French Army Mutinies
The French Army Mutinies of 1917 took place amongst the French troops on the Western Front in Northern France. They started just after the conclusion of the disastrous Second Battle of the Aisne, the main action in the Nivelle Offensive and involved, to various degrees, nearly half of the French infantry divisions stationed on the western front. The mutinies were kept secret and their full extent and intensity were not revealed until the last third of the twentieth century.
Nearly one million French soldiers (306,000 in 1914; 334,000 in 1915; 217,000 in 1916; 121,000 in early 1917) out of a population of twenty million French males of all ages had been killed in fighting by early 1917. These losses had deadened the French will to attack.
In April 1917, French Commander-in-Chief General Robert Nivelle tried to break through the German lines on the Western Front with a great attack against the German occupied Chemin des Dames, a long and prominent ridge running east to west just north of the Aisne River. For this attack, general Nivelle applied a tactic which he had already inaugurated with success at Verdun in October 1916,: a creeping barrage, in which French artillery fired its shells to land just in front of the advancing infantry. This was designed to suppress the defending German troops in their trenches right up to the moment when the attackers closed in on them. The attacking infantry was to follow the barrage so closely that it was expected to suffer some casualties from friendly shells falling too short.
Whether Nivelle's attack (the Second Battle of the Aisne) was a total failure is controversial. It achieved some of its objectives, exhausted the German reserves and conquered some strategic positions on top of the Chemin des Dames ridge but with exceptionally high French losses. This was partly due to bad weather, partly to the fact that the Germans had used the many underground quarries under the Chemin des Dames as shelters but mostly to the appearance in very large numbers of the new lighter and more portable German MG08/15 machine guns. A French tank attack had also been launched near Berry-au-Bac but it led to the destruction of half the Schneider CA1 tanks that were engaged. A similar gain/losses balance in casualties may have been considered a draw in 1915 but in 1917, after the losses of the Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme, the Chemin des Dames early casualties caused a collapse in the morale of the French infantryman. It also became unacceptable to French public opinion which was kept informed daily by the newspapers. Nivelle was removed from his command on 15 May 1917 and was replaced by General Philippe Pétain.
The French troops at Chemin des Dames suffered a steadily growing number of desertions since the end of April. On 27 May, those individual desertions turned to widespread mutiny. Up to 30,000 soldiers left the front line and reserve trenches and went to the rear. Even in regiments where there was direct confrontation, such as the 74th Infantry Regiment, the men did not harm their officers; they just refused to return to the trenches. Most mutineers were veterans who did not refuse to fight but wanted the military authorities to be more attentive to the realities of modern war. The soldiers had come to believe that the attacks they were ordered to make were futile. Moreover news on the revolution in Russia was being published in French socialist newspapers, while anonymous pacifist propaganda leaflets were allegedly financed by German intelligence .
In Soissons, Villers-Cotterêts, Fère-en-Tardenois and Cœuvres-et-Valsery, troops refused to obey their officers' orders or to go to the front. On 1 June, a French infantry regiment took over the town of Missy-aux-Bois. Ashworth wrote that the mutinies were "widespread and persistent" and involved more than half the divisions in the French army. On 7 June, General Pétain and British commander Sir Douglas Haig met in private and Pétain told Haig that two French divisions had refused to relieve two divisions in the front line. Keegan estimated the true figure was over fifty divisions.
In 1983 Guy Pedroncini wrote a study based on French military archives and concluded that 49 infantry divisions were destabilized and experienced repeated episodes of mutiny. Nine infantry divisions were gravely affected by mutinous behavior; fifteen infantry divisions seriously affected and twenty five infantry divisions affected by isolated but repeated instances of mutinous behavior. As the French Army comprised 113 infantry divisions by the end of 1917, 43% mutinied. Only 12 artillery regiments were affected by the crisis of indiscipline.
On or about 8 June the military authorities took swift and decisive action: mass arrests were followed by mass trials. Those arrested were selected by their own officers and NCOs, with the implicit consent of the rank and file. There were 3,427 conseils de guerre (courts-martial), at which 23,385 men were convicted of mutinous behaviours of one sort or another; 554 men were sentenced to death; 49 men were actually shot and the rest sentenced to penal servitude. In 1983, research by Pedroncini documented 2,878 sentences to hard labour and 629 death sentences. According to Pedroncini, only 43 executions were carried out and can be solidly documented. The lack of rigor in repressing the mutinies provoked adverse reactions among some of the French Army's divisional commanders. General Pétain and French President Raymond Poincaré, on the other hand, made it their policy to mend rather than to aggravate the French Army's morale.
According to French historian Denis Rolland, "there would have been about 30 executions. This number has always been controversial because of the difficulty of accessing the files until 100 years have elapsed."
From time to time, anecdotal accounts have emerged of whole French infantry units marched to quiet sectors and then deliberately hachés ("cut to pieces") by their own artillery. However there is no evidence that this ever happened.
It is recorded that a rebellious Russian division of the Russian Expeditionary Force in France was encircled by French troops in September 1917 at Camp de La Courtine in central France and then fired upon with 75mm cannon. However only 19 rebels lost their lives. The leaders of the rebellion were shipped off to North Africa in penal servitude while the rest of the Russian troops (about 10,000 men) were demobilized and transferred into labor battalions.
Whatever the figure, along with the deterrent of military justice, General Pétain offered two incentives: more regular and longer leave and an end to grand offensives "until the arrival of tanks and Americans on the front". Pétain still launched limited attacks with massed artillery against German strongholds, like fort La Malmaison, which were taken with minimal French casualties.
|“||Friday, November 9, 1917: Commandant E. A. Gemeau, French liaison officer on Haig's headquarters staff, ... said that the state of the French army is now very good, but at the end of May there were 30,000 "rebels" who had to be dealt with. A whole Brigade of Infantry had marched on Paris with their rifles after looting a supply column. Another lot seized a motor convoy. Some others occupied a village and a brigade of cavalry had to be employed to round them up. This was not done without opening fire on the village. This shows how really bad the condition of the French army was after Nivelle's failure, and Pétain had a very difficult job to get things in good order. (Haig's war diary)||”|
As mentioned earlier, revelations on the extent and intensity of the mutinies were disclosed for the first time in 1967 by Guy Pedroncini in his volume Les Mutineries de 1917. His project had been made possible by the opening of most of the relevant military archives 50 years after the events, a delay in conformity with French War Ministry procedure. However, there are still undisclosed archives on the mutinies, which are believed to contain documents mostly of a political nature; those archives will not be opened to researchers until 100 years after the mutinies, in 2017.
The most persistent episodes of collective indiscipline involved a relatively small number of French infantry divisions, so the mutinies did not threaten a complete military collapse. However because of the mutinies, the French high command became reluctant to initiate another major offensive. General Petain's strategy in late 1917 was to wait for the deployment of the American Expeditionary Forces and the introduction in battle of the new and highly effective Renault FT tanks. Hence his statement at the time : "J'attends les chars et les Americains" (I am waiting for the tanks and the Americans). Petain's strategy proved to be essentially correct, since those two arrivals brought final success to the Allies during the spring and summer of 1918. As to the mutinous soldiers, they were motivated by despair, not by politics or pacifism. They feared that infantry offensives could never prevail over the fire of machine guns and artillery. General Pétain restored morale through a combination of rest periods, frequent rotations of the front-line units and regular home furloughs. Smith has argued that the mutinies were akin to labour strikes and can be considered, at least partly, political in nature. The soldiers demanded not only more leave and better food, while objecting to the use of colonial workers on the home front; they were also deeply concerned about the welfare of their families. The rather subdued repression, according to Smith, was part of the Petain policy of appeasement. Concurrently, that policy saved the appearance of absolute authority exercised by the French high command. Smith thus placed the mutinies into their wider ideological context and demonstrated the extent to which French soldiers and mutineers had internalized the main tenets of Republican ideology.
The British government was alarmed, for it interpreted the mutinies as a sign of deep malaise in French society. It tried to reinvigorate French morale by launching the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, which also failed in one of its strategic objectives.
- Keegan, pp 356-8
- Simkins 2003, p. 78.
- Gilbert, pp 333-334
- Ashworth, pp 224-5
- Blake, p 236
- Keegan, p 382
- Buffetaut, (2000)
- Pedroncini (1983)
- il y aurait eu environ 30 exécutions. Ce nombre a toujours été un sujet de controverses du fait de l'impossibilité d'accéder librement aux archives avant 100 ans. (French) Wikipédia: Mutineries de 1917
- Horne, p. 324.
- Poitevin (1938)
- Blake, p 265
- Meyer (2007), p. 540.
- Bentley B.; Gilbert and Paul P. Bernard, "The French Army Mutinies of 1917," Historian (1959) 22#1 pp 24-41
- Leonard V. Smith, "War and 'Politics': The French Army Mutinies of 1917," War in History (1995) 2#2 pp 180-201
- Leonard V. Smith (1994), Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Infantry Division During World War I, Princeton University Press, ISBN 9780691033044
- David French, "Watching the Allies: British Intelligence and the French Mutinies of 1917," Intelligence & National Security (1991) 6#3 pp 573-592
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- Meyer, G. J. (2007). A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918. Delta. ISBN 0-553-38240-3.
- Pedroncini, Guy (French), G; Les mutineries de 1917, Publications de la Sorbonne, Presse Universitaires de France (2nd ed. 1983 ), 328 pages, ISBN 2-13-038092-1
- Poitevin, Pierre. (French) La mutinerie de La Courtine, Editions Payot, Paris. 1938.
- Rolland, Denis. (French) La grève des tranchées, Imago, Paris, 2005. ISBN 978-2-84952-020-8
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- Offenstadt, N (1999). (French) Les fusillés de la Grande Guerre. Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob. ISBN 2-73810-747-8.
- Mutineries de 1917 (French)
- Soldat fusillé pour l'example (French)