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Webmatters : Chemin des Dames: The French Army mutinies 1917
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Chemin des Dames 1917

Nivelle’s Legacy

4th May 1917

As Nivelle launched his second attempt on the eastern end of the Chemin des Dames the first signs of indiscipline appeared at the western end of the front.

A company at Laffaux refused to go up to the front line complaining about their general conditions and the mismanagement of the campaign.

The conditions under which the French soldiers served would have caused uproar in the British or German armies. Pay was poor, the food neither nourishing nor of sufficient quantity and leave was difficult to obtain.

Whilst the British Army shot offenders for desertion the French Army had, in particular during the early period of the war, resorted on occasions to random lotteries. If an attack failed, a number of men from the offending unit would be shot to encourage the others to be more vigorous in their attacks (There is a monument at Vingré to such a group of soldiers).

Executions were also reported for trivial offences — Soldier Bersot was shot at Fontenoy for refusing to wear the blood stained trousers of a comrade after his own had become ripped.

Above all else though, the French were fed up with the impossible battles they were asked to fight.

Defending their country was one thing they argued, but the colossal scale of the wastage in life for a few kilometres of gain (if that) had become intolerable.

It has to be remembered that the battle for Verdun throughout 1916 had been something that almost every Division had taken part in. After the terrible conditions on that battlefield, the French soldiers desperately needed a victory, something to raise their spirits.

Time and time again they had been told that their advance was going to be the decisive one of the war, and time and time again the hoped for breakthrough had eluded them. Enough was enough.

From 20th May the refusal of troops to make further attacks or man the front lines became more common place. Throughout June there were a number of incidents of indiscipline some of which were worse than others.

An interesting point being that the commencement of these more serious incidents began after Nivelle had been replaced. Many were conducted by regiments that had either been resting for a period or had not even taken part in the battle.

Deprived of any real facts and censured in what it could relate when it did have facts the press turned to speculation and rumour. This was soon picked up by the civilian population who in turn passed it on in letters written to their soldiers at the front.

Pétain replaces Nivelle

His offensive and reputation in tatters, Nivelle had found himself replaced (on the 15th May 1917 ; Mangin had already been sacked on the 29th April) by the man who was originally thought too lacking in offensive spirit, Philippe Pétain. A commission was also created to study what had happened.

The acts of mutiny, however, almost all occurred after Pétain had become commander and he dealt with them in a harsh enough fashion. Whilst the demonstrations had been widespread the movement passed within weeks but that did not stop a number of executions taking place, even after the issue had subsided.

For the moment, attacks on the grand scale were halted. Above all else Pétain was known to the ordinary soldiers as a general who would not waste their lives on frivolities.

During October and November 1917 Pétain launched a number of well prepared but limited offensives which succeeded in taking the ridge and making a 4-5 km advance in the area of Laffaux.

These successes were important to morale and in restoring the troops’ confidence in their commanders.

3,426 soldiers were found guilty of mutinous conduct, but of 554 death sentences handed down by the Military Courts only 45 were actually carried out.

Perhaps the most amazing thing of all about this episode was the fact that the French managed to keep it quiet not only from the Germans, but also (until they told them) their ally : the British.

I have explained in further detail, different aspects about the soldiers involved and the various battles fought during my narrative guide.