May 9, 1917 - The Nivelle Offensive & the French Mutiny
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 9, 1917. After a month of heavy fighting, the guns recede to a low murmur on the Western Front once again. One of the greatest French attacks of World War I has been stopped – and not just by the Germans. For the first time, significant numbers of troops have refused to obey orders and even mutinied. The French Army on the Western Front has begun to hit the breaking point.
The First World War, more than any conflict before it, placed unique and unforeseen stresses on societies and nations. The staggeringly high casualties, demands of total war and general determination to win the war at all costs stretched governments and peoples far beyond what they had expected to endure. As the war dragged on, the losses mounted, and victory was nowhere in sight, armies and countries began to crack. The new age of warfare was one of total war, where a nation’s entire resources and people are thrown into the machinery of conflict.
This strain was causing some countries to snap. Austria-Hungary, even though it was technically “winning” alongside Germany, was probably beyond hope of saving after its army was nearly destroyed in 1916. Russia had very clearly cracked in 1917, when the February Revolution overthrew the Tsar and launched a terrible series of government upheavals. Germany had tried to cause France to “crack” through its offensive at Verdun in 1916, but France had fought back bitterly and by all appearances it was Germany that had suffered the most national damage there. The seeds of Verdun, though, were about to flower in France in 1917.
France had lost one million dead by 1917, out of a population of about 40 million. Its northern regions were occupied by the Germans, and all its attacks to recover them had failed with severe losses. The French soldiers had fought like tigers ever since the war began in 1914, but three years later most of their bravest and best soldiers were dead or maimed. Most attacks were promised to be the “one that would win the war,” only for reality and harsh disillusionment to come calling in the form of German artillery and machine guns.
This had reached its apogee at Verdun, where the French held off and even pushed the Germans back at an appalling cost. 330,000 French casualties had come out of the miserable hell of Verdun, and due to the French Army’s policy of rotating units through the battle – almost in the manner of modern U.S. Army deployments – almost every soldier in the French Army got a little taste of Verdun. It was estimated that two weeks at Verdun could drive a man mad, and even if the policy helped the French Army win the battle, it made sure that as many people as possible were at least brushed by this madness.
In December 1916, one of the victorious generals of Verdun – General Robert Georges Nivelle – was named as the new Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. Nivelle was junior to most other high-ranking French generals, but was selected for his aggressive spirit and optimism. Many historians believe that Nivelle was at least partially responsible for the high casualties at Verdun due to his “always attack” mentality. The new commander came to his position buoyant and full of good cheer, convinced that new artillery tactics could turn the tide on the Western Front.
Nivelle planned a major attack on the Western Front for 1917, hopefully one that would finally break the German resistance, relieve pressure on Russia, and reconquer France’s northern lands. Even though other French generals had over-promised the results of their attacks, the British and French political leaders were convinced by the young Nivelle’s can-do attitude. The Allied generals were less impressed. The French generals, concerned by their losses, wanted to spend 1917 building up their forces, restoring morale, and waiting for the United States (who had just entered the war) to send large numbers of troops to France. British General Douglas Haig, alarmed by the high losses on the Somme in 1916, was also concerned about the plan.
Nivelle promised the soldiers, and his peers, that he could break through the Germans with an artillery bombardment of an intensity and scale unequalled in warfare. He fostered the belief that “artillery conquers, infantry occupies,” anticipated losses of only 10,000 men on the first day, and claimed that France would have victory in 48 hours. He also spread this belief among the French soldiers with patriotic slogans and promises of an easy victory.
The main site selected for the “Nivelle Offensive” (as it would come to be known) was along the Aisne River in northern France, along a road called the Chemin des Dames. The Chemin des Dames was so named because King Louis XV’s daughters would often take joy rides down its route, back in the 1700s. The plan was that Haig and his British forces would launch a major attack in the north to draw German forces in that direction, weakening the Aisne Front and allowing the French to punch through. (The Canadian attack at Vimy Ridge, subject of my April 12 post, was part of this effort.) The French attack would begin on April 16.
The French soldiers were constantly told that this would be the attack that ended the war. General Nivelle and his master plan were going to finally beat the Germans. It would be a cakewalk, and after three years of suffering they could have peace. One soldier even claimed that Nivelle told him, “The German Army will run away; they only want to be off.” He also promised that if the attack was not a success by the first day, he would stop it.
On April 16, the attack began. Thanks to poor French security, the Germans knew it was coming, and had even captured detailed plans for the offensive; they had pinpointed French attack sites and reinforced the defenses on the Aisne. German air superiority, led by such men as “the Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, kept the French from seeing the German buildup.
The bombardment failed to significantly damage the German forces, and when the French infantry went over the top they were met with a hail of artillery, machine gun, and rifle fire. Wave after wave was ordered into no-man’s-land with no result. One German general reported that the view was “overwhelming…France’s best regiments were being destroyed in continually renewed, hopeless attacks.”
On April 16, the French suffered over 30,000 casualties – three times as many as Nivelle had promised. The first day of attacks was almost a complete failure; the French advanced about 2.5 miles for their losses, but it was absolutely clear that the Germans were not breaking and were making them pay for every inch of ground. Nivelle considered this small gain as a “success,” so he felt no need to halt the offensive in light of his earlier promise. He ordered the attacks to continue. After the first several days, though, the French stopped making any progress at all. By now it was simply another Western Front meat grinder. The French gained no more ground after April 20, even though wave after wave of men went over the top.
Maybe it was the disappointment. Maybe it was the broken promises. Maybe it was three years of war, a million dead, and no hope of victory in sight. Maybe it was watching a line of men jump out of the trenches, run forward, and get shot down, only to know it was your turn next. Whatever it was, the French Army reached its breaking point.
On May 3, the French 2nd Division was ordered to launch its attack on the Chemin des Dames, and something strange happened. No matter what, the soldiers would not move. The officers threatened them, but soon many of the officers were refusing to order them forward. When the 2nd Division refused its orders to attack, the mutiny started to spread like wildfire.
Nivelle made the call to shut down the offensive on May 9, 1917. But by then the mutinies were in full swing. All along the Western Front, entire infantry divisions were refusing to follow orders; some were shooting their officers. One battalion of the 166th Division made a protest march in demonstration against their officers. Soldiers in the 69th Division elected representatives to petition for an end to the offensive. Mutinies spread from division to division, with revolts breaking out, soldiers refusing to march to the front, and multiple acts of violence, stealing, and socialist agitation. In June, a regiment took over an entire town behind the frontline and held it for ransom.
The violent acts were exceptions, though. Most of the soldiers just wanted to be treated better. They wanted more leave, more time with their families, better food – and most importantly, not to be treated like cannon fodder in failed offensives that no longer had any hope of success. The French Mutinies of 1917 came from both the collapse of soldiers’ morale and their poor treatment. The trauma and agony of Verdun had bloomed fully into the righteous anger of the common soldier in 1917.
With this epidemic spreading across the Army, the French high command took swift and decisive action – both carrot and stick. One move was obvious: on May 15, Nivelle was relieved and replaced by another Verdun hero, the defensive and popular General Philippe Petain. Petain had a reputation as a soldiers’ soldier. He went above and beyond to restore morale, going to the front and talking to his men, putting an end to suicidal attacks, and increasing leaves and furloughs. He also improved the food and living conditions of the French soldiers.
That was the carrot. There was also a stick.
Throughout 1917, the French Army held 3,427 courts-martial in relation to the Great Mutiny. Mass arrests of mutineers were followed by mass trials. The arrested were selected not only by officers and NCOs, but also by their comrades who viewed them as “agitators.” Some of the most common victims were socialists, who were widely suspected as being pacifists and anti-war, and thus likely mutineers. These courts-martial returned 2,878 cases of hard labor and 629 death sentences, but due to Petain’s intervention only 49 of the executions were actually carried out. Petain actually received harsh criticism for the low rate of executions.
Though some socialists *did* try to turn the Great Mutiny into a revolution, the soldiers were motivated by low morale and despair, not by politics or pacifism. No major French attacks took place on the Western Front for the rest of 1917; the French high command decided to wait for more tanks and artillery to be built and for the Americans to arrive, while rebuilding the state of their army. They suppressed news of the Mutiny, with the full scale of the event not becoming known until 1967.
The Germans lost an obvious chance to capitalize on the Mutinies, but their intelligence failed to pick up on the event, and in any case they had no plans to launch an attack on the Western Front at all in 1917. While a German offensive during the Mutinies may have had enormous consequences, there was simply no time to throw one together even if the Germans had known the Mutinies were taking place.
The British, meanwhile, had to pick up the slack on the Western Front since the French were taking a breather. Haig and his generals began to plan their own great offensive of 1917, which would culminate in the muddy bloodbath that became known as Passchendaele.
The French Army would recover from its dark night of the soul, and would play a starring role in the final battles of 1918. It should serve as an object lesson for the future, however, that men can only be pushed so far – even the bravest men. France did not collapse in 1917, but with a little less wisdom in her leadership it could have.
Men are only flesh and blood, after all, and we can expect too much.