|Part of the Western Front of the First World War|
New front line after Operation Alberich
|Commanders and leaders|
|Part of Western Front|
Noyon and Bapaume salients
|Planned by||Field Marshal Rupprecht von Bayern|
|Commanded by||Quartermaster-General Erich Ludendorff|
|Objective||Retirement to the Hindenburg Line|
|Date||9 February 1917– 20 March 1917|
|Executed by||Army Group Rupprecht of Bavaria (Heeresgruppe Kronprinz Rupprecht von Bayern)|
Operation Alberich (German: Unternehmen Alberich) was the code name of a German military operation in France during the First World War.[a] It was a planned withdrawal to new positions on the shorter and more easily defended Hindenburg Line (German: Siegfriedstellung), which took place between 9 February and 20 March 1917. The retirement eliminated the two salients which had been formed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, between Arras and Saint-Quentin and from Saint-Quentin to Noyon. The retirement took place after months of preparation but General Erich Ludendorff hesitated to order the withdrawal until the last moment. The retirement to the chord of the Bapaume and Noyon salients shortened the Western Front, providing 13–14 extra divisions for the German reserve, which were being assembled to defend the Aisne front against the Nivelle Offensive being prepared by the French.
Soon after taking over from Erich von Falkenhayn as Chief of the General Staff in at the end of August 1916, Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff, the Erster Generalquartiermeister (First Quartermaster General) ordered the building of a new defensive line east of the Somme battlefront from Arras to Laon. Ludendorff was unsure as to whether retreating to the Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) was desirable, since it might diminish the morale of German soldiers and civilians. An offensive was considered as an alternative if enough reserves could be assembled in the New Year and a staff study suggested that seventeen divisions might be made available but that this was far too few to have decisive effect in the west. Ludendorff accepted the plan to retire after representations by Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, commander of Army Group Rupprecht (1st, 2nd, 6th and 7th armies, from the Somme front to the North Sea coast) over the objections of the 1st and 2nd Army commanders.
Other options, such as a shorter withdrawal, were also canvassed but the lack of manpower made the decision to retire unavoidable, since even with reinforcements from the Eastern Front, the German army in the west numbered only 154 divisions against 190 Allied divisions, many of which were larger. A move back to the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung) would shorten the front by 25–28 mi (40–45 km) and require 13 fewer divisions to hold. The order for the withdrawal to begin was issued on 16 March. Rupprecht was appalled by the scale and methods proposed for a scorched earth policy and contemplated resignation, then relented for fear that it might suggest a rift between Bavaria and the rest of Germany.
Operation Alberich began on 9 February 1917 in the area to be abandoned. Railways and roads were dug up, trees were felled, water wells were polluted, towns and villages were destroyed and a large number of land mines and other booby-traps were planted. About 125,000 able-bodied French civilians in the region were transported to work elsewhere in occupied France, while children, mothers and the elderly were left behind with minimal rations. On 4 March, General Louis Franchet d'Espèrey, commander of Groupe d'armées du Nord (GAN, northern army group), advocated an attack while the Germans were preparing to retreat. Robert Nivelle, Commander-in-Chief of the French armies since December 1916, approved only a limited attack to capture the German front position; a possible opportunity significantly to upset the German withdrawal was lost. The withdrawal took place from 16–20 March, with a retirement of about 25 mi (40 km), giving up more French territory than that gained by the Allies from September 1914 until the beginning of the operation.
By evacuating the Noyon and Bapaume salients, the German front was shortened by 25 mi (40 km), 14 fewer German divisions were needed for line holding and Allied plans for the spring were seriously disrupted. The operation is considered to have been a propaganda disaster for Germany because of the scorched earth policy but is also thought to be one of the shrewdest defensive operations of the war. During periods of fine weather in October 1916, British reconnaissance flights had reported new defences being built far behind the Somme front; on 9 November a formation of eight photographic reconnaissance aircraft and eight escorts reported a new line of defences, from Bourlon Wood north to Quéant, Bullecourt, the Sensée river, Héninel and the German third line near Arras. Two other lines closer to the front were observed as they were dug (Riegel I Stellung and Riegel II Stellung) from Ablainzevelle to the west of Bapaume and Roquigny, with a branch from Achiet-le-Grand to Beugny and Ytres.
In 2004, James Beach wrote that some authorities hold that British aerial reconnaissance failed to detect the construction of the Hindenburg Line or the German preparations for the troop withdrawal. Evidence of German intentions was collected but German deception that caused unremarkable information to be gleaned from intermittent air reconnaissance. Frequent bad flying weather over the winter and the precedent of new German defences being built behind existing fortifications during the Somme battle, led British military intelligence to misinterpret the information. In late December 1916, reports from witnesses led the British and French to send air reconnaissance sorties further to the south and in mid-January 1917, British intelligence concluded that a new line was being built from Arras to Laon. By February, the line was known to be near completion and by 25 February, local withdrawals on the British Fifth Army front in the Ancre valley and prisoner interrogation led the British to anticipate a gradual German withdrawal to the new line.
The first intimation of a German withdrawal occurred when British patrols probing German outposts towards Serre, found them unoccupied. The British began a slow follow-up but unreadiness, the decrepitude of the local roads and the German advantage of falling back on prepared lines behind rearguards of machine-gunners, meant that the Germans completed an orderly withdrawal. The new defences were built on a reverse slope with positions behind the defences, from which artillery observers could see the front position, experience having showed that infantry equipped with machine-guns needed a field of fire only a few hundred yards/meters deep. Unfortunately for the Germans, General Ludwig von Lauter and Colonel Kramer from OHL ignored the new thinking and in much of the new line, artillery observation posts were placed in the front line or in front of it and the front position was on forward slopes, near crests or at the rear of long reverse slopes.
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