Paul Maistre was a French General who came to prominence late in the First World War. As commander of the Sixth Army he helped to restore morale after the disastrous spring offensive of 1917. He then saw command in Italy, helping to restore the situation after the battle of Caporetto and back in France during the German offensives of the spring and early summer of 1918.
Maistre was a graduate of St. Cyr, with a successful pre-war career that include line, staff and teaching posts, including a period teaching tactics at the staff college under Ferdinand Foch. In 1909 Colonel Maistre was given command of a regiment, and by the outbreak of the First World War he had risen to command a brigade.
In 1914 he was appointed chief of staff to General Langle de Cary, commander of the Fourth Army. In that role he took part in the battle of the Ardennes, and then the first battle of the Marne. As a result of his performance at the Marne he was promoted two levels to command XXI corps.
This corps took part in the Race to the Sea. It was the northernmost corps on the Tenth Army front when the BEF came into the line at La Bassée, and ended up at Armentières in November 1914, where it spent the next year.
In the first half of 1916 Maistre and his corps served at the battle of Verdun. Later in the year they took part in the last French offensives of the battle of the Somme. In April 1917 XXI corps was in the reserve, and missed General Nivelle’s disastrous second Battle of the Aisne (16 April-15 May 1917).
During that battle General Mangin, one of Nivelle’s main supporters, had led the Sixth Army to a bloody defeat on the Aisne, and on 1 May 1917 Maistre was appointed to command the Sixth Army. His immediate problem was to put down the mutinies that broke out after the failure on the Aisne, and during this period he warned General Pétain, the new French commander-in-chief, not to risk using it for offensive operations, as it wouldn’t leave its trenches.
Maistre successfully restored the morale of the army over the next five months, until it was capable of launching a small scale offensive (battle of Malmaison, 23-25 October 1917). This battle saw a skilful use of heavy artillery combined with tanks, and achieved its limited objectives at a low cost.
His success with the Sixth Army boosted Maistre’s reputation. When the Italian front collapsed at Caporetto (24 October - 12 November 1917), Maistre was sent to command the French Tenth Army, sent to assist restore the situation. The Italian retreat came to an end at the Piave river, seventy miles behind the original front line, and British and French troops would eventually help the Italians push the Austrians back out of Italy, but Maistre did not remain to see that.
In the spring of 1918 Ludendorff launched the first of his five great offensives, on the Somme. The Allied line bent and buckled, but did not break. Maistre was returned to France to take part in the desperate fighting to hold back the German offensive. In June Maistre was appointed to command the Centre Army Group, which covered the front between Soissons and the Argonne. This put him directly in the line of the last of the five German offensives, the Champagne-Marne Offensive of 15-18 July 1918, which struck the French lines on both sides of Reims, and in the Allied counterattack that followed (Aisne-Marne Offensive, 18 July-6 August 1918).
The Centre Army Group was responsible for the Meuse River-Argonne Forest Offensive, 26 September-11 November 1918, the southern part of Foch’s great war-winning offensive. By the end of the war French troops had returned to Sedan and were back on the same ground that Maistre had fought over in the Ardennes four years earlier.
After the war Maistre served on the Supreme War Council and as inspector general of infantry. He died in 1922. Maistre is a good example of a capable general who rose to high command during the war, going from brigade command prior to 1914 to command an entire army group at the end of the war.