Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Hidden History: The French Mutinies of 1917

Soldiers laying down arms. Soldiers saying enough is enough. Soldiers protesting the war because it has no just cause. Talk of revolution. Disobeying orders. Killing officers. Boomer nostalgia over Vietnam? No, this is about the French Army Mutinies of 1917. In the spring of 1917, the French Army faced a widespread revolt within its ranks. Few people discuss this mutiny, but it is part of the Great War storybook that is swept under the rug. Few books are out there about the mutiny, and one film is sort of based on it, which is amazing because the essence of the event is so left. Maybe the lack of attention is that the mutiny did not stop the war, and the leadership responded to the demands of the men in the trenches.

This mutiny occurred after the Nivelle Offensive. This was another offensive that gained nothing in the face of automatic weapons in dug in defensive positions that typified the war. The Germans had made changes in communications, reconnaissance and had worked a flexible defensive reaction to offensives rather than their old hold all ground approach. The offensive failed and soldiers started to lose it. The government called it collective indiscipline, but as many as half of the French divisions were non-functional. Had the Germans any inkling of what was going on, they could have sprung fast and probably pushed onward to Paris with French soldiers melting away, returning home. That is what men were angry about: conditions, the deplorable fighting for nothing, leaves, better food, and an end to it all.

General Petain reacted to the men's demands and delivered on promises. Men were rotated home, leaves were granted, and many of the items the soldiers argued for were addressed. There was a bit of a political element with the later period of the mutiny, but Petain took care of this. There were also court martialed soldiers and executed soldiers. Here is where the hidden part comes in. The archives were sealed until 100 years later. In a few years, we will know everything as historians will have access to all of the mutiny records. Maybe that is part of the reluctance to create martyrs and heroes out of the mutineers because what if the only men executed were men who killed fellow soldiers?

Avoiding this little nugget seems normal in the vast expanse that is history, but how many inconsequential diversity history bits are pushed on school children? This is an anti-war history bit. Children learn of fragging officers in Vietnam. The hard lesson might be that leadership responded, but the war went on. People power did not matter. What were the French fighting and not negotiating for in 1917 anyway? Were Alsace and Lorraine that hot? Maybe. The war went on because unlike the Russians and their deserting, mutinous soldier, the French had plenty of material goods and food to calm their soldiers down with. Anti-war soldiers could be bought off, and that is a lot harder to pitch than martyrs. It is better to focus on the plight of the men in the trenches, not that they finally rebelled and when they did, relaxed for a few baguettes and some R&R.


craig said...

Great post.

Would not be surprised if the classified documents reveal that some mutinous units were put down en masse and with great slaughter.

wobbly said...

Or maybe the mutiny affected mostly regional troops, like the Gascons or the Ch'tis. They didn't speak much French, after all.

Foolish Pride said...

Actually there are many instances of the mutineers coming under attack. Aside from individuals, French troops continued to defend themselves. What they refused to do was attack.

Son of Brock Landers said...

craig - I read somewhere that suspicions were they sent them to one area and then had their own artillery shell the shit out of them, ripping them to shreds and the artillery men would never know they were firing on their own. I'm a history nerd, so I look forward to all records being public.

sykes.1 said...

There was also an English army mutiny that year, although apparently on a smaller scale.√Čtaples_Mutiny