Edward M. Strauss—
“On May 26  the first American combat troops arrived in France….
“The arrival of the first American troops coincided with a dramatic change on the French sector of the Western Front, where the growing number of desertions turned, on May 27, to mutiny. At the Front itself, along the Chemin des Dames [ridge], as many as 30,000 soldiers had left their trenches and reserve billets and fallen to the rear. Then, in four towns behind the lines, the troops ignored their officers’ orders, seized buildings, and refused to go to the Front….For a week there was chaos through the French war zone, as the mutineers refused to go back into the line. The military authorities took swift action: under [French General Philippe] Pétain’s guiding hand, mass arrests and Courts Martial followed….More than four hundred soldiers were sentenced to death, fifty of them being shot, the rest being sent to penal servitude in the French colonies. For several million infantrymen, some of whom had been fighting for nearly three years, Pétain brought in immediate improvements, organizing longer periods of rest, more home leave, and better food….Within six weeks the mutinies were over….”—Martin Gilbert, The First World War, (1994), pp. 333-334.
“The general mood of those involved – and they comprised soldiers in fifty-four divisions, almost half the army – was one of reluctance, if not refusal, to take part in fresh attacks but also of patriotic willingness to hold the line against attacks by the enemy. There were also specific demands: more leave, better food, better treatment for soldiers’ families, an end to ‘injustice’ and ‘butchery,’ and ‘peace’….[Pétain] set in train a series of measures designed to contain [the unrest] and return the army to moral well-being….”—John Keegan, The First World War (1998), pp. 330-331.
After the war, French infantryman Louis Barthas, ardent socialist and pacifist, provided a first-hand, on-the-scene account of these events:
“At this time [spring 1917] 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 but a general 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.
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 [Daucourt, 6 km. south of Sainte- Menehould], 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 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!”
On another evening – patriots, cover your ears! – the “Internationale” [socialist anthem] was heard, bursting like a storm.
That time, our chiefs got stirred up. It gave our old friend [Captain] Cros-Maryrevielle such an unbearable itch that he quickly sent a patrol of four men and the inevitable corporal to remind those vile whiners that, 8 o’clock having rung, the men had to hand over the street, the taverns, and the ladies to the officers, and report to the sergeants-of-the-day who were waiting to carry out roll call at the doorways of our empty billets.
The patrol prudently judged that it should beat a hasty retreat, and our captain-cop came out himself, escorted by the local police squad.
He tried to speak with moderation, but as soon as the first words left his mouth he was halted by formidable shouting.
Sputtering with rage but powerless, he turned on the unfortunate sergeants, who had unwisely reported that “no one was absent,” and forced them to call roll a second time.
A crowd of several hundred soldiers, scorning the roll calls, had massed in front of the police station, where Captain Cros had sought refuge. To give him even more of a scare, one hothead fired a couple of pistol shots in the air.
At noon on May 30, there was even an assembly outside the village, to constitute, following the Russian example, a “soviet” composed of three men from each company, which would take control of the regiment.
To my great astonishment, they came to offer me the presidency of this soviet, that’s to say, to replace the colonel – nothing less than that!
That would be quite a sight – me, an obscure peasant who put down my pitchfork in August 1914, commanding the 269th Regiment. That went way beyond the bounds of probability.
Of course I refused. I had no desire to shake hands with a firing squad, just for the child’s play of pretending we were the Russians.
But I did decide to give an appearance of legality to these revolutionary demonstrations. I wrote up a manifesto to give to our company commanders, protesting against the delay in furloughs. It began like this: “On the eve of the [Chemin des Dames] offensive [in April], General [Robert] Nivelle had read to our troops an order of the day saying that the hour of sacrifice had rung….We offered our lives and made this sacrifice for the fatherland but, in exchange, we said that the hour of home leaves had also sounded, a while ago…,” etcetera.
The revolt was therefore placed squarely on the side of right and justice. The manifesto was read out, in a sonorous voice, by a poilu who was perched astride the limb of a tree. Fervent applause underscored his last lines.
My vanity was hardly flattered. If they learned that it was I who had drawn up this protest, moderate as it was, my fate was clear: a court-martial, for sure, and possibly twelve [French] bullets dispatched to send me off to another world, long before my appointed hour.
Meanwhile the officers had taken note of the call for an enormous assembly of soldiers, out by the Daucourt washhouses. They tried to interrogate some poilus about the purpose of this meeting, but no one was willing to respond, or they answered evasively.
Our commandant tried to block the road by the police station, but the poilus got through by using other routes.
In the afternoon the order was given for immediate departure. It included the formal promise that home leaves would begin again, starting the next day, at a rate of sixteen per one hundred men. They needed nothing more to reestablish order. In spite of that, there were lively disturbances, especially in the encampment of the 4th Machine-Gun Company, a few moments before departure, and the men headed out only after singing the “Internationale” right in the faces of the stupefied but powerless officers.
At three o’clock, under a brilliant sun, we left Daucourt. At five o’clock, the regiment marched through Sainte-Menehould, where tragic events had just played out.
Two regiments had just mutinied and seized their barracks, crying “Peace or Revolution!”
General “X,” who went to try to harangue the mutineers, was grabbed, slammed against a wall, and was just about to be shot, when a much-beloved commandant succeeded in saving the general and winning the promise that the insurgents be allowed to make their way to the camp at Châlons for a long rest.
Rifle shots were fired on a group of officers who were trying to approach the barracks. The bullets went wild and hit some innocent victims in the town, killing two, it is said.
They judged it prudent to separate the three battalions of the 296th Regiment from one another, and they billeted us fairly far apart. Our battalion was quartered in barracks four kilometers from Sainte-Menehould. It was only when we got there that we learned that the other battalions were elsewhere.
The next day [May 31] at 7 a.m. they assembled us for departure to the trenches. Noisy demonstrations resulted: cries, songs, shouts, whistling; of course, the “Internationale” was heard. I truly believe that, if the officers had made one provocative gesture, they would have been massacred without pity, so great was the agitation.
They chose the wisest path: waiting patiently until calm was restored. You can’t cry, shout, and whistle forever, and among the insurgents there was no leader capable of taking decisive direction. We ended heading for the trenches, not without an undertone of griping and grumbling.
Soon, to our great surprise, a column of mounted cavalry came up and rode alongside us. They accompanied us all the way to the trenches, like convicts being led to forced labor!
Annoyed and suffocated by the dust kicked up by the horses, we didn’t have to wait long before scuffles broke out between foot soldiers and cavalrymen, and then some brawls; there were even a few blows from rifle butts, on the one side, and from the blunt sides of sabers, on the other. To prevent a real battle from breaking out, they had to move the cavalrymen farther away, which wasn’t at all disagreeable to them.
We passed through Moiremont, the final inhabited and civilized place…..”
From Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, translated by Edward M. Strauss (2014), pp. 325-328.
Note: In December 1917 the 269th Infantry Regiment was dissolved and its units dispersed to other regiments. “The role played by the 269th in the antimilitarist demonstrations of last June was probably not unrelated to the disgrace which fell upon us,” writes Louis Barthas in an understatement.
Louis Barthas (1879–1952) was a cooper in a small town in southern France. Edward M. Strauss is a fundraising director in higher education and former publisher of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. He lives in New York City.