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)

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)

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)

4/5/1917 Robertson and Pétain agree on attrition, Haig continues to dream of a breakthrough

Nivelle‘s Chemin des Dames offensive has failed. French efforts are still continuing there but his bold claims that the attacks would smash through the German lines and bring the war’s end into sight have been proved hollow. Unrest is beginning to spread through the French army, with many units proving reluctant to obey orders.

Allied military leaders meet today in Paris to consider how now to proceed. Robertson, the British army’s chief of staff, and Pétain agree that a breakthrough cannot be achieved this year. However, they estimate that their men’s efforts are inflicting considerable casualties on the Germans. They resolve now to avoid further attempts at breaking through the enemy lines and instead focus on inflicting attritional damage on the enemy. Smaller scale offensives backed up by artillery will wear away the Germans, inflicting more losses on them than the Allies will suffer. And because of the French army’s problems, most of these efforts will have to be made by the British.

The British are still attacking at Arras, though efforts there are starting to wind down. The next British attack planned is to take place at Ypres. And although Haig pretends to agree with Robertson and Pétain that this will be a battle of limited objectives, he still intends that this will in fact be a breakthrough battle. He hopes that his men will be able to clear the Germans from the Flanders coast and begin the liberation of Belgium.

29/4/1917 Unrest in the French army brings Pétain to the fore

Just a month ago Nivelle was telling anyone who would listen that his Chemin des Dames offensive would smash the Germans and bring the end of the war into sight. Unfortunately the assault proved a disastrous failure. No breakthrough was achieved and the French suffered horrendous casualty levels. In the nine days of the battle the French took 134,000 casualties, two thirds of their losses in the whole of the Somme last year.

Now the French troops are beginning to crack. Suspecting that their commanders are throwing away their lives for nothing, units are becoming increasingly mutinous. Men are disobeying orders, particularly ones to move up the front. Officers are seeing their authority breaking down, though for now the soldiers are showing no sign of deserting en masse or refusing to fight if attacked by the Germans (who remain unaware of the discontent in French ranks).

The failure of his offensive means that now the politicians are turning on Nivelle. The process of edging him out of command of the army begins now with Pétain‘s appointment as his chief of staff, effectively Nivelle’s replacement. Pétain earned the respect of the men at Verdun. The politicians hope that he can restore the fighting spirit of the army.

Pétain hopes to win over the men by listening to their concerns about bad food and lack of leave. He orders an increase in the wine ration and an improvement in its quality. He also promises an end to the wasteful offensives that have thrown away French lives for no good purpose. But concessions are only one weapon in Pétain’s arsenal. He also proposes carefully targeted repression to root out and deal severely with troublemakers within the army.

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French soldiers (Roads to the Great War)

Philippe Pétain (Wikipedia)

12/12/1916 Nivelle succeeds Joffre as France reshuffles its generals

France’s political leaders have had enough of Joseph Joffre, the army’s commander on the Western Front. Joffre’s calmness arguably saved France from defeat after the disastrous early battles of August 1914, but he appears unable to prosecute the war to victory. Now the politicians want a more vigorous approach to the fighting on the Western Front, so Prime Minister Briand has Joffre sacked. Or, rather, he has Joffre promoted to a meaningless position as general-in-chief (not commander-in-chief) of the French army and technical adviser to the government.

Joffre’s replacement as commander of the French armies on the Western Front is Robert Nivelle, the commander of the recent French counter-attacks at Verdun. Nivelle has leap-frogged over more senior commanders, including his own commanding officer, Philippe Pétain, who had commanded at Verdun during its desperate early stages. Unlike Pétain, Nivelle is an attacking general who has recaptured much ground from the Germans at Verdun, albeit at considerable cost. The politicians hope that his offensive vigour will now be applied to the French army as whole in their efforts to drive the Germans from France next year.