The French Army Mutinies of 1917

In the Spring of 1917, many French army units mutinied after enduring years of slaughter and appalling conditions during World War One. Much of the French army on the Western Front was affected. Hear first-hand accounts of the mutiny from the BBC archive.

Submitted by Reddebrek on February 10, 2019


The French Army
Of 1917
Hello and thank you for downloading Witness from the BBC
World Service with me Alex Last. And as part of our centenary series on the
First World War, using archived recordings we go back to the spring of 1917
when the French army was rocked by mutiny.
Edward Spears:
The thing that astonishes me is that the French army didn’t
mutiny a long time before 1917. They had had absolutely appalling losses, due
largely you know to mistakes and to mistaken theories.
Alex Last:
General Edward Louis Spears was in 1917 the head of the
British military mission to the French Government.
Edward Spears:
At the beginning of the war in August 1914 I myself had seen
the French army attacking German positions and machine guns with bands playing
and officers in white gloves leading them in. they went on suffering terrible
losses, still they endured displaying qualities of stoicism and staying power
which we really thought only we were capable of.
Alex Last:
By April 1917 one million French troops had been killed, even
more had been wounded, all in less than three years of war. Most had fought and
died in seemingly hopeless battles of attrition on the western front, and even
if they survived the big offensives, life in the trenches could be truly grim.
The British realising this would rotate men in and out of
the front lines every few days, the French did not. Troops stayed in the
morass, rest was short, leave often cancelled. On April the 16th
1917 the French commander General Nivelle launched yet another massive
offensive. In a message to his troops he boasted he knew the formula for victory
and wrote to them of the need for sacrifice.
Louis Barthas:
The reading of this patriotic drivel aroused no enthusiasm
at all.
Alex Last:
Louis Barthas kept a private account of life as an ordinary
French soldier.
Louis Barthas:
It only served to demoralise the soldier who heard in it
only a terrible menace, more suffering, great danger, a frightful death, a
useless sacrifice totally in vain. No one had any confidence in this new round
of killing leading to any useful result.
Alex Last:
One of the offensives principal targets was a ridge called
Le Chemin de Dames, the French attack went wrong from the start.
Pierre Gaultier:
The plan of the French attack has been betrayed to the
Germans. He knew exactly the date, even the hour of the French attack. The whistle
went and we attacked, I was in the second line, in the few minutes after the
attack was launched, the two battalions they had been wiped out.
Alex Last:
Pierre Gaultier was a sergeant in the French army.
Pierre Gaultier:
So our attack was stopped, was hopeless, put ourselves in
shell holes or made little holes to put ourselves in so that the machine guns
couldn’t hit us. We stayed there for the rest of the day could only recover to
our lines at night.
Alex Last:
90,000 French troops were killed or wounded in the first day
but Nivelle did not call a halt. A popular song emerged among the French troops
of the time the words said it all.
[French recording of
the song La Chanson de Craonne]
Adieu la vie, adieu
l'amour, Adieu toutes les femmes C'est bien fini, c'est pour toujours De cette
guerre infâme C'est à Craonne sur le plateau Qu'on doit laisser sa peau Car
nous sommes tous condamnés C'est nous les sacrifiés
Goodbye to life,
Goodbye to love,
Goodbye to all the
It’s all over now, we’ve
had it for good,
With this awful war,
Its in Craonne up on
the plateau we’re leaving our skins,
Because we’ve all
been sentenced to die,
We’re the ones that they’re
Louis Edwards:
The weariness, the hopelessness of the prospect of the war
seemed utterly dreadful. Furthermore there were these rumours of the Russian
Revolution and things weren’t looking at all good.
Alex Last:
In early May, elements of a French division refused the
order to attack, mutinies soon spread.
Louis Barthas:
A wind of revolt blew across almost all the regiments. There
were plenty of reasons for discontent, the painful failure of the Chemin de
Dames offensive, which had no result other than a dreadful slaughter. The prospect
of more long months of war, ahead with a highly dubious outcome, and finally
the long wait for home leave.
It is that which bothered the soldiers most I believe.
Alex Last:
Louis Barthas’s regiment was one of those that mutinied.
Louis Barthas:
At noon on May the 30th there was even a meeting
outside the village to form a Russian style Soviet composed of three men from
each company to take control of the regiment. To my amazement, they offered me
the presidency of the soviet; that is to say to replace the Colonel no less.
Imagine me, an obscure peasant commander of the 296th
regiment. I refused as I had no wish to be tied to an execution post.
Alex Last:
Incredibly the French managed to keep the mutiny a secret
from both friend and foe.
Louis Edwards:
It did seem astonishing that we had 60 highly qualified
officers attached to the French headquarters, and over a period of weeks the
French had managed to conceal any trouble from them. In a way perhaps it was fortunate,
because the Germans hadn’t heard either, if the Germans had then the war would
have been over.
Alex Last:
General Spears was one of very few outside the French army
to hear about the mutinies. He went to investigate himself.
Edward Spears:
I found that there were only two divisions of the whole
French army that could be relied upon, between the front line and Paris. And I arrived
in part of the country near Soissons which I knew very well and there I was met
with the most amazing sight. Regiment after regiment was in open mutiny.
There were degrees of mutiny, in many units all the men wore
red rosettes, the officers were confined to a section of the village, had no
authority at all. And the men had established posts, I wasn’t in the least
molested, I asked what was going on? And got rather evasive answers, but in the
main found that the line taken by the men was that they were prepared to occupy
the line, but they weren’t prepared to fight. After what had happened, after
the bloodbath they’d been submitted to after all, one could understand their
point of view.
Alex Last:
Faced with mutinies on such a large scale the French army –
both officers and men- wrestled with how to react. Caught in the middle
sergeant Gaultier was ordered to lead a few men to halt a huge crowd of
mutinous soldiers from another regiment.
Pierrre Gaultier:
Before we got to the crowd my men told me “we’ll follow you
anywhere. But we shan’t go with bayonets on against French troops”. I looked at
the crowd, they were unarmed. One of them had a frying pan in one hand and a
poker in the other and was hitting it as hard as possible and he told me “come
on boys, we’ll go to Paris and throw grenades in the Palais Bourbon”. 
So, I told him he may do whatever he likes but we weren’t of
that opinion, we had nothing to do we started talking, there were thousands
they were upset but they had nothing ferocious about them. But in the meantime
some machine guns had already been put in position. And they went back to their
quarters and the next day rains of lorries came and took them somewhere, I
never heard of them again.
Alex Last:
Amid the crisis General Nivelle was removed, General Petain
took over and promised to improve conditions. Through force and deception the
most rebellious units were separated and purged. Thousands were arrested
hundreds sentenced to death, though only around 50 were actually executed. And in
time the mutinies petered out, units were returned to the line.
Louis Barthas:
We gathered to start off for the trenches, noisy
demonstrations took place. Shouting, singing, whistling, screaming and of
course the singing of the International. If the officers had made a gesture or
sad a word against this noise I sincerely believe they would have been
ruthlessly massacred, so high was the tension. 
They took the most sensible course, waiting patiently until
calm was restored, you cannot shout, whistle and scream forever. And there was
no leader among the rebels capable of making a decision or of giving us
direction. So we ended up heading towards the trenches although not without
grumbling or griping.
Alex Last:
For the French army after the mutinies for a time the notion
of launching huge offensives was over. It adopted a more defensive policy to
reduce the loss of life, but the sacrifices of the French soldier were to continue
for another year, by which time almost one and a half million were dead, more
than four million wounded. Losses that would profoundly shape France for
But perhaps given the scale of the slaughter on all sides
what’s remarkable was not that there was a mutiny but rather that it was so
Louis Edwards:
Who can blame the men who had suffered so much for not believing
that the struggle wasn’t hopeless? Who could blame for having lost faith in
their leadership?