The 1917 Mutinies in France

Between the end of May and the beginning of June 1917, the French Army on the Western Front was rocked by a wave of rebellion and unprecedented acts of disobedience. A spirit of protest inflamed numerous units, fuelled by the general circumstances in the spring of 1917 - marked by the failure of the great Nivelle Offensive -, the echoes of the Russian Revolution and civilian demonstrations. Units on leave did not want to return to the front line, and those who were already there refused to leave the trenches. Disordered and fragmented, the protest movement faded quickly. However, it left an indelible imprint on the memory of contemporaries.

 

1917: The Revolt of the Regiment, The War Diaries of Louis Barthas, a cooper from Audes, Corporal in the 280th and 296th Infantry Regiment

 

[May 23, 1917] We stayed at Daucourt to rest up after the strain of the last nine-day offensive. [...]

It was at this time that the Russian revolution exploded. Those Slavic soldiers, who were only yesterday enslaved under an iron fist, and who went to slaughter as resigned and unthinking slaves, had broken off their yoke and proclaimed their freedom, and imposed peace on their leaders and their executioners.

The whole world was astonished, petrified by that revolution and the collapse of the immense and centuries-old Tsarist empire.

Those events had repercussions on the French front, and a wind of revolt blew through almost all the regiments.

There were, moreover, reasons for the unrest: the painful failure of the Chemin des Dames Offensive, the only result of which was a dreadful massacre; the prospect of more long months of war, the outcome of which was very doubtful, and finally the great delay with which leaves were granted. It was this, I think, that bothered the soldiers more than anything.

I do not pretend to relate what was happening a little everywhere at that time; I will only write what I know about our regiment and the repression it received.

[…]

Some soldiers sang and entertained their comrades with funny songs or jokes, but one night a corporal sang words about revolting against the sad life in the trenches, accusing, about saying farewell to the dear ones we might no longer see, anger towards those responsible for that heinous war and the rich shirkers who were letting those who had nothing to defend do the fighting.

At the refrain, hundreds of mouths united in chorus, and at the end they broke out in frantic applause, which was interspersed with shouts of "Peace or Revolution! Down with the War! ", etc., and "Leave! Leave!».

One evening, patriots turn away!, The International was heard, and the storm broke.

This time, our superiors took offense. Our familiar Captain (soon-to-be Major) Cros-Mayrevieille had such an ear ache that he hurriedly sent a patrol of four men accompanied by the ever-present corporal to remind those spineless cowards that at eight o'clock they were to clear the street, and leave the inns and women to the Officers and report to the day sergeants who, roll lists in hand, were waiting at the doors of our empty quarters. Since the patrol had thought it prudent to retreat, our good Captain, who was also a cop, came in person, escorted by the entire police force.

He tried to talk calmly, but as soon as he began speaking he was interrupted by an incredible number of catcalls and jeers. Enraged with anger and helplessness, he took it out on the unfortunate sergeants of the day, who had imprudently reported that "no one was absent," and forced them to take a serious roll call.

A crowd of several hundred soldiers who refused to answer the roll calls had gathered in front of the police station where Captain Cros had fled; for an hour they assaulted him with the worst insults and threats. To frighten him even more, some hothead fired a few gunshots in the air every so often.

On 30 May, at noon, a meeting was held outside the town to form, following the example of the Russians, a "soviet" consisting of three men per company, who would take over command of the regiment.

To my enormous surprise, I was offered the chair of that soviet, that is, I was meant to replace the Colonel!

Just imagine: me, a sunburnt farmer, who had left his hoe in August 1914, in command of the 296th Regiment: it simply surpassed the limits of the realistic!

[…]

In the afternoon the order for an immediate departure was announced. There was an official promise made that leaves would be resumed on the next day at a rate of sixteen out of every hundred men and would proceed without interruption. The military authorities, so arrogant and authoritarian, had been forced to capitulate. There was no need for anything else to restore order. Nonetheless, there were, especially in the quarters of the 4th machine-gun company, a lot of boisterousness shortly before departure, and the men left only after singing The International  in front of the stunned officers, who remained passive in light of their impotence.

At three o'clock in the afternoon, under a blistering sun, we left Daucourt. At five o'clock the regiment passed through Sainte-Ménéhould, where some tragic events had just taken place.

Two regiments had recently mutinied, and had taken over the barracks, shouting: "Peace or Revolution!"

General X, who had arrived in an attempt to address the soldiers, was taken and put against the wall, and was about to be shot when a commander much beloved by his men managed to save him and get the rebels to leave and go to camp at Châlons to enjoy a long rest.

Rifle shots were fired at a group of officers who tried to approach the barracks, and the bullets ended up creating casualties in the city. Ten people, they say, were killed.

The top military brass thought it best to isolate each of the three battalions of the 296th Regiment, and we were quartered fairly distant from each other. Our battalion was housed in barracks four kilometres from Sainte-Ménéhould. It was only once we were there that we realized that the other two battalions were missing.

The following night, at seven o'clock, we were gathered together to depart for the trenches. There were noisy protests, shouts, songs, screams, catcalls; of course, The International was heard; if the officers had taken any action or said anything against this uproar, I sincerely believe that they would have been massacred without any mercy, so great was the general fervour.

But they made the wisest decision and waited patiently for calm to return. It is not possible to shout, scream and jeer forever, and since there was no leader able to make decisions or take command among the rebels, we ended up heading toward the trenches, but not without grumbling and protesting.

 

References:

Louis Barthas, Les carnets de guerre de Louis Barthas, tonnelier, 1914-1918, Paris, La Découverte, 1997.