Despite the bombardments, the offensive was a total failure: the French found themselves up against pockets of undiminished machine gunners and their tanks could go no further. The losses were very heavy on this first day: about 20,000 dead. Nivelle persisted and re-launched his attacks, but his authority crumbled. Members of parliament and Paul Painlevé, the War Minister, called for the end of operations. The French armies took the Moulin de Laffaux and the Craonne plateau, fought in the hills of Champagne and were able to focus on less exposed positions. However, from 16th April until the beginning of May, they had lost 147,000 men, including 40,000 dead.

The life of the poilus (foot soldiers), confused and unfit for service Confusion spread once more amongst the troops. Refusal to obey orders and demonstrations broke out from the 17th April. Unruly behaviour started to spread, affecting two thirds of all French divisions up until June. "Soldiers' strikes" showed their refusal to take part in repeated and pointless massacres. They were also an expression of the need to improve accommodation, food and the organisation of leave. However, pacifist and revolutionary thinking did not have any real grip on the "strikers". On 15th May, Nivelle was replaced by Pétain, who brought the ineffective offensives to an end, whilst making the war council take firm measures against the main ringleaders. The military courts pronounced about 500 death sentences. About fifty led to executions. At the same time, he improved the lot of the Poilus. He established military cooperatives, reformed the regulation and organisation of leave and pledged to fight alcoholism. Acts of disobedience gradually stopped. Pétain then organised two limited offensives, which were a military success, giving confidence to the soldiers, the rear ranks and the Allies. On 23rd October the French went on to attack the fort de la Malmaison, a prelude to recapturing the Chemin des Dames. Mud, rain, bombardments and gas Following their offensive on the Artois, the British, strengthened by two Portuguese divisions - Portugal entered into the war in March 1916 - launched two new attacks on the Ypres salient in June and July 1917 in order to relieve the French. Fighting lasted until November. But the mud, rain and incessant bombardments, as well as the first use by the Germans of mustard gas, meant that the English became bogged down, only advancing 8 km, at a cost of 300,000 men out of action. Despite these losses, in November General Haig re-launched an offensive at Cambrai. Insufficient reserves of men and tanks meant the 10 km breakthrough was not possible. Haig lost what little confidence the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, had in him. On the Eastern front, Russian sacrifices - around a million victims - during General Broussilov's offensive, between June and September 1916, caused great agitation and soon troops were refusing to fight. On 12th March 1917, the Petrograd garrison revolted. It was the start of the Russian Revolution. Kerenski, the new chairman of the council, and Broussilov organised new offensives, which were halted by the Germans. In Russia, chaos set in and on 7th November 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power. The armistice was signed with the Austro-Germans in December 1917. Russia was the first of the great warring powers to concede and make a separate offer of peace. On the Eastern front, although the Greek government, headed by Venizelos, had declared war on the central Powers on 29th June, the collapse of Russia allowed the Austro-Germans to turn against Romania, who were to sign an armistice in December. On the other hand, the Russian armistice relieved Turkey, who had to, however, surrender Baghdad and Jerusalem to the British in March and December respectively.

In the spring of 1917, and then in August, Italy took part in the allied effort, with offensives on the Isonzo river. But she encountered demonstrations and strikes by the working classes and suffered the full force of the repercussions of the Russian situation. Using the Austrians, who had brought back their best troops from the Russian front, and the 14th German army, Ludendorff sought to bring an end to the Italian front. On 24th October, the 2nd Italian army was destroyed at Caporetto. It was a total disaster. The withdrawal stopped at the Piave, thanks to the assistance of 11 French and British divisions. The defection of Russia was compensated by the gradual arrival of the first American troops.

The American decision was not based solely on the good politico-cultural relationship with the Entente or on the rejection of German imperialism. It was also governed by economic and political considerations. A defeat of the Allies would have been prejudicial to recovering the enormous loans agreed by the Americans. Prolonged neutrality would have prevented the United States from strengthening their political role on a worldwide scale. In addition to this was the pressure to intervene from the American public, who were outraged by the attacks by German submarines on the merchant ships of neutral countries and by German offers to form an alliance with Mexico. But American military aid was not immediately decisive. At first, the United States' contribution consisted of sending provisions and supplies to Europe on a large-scale. However, as the months went by, their military presence became more significant and by the end of 1917, there were about 150,000 Americans in France. But the balance of power still swung in Germany's favour. German submarines continued to disrupt allied supply chains. Russia was out of the conflict and the Germans, transferring their troops from the east to the west, gained superiority in numbers. On the western front, there were four Germans to every three Allies. Wanting to take advantage of this, General Ludendorff prepared an offensive that he hoped would be decisive before the Americans arrived in numbers, whilst General Pétain, who had thwarted the serious crisis in the army, said to "wait for the Americans and the tanks". At the end of this year of uncertainty and after a governmental crisis, on 14th November Georges Clemenceau was appointed Council President and announced his firm intention to lead the country to victory.

The Canadians at Vimy

On Easter Monday, the 9th April, 4 Canadian divisions under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie attacked and seized the Vimy ridge in the Pas-de-Calais region, capturing it in gusting winds that brought snow and hailstones. Four days later the enemy had been pushed back 10 kilometres, at a cost of 3,598 Canadian lives. In tribute to those fellow countrymen who had fought during the First World War and particularly to those who had lost their lives, the Canadians erected a commemorative monument on the Vimy ridge, designed by the architect Walter Allward, which was inaugurated in 1936. On its base are inscribed the names of the 11,285 Canadians killed in France who had no recognised grave. It was from one of the Canadian cemeteries in the area that the remains of an unidentified soldier were chosen to represent all those Canadians who had fought since the creation of the Confederation in 1867. On 25th May 2000, accolades were paid to this unknown soldier at the foot of the monument, before his coffin was transferred to Ottawa for burial at Canada's commemorative war monument, at the base of which the remains of the unknown soldier of Vimy would be preserved forever in a sarcophagus made of Quebec granite.

Georges Guynemer

In 1914, Georges Guynemer wanted to enlist. Because of his poor health, he was refused by the infantry and later by the cavalry, before being accepted into the air force. After his training, in June 1915, he joined the Cigognes (Storks) squadron in Valenciennes. On 19th July 1915, he chalked up his first victory. He was promoted to sergeant and received the Légion d'Honneur as a reward for the spirit he had shown. On 12th March 1916, he was wounded on the Verdun front. Resuming fighting in May 1916. he took part in the battle of the Somme and won 21 officially recognised victories in 6 months. On 5th July 1917, Captain Guynemer was made an officer of the Légion d'Honneur. The newspapers made him famous throughout the whole of France. In July 1917, the squadron transferred to Flanders. Now a commander, he won 54 victories. On 11th September 1917, he took off from Saint-Pol-sur-Mer for Poelcapelle in Belgium. According to the Germans, he was shot down by one of their aircraft. A German patrol discovered his body and brought back his identity papers. But during the night of the 11th September intense artillery fighting tore apart the ground. The pilot's body disappeared. A legendary hero of the French air force, his motto "faire face" ("facing up to things") has been adopted by the Air Force Training school.

Tanks leaving for the assault

Trench warfare, which succeeded the war of movement from autumn 1914 onwards, made any breakthrough on the western front difficult. A French officer, Colonel Estienne, was convinced that victory would come to whoever could mount cannons on armoured tanks. An engineering student at 19 years of age and a mathematician with a passion for new technology, he devised a land battle cruiser armed with a cannon. At the beginning of 1917, the French army had 208 tanks, both the 13.5 tonne Schneiders and the 23 tonne Saint-Chamonds.

It was during the Nivelle offensive on the Chemin des Dames, that the first tanks, known as "assault artillery", were launched. But the Schneider tanks employed were heavy, hard to handle and vulnerable with their fuel tanks at the front: 60% of them were destroyed. But, despite its failure, this "debut" was "the time and place of the birth of what would be the French armoured army", according to general Jean Delmas, the former head of the department of the history of the land army. In operations that followed, the armoured vehicles distinguished themselves, particularly during the Malmaison offensive of the 23rd October 1917. Their usefulness, especially that of the 8.5 tonne Renault FT 17 (8,5 tonnes) light tanks, was demonstrated during the fighting of 1918. "In the past, death was the cruel stranger, the visitor on tiptoes. Today it is the mad dog of the house" Georges Duhamel, La vie des martyrs - 1917.