Robert Georges Nivelle - Encyclopedia




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"ROBERT GEORGES NIVELLE (1856-), French general, was born at Tulle (Correze) on Oct. 15 1856. He became a student at the Ecole Polytechnique on Nov. 1 1876 (after having been entered at St. Cyr) and in 1878, as a sub-lieutenant, went through the course at the school of artillery and engineering. He was made a lieutenant in the 19th Regt. of artillery in Oct. 1880 and was promoted captain on Dec. 29 1887. He became major (chef d'escadrons) in July 1901 and served on the China Expeditionary Corps staff during 1900-1. In 1908, while serving at Ozan, he was made a lieutenant-colonel, and three years later, while serving as chief of staff with the Algiers Div., was promoted colonel. In Dec. 1913 he assumed command of the 5th Regt. of artillery at Besancon and was so employed at the outbreak of the World War in Aug. 1914. At the head of this unit he took part in the operations of the 7th Corps in Alsace (including the battle of Dornach) and was specially mentioned in army orders. On Sept. 6 1914 on the 7th Corps front he again distinguished himself. The German pressure had compelled a French withdrawal and it seemed as if the 7th Corps would have to cross the Ourcq. Col. Nivelle, however, swiftly reorganized his artillery and massed it at a vulnerable point. By the intensity of his fire he checked the German advance and enabled the French to recover the ground they had lost. Two weeks later, on the Aisne, he again saved a French withdrawal by skilful disposition of the artillery under his command. On Oct. 27 1914 he was promoted general of brigade. He commanded successively the 44th and both Inf. Bdes. on the Aisne, and in Jan.

1915 was responsible for the check of the enemy before Soissons. On Feb. 19 following he took over the command of the 61st Div.; becoming on Dec. 23 a substantive general of division and commander of the III. Army Corps. He went to Verdun at the end of March 1916 and a month later took over the II. Army. He planned the operations (executed by Gen. Mangin) which resulted in the reconquest in four and a half hours of the country S. of the line Thiaumont - Douaumont - Vaux - Damloup, country which the Germans had taken six months to capture and in the taking of which they had sacrificed some of their best troops. On Dec. 12 1916 he was made commander-in-chief of the armies of the N. and N.E.

The choice was inspired by a variety of motives, amongst which the most important were the objections, political and military, raised against more obvious candidates (such as 1 Castelnau, Foch and Petain), and the feeling that a younger man might solve the problem of break-through which had defeated Joffre. Nivelle was put in command to break traditions and to win the war in the one great effort of which France, after all her losses, was still capable. He was the embodiment of the wave of optimism which swept over the Allied Govern-? ments, armies and peoples in the spring of 1917. The story of his failure to realize these expectations need only be summarized.. here. Accepted by Mr. Lloyd George's Government as commander-in-chief not only of the French but also of the British' front, he asserted his authority from the first moment in such ay way as to antagonize Sir Douglas Haig's headquarters. When., this difficulty had been officially smoothed over, he allowed him-: self to be taken aback by the sudden withdrawal of the Ger.'; man centre in March 1917, which disconcerted nearly all the' preparations for the Franco-British offensive. Next, persisting in a sanguine and grandiose offensive scheme to which many of his generals openly took exception, he found himself regarded, with suspicion by his Government, and it was in the midst of a' series of councils of war, inter-governmental negotiations, and internal incidents that he launched the attack of April 16 1917, a half victory which was the ruin of his hopes. Some weeks later he was dismissed from the command of the French armies. With. the suspension of the offensive (which had already taken place), his command over the British forces had automatically ceased.

Later, Gen. Nivelle served as governor-general of Algeria. Controversy of peculiar violence has naturally arisen in connexion with Nivelle's command and his offensive. On the general's side, Commandant de Civrieux's work is the principal source; on the other Jean de Pierrefeu's La verite sur l'affaire Nivelle criticizes his actions from the standpoint of the Petain school. Less definitely critical works, which contain the most important documents and deal with the political aspects of the case, are H. Galli, L'offensive de 1917 and Mermeix, Les Crises du Comsnandement (pt. ii. Nivelle et Painleve).

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