26/8/1917 French gains at Verdun

French troops have been attacking at Verdun, looking to recover ground seized by the Germans in the terrible battle last year. The fighting has been tough and the gains modest, but the French have recaptured Mort Homme and Côte 304, both scenes of carnage in 1916.

In the fighting since the 20th, the French have captured a large number of German prisoners (some reports say around 10,000) but have also suffered a great number of casualties themselves. However the willingness of the French troops to endure these losses suggests that Pétain‘s efforts to revitalise the French army after this year’s mutinies are paying off.

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Verdun, Félix Vallotton (Wikipedia: Félix Vallotton)

map (Wikipedia: the Battle of Verdun)

20/8/1917 Return to Verdun: France recaptures the Mort Homme #1917Live

The French army has been wracked by unrest since the failure of Nivelle’s offensive in April. Since he took over from Nivelle, Pétain has tried to restore order in the French army by punishing the ringleaders of mutinies but also attempting to address the grievances of soldiers: providing them with more leave, better food, an improved wine ration and generally moving towards treating them with the kind of respect that citizens of a republic should expect from the state.

Pétain has also promised that his men’s lives will not be thrown away on futile large scale offensives. He has said that major attacks by French forces on the Western Front should wait until the arrival of large numbers of American troops and the production of enough tanks to spearhead any assault. But in the meantime French troops have started engaging in more limited offensive action. French troops have taken part in the mainly British offensive in Flanders, where their performance suggests that Pétain’s efforts to restore the army’s fighting spirit are paying off.

Now the French stage another local attack, back at Verdun where Pétain first came to prominence. By the end of the battle last year, the French had recovered much of the ground lost in the initial German offensive. Now the French attack again, hoping to recover some more. After several days bombardment, today the infantry attack. The going is not easy for them, as they are attacking strongly fortified positions and the Germans respond to their attacks with their new mustard gas. Nevertheless, in savage fighting French and Moroccan troops capture the Mort Homme (Dead Man Hill), scene of desperate combat last year. French casualties are not light; nor are those of the enemy.

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map (Graphic Firing Table – Decisive Battles: Verdun 1916)

Postcard of French soldier relaxing with friend (Metropostcard – Belligerents and Participants in World War One: the Republic of France  pt2)

18/8/1917 Third Ypres: mud

British and French forces are attacking to the north of Ypres. Despite the recent unrest in their army, the French have made the best progress but neither of the Allies are doing very well. Unseasonal rain has turned the ground into a quagmire, making it difficult for the troops to move forward.

Because of the waterlogged nature of the ground, the Germans have built pillboxes for themselves rather than relying solely on trenches. The British had hoped to attack these with tanks, but the mud has made it impossible for them to get beyond their own lines.

The Allies make some gains, though they lose some of these to German counter-attacks. In view of the terrible weather conditions they now call a temporary halt to the offensive, hoping that a break in the rain will allow the ground to dry out somewhat, at which point the attacks can resume.

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Mud (WW1 World War One Ieper 1917)

Escorting German prisoners (Wikipedia: Battle of Langemarck (1917))

15/6/1917 Pétain attempts to conciliate French mutineers

Unrest continues in the French army. By now around half of the units on the Western Front have been affected, with soldiers refusing orders to attack or to move up to the front line. There have also been instances of desertion and disorders but thus far there are no reports of soldiers attacking their officers. Soldiers are also continuing to defend positions against the Germans. The mutiny has forced the cancellation of a French offensive that was scheduled for the 10th of June at Malmaison and has obliged the British to take the leading role on the Western Front.

Pétain has ordered mass arrests in order to crush the mutiny. Ring-leaders are being court-martialled and in some cases sentenced to death, though most of these death sentences are being commuted. Pétain is also attempting to restore the confidence of the men in their commanders. He orders an end to large-scale attacks. Soldiers conditions are to be improved. They are to be provided with better food and wine and to spend less time in the front-line trenches. More generous leave arrangements are put in place.

Pétain takes it upon himself to visit the soldiers and explain the improvements he is putting in place. To many he is a persuasive figure, having earned their respect during the early days of the fighting at Verdun.

The unrest in the French army is not over by any means. Pétain knows that it will be some time before his army is ready to attack the Germans again. But perhaps he is able to begin hoping that the worst of the mutiny is over and the army is beginning to be ready once more to continue the prosecution of the war.

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Pétain meeting with some soldiers (Poppycock: the Real First World War)

12/6/1917 The Allies finally get rid of Greece’s uncooperative King

Greece has for some time now been divided between the followers of Venizelos, the pro-Allied politician, and King Constantine, who wishes to keep the country out of the war. Allied forces have established themselves in the northern port of Salonika and are trying to contest the Central Powers’ control of the Balkans. Venizelos established a pro-Allied government there too but Constantine remained ensconced in Athens.

A previous French attempt to oust Constantine failed. Now the French have another go, occupying key points in southern Greece and presenting an ultimatum to Constantine, demanding his abdication. This time Constantine accepts defeat, agreeing to leave Greece for exile in Switzerland (but not formally renouncing his throne).

Constantine’s second son Alexander is installed as king, bypassing his elder brother George who is believed to have pro-German sympathies. Alexander agrees to recall Venizelos to the capital and invite him to form a government. With many of Constantine’s supporters following him into exile, the way is now set for Greece to formally join the Allies.

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King Constantine (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Eleftherios Venizelos (Wikipedia)

1/6/1917 French mutinies continue

Disorder continues in the French army on the Western Front. The appointment of Pétain has not brought the unrest to an end, despite his reputation for sympathy with the ordinary soldier’s lot. In fact the French army mutinies have spread, with more and more units disobeying orders to move up to the front or stage attacks against the Germans.

The mutiny is more in the character of a strike than an outright insurrection against military authority. In general troops are staging protests and refusing to throw away their lives but they are still defending positions against the Germans (who have no idea of the unrest in the French army). There are no reports of troops killing their officers, as has apparently started to happen in Russia. However there is an increase in desertion and some circulation of pacifist and socialist literature.

Today, though, there is an apparent escalation. A mutinous regiment takes over the town of Missy-aux-Bois, defying all authority and refusing to obey any orders.

Pétain responds to the unrest by ordering mass arrests. Courts-martial hand down sentences of death, though high command is relatively reluctant to carry out mass executions. As well as the stick, Pétain also applies the carrot, trying to address the grievances that have led to the mutinies: bad food, lack of leave, horrendous living conditions, and an apparently callous disregard on the part of the commanders towards the lives of their men.

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French soldiers (The Great War Project)

9/5/1917 Nivelle sacked, his offensive halted, the French army in danger of collapse

Nivelle had promised that his offensive in the Chemin des Dames would give France a decisive victory, one that would bring the end of the war into sight. Instead the battle has been a bloodbath, with the French suffering some 187,000 casualties in the battle to date. German losses in this short battle have also been astonishingly high at 167,000.

The Germans have taken their losses while holding the line against French attacks. French losses have resulted from futile attempts to break through the enemy lines. Nivelle’s promises of easy victory grate on men who feel they are being sent to their deaths for no purpose.

Disorder and indiscipline are spreading through the French army. Units are refusing to move up to the front. Others have arrived at the front drunk and without their weapons. Men are deserting and refusing to obey orders. Some units have elected councils, ominously similar to the Soviets that have spread through the Russian army.

For now soldiers are not attacking their own officers or refusing to defend positions against the Germans, but the fear of the army commanders and the politicians is that the army is now at the brink of a complete collapse. Nivelle’s offensive is brought to a final halt. Nivelle himself is hustled out of his job as commander on the Western Front. His replacement is Pétain, who led the defence of Verdun in the early stages of the battle last year. The hope is that he will be able to restore the fighting spirit of the army and once more save France.

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French soldiers (Dying Splendor of the Old World)