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

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Pétain’s Most Important 1917 Reform: Leave for the Poilus

Rare Postcard Identifying the Men as Mutineers

By Michael Neiberg

Most military studies credit the reforms instituted by Nivelle’s replacement, General Henri-Philippe Pétain, for quelling the mutinies in the ranks. Pétain’s most important reform may well have been his institution of changes to the French leave system. A September 1916 policy theoretically had allowed each man seven days of home leave every four months. The policy, however, counted home leave as any day that a soldier did not spend in his unit. Therefore, time in transit to home counted against leave. The policy also left a great deal of discretion in the hands of local commanders, many of whom "ignored the leave roster, administered it unfairly, or even abandoned it altogether." Pétain oversaw a more generous system which forced commanders to stay more faithfully to the leave roster and increased the total amount of leave to seven days every three months. It also granted extra leave for men who lived far from the front lines.

Pétain, himself from a peasant background, may have understood how much more important leave was in summer 1917 than it had been in previous years. With the fourth winter of the war approaching, men were understandably concerned for the safety of the food supply in their home districts. They wanted leave not only to rest and enjoy the company of their families but also to help their families prepare for the critical harvest. Postal censors noted that soldiers from farming communities were especially angry "to see men with no knowledge of farming" going home to the cities at a time when farmers were most needed. Urban soldiers, they believed, were abusing the policy, often by falsely listing a rural address. Fears that the government was mismanaging the new leave policy led to great anxieties, not just because soldiers wanted to go home, but because they were afraid for the futures of their families. As one wife of a soldier noted, "If they had put all the farmers where they belong then we wouldn’t soon be needing ration cards for bread." This concern for the ability of their families to feed themselves through an extremely uncertain winter added greatly to the anxieties France was experiencing during the period of the morale crisis both at home and in the trenches.

Pétain Meeting with the Troops

Pétain’s new leave system helped to ease the crisis somewhat. It not only gave the men more leave, it also gave at least some of the lucky ones leave when they most needed it. French soldier Paul Pireaud gently admonished his wife for suggesting that he try to arrange to come home in August, after the wheat harvest had been collected, so he could spend his leave relaxing. "If I can I would rather go now’, he told her in early July, "because it makes me heartsick to see that you are obliged to do everything." Paul got his desire to come home in late July where he, like many other soldiers on leave who were from his native Dordogne, spent most of his leave week helping to bring in the wheat harvest in time to assure himself that his family would have sufficient food through the winter.  Thus, by August, when the last rumbles of the mutinies were fading away into echoes, at least some of the men of the French Army had had their long overdue chance to go home and be at least a bit reassured that their families would be alright in their absence. Of course, not all men got that golden opportunity and some no doubt grew more bitter as a consequence

While the reforms instituted by Pétain in the wake of the mutinies were important, we need to cast a wider lens onto the morale crisis of 1917 and France’s recovery from it. Pétain surely improved the daily conditions of French soldiers and helped to change the mentality of GQG from offensive à outrance to what Michel Goya has called combat en profondeur.

Nevertheless, Pétain was not the only agent of change. The crisis of 1917 must be placed into a much larger historical context to include events like the two Russian revolutions, the socialist initiative at Stockholm, and the Papal Peace Note.

Source:  "'What True Misery Is’: France’s Crisis of Morale 1917," 1917: Tactics, Training and Technology,  Australian Dept. of Veterans' Affairs

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