12/1/10 - an army mutinies

In today's excerpt - in the spring of 1917, an astonishing event took place in the middle of the carnage of World War I—half of the French Army went on strike. If the German Army had known, they could have taken Paris and history would have been dramatically rewritten. The soldiers went on strike because they understood what the generals did not, that not only was this new type of warfare grossly ineffective, it made for a slaughterhouse. In all, an unprecedented ten million people died in the war, including one out of every twenty men in France, most of them in the period leading up to the strike:

"Almost immediately after the failure of the offensive of 16 April, there began what its commanders would admit to be 'acts of collective indiscipline' and what historians have called 'the mutinies of 1917.' Neither form of words exactly defines the nature of the breakdown, which is better identified as a sort of military strike. 'Indiscipline' implies a collapse of order. 'Mutiny' usually entails violence against superiors. Yet order, in the larger sense, remained intact and there was no violence by the 'mutineers' against their officers. ...

"The general mood of those involved—and they comprised soldiers in fifty-four divisions, almost half the army—was one of reluctance, if not refusal, to take part in fresh attacks, but also of patriotic willingness to hold the line against attacks by the enemy. There were also specific demands: more leave, better food, better treatment for soldiers' families, an end to 'injustice' and 'butchery.' ... The demands were often linked to those of participants in civilian strikes, [where French citizens] complained that 'While the people have to work themselves to death to scrape a living, the bosses and the big industrialists are growing fat.'

"As the crisis deepened—and five phases have been identified, from scattered outbreaks in April to mass meetings in May, and hostile encounters June, followed by an attenuation of dissent during the rest of the year—[General Philippe Petain] set in train a series of measures designed to contain it and return the army to moral well-being. He promised ampler and more regular leave. He also implicitly promised an end, for a time at least, to attacks, not in so many words, for that would have spelled an end to the status of France as a war-waging power, but by emphasising that the troops would be rested and retrained. ...

"While the front was being reorganised for these new tactics, the army's officers, with Petain's approval, were attempting to win back the men's obedience by argument and encouragement. 'No rigorous measures must be taken,' wrote the commander of the 5th Division's infantry. 'We must do our best to dilute the movement by persuasion, by calm and by the authority of the officers known by the men, and acting above all on the good ones to bring the strikers to the best sentiments.' His divisional commander agreed: 'we cannot think of reducing the movement by rigour, which would certainly bring about the irreparable.'

"Nevertheless, the 'movement'—indiscipline, strike or mutiny—was not put down without resort to force. Both high command and government, obsessed by a belief that there had been 'subversion' of the army by civilian anti-war agitators, devoted a great deal of effort to identifying ringleaders, to bringing them to trial and to punishing them. There were 3,427 courts-martial, by which 554 soldiers were condemned to death and forty-nine actually shot. Hundreds of others, though reprieved, were sentenced to life imprisonment. A particular feature of the legal process was that those sent for trial were selected by their own officers and NCOs, with the implicit consent of the rank and file.

"Superficially, order was restored within the French army with relative speed. ... In general, however, the objects of the mutinies had been achieved. The French army did not attack anywhere on the Western Front, of which it held two-thirds, between June 1917 and July 1918, nor did it conduct an 'active' defence of its sectors. The Germans, who had inexplicably failed to detect the crisis of discipline on the other side of no man's land, were content to accept their enemy's passivity, having business of their own elsewhere, in Russia, in Italy and against the British."


John Keegan


The First World War


Vintage Books


Copyright 1998 by John Keegan


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