Tuesday, June 24, 2014

11 The French army mutinies

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

In 1917 the French had a new commander, one Robert Nivelle. He had led counter-attacks at Verdun and now he hoped to end the war in one bold stroke. He had the French army attack the Germans along the Chemin des Dames ridge, beginning on the 16th of April, expecting that his soldiers would smash through the German lines and win a decisive victory.

The Germans however had got wind of Nivelle's plans and were able to inflict heavy casualties on the French attackers. When Nivelle tried to order further attacks, disorder erupted in the French army. French soldiers had given their all in the defence of Verdun, but they were not going to throw away their lives on Nivelle's futile offensive. Units refused to move to the front and there was some circulation of pacifist and socialist anti-war propaganda. The mutiny was nevertheless limited, as soldiers did not assault their officers or desert en masse. Frontline units continued to hold their positions but refused to attack. The mutiny was more like a strike than an insurrection.

The military authorities tried to repress the mutinies by force, arresting and trying ring-leaders and carrying out of summary executions. There were rumours, probably false, of mutinous regiments being shelled by their own artillery. But ultimately the French army turned to the one man the ordinary soldiers trusted to lead them - General Philippe P├ętain, the hero of Verdun. He replaced Nivelle as commander in chief and quickly introduced reforms to improve conditions for French soldiers (including an increase in the quantity and quality of the wine ration) and promised an end to large-scale bloodbath offensives.

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