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
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.