Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

French Leave Policy and the Army Mutinies

According the Emmanuelle Cronier, a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Birmingham, French Army leave policy had a lot to do with the mutinies that followed the failed Nivelle Offensive in April 1917.

A Poilu, Not Very Happy to Be Stuck in a Trench

Back in 1914, when the war was supposed to be over by Christmas, only the wounded  were allowed to spend a few days at home as part of their recuperation. But when the war clearly became a long one, governments had to implement leave policies both for the well-being and sanity of the troops and for morale on the home front.  So, in 1915 the various armies gradually began allowing their soldiers to take a few days leave in the rear, and, if possible, to return home. Transport was a continual problem and major battles like Verdun, where it was often a matter of "all hands on deck," to borrow a naval expression, made taking leave difficult.  

From the start, the Poilus  felt the allocation of leave authorizations was arbitrary and never intended to meet the promised targets.  Political pressure, though, was brought to bear on the Army, and by the end of 1916 French soldiers eventually had the most favorable system of all the combatants — in theory. It promised  a leave of three to ten days, two or three times a year However, the French command did not immediately embrace the new policy since it was hoping to win the war soon with General Nivelle's new strategy to be implemented  in the coming battle on the Chemin des Dames.

On Leave in Paris

As is well known, the attack failed dismally and the troops rebelled. Many of the mutineers later cited the lack of leave opportunities in addition to fatigue and a general lack of confidence in the military leadership as reasons for their disobedience. Pétain is credited with improving the leave system as part of his effort to rebuild the army. Truth be told, he simply enforced the policies that had been put in place just before the Nivelle Offensive.  Also, Pétain believed the mutineers had used the limited leave time they had earlier—especially in Paris—to brew up their rebellion. Consequently, he also established surreptitious monitoring units in trains, at railway stations, and in the capital, to identify any new plotters.


  1. An interesting additional perspective on the mutinies. Thanks.

  2. Agree with Doug's comment...even today, the US goes to very great lengths to provide leave for the troopers deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. As Napoleon said (I think) the morale is to the physical three to one.

  3. Leave is always important. Lack of leave in the Civil War was one of the causes men deserted.