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

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The French Mutinies of 1917 Were Not Anti-War, but Anti-Military

Execution of a Mutineer at Verdun
As the Events of 1917 Are Remembered

Historian Michael Neiberg makes the argument that the mutinies of 1917 were not anti-war, but anti-military in his 2007 essay "What True Misery Is."

Leonard Smith’s path-breaking study of the mutinies of 1917 understood the soldiers seeking a redress of their grievances. Smith argued that the men were looking for an alternative to the carnage of the western front that offensives à outrance like that of Nivelles on the Chemin des Dames had revealed to be criminal folly. On the other hand, French poilus were unwilling to face what Smith described as the indefinite incarceration that perpetual defensive operations in the trenches represented. The mutinies were therefore statements by the men that neither suicidal charges for no larger purpose nor a continuation of senseless trench warfare would be acceptable. The mutinies were, Smith concludes, not an anti-war statement because few soldiers demanded an immediate end to the war under any circumstances. 

They were, however, an anti-military statement in that the poilus demanded better treatment for themselves and better conduct of the war for their country. Men were willing to die for France but were unwilling to throw their lives away for no larger purpose. Thus does Smith conclude that the mutinies were in the end an essentially patriotic statement. They represented a demand not for surrender but for a more efficient and sensible prosecution of the war.

Sullen Poilus, 1917

As many scholars have noted, the mutineers did not abandon their posts in most cases, took great care not to let the Germans learn about their protests, and only a few committed acts of violence. Still, men from dozens of units refused to go back into the line and even a few soldiers singing the Internationale could throw French staff officersinto paroxysms of fear. Outside observers rarely spoke of revolution, but they were quick to see how serious the crisis was. British General Henry Wilson, always a keen observer of the French Army and its moods, toured the French lines in June and saw "signs of French demoralisationz everywhere he went and noted that the French army "wants very careful handling if she is to carry on to next year." Still, even Wilson acknowledged that the morale problems of the French Army were due less to losses than to "disappointment"at the failure of the French to make those losses worthwhile by bringing France closer to victory. Waves of strikes in French industry showed that the frustrations of soldiers were also felt by their families at home.

Most military studies credit the reforms instituted by Nivelle’s replacement, General Henri-Philippe Pétain, for quelling the mutinies in the ranks. To be sure, Pétain improved leave arrangements, made sure that officers better understood their men, and oversaw improvements to the quality of the daily life of poilus. It is not, however, true, that Pétain simply waited for the tanks and the Americans as he famously pledged. While he did advocate a strategy of "healing and defense," he nevertheless conducted a number of important, if limited, offensives.

Nor did Pétain necessarily support staying on the perpetual defensive. As early as June, Pétain had advised the French government and BEF commander Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig that the French Army could conduct an offensive within a month if needed, although he urged that such an offensive not be conducted until he could supervise important doctrinal reforms. It may be worth noting that Pétain’s caution came not from a fear that French soldiers would disobey orders to attack, but because he wanted time to purge the offensive mentalities of his predecessors. Pétain did, in fact, conduct two offensives of his own in 1917.  .  .

Victorious Poilus, 1918

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 [in depth].

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; 2007 Australian Chief of Army Military Conference

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