Chemin des Dames/Mutinies

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The mutinies of 1917 began in the wake of the failed offensive along the Chemin des Dames, in northeastern France, the last great attempt of the French to achieve a complete rupture of the German lines. Military historians still disagree about many of the great battles of World War I—whether their outcome was inevitable and whether the generals plotting them were fools, rogues, or heroes. Not so for the Chemin des Dames offensive, which military historians condemn unanimously as employing the wrong tactics in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were problems with the scheme from the outset. Any pretense of surprise was forsaken. It was generally known on both sides of the western front well before April 1917 that the French were planning a major offensive along the Aisne River. General Robert Nivelle (1856–1924), an artilleryman by training, had hit upon a genuine tactical innovation, the barrage roulant or "rolling barrage." The artillery and the infantry would simply move forward at the same predetermined speed, thereby guaranteeing cover for the men advancing on foot. But the Germans quickly learned to recognize an artillery feint and that they could simply withhold their counter-barrage until the creeping barrage began. The War Minister General Hubert Lyautey (1854–1934) considered Nivelle's plan worthy of light opera. Yet it was allowed to proceed because of the gathering confusion of French politics.

The French made small and irregular gains, and in the first two weeks of the offensive suffered some one hundred forty-seven thousand men killed, wounded, or missing. As early as 22 April 1917, Nivelle scaled down his objectives, now limited to taking the Chemin des Dames plateau—precisely the sort of "tactical gains" at high casualties that he had scorned in his rise to the top. Nivelle was removed on 15 May and replaced by General Philippe Pétain (1856–1951), the hero of Verdun and the apostle of the defensive. But by then, the situation on the ground could not be resolved simply. In the short run, Pétain could not handle affairs much differently from Nivelle. The irregular gains of the offensive had either to be consolidated or abandoned. Abandoning the partial gains would have amounted to a resounding admission of failure, a risky choice given the rising discontent both at the front and in the interior. But consolidating the gains meant, in effect, continuing the offensive in its scaled-down form. Blood would continue to be shed for tactical rather than strategic gains. The point in connecting the Chemin des Dames offensive to the 1917 mutinies is not so much that this particular effort was any more militarily disastrous than the French offensives that preceded it, but that this pattern of heavy casualties and falling expectations had become unacceptable to many French soldiers.

The most common form of mutiny involved soldiers' collective refusal to take up positions in the front lines when ordered to do so. They would then depart to open areas and hold demonstrations airing their myriad demands. No demonstrations took place in the front lines themselves. Incidents of collective indiscipline occurred in nearly half of all of the divisions in the French army. The total number of "mutineers" is most reliably estimated at twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand. But such estimates are intrinsically misleading and perhaps a bit beside the point, because the French army mutinies comprised hundreds of thousands of individual decisions made and remade over a period of several weeks. An essential fluidity characterized events. Any estimate of the number of soldiers involved in a particular demonstration is necessarily a mental snapshot, representing a guess as to how many soldiers passed into open defiance at a specific moment in time. The command structure lacked the means to resolve the matter in its favor if it resorted to violence. The mutinies largely displaced the formal authority structure in the French army. Consequently, an understanding of the mutinies must focus on the discontented soldiers themselves. For a brief moment in time, they were essentially free to decide what to do next.

No noteworthy links have ever been established between the mutinies and pacifist movements in the interior of France. Nothing is more surprising about the demands of the discontented soldiers of the spring of 1917 than their diversity. Soldiers moved effortlessly from relatively mundane matters such as the quality of their food, to great concern for their families behind the lines, to issues as abstract as "injustice." The worry that "blacks" were mistreating soldiers' wives referred to widespread (but apparently untrue) reports that colonial troops had been used to suppress women's strikes. Soldiers sought very traditional male roles as protectors of and providers for their families. Above all, soldiers wanted "peace." But, when pressed, they plainly did not mean peace on any terms, or even on terms inconsistent with the war aims of the national community for the preceding three years. They sought both immediate peace and a reformed leave policy, although the former presumably would render the latter irrelevant. Through working out their complicated choices largely in the absence of formal command authority, the discontented soldiers made the mutinies an anguished affirmation of the war effort and the Third Republic that governed it. Paradoxically, the French army mutinies of 1917 became one of World War I's most extraordinary exercises in patriotism. They ended when soldiers chose to resume their duties. Suppression of the mutinies took place only after they had ended.

From a certain point of view, the command structure exercised considerable prudence. The French historian Guy Pedroncini arrived at numbers of 3,427 soldiers tried as a result of the mutinies, with 554 death sentences, and 49 soldiers actually shot. Yet the numbers told only part of the story. Remobilizing the French army in 1917 seemed to require victims. The courts martial were as much about identifying a group of "leaders" as punishing them. This relatively small population could accept blame for the disturbances, and in a very real sense pay the price for the reassertion of command authority.

See alsoFrance; Pétain, Philippe; World War I.


Pedroncini, Guy. Les Mutineries de 1917. Paris, 1967.

Smith, Leonard V. Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Infantry Division during World War I. Princeton, N.J., 1994.

Smith, Leonard V., Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker. France and the Great War, 1914–1918. Cambridge, U.K, and New York, 2003.

Leonard V. Smith

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Chemin des Dames/Mutinies

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