Skip to main content

The French Mutiny

July 2024
2min read

There is, after all, a limit to what men will put up with, and early in 1917 the French Army reached that limit.

When the year 1917 opened, the French Army had lost—in men killed, dead of wounds, captured, or simply “missing”—some 1,300,000 men. Reflecting on this, the French government at last nerved itself to relieve Marshal Joffre, and it replaced him with General Robert Nivelle, who had done well at Verdun and who believed that he knew how to break the German line. In the spring of 1917 Nivelle was allowed to conduct an all-out offensive along the Chemin des Dames , near Soissons.

Nivelle had devised certain tactical innovations which, he was convinced, would fracture the German lines quickly. His offensive would not be long-drawnout, like all former ones; it would be short, sharp, and decisive, and although both the government and the pessimistic Pétain grew very skeptical, Nivelle was a persuasive sort and he had his way. On the morning of April 16 the big fight began. To learn what came of it read Dare Call It Treason by Richard M. Watt.

What came of it was disaster followed by mutiny. Nivelle was as wrong as Joffre, Haig, and Falkenhayn, and all the rest. Instead of a breakthrough there was unredeemed slaughter, after which the French soldier concluded that he had had enough. The French Army mutinied: not en masse or by prearrangement, but by individual units, battalions, and divisions, spontaneous “walk outs” by men who were not asking anything in particular except an end to senseless killing. By the end of May the Army was almost wholly paralyzed, yet the mutinous troops were not actually a revolutionary force. They were just men who were in utter despair and who had made up their minds to make no more offensives.

The Army in short was in revolt, but it never formulated its demands and it formed no revolutionary councils. It created a situation which the organized leftist elements in the French Republic—numerous, active, and looking for an opening—did not recognize until it was too late. In the spring of 1917 France might have gone the way Russia went. All of the elements were there, yet they never quite combined to make a revolution.

A good deal is owed to Pétain. As in 1940, he became the trustee in bankruptcy, the difference in 1917 being that the nation still had substantial assets. The mutinous soldiers did not want to see either a German victory or a complete overturn of French society; they just wanted not to be wasted in offensives which had no chance to succeed. Taking over the supreme command of the Army, Pétain restored obedience: partly by giving the soldiers decent treatment, partly by abstaining from making senseless attacks on impregnable trench systems, and partly by a program of fairly stern repression. By the narrowest of margins, he kept the Army from disintegrating and so kept France from following the Russian pattern.

It is a strange and completely fascinating story that Mr. Watt recounts. The strangest part about it is the way in which the Army kept this mass mutiny more or less secret. Neither the Germans, the Allied powers, nor even the French people really knew what was happening. To this day the full story has not been told. As Mr. Watt says, the tale “trails off into silence.” The Army was nursed back to the point where it would at least obey its officers and defend the trenches, and in 1918 it was finally ready to take part in the counteroffensive which drove the Germans out of France and led to the Armistice. There are still gaps in the story of just how this was done. Perhaps the French Academy summed it up when, welcoming Pétain to membership, it apostrophized him: “You have discovered this: that fire kills .” And for a final word, Mr. Watt’s verdict is as good as any:

Dare Call It Treason, by Richard M. Watt. Simon and Schuster. 344 pp. $5.95.

“Perhaps the Army revolts of 1917 had their uses. Maybe it is unfair to label this convulsion of exhausted troops a ‘mutiny.’ At any rate, none dare call it treason.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.