The Third Republic, the war and the mutiny in the French Army in 1917

Issue: 156

Steve Guy

As France entered the 20th century, it embodied, for many people, and to many socialists, the ideals of liberty, egality and fraternity that had been the pillars underpinning the revolution of 1789. Surrounded on all sides by kingdoms and empires, the very existence of the Third Republic represented the rejection of autocracy, with the assembly and the senate constituting a democratic form of government that had no need for the symbols and trappings of monarchs and royalty. By 1914 there were over 100 socialists seated in the assembly, and when imperial Germany invaded Belgium in order to attack France, it seemed that the French were the victims of an unprovoked act of aggression by a rampant power looking to stamp its authority not only on France but on the rest of the civilised world.

The reality was rather different, and as the First World War progressed, not only were France’s intentions and war aims subject to more intense scrutiny but the way that the French Army fought that war brought into question the strategy and tactics of the Grand Quartier Général (GQG), the French high command, while the treatment of the conscripts, the rank and file poilus, eventually resulted in a mutiny so profound that it almost led to the collapse of the French Army as a fighting force. This would have necessitated the country sue for peace, possibly precipitating a re-run of the Paris Commune of 1871, an outcome the French ruling class dreaded above all else.

The Bonaparte years

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” in the Communist Manifesto,1 they were carefully watching the development of such a class struggle in France, where the process set in motion by the French Revolution of 1789 was still unresolved, as the monarchists and reactionaries continued to try and claw back what gains had been made. For the next three decades a succession of popular revolts not only prevented the reinstatement of the monarchy for any prolonged period, but sought to extend the gains made by the French people, and especially the emergent working class, in their struggles with the reactionaries. By 1848 revolution in France was accompanied by revolutionary upsurges in Germany and Italy as these nationalist movements moved to throw off the yoke of the Tsarist and Habsburg Empires. The Paris proletariat wanted to advance beyond the more limited objectives of the “professional” republicans, and demanded universal suffrage, freedom of association and an end to exploitation. The bourgeois republicans, the so-called moderates, the liberals, all rushed to embrace the monarchists and reactionaries. Combining in the “Party of Order” under the presidency of the monarchist Armand Marrast and armed with the perpetual powers of that office, the army was authorised, under the command of minister of war Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, to suppress the Paris insurrection. The resulting massacre of 3,000 Parisians, and the deportation of 5,000 more to the penal camps of Algeria, left an indelible stain on the history of the French Republic, the Second Republic.

Monsieur Marrast’s perpetual powers lasted barely two years before Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte staged his coup on 2 December 1851, abolishing the Second Republic and, within a year, declaring the Second Empire, and himself the emperor.

Karl Marx was extremely scathing about the calibre of the new emperor, the opening lines of “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” resonate down through the ages: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.2

As events were to prove, Bonaparte was certainly not a patch on his uncle in the sphere of military operations. But for the big bourgeoisie, the financiers and landowners, his reign relieved them of the responsibility of having to rule, and brought a political stability that saw the unleashing of the forces of production and the massive expansion of the economy. As Robert Tombs notes, industrial production doubled in the 1850s, and there was a corresponding leap in the amount of coal mined, while the most significant advance was in railway development, with the number of passengers increasing from 20 million to 50 million.3

Bonaparte made sure that the key ministries of police, interior and war were in the hands of people he could rely on, but he realised that he could not rule on the basis of force alone. So, while there was political repression and rigid censorship, he eased the rules of association and mutual societies were legalised as was the right to strike. Thus for nearly 20 years the Second Empire preserved the system from social disorder, and in this regard served the French bourgeoisie very well. It was only in the sphere of foreign policy that Louis-Napoleon came badly unstuck, running up against a Germany that was beginning to assert itself on the European and world stage. An attempt by the Kaiser to place his relative Prince Leopold on the Spanish throne, thereby presenting a perceived threat to France’s southern frontier, had the Bonapartists and the monarchists in the assembly howling for war. And, in spite of reservations in some quarters, the Franco-Prussian War was declared on 19 July 1870.

The ensuing war was an unmitigated disaster for the French forces, led personally by Bonaparte himself. The French were driven back in successive encounters with the German forces, and then bottled up in the fortress of Metz, which was then besieged. Napoleon attempted to relieve the siege at the head of a force of reservists and untrained auxiliaries but was surrounded and forced to surrender at Sedan on 2 September. Some 100,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner. On 28 October the commander in Metz, François Achille Bazaine, surrendered along with another 100,000 troops. As one disconsolate French general was heard to remark: “We are in the chamber pot and about to be shat upon.”

With Napoleon and the army imprisoned and the Bonapartist regime in disarray, Bonaparte’s political opponents moved to displace his regime, the Second Empire was consigned to the dustbin of history and the Third Republic was declared. The representatives of the landed bourgeoisie organised an Assembly of “Rurals” based in Bordeaux, with arch opportunist Adolphe Thiers at its head, that claimed the leadership of the republic, and immediately entered into negotiations with the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, for the complete surrender of France. At the beginning of the new year the Assembly transformed itself into the Government of National Defence and signed an armistice with the Germans on 28 January 1871. This was anathema to the population of Paris and other major cities who believed that the new government was more intent on subduing those resisting the Prussian occupation than seriously liberating France from the invaders. When the Thiers administration tried to disarm the National Guard by confiscating their artillery, the people of Paris rose up in defiance. It was now that the proletariat of Paris and other French cities stepped back onto the stage of history.

Resistance to Thiers’s Government of National Defence coalesced into the formation of the revolutionary government, the Paris Commune, led by a central committee, and with its own military formation, the proletarianised National Guard. Paris was in the vanguard of the revolutionary overthrow of the landed bourgeoisie and the financiers and industrialists. On 18 March the Commune launched its manifesto, quoted in Marx’s “The Civil War in France”:

“The proletarians of Paris” said the Central Committee manifesto of 18 March, “amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs… They have understood that it is their imperious duty and their absolute right to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power”.4

The Paris Commune called upon the whole of France to resist both the Prussian occupation and the Government of National Defence, both of which combined to resume the siege of Paris. Thiers appealed to the provinces to send troops to fight against Paris, but when they refused, he dispatched the minister of foreign affairs, Jules Favre, to negotiate with Bismarck for the release of the French armies to deal exclusively with the Commune. Bismarck agreed, but increased the reparations that France had to pay to 5 billion francs and demanded the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, two of France’s wealthiest areas. With such superior forces, the counter-revolutionaries moved to storm the Paris bastions. By the last week of May the army under Marshal Patrice de MacMahon drove into Paris and crushed the revolution. The retribution perpetrated by the army at the behest of the Government of National Defence was truly awful. Prosper Olivier Lissagaray takes up the appalling narrative:

Large open vans came to fetch the corpses, and went to empty them in the square or any open space in the neighbourhood. The victims died simply without fanfaronade. Many crossed their arms before the muskets, and themselves commanded the fire. Women and children followed their husbands and their fathers, crying to the soldiers, “Shoot us with them!” And they were shot. Women, until then strangers to the struggle, were seen to come into the streets, enraged by these butcheries, strike the officers and then throw themselves against a wall waiting for death.5

Lissagaray estimates that some 20,000 were shot or bayoneted, and many more transported to the hellholes of New Caledonia and Algiers; he refers to at least 15,000 souls still in New Caledonia or in exile six years after the massacre, while tens of thousands fled to those countries bordering France, many never to return. As Tombs reports, for the government and their supporters this purge was entirely justified:

Much of the massacre was known to the public and reported in the press, to the applause of conservatives, who saw it as a solution to the revolutionary threat. “The ground is strewn with their corpses”, Thiers told parliament. “May this terrible sight serve as a lesson.” The novelist Edmond de Goncourt thought that it was “good that there was neither conciliation or bargain…such a purge, by killing off the combative part of the population, defers the next revolution by a whole generation”.6

So the Third Republic, a bourgeois capitalist republic, emerged, spattered in the blood of the Communards, courtesy of an army that had failed so woefully in battle with the Prussian forces, but earned the wholehearted gratitude of the bourgeoisie and its political representatives by suppressing proletarian revolution with the utmost brutality.

Marx thundered against the capitulards of the Government of National Defence, saying of its leader: “Thiers, that monstrous gnome, has charmed the French bourgeoisie for almost half a century, because he is the most consummate intellectual expression of their own class corruption”.7 And when writing to the German Social Democratic Workers’ Party on Bismarck’s decision to aid and abet the French counter-revolutionaries, he had this to say about future outcomes:

It depends entirely on the behaviour of the German victors whether the present war will be useful or damaging. If Alsace and Lorraine are taken, then France will later make war on Germany in conjunction with Russia. It is unnecessary to go into the unholy consequences.8

No matter how prescient Marx’s statement, it is unlikely that even he could imagine how unholy such consequences would be.

Rebuilding the nation

For many historians and social commentators, the years following the war and the defeat of the Commune are characterised as La Belle Époque, years when French advances in the arts and scientific progress attracted the admiration of the world. But they were also years when the French ruling class set about rebuilding national prestige and attempted to restore its status as a great power. As Paul Gildea puts it:

Three challenges therefore confronted France. First, whether it could escape from the diplomatic isolation and through military feats, outside Europe, regain a place among the great powers. Second, whether it could rebuild national unity and in particular recover the confidence of the nation in its army. Lastly, whether it could define and propagate a coherent and confident national consciousness to underpin its diplomatic and military endeavours.9

In all of these endeavours the army was a key player, with de MacMahon, the butcher of the working class, heading the government in 1873, and his henchman General Gaston Galliffet, “the Commune’s executioner”, appointed war minister in the 1899 government. The first task was the rebuilding of a national consciousness, an attempt to efface the revolutionary years subsequent to the Commune, and overcome the divisions that had left such a gaping wound in the social fabric. Vercingetorix, the opponent of Julius Caesar, and Joan of Arc, the 15th century conqueror of the English forces, were embraced by republicans, monarchists and the Catholic church as embodying the French spirit, often invoked with exhortations for France to recover the lost lands of Alsace and Lorraine.

And if the lost territories could not be recovered immediately, there was also a drive to conquer colonial territories, promoted by influential sections of the establishment as a means of restoring France’s reputation and prestige. There were imperialist adventures in the Far East and closer to home, with much of the Magreb and Saharan Africa being colonised, one estimate giving the French nearly a third of the African continent.10 The empire also provided France with over 500,000 troupes coloniales, valuable manpower reserves for the impending conflict. Criticism at home of the methods of the colonial armies was deflected by General Galliffet, who sponsored a law in 1900 giving organisational autonomy to the colonial army. Gildea states that: “In this way it was better insulated against metropolitan politics”.11 It would not be the last time that the military sought to insulate itself from accountability to the politicians, with the complicity of those same politicians.

The Entente Cordiale between Britain and France constituted the French attempt to fulfil the third challenge, ending its diplomatic isolation by building alliances with nations that shared a common purpose, in this case unity against the burgeoning power on France’s eastern border. Signed in 1904, the agreement soon took on a global significance as an informal alliance against Germany. This arrangement had been preceded some years earlier by the building of closer ties with Tsarist Russia, and a Franco-Russian alliance was forged in January 1894. Diplomatic overtures had been followed by the forming of stronger economic and financial links; by the outbreak of the First World War 25 percent of all French foreign investment was in Russia.

The road to war

By the end of the first decade of the new century a succession of clashes between the great imperial powers or their satraps had made it clear that the world was entering a period of increasing instability and crisis. With France formally allied with Russia (but not yet Britain), and Germany allied to Austria-Hungary, the road to war was well mapped out. But France’s preparations were hamstrung by the legacy of the previous decades and the peculiar character of the country’s development. The ruling class’s fear of further revolutionary upsurges had meant that for decades there had been no consistent policy of conscription such as existed in the other contending states. But by 1913 a new three-year military service law was introduced which assured France a standing army of over 900,000, which could be increased to 1,865,000 when war broke out.12

In both Germany and France the railway networks were expanded to allow for greater East-West movement of troops and supplies, while railway station platforms were lengthened to facilitate the rapid deployment of troop trains. In his single-volume history of the First World War, David Stevenson shows that the French matched the Germans in their development of cross-country communications, especially rail links running to their common border, making it easier to get troops quickly to the frontier.13

In terms of its economy and manufacturing base, France was less prepared for the demands of total war than Germany. So Jean-Jacques Becker describes how in Toulouse in 1914 a gunpowder factory employed only 100 workers. Factories essential for a war economy had to be reopened in the Paris area, while in the metal industry there was only a fraction of the numbers required for an arms economy.14 Stevenson quotes a total figure of only 50,000 employees in the arms industry in 1914.15 But by 1918 there were 50,000 workers in one factory in the Loire! With this rapid change came the development of the working class, accelerated to the point where the makeup of the French demographic was transformed beyond recognition by the end of the war. But the sluggish start in the production of war materials, especially guns and ordnance, would contribute to the calamitous beginning of French military endeavours.

The government took a number of steps to offset the necessary hardship that the war might bring, designed to minimise opposition to the war. For example, a law passed in August 1914 authorised a separation allowance for families of breadwinners who had been called up. The republican government also enjoyed the benefit of a range of laws that could be invoked to ensure the control of the flow of information. Becker writes: “The implications of the state of siege had been spelled out in the law of 8 August 1849 and brought up to date in October 1913: it entitled the military ­authorities to ‘ban all publications and meetings judged to be of a nature to excite or encourage disorder’”.16

Unsurprisingly it was mainly (but not exclusively) the papers of the left that had to endure the attentions of the censor. And, just as today, the papers that parroted the jingoistic blather of the yellow press were given a relatively free hand. Becker offers some quotes from the post-war magazine Le Crapouillot of what eventually became dubbed bourrage de crâne (brain stuffing or ­brainwashing): “The wing-beat [of victory] shall carry our armies to the Rhine… That will spell their complete collapse”; “Like a wasp trapped in a clear crystal carafe, the vile and brutish [German] army is beating against the walls of its prison… It struggles, damaging itself a little more with every vain attempt. It is wearing itself out”, and:

Right at the end of a luncheon given by the general staff, attention was drawn to a few political figures: one of them tried to persuade General Joffre to reveal something of his strategic plans. The victor of the Marne contented himself with a smile, and declared in calm, good-natured tones: “For the moment, I am eating away at them”.17

It is likely that the verb Joffre, the commander in chief of French forces on the Western Front, used was grignoter—to nibble or chew—it shall be necessary to come back to this when dealing with Joffre’s strategy as the war progressed.

Although ententes had been signed between Britain and France in 1904 and Britain and Russia in 1907, this still did not commit Britain to declaring war if either of the other two powers became entangled in a conflict with Germany. The republican government was painfully aware of this. In this matter the French authorities displayed a subtlety and intuitiveness that many historians have failed to give them credit for. The French military chiefs had identified that any German attack was likely to come through Belgium, and they conceived a plan, Plan XVI, which incorporated a pre-emptive strike in which the French Army would cross the border, effectively violating Belgian neutrality. Adam Hochschild cites a warning from a British official to his French counterpart: “On no account, one high British official warned a French colleague, ‘let the French commanders be led into being the first to cross the Belgian frontier!—for then the British public would never countenance going to war’”.18

The official was almost certainly relaying the warning from the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, a central figure in contriving Britain’s decision to declare war on Germany, and the government of Raymond Poincaré heeded the warning; Plan XVI was scrapped in favour of Plan XVII. Thus military considerations were subordinated to political ones, and the government ordered the French forces to hold their positions 10 kilometres from the frontier: “let the Germans put themselves in the wrong”.19

Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on 4 August, two days after the German army invaded Belgium, with the support of the entire House of Commons, with one or two principled exceptions.

The death of internationalism

The destruction of the Commune and the repression that followed, including the outlawing of the First International and the butchering and banishment of that revolutionary generation, cannot but have had an impact on the socialist and labour movement. With great symbolism, the Second International was founded in 1889 in Paris, while reformist social democratic parties were coming to the fore; in 1905 they merged to form the Parti Socialiste, Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvriere (SFIO).

Both the pre-merger parties and the resulting SFIO shared common ground on one key issue: opposition to militarism and war. In this they represented a genuine current of opposition to warmongering among the French working class at rank and file level. At successive conferences resolution after resolution was passed opposing the influence of the military in French society and attempts to increase the use of conscription. German socialists representing similar sentiments among their membership were invited to French socialist congresses, where they swore that they would never fire on their French comrades, while Socialist leader Jean Jaurès made similar commitments to a conference of the German SPD.20

However, a shift was taking place among the European reformist parties as they were drawn into the sphere of parliamentary manoeuvres and political compromise, becoming less like class combatative organisations, and more like a loyal (and collaborative) opposition. They increasingly focused on the “national” interest, and less on the interests of the class they were elected to represent. In this the French socialists were no better or worse than their counterparts in Britain or Germany, and as the war drums beat louder the pressure to fall in behind their respective ruling classes resulted in them not just falling in but wholeheartedly embracing the decision to go to war. Only the tiny Serbian Social Democratic Party and the Bolsheviks in Russia opposed the war, with Lenin issuing a ringing condemnation of the coming conflict as an imperialist war:

Seizure of territory and subjugation of other nations, the ruining of competing nations and the plunder of their wealth, distracting the attention of the working masses from the internal political crises in Russia, Germany, Britain and other countries, disuniting and nationalist stultification of the workers, and the extermination of their vanguard so as to weaken the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, these comprise the sole actual content, importance and significance of the present war.21

When President Poincaré announced the decision in the Assembly to declare war on Germany and Austria-Hungary, there was not one dissenting voice to be heard, not one hint of criticism, not one expression of concern. The SFIO voted unanimously for war credits, and two of their number joined the government in the union sacrée, the sacred union, effectively a truce in the class struggle.

In 1895 a joint congress of workers’ organisations created the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), an organisation that has endured to the present day. The trade union movement in France, unlike in Britain or Germany, was heavily influenced by anarcho-syndicalist ideas and developed separately and distinctly from the political organisations of the working class. At successive conferences that independence from political parties was reaffirmed. Also reaffirmed was the principle of calling for a general strike in the event of mobilisation and war. However, on the eve of the declaration of war the head of the CGT, Léon Jouhaux, concluded a deal with the government; there would be no general strike if CGT leaders were exempted from arrest. Jouhaux went on to join the government as a “delegate to the nation”. Metal workers’ leader Alphonse Merrheim later condemned this as an act of treachery.

Thus so completely abandoned, the proletariat and the peasantry were now condemned to the not-so-tender mercies of the French Army general staff.

The French Army

Many commentators have remarked that the response to the mobilisation in France took place virtually without any internal resistance. According to Stevenson, 13 percent of those conscripted were expected to resist; in the event it was only 1.5 percent.22 Some 3,000 deserters actually gave themselves up in order to take their place in the ranks of those resisting the German invasion. And that was the main motivating factor for those Frenchmen from the subordinate classes reporting to the various assembly areas before being allocated to their units. Absent from the mood in the country was any kind of triumphalism. As Tombs notes, there were few demonstrations, whether bellicose or pacifist.23

It was soon to become clear to the soldiers that the army they joined was singularly unprepared for the impending conflict. Their armaments were outdated; they had insufficient numbers of machine guns and field artillery, and insufficient ordnance to keep what guns they did have supplied. Once they had detrained there was generally insufficient motorised transport to take them to where they needed to be, so forced marches were the order of the day unless horse-drawn carts were available. The general responsible for the defence of Paris, Joseph Gallieni, had to requisition the city’s taxi fleet to carry the troops to the point where they were able to engage the advancing Germans!

The quality of the French general staff was also questionable. Richard Watt describes how the officer class at the turn of the century was dominated by the sons of families with aristocratic pretensions:

They could not go into government; the Republic would not have them, nor could they bring themselves to serve it. They could not go into trade; this was the province of the despised bourgeoisie. So, all other avenues closed, they joined the Army. And the Dreyfus case had shown that the French Army was dominated largely by officers of royalist leanings who were actually in opposition to the republican government they were supposed to serve.24

The Dreyfus case not only divided the nation, but led to a substantial shake-up of the army, with officers of royalist and clerical sympathies being superseded by a new generation of officers. These new officers were generally but not exclusively of republican views but were inspired by the nationalist aspirations and “theories” of Colonel de Grandmaison. De Grandmaison extolled the virtues of the French fighting spirit and the doctrine of l’offensive à outrance, the school of the attack, where it did not matter how many of the enemy were opposed to you, or how well they were armed, or how well dug in defensively; all that was needed was to attack, and you would carry all before you:

This was a theory that could retrieve France from impending defeat at the hands of the far larger and better-equipped German Army. The problem was solved! Attack with dash and boldness; attack with bands playing to stimulate the patriotism of the troops; attack with what was thought to be the traditional French weapon, the bayonet, and France would be invincible once again!25

So the French Army massed in formations that would have been more appropriate for wars fought in the 19th century. David Murphy takes up the narrative:

At this early phase of the war French troops were still dressed in what can only be described as 19th century military splendour. The infantry wore red trousers and their uniforms were topped with a red kepi. In the weeks that followed their officers would lead attacks wearing white gloves and waving swords. The French cavalry similarly wore red breeches but topped their uniforms with a polished brass helmet, complete with plume. Cuirassier regiments wore polished breastplates.26

He goes on to comment on how unwise it was to advance on the enemy with such distinctive and visible uniforms. Unwise indeed, with French casualties ­totalling 754,000 men killed, wounded or missing in the last five months of 1914, as the realities of industrial warfare—or at least some of the realities—made themselves felt on the French Army. Hew Strachan points out that the French Army leadership resorted to the most severe use of summary justice at this stage of the war:

On 1 September the Ministry of War instructed the army to carry out death sentences within twenty-four hours. Soldiers were executed without trial. Joffre emphasised that requests for clemency were to be exceptional: “Men have been recovered in bivouacs or in the rear without packs and without rifles. It is indisputable that most of them have abandoned their posts in the terms defined by the code of military justice… We must be pitiless with the fugitives”.27

He goes on to estimate that France executed some 600 soldiers! Watt comments that the speedy trials and executions under the cours martiales system were illegal, and that, to their credit, pressure was brought to bear by the left wing parties to make it possible for any soldier sentenced to death to appeal to the president. But if there were executions without trial, then it is reasonable to speculate that there were more than those officially recorded. It is worth mentioning that an example of such proceedings was the “trial” and execution of six soldiers at Vingré in December 1914, which provided the basis for Humphrey Cobb’s novel Paths of Glory, later made into a film directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas.28


The laws relating to the state of siege, referred to previously, conferred sweeping powers on Joffre during the early stages of the war, with the military authorities operating in parallel to the civilian administrations in each department (region) of France. When the German forces advanced to within 70 kilometres of Paris, the French government (not for the first time) decamped to Bordeaux, leaving Joffre as the sole authority. The resounding victory against the German Armies at the First Battle of the Marne (also known as the “Miracle of the Marne”), bestowed enormous prestige on Joffre, to the point that, until he was replaced, he was able to wage military operations almost completely free of accountability to the government.

The realities of the war on the Western Front had imposed themselves on all the combatants on both sides, and both commenced digging in and creating trench networks that ran from the Channel coast like a huge scar through Belgium and France, to the Swiss border. This suited the German invaders more, as it meant they could conduct a holding operation in the West while they dealt with the Russians in the East. But for the French military leadership, the expulsion of the Germans from French soil was almost a holy grail, and Joffre and his commanders undertook to wage an incessant war of grignotage, a war of attrition to this end. This translated as a constant succession of attacks throughout 1915 which cost the French Army a further 1,549,000 casualties, of which 334,000 were killed, but resulted in no appreciable gains. Watt puts it in context:

This was a monumental indiscretion, because the French lost more men than the Germans in almost every battle—and the loss was compounded by the fact that, whereas Germany’s population was large enough to make good her losses and even increase the size of her Army, the French Army could scarcely make good its losses even by drafting boys of 17 and men over 45. Joffre had not realised it when he spoke of “nibbling,” but it was exactly this aspect of the war which would most crush the morale of both the French Army and the French nation. The true horror of World War I was not in its maimed and killed, not in the length of the war, and not in its barbarism or atrocities—it was in the fact that so many men died and achieved nothing by it. And no nation suffered proportionately more than France.29

Verdun 1916

If 1915 had been the year when France had suffered the greatest loss of life, 1916 was to be the year most damaging to French morale, on both the Western Front and the home front. The German Army under Erich von Falkenhayn launched an attack on the fortress city of Verdun which was calculated to draw the French into a long drawn-out battle; in his words, the “French general staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death—as there can be no question of a voluntary withdrawal—whether we reach our goal or not”.30

On 21 February the Germans unleashed a sustained bombardment of Verdun and its surrounding fortifications. For the next ten months the battle was to be fought over a narrow salient 20 miles wide and barely ten miles deep. The French Army did indeed bleed copiously, as did the German Army, as the front moved backwards and forwards. Joffre had been replaced by Philippe Pétain, who arranged for regular rotation of regiments and divisions into and out of the line, thus ensuring that the maximum number of French troops experienced the hell of Verdun. A French officer gives a vivid description of the kind of scenes that the troops would have been witness to, as the shelling disinterred the fallen:

On my arrival, the corpse of an infantryman in a blue cap partially emerges from this compound of earth, stones and unidentifiable debris. But a few hours later, it is no longer the same; he has disappeared and has been replaced by a Tirailleur in khaki. And successively there appear other corpses in other uniforms. The shell that buries one disinters another.31

By December the battle could have been deemed to have been wound up, with the official casualty lists accounting for 377,000 Frenchmen and 337,000 Germans, with the lines almost returning to where they were prior to 21 February. But the terrible sacrifice had left its mark. Rates of desertion were starting to increase, and even before the full-blown mutinies of 1917, there were warning signals. Paul Jankowski describes incidents in May 1916 at Mourmelon, where shots were fired and insults shouted at officers. Men refused to pack their kits and move up to the front on 14 May: “‘It’s mutiny by folded arms,’ one of the lieutenants reported. ‘We can feel discipline disintegrating’”.32 Horne describes how President Poincaré, arriving to bestow decorations on the troops, was stoned by those same troops, accompanied by cries of “Embusques!” (Slackers). A whole division marching to the front for the final offensive took to bleating like sheep as they passed a sign scrawled on a wall: “Chemin de l’ Abattoir (this way to the slaughterhouse)”.33

1916 was probably the most catastrophic year in human history to that date. The French Army suffered 550,000 killed, wounded and missing at the “300 jours de Verdun”, and lost 200,000 in the Somme offensive, along with 450,000 British casualties; the German Army is estimated to have lost between 450,000 and 600,000 in the same battle, depending on which historian you read. On the Italian front 400,000 Italians lost their lives in a succession of battles with the Austro-Hungarian forces, which had themselves lost 130,000 since August.34 On the Eastern Front, during the Brusilov Offensive in June the Russian casualties ran to a million, killed, wounded and missing, while the Central Powers lost between 900,000 and 1,300,000 (again depending on which historian you read). War weariness began to manifest itself among all the contending nations and their home fronts, not least in France.

Becker devotes a whole chapter to the strikes in key industries in France in the spring of 1917, identifying 689 strikes and stoppages, involving over 300,000 workers. Some 100,000 people were reported to have demonstrated in Paris in May, while in June striking women armaments workers staged a demonstration outside the Élysée Palace, disturbing the deliberations of Poincaré and his government! But for Becker, the strikes at this stage reflected the moral and physical fatigue of working men and women: “They did not reflect the birth of a revolutionary spirit”.35 Word of this unrest and the news of the February Revolution in Russia were almost certainly communicated to the front-line troops, already displaying signs of demoralisation, but the tipping point came with the attempt by General Robert Nivelle to break the deadlock with his spring offensive.

Nivelle had replaced Joffre as commander in chief of the French Army on the Western Front, and not only organised a massive build up for yet another all-out offensive, but categorically assured the troops—“We have the formula”—that this time they could not fail, and that the attack would sweep all before it. The result was another bloodbath in which over 130,000 French troops were killed, wounded or missing for no appreciable gain, but this time it was the final straw for men who had given so much over the previous two years, and been promised so much in the run up to the attack, and whose lives had been squandered so futilely. On 29 April the first instances of what the French commanders tentatively called “symptoms of unquiet” or “collective disobedience”—mutiny—manifested themselves.

The mutinies

The mutinies have been described by historians and military chroniclers in a number of ways: “extreme manifestations of discontent”; “collective indiscipline”; “symptoms of unquiet”; “soldiers’ work to rule” and “soldiers’ strike”. But from May through to July 2017 over half of the French Army refused to engage in offensive action, refused to needlessly sacrifice themselves in further futile attacks. Reports sent through to GQG estimated that more than 40,000 men engaged in what, under the army’s military code, could only be described as mutinous acts. By the end of June, it was estimated that men from 68 divisions had participated in the mutinies, with disturbances breaking out in 129 infantry regiments, including colonial regiments.

The first occurrences manifested themselves as an unwillingness to ­acknowledge officers or to salute. This was generally accompanied by reluctance to assemble for parade, or even to pick up weapons and kit when ordered to move out. Matters escalated when not only did the men refuse to move, but they refused to return to the front line. In the words of the British ambassador to France, Lord Bertie of Thame: “They refuse to advance to be butchered”.36 These first instances were dealt with in the traditional way, by picking out the ringleaders, shooting a few and consigning the rest to imprisonment in French Guinea. That is exactly what happened to the men of the 2nd Battalion of the 18th Infantry Regiment when they refused to return to the front after being mauled during the Nivelle offensive; five men were shot and “order” was restored. But when the numbers involved are hundreds, and then thousands, such solutions are no longer possible. And that is what began to happen as the mutiny spread throughout the army to such an extent that the officers were powerless to prevent it. In fact in many of the units, junior officers and non-commissioned officers were as disaffected as the troops. By mid-May a senior general, Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, sending five divisions as reinforcements to his colleague General Maistre, warned him: “They are in a state of wretched morale”.37

Watt and other commentators have identified many other factors that contributed to the decline in morale amongst the poilus. The terrible casualties inflicted on the French necessitated more men to feed to the guns, but the numbers available to the generals were considerably constrained as there were no more reserves. So the troops were kept in the line for longer and longer periods, while leave was more and more restricted because of the shortage of manpower. Transport for those going on leave was given very low priority, which meant that a man might take several days to get home, only to have to return shortly afterwards. The rest areas for troops taken out of the line were abominable, while their provisions were often scant and of questionable quality. There were many instances of soldiers making comparisons of pay rates with industrial workers, which also became a major bone of contention. But it was the lack of leave, the chance to see their families, that was a major driver of the revolt among the soldiers. Peter Hart quotes Private Louis Barthas of the 296th Infantry Regiment:

At noon on May 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! Of course I refused; I did not want to know the power of the firing squad to ape the Russians. However I resolved to give a veneer of legality to these revolutionary demonstrations. I drew up a manifesto to convey to our company leaders in protest against the delay in our leave. It began, “The day before the offensive General Nivelle had an order read to the troops saying, ‘The time has come for the sacrifice!’ We have offered our lives as a sacrifice for our country but we in turn say that the time has come for our vastly overdue leave!” The revolt was thus put into a context of law and justice. This manifesto was read by a poilu in a sonorous voice, perched astride an oak tree branch, and wild applause greeted the last lines. This didn’t flatter my vanity much, because we learned afterwards that whoever wrote this protest, moderate though it was, their fate was clear: a certain court martial and very likely twelve Lebel bullets destined to dispatch me to another world before my destined time.38

Barthas is worth quoting in full because he gives some idea of the concerns in the ranks, and of the way that these were mutating into demands, demands that were being tabled throughout the army. He also highlights the influence the revolution in Russia was having on the disaffected troops. Horne describes the process of escalation as follows:

Again the macabre, sheep-like bleating was heard among the regiments sent up to the line; this time mingled with cries of “Down with the war!” and “Down with the incapable leaders!” Men on leave waved red flags and sang revolutionary songs. They beat up military police and railwaymen, and uncoupled or derailed engines to prevent trains leaving for the front. Interceding officers—including at least one general—were set upon.39

He goes on to identify men of the 119th Regiment mounting machine guns on their trucks with the intention of setting off for the Schneider-Le Creusot munitions works and blowing it up!

Report after report to GQG notes the singing of the Internationale and similar initiatives to that of Barthas’s 296th Infantry Regiment, where units of the army began to form their own committees, which were seen by the senior officers, quite rightly, as threatening their very authority. One incident in the garrison town of Soissons demonstrated how the situation was escalating out of the generals’ control. General Taufflieb, commander of the 37th army corps, was walking the streets after dark one evening. He describes how he and his companions were fired upon by an unseen marksman.

Later that evening hundreds of mutineers singing the Internationale and shouting revolutionary and anti-war slogans marched off to the railway station at Mercin intending to seize a train, which they planned to take to Paris in order to expel the government. That evening they were disappointed, but a few nights later the mutineers from the 370th Regiment commandeered a train and set out for Paris, no longer concerned with local protests but intent on dispersing the government and ending the war.40 The train was eventually intercepted by a loyal cavalry unit in the Villers-Cotterêts area, and those mutineers that refused to surrender were shot out of hand. Later on that month, on 27 May, there was another attempt to seize a train, in Fère-en-Tardenois, southeast of Soissons, by the 18th Regiment, who had revolted three weeks earlier. Now they not only resisted attempts to send them back to the front, but attempted to board a train bound for Paris, and were only prevented from leaving after a pitched battle with the military police that lasted all night.41

Poincaré described in his memoir, The Troubled Year, how, by the first week of June, the troops of the 298th Infantry Regiment revolted and then went on to capture the town of Missy-aux-Bois, expelling the officers from their ranks, and proceeding to elect representatives along the lines described by Private Barthas.42 The mutineers of the 298th were eventually compelled to surrender, and six of their number were allegedly summarily executed. However, the development was significant in that the mutineers voiced specific political demands, principally that peace be concluded without delay. This was almost certainly a consequence of contact with socialist or anarchist groups while they were on leave. Strachan refers to the interaction between soldiers on leave and agitators at the two main Paris railway stations serving the front, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, which symbolised the link between soldiers at the front and the civilian population.

But interaction and association are not the same as coordination and organisation. Tony Judt, in his book on the French left, has commented on the increasing unrest among the socialists of the SFIO:

Until the summer of 1918 the majority remained supporters of the war effort, although increasingly unhappy with the human and economic costs. A growing minority emerged, however, which favoured a negotiated peace and a “reconstruction” of the shattered Second International along radical lines.43

In the chapter entitled “The Crisis of Morale (Spring 1917)” Becker states that the CGT was still adhering to a pro-war position, in spite of the increasing opposition of the minority. He concludes: “It remains true, however, that at the end of the spring of 1917 the combination of masses of dissatisfied workers, over-excited soldiers on leave and a general decline in morale might have had grave consequences. Just one element was lacking for this to happen”.44

So although there were significant shifts in the mood of the country, and the union sacrée was starting to fragment, the government was still functioning and able to exercise its authority. As a result those grave consequences were to be experienced by the mutineers.

The suppression

Mutiny in an army, especially a bourgeois army in a time of war, would inevitably be dealt with in the most brutal fashion, and a mutiny that appeared to be escalating to revolutionary proportions would require the kind of repression last seen in Paris in 1871. The government, distraught and scrabbling for a solution, any solution to deal with the rebellion in the army, had sacked the discredited Nivelle, promoted Pétain into the role of commander in chief, and ceded complete authority to him to deal with the mutineers. The ministers in government, including the socialist delegates of the SFIO (and almost certainly Jouhaux, the “delegate of the nation”), must have known what that would mean. Although Watt refers to visits to the Zone of the Military by deputies and senators,45 who could have addressed the troops and familiarised themselves with their grievances, (bearing in mind that many of them were still members of the SFIO or the CGT), there were virtually no sympathetic voices raised in the Assembly, or campaigns organised within the trade union movement in defence of the mutineers. In these circumstances Pétain was left in no doubt that he was to be given a free hand, and he in turn wasted no time in moving to suppress the mutiny.

Pétain adopted what could be described as a carrot and stick approach. In an attempt to win back the hearts and minds of the troops he set about touring the front line. He enjoyed a fair degree of success principally because his PR exercise was coupled with the instituting of fundamental improvements. The leave system had been a major bone of contention; so Pétain regularised the allocation of leave, while ordering that transport arrangements for troops on leave be prioritised. Rest areas behind the front line were upgraded, and he saw to it that rest meant rest, not mindless parades and drills, while both the quantity and quality of rations improved. For soldiers that had felt unheeded and devalued the effects were quite profound. Most importantly of all, Pétain made it clear that there would be no more all-out offensives, with huge numbers of casualties for little or no gain; there were no more reserves to fill the gaps.

And for that very reason Pétain could not resort to wholesale executions of mutineers. But punishment there would have to be for those deemed culpable of mutiny; discipline and obedience needed to be reinstilled in the ranks. Pétain petitioned the government to reinstate the dreaded system of cours martiales and insisted that the right of review and appeal to the president be revoked; he also insisted that the changes should not be publicised. From this point on there were to be fearful consequences for anybody deemed guilty of mutinous acts.

Senior officers in mutinous regiments conducted cours martiales, which were barely one step removed from kangaroo courts and from which there was no appeal. Murphy, quoting Guy Pedroncini,46 the only historian believed to have been given access to the files, identified 3,427 convictions of which 554 led to death sentences; Pétain admits to 55 executions. The number of those executed is almost certainly higher, and does not take into account the instances of summary execution, of which there were many as the officer corps moved to inflict a terrible retribution on men whose only crime was that they could not endure the pointless slaughter any more. The same General Taufflieb referred to earlier, when confronted by an incident where 700 men had mutinied and taken refuge in a cave, gave the men an ultimatum: surrender or be walled up in the cave! When the mutineers surrendered, 20 men were arbitrarily selected for execution and marched away.47 In this way, by July “order” had been restored, and military operations could resume, although for the remainder of the war on the Western Front, the French GQG never felt confident enough to commit the troops to further all-out offensives; a pyrrhic victory for the mutineers.

The French authorities embargoed documents relating to the events of May and June 1917 for 100 years; it remains to be seen whether they will release the details of the mutinies, or whether they will even acknowledge that they took place.


Doubtless wartime French governments were haunted by the spectre of ­revolution. Many of the deputies, including Georges Clémenceau, who was prime minister in the final phase of the war, had been active in French politics at the time of the Commune, and were terrified that mutiny in the army would not only deprive them of a means to put down insurrection, but might well have become the channel through which such a revolution could be brought about. There were certainly elements among the mutineers who identified with developments in Russia, and sought to break out of the Zone of the Military and carry revolution into the heart of the metropolis.

And there was certainly fertile ground in the Zone of the Interior in which such a revolt could grow and develop. The mainly economic agitation and strikes of 1917, leavened with anti-war demonstrations in Paris, were followed in 1918 by tremendous upsurges in political agitation and strikes in the Rhône and Loire industrial regions, where the number of manufacturing workers, especially metal workers, had grown exponentially to service the war machine. The strike leaders were prepared to reject the collaboration of the CGT leadership and the reformist socialists (now labelled social-chauvinists) and even to challenge Merrheim, the metal workers’ national leader, who had been the staunchest opponent of the war in 1914, but opposed the Loire militants who, he argued, were going too far.

But absent from French politics was a revolutionary party embedded in the class throughout the country, in factories and offices, neighbourhoods and communities, with strong links to the soldiery at the front. Such an organisation could have provided guidance and leadership nationally, to take forward the economic struggles of 1917, to link up with the mutineers in the army in May and June of that year, and to expose the treachery of the union sacrée collaborators as they sought to sabotage the strikes of 1918.

What was needed was a party arguing for a position of revolutionary defeatism, for the defeat of one’s own country on the basis that the main enemy was the ruling class at home, and the need to turn imperialist war into a revolutionary war.

Becker, no revolutionary, sums up the situation in the conclusion of his very influential book:

Thus the Socialist Party and the CGT, who were undoubtedly placed in a dilemma by the continuation of the war, stood their ground against the anti-war minority for a long time, and it is certain that the attitude of the majority acted as a powerful brake on those who posed a serious threat to national unity. The lack of determined revolutionary organisations and leaders was another important factor, but then that lack was not just a matter of chance but was dictated by the realities of the French situation.48

The French lost 1,397,200 dead and missing, and about 3.2 million wounded, with more than a million permanently incapacitated. The French historian Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau described post-war France as having to endure “the weight of the dead on the living”.49

The French government managed to ride out the surge of opposition to the war, the strikes and demonstrations and the mutiny. At the negotiating table at Versailles at the end of the war, France, now led by Clémenceau, along with the other victorious nations, insisted on exacting onerous reparations from a defeated Germany. These conditions contributed to the reigniting of the conflict 20 years later.


The Russian Revolution had a dramatic and almost immediate effect on at least one contingent fighting with the French Army. As a result of a deal concluded between the Tsarist government and the French administration, the Russians were to supply a sizeable contingent of troops, designated the Russian Expeditionary Force (REF), in exchange for weapons and ordnance. About 22,000 Russians arrived in mid-1916 and were thrown into the battles taking place on the Western Front. In spite of the efforts of the authorities to prevent them from hearing about the revolution, the Russians soon learnt of the tumultuous events in their homeland. Freed of their oath to serve the Tsar by his abdication, the REF brigades mutinied, and refused to return to the trenches.

Alarmed by the implacable stance of the Russian mutineers, the French arranged for their transportation to the remote encampment of La Courtine. There the hardline elements, supporters of the Bolsheviks, who refused to serve at the front, were separated from those who were prepared to obey the provisional government under Alexander Kerensky, which determined to continue the war. In September 1917 the “loyalists”, under French military supervision, besieged the rebels and, after a stand-off, shelled the camp. The mutineers surrendered three days later, and were marched off into captivity, and an uncertain future.

Jamie Cockfield pays a reluctant tribute to Leon Trotsky, who, writing in The History of the Russian Revolution, noted the similarity between the events at La Courtine and the intervention by the imperialist powers in the Russian Revolution: “The whole confrontation ending in the battle is interesting in that it was basically a dress rehearsal for the Russian Civil War to come, and the French role would be essentially the same: Loyalists of various sorts backed by French artillery and bayonets opposed leftist insurgents”.50 By their actions, not only the French, but all the contending imperialist countries, fomented civil war in Russia, in which a further seven to ten million people perished, and the Russian economy was almost totally destroyed.

Steve Guy is a long-time revolutionary socialist, trade union activist and campaigner, currently involved in the fight to save the NHS.


1 Marx and Engels, 1977, p32.

2 Marx, 1972, p10.

3 Tombs, 1996, p401.

4 Marx, 1970, p63.

5 Lissagaray, 1976, p307.

6 Tombs, 1996, p19.

7 Marx, 1970, p46.

8 Quoted in Marx, 1981, p178.

9 Gildea, 2008, p410.

10 Barraclough and Stone, 1989, p240.

11 Gildea, 2008, p424.

12 Philpot, 2012, p26.

13 Stevenson, 2012, pp49-50.

14 Becker, 1983, pp22-23.

15 Stevenson, 2012, p230.

16 Becker, 1983, p48.

17 Echo de Paris, General Cherfils, 15 September 1914; Le Matin, 22 October 1914, and Le Journal, 29 October 1914, quoted in Becker, 1983, pp30-31.

18 Hochschild, 2012, p69.

19 Tombs, 1996, p480.

20 Hochschild, 2012, p168.

21 Lenin, 1977, p33.

22 Stevenson, 2012, p40.

23 Tombs, 1996, p481.

24 Watt, 1969, p24. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish staff officer wrongly convicted of spying for the Germans, a case that divided the French nation and led to the discrediting of the French Army general staff.

25 Watt, 1969, p28.

26 Murphy, 2015, p16.

27 Strachan, 2010, p55.

28 Cobb, 2010.

29 Watt, 1969, p92.

30 Quoted in Horne, 1993, p36.

31 Horne, 1993, p302. Tirailleurs were colonial soldiers, primarily from Senegal.

32 Jankowski, 2016, p180.

33 Horne, 1993, p318.

34 Thompson, 2008, p245.

35 Becker, 1983, p211.

36 Murphy, 2015, p128.

37 Watt, 1969, p185.

38 Hart, 2014, p343.

39 Horne, 1993, p322.

40 Murphy, 2015, p127.

41 Watt, 1969, p192.

42 See Watt, 1969, p204.

43 Judt, 1989, p122.

44 Becker, 1983, p235.

45 Watt, 1969, p198.

46 Murphy, 2015, p134.

47 Watt, 1969, p237. Watt actually defends this practice of decimation, claiming that, for the French Army: “it was a method which was hallowed by time”.

48 Becker, 1983, p326.

49 Quoted in Philpott, 2012, p345.

50 Cockfield, 1999, p193.


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