BRIA 17 3 a The French Army Mutinies of World War I

Bill of Right in Action
Summer 2001 (17:3)

Military Authority

BRIA 17:3 HomeThe French Army Mutinies of World War I |  Truman, MacArthur, and the Korean War |  The Military Confronts the Harassment of Women and Gays

The French Army Mutinies of World War I

Allied and German armies in World War I fought to a standstill for three years. In 1917, many units in the exhausted French Army mutinied and refused to fight. The French military had to quickly find a way to discipline tens of thousands of soldiers and also persuade them to fight again.

Before war broke out in August 1914, the great European powers had been at peace with one another for almost 100 years. Only the brief Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), which lasted less than a year, had disturbed this peace. Almost everyone imagined that this war would also be short. Most expected the troops home by Christmas 1914. But this didn't happen. The war lasted four years, killed more than 9 million people, and caused more than 32 million casualties. Known as the Great War (later as World War I), it was one of the worst catastrophes of the 20th century.

Although the war was fought in many places, much of the fighting took place on two fronts. On the Eastern Front, Russian troops invaded Germany and Austria-Hungary. After some initial success, the Russians were repelled and by 1915 had lost more than 1 million troops. By 1916, the Russian Army was crumbling. Much of the army was in open mutiny. In February 1917, a revolution toppled the government. In October, another revolution led to a Communist government and Russia's complete withdrawal from the war.

On the Western Front, the Germans quickly pushed into France in 1914, but British and French forces stopped them at the First Battle of the Marne. With the German offensive stalled, the Western Front turned into a stalemate, with neither side able to advance for the next three years.

Both sides dug in, each creating a network of trenches on the Western Front that eventually extended for 600 miles from the North Sea to Switzerland. Each side dug three lines of zig-zagging trenches. Front-line trenches were about 100 yards to a mile from enemy trenches. They were about six to eight feet deep and four to five feet wide. Sandbags and earth were often piled at the top to offer further protection. In the sides of trenches were holes for men to sleep in. In some, earthen stairs led to dugouts deep below the ground. A few hundred yards back were support trenches. Much farther back were reserve trenches. Connecting trenches ran from the front-line trenches to the support and reserve trenches. In this way, troops and supplies could move back and forth easily.

Advancing was almost impossible. A typical combat strategy was to pound the enemy with artillery fire and then order the infantry to charge. With fixed bayonets, men would go "over the top" of the trenches and wade through barbed wire into "no-man's land." Their goal was to overrun the enemy's trenches. But the instant they got out of the trenches, the enemy opened fire with machine guns. Few charges were successful.

At night, each side sent patrols through no-man's land. Some patrols simply attempted to retrieve the wounded and dead. Raiding patrols tried to sneak up close enough to enemy trenches to lob grenades into them or even capture soldiers. Other patrols strung tangles of barbed wire to prevent enemy patrols from getting close to their trenches.

Artillery pounded incessantly. Most trenches could not protect anyone from a direct hit by an artillery shell. This constant vulnerability affected the men. Numerous soldiers suffered from "shell shock" or battle fatigue, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the winter, snow fell, and ice lined the trenches. In spring and fall, rain turned the trenches into mud. Rats swarmed throughout, feeding on garbage and rotting bodies. Lice infested everyone. New troops coming to the front lines could smell the trenches long before they could see them.

"We're Not Marching!"

In the first two months of the war, the French lost 329,000 soldiers. By Christmas 1914, almost a half million French soldiers had died. By December 1916, 3 million Frenchmen had been killed or wounded.

Early in 1917, a new French Army commander-in-chief, General Robert Nivelle, planned a major offensive on the German lines. His strategy was to soften the German defenses with artillery and then, with the aid of tanks, hurl large numbers of troops at the enemy. Nivelle predicted that a "break-through" would occur within 48 hours. This would then lead to a crushing defeat of the German Army and an end to the war.

More than a million French soldiers left their trenches to attack across no-man's land on April 16. But things went wrong. The artillery failed to blow openings in the German barbed-wire defenses. Well-protected German machine guns cut down thousands of Frenchmen in deadly crossfires. Many French tanks were blown up or got mired in the mud. Hard-driving rain further slowed the French advance.

After a week of French attacks, the German lines still held. More than 100,000 French soldiers had been killed or wounded. Incredibly, General Nivelle insisted on continuing his offensive, believing that the big "break-through" would come at any time.

The 2nd Battalion of the 18th Infantry Regiment had taken part in this offensive, and German machine gun fire had devastated it. Of the 600 men in the battalion, only 200 lived through the assault. Dazed and demoralized, the 2nd Battalion survivors were promised a period of rest behind the front. Instead, replacements filled the ranks of the dead and wounded, and on April 29 the battalion was again ordered to the front.

Angry and unbelieving, the men refused. Many of them, drunk on cheap wine, shouted, "Down with the war!" By midnight, the soldiers had sobered up and regained their military discipline. By 2 a.m., they reluctantly began to march to the trenches on the French front lines. Recognizing that a brief mutiny had occurred, officers decided that an example had to made of some of the mutineers. In the dark, about a dozen members of the battalion were pulled, more or less at random, from the ranks. They were court-martialed for leading the mutiny. Only those clearly innocent escaped punishment. One soldier, for example, proved he was in the hospital at the time of the mutiny. He was replaced with another man from the battalion. Most were sentenced to prisons outside the country. Five were sentenced to be shot. (One escaped into the woods when German shells exploded as he was being led to the firing squad. He was never found.)

Another, far larger mutiny broke out on May 3. When called to assemble in their battalions and regiments, almost the entire battle-weary 2nd Division came drunk and without their weapons. "We're not marching!" the soldiers shouted. They refused to move out to the trenches. The officers retreated to headquarters, unsure of what to do.

Throughout history, armies traditionally have put down mutinies with force. They overpower rebelling troops and execute them. But this was an entire division. The officers would have difficulty getting sufficient troops to overpower a division. And when they did overpower the division, they couldn't shoot thousands of men. It would be considered a massacre. Besides, they needed the men to fight.

Bucking tradition, the officers decided to send the most respected officers to urge the men to return to the front. The officers talked to the troops, appealing to their patriotism and their duty to replace exhausted troops. The men explained they had no problem defending the trenches. They just didn't want to take part in any more futile offensives. By the end of the day, the troops had sobered up, and they marched to the front. The few men who still refused to go were arrested and taken away. No one else in the 2nd Division was punished.

Soon, more and more units refused to obey orders to march to the front. With the German Army only 60 miles from Paris, this crisis in military discipline threatened the existence of the French nation.

Most of the mutinies in May fit the same pattern. They started at night with drunken infantry troops who were being ordered back to the front. The troops had suffered high losses in the recent offensives, and they wanted no part of future offensives. Many had read pacifist pamphlets. Most had heard about the revolution unfolding in Russia, and they wanted to force their government to end the war. They often marched on railway stations and tried to seize trains to Paris. When they sobered up, most of the troops returned to their units and went to the front. Most of the mutinies went unpunished. But the officers knew they could not rely on these troops to attack. In fact, officers had great difficulty telling which troops were dependable.

The increasing incidents of "collective indiscipline," as the military called the mutinies, ended General Nivelle's dream of a grand victory. On May 15, General Henri Philippe Petain took over as commander-in-chief. A few days later, Petain issued Directive No. 1, which suspended "large-scale attacks in depth."

The Mutinies Continue

Petain's directive basically meant that French troops would man their trenches and defend against German attack. Most French soldiers were willing to do this. One group of mutineers wearing flowers in their uniform button holes had told their stunned commander:

You have nothing to fear, we are prepared to man the trenches, we will do our duty and the [Germans] will not get through. But we will not take part in attacks which result in nothing but useless casualties . . . .

In spite of Petain's new order, the mutinies continued and even grew in number and scope. The men complained about poor food rations and not getting leaves to visit their families. Many of them read anti-war pamphlets, sent from radical organizations in Paris. During early June, when the most serious incidents took place, units in 16 different army divisions mutinied. Veteran soldiers shot at their officers, set fire to their camps, fought with civilian and military police, and took part in drunken brawls with each other. Rebellious soldiers put their thumbs down and shouted "End the War!" at trucks of soldiers heading to the front. Desertions increased. Through it all, thousands of men disobeyed orders to go to the front. "We won't go up!" became their motto.

Petain Stops the Mutinies

Shocked at the fast-spreading mutinies, General Petain concluded in early June that the French Army was "unfit to fight." He found he could rely on only two divisions to stop the Germans from marching to Paris.

By mid-June, Petain had started to implement a list of immediate and long-term reforms of the army designed to stop the mutinies. Many of his reforms, such as granting seven-day leaves every four months, also attempted to lift soldier morale. He also demanded harsh punishment for those guilty of mutiny. "Mutineers drunk with slogans and alcohol, " he wrote, "must be forced back to their obedience."

Petain pressed his officers to identify, court martial, and swiftly punish the leaders of the mutinies. The problem was that when large numbers of soldiers all refused to follow orders at once, finding leaders was difficult. In many cases, the mutinies appeared to be spontaneous, without any leaders. It was not practical to court-martial and punish an entire unit of soldiers because the men were needed to fight.

Petain held General Emile Taufflieb as a model for his officers to follow. At the beginning of June, Taufflieb had handled a mutiny of a battalion of 700 men. The men were marching to the front when on a prearranged signal, they disappeared into the forest and hid in a large cave. Against the advice of his officers, Taufflieb entered the cave unarmed. He asked the men why they had mutinied. When the men had trouble articulating an answer, he told them their duty was to return to their unit. He told them to return by morning or they would face the consequences. Taufflieb gave orders to his soldiers surrounding the cave to fill it in if the men failed to come out by the deadline. The next morning the men returned. Taufflieb asked his officers to select 20 men at random from the battalion. These men were immediately court-martialed and sentenced to death. The others returned to the front.

With the support of Petain, officers punished mutinous troops by court-martialing the leaders. When they often couldn't determine the leaders, they sometimes chose known troublemakers, men with civilian criminal records or those who complained a lot. Or they followed Taufflieb's example and selected every 10th or 20th man standing in the ranks. (This method even had precedent in history. When the ancient Roman army put down mass mutinies, they killed every 10th soldier who mutinied. This is the origin of the word "decimate.")

By the end of June, Petain's army reforms and policy of severe punishment for mutiny began to have an effect. The mutinies decreased and eventually ended.

There were 110 cases of "grave collective indiscipline" reported between April and September 1917. These cases of mutiny occurred in 50 divisions that made up over half of the French Army. At least 100,000 soldiers (out of an army of 4 million) were involved in the mutinies which mainly took place just behind the French lines.

According to official French records, of those court-martialed for mutiny, 3,427 were found guilty. More than 500 received the death sentence, but only 49 were executed. Most of those convicted of mutiny were assigned to disciplinary military units or deported to prisons outside France. But the official records are probably wrong about the number of executions. Some mutineers faced charges other than mutiny and were shot. Many others undoubtedly were shot without any trial and listed as "dead in action."

The Germans received reports of mutinies in the French Army from spies and escaped prisoners of war, but refused to believe such a thing was really happening. By adopting this view, Germany squandered an opportunity to push on to Paris and win the war in the summer of 1917.

The End of the War

By the fall of 1917, the mutinies had stopped and the troops again took their places in the trenches. In Paris, Georges Clemenceau became the head of the government. He promised to intensify the war effort. "I wage war!" he declared. Clemenceau also censored the press and jailed hundreds of anti-war agitators.

American troops began to arrive to support the exhausted French and British armies. In the summer of 1918, Allied forces began to drive the Germans out of France. By October, the German military knew the war was lost and asked for peace.

In a remarkable report that he fully published after the war, Petain spared no one for sharing the blame for the mutinies. He criticized the government for permitting radical organizations and the press to freely publish anti-war material that reached the troops. He condemned the army's badly prepared food, easy access to cheap wine, poorly maintained rest camps, and inconsistent policy on leaves for the fighting men. He went on to criticize the top generals for their obsession with a quick "break-through" without concern for the slaughter that always followed.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What is a mutiny? Why is it especially dangerous during wartime?
  2. What do you think were the causes of the French Army mutinies. Which one do you think was the most important? Why?
  3. When they couldn't determine the leaders of a mutiny, the French sometimes punished men who had mutinied at random. What are some arguments in favor of this? What are some arguments against this?

For Further Information

Encyclopedia of the First World War An incredible source of information on World War I.

World War I: Trenches on the Web An Internet history of the Great War.


Is It Just?

Is it just to punish some members of a group when all are guilty? How about punishing all when only a few are guilty? In this activity, students decide whether different cases of group punishment are just.

1.Form small groups.

2. Each group should:

a. Discuss each of the cases below.

b. Decide whether the punishment in each case is just or unjust.

c. Prepare to report its decisions and the reasons for the decisions to the whole class.

3. Have each group report their decisions and reasons to the class. Hold a class discussion on each case.

Case #1. A teacher warns a noisy last-period class that if it continues to make noise, she will keep it after school for 20 minutes. The class quiets down, but someone makes a loud shriek. The teacher asks who made the noise. Nobody says anything. She says if no one is willing to point out the offender, then she will keep everyone after class. No one tells and she keeps the class after school.

Case #2. Robinson High School is going to the city finals in basketball for the first time in 20 years. The school has been eagerly looking forward to the game. But when all the starters on the l team violate curfew, the coach pulls the whole team out of the game.

Case #3. General Taufflieb's punishment of 20 of the 700 soldiers who mutinied during World War I.



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