In the midst of Allied plans for a major spring offensive on the Western Front, the French government suffers a series of crises in its leadership, including the forced resignation, on March 17, 1917, of Prime Minister Aristide Briand.
Horrified by the brutal events at Verdun and the Somme in 1916, the French Chamber of Deputies had already met in secret to condemn the leadership of France’s senior military leader, Joseph Joffre, and engineer his dismissal. Prime Minister Briand oversaw Joffre’s replacement by Robert Nivelle, who believed an aggressive offensive along the River Aisne in central France was the key to a much-needed breakthrough on the Western Front. Building upon the tactics he had earlier employed in successful counter-attacks at Verdun, Nivelle believed he would achieve this breakthrough within two days; then, as he claimed, the ground will be open to go where one wants, to the Belgian coast or to the capital, on the Meuse or on the Rhine.
The principal power over French military strategy, however, had moved with Joffre’s departure to a ministerial war committee who answered not to the commander in chief, Nivelle, but to the minister of war, Louis Lyautey, a former colonial administrator in Morocco appointed by Briand in December 1916, around the same time as Joffre’s dismissal. Lyautey loudly and publicly derided the Nivelle scheme, insisting (correctly as it turned out) that it would meet with failure. He was not the only member of Briand’s cabinet who opposed the offensive, but the prime minister continued to support Nivelle, desperately needing a major French victory to restore confidence in his leadership. On March 14, Lyautey resigned. This embarrassing public disagreement with his ministers brought Briand down as well, forcing his resignation on March 17.
French President Raymond Poincare’s next choice for prime minister, Alexandre Ribot, appointed Paul Painleve as his minister of war. Also hesitant to fully support Nivelle’s plan, Painleve and the rest of the Ribot government were finally pressured to do so by the need to counteract the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare (announced in February 1917) and by Nivelle’s threat that he would resign if the offensive did not proceed as planned. The so-called Nivelle Offensive, begun on April 16, 1917, was a disaster: the German positions along the Aisne, built up since the fall of 1914, proved to be too much for the Allies. Almost all the French tanks, introduced into battle for the first time, had been destroyed or had become bogged down by the end of the first day; within a week 96,000 soldiers had been wounded. The battle was called off on April 20, and Nivelle was replaced by the more cautious Philippe Petain five days later.