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 disastrous Second Battle of the Aisne, the main action in the Nivelle Offensive in April 1917. General Robert Nivelle had promised a decisive war-ending victory over the Germans in 48 hours; the men were euphoric on entering the battle. The shock of failure soured their mood overnight. They involved, to various degrees, nearly half of the French infantry divisions stationed on the western front. The new commander General Philippe Pétain restored morale by talking to the men, promising no more suicidal attacks, providing rest for exhausted units, home furloughs, and moderate discipline. He held 3400 courts martial; 554 mutineers were sentenced to death but over 90% had their sentences commuted. The mutinies were kept secret from the Germans and their full extent was not revealed until decades later. Gilbert and Bernard find multiple causes:
- The immediate cause was the extreme optimism and subsequent disappointment at the Nivelle offensive in the spring of 1917. Other causes were pacificism, stimulated by the Russian Revolution and the trade-union movement, and disappointment at the nonarrival of American troops.
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 promised a war-winning decisive victory. He proposed to work closely with the British Army 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 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.
Nivelle's attack (the Second Battle of the Aisne) completely failed to achieve its main war-winning objective. At the cost of very high casualties it did accomplish some of its objectives: it exhausted the German reserves and conquered some strategic positions. 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. The failure was widely felt. Nivelle was removed from his command on 15 May 1917 and was replaced by General Philippe Pétain. A similar battle would have been considered a draw in 1915 but in 1917, after the huge losses at the Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme, the Chemin des Dames the psychology of the soldiers was fragile. The overall failure and the heavy casualties caused a collapse in the morale of the French infantrymen who had been so enthusiastic just a few days before.
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 very widely distributed.
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 told British commander Sir Douglas Haig that two French divisions had refused to relieve two divisions in the front line.
In 1983 Guy Pedroncini used French military archives and to find that 49 infantry divisions were destabilized and experienced repeated episodes of mutiny. Of the 49, nine divisions were gravely affected by mutinous behavior; fifteen were seriously affected and twenty five divisions were affected by isolated but repeated instances of mutinous behavior. As the French Army comprised 113 infantry divisions by the end of 1917, 43% had been affected. The crisis of morale occurred mainly in the infantry which had borne the overwhelming brunt of casualties since the beginning of the war. Branches such as the heavy artillery, which was located far behind the front lines, and those cavalry regiments which were still mounted remained unaffected by the mutinies, providing detachments to round up deserters and restore order. Only 12 field artillery regiments were affected by the crisis of indiscipline.
Starting 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) In 1983, research by Pedroncini found 2,878 sentences to hard labour and 629 death sentences; 43 executions were carried. 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.
Activists in some Russian units in France had been spreading word of the revolution underway in Russia and encouraging other Russians and Frenchmen to join them. In June the rebellious First Russian Brigade was encircled by loyal Russian troops in September 1917 at Camp de La Courtine and bombarded with cannon. It killed 8 men and wounded 28. This episode became the basis of widespread false rumors that the French had bombarded French units. The Russian ringleaders were sent to North Africa in penal servitude while the rest of the Russian troops (about 10,000 men) were demobilized and transferred into labor battalions.
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 only launched limited attacks with massed artillery against German strongholds, like fort La Malmaison. These were taken with minimal French casualties.
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.
The government suppressed the news so as not to alert the Germans, nor depress homefront morale. 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.
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 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 continuing morale issues in more than half of the front-line formations did mean that it would not be until the early months of 1918 that the French Army had fully recovered.
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 américains" (I am waiting for the tanks and the Americans). He had the support of Prime Minister Clemenceau, who told President Woodrow Wilson in June 1917 that France planned, "to wait for the Americans & meanwhile not lose more ... I like Pétain ... just because he won't attack'." Historian Martin Evans says, "the French army would sit tight and wait for the Americans." Two other historians say, "Even after Petain's skilful mixture of tact and firmness had restored military discipline, the French army could only remain on the defensive and wait for the Americans." In the event however the final great German offensives of March/April 1918 were halted by a revived French Army fighting alongside their British and American allies.
The British government was alarmed, for it interpreted the mutinies as a sign of deep malaise in French society. While this was not the case, the British Army did have to continue offensive warfare on the western front with only limited support from its allies for the second half of 1917. The British tried to reinvigorate French morale by launching the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, which also failed in one of its strategic objectives.
- Bentley B. Gilbert, and Paul P. Bernard, "The French Army Mutinies of 1917," Historian (1959) 22#1 pp 24-41
- Keegan, pp 356-8
- Simkins 2003, p. 78.
- Gilbert and Bernard, p 28
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