In the spring of 1917, the French Army faced a stern test – widespread mutiny. The mutiny in the French Army was successfully hushed up and when writing after World War One, Luderndorff stated that he knew nothing about what was happening within the French Army. However, within the hierarchy of the army, many senior officers expressed severe concern, especially as some of those involved in muting had flown red flags and sang the ‘Internationale’.
The Nivelle Offensive of April 1917 was a failure that cost the lives of many French soldiers. By mid-April, it soon became clear that certain sections of the French Army – primarily infantry regiments – had had enough. The start of the mutinies is considered to be April 17th – one day after the fated Nivelle Offensive. Seventeen men from the 108th Infantry Regiment abandoned their posts ‘in the face of the enemy’. Twelve were sentenced to death but were all reprieved. Research by G Pedroncini (‘The Mutinies of 1917’) indicates that their reaction was motivated by the conditions that they lived under – the classic conditions of trench warfare combined with long periods of time between being granted leave. Pedroncini examined several examples of where the mutinies involved larger numbers of soldiers and found that while red flags were flown and revolutionary songs were sung, both were more gestures as opposed to what the Russian Army had experienced early 1917. In general, the soldiers had a reasonable relationship with their junior officers who fought with them at the front. Senior officers – the ones responsible for strategy and tactics – were less highly regarded. However, from the evidence that historians have, only one was assaulted – General Bulot. In fact, it was officers who did a lot to stop any possible spread of mutiny by meeting with the mutineers and discussing their problems with them. On occasions, this clearing of the air was enough to bring the men back on line.
There can be little doubt that rumours – that spread with speed among the troops – did a great deal to cause problems. In particular, two caused a great deal of anger among the mutineers. The first was that General Duchene had ordered that every tenth man in battalions of the 32nd and 66th Infantry regiments was to be shot as punishment for refusing to obey orders when these battalions were ordered to go back to the front line. Three mutineers from these battalions were sentenced to death but only one was actually executed. The rumour – though nonsense – did stir up much anger, though ironically those battalions actually affected were under the control of their officers with due speed. The second rumour was that women and children in Paris were being attacked and abused by rioters in the city while they were at the front engaged in useless attacks on the Germans. There had been disturbances in the capital but the rumours had greatly outgrown what had actually happened.
One major difference between what happened in the French Army and the Russian Army was the treatment of officers. When soldiers of the 74th Regiment were ordered forward on June 5th 1917, 300 met and passed a resolution that “we shall not move back to the trenches”. They decided to march to the nearest villages to rally support but found their way barred by their officers. Rather than provoke any form of conflict, the 300 simply sat down in the road in protest. When men from the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 18th Infantry Regiment were ordered back to the front line – having been promised generous leave – they too mutinied. A colonel of the regiment intervened and asked the men to obey orders. He was told that the mutineers had nothing against him as a person (they shouted ‘long live the Colonel’) but that they would not go back to the front.
Mutinies occurred throughout the French Army from April 17th to June 30th and it total there were about 250 instances of mutiny. The most common complaint among the mutineers was the lack of leave they were given. There were very few instances of soldiers simply refusing to face the enemy, though this did happen in early June with the infantrymen of the 60th Battalion, 77th Infantry Division. In total, it is thought that about 35,000 men were involved out of an army of 3,500,000 men – about 1%. Though on paper this was a very small number of men, senior French commanders were worried for a number of reasons. Some did equate it to the situation that had occurred in Russia and worried that such a situation might rear its head again. Another reason why the French Grand Quartier Général was concerned was that nearly all the problems had occurred in units being held in reserve – ones that would be used to relieve the front. If the Germans attacked and these men were unwilling to be moved to the front, what would happen? In fact, Germany did not exploit the mutinies simply because they did not know about them. Luderndorff first knew about the crisis in the French Army on June 30th 1917 when it was nearly at an end. He viewed the events from a different angle however. How would the German troops react if and when they found out about the French mutinies? Would they, stimulated by the French, start their own? Luderndorff was aware that workers were striking in Germany and he would have been fully aware of what had happened in Russia.
By the end of June the mutinies had all but ceased. General Philippe Pétain, as the new commander of the French armies in the northeast (he had replaced the discredited Nivelle on May 15th), he was given the task of resolving grievances and dealing with those deemed major troublemakers.
Pétain wanted to instil discipline back into the army but he did not want a policy of total repression, as other senior officers had wanted. On June 18th, he wrote:
“The first objective (is) to obtain an immediate repression in order to prevent the agitation from spreading.”
However, he continued that “immediate repression” by itself was not enough.
“We must prevent the prolongation of disorders by modifying the environment in which these malevolent germs found a favourable terrain. I shall maintain this repression with firmness, but without forgetting that it is being applied to soldiers who for three years now have been with us in the trenches and who are “our” soldiers.”
The army immediately put a cloak of secrecy over the whole affair. Therefore even after the war, accurate figures for those punished were hard to acquire. In 1920, the historian Albert Mathiez put the number of executed at 2,700. However, the final figure was much less than this. G Pedroncini came up with the following statistics for the mutiny as a whole:
Therefore, fewer than 3,000 men received some form of punishment out of a total of 35,000.
Pétain was true to his word when it came to addressing the grievances of “our soldiers”. Until he deemed that the time was right, he ordered that the French Army should take no further part in offensives. He ordered that leave was to be granted when time came for a soldier to be given it at the end of four months – many commanders had been guilty of ignoring this. Rest became just that – rest. Pétain was aware that many soldiers were given extra duties to do at the rear when they should have been resting. Now he ordered them to rest. He also did what he could to improve the quality of food that the soldiers got and thousands of proper beds were ordered for barracks built behind the lines. He combined this with an effort to engender a feeling of patriotism in the army. His approach worked. A secret report for the Grand Quartier Général by the Special Service Bureau stated, “the sense of discipline is returning. The average opinion among the troops is that at the point we have reached it would be absurd to give up. But the officers must not treat their men with haughtiness.” The report was written on July 21st – just three weeks after the end of the mutinies.