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[The staggering death toll of WW1 battles prompted unrest in every army but among war-weary French soldiers, that anger boiled over into open rebellion. Contributor Dan McEwen highlights the events of the French army mutiny.] 

The French Army mutiny will be known to many. But, how exactly did it begin? Historian and writer Dan McEwen explores the topic.

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“How was it that this rabble…untrained, undisciplined, under-officered… could not only hold their own against the professional soldiers of the European powers but actually defeat them?”

Before Bismarck, before Clausewitz, before the Moltkes, there was Gerhard von Scharnhorst [1755-1813]. The self-educated son of a Hanoverian landowner was a rarity; a progressive thinker amid the stodgy Prussian military establishment. As the first Chief of the Prussian General Staff, he re-wrote the infantry’s field manuals, and introduced battlefield tactics that earned him cult status among his peers. He was the favorite guest speaker at military academies where he lectured on his favorite subject: Napoleon Bonaparte and why his “rabble” had so soundly thrashed Prussia’s army at the Battle of Jena [1806] – and every other European army that came against them as well!
With astonishing prescience, he’d answered his own question. “The great peril posed by revolutionary France did not lie fundamentally in advanced weaponry or military technique but in the greater strength possessed by a freer nation.” [emphasis mine]
The starving women of Paris who led the bread riot that started the French Revolution that fateful Spring of 1789 were the unwitting mid-wives of a democracy that enfranchised its citizens with a ballot and a musket. Scharnhorst theorized that; “…by revolutionizing society, the French state set in motion new means and new forces that enabled the energies of society to be exploited for war as never before.” No more greedy royals fighting their petty little wars with their private armies for personal profit and power. Military operations were now a state enterprise and with universal conscription, everyone was an employee. War had been nationalized!
Napoleon Bonaparte harnessed his military genius to t these “new means and new forces” and wrote the book on exploiting “the energies of society for war as never before”. In a string of spectacular battlefield victories, he and his “rabble” of citizen conscripts rampaged across Europe, their “greater strength” so powerful it took six coalitions of a dozen monarchies twelve years, fifty battles and the lives of some quarter-million of their soldiers to finally defeat it. When the Imperial Guard broke and ran from the field at Waterloo on June 15th, 1815, the victors thought they’d seen the last of French nationalism. But 55 years later, when weakling emperor Bonaparte 3rd was baited by Otto von Bismarck into going to war with the army of a newly-minted Germany, French conscripts welcomed the chance to take them on, their letters to family and newspapers editors gushing with naive confidence.
Helmuth von Moltke’s better-trained, better-led divisions sent them reeling and besieged Paris. The city was starved into submission and a distraught Bonaparte 3rd personally surrendered the entire French army to Bismarck who claimed the twin provinces of Alsace and Lorraine [sandwiched between the French-German borders] as war prizes. Humiliated, France’s military elite retreated to the Grand Quartier Général. During the forty years they spent nursing their grudge, they didn’t seem to care that the industrial revolution was changing the very nature of warfare.
Battlefields were becoming increasingly deadly as heavy artillery firing fused shrapnel shells, machine guns firing 600 rounds per minute and repeating rifles firing blizzards of bullets accurate to a mile became standard equipment in modern armies. Alas, these innovations in no way swayed the French generals from their fixation on offense as a “strategic imperative” and defense as tantamount to cowardice. “…some European military thinkers held that infantry could not attack and take a defended position in the face of modern small-arms and artillery fire. Other theorists, usually of the French offensive school [emphasis mine] but also some British and Germans, contended that nothing could stop the offensive when undertaken by well-trained and highly motivated troops,” observed a 1966 issue of US Army History.

So, how did that strategy work out? The generals’ first offensive of the war opened at Artois in December 1914 and inflicted 240,000 casualties before it ended in March 1915 for a three kilometre gain. “Same troops, same objective” was the Order of The Day, day after day, and they wondered why casualties were so high,” laments Oxford University professor of History, Johnathan Krause. An angry Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre blamed the failure of the offensive on inadequate artillery support and too few infantry, and purged the senior ranks of 162 generals and colonels, 70% of his Corps Commanders and 40% of senior commanders. To no avail.

The butcher’s bill for Verdun neared 400,000. The Somme Offensive claimed another 200,000 and still, the planners in the war rooms back at the Grand Quartier Général remained flummoxed by the reality of trench warfare. Yes, it was relatively easy to blow a hole in the enemy lines but nigh unto impossible to keep it open long enough to convert a tactical “break in” of the enemy lines into a strategic “break-out”, especially when the artillery barrage churns the ground into an impassable obstacle course! By 1915, Joffre and his generals had concluded that achieving such a break-out was impossible. By 1917, they were so desperate for victory they listened to a boastful con artist in uniform.

General Robert Nivelle was an ambitious artillery officer who had snatched a few small victories from the jaws of defeat at Verdun, elevating him to rockstar status with his superiors. Convinced he alone had the answer to the trench stalemate, he set about convincing his political and military masters to let him try. With titanic audacity, he promises them he can break the German lines and win the war, not in weeks or even days but hours! 48 to be exact. “If I haven’t done it by then, I’ll stop” he promises. It is a disturbing testament to the depth of their despair that these men buy his pixie dust predictions.

The plan called for a pincer attack to snip off off a salient bulging out between at the towns of Arras and Chemin des Dames. However, the bold new strategy Nivelle had concocted for bringing about this quick victory amounted to little more than a tweaking of established “bite and hold” tactics – a massed heavy artillery bombardment followed by a creeping barrage and behind it small teams of aggressive shock troops – which have already been repeatedly tried and defeated, always at enormous cost in lives. As a former soldier who had witnessed the carnage on the battlefields first hand, Paul Painlevé, the new Minister of War, voiced grave doubts about the 48-hour claim but backed off when the popular Nivelle threatened to resign. To celebrate being given free reign, the boastful Chief of Staff caroused with his buddies and let his loose lips sink his ship.

Predictably, the Germans got wind of the planned offensive and began covertly withdrawing behind their new and impregnable Hindenburg Line. When a French general discovered their retreat and asked permission to attack, Nivelle nixed the request, believing it would upset all his carefully laid plans. [Some military analysts believe this was in fact the only real chance the offensive had to succeed.] These plans anticipate opposition from a mere nine divisions of Germany soldiers but unknown to Nivelle, 35 new divisions had been slipped into the front lines alongside those nine.

Known in the history books as the 2nd Battle of Aisne, [April 16-25], Nivelle’s offensive starts with a barrage of five million artillery shells that do so much damage to the ground, the troops following behind it bog down in the mud and 40,000 become casualties on first day. But Nivelle does not stop as promised! His armies suffer 10,000 more casualties a day – for 18 days! Branded a “mass murderer” by his shell-shocked troops, he is relieved of duty on May 15th [and hurriedly transferred to a post in North Africa], to be replaced by that old war horse, Philip Pétain.

While welcome, this sudden change of command was interpreted by rank and file troops as a sign the government in Paris was cracking, that maybe the end really was in sight and this further saps their will to fight. No one wants to be the last guy killed. On the home front, the first wave of anti-war protests was sweeping the country. In Paris, strikes by factory workers, mostly women, made headlines. As the letters describing their defiant exploits reach their men at the front, they too go on strike, becoming the only soldiers in the war to carry on with the french army mutiny.

While their pamphlets railed against the “gang of degenerates and careerists who are leading the country to ruin”, the mutineers never took up arms against their officers as in the Russian army, which was their commanders’ worst nightmare. Rather, the mutinies took the form of acts of insubordination ranging from failing to stand in the presence of an officer to actual physical attacks on them, vandalism of public buildings, desertion, circulating anti-war petitions, singing revolutionary songs on duty, street marches and drunken riots. One group even commandeered a train and re-routed it to Paris where they presented their grievances directly to the government! This was a critical stage in the origins of the French Army mutiny.

Petain’s senior officers were aghast to discover the depth of the discontent in the ranks and embarrassed by their going public with it, but wisely resisted the instinct to come down hard on the mutineers. The supposed ringleaders were rounded up and court-martialed. 500 were sentenced to death but anticipating public outrage the tribunals commuted most of these to prison sentences. Only 26 were executed by firing squads. Instead, 200 of the most “contagious” rebels were deported to French colonies. 3,000 were sentenced to prison but were put on probation until the end of the war allowing their sentences to be annulled for good behavior. Mutinous units were re-constituted and re-dedicated with great military pomp to renew their soldiers’ pride and commitment. Still, believing that nothing succeeds like success, Petain looked for a small victory that would re-energize his troops.

Two months after the French Army mutiny, on August 20th, 60,000 French gunners firing 1,300 heavy guns and another 1,000 field guns, opened the second Battle of Verdun. Well-fed and rested for a month, 360,000 French infantry go over the top one more time and capture 7,000 German prisoners on the first day, inflicting 49,000 casualties for the entire offensive while taking only 20,000. The honor and pride of the French army was restored! Whether the mutineers were traitors who shamelessly abandoned their country in its hour of need or heroes who forced reforms that would lead to victory is an open question in France today.

The war tore the guts out of France. Historian Sally Marks described the country as; “industrially devastated and psychologically drained, no longer a great power but propped up by its colonial empire.” Burying 1.3 million of its sons had so deeply scarred the nation’s soul that when the Germans stormed into France again in 1940, killing some 10,000 defenders in just days, the government surrendered preemptively rather than have the country endure WW1 levels of pain once more. Thus, the groundwork was laid for the French Army mutiny.
We are left to wonder what Scharnhorst would have made of how his nation then used its “greater strength” – Dan McEwen

Cite This Article
"Heroes or Traitors? The French Army Mutiny of 1917" History on the Net
© 2000-2024, Salem Media.
April 11, 2024 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/heroes-or-traitors-the-french-army-mutiny-of-1917>
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