Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Military History and Warfare: World War I: The French Mutinies of 1917


The archives relating to the French army mutinies of 1917 will remain closed until 2017. At the time secrecy was maintained for fear of the adverse effects news of the mutiny might have had on both the domestic front and the British forces serving in France. Worn down by the failed Nivelle offensives of April 1917 on the Aisne and Champagne, the morale of the French army was at an all time low. The mutinies began on 17 April 1917 with peaks in late May and early June. A total of sixty-eight divisions were affected in some way, ranging from serious to minor disturbances.

Although there were reports of red flags appearing amongst certain mutineering units, a study carried out by the French military historian Guy Pedroncini has shown that the majority of mutineers were simply protesting against being used as cannon fodder. Better conditions were demanded with increased food, rest periods and regular leave. Angry demonstrations were mounted in the rear lines of the French army. Frequently, these protests were carried out by resting units which had been ordered back into the frontline for an attack. However, there are few, if any reported cases of discipline breaking down in the front lines themselves. It is clear that whatever the French infantrymen thought of their commanders, they remained willing to defend France against German attacks. Interestingly, the vast majority of mutineers were in the infantry. There were few reports of artillerymen joining the protests and no reports of cavalrymen. This is perhaps an indication of the varying degrees of comfort experienced (or suffered) by the different branches of the French army. Typically, the infantry bore the brunt of the casualties and deprivations associated with trench warfare. Consequently, it was they who were the most likely to complain about their conditions when the mutinies erupted in 1917.

Although the catalyst for the mutinies had been the failed Aisne offensive, the symptoms of declining morale could be seen earlier. In the last months of 1916, the average monthly desertion rate had been in the region of 470. Between the new year of 1917 and the start of the Aisne offensive, the rate had increased to 618. However, in May this figure rose rapidly to 1,291 eventually peaking at 1,619 in June. The reaction of senior officers varied significantly. Some took a hard line and laid the blame on the dissemination of pacifist or communist ideas from Paris or Russia. In some cases regimental commanders ordered men to fire on mutineers or arranged for court-martials and executions of ringleaders. In most cases, officers played a mediating role. The new commander in chief, Philippe Petain ordered that the mutinies be dealt with firmly but with moderation. Of those arrested and convicted by court-martial between 16 April 1917 and 31 January 1918, 499 men were sentences to death. However, only twenty-seven were actually shot. The remainder received a presidential clemency. 179 others received sentences of forced labour ranging from three years to life. 1438 were sentences to communal public labour for periods ranging between one year and two years. Others received prison sentences.

By June, discipline had been largely restored within the French army. They had not been entirely in vain. Petain engaged in a widely-felt public relations campaign amongst his troops. He visited ninety divisions, spoke to soldiers of all ranks and made it clear that there would be no more large-scale offensives until the Americans arrived. He initiated reforms to improve conditions for front-line troops. Barracks were refurbished and fresh green vegetables were brought into field kitchens. Small things in civilian life, but crucial for soldiers in the trenches. Soldiers were given the regular leave for seven to ten days every four months, with a right of appeal should it be refused. Better clean-up facilities were provided. Petain even went so far as to organise an appeal to the American Red Cross for families of soldiers rendered impoverished by the war. These measures, taken as a whole were crucial to restoring and maintaining army confidence in the leadership of its command staff. Crucially, the episode demonstrated to French high command, the importance of factoring in morale in future attacks.

The protests and mutiny of the French army in 1917 can be contrasted with that of the German forces in 1918. Whereas the French army suffered from sporadic outbursts from individual units or groups of soldiers, the German case was much more serious. In France morale in the towns and cities had held up for much of the war. This is perhaps why the French government were so keen to keep the mutinies secret, for fear of shattering a fragile domestic front. By contrast, in the German army of 1918 the failure of the Ludendorff offensives, the success of the Allies counterattack in the summer and autumn of 1918, and the growing realisation that the war was unwinnable lead to a rapid collapse in confidence that spread throughout Germany. The mutiny episodes in both armies demonstrate how much the First World War became a war of not only physical attrition, but spiritual.

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