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

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Division During World War I

by Leonard V. Smith
Princeton University Press; First Edition, 1994
Ron Drees, Reviewer

Unhappy French Soldiers

This work follows the French Fifth Infantry Division (DI) through the entire Great War, not so much as a historical record but analyzed as a social scientist would. The primary thesis is that soldiers' behavior was a function not only of the command structure itself but also of what soldiers negotiated with the command structure.

As the war raged on, the enlisted men gained ever-increasing control from the officers as to when attacks would cease. This "control" was illustrated by the disciplinary measures invoked as punishment for the eventual mutinies as commanders wanted to reestablish a semblance of control but without punishing everyone.

Between Mutiny and Obedience is well illustrated with photographs of significant participants and places: General Mangin, Fort Douaumont of Verdun infamy, and trenches and schematic maps showing the battles of the Fifth. Numerous French words and phrases are used, making me wish the author included a glossary so monolingual readers could understand the author's text.

The first example of the infantry "making their own decisions" was at the Battle of Charleroi in August 1914.  Four attacks failed with 3,940 casualties (20 percent of the Fifth).  The Division believed they had suffered enough and verbally expressed their dissatisfaction.  Fifth DI Commander Gen. Verrier ordered a retreat.   Many of the other French forces had departed for the rear already, thus avoiding encirclement and annihilation of the French army which would have given Germany a war-ending victory.

The attempted recapture of Fort Douaumont during the battle of Verdun was even worse. The 12,000-man division suffered over 5,300 casualties: killed, wounded, missing in action, for no gain at all. Soldiers from one battalion successfully persuaded the commander to surrender rather than fight to a certain death.

Yet the pitched battles may not have been the worst. Trench warfare with its occasional shellings and artillery barrages left men feeling trapped in a prison of mud for extended periods of time. The soldiers' sentiments began to resemble those when fighting a pitched battle. The futility of combat put soldiers into a conflict: military uselessness versus losing the war.

Author Leonard V. Smith contends that until the mutinies, soldiers manipulated formal authority by refusing to pursue an attack when no military value would result, but then matters degenerated until troops openly rejected authority by mutinying. The mutiny for the Fifth DI began on 28 May 1917, when the division was ordered to return to trenches instead of meeting relatives for the Pentecost holiday. The soldiers protested to officers who did not respond with force, resulting in no injuries to either side. More discussion followed the next , the demonstration gradually faded away. Over the next two days, two protesting regiments were trucked away from the front lines and placed under another corps. There were more protests during 5–7 June, with the battalions eventually moving into the trenches. What is curious about these protests is that the division had been in a quiet sector for three months.

French Court Martial

Now a comment on the word "mutiny." My dictionary defines it as "revolt against and often forcible resistance to constituted authority." Over 3,500 soldiers expressed their reluctance, verbally, to return to the trenches. Sometimes they refused to march in the direction ordered by their commanding officers. The commanding officers did not use force, such as calling in other "loyal" troops, but tried to reason with their subordinates. The result was that the troops eventually returned to a state of military order. No one was shot during the "mutiny"—or struck or battered by any means. In one instance, order was restored before an officer could complete his report of the incident. There simply was no violence, and, thus, this was not a mutiny where force was used to overcome command. Instead, what the Fifth DI did was once described by another historian as a sit-down strike.

P├ętain, who had replaced Nivelle as army commander, responded by reforming leave policy, frontline rotations, and food distributions—but conducted a series of courts martial. The results army-wide were 3,427 convictions, 554 death sentences, and 49 executions. The aftermath of the mutinies ended with only a fraction of men being court-martialed and an even smaller fraction executed. The command structure had reinstated its authority, yet tacitly admitted that there was justification for the difficulties.

The social science jargon in Between Mutiny and Obedience increased the difficulty of comprehension, making the experience a bit of a slog. While the futility of the Great War battles and the constant "wastage" certainly increased the frustration and futility of the regular soldier, the author does not link how many of the soldiers from 1914 could have survived in the Fifth DI until May 1917. Certainly not all troops had the same level of frustration.

Reading the book will increase one's understanding of what the Poilu endured, whether in the trenches or attacking a fortified position. This along with the mutinous events and court martial process give considerable insight into the thinking of the French command structure. An understanding of this is compensation for clambering through the social science jargon and French phraseology.

Ron Drees


  1. Thanks for this review, I enjoyed it. I have owned a copy for about ten years. I tried to read it but I could not make headway with it, so it has sat on my shelves since then. Since retiring from work, I have read a lot about the military history of the Third Republic and made several battlefield and museum trips in France. I think I understand more now so maybe I'll try the book again, when I have finished writing my talk on the Maginot Line.

  2. This gives me a whole new insight into the French 'mutinies' during WWI. I now realize there were a lot of different shades of circumstances and actions. Thanks for this, Ron!

  3. Enjoyed this immensely. Cheers

  4. Was Kubrick's film "Paths of Glory" using the 5th (DI) or just based upon it, or were there other units as well?

  5. I don't know is the short answer. I am unaware of other units having such problems, the author does not mention them, so I think only the 5th "mutinied".