18 MAY, 1917: Lottery Winners

Since the United States had entered the War, at the start of April 1917, the impact of its decision had been felt on every battlefront and in every belligerent country, or at least in those that could be considered strategically self-propelled (6 April, 1917: Woodrow Who?).

Belligerents on both sides knew the clock was ticking on a decisive shift in the War’s balance, and that had everyone on the hurry-up, including Allied strategists anxious to limit US influence over the shape and character of the post-War world. On the other hand, the USA wasn’t going to make much practical difference to the conflict in the short term, because it would take at least a few months to bring its enormous military and economic potential to bear on the battlefields, so at this stage the decision’s impact on the War was almost entirely psychological.

The same couldn’t be said of war’s impact on the United States.  A century ago today, the US Congress passed the Selective Service Act into law, introducing conscription to the nation for the first time, so this seems a good moment to take a look at what joining the First World War did to a vast democracy founded on pacifism.

Three years of neutrality had hardly left the USA untouched. European wartime needs for armaments and raw materials had fuelled a massive manufacturing and trade boom. Because the Central Powers had been blockaded off the trading map, trade was focused almost exclusively on supplying the Allies, which had quickly exhausted their cash and saleable US assets before taking loans from US banks to the tune of $2.6 billion by April 1917 (out of a total spend of about $7 billion, compared to a German debt of only $27 million).

The boom altered the dynamics of American politics. The sudden rise to global economic status of the ‘great neutral’ shifted the balance of a long conflict between the non-interventionist, liberal values upon which the US was founded, and outward-looking, socially conservative elements seeking to establish a global economic empire through the unfettered expansion of big business. Weighed down with orders, politically ironclad as purveyors of the new prosperity, with money to burn and free to exploit all those markets (in Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific) left open by the flight of European money, big business couldn’t lose.

Although a steady improvement in US workers’ rights and conditions during the early 20th century continued after 1914, wartime political clout enabled businesses to maintain the restrictions on union action imposed by ‘antitrust’ laws. At the same time, the boom brought 40,000 women into the US workforce for the first time, adding strength to calls for female suffrage, and encouraged the migration of southern black workers to northern factories, creating new racial tensions in the north-eastern US and encouraging some southern communities to pass laws banning the departure of workers.

Conservative businessmen, who had literally billions of vested interests in an Allied victory, meanwhile used their wealth and influence to erode isolationist sentiment and promote intervention in world affairs through the Preparedness Movement. Funded and supported by business leaders, fronted by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and ex-US Army Chief of Staff General Wood, the Movement dominated an ongoing public debate about neutrality. Comprehensively outgunning organisations promoting pacifism, it focused on demands for greatly increased military capability, in particular for ‘universal military training and service’ (UMT&S), which was essentially a euphemism for conscription.

By 1916 the Movement had gained widespread support among conservatives of all kinds, and had the backing of moderate unions, which were fighting their own battles for influence against left-wing organisations, but it was still seen by a majority of Americans as the extremist voice of big business. That was certainly the view of the Wilson administration, which represented the liberal, non-interventionist side of the great American argument.

Pacifist by inclination, and seeking re-election as ‘the man who kept us out of the War’, Wilson was ready and willing to intervene in Europe if the deadlock couldn’t be broken or peace brokered, but on strictly liberal terms that had nothing in common with the ambitious chauvinism of business interests.  Safely back in office by the time the crunch came, he was careful to avoid any hint of imperialist aggression by declaring war against the German government for its specific crimes, rather than against the Central Powers or Germany – but he had no choice about announcing his intention to raise a ‘National Army’ for the fight.  As the US public reacted to war with, broadly speaking, a muted version of the patriotic fervour that swept Europe in 1914, the fact of military expansion offered the business lobby an enormous opportunity to pursue its political agenda in the national interest.

The Preparedness Movement seized the chance with both hands, calling for the immediate dispatch of a volunteer army to Europe, to be led by an authentic (if rusty) military hero in Teddy Roosevelt. The campaign quickly recruited a corps of 25,000 men for the job, prompting Republican calls for it to be incorporated into the proposed National Army.  The White House fought back with the Selective Service Act, which had been prepared the previous autumn with the aim of limiting flow of skilled workers into uniform, and which would have been opposed by many southern and western Democrats had Roosevelt not made conscription a party-political issue.

Bully.

As it was, Wilson’s party rallied round to pass a bill that required all males between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft by 5 June, but that exempted all government officials at any level, clergymen, convicted criminals, aliens and mine workers. The Act also prohibited any volunteers from joining the National Army, though volunteers could still join the National Guard militia or the regular US Army, and all service in the US Navy remained voluntary. Conscription was later expanded to include men aged between 18 and 45, while exemptions were widened to include shipyard workers, pacifist sects and (a mere 4,000) conscientious objectors.

A total of 6,373,414 men were eventually conscripted into the wartime army, and it would be fair to say that the Act was a success, in that it re-established government control over the size and composition of the wartime army and did so without causing serious political disruption.  Then again, racial discrimination in local draft boards meant that conscription had less impact on registered white males, of whom only 25% were deemed fit for service, than on registered Afro-Americans (36%), while pacifist and socialist opposition to US involvement in the War refused to go away.  Its subsequent repression by the state demonstrated that compulsory military service was not the only big change in American life to sneak in via the war door.

Lottery losers… black US conscripts in 1917.

The Espionage Act (June 1917) and the Sedition Act (May 1918) gave the federal government power to arrest dissenters for a wide range of ‘disloyal’ activities – and most of the 1,600 people imprisoned were charged with spoken offences – while the Trading With The Enemy Act (October 1917) allowed the administration to censor the foreign press, and federal control of the mail system enabled suppression of undesirable publications.  American socialism, which had been a globally significant force before 1914, was particularly targeted, with Eugene Debs, leader of the resolutely pacifist Socialist Party of America, receiving a 20-year prison sentence for unpatriotic speeches after the October Revolution in Russia had sparked a nationwide ‘Reds scare’.

Nice thought – but US socialism was being crushed by the state in 1917.

While the government was busy quelling opposition, it was also forming an ad hoc alliance with the same big business interests it had spent the neutrality years trying to restrain.  The War Industries Board, established in July 1917 along with Food, Labor, Trade and Finance Boards, brought together industrialists and military authorities to control the production and supply of all war-related goods and materials.  The Boards did an efficient and largely harmonious job of driving the US economy through the War, a process that happened to concentrate orders and profits in the hands of their co-opted tycoons, and that helped establish the dominance of big business over American politics through the 1920s.

This hasn’t been any kind of overall picture of the US at war, and wasn’t meant to be.  I’m just picking out a few details from the big, popular picture of Uncle Sam’s world-historical march to superpower status, details offering yet another reminder that, a century ago, total war wreaked social havoc wherever it was practiced. Like every other belligerent, the USA was changed forever by the experience, but while the European empires were refashioned, mortally wounded or destroyed by the Great War, the Great Democracy learned to behave like an exuberant version of their nineteenth-century predecessors.

14 MAY, 1917: One Track, Two Minds…

I seem to be running a little late – often a problem with world wars – so this may be a brief trip to northern Italy.  A hundred years ago, as the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo got underway, no trip to northern Italy could have been brief enough, because conditions for troops on the Italian front were at least as bad, and in many ways worse, than those on the Western Front.

All the familiar horrors of trench warfare were in place, replete with hideous ways to be killed, maimed or driven to madness, but the armies involved were poorly fed and equipped by Western Front standards. They were also required to fight in a less hospitable climate, sweltering through hot summers and freezing through Alpine winters, and if anything they were even more familiar with the role of cannon fodder than their Western Front counterparts.

Posterity’s classic image of warfare on the Western Front? Welcome to northern Italy, May 1917…

Through nine previous Italian assaults on Austro-Hungarian positions northwest of Venice, around the River Isonzo, and one major Austro-Hungarian offensive in the Trentino region, the only other part of the front line geographically suited to large-scale infantry attacks, nothing significant had been gained by either side in the theatre since the outbreak of hostilities two years earlier. Hundreds of thousands of lives had meanwhile been lost, and the launch of yet another Isonzo offensive on 14 May 1917 begs two obvious questions. Why hadn’t the leaders of Italy and Austria-Hungary bowed to the stalemate and ended the fight? And why hadn’t the Italian or Austro-Hungarian armies behaved like the Russian or French armies, and simply refused to fight?

The leadership question has some straightforward answers. The government and military leadership of Austria-Hungary did whatever the Germans wanted, or faced economic, military and political collapse, in that order and in short order. Germany wanted the Allies kept as busy as possible on as many fronts as possible while the Third Supreme Command pursued more creative ways to win the War, so the Austro-Hungarian Army remained in position on the north Italian frontier, diminished and dug in for defence but ready to fight any Italian advance.

The Italian position was little more complex, but not much. Italy had joined the War for gain, hoping to acquire the lands it was invading to the north and pick up a number of bonus territories promised by the Allies in return for joining their side in 1915.  Gain was still on the table if the Central Powers could be beaten, and with the USA due to shift the balance of military power some time relatively soon this was no time to let the Allies off the hook.  At the same time Italy couldn’t hope to maintain its military campaign, or indeed its socio-political stability, without Allied military and economic aid, so the Italian leadership generally tried to do whatever the British and French wanted. Most of Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s offensives so far had been conceived and timed in support of Allied attacks on the Western Front, and the latest was no exception, designed to draw German forces away from the Allied Nivelle Offensive in France.

The Nivelle Offensive was already grinding down to failure by the time Cadorna launched his attack, but you couldn’t really call off a major offensive during the First World War. Preparations had taken weeks if not months, such was the weight of manpower and equipment needed for 1917 conditions, and they could hardly take place in secret. With a lot of eggs in one very visible basket, sending them all back where they came from without a battle to show for it would be an invitation to the enemy to exploit yet more weeks of logistic upheaval.

It would also be a propaganda disaster, a major blow to the morale of civilians and troops that might destabilise a nation’s entire war effort. Fear of social and political breakdown, of mass refusal to fight and potential revolution, had been a factor in every European government’s approach to warfare since long before 1914. Almost three years of unproductive mass slaughter had only sharpened the fear, and by May 1917 the revolution in Russia had the fear digging into the psyche of every member of the elite classes in every belligerent country.

So cancelling the offensive at the last minute would have risked sending a potentially fatal shockwave through the Italian political system, but not just because Italian civilians or troops were sick of the slaughter (of course they were). Italian unity and morale were still being sustained by a fervent national desire for victory through military aggression. Since the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive a year earlier, which had briefly threatened to turn into a successful invasion of northern Italy, the young nation’s relatively simple greed for territory and glory had been overtaken by fear, anger and a desire for revenge on the battlefield that was obvious to anyone reading the Italian press. Even if the latest longshot on the Isonzo could have been called off, few people in Italy wanted it cancelled.

That pretty much deals with why Italian soldiers were still ready to fight, despite being prey to all the same socialist and pacifist agitation available to French or Russian troops. As for the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Italian Front, German influence and attachés undoubtedly played some part in keeping discipline fairly intact, but so did circumstances. When your troops are dug into secure and superior defensive positions, able to pick off attackers from height and distance, and in no danger of being ordered into an offensive of their own, they can probably think of better times to mutiny.

Austro-Hungarian troops, nicely perched on the high ground.

Fourteen Austro-Hungarian divisions were in position along the whole front in mid-May, but they were heavily outnumbered. Cadorna, always a master of logistics, had dug deep into dwindling Italian manpower reserves to muster 38 divisions and concentrate most of them for a breakthrough attempt along a 40km front running west from the coast. After a two-day preliminary bombardment of enemy lines, the infantry attack began on 14 May and at first swept all before it, driving the line back to within 15km of Trieste by the end of the month.

Just so you know…

The unfamiliar scent of victory soon faded away. Like so many breakthrough attempts on the Western and Eastern Fronts, this one couldn’t sustain momentum once it outstripped immediate contact with supply lines and supporting artillery. Austro-Hungarian forces concentrated for a counter-attack on 3 June that quickly pushed the stalled Italian offensive back to where it had started, and virtually all the ground gained had been lost by the time Cadorna called off the operation on 8 June.

The offensive had gained nothing at a cost of more than 150,000 Italian casualties (against about half as many Austro-Hungarian), and its failure triggered exactly the kind of reaction that its cancellation might have provoked. Disappointment fuelled a surge of popular fury at the government and high command, and the national unity promoted by fear of invasion began to fall apart.

Food and fuel had been in desperately short supply since the start of the year, particularly in major cities, while pacifist and socialist agitation had been feeding on Russian revolution and the winter’s failed peace initiatives. Now the bread queues began to riot and strikes began to mushroom out of control, reaching a climax in August when a worker’s uprising in Turin had to be put down by the Army. With Cadorna already scraping the manpower barrel in preparation for yet another attack on the Isonzo – intended to finish off the Austro-Hungarians while the Eastern Front was still keeping potential German reinforcements occupied – there was a logic to conscripting the uprising’s ringleaders, but the punishment’s most significant effect was to plant experienced agitators in military units already showing alarming signs of disaffection.

The tenth Isonzo offensive and its fallout offer a snapshot of how Italy was permanently maimed by the First World War. The nation’s pre-War thirst for adventure and glory may have been dangerously teenage (geopolitically speaking), but for good or ill it was sure of itself. During its first two years at war, failure in attacking an enemy, followed by the spectre of invasion and an another, even greater attacking failure, all accompanied by hunger, weariness, bereavement and fear, split what I’ll risk calling the Italian political personality.

Italian society had learned to turn on itself and play the blame game. It had rediscovered a swaggering unity in the face of shared danger, but had tumbled back into introversion after this latest failure. It would flip again before the end of the year; it would keep flipping in the aftermath of the War; and it’s fair to say that, pace Il Duce, it has been flipping ever since. Italy would somehow stumble through to the Armistice in one piece, but by 1917 it had already been permanently damaged, infected by a strain of War-induced volatility that still hasn’t gone away.

7 MAY, 1917: Up In The Air

Set against the vast conflagrations of the two previous years, the spring of 1917 was turning into a relatively quiet fighting season, at least on land. By early May the big event, a massive Allied breakthrough attempt in the usual sectors of the Western Front, was still spluttering to a violent close around Arras in the north and the Aisne River further south, but it had obviously failed and the front was congealing into a familiar stalemate.

Elsewhere, the Russian Army’s collapse into revolutionary chaos was having a dampening effect on offensive planning wherever its troops were involved. The Eastern Front had fallen eerily immobile as German and Austro-Hungarian commanders waited to see how the ongoing revolution in Russia panned out.  On the Caucasian Front, Russian occupation of Armenia had collapsed but the Ottoman Empire was in no position to exploit the situation, leaving a regional power vacuum that descended into violent chaos, characterised by sporadic warfare between Armenian and non-Armenian elements.

North of Salonika, mutiny among his Russian units in early May persuaded Allied c-in-c Sarrail to call off his multinational army’s clumsy, costly and resoundingly unsuccessful attempts to follow up a failed spring offensive, and to abandon plans for any further offensive action in 1917.  Russian troops stationed in Persia, some 21,000 of them, had also ceased to function as a military force by May, but British commanders on the neighbouring Mesopotamian Front had taken a while to work that out.

In the face of steady advances by General Maude’s Anglo-Indian army, Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates had retreated north of Baghdad in March (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later). Maude had received permission to push on to the railhead at Samarrah, intending to get between 10,000 Ottoman troops threatening Baghdad from the northwest and 5,000 more retreating from western Persia, and to drive the latter back towards General Berezov’s Russians.  After a preliminary operation had taken Fallujah, a key flood-control point on the Euphrates, a series of relatively small but intense engagements brought the British to Samarrah by the end of April.

British forces in Mesopotamia finally had a competent commander, but disease would kill General Maude within a few months.

The offensive did keep the two Ottoman armies apart, and it provided some good news for a success-starved British public, but it brought Maude’s battle losses up to 18,000 men since March. Another 35,000 had been put out of action by disease, forcing Maude to halt further offensive operations and suspend planned transfers of troops at a time of manpower build-up on other British fronts.

The prospect of eventually connecting with Russian forces in the Caucasus through Persia, always more credible on paper than in real life, had meanwhile lost its limited allure for those British strategists not committed to total concentration on the Western Front.     They were still interested in Palestine, which offered a chance to dominate trade and oil in a post-Ottoman Middle East, but that invasion had been put on hold in April after two failed attempts to take its first objective, Gaza.  British imperial forces in the theatre would spend the summer reinforcing for an autumn offensive, while those in East Africa were still being reorganised to incorporate troops recruited from African colonies, and wouldn’t resume their apparently endless pursuit of the last German army on the continent until July.

With advances on every other land front either stalling or stalled, Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s planned attack on the River Isonzo represented the last hope of any significant Allied success on land before the summer.  The offensive, which turned out lively enough to be worth a post of its own, was to be Cadorna’s tenth tilt at that particular windmill, and had been intended as support for the planned Anglo-French breakthrough on the Western Front.  In other words it wasn’t much of a hope, and its prospect did little to lift a mood of disappointment and frustration that touched every section of British and French society as 1917 first campaigning season grew old.

Even the cartoonists were getting grumpy about the War in May 1917.

The Central Powers – or rather Germany, since its allies were now too weak, too broke and too internally fragile to do anything on their own – had no plans for land offensives of any size during 1917, but needed to win the war at sea in a hurry.  The spring had been anything but quiet on naval warfare’s global front, as Germany’s all-out commitment to submarines threatened to cripple British supply lines, but May would see that particular threat blunted by the Royal Navy’s widespread adoption of a convoy system (1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets).

So unless you were rooting for the global spread of workers’ revolution, nothing taking place on land or sea during the early months of 1917 appeared likely to snap the world out of its ongoing nightmare anytime before the US Army arrived in Europe – and that brings me to the war in the air.

Aerial warfare was still the new kid on the block in 1917, and although almost three years of combat had generated lightning technical development in the field, it was still an essentially trivial sideshow.  Aircraft had been extremely useful as adjuncts to other branches of the military, performing reconnaissance, spotting and communications tasks for armies and navies all over the world, and lately coming into their own as direct support weapons for troops on the ground.  They had become infinitely more reliable during the War, as well as faster, more heavily armed and more versatile, but they had yet to make any strategic difference to anything in their own right.

On the other hand, aircraft had always been a very high-profile weapon, giving warfare the kind of dramatic, ultra-modern, mechanised glow that inspired propagandists and thrilled literate populations.  Any significant contribution made by air power – whether supporting massed armies on the European fronts, performing otherwise impossible reconnaissance or communications tasks on far-flung colonial battlefields or carrying out pinprick raids on enemy institutions beyond the range of other weapons – was likely to generate maximum publicity, but nothing matched the dash, glamour and gladiatorial distraction of combat between aircraft.

April 1917 had seen dogfights on the Western Front achieve global star status. In the crowded skies above the northern wing of the Allied spring offensive – the actions known to the British as the Battle of Arras – the appropriately named Richtofen Circus hit the headlines by taking a terrible toll of British pilots flying inferior machines.  Richtofen, who personally shot down 20 British aircraft during the month, was by no means alone as German hunting squadrons, or Jastas, destroyed some 250 British aircraft and killed four hundred airmen during ‘Bloody April’.

Propaganda machines joined the fight with predictable enthusiasm, but while the German press was free to indulge in simple crowing the Allies were required to find more subtle ways to praise their air forces.  The British press responded by reinventing Bloody April as a hard-earned success for the Royal Flying Corps, which had somehow managed to fulfil its ground support commitments in spite of overwhelming German air superiority.

More than two decades later the British would pull off the same trick at Dunkirk, keeping a straight face while turning embarrassing defeat into noble victory, but propagandists in 1940 could justify their claims by pointing to the preservation of troops and the boldness of their escape.  Their predecessors in 1917 were skating on much thinner ice.  British pilots and aircraft did indeed provide effective support for the ground offensive in April 1917, but the offensive itself was a complete failure and the RFC’s heroic sacrifices were, in strategic terms, completely pointless.

They were also avoidable. German success in the skies had come against superior numbers, and owed much to the Allied policy of pouring out tried and tested aircraft designs in large numbers, and then rushing barely-trained pilots to the front to fly them.  Bloody April convinced Allied strategists of the need to focus on quality over quantity, and within a few months better-trained aircrew in new, high-performance fighter aircraft would restore aerial parity over the Western Front, where they would remain locked into a loud but peripheral role in the wider battles.

The land war is stalled, the war at sea is cooling down and the air war is still a sideshow. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have become passive or reactive participants in the War, belligerents only in name, and the approaching nemesis of US might is still some way off.  In the context of a world war, and in strictly military terms, there’s nothing much going on beyond the routine progress of death and disease on every front… unless you count a first glimpse of the false god destined to dominate military thinking for the next hundred years.

During the night of 6/7 May 1917, a single German aircraft, an Albatros fighter, dropped six 12.5kg bombs on north London.  The raid, which killed one civilian but otherwise caused only minor damage, was the first night attack on London by a fixed-wing aircraft.  Though the operation appears to have been an unofficial one-off, it came only a couple of days after a similar attack in daylight and, taken together as hindsight, the two flights constituted an announcement about the future of air power.

Satan’s little helper… the Albatros CVII.

Germany had developed long-range heavy bombers to replace the airships that had been spreading fear across southern England but doing little more.  The bombers were almost ready to arrive over English night skies in large numbers, and to test the theory – popular with some strategists – that they could transform wars between states into brief, long-range exchanges of massed aerial attacks on civilian targets.  The ease with which the lone Albatros came and went, escaping long before any British aircraft reached the scene, served to emphasise the fact that no effective defence existed against aerial bombing in 1917 – so it seemed the time had come for the bomber to have its day.

The heavy bombers would arrive over England within a couple of months and drop plenty of bombs, but they wouldn’t change the War.  Strategic bombing theorists on all sides would decide, much like the generals trying to break through trench systems on land, that instant victory was just a matter of attacking with more bombers, bigger bombers, bigger bombs or all three.  They would still be chasing that dragon when the War ended, and they’d be at it again throughout the Second World War.  A quick glance at the news in any given week should make it clear that many military theorists still believe heavy civilian bombing of one kind or another can be a war-winner, despite the fact that the one and only occasion on which a nation has been bombed into submission – Japan in 1945 – is generally regarded as an unrepeatable stain on human history.

It didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, unless you happened to live around Hackney, but the night raid on London of 7 May was the Devil at the doorbell, ready to warp our futures with destruction and deceit.

29 APRIL, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front

It was kept very quiet, effectively hidden from the world’s press and publics, but a hundred years ago today the French Army on the Western Front mutinied.

The mutiny began as a number of small and disorganised refusals to fight, and mushroomed into a vast and disorganised surge of discontent that spread to parts of 54 divisions (a division generally mustered between ten and fifteen thousand troops). Bizarrely, at least to modern eyes, it passed without having any immediate effects on the Western Front’s strategic state of play. That’s enough to make it interesting, but it also marked a watershed in French military affairs that was important for the development of the French nation, for the future conduct of the war on the Western Front and for the future of Western Europe.  Worth a look then, starting with some background.

The French Army that began the Great War was a peculiar beast. On one hand it was the nation’s greatest pride and joy, the instrument of conquest that had, in the minds of most French people, elevated the country to global greatness during the Napoleonic era. As such it exerted enormous political influence, to the extent that governments rose or fell on the word of the officer class, as delivered through the minister of war. On the other hand, the nation’s greatest pride and joy had been in disgrace since its catastrophic defeat by Prussia in 1870, the humiliating occupation of Paris that followed and the eventual loss of two provinces – Alsace and Lorraine – to the new, united Germany.

How to address the Army’s failings, how to make it a world-beater again and how to recover the lost provinces were national obsessions in France, and the perceived answers to those questions informed the condition of the Army in 1914.

The big answer had been that the French Army lacked offensive spirit, a commodity known in France as élan, or sometimes attaque à l’outrance. The Army was seen as having been too defensively minded in 1870 to survive against an opponent committed to aggression in the field, and so it had become offensively minded to a fault. Long before 1914, all-out attack was established as the key to every military success, and was therefore the rationale behind every tactic, every choice of weapon, every decision about training priorities and every strategic plan. Defensive warfare was accepted as an occasional necessity, but never studied, developed or modernised to anything like the same degree.

I’m not sure if faith can move mountains but it can definitely promote denial, and the French military’s faith in attack as the answer to every question took some shaking. It survived the shocks of the War’s opening months, when everyone’s attacking plans fell apart in the face of technology that overwhelmingly favoured defensive warfare, and it went on to inspire a year of disastrous, French-led offensives on the Western Front in 1915. Plans to give it another go in 1916 were thwarted by the German attack on Verdun, which forced the French Army into a year of desperate defence and brought it to the brink of terminal exhaustion.

The hard-earned victory at Verdun convinced many commanders of the need for a changed approach, but that wasn’t enough to shift the paradigm. Command passed from the stoically attack-minded Joffre to the dramatically attack-minded Nivelle, who conceived and conducted yet another giant offensive on the Western Front in the spring of 1917, claiming that tweaked tactics backed with sufficient élan would overwhelm (very well prepared) German defences within 48 hours. By the end of April, the Nivelle Offensive had failed, obviously, completely and expensively, and at that point the cannon fodder fought back.

Men being mutinous… quietly.

France was, and still is, a nation shaped by the strength and frequency of its popular uprisings. French soldiers had been exposed to plenty of socialist and pacifist agitation throughout the War so far, and conservative political opinion had long feared its influence. Signs of mounting discontent had been difficult to miss during the latter stages of the Verdun campaign – when, for instance, whole units en route for the front took to bleating aloud, lambs to the slaughter – and many field commanders expected trouble in the wake of the latest failure. Front-line forces were left decimated and disappointed, adding bitterness to long-term grievances about cancelled leave, poor pay and battle fatigue. Trouble duly erupted and took various forms, with some mutineers deserting (a record 27,000 French troops deserted in 1917), some simply refusing to fight, others demanding peace and a few groups threatening to march on Paris, but there was little or no coordination among mutinous units and soldiers generally proved amenable to pacification.

The hero of the hour was General Henri-Philippe Pétain, the same Pétain who had ‘saved’ Verdun by reorganising its defences a year earlier. Pétain had been passed over as c-in-c in favour of Nivelle, but was finally given the job on 15 May, after which he visited 90 divisions in person to hear grievances and discuss solutions. Careful to handle mutineers with kid gloves, he kept executions to a relative minimum and was credited (from above and below) with restoring the morale of ordinary troops in a remarkably short time. The last mutinous units had been pacified by about 10 June, the Army was back in position on the Western Font in July, and it was pronounced fit for combat in August.

Pétain being soothing – it worked.

All Pétain’s restorative work was carried out in strict secrecy. The French public knew nothing about the mutiny, neither did the country’s allies, and although the huge gaps in the French line were obvious to watching German units, they made no serious attempt to exploit the situation. I know that seems weird, but the German high command was busy frying other fish, and its army on the Western Front was in no position to exploit what otherwise seemed likely to be only limited, temporary gains.

Given that the war on the Western Front carried on as if nothing had happened for the rest of 1917, it may seem that the great mutiny came and went without changing anything much, but it did make an enormous difference to the French Army, to French soldiers and to French political life.

For the ordinary poilu (that’s the French word for Tommy or doughboy), pay and conditions improved, leave began to materialise as planned and best of all the doctrine of all-out attack lost its hold over their masters. The French Army on the Western Front was never again asked to provide the main thrust of a major offensive. Pétain restricted his ambitions to defensive operations, adopting the ‘defence in depth’ tactics perfected by the Germans (basically a matter of retreating from the front-line when attacked, and regrouping in prepared defensive positions), and although the French Army did manage one last counteroffensive effort after the German offensive of spring 1918, it played a largely supporting role in the Allied attacks that brought the War in the west to an end.

So did Pétain. His wise caution kept the French Army in the field for the rest of the War and restored it to a useful level of operational effectiveness, but he still faced opposition from conservative field commanders, staff officers and politicians who refused to accept that élan had been rendered unworkable by the mutiny. Failure to prepare defence in depth would still bring occasional disasters – the collapse of French positions near the Aisne in May 1918 springs to mind – and although Pétain retained his command until after the Armistice he was effectively sidelined from April 1918, when the more aggressively inclined Foch was appointed Allied Supreme Commander.

Much of the Army high command and many conservative politicians also persisted in regarding the mutiny as the work of pacifist and socialist agitators, a view encouraged by a spate of simultaneous strikes and civilian protests throughout France, and sharpened by news from revolutionary Russia. Their loud calls for suppression of left-wing dissent would eventually be answered by the government of Georges Clemenceau (of whom more later), which began mass arrests of pacifists, dissidents and suspected German sympathisers in November 1917, and orchestrated a series of sensational treason trials through the first half of 1918, citing the mutiny as the basis for most charges.

So the centenary of the mutiny provides a reminder that there was more to Pétain than his part in the horror of 1940s Vichy France, which can be seen as an old man’s last, disastrous attempt to protect French lives with defensive thinking. Perhaps more importantly, the mutiny is also a reminder that when radical discontent goes off half-cocked it tends to promote conservative suppression, and that the rule applies in western democracies as well as in less self-satisfied cultures.