by Leonard V. Smith
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. xvi, 272.
Illus., tables, notes, biblio., index. $40.95 paper. ISBN: 978-0-6916-3137-0
The Poilu Coping with Combat and Command Ineptitude
The text follows the French Fifth Infantry Division through the entire Great War, not so much as an historical record but analyzed like a social scientist would. The primary thesis was that not only was soldiers’ behavior a function of the command structure, but what soldiers negotiated with the command structure. As the war raged on, the enlisted men gained ever increasing control from the officers as to when attacks would cease. This “control” was illustrated by the disciplinary measures invoked as punishment for the mutinies as commanders wanted to reestablish a semblance of control but without punishing everyone.
The text is well illustrated with photographs of the significant participants and places; General Mangin, Fort Douaumont of Verdun infamy, trenches and schematic maps showing the battles of the Fifth. Numerous French words and phrases are used, making me wish the author included a glossary so mono-lingual readers could understand the author’s text.
The first example of the infantry making their own decisions was at the Battle of Charleroi in August, 1914. Four attacks failed with 3,940 casualties, 20 percent of the 5th, before the 5th DI Commander Gen. Verrier ordered a retreat. Other French forces had departed for the rear already, thus avoiding encirclement, annihilation, and a war-ending German victory.
The attempted recapture of Fort Douaumont during the battle of Verdun was even worse. The 12,000 man division suffered more than 5,300 casualties – killed, wounded, missing – for no gain at all. Soldiers from one battalion successfully persuaded the commander to surrender rather than fight to a certain death.
Yet the pitched battles may not have been the worst. Trench warfare, with its occasional shellings and artillery barrages, much, filth, and disease, left men feeling trapped in a prison of mud for extended periods. The soldiers’ sentiments began to resemble those when fighting a pitched battle. The futility of combat put soldiers into a conflict; military uselessness versus losing the war.
Smith contends that until the mutinies, soldiers manipulated formal authority by refusing to pursue an attack when no military value would result, but then matters degenerated until troops openly rejected authority by mutinying. The mutiny began on May 28 when the division was ordered to return to trenches instead of meeting relatives for the Pentecost holiday. The soldiers protested to officers who did not use force, resulting in no injuries to either side. More discussion followed the next day and the demonstration gradually faded away. Over the next two days, two protesting regiments were trucked away from the front lines and placed under another corps. There were more protests during June 5-7 with the battalions eventually moving into the trenches. What is curious about these protests is that the division had been in a quiet sector for three months.
Now a comment upon the word mutiny. My dictionary defines it as “revolt against and, often, forcible resistance to constituted authority.” Over 3,500 soldiers expressed their reluctance, verbally, to return to the trenches. Sometimes they refused to march in the direction ordered by their commanding officers. The commanding officers did not use force, such as calling in other “loyal” troops, but tried to reason with their subordinates. The result was that the troops eventually returned to a state of military order. No one was shot—during the “mutiny”—or struck or battered by any means. In one instance, order was restored before an officer could complete his report of the incident. There simply was no violence and, thus, this was not a mutiny where force was used to overcome command. Instead, what the Fifth DI did was once described by another historian as a sit-down strike.
Petain responded by reforming leave policy, front line rotations, and food distribution, but also conducted a series of courts martial. The results were 3,427 convictions, with 554 death sentences, but only 49 executions. The aftermath of the mutinies ended with only a fraction being court-martialed and an even smaller fraction executed. The command structure had reinstated its authority yet tacitly admitted that there was justification for the difficulties.
The social science jargon in this book increased the difficulty of comprehension, making the experience a bit of a slog. While the futility of the Great War battles and the constant “wastage” certainly increased the frustration and futility of the regular soldier, the author does not link how many of the soldiers from 1914 could have survived in the Fifth Division until May, 1917. Certainly not all of the troops had the same level of frustration.
Reading Between Mutiny and Obedience will increase one’s understanding of what the Poilu endured, whether in the trenches or attacking a fortified position. This along with the mutiny events and court martial process give considerable insight to the thinking of the French command structure. This is compensation for clambering through the social science jargon and French phraseology.
Our Reviewer: Ron Drees is an archivist, retired from processing the collection of Dr. Michael DeBakey, a world-famous cardiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. His interest in history dates back to junior high school with an emphasis on American military history, particularly the Civil and World Wars. He has written several reviews for Michael Hanlon's blog "Roads to the Great War", about the catastrophe that still shapes the world. His favorite WWI book is Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919 which tells how the tragedy was compounded by setting the stage for even greater misery. He lives in Houston with his wife of 42 years, Lin, a retired librarian, and their Sheltie, Hannah. He had a grandfather who was a teamster on the German side in WWI, his my first boss had been a Marine at Iwo Jima, virtually the only survivor of his company, and his brother-in-had been was at Inchon. Ron’s previous reviews include Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918, Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front, and Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy.
Note: Originally published in 1994, Between Mutiny and Obedience is also available in hard cover and e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium