The Chantilly Conferences were several conferences of the Entente during the First World War. They were held in 1915 and 1916 in Chantilly, France, at the chateau where the Grand Quartier Général of the French forces was located from late 1914 to early 1917. The conferences were significant in the preparation of the Allied summer offensives in 1916 and the spring offensive on the Western Front in 1917.
At the beginning of the First World War, there was no established mechanism for consultations at the highest political-military level on the part of the Triple Entente. Visits and meetings of individual ministers and military officers took place rather sporadically and in response to acute crises. These included the visit of the British War Minister Lord Kitchener to Paris in September 1914, the visit of the French War Minister Alexandre Millerand to London in January 1915, the trip to France of the British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith in May/June 1915, and the meeting of the British Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George with his French counterpart in Boulogne in June 1915. In the light of the complicated wartime situation, it seemed necessary in the summer of 1915 to coordinate joint action more effectively with the involvement of all the major Allies. As a result, the first official mutual British-French governmental consultation was arranged for July 6 in Calais.
First Chantilly Conference, July 1915
As a result of this meeting, the first Chantilly Conference was held the following day, July 7, 1915. It was attended by military representatives of the Entente powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Belgium and Serbia. The conference was chaired by the French Minister of War, Millerand, and the principal participants were the French Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Joffre, and John French for the B.E.F. and his Chief of Staff, William Robertson. Belgium was represented by Major General Félix Wielemans, Russia, Italy and Serbia by Colonels Ignatiev, di Breganze and Stefanović.
No serious decisions were taken or concerted actions agreed upon at this conference. Italy was to maintain pressure on Austria-Hungary on the Isonzo Front, while Britain and France prepared their autumn offensive on the Western Front. Serbia was also to remain active. Russia had been on the defensive since the Battle of Gorlice-Tarnów in the spring of 1915 as a result of the Central Powers’ successes and was first to reconsolidate its forces. Consideration of national sensitivities and the very different circumstances on the individual fronts prevented more effective planning of coalition warfare for the time being.
Second Chantilly Conference, December 1915
The second Chantilly Conference was held from 6 to 8 December 1915 and again followed a British-French government meeting at Calais (held on 5 December). At this conference, for the first time, an effort was made to plan for joint warfare in the longer term. In the meantime the war situation had developed extremely negatively for the Allies. The Russian Army was facing a complete reorganization after the “Great Retreat.” Serbia was out of the picture for the time being as a result of the Central Powers’ Serbian campaign. The Anglo-French Gallipoli venture had ended in spectacular failure, and the autumn offensives on the Western Front in Champagne and Artois had also failed to produce the hoped-for results. For the coming year 1916, therefore, it seemed urgent to move from a strategy determined by national interests to a genuinely coordinated strategy.
At this three-day conference, the principal participants were General Joffre, Field Marshal French for the B.E.F., and Lieutenant General Archibald Murray as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (both relieved of their posts later that month), General Yakov Shilinsky for the Russian Army, General Carlo Porro for Italy, General Wielemans for Belgium, and Colonel Stefanović for Serbia. General Joffre received the delegates from the other countries with a prepared memorandum, which met with unanimous approval. It envisaged the launching of coordinated major offensives on all the main fronts (the Western, Eastern and Italian Fronts) at the earliest possible date, i.e. when the armies concerned had completed their preparations in this respect. Joffre hoped that especially on the Eastern Front, where the fortifications of the front line were less developed and the forces of the enemy less concentrated than on the Western Front, the development into a strategic breakthrough would be possible. For this purpose it would be necessary for the Western partners of the alliance to equip the Russian army with all the military supplies it required after its heavy losses in materiel in the autumn of 1915. Pending the execution of this plan, vigorous efforts should be made to weaken the forces of the enemy by attrition. Large stocks of material and ammunition should be laid in for the planned offensives.
Joffre also saw it as a given that after the liquidation of the Dardanelles enterprise and the heavy defeat of Serbia, a continued Allied military presence in the Balkans (on the Saloniki front) would be of strategic advantage. However, there was no agreement on this with the main partner, Great Britain. Greece and Romania were to be incited by all possible means to enter the war on the side of the Entente. The Serbian army was to hold its ground, if possible, with the support of the Italian Expeditionary Corps standing in Albania on the Adriatic coast. The British forces withdrawn from Gallipoli were to build up an impregnable defence at the Suez Canal and prepare for active re-use later in Egypt.
The result of Joffre’s ambitious plans were the huge large-scale offensives of the summer of 1916 in the south of the Russian front (Brussilov offensive) and on the Somme, which brought the initiative back to the Allies. The original plan had been to let the coordinated offensives begin in the spring of 1916, but this was prevented by the opening of the Battle of Verdun by the Germans at the end of February. General Schilinski had proposed at Chantilly (recalling the Central Powers’ offensives in the east in the second half of 1915) for such an eventuality to relieve the hard-pressed ally or allies by attacks on other fronts. This agreement now triggered the Battle of Lake Narach and the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo.
Third Chantilly Conference, March 1916
A third inter-Allied military conference was held at Chantilly on 12 March 1916 and dealt with changes to the plans of the second conference of December 1915 in the light of the major German attack at Verdun. The main participants were Joseph Joffre and Douglas Haig, who had succeeded Field Marshal French in December 1915.
Fourth Chantilly Conference, November 1916
The fourth Chantilly Conference was held on 15 November 1916 – in parallel with an intergovernmental conference in Paris – and concerned planning for the war year 1917. It was the last Allied conference at which France was represented by General Joffre. Joffre wanted a French offensive between the Somme and the Oise for the coming spring, supported by the British between Bapaume and Vimy. Later the French would attack on the Aisne. The attacks were to begin as early in the year as possible to prevent the Germans getting ahead of them with an attack of their own as they had done in early 1916. The British eventually agreed to these plans, although they would have preferred to attack in Flanders to neutralize the German submarine bases there.
Ultimately, however, it would not be Joffre but the up-and-coming General Robert Nivelle, who replaced Joffre in December, who would lead the offensive named after him on the Aisne and in Champagne (Battle of the Aisne), supported by a British offensive at Arras. The German retreat to the Siegfried position in the Somme area in March 1917 (Unternehmen Alberich) made the renewal of the attacks on the Somme, favoured by Joffre, obsolete.
The conference was also marked by the temporary victory of the “Westerners” within the British military-political leadership, led by Haig and Robertson, against the political leadership of Prime Minister Asquith, who resigned a few weeks later. The decisions were virtually a mirror image of the December 1915 conference, with somewhat shifted emphasis on a military decision on the Western Front. A politico-military conference in Petrograd, scheduled for the end of the year to discuss, among other things, Russian participation in the spring offensives of 1917, did not take place until January and February 1917, when the crisis of the Russian state was already well advanced and an imminent revolution was foreseeable. A Russian offensive in the spring of 1917 ultimately did not occur because of the February Revolution, and the battles on the Aa that took place in January were of a more localized character. The coordination of the Allied war plans was less successful in 1917 than in the previous year, partly because of the events in Russia and the paralysis of the French army for several months after the mutinies that had begun during the Nivelle offensive.
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- P. M. H. Bell: France and Britain, 1900-1940: Entente and Estrangement. Routledge, 2014, p. 65 f.
- Andrew Rawson: The 1915 Campaign. Casemate, 2016, p. ?
- Text of the memorandum on firstworldwar.com
- David French: The Strategy of the Lloyd George Coalition, 1916-1918.Clarendon Press, 1995, p. 50.
- George H. Cassar: Asquith as War Leader. A&C Black, 1994, p. 204 ff.; cf. also David R. Woodward: Lloyd George and the Generals. Routledge, 2004, p. 108 ff.
- David French: The Strategy of the Lloyd George Coalition, 1916-1918. Clarendon Press, 1995, p. 51.