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.

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