Reason or Treason?
SEASONED SOLDIERS, baaing like sheep, flatly refused to fight. At Soissons, the men of the 370th Infantry Regiment stormed the railway station, captured a train, and headed for Paris. A whole division was so rotten with mutiny that it was cajoled into holding against the Germans only by the hand-wringing eloquence of its commanding officer. By June 1917, out of some 100 infantry divisions, the French high command could count on fighting obedience from only two.
This weird moment of chaos, when France almost lost a war by losing control of her exhausted troops, is the subject of Dare Call It Treason, the latest in the recent flood of histories about World War I. Treason is all the more remarkable be cause its author is a complete amateur, a flooring-materials salesman who wrote the book (his first) in the children's playroom of his home in Glen Ridge, N.J., and even taught himself French by pasting scraps of a French grammar on file cards which he carried with him on selling trips.
Fire from the Left. As Watt notes, a great army is not demoralized in a day, nor for purely military reasons. The politicians hated the generals, the generals hated the politicians, and the politicians themselves were divided behind the facade of a coalition government. The extreme French left, for example, at the height of the war bombarded the trenches with peace pamphlets urging troops to rise up and join with their German brothers in ending the bloodshed.
But what set off the army explosion was an infamous military blunder. After the long-drawn-out bloodbath of Verdun, an ambitious new commander in chief, General Robert Nivelle, staked his career on a decisive punch through the German lines which, he implied, would end the war in weeks. The fanfare and preparations were so grand that the Germans knew all about it in advance. Nivelle knew they knew it, but he went ahead anyway. And from April 16 to May 9, 1917, French troops flung themselves against the Germans' barbed wire, entrenched machine guns and presighted artillery until 130,000 French casualties had piled up. Morale collapsed. A front-line battalion, scheduled for replacement, was ordered instead to attack, and mutinied. Word of the rebellion traveled along the trenches. Suddenly the masses of exhausted French soldiers realized that they had power. There were too many of them to shoot—even if loyal troops could have been found to fire on them.
An Eerie Struggle. Watt skillfully evokes the eerie, secret struggle of a nation to reform its will and its army in midwar and somehow keep the enemy from knowing about it. That wholesale bloodshed did not occur was partly due to the skill of General Henri Pétain, the hero of Verdun. Petain regained the soldiers' confidence with reforms of outrageous army policies on pay and leave and a promise that he would not attack without some hope of local success. But much credit must go to the mutineers themselves. In an odd way they emerge as something very like heroes, their action as much an evidence of reason as treason. The mass mutinies were largely a form of passive resistance, protesting not so much the war as how the war was being fought. Defecting companies ignored but practically never harmed their officers. They stayed together as units. They never resisted the loyal cavalry—better disciplined because they had not endured the ordeal of prolonged trench warfare—pressed into service to round them up. Until Pétain's reforms, though, they refused to attack.
A Gift from the Kaiser. Appalling as the mutiny was, it was, in retrospect, effective. The army high command abandoned its disastrous policy of attack at all costs. France turned to Georges Clemenceau, a tough leader who clamped down on political freedom but drove the country hard to the end of the war.
That France survived the crisis, of course, owes a little something to German stolidity. The Kaiser's generals did hear of the mutinies. But they could not believe that such goings-on could occur, even among Frenchmen. When they finally launched a tentative thrust in July 1917, it was too late; the attack ran up against one of Pétain's reconditioned divisions and was stopped cold.