French Army Mutinies (1917)
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 tried to break the German line on the Western Front with a great attack at the Chemin des Dames on the Aisne River. For this attack the French adopted a new tactic: a creeping barrage, in which artillery fired their shells to land just in front of the advancing infantry. This was supposed to suppress the defending troops in their trenches right up to the moment that the attackers closed with them. The infantry was to follow the barrage so closely that they were expected to suffer many casualties from friendly shells falling short.
The French troops at Chemin des Dames had suffered a steadily growing number of desertions since the end of April. On 27 May, those desertions turned to 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 wished their officers no harm; they just refused to return to the trenches. The mutinies were not a refusal of war, simply of a certain way of waging it. The soldiers had come to believe that the attacks they were ordered to make were futile.
In the behind-the-lines towns of Soissons, Villers-Cotterts, Fre-en-Tardenois and CÅuvres-et-Valsery, troops refused to obey their officers' orders or go to the front. On 1 June, a French infantry regiment took over the town of Missy-aux-Bois. According to historian Tony Ashworth, the mutinies were "widespread and persistent", and involved more than half the divisions in the French army. On 7 June, General Ptain and British commander Sir Douglas Haig had a private talk: Ptain told Haig that two French Divisions had refused to go and relieve two Divisions in the front line. Historian John Keegan estimates the true figure was over fifty divisions.
Detailed research in 1983 by the late French military historian Guy Pedroncini, based on the French military archives, concludes that altogether 49 infantry divisions were destabilized and experienced repeated episodes of mutiny. This was calculated as: nine infantry divisions were very gravely impacted by mutinous behaviour; fifteen infantry divisions were seriously affected; and twenty five infantry divisions were affected by isolated but repeated instances of mutinous behaviour. As the French Army comprised a total of 113 infantry divisions by the end of 1917, this puts the proportion of destabilized French infantry divisions at 43%. Conversely, only 12 artillery regiments had been affected by the crisis of indiscipline.
On or about 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), at which 23,385 men were convicted of mutinous behaviours of one sort or another ; 554 men were sentenced to death; 49 men were actually shot; and the rest sentenced to penal servitude. More up to date (1983) research by Pedroncini documents 2,878 convictions to hard labour and 629 death penalties. According to Pedroncini, only 43 executions were carried out and can be solidly documented. The lack of rigor in repressing the mutinies provoked adverse reactions among some of the French Army's divisional commanders. General Ptain and French President Raymond Poincar, on the other hand, made it their policy to mend rather than to aggravate the French Army's morale.
According to French historian Denis Rolland, "there would have been about 30 executions. This number has always been controversial because of the difficulty of accessing the files until 100 years have elapsed."
From time to time, anecdotal accounts have emerged of whole French infantry units marched to quiet sectors and then deliberately hachs ("cut to pieces") by their own artillery. However there is no evidence that this ever happened.
Conversely, it is well documented that a rebellious Russian division of the Russian Expeditionary Force in France was encircled by French troops in September 1917 at Camp de La Courtine in central France and then fired on by 75mm cannon. However only 19 rebels lost their lives. The leaders of the rebellion were shipped off to North Africa in penal servitude while the rest of the Russian troops (about 10,000 men) were demobilized and transferred into labour battalions.
|–||Friday, November 9, 1917: Commandant E. A. Gemeau, French liaison officer on Haig's headquarters staff, .. said that the state of the French army is now very good, but at the end of May there were 30,000 "rebels" who had to be dealt with. A whole Brigade of Infantry had marched on Paris with their rifles after looting a supply column. Another lot seized a motor convoy. Some others occupied a village and a brigade of cavalry had to be employed to round them up. This was not done without opening fire on the village. This shows how really bad the condition of the French army was after Nivelle's failure, and Ptain had a very difficult job to get things in good order. (Haig's war diary)||–|
The recent revelations on the extent and intensity of the mutinies were largely achieved by the publication, in 1967 and 1983, of highly detailed statistical research on the mutinies by Pedroncini. His project was made feasible 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 up to researchers until 100 years after the mutinies, in 2017.
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