A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The Nivelle offensive - when the lambs refused to march to the slaughter

The catastrophic Nivelle offensive saw 40,000 Frenchmen killed in three days. Shortly afterwards, the war’s most significant mutinies began

On 27 May 1917, a swelling tide of indiscipline in the French army turned to outright mutiny. An estimated 30,000 men – many of them veterans of Verdun the previous year – abandoned the front-line trenches or refused to return to the front.

From late April, and into May, there were similar acts of defiance in almost half of the 113 divisions in the French army. Could the war have ended 18 months before it did?

The mutinies of 1917 were a taboo subject in France for almost 60 years. Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 movie Paths of Glory – vaguely inspired by the events of 1917 – was not shown in France until 1975 (although never formally banned).

The “Chanson de Craonne”, an anti-war song which became popular in the trenches in the spring of 1917, was first broadcast in France in 1976.

As a result, the scale of the revolt – and the extent and brutality of the repression which followed – has sometimes been exaggerated. Very few soldiers simply refused to fight. They were protesting mostly against futile, bloody and misconceived attacks on the German lines. If the Germans had launched an opportunistic offensive, most of the protesting soldiers would have returned to the trenches (and almost all did fight again).

All the same, this was the biggest act of collective indiscipline of any army on the Western Front in 1914-1918. At almost 100 years’ distance, one is tempted to ask not “Why?” but “Why not more often?”

The 1917 mutinies were partly a protest against poor food and repeated cancellation of leave. The French military high command was convinced that they were fomented by “pacifists and socialists”, egged on by German agents and inspired by the popular revolt which began in Russia that March.

 

Mostly, they were caused by the brainless tactics of the French high command – especially the calamitous “Nivelle Offensive” which began on 16 April. General Robert Nivelle, appointed as French commander-in-chief after successes in the later stages of Verdun, thought – like other commanders before him – that he knew how to win the war.

It was merely a question of sending in infantry and tanks behind a “creeping barrage” which would destroy the German defences and open the road to Berlin. The result was a French version of the British debacle on the first day of the Somme the previous July. Sixty French divisions attacked near Reims and on the Chemin des Dames, a deeply defended ridge between two river valleys in the Aisne.

“At 6am the battle began, at 7am it was lost,” one French officer said. It continued intensively for another 13 days and then, on and off, into June. In the first three days alone, the French lost 40,000 men killed, 90,000 were wounded and 5,000 taken prisoners.  Second Lieutenant Jean-Louis Cros, of the 201st Infantry Regiment, wrote a note to his family as he lay dying of shrapnel wounds on the first day of the offensive: “My dear wife, my dear parents and all I love, I have been wounded. I hope it will be nothing, Care well for the children, my dear Lucie; Leopold will help you if I don’t get out of this. I have a crushed thigh and am all alone in a shell hole. I hope they will soon come to fetch me. My last thought is of you.”

The attitude of the troops by mid-May is expressed in the war-long diary of Corporal Louis Barthas, of the 296th infantry regiment, which became a best-seller when it was published in 1977. Barthas was a 35-year-old barrel-maker from Aude in the deep South who was a socialist and pacifist when the war began. He fought, with distinction, before and after the mutinies. “They read out the order of the day from that mass-murderer of 16 April, General Nivelle, to inform his troops (that is to say, his victims!) saying amidst other nonsense that ‘The hour of sacrifice has arrived and we must not think about leave!’

“Reading this patriotic nonsense aroused no enthusiasm. On the contrary, it only demoralised the soldiers, who heard nothing but another terrible threat: new suffering, great dangers, the prospect of an awful death in a vain and useless sacrifice, because no one trusted the outcome of this new butchery.”

The mood of the French army that May is also immortalised in the refrain of the “Song of Craonne” (which already existed in other versions but achieved its greatest fame in the 1917 version linked to Craonne, a village on the Chemin des Dames ridge).  “Goodbye to life, goodbye to love, goodbye to women,” ran the chorus. “It’s all over. This dreadful war is for ever./ It’s at Craonne, on the ridge,/ That we must leave our skins,/ Because we are all condemned men./ We are the sacrificed ones!” A reward of 1 million francs, along with immediate release from military duties, was offered in return for the identity of the song’s creator, but no one took up the offer.

Instead, on 15 May General Nivelle was sacked and replaced by General Philippe Pétain. He continued the offensive sporadically and suppressed the mutinies with a mixture of brutality and common-sense.

 Leave was restored. The food was improved. Pétain made sure that the “poilus” (the hairy ones or common soldiers) saw him tasting their soup. 

There were wild accounts later of whole French units being bombarded by their own artillery. There were claims, too, that rebellious regiments were “decimated” – every tenth soldier executed, as the Romans did with reluctant legions.

The official records, finally opened to historians in the late 1970s, tell a different story. Of the 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers who rebelled, 629 were condemned to death but only 75 were executed. Almost 3,000 were given lesser punishments. There were, in fact, more French soldiers executed for cowardice in 1914 and in 1915 than in 1917.

In a sense, the mutinies were successful. Under Pétain, the exhausted French army adopted a more passive and defensive posture until the summer of 1918. The burden of taking the offensive against the “Boches” in 1917 was enthusiasticaly taken up by the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, with predictably bloody results at Passchendaele and Cambrai.

The mutinies – magnified by rumour – nurtured the political and social divisions in post-war France which helped to produce the collapse of 1940. The alleged influence of pacifists and socialists fed the obsession of the nationalist right wing and the military high command with betrayal and “internal enemies”. Twenty-three years after the Chemin des Dames, it was Philippe Pétain who came out of retirement to lead the collaborationist Vichy regime.

The 1917 battles and the mutinies remained in deep official shadow in France until the late 1990s. All the commemorative effort went to Verdun. The only monuments built on the Chemin des Dames were private ones.

In 1998, the Socialist Prime Minster, Lionel Jospin, chose to end all that. At the 80th anniversary of the war’s end, he went to Craonne and made a courageous speech. It was time, he said, for the mutinous soldiers of 1917 – “exhausted by doomed attacks, sliding in blood-soaked mud, plunged into deep despair”– to be “wholly restored to our collective national memory”.

The centre-right President Jacques Chirac protested but Jospin won the second battle of the Chemin des Dames. A few years later, the French army band began to play in public the Chanson de Craonne.

Tomorrow: The Big Bang at Messines Ridge

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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