Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 275th installment in the series.
May 9, 1917: Mutinies Rock French Army, U-Boats Wreak Havoc
After almost three years of pointless slaughter, the abject failure of the Nivelle Offensive, with 187,000 casualties including 29,000 dead, pushed the French Army to the breaking point, and it broke with a wave of mutinies in May-June 1917, eventually involving almost half the army. The mutinies threatened to paralyze the Allied war effort on the Western Front, forcing the British Expeditionary Force and Belgian Army to assume larger roles; to keep the pressure up on Germany, in July Britain launched one of the bloodiest attacks of the war at the Third Battle of Ypres, the nightmare Passchendaele.
The French Army had long been simmering with discontent, which grew sharply during the horror of Verdun, reaching dangerous proportions before the Nivelle Offensive. A French officer, Henri Desagneaux, noted in his diary on April 4, 1917: “Many men get drunk. Morale is low. They are fed up with the war. Certain corps court-martial some men for desertion, theft, insolence, etc.; after condemnation (with reprieve in the majority of the cases) they are transferred to another corps. My company is infested with them.”
Events abroad also appear to have played a role, as the butchery of the Aisne came close on the heels of the Russian Revolution (also the work of disaffected soldiers) as well as the entry of the United States of America into the war. The drama of the Revolution, in particular, appears to have inspired some of the more political mutineers, whose ranks were heavy with socialists. The French soldier Louis Barthas, a barrel-maker from southern France with socialist leanings, noted the influence of the Russian Revolution but also suggested that more mundane issues like home leave were the real driving force behind the mutiny:
At this time the Russian Revolution broke out. Those Slavic soldiers, only yesterday enslaved and bent double under the weight of iron discipline, unknowingly marching off to massacres like resigned slaves, had thrown off their yokes, proclaimed their liberty, and imposed peace on their masters, their hangmen. The whole world was stupefied, petrified by this revolution, this collapse of the immense empire of the czars. These events had repercussions on the Western Front and throughout the French ranks. A wind of revolt blew across almost all the regiments. There were, besides, plenty of reasons for discontent: the painful failure of the Chemin des 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 leaves – it’s that which bothered the soldiers most, I believe.
The mutinies began on April 17, 1917, when 17 men from the 108th Regiment abandoned their positions before an attack, and reached crisis proportions in early May, when the 2nd Division refused to attack as ordered (although the soldiers remained in the trenches). According to some reports, the mutinies intensified following false rumors that French authorities planned to “decimate,” or kill every tenth man, from two regiments that refused to attack on the Aisne.
In mid-May disturbances and insubordination spread to the 18th Division and 127th Division, followed on May 19-20 by the 166th and 3rd Divisions, with dozens more joining in the weeks to come, reaching a climax in early June. In many cases mutinying troops simply refused to attack, but agreed to continue defensive duty in informal parlays with officers. Overall 49 divisions out of 113, or 43% of the total, engaged in insubordination to varying degrees before the disorder was effectively suppressed in the summer of 1917 by Philippe Petain, who replaced the discredited Robert Nivelle as chief of the general staff on May 15.
As the mutiny spread the incidence of violence increased, including drunken rioting and looting of military and civilian goods, burning down tent encampments, and brawling with other soldiers or civilians. Some of the more revolutionary elements urged their comrades to commandeer trains and drive for Paris, but many of the incidents were actually (relatively) peaceful protests focused on specific grievances and concrete demands, including an end to futile attacks, better food and clean water, and more reliable mail service, so vital for keeping in touch with family back home. Calls for full-on revolution appear to have been for the most part drunken bravado (and perhaps a tactic intended to frighten the authorities into making concessions). Barthas recalled a typical incident:
I cannot pretend to tell the whole story of what happened almost everywhere just then. I will stick to writing what I know, regarding our regiment and the repression which followed. There was, at the end of the village, a shopkeeper for whom the war brought only profit. He sold beer, and he had a cute little waitress to serve it to customers – powerful attractions which, every evening after supper, brought a whole crowd of poilus, a well-behaved clientele which plunked down in groups in the big courtyard adjacent to his shop. One evening, some of the soldiers were singing, others were entertaining their fellows with songs and skits, when a corporal began singing words of revolt against the sad life in the trenches, words of farewell to the dear souls whom we might not see again, of anger against the perpetrators of this infamous war, the rich shirkers who left the fighting to those who had nothing to fight for. At the refrain, hundreds of voices rose in chorus, and at the end fervent applause broke out, mixed with cries of “Peace or revolution!” Down with war!,” as well as “Home leave! Home leave!”
Although they fizzled out in the end, the French mutinies during the spring of 1917 inspired real fear in the French government, for good reason. The decision of radical socialist troops to establish councils or “soviets” representing ordinary rank and file soldiers in a number of units, in clear imitation of the Russian Revolution, was bound to alarm conservative French authorities, already primed to think of socialists as the red menace. The situation was only made more alarming by the presence of several brigades of Russian troops on the Western Front, who were suspected of transmitting the revolutionary fervor of their homeland to the mutineers, prompting the French high command to transfer the Russians to La Courtine in rural France in June 1917 (later the site of their own mutiny in September).
As the mutinies approached their climax in early June, rumors also circulated that the French Army high command was prepared to resort to extreme measures against troops that continued to refuse orders. On June 18, 1917, Desagneaux noted:
We have relieved here the 3rd Artillery Company because they refused to march any more and the Bosches took advantages of this ill-feeling to recapture the terrain. Throughout the region, there is talk of nothing but mutinies, of troops refusing to relieve their comrades. Near Braisne, they have massed Moroccan and Algerian troops whose role will be to force the troops to go to the trenches if the need arises.
However in the end violence proved unnecessary (for the most part). To restore order with a minimum of bloodshed the French government summoned Petain, the hero of the early days of Verdun, already popular with the troops due to his care for the ordinary soldiers under his command. In a remarkable burst of activity, over several months Petain met with units representing almost the entire French Army, listening to ordinary soldiers’ grievances. As chief of the general staff, he moved swiftly to meet their main demands, while physically separating rebellious units from unaffected ones and weeding out and isolating ringleaders from their less radical followers.
Petain’s reforms in this “carrot and stick” approach included more regular leave, better rations, a more sympathetic and responsive medical service, and above all an implicit promise to end the futile attacks, allowing the French Army to go on the defensive and rest after three years of continual bloodletting. At the same time the most egregious cases of insubordination from the mutinies ultimately met with the traditional punishment for mutiny: death. Altogether the French Army held 3,427 “conseils de guerre” or court-martials in the wake of the mutinies, which handed down 2,878 sentences for hard labor and 629 death sentences, with just 43 actual executions (a low number, suggesting the government heeded Petain’s advice to err on the side of lenience in order to allow the army’s wounds to heal; top, a memorial to the executed mutineers).
As noted above, the French mutinies threatened to paralyze the Allied war effort on the Western Front, raising the possibility of military collapse and defeat. But the French government’s tight wartime censorship of the press, coupled with aggressive counter-intelligence efforts, allowed the mutinies to pass almost entirely unnoticed by the Germans, who could have easily profited from the disorder by launching a surprise attack – an impressive achievement, considering the number of troops involved and the length of the outbreaks. In strategic terms France was temporarily weakened by the mutinies, forced to wait for “the Americans and the tanks,” as Petain summed it up.
Nutrition and Nationalism
The French and Russian Armies weren’t alone in confronting mutinous or revolutionary elements in its ranks. All the main combatants devoted considerable energy to monitoring the opinions of rank and file soldiers, for example through the reports of military censors who read their letters home, and stamped out signs of active resistance wherever they found them. But inevitably low-level dissent, falling short of actual insubordination, continued unabated throughout the war in all the armies, often expressing itself in less dramatic transgressions like desertion.
Lack of food, bad food, low pay, and incompetent and arrogant officers were common subjects of complaint for ordinary soldiers on all sides of the First World War, to such an extent that most censors didn’t bother trying to suppress these sentiments, as long as there was no incitement to disobedience. One typical example comes from a German soldier who wrote home on May 6, 1916:
Dear Michael! I am still rather healthy and hope the same of you. Here in the field it is all going down, for the provisions are so small that it is hardly enough for us. The food is really crap, but we have to eat it because it is the only food we get. In the morning and in the afternoon we have to work up to the last minute. They are painstakingly exact in that respect, but they don’t care about the food we get… It is high time the swindle comes to an end. I didn’t even get furlough when my brother died. That is so sad. But the duty comes first… We are always hungry. If the officers would get the same provisions as we do, the war would have been finished a long time ago… It is the same with honours and promotion. Whoever deserves it won’t get it.
Mutiny for national or political causes was a special concern with some colonial troops, as well as within multiethnic empires like Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, where disenfranchised minorities actively resisted military service and often sympathized with the “enemy.” Princess Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, recorded a whispered story from the Balkan charnel house, where some Czech soldiers refused to massacre fellow Slavs:
Ossip Schubin the novelist (she is a Bohemian, with all the Bohemian hatred of the Germans and Hungarians) told me a terrible story. Some Bohemian soldiers were ordered to enter a Serbian village and shoot all the inhabitants, including the women and children… The lieutenant who had to carry out this order went out of his mind at the horror of it. The soldiers then turned on the captain and shot him, saying, “Do your dirty work yourself.”
In the case of the British colonial empire, Indian Muslim and Sikh troops mutinied on several occasions because of alleged violations of their religious strictures, and nationalist sentiment was also circulating in the ranks of Indian units deployed across the world, as reflected in some letters home written (but not necessarily delivered) at this time. Early Islamist and jihadist ideology was also circulating alongside traditional caste affiliations and the struggle against colonial rule, as reflected in a letter written by an anonymous agitator to an Indian soldier in March 1916:
You are entangled in a war in which no victory has been gained nor can any be gained in the future. What you ought to do is raise your fellow caste-men against the English and join the army of Islam. If you die in its service it would be better than living as you are doing now. Act as I have advised you, or you will be sorry afterwards. God’s orders have been received to the effect that the destruction of the British Raj is at hand… All the Muslims who have died in this war fighting for the British will spend an eternity in hell. Kill the English whenever you get a chance and join the enemy… Be watchful, join the enemy, and you will expel the Kafir from your native land. The flag of Islam is ready and will shortly be seen waving.
Although it is impossible to make firm statements about the overall feeling Indian troops during this time, most seem to have remained loyal to the British Empire, despite several abortive uprisings in India during this period, including the Ghadar Mutiny in February 1915. A fairly typical sentiment was expressed by a Sirfaraz Khan, who urged his son Alam to serve the British faithfully, even if it meant fighting their co-religionists, in a letter written on April 16, 1916: “Remember this, that you must always do the Sirkar’s work faithfully. It is very difficult to get such a King… The Turks are not our paternal uncle’s children! I firmly rely on you, that you remain the well-wisher of the Sirkar. Still, it is proper that I should advise you. The Turks made war against our Sirkar without any cause.”
However the perceived injustices of war could bring nationalist sentiments bubbling to the surface at unexpected times. A British officer, T.H. Westmacott, recorded the final words of an Indian soldier convicted of murdering an abusive low-ranking officer, who tried to justify his crime in terms of the struggle against colonialism:
As Sergeant Walsh, my provost sergeant was tying him to the chair, he shouted in Hindustani, “Salaam, O Sahibs! and Salaam, all Hindus and Mahometans of this regiment! There is no justice in the British Sirkar. I did this deed because I was abused. Those of you who have been abused as I was go and do the same, but eat your own bullet and do not be shot as I shall be.”
U-Boats Wreak Havoc
In the evening of May 9, 1917 Lieutenant Johannes Spiess, commander of the German U-boat U-19, finally saw what he had been looking for all day:
At 7 p.m., we sighted a cloud of smoke. I immediately steered toward it and soon discovered that we were near a southward-bound convoy, which comprised eight ships… The ships were sailing in a perfectly straight line, which we had thought impossible for commercial vessels… Every ten minutes, the convoy changes course by about 20 degrees behind its leader, four escort vessels fanned out before the convoy provided it with light, and two destroyers were zigzagging on both sides. The entire convoy gave the impression of a fleet of well-trained warships.
Allied convoy formations, which usually involved a perimeter of destroyers and trawlers escorting a line of merchant vessels, made it difficult for U-19 to approach its pretty – but not impossible. Spiess’ account also gives some idea of how physically taxing submarine warfare could be:
While was passed the trawlers in the van of the convoy, I had to use the periscope several times, in order to avoid collisions and observe the convoy’s changes of course. For each observation, I stopped one of the engines and ordered the periscope to be hoisted. As soon as it reached the surface, I made a quick circular inspection of the waters. The navigator, who was standing before me, helped me swing it round faster, because it was very hard to turn. This exercise required a great deal of energy, and before every attack I perspired so abundantly that I had to change clothes, even though I always took off my heavy jacket beforehand.
Finally, after over two hours spent stalking the convoy, Spiess saw an opening and lunged for it:
At 9:04 p.m., I was no longer hindered by the destroyers and had the objective right in my sights. “Tube 2, fire!” I ordered, and immediately afterwards: “Quick, maximum depth!” While the U19 was obeying the hydroplanes, we were intently waiting for the detonation. But not a sound was heard. Damn it, I must have missed! But suddenly: Rrrboum! A powerful explosion shook and swayed our submarine.
While epic in its own right, every such sinking was just a single, small event in the larger German campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare launched on February 1, 1917, which saw Allied shipping losses soar in April, followed by sustained high losses through the summer of that year. The volume of total tonnage sunk soared from 377,000 tons in January 1917 to 887,000 tons in April, 618,000 tons in May, and 710,000 tons in June, making this by far the worst period of shipping losses for the Allies during the war.
These numbers exceeded even the German Admiralty’s optimistic predictions for Allied and neutral shipping losses, seeming to hold out the possibility that German U-boats might really succeed in bringing the island fortress of Britain to her knees by cutting off imports of food, armaments, and other necessities. After remaining mostly steady through the earlier part of the war, the total tonnage of British merchant shipping available tumbled from a pre-war average of around 20 million tons in 1913 to 16 million tons in 1917 and 15 million tons in 1918. Other Allied merchant shipping also suffered heavily during this period.
More importantly, the pace of sinkings appeared to be outstripping the ability of British and American shipyards to make up for the losses. This state affairs which would continue through the end of 1917, secretly terrifying Allied officials, until early 1918, when a massive increase in U.S. shipyard output and new tactics and technology finally started to turn the tide, including convoys, “depth charge” submersible explosives, and sonar, first tested in mid-1917.
Later in the war Herman Whitaker, an American correspondent, described seeing a submarine forced to the surface by U.S. Navy destroyers based on the west coast of Ireland:
The submarine had submerged at once; but, rushing along his wake, the Fanning dropped a depth-mine that wrecked the motors, damaged the oil leads, blew off the rudder, tipped the stern up, and sent the “sub” down on a headlong dive of fully two hundred feet. Afterward the commander said that he thought she would never stop. In a desperate effort to check her before she was crushed by deep-sea pressure, he blew out all four water-ballast tanks, and so came shooting back up with such velocity that the “sub” leaped out of the water like a breaching whale. Instantly the Nicholson, which had swung on a swift circle, charged and dropped a second depth-mine as the submarine went down again… Having no rudder, the “sub” was porpoising along, now up, now down; and every time the conning-tower showed the destroyers sent a shot whistling past it. They had fired three each before the hatch flew up, and the crew came streaming out and ranged along the deck with their hands up.
The Germans were under strict orders not to allow their vessels to fall into enemy hands, leading to a final dramatic twist:
As the Nicholson and Fanning hove alongside, covering the crew with their guns, two were seen to run back below. They were gone only a minute, but that was sufficient. Undoubtedly they had opened the sea-cocks and scuttled the vessel, for she sank three minutes later. The crew jumped into the water, and were hauled aboard the destroyer as fast as they could catch a line…
While the balance of power on and below the sea remained in flux, civilians and soldiers making the ocean crossing spent the days and weeks with the knowledge that death could befall them at any moment. Reginald Cecil Huggins was an 18-year-old British soldier aboard the British transport Arcadian when it sank in the Aegean after being torpedoed on April 15, 1917 (below, the Arcadian):
Without one moment’s warning, a terrific explosion occurred, made hideous by the splintering into matchwood of great timbers, the crash of falling glass and the groaning of steel girders wrenched asunder, followed by the hissing rush of escaping steam from the ship’s boilers… [H]aving given one convulsive shudder from end to end, the great ship began to settle down on her port side with the loose deck paraphernalia slithering about in all directions and dropping into the sea.
Unable to swim, Huggins was more or less helpless in the water as the ship sank nearby:
Having read about the vortex a sinking vessel will make, I was ruminating on my chances as a survivor. The suspense, fortunately, was brief. For a moment or two the Arcadian partly righted on her keel and then with much hissing of escaping steam and explosions form the boiler rooms, she slid for ever out of sight of human eyes, carrying with her hundreds of troops and her own crew caught like rates on the lower decks. Within three minutes (official Admiralty time) from the time the she was struck all that remained of the ship was bits of floating wreckage.
Just as he feared, Huggins was sucked down by vortex created by the sinking ship:
It is difficult to describe my sensations during the minute or so following. Down and still further down, I was dragged by the suction till it seemed that I must soon touch bottom. I was spun round with great rapidity and swirled about in an alarming manner. I held my breath and closed tightly both eyes and mouth, until forced by bursting lungs to take in air, I opened my mouth, getting a large helping of Aegean Sea. My mind was functioning normally. I can recollect that I had quite decided that H.M. Army was about to lose one live cavalryman… At last, however, I came with a rush to the surface, and was violently ill for some time… Large numbers of drowned, the survivors, and a quantity of wreckage were close by me.
Luckily Huggins survived to be picked up by a British rescue vessel. Even when the voyage was uneventful, however, passengers were understandably preoccupied by the danger looming over what was once a straightforward sea journey, leading to some jarring juxtapositions (below, crewmembers in a lifeboat abandon the Aragon, sunk in the Mediterranean with the loss of 610 lives on December 30, 1917).
John Kautz, an American headed to France with other college students to serve as volunteer drivers for French Army supply trucks, wrote in his diary aboard ship on May 30, 1917:
How beautiful it is out here to-night! I have sat a long time on the deck looking back along our twisting wake to where the up-slanting horizon shuts out the western sea with a veil of pale light and barely showing stars. The moon, three quarters full, makes a broad rippling patch across the easy-rolling water. People here and there upon the deck talk in low tones and laugh subduedly now and then. Above on the boat deck a dozen college fellows are singing songs softly and with harmony. Now a pall hangs over all. The necessity always of restraint and caution lays a heavy hand on hearts that would be gay.
In such circumstances the most reasonable response was sometimes a combination of gallows humor, fatalism and bravado. Julia Stimson, an American nurse traveling to France to serve as chief nurse in a British military hospital, wrote her parents from aboard ship on May 21, 1917:
The only time that one can even imagine any danger is at night when on the decks not a single particle of light can be seen, except a dark purple glow at each companion-way. All the portholes are fastened shut and all the windows of the dining-saloon are shut and shaded as soon as it begins to get dark. The main hall, or whatever the place is called, in the center of the boat where the main stairways are, is also entirely dark, so that when the doors to the deck are opened no light will shine out… As one of my nurses said in her slow drawly way: “There isn’t any use worrying about the submarines. If the Germans are going to kill us, worrying isn’t going to prevent it. If the Germans do kill me, I’m going to come back and haunt the whole German army.”
Unsurprisingly the volume of voluntary traffic across the Atlantic Ocean plunged during the war period. At the same time, some civilian passengers brave enough to make the trip frankly enjoyed the suspense of the perilous ocean crossing in wartime, which allowed them to share in some small part the dangers facing men in the trenches – at least once they were back on dry land. Thus Lord Northcliffe, the British newspaper tycoon, described traveling across the Atlantic to observe American preparations for war, noted:
We have all been longing for the voyage to be over, but now that it is nearly ended, we almost regret it… Why is it? This voyage has been longer than any I ever made across the Atlantic. What has made us enjoy it? What is it that will make us look back on it as a voyage of unusual interest? It is the tinge of danger. Travelling has ceased to be humdrum, uneventful. It has become romantic again.