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French officer/man relations


jbenjami
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Good morning all,

I am writing up research which is looking at issues of discipline within the armies on the Western Front...questioning specifically why the British army did NOT mutiny on the scale the French did in 1917, and particularly at Passchendaele. As part of this study, I have been looking at the causes of the French mutinies and seeing how they might have applied to the British situation too.

I would be grateful for any comments or ideas on this topic generally, but today I am specifically asking for help on the officer/man relations in the French army.

Many people I have consulted have commented that the French officers did not care for their men in the same patriarchal way that British officers did but I cannot find any studies (in English please!) to support this. It doesn't matter if its in print or electronic format as long as I can get a clearer idea about this aspect and aslo reference it!

Much of the French history I have read talks about the structure of the French army and how it was recruited etc but I need to get a better idea of how this worked in practice.

In ideological terms, were there for instance, class issues between officers and other ranks in the French army which distanced the officer class when their troops needed them most?

Or in basic terms, would French officers put their men first in terms of perhaps shelter and food etc or were the troops left to fend for themselves?

Are there any books of anecdotal material you know of in which the French soldiers are recorded speaking for themselves...rather like Lyn MacDonald approaches the British soldier experience.

I'd be grateful of any pointers at all.

Jane

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There is plenty of material that is useful for you, but it is all in French and to answer the sort of questions you are asking would require a better than working knowledge of French and early twentieth century culture and society. Is this for a university study?

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There is plenty of material that is useful for you, but it is all in French and to answer the sort of questions you are asking would require a better than working knowledge of French and early twentieth century culture and society. Is this for a university study?

There is plenty of material that is useful for you, but it is all in French and to answer the sort of questions you are asking would require a better than working knowledge of French and early twentieth century culture and society. Is this for a university study?

Hi Paul...

Thanks for replying so promptly.

Yes MA (by Research) looking at mutiny on the Western Front, but specifically within the British army and why it was relatively mutiny free.

I am not seeking to reinvestigate the French aspect at all really, but obviously do want to make some rational comparisons. I have been using secondary sources and have accepted the findings of historians who have written on the French mutinies - this part is simply to identify the causes of the French muntinies and apply those as criteria to examnine the British situation, where I will then be investigating more fully and feeding in some of the British primary sources.

However, although I have used some of the more standard sources on the French, such as L.Smith and even a little Pedroncini, ( one of his articles on the mutinies only, which I managed to get translated, but, not the full text of Les Mutinieres as again this has never appeared in English!) much of the literature IS only available in French and not giving me what I need in terms of French officership (if there is such a word!) and a perspective on how the various ranks inter-related within the French army, both before and after the war.

Many times, I've had shaking of the head in response to this question....Oh dear, the French officers were a particularly inept, feckless or uncaring bunch....but I've never seen this in anything more than tittle tattle format!!

I need something more academically creditable....

Any ideas???

Thanks Jane

Edited by Montay1918
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Jane.

Have you tried "Paths of Glory - The French Army 1914-1918" by Anthony Clayton?

D.

Hi Gericht

Yes, got that one thanks....still need something a bit meatier though

thanks a million for replying

Jane

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Many times, I've had shaking of the head in response to this question....Oh dear, the French officers were a particularly inept, feckless or uncaring bunch....but I've never seen this in anything more than tittle tattle format!!

I need something more academically creditable....

Any ideas???

There have been some studies of this nature, but they are only in French. The assumption you quote about French officers sounds like something out of 'Paths of Glory' rather than the pages of history. The memoirs I have read of French officers show them to be little different to the young officers of the British army.

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Henri Barbusse wrote " Le Feu" in 1916 while recovering in hospital. He served in the French army before that. Although a novel , it was acclaimed at the time for its accurate portrayal of life in the trenches. It is available in English as " Under Fire". Although the biographies of the High Command were translated into English I am not aware of any biography of a low ranking soldier that was.

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You may find 'Between Mutiny and Obediance' by leonard V Smith useful ( Princeton university press 1994). It is a ( doctoral?) study of the 5th french Infantry division and ought to give you some food for thought.

Happy studies

Adam

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"Dare Call it Treason (The True Story of the French Army Mutinies of 1917)"

Richard M. Watt, 2001.

Paul

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Many times, I've had shaking of the head in response to this question....Oh dear, the French officers were a particularly inept, feckless or uncaring bunch....but I've never seen this in anything more than tittle tattle format!!

Jane, your response to these comments is very appropriate. No doubt there were a few French officers who warranted this description, but my guess is no more nor less than in all the other armies.

Spears' book 'Prelude to Victory' gives a very good account of the lead-up to the Chemin des Dames offensive. His description of the conditions and the enormous difficulties faced by the Poilus is very powerful, particularly when you contrast these with the expectations from Nivelle. Bear in mind that the French losses amounted to 3x that of the British in WW1, percentage of population wise.

Another interesting book that gives some insights is 'Memoirs of the Maelstrom' by Lunn. He interviewed Senagalese soldiers who fought in France, as well as their families. Another very powerful book.

One of the most striking examples of the difference between leadership of the British and French soldiers was observed on the right flank of the British attack on the Somme. Their French counterparts advanced in small groups by short rushes. Here is an example from the observations of a British artillery officer:

'The French attacked at 1 pm, with the intention of recapturing the Bois de Vaches. For three days and nights they had never ceased shelling the wood, and the fire reached the intense stage at 12.30 noon. With my (deer-hunting) telescope I could see the French forming up for the attack, and the Germans crouching in their trenches trying to get cover from the barrage. Once the attack started it was difficult to say what was happening. From the onlooker's point of view little groups of men appeared to be wandering in every direction. We heard afterwards that they captured about half the wood, making an advance of a few hundred yards and taking 400 prisoners'.

Robert

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Thank you one and all for your replies, they are all very helpful if only to reassure me that I haven't missed any vital publications. I have used every title recommended except the Spears and Lunn books which I will make a point of getting hold of....thank you for all suggestions.

I guess my initial question about French officer/man relations and the impact in mutiny terms remains unanswered but only in the sense that probably there is no answer and it is heartening to know I may not be too far off the mark.

Certainly the more I go into direct comparisons between the Chemin des Dames and Passchendale, the more correlation there appears to be between the two situations so I am still unsure about why the British unrest did not manifest quite so strikingly during their hell in 1917.

Clearly casualty rates are a key factor and I certainly appreciate the French position in the Spring of 1917 and the impact of their total losses in the course of the war.

With regard to casualty figures then, would it be an imposition to ask for some final comments upon this factor....and please excuse the simplistic approach but I really want to understand the heart of this matter.......

Does the "panel" think that the losses on the Chemin des Dames were more unbearable than those at Passchendaele? If so, why?

*Was there a cut off point of losses that were acceptable and those that weren't and what was the criteria for deciding that?

*Clearly high command estimated wastage in advance of a campaign, but at what point would the Tommy in the trench have decided it was all beyond endurance?

*How far did this depend on factors such as officer input and the management of casualty figures? What can I read on this aspect?

*Did the response reflect how the campaign was "sold" to the soldiers in adavance...Nivelle promised a breakthrough within 3 days, which proved a huge disappointment...but what about the "marketing" of Passchendaele?

* How far was endurance at the Front influenced by opinion at home?

*Or was Passchendale borne because the losses were over a longer period than the Chemin des Dames engagement?

*Could the British troops even conceive the campaigns of Aug - Nov as one campaign towards one end or a series of battles with associated losses? If the latter, they may not have have a clear perception of the sheer numbers involved until the Autumn, but even then with hindsight, there was still no kick-back the following Spring was there, when they were back in action and being overrun by the enemy?

Aplogies for rambling....just some thoughts going round and round, because honestly, the more I study this the less distinction I can see between either army or either situation during that period of the war.

My own fault for thinking this might be an enlightening topic for post grad research of course.... more perplexing by the week! But I feel there must be an answer and I simply cannot see what the deciding factors were.

Sincere thanks for your help

Jane

Edited by Montay1918
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I guess my initial question about French officer/man relations and the impact in mutiny terms remains unanswered but only in the sense that probably there is no answer and it is heartening to know I may not be too far off the mark.

It hasn't remained unanswered; as I mentioned above, I have read many memoirs of French officers who served in WW1, from platoon to battalion commanders. Their comments on their men, and their attitudes towards them are no different than British officers of the same rank. There is an answer; it lies in a study of these memoirs, of which there are literally hundreds published from the period of the war itself right through to the present day; but all are in French, of course. I really don't see how - at post-grad level - you can answer this question without reference to primary material such as this.

I also don't agree with your assumption that the British and French armies were similar at this stage of the war.

It is also worth noting that many of the books in English on the French mutiny were published in some cases more than 20/30+ years ago, and most without any reference to primary source material. I seriously would suggest you need to contrast them to more recent French studies.

At lot of the reasons for mutiny were to do with poor conditions in the French army; medical arrangements, food, lack of leave etc. You would have to contrast this with the same conditions in the British army to say whether they were indentical (as you suggest) or not, IMHO.

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Thank you one and all for your replies, they are all very helpful if only to reassure me that I haven't missed any vital publications. I have used every title recommended except the Spears and Lunn books which I will make a point of getting hold of....thank you for all suggestions.

.........................

Does the "panel" think that the losses on the Chemin des Dames were more unbearable than those at Passchendaele? If so, why?

*Did the response reflect how the campaign was "sold" to the soldiers in adavance...Nivelle promised a breakthrough within 3 days, which proved a huge disappointment...but what about the "marketing" of Passchendaele?

.........................

Aplogies for rambling....just some thoughts going round and round, because honestly, the more I study this the less distinction I can see between either army or either situation during that period of the war.

My own fault for thinking this might be an enlightening topic for post grad research of course.... more perplexing by the week! But I feel there must be an answer and I simply cannot see what the deciding factors were.

Sincere thanks for your help

Jane

The French army had suffered the holocaust of Verdun. General Nivelle promised them that there would be no more " grignotage" where the slaughter seemed destined to go on for ever. He specifically promised a victory in a few days or a halt to the attack. This promise was not met and the attacks at Chemin des Dames carried on, fruitlessly. The mutinies were a protest at senseless slaughter. Although the Empire troops at Passendaele were suffering horrendous casualties in unspeakably bad conditions, they were slowly and painfully advancing. I believe that the difference between the campaigns is that the French soldiers rebelled against being given yet another impossible task while the Empire troops had in sight a target which , while it was costing an inordinate number of casualties, was attainable. In the end, they did take Passendaele.

Before I made this post, I dug an extremely deep bunker and stocked it for a long siege. I hasten to bar the door behind me. :ph34r:

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As someone who has French in-laws, I have somewhat taken an interest in the French sectors of the war, but

have found it nessesary to read up French accounts to gain the best descriptions of actions, people, formations, etc.

I have always felt that mutiny is the spontaneous result of some festering greviance, and not something that is planned too much in advance by the soldier in the trenches.

I would also think that accounts written by the commanding officer or political class may wish to "blame" the other-ranks, whereas the soldier will be the exact opposite. Therefore the only way for you to get a balanced view is to read up in French, as I don't think you will come to a valid conclusion otherwise.

Good luck anyway.......or should I say; "Bonne chance" ?

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Again thank you all so much for your input....just what I needed and I am grateful.

Also I fully appreciate all your comments regarding French sources being accessed in the language it was written. (Obviously I should have listened more closely in school, but I do have other strengths, honestly!) You are all quite right of course and despite this project being essentially an British one, it has proved a stumbling block not being able to gain more insight into the French army from English sources. Sadly I doubt my ability to learn the language in the next 8 months or so, hence my appeal for help!

I think on balance your responses have confirmed the most important English texts about the French situation, and as long as no-one can think of anything else that might be accessible in the meantime, I thank you all most sincerely.

Paul, I'm very grateful for your lengthy replies. if you get a minute, I'd be interested in learning more of how you see differences in the French and British situations in 1917. I accept the casualty rate factor of course, but how different do you see other factors at that juncture? I have been considering the overall perspective from 1916, and yes, comparing the factors you mentioned....both were mainly conscript armies by then, the French had suffered Verdun, the British the Somme, both had strikes and changes of govt. at home, changes of military high command, both had developed artillery, intelligence, supply routes, etc, both complained about general trench conditions, about officers, food, communications, leave, post, weather etc and then there was another failed and costly offensive for each, with a change of generals to boot...Nivelle/Petain; Gough/Plumer etc.

You clearly have an advantage in being able to study in the original language so all I can ask is ....from what you have learned, and your overall impression, could you outline their relative positions in 1917 and what you consider to be the main difference that tipped the French army over the edge? Am I missing a factor altogether, or was it one of degree in all those things do you think?

Jane

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try mailing Annette Becker at the Historial de la grande guerre in Peronne.

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Jane, there were some key differences that you need to consider. Firstly, you mentioned the French at Verdun and the British on the Somme. Before 1916, there were the enormous losses in men sustained by the French Army in the Battles of the Frontiers. Then there was the Artois campaign, from May through September 1915. Then Verdun. Then the Somme - the French were there too. So by 1917...

There may seem to be some superficial similarities between Passchendaele and Chemin des Dames. Closer scrutiny reveals some very key differences. The battles of Passchendaele were actually part of the longer Third Battle of Ypres, stretching from the end of July through to November 1917. Popular belief has it that Third Ypres was continuous rain, endless water-filled shell holes and failure. There was rain but there were also many dry spells too. Photographs often show the ground to be firm, particularly on the ridges, at times. There were boggy areas that were awful. In the last weeks, the weather became truly terrible, as did the conditions. The British attacks were methodically planned. The advances were limited. Under Plumer especially, the troops advanced as far as the artillery could cover them. The German counter-attacks suffered terribly. Despite the advantages in terrain enjoyed by the Germans, the British, Dominion and French forces pushed them back until finally the Canadians took the village of Passchendaele. Third Ypres was not a British defeat. Some people argue that it was a pyrrhic victory, but it was not a defeat.

The Germans were really battered by Third Ypres. I have previously posted comments from Ludendorff, von Kühl (a German Chief-of-Staff), and Jünger (who fought in Flanders towards the end of Third Ypres). Here are some quotes from Rudolf Binding, a former German cavalry officer who spent much of his time in Flanders:

'West Flanders, November 14, 1917

It is appalling up at the Front. I have just come back from a visit to our best regiment, which is holding a position I know well to the north of Passchendaele and has had heavy losses in the very first days. It is right in the mud, without any protection, without a single decent dug-out, for in this rapid withdrawal there is no time to dig. How many of those fellows who a fortnight ago were cheerfully celebrating the glorious record of their regiment will never laugh again; even the others who can laugh again do not laugh for long. "My fellows are in tears," reports one battalion-commander in despair, whose whole battalion lay covered by a regular blanket of English shells. Many of the men can hardly speak. You see wild eyes gazing out of faces which are no longer human. They have a craving after brandy which can hardly be satisfied, and which shows how badly they yearn to lose the faculty for feeling. Men drink it who have never touched it before as though by instinct. Scores of men were streaming to the rear, one by one but without stopping, all in need of rest; not malingerers.

One sees much magnificent conduct calmly and coolly shown in the middle of much which is less admirable and weaker. That type of man makes allowances for the others by increasing his own efforts. A battalion-commander, Freiherr von G, stuck to his battalion for two days with a splinter of shell in his lung. He remained simply as an example. One cannot say that the moral is low or weak. The regiments simply show a sort of staggering and faltering, as people do who have made unheardof efforts.'

Even more telling is this vignette about von Lossberg, who was the mastermind behind the German defensive tactics and a personal friend of Binding:

'Even men like General von Lossberg, who is made of iron if ever a man was, show how rapidly exhaustion comes. He looks grey and old, and yet only last month I saw him full of vigour.'

Why do I quote this material from a German perspective? Because therein lies a major difference with Chemin des Dames. The French Poilus performed magnificently in pursuit of Nivelle's dream. But the Germans knew they were coming, having captured the detailed plans. They heavily reinforced the Chemin des Dames area, which is laced with caves and quarries offering wonderful protection from the French artilllery, as did the reverse slope of the Chemin des Dames ridge. I have visited some of these underground shelters - very impressive. When you read Spears' account, you will appreciate the problems faced by the French artillery, who worked hard to support their colleagues. They had difficulties with getting adequate aerial observation, targeting the German guns and suppressing the German defenders. Despite this, the Poilus made some impressive gains - you have to stand on the precipitate edge of the forward slope of the Chemin des Dames ridge to fully understand the magnitude of what they did achieve! Once on the ridge, many French units were so depleted and inadequately supported that the German counter-attacks pushed them right back or destroyed them. Even when gains were held, they were kilometres short of Nivelle's confident predictions, which had been hammered home to his commanders - as you will see in Spears' book. The battle ground on for a time but it was not the same as the British gains in Flanders. German artillery held the upper hand. Don't get me wrong, it was no cake-walk for the Germans either. Ludwig Renn gives a very detailed account of being on the receiving end of the French in the Aisne-Champagne offensive of 1917 in his book 'War'. The Germans remained dominant throughout the Chemin des Dames offensive. For the Poilus, having been really hyped-up for the attack (hence the title 'Prelude to Victory'), it was a much worse psychological experience than the British in Third Ypres. More akin to the terrible effect that the Sulzbach, a German gunner, experienced when he realised that the Rheims offensive had failed in 1918. The other thing to recognise from Spears' book is the way in which Nivelle's generals approached the battle. Some, like Mangin, threw themselves behind Nivelle. Many did not. I believe (but have no evidence for this) that it would be hard for their skepticism not to seep down to the men at the front.

For a readable account of the Chemin des Dames offensive, check out Yves Buffetaut's book 'The 1917 Spring Offensives' (ISBN 2 908 182 67 X). It will give you some idea of the gains that were made by the French Poilus. There are numerous photographs that illustrate the terrain, again not all bog and water-filled shell holes.

As for the 'mutinies', Petain's remedies give a clear indication of some of the root causes, alluded to in postings above. The only point I would add is that within a few months, Petain masterminded the brilliant Battle of Malmaison. In October 1917, the French Army attacked the Chemin des Dames from the flank in a superbly executed offensive. The French stormed the area under the cover of a creeping barrage, which then stopped. The Germans thought the attack had finished and their counter-attack troops took the offensive, only to get caught by the second French barrage timed for this purpose. The French Poilus then completed the advance to the Ailette, capturing 11,500 Germans with only 14,000 casualties. More importantly, the Chemin des Dames ridge was now exposed in enfilade. Ludendorff ordered the complete withdrawal of the ridge, something that was never achieved in Nivelle's attack.

Hope these insights are of some help.

Robert

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You have probably already seen by now "Mutiny 1917" by John Williams (1962)

Also I would recommend Edward Spears' "Two Men Who Saved France" about Petain and de Gaulle. (1966)

His chapter on Petain has some interesting observations as Spears was a liaison officer and one of the few Brtish officers able to observe the French army at this time. The book also contains a translation of Petain's own account of how he handled the mutinies.

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Paul R.Tom, Adam, Paul H. aramsey, truthergw, Uncle Bill, Charles and Robert.....

Thank you so very much one and all....your responses have been excellent and I am very grateful for your considerable input. I have a great many new and interesting aspects to think about now and a couple of titles I had missed altogether. I sincerely appreciate your time, effort and indeed patience in trawling through my posts and adding you own very considered replies. Robert...thank you sincerely for taking the time to write so fully, (great stuff and a clear perspective I can understand)...and to Paul R. who has offered to discuss more fully offline.

May I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and I hope to talk to you again in 2006.

Jane :)

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