According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, mutiny is “A situation in which a group of people (such as sailors or soldiers) refuse to obey orders and try to take control away from the person who commands them.” During World War 1, also known as the Great War, mutiny was a problem for all sides, and the French especially. To understand the epidemic of mutiny the French faced in the Great War and especially in 1917, it is necessary to understand its causes, which lie with the failed Nivelle Assault and the differences between the ‘rear’ and the ‘front’, and to understand just what kinds of ‘mutiny’ that France faced.
The notorious failed Nivelle Assault was a large part of the motivation for those French soldiers that mutinied and refused to march. In early 1917, General Nivelle was instituted as the new commander-in-chief of the French army, and he formed a plan that he thought would break through German lines in a mere 48 hours and assure victory. “Before him […] were dazzling visions of cracking the German front wide open by a single overwhelming blitzkrieg” (Williams 6). The previous commander in chief, Joffre, had planned a more gradual and tentative attack. When Nivelle took over, he turned the plan on its head. (Williams 6) According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, “His strategy was to soften the German defenses with artillery and then, with the aid of tanks, hurl large numbers of troops at the enemy. Nivelle predicted that a "break-through" would occur within 48 hours. This would then lead to a crushing defeat of the German Army and an end to the war” (crf-usa.com). The assault began on April 16th. Unfortunately, the break-through Nivelle was waiting for never came, and within a week “more than 100,000 French soldiers had been killed or wounded. Incredibly, General Nivelle insisted on continuing his offensive, believing that the big ‘break-through’ would come at any time” (crf-usa.com). The assault continued for nearly a month, until the French public, soldiers, and even government had lost faith in Nivelle, and many regiments had mutinied and refused to march into no-man’s land and onto the German’s metaphorical spears. Up until the assault, the French had “still clung to the belief that it would all be over in two or three months. […] After the disastrous April offensive, however, hopes for a quick outcome evaporated and people began to long for peace” (Becker 324). Seeing that something needed to be done to restore order, Nivelle was replaced as commander-in-chief by General Pétain, who then played a major part in bringing the mutinies to a stop with his reforms meant to placate the incensed soldiers (Williams 68).
Nivelle’s failed assault was not the only thing that motivated the poilus (French soldiers) into committing mutiny, though it was certainly the brick that broke the camel’s back. General Pétain himself summed up many contributing factors in a report published after the war:
He criticized the government for permitting...