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Going Over The Top: The Mutiny of the French Army

By David Flin

It’s often claimed that in 1917, the French Army was on the verge of collapse, and the evidence for that was that there were widespread mutinies through much of the French Army. It’s worth having a look at the situation, and see how valid the claim is.

The British Army had been quick to realise that if men were kept in the frontlines for too long, they rapidly lost effectiveness. As a result, British troops were regularly rotated in and out of the trenches. Typically, British units would have four one-week rotations: one week in the front-line; one week in the support trenches, one week in a rest area, and one week in France (generally Paris). This was liable to be changed at short-notice, but that was the intention.

By contrast, the French Army was harder pressed for manpower, and was not able to rotate troops to anything like the same extent as the British. By 1917, after three years of total war, the poilu were reaching a crisis point in what they could take.

In April 1917, the Second Battle of the Aisne commenced. General Robert Nivelle was confident that the attack would be a success. Unfortunately for him, and even more unfortunately for the French soldiers, things went wrong. Two weeks before the attack started, the Germans captured his entire battleplan.

Things got worse. The weather that April was particularly bad, with rain and snow turning the terrain into a quagmire of mud. What was worse was that only a fraction (53 out of 392) of the German artillery batteries had been identified and located before the poilu began the attack. That meant that the French bombardment beforehand had been ineffective.

The Germans, knowing what was coming, fell back in order to prepared positions away from the barrage

Because the Germans knew that the attack was coming, they pulled back most of their men from their forward positions, making the preliminary bombardment even less effective. The bombardment churned the ground into a morass of mud into which the French soldiers had to advance.

Things got worse. The artillery was supposed to lay down a creeping barrage, moving forward ahead of the advancing French infantry. However, for a variety of reasons, the artillery barrage fell short, and did more damage to the French soldiers than to the Germans.

It is estimated that the Germans had 100 machine guns for every kilometre of the line. The French advance didn’t have a chance. At the end of the first day, the French had suffered 40,000 casualties, comparable in scale to the British loss of 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Somme in 1916.

The battle continued for a month, with a lot of bloodshed on both sides. By the 15th May, Nivelle had been sacked; the French Army had lost over 187,000 men, and the German Army had lost 168,000. The only reason that the German Army lost so many men, about 90% of the French total, was their insistence on counter-attacks to regain lost ground. Quite why the Germans simply didn’t trade ground for loss ratios is beyond me, but it was their policy throughout the war, ensuring that they entered a war of attrition with enemies with access to vastly greater manpower. However, German strategy isn’t the subject of this article.

The morale of the French Army had been battered. The daily grind, the attrition of an industrial war, the battles that had achieved very little at great cost, the conditions in the trenches, poor rations, and a feeling of being regarded as expendable, and the failure of the current offensive brought morale to a tipping point.

The 21st Division mutinied, and other units swiftly followed. Over the next few days, mutinous acts were recorded in 68 divisions, 136 regiments, and 23 battalions. It was endemic and went through much of the Army. The soldiers demonstrated openly, and made their discontent known. At the peak, some 40,000 troops were directly involved in these demonstrations.

Astonishingly, the Germans never realised what was going on. It’s never been explained how they suffered from such as lamentable display of Intelligence, but it was one of the big failures of a war that had more than its fair share of failure.

One explanation that has been put forward for this failure of Intelligence is that German attention was taken up with the British attack at Passchendaele. If that was the case, then despite the losses, and the failure of the British attacks to make any headway whatsoever, Passchendaele succeeded in its primary aim of taking pressure off of the French.

However, although mutiny had swept through the French Army, and the French soldiers, the poilu, were angry with the High Command over many issues, the French soldiers were still more angry with the hated invaders. Strictly speaking, it was less of a mutiny than a strike. They refused to undertake any more attacks, and they were loud in demanding rotation out of the line, and better conditions and certainly better rations. However, while they may have grown to despise Nivelle, on the whole they did adhere to his famous utterance at Verdun: “Ils ne passeront pas.” The lines were still defended, and it was generally business as usual for anything other than futile attacks. That’s a generalisation, and quite a few troops did refuse to go back into the front line, but the diaries of the men who were there are generally in agreement that a distinction was made by the soldiers between holding their ground and engaging in another futile attack.

It was General Petain who brought an end to the unrest, and brought order to the troops. It’s very easy to remember Petain’s role in WWII, and dismiss him as someone without a willingness to resist, but in 1917, he held the French Army together.

First of all, he immediately took steps to improve conditions, he sorted out leave allocation, and, most importantly, he arranged for proper rotation of troops in and out of the line. He also introduced a policy of focusing attacks on small, achievable objectives rather than on major advances, and he also improved coordination between artillery, aircraft, and tanks in supporting infantry attacks.

It’s something of a surprise that this hadn’t already been done, but it restored morale and discipline in the French Army. Restoring discipline also involved punishment for those deemed to be ringleaders, despite it being a general malaise. This involved 554 men being sentenced to death, although of these, the vast majority had their sentences commuted. Only 26 men were actually executed.

As a result, Petain had restored confidence and morale, and by the end of January, 1918, the French armies had been reinvigorated. Within just a couple of months, the Germans launched their Kaiserschlacht offensive. Had it come earlier, and been largely aimed at the French armies, it might have stood more chance of success. As it was, the offensive met with increasing resistance, and ultimately failed.

The last throw of the German dice had failed, and that marked the point at which the fact of German defeat on the Western Front was inevitable, and all that remained was several months and many thousands more casualties to determine the details of how the end would come about.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow