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Robert Georges Nivelle Edit Profile

general , Military officer

Robert Georges Nivelle was a French artillery officer who served in the Boxer Rebellion, and the First World War. Nivelle was a very capable commander and organizer of field artillery at the regimental and divisional levels. In May 1916, he succeeded Philippe Pétain as commander of the French Second Army in the Battle of Verdun.


Robert Georges Nivelle, born on 15 October 1856 in the French provincial town of Tulle in Corrèze, had a French father and an English Protestant mother.


Nivelle graduated from the École polytechnique in 1878 and entered the artillery. He saw action in repressing the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and in 1908 as a lieutenant colonel he served a tour in North Africa.


When World War I broke out. Colonel Nivelle stood at the head of the Fourth Artillery Regiment, a unit he had commanded since 1911. The first weeks of the war brought him a reputation for daring and imaginative leadership both outside Mulhouse and in the battle of the Marne. In the latter engagement, he lined up his batteries well in front of his infantry to surprise the advancing Germans with a shower of artillery fire from close range. By October he was a brigadier general and in early February 1915 received a division. At the close of the second year of the war, Major General Nivelle commanded the III Corps.

Verdun made the dashing artilleryman a national hero. He took the III Corps, with General Charles Mangin's Fifth Division as its spearpoint, to the beleaguered fortress. In April Nivelle was elevated to command the Second Army, and by the autumn he was organizing effective counterattacks against the Germans with the aid of new artillery techniques. Nivelle's "creeping barrage" allowed the infantry and artillery to stage a coordinated advance, with continuous shell fire pinning down the enemy as the French infantry marched forward. A vast improvement over the futile slaughter in Artois and Champagne in 1915, the new method seemed to mark Nivelle, the artilleryman, as the soldier who understood how the war could be won. On October 24 Fort Douaumont fell to Nivelle and Mangin; they could then recount how the very symbol of the ten-month struggle at Verdun had yielded to Nivelle's tactical vision.

Barely two months later, on December 13, Nivelle catapulted from command of the Second Army to replace General Joffre as France's commander in chief. Joffre's reputation had by then been shattered; the futile offensives of 1915 had begun his decline and the foe's surprise attack on Verdun had completed it. General Pétain, the director of the defense of Verdun, seemed the most likely candidate to move to the top. But he was vocally cautious about prospects for a speedy end to the war. Only after long, defensive battles in which France managed to wear the enemy down could victory come. By contrast Nivelle pledged quick success.

Citing his new artillery techniques, Nivelle inspired political leaders like President Raymond Poincare with visions of a Napoleonic breakthrough that would win the war in a flash. He pictured a spring offensive against the gigantic German salient that stretched from Arras southward to Soissons and then eastward to Reims. The BEF was to hammer against the western edge of the bulge near Arras and the French to follow by striking the southern flank of the enemy on the Chemin des Dames. Artillery techniques that had worked well on a small scale at Verdun were to be supported on a larger stage by the full resources of the French army.

The compelling vision of instant victory was soon darkened by harsh realities. The Germans retreated from the most exposed portion of the salient in early March, leaving the British to move forward unopposed until they reached the powerful defensive line named for Field Marshal von Hindenburg. The Chemin des Dames attack would have to bear nearly the entire weight of the Allied advance; and many French generals thought its prospects were nearly hopeless. Army group commanders like Pétain, Franchet d'Esperey, and Micheler were not enthusiastic. Micheler, whose Reserve Army Group was designated to conduct the main assault on the Chemin des Dames, was nearly despondent. He could not stand up to Nivelle, and he sent his doubts in the form of letters to politicians like Paul Painlevé, the new war minister. In late March a series of hasty conferences began, extending through the first week of April. In the end Nivelle triumphed in the conference room. Neither the German retreat nor the entry of the United States into the war nor the sudden collapse of the monarchy in Russia all unsettling events that prompted cooler heads to call for a policy of wait and see pulled Nivelle from his path. Supremely confident of success, he threatened to resign on April 6 when army and civilian leaders met at Compiègne to make the final decision. With the glow of Verdun behind him he found no general, not even the terrified Micheler, ready to challenge the offensive's prospects directly.

With the promise of victory on Nivelles lips, no government leader could choose instead another prolonged year of slaughter on the model of 1916. Nivelle's sole concession was to pledge to suspend his attack if it failed to produce the desired results.

It failed. His attack on April 16 did not get beyond the German first line. Casualties were enormous; Nivelle had predicted 10,000 on the first day. The actual number was more than ten times as great. Within four days Nivelle was shifting to a strategy of attrition, little different from the 1916 bloodbath on the Somme. His political allure made it impossible to fire him out of hand. Instead, Pétain moved alongside him as chief of the General Staff and restrained Nivelle for a few weeks. Then, on May 15, Nivelle handed over his responsibilities to Pétain. Portions of the French army were already in a state of open mutiny.

Nivelle faced a military court of inquiry in October 1917, which somehow managed to clear him of serious misconduct. He sat out the rest of the war in the military backwater of North Africa, and, after a brief term of postwar service, died in Paris on March 23, 1924.


Nivelle also was a Protestant and this was a help to him as in the context of the politics of the French military Catholic piety was a handicap.