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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The French Mutinies of 1917

Ed. note:  Our late friend and contributor Tony Noyes wrote this article for the Trip-Wire before he passed away.

Dispirited-Looking French Soldiers Near Aisne Sector, 1917

They were coined as "acts of collective indiscipline".

Various units with very good fighting records had come back from the blazing [Chemin des Dames] front in a state of moral disintegration toward the end of April [after the failed Nivelle Offensive]. On 29 April the first mutiny was reported by the 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment. They had been reduced from a nominal 600 men to only 200 by the morning after the assault and were marched back to their miserable billets in Soissons where their comfort was generally ignored. So they drifted, unwanted, and with the rumors floating that they would be transferred to a "quiet" front in Alsace. On 29 April they were ordered back to the front. They refused but after midnight were somehow led back to the front by the colonel appealing to them "On behalf of your mates already at the Front". The military police picked out a number of men reputed to be ringleaders, and in short order the majority were sentenced to imprisonment in French Guyana — a death sentence in that disease-ridden place. Five men were sentenced to be shot, and sentence was carried out on 12 June.

Notwithstanding the speed at which this mutiny was suppressed, others immediately followed it, these actions accelerating into May with no end in sight. At this time there were about 1000 battalions in the French Army, and it was eventually thought that at least half of them could not be trusted to go into action, although it was thought they would hold the trenches — but no more. In my personal opinion these "acts of collective indiscipline" were brought about by the many broken promises to the troops, bad battle management leading to frightening losses amongst the infantry ever since 1914, and senior staff incomprehension of the living conditions of the French private soldier (the Poilu) or of their need for comfort when in rest and out of the line. Nivelle was acrimoniously fired after accusing his senior army commanders of mismanagement despite their advising him previously of their fears for the campaign.

He was replaced in May by General Pétain, who then had the terrible job of restoring hope and morale to the ailing French Army. He did this brilliantly and managed to restore an element of trust in the average Poilu, due to his long association with the fighting men. He introduced proper leave rosters, proper rest camps, proper food facilities, allowed junior officers to report up the chain of command so that their (junior) voices could be heard, and allowed the colonels of the regiments to carry out such sentences against known mutineers as they deemed necessary.

Pétain on a Morale Visit to the Troops

Later that year he actually managed to launch various "set piece" attacks, notably to extend the French lines away from Verdun in the summer and to clear Fort Malmaison at the west end of the Chemin des Dames in October. He accepted that the French Army was in no mood to launch any more large-scale assaults but knew that the men would "hold the line" to the best of their ability.

Haig was not told of the actual problem but, trusting Petain, continued with the Battle of Arras into May to try to keep some German pressure off the French. He was successful, but at the cost of a heavier daily casualty rate than the army had suffered on the Somme, and the battle finally petered out in stalemate in May. The casualties in April and May amounted to some 148,000, a daily rate higher than those of the Somme the previous year.

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