While the British forces were attempting to turn the Northern flank of the new Hindenburg line, near Arras and Vimy Ridge, the French Armies were assaulting the Southern pivot of the Hindenburg line between Soissons and Rheims. The chief objective of the French was the Craonne Plateau, a ridge twelve miles long and rising some 200 feet above the level of the plain. The slopes of the Plateau, on the side facing the French position, were ringed clear to the summit with a series of German trenches, all bristling with machine guns and occupied by 500,000 soldiers commanded by the Crown Prince Frederick. Its rocky crest was cut with deep ravines and caverns, affording admirable cover for many machine gun nests.
From end to end, along its wide summit, runs the famous Chemin-des-Dames ("Ladies' Road"), a shaded boulevard constructed by orders of King Louis XIV for the pleasure of his daughters. On the reverse slopes of the plateau, the German artillery was well concealed. Excepting Vimy Ridge, there was no other position on the Western front so formidable as this. To attempt its capture by direct assault seemed a desperate enterprise. There was, however, a more vulnerable point of attack just south of the Craonne Plateau, where the Hindenburg line traversed a stretch of flat country, covering a gap some ten miles wide. If this gap could be penetrated, the German line would be broken in halves and the way opened to assault the German strongholds from the rear.
The Germans had expended much labor in strengthening this gap. Elaborate concrete works had been constructed and the hill near Ville-aux-Bois tunneled to provide a series of galleries in which the German troops might find protection from artillery fire. East of Rheims, and dominating the whole of Champagne, rose the isolate Moron Villers Hills, constituting a military obstacle hardly inferior to the Craonne Plateau itself.
Threefold Attack Planned
General Nivelle had planned a threefold attack on the So...