Germany almost won WWI in 1917. Russia collapsed into revolution and surrender. Italy was propped up only with difficulty. The US had entered the war but could not yet contribute significant forces.
The critical moment came in the spring of 1917 when morale in the French armies collapsed after the failure of the Nivelle offensives. Some divisions mutinied and refused to obey orders. Both London and Paris worried that the mutinies presaged revolution in France and the end of the Third Republic.
Part of the panic was due to shock and dashed hopes. The year began with Gen. Robert Nivelle taking over as supreme commander of the French armies. He was a man with a plan to win the war with one more big push. The Allies gained a little ground but the butcher’s bill was unbearably high. It pushed the French Army past its breaking point.
Neville was not an obvious choice to lead the French armies. He was an artillery officer who only took command of the 2d Army in May 1916 when Gen. Petain was promoted to command Army Group Center during the Battle of Verdun.
The French government chose Nivelle as C-in-C in December over the heads of more senior generals such as Petain, Foch, and Castelnau.
Neville was a charismatic figure with a soaring reputation after the victory at Verdun. The critical factor in his rise, however was ideological. The French government was vehemently anti-clerical and Nivelle was not Catholic.
As absurd as it sounds, the political and intellectual classes in France feared the Catholic church more than the armies of the Kaiser.
All officers were discouraged from going to mass or having other church associations. To the disgust of many officers, the army was used in the forcible expropriation of church property. More insidiously, André encouraged republican officers to spy on their brother officers and a system of files, or ‘fiches’, was compiled in order to record the activities of officers with church sympathies. André also made use of groups of Freemasons within the army to carry out the necessary surveillance and reporting.8 Church-going or other outward signs of devoutness were recorded and officers who displayed such tendencies found themselves passed over for promotion. One such was Colonel Ferdinand Foch, who, after a mixed wartime career, would later serve as the supreme Allied commander from 1918.
Nivelle had only limited experience as an army commander, having commanded Second Army since May 1916.10 To an objective eye, there were other more senior general officers who were potential choices. The chief of staff at the GQG, General Castelnau, seemed to many to be an obvious choice to succeed Joffre but his long association with Joffre meant politicians doubted his ability. He was also a devout Catholic, which increased doubts among the more radical factions within government.
A great reminder that ideological blinders are hard to shed.
A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.