12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear

February can be a cold, cold month, and in 1917 the first half of February was the coldest spell of the harshest winter in living memory for western, northern and central Europe. The effects of the freeze on troops fighting in France, in Italy and on the Eastern Front varied from uncomfortable and unhealthy in the west, to lethal in Italy and the east, while civilians all over the continent found fuel and food in relatively short supply, a situation exacerbated by poor autumn harvests and either the Allied blockade or the German U-boat campaign (or for neutral countries, both). In Germany, where the winter of 1916–17 is known as the ‘turnip winter’, severe food shortages that saw even serving troops receiving short rations are seen as a turning point in the process that culminated, two years down the line, in the collapse of popular morale and the outbreak of revolution.

All this was big news at the time and is very well documented these days, the kind of emotional Great War commemoration tailor-made for the modern consumer and all over the output of heritage peddlers like the (increasingly irritating) Imperial War Museum. So I plan to talk about something else induced by the cold weather and the general state of the War in February 1917 – French planning.

The dreadful carnage of the Verdun and Somme offensives, universally recognised at command level as terrible failures, brought a whiff of much-needed change to French conduct of the war on the Western Front. After more than two years under the dictatorial, strategically stubborn control of Joffre, a new man had taken over as French Army c-in-c in December 1916, and General Robert Nivelle came to the job claiming to have cracked the problem of Western Front deadlock.

A regimental colonel at the start of the War, Nivelle was a competent enough tactician who benefitted from the rapid turnover of French generals to reach corps command by late 1915 and command of the First Army the following April. He made his wider name in command of the Verdun campaign during its latter stages, and his successful counteroffensives east of the Meuse in October and December made him a national hero. Observers (and Nivelle himself) saw his adoption of ‘creeping barrage’ tactics as key to the victories, and his claim that large-scale use of the same tactics would effectively end the War in 48 hours clinched his appointment as Joffre’s replacement.

That’s the jaunty look of a man telling you he can end a world war in 48 hours.

Creeping barrage was not a completely new tactic. British forces had developed it during the Somme campaign, and by late 1916 its value was widely recognised among Allied commanders in France and Belgium. Most of them also recognised the limitations of a tactic that amounted to a refinement rather than a revolution. The preliminary artillery bombardments that preceded attacks had conventionally stopped as soon as infantry went over the top, with the big guns redirected to secondary targets. Creeping barrage moved artillery fire forward in stages to match the infantry’s advance. By the autumn of 1916 a ‘creep’ of 50m per minute had been established as standard, but although the method proved a big help to infantry with limited objectives, it did nothing to solve the crippling problems that still faced any army advancing beyond the limits of immediate support.

Nivelle’s confident prediction of total victory didn’t convince his own or the BEF’s senior generals, but it went down a storm with the French public and with politicians on both sides of the Channel. Though careful to avoid the autocratic control given to Joffre, the Briand government overrode the generals to back Nivelle’s plan for a massive joint offensive around the River Aisne, scheduled for the spring, while British premier Lloyd George dealt with opposition to the plan from Haig by putting the entire BEF under temporary French command from late February.

And so the British and French Armies began another round of preparations for another supposedly decisive offensive. Things didn’t go quickly, partly because both the BEF and the French Army were in desperate need of rest and reinforcement, partly because of the military and political disputes that surrounded the preparations, and partly because the cold slowed everything down. I’ll go into detail about the operation known as the Nivelle Offensive another day, probably when the fighting starts in April, but for now I’m going to swerve into the margins, because Nivelle may have been confident about his own plans, but he was worried about what the German might be up to.

When Nivelle had taken charge in December, a German spring offensive in the west had seemed probable, begging the question of where it might take place. Future c-in-c General Foch, dismissed from his post in command of the Western Front’s northern sector when Nivelle took over, was given the task of analysing the three most probable lines of German attack. On the assumption that the main battlefields of 1916 would be left alone this time, these were: the Alsace-Lorraine sector, the Italian frontier and, as a possible preamble to any attack on the latter or into southern France, Switzerland. Foch would spend time in temporary command of armies in Alsace and Lorraine, and would visit Italy to liaise with Italian c-in-c Cadorna, but in early 1917 he focused his thinking on the danger of a German attack into Switzerland.

Switzerland was of course neutral during the First World War, and although the wartime breakdown of normal trade patterns created (relatively minor) civilian shortages, the nation as a whole did quite well out of the conflict, supplying the belligerents with a highly profitable range of chocolates and financial services. This didn’t mean the Swiss were comfortable at any time during the War, because the country was not only surrounded by warring nations – Germany and Austria to the east, France to the west and Italy to the south – but its population was divided along the same lines.

Although nobody expected modern armies to waste themselves trying to conquer Switzerland’s mountainous heart, the prospect of invasion by one side or the other to force a passage through the lowlands was always in play, and like other similarly vulnerable neutral governments the Swiss spent a lot of time assuring belligerents that they needed a peaceful, neutral Switzerland, both as a trading partner and as a handily placed peace broker. The fact remained that the German-Swiss majority in the east of the country was understandably pro-German, and unlikely to oppose any military incursion, while the Italian speakers of the south and the French-speaking westerners were equally committed to their own ethnic causes. That was why the French command feared a German attack through Switzerland, and that was why Foch and leaders of the French-Swiss cantons drew up Plan H, a blueprint for a French invasion of the country.

The tiny Swiss Army was backed by 250,000 civilian militia, all handy with a hunter’s rifle. When asked what they could do against half a million invading troops, the answer was ‘shoot twice and go home’.

The final plan was submitted on 7 February and enthusiastically accepted by Nivelle a century ago today. It entailed detailed cooperation with Swiss military personnel and railway authorities to move a French army of thirty to forty divisions, led by Foch, across Switzerland. Contingent upon a German attack and a request for help from the Swiss federal government, this was hardly an act of imperial expansion, and as it happened it was never needed.

The collapse of the Russian war effort in March was seen by Germany’s Third Supreme Command, not as a chance to reinforce for attacks in the west, but as an as an opportunity to assure the occupation and economic exploitation of Eastern Europe. The simultaneous withdrawal of the German Army to formidable defensive positions at the Hindenburg Line, which took the Allies by surprise and forced Nivelle to modify his offensive plans, proved an accurate indicator of Berlin’s intentions on the Western Front, and major offensive operations in the theatre would be left to the Allies for the rest of the year.

So why bother mentioning Plan H at all? My main excuse is that nothing much else was going on at this point in the War, but there’s also an argument for undermining the assumptions that can accompany historical thinking. Looking back, we know how the story panned out and it’s very easy to forget that the protagonists didn’t. Allied commanders had to plan for German attacks that never came, and trampling over a small country’s neutrality in 1917 was nothing like the shocking response of last resort it seems today.

The only other place this branch line excursion takes us is the wonderful world of ‘what if’. What if Germany had decided to make one more attempt at a decisive move in the west? What if the Third Supreme Command had chosen to radically expand the Western Front instead of funnelling resources into U-boats and an eastern empire? With Switzerland and southern France as part of a front line stretching from the Channel to Venice, with German and Austrian armies from the Eastern Front committed to the west for one last, giant push before the Americans arrived, I’ll leave you to wonder where the world might have travelled in the wake of a very different 1917…

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