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’.
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.
“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 French Army consisted of 112 Divisions and 68 were affected by mutiny.
- Of these 68, 5 were “profoundly affected"’ 6 were “very seriously affected", 15 were “seriously affected", 25 were affected by “repeated incidents" and 17 were affected by “one incident only".
- A total 35,000 men were involved in mutiny.
- 1,381 were given a “heavy prison sentence" of five years or more hard labour. Twenty-three men were given life sentences.
- 1,492 were given lesser prison sentences, though some of these were suspended.
- 57 men were probably executed (7 immediately after sentence and possibly another 50 after they received no reprieve. There were 43 certain executions (including the seven summarily executed) and 14 “possibly" or “doubtfully". Two more men were sentenced to death but one committed suicide and one escaped (Corporal Moulin who was known to be still alive after World War Two).
- It is known that of these 57, some were not executed for mutiny but for other crimes committed in the time when the mutinies occurred, including two men shot for murder and rape.
Therefore, fewer than 3,000 men received some form of punishment out of a total of 35,000.