"A crisis of morale in the French nation at war" is a translation of General Pétain's own account of the mutinies in the French Army in 1917, and how, as Commander-in-Chief, he dealt with them.
He gave this to me, asking me to publish it. I have explained in this book why, for so many years, I did not comply with his request. I am glad to do so now, and to make this historic document available, not only to those who have not forgotten Pétain's achievements in the first world war, but also to those who remember him only as the old Marshal who was tried and condemned by his own countrymen for the part he played in the second.
The crisis due to the mutinies of the French armies in the spring and early summer of 1917 brought the Allied cause to within nodding distance of defeat, and could have resulted in millions of lives having been sacrificed in vain.
The main credit for their suppression, and therefore for saving France, goes to General Pétain, who had been appointed commander-in-chief in May.
He himself had no doubt as to the gravity of the crisis. Monsieur Painlevé, the Minister of War during this period, writes in his book,(1) "General Pétain told me later that in the days of February and March 1916 at Verdun he had known many anxious hours, but that none had equalled those when he felt the weapon France had entrusted him with would bend and flex in his hands", and Painlevé adds, "No situation ever required more strong and tactful handling. Any weakness would have brought about the dissolution of the army, any brutality its revolt".
And General Franchet d'Esperey, who was Pétain's immensely strong and energetic assistant in dealing with the mutinies, told me then and repeated later that the period when they were occurring was the only time he had felt very serious anxieties during the whole war.
I had never heard of Pétain until the battle of Guise, fought during the great retreat before the battle of the Marne in 1914. At that engagement, Franchet d'Esperey, commanding I Corps, ordered his whole staff to mount, and with flags unfurled and bands playing, placed himself at the head of one of his brigades and led his troops in a successful attack on the German Guards.(2) He exuded energy and confidence and looked the very embodiment of all the martial qualities history and legend attribute to a French general. As he rode by, he spotted a sad, stern-faced officer with a drooping moustache the colour of pepper and salt, standing with the small staff of the brigade he had just been promoted to command, watching the amazing spectacle General Franchet d'Esperey provided.
The mounted general had known the brigadier, who was much his senior (Pétain was then 58 years old), when the latter was a lecturer at the Staff College, the École de Guerre, and called out to him as he rode by, "What do you think of this manoeuvre, Monsieur le Professeur à l'École de Guerre?"
I was told during the Marne fighting that Pétain, considered a competent but undistinguished officer, had been on the point of being retired, but that at the time of the great German onslaught known as the battle of Charleroi his regiment (the 33rd Infantry) had behaved very well and its commander's imperturbable attitude had been reflected in low losses. At a time when General Joffre, the commander-in-chief, was mercilessly weeding out incompetent commanders, this modest performance, in fact that of not having failed, provided a sufficient reason for Pétain's being entrusted with a brigade.
I got to know Pétain well when he commanded XXXIII Corps on the deadly Lorette Ridge, today covered by a forest of wooden crosses. In those early days of the war it buttressed the Vimy Ridge near the junction with the British army, where my duties as liaison officer with the French often led me. From almost daily visits to this sector, careful examination of the tactical methods employed by Pétain, his use of fire power, the combination of artillery and infantry power, his disciplinary practices which were both firm and stern, the ingenuity with which he set up small factories and workshops to provide him with some of the weapons and objects his men needed but could not obtain from army sources, I soon realised that there was much to be learned from him which could be of benefit to our own army.
Above all, his tactics, which were generally so successful, often led me to question him or to ask permission to be enlightened either by members of his staff or subordinate commanders. Presently he told me that whenever I was near his headquarters at meal times my place would always be laid at his mess, his 'popote' as the French call it, and I often took advantage of his hospitality. I was very young then, they said I was gay, and the general seemed interested in the fact that I wandered about his line so assiduously, and entertained by the stories of his own men I brought back. He was, I know, enormously amused at an anecdote I told him one day. A remarkable feature of the fighting at the time was that although the British army might be holding the front a couple of miles away, the French army so far as the troops were concerned was almost always completely ignorant of the fact. Our uniforms were also unknown to them, which could, and indeed did, lead on occasion to very awkward situations. In consequence, I, a proud and recent member of the Legion of Honour, had devised a neat method whereby in the British lines only the top of the ribbon appeared above the breast pocket, the medal having dropped into the pocket through a slit in its top, while in the French lines it hung free in all the glory of its red ribbon. The French could be relied on to recognise their own national decoration, I thought, and generally they did. On this occasion, however, near where the communication trenches emerged into the open, I met a French patrol who did not attempt to salute. Well. . . I shrugged, but having gone some little distance I heard the patrol leader call, "Hey there, you Boche, stop!" This was too much. They had mistaken my red cap band for the German one. I turned back in great indignation, asking why, if they could not tell a British uniform when they saw one, they could not at least recognise the Legion of Honour. The corporal looked taken aback for a moment, then an expression of cunning spread over his face and he said, with a strong Midi accent: "Sure we saw you were wearing the Legion of Honour but we thought you might have been given it for surrendering!"
I presently found out, and wondered at my discovery, that General Pétain had a marked sense of humour deeply concealed under his frozen exterior, like edelweiss beneath a snowdrift, as unexpected as a spring of fresh water in the desert. It was sometimes expressed in stories of the Midi, drawn from the distant days when he had been a Chasseur Alpin and had served both in the mountains and in the exuberant towns of Provence.
I remember, for instance, his telling me that playing up to the Marseillais' inordinate pride in the city's main street, the Cannebière---which its citizens never doubted was a frequent subject of conversation by the great ones of this world nor that the President of the Republic would often say to his prime minister, "What do you think they are saying on the Cannebière today?" ---he would go up to a peaceful bourgeois taking the air on the famous thoroughfare and with an air of the utmost innocence ask him if he would be so kind as to tell him the name of the street they were in. It seems that invariably this question, displaying such an insulting ignorance of one of the world's best known streets, would cause the Marseillais in question to become speechless with rage. Hitting the pavement with his stick, he would shout: "And this, what do you take it for --- prenez vous ça pour de la m.---?"
As I got to know Pétain better, I became used to his very frank criticism of things and people, so I was not surprised when I heard that later, when he was in command of the Verdun sector, he had expressed some very pessimistic views to the President of the Republic who was visiting his HQ. When Monsieur Poincaré asked him the reason for his lack of optimism, he said, "What can you expect, Monsieur le Président, when we are neither commanded nor governed", which, when you remember that in France the President presides at meetings of the government, was saying quite a lot.
I only saw General Pétain occasionally during the period which followed the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line in 1917, but I sometimes visited him and the other army group commanders whom I knew well, hoping to find out what effect they really thought this enemy master-stroke would have on the offensive which General Nivelle persisted in carrying out with but few modifications to meet fundamentally changed circumstances.
It was certain they must have many reservations, and although I did not expect them to criticise the commander-in-chief, I thought I could gather some impression of their views, and I did. They were all doubtful concerning the prospects of the forthcoming attack. General Nivelle, however, was meeting every doubt voiced by anyone, including members of the government, with unassailable optimism, proclaiming that the speed, weight and violence of the onslaught would carry all before it.
After these occasional meetings with Pétain in the early months of 1917, 1 did not see him again until May.
Appointed on the 5th May, 1917, head of the newly created British Military Mission to the French government, I soon learnt that after the appalling failure of the Nivelle offensive the government was hesitating between appointing Foch or Pétain to the supreme command in succession to Nivelle.
One of the factors in favour of Foch in their eyes was that he was supposed to enjoy the complete confidence and reverent admiration of the British, a somewhat distorted view, for which General Wilson, now chief liaison officer at French GQG, was in the main responsible.
I could only pray that the choice of the government would fall on Pétain.
Since the autumn of 1914 I had had many opportunities of observing General Foch at close but respectful distances, across the disciplined miles reckoned in stars and gold braid, the heaps of medals that separate a young captain from an old and famous general. I had heard him at conferences, listened to him expounding his views and giving his orders. I had had meals with him and followed him on visits to the front. In fact I had had opportunities of measuring his great height against my inches, and the impression left, not an unfriendly one, was mild astonishment that so renowned a warrior in fact produced successes that were so unearth shaking and how small were the mice this mountain gave birth to. My personal observation of him as a commander so far was that he had immense moral courage, but that his reserves were invariably badly placed.
As between these considerable commanders I thought, judging from the viewpoint of my unimpressive status but by now considerable experience, that General Pétain would be a far more satisfactory commander-in-chief. It was reasonable also to hope that the French army would, under Pétain, carry out the offensives in support of our own to which they were pledged, and that the harm done by the Calais Conference, at which Lloyd George had placed the British army under Nivelle's command, would be undone.
At the end of April, General Pétain, at the suggestion of Monsieur Painlevé, always an admirer of things British, was appointed Chief of the General Staff with powers analogous to those of Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, until such time as he became commander-in-chief General Foch would then succeed him as Chief of Staff.
The appointments of Pétain as Commander-in-Chief and Foch as Chief of the General Staff were decided on by the government on the 15th May and published in the Journal Officiel the next day.
I learnt the great news from General Pétain himself within a few minutes of his having been informed of it by Monsieur Painlevé, at the Ministry for War, rue St Dominique. This was hardly five minutes away from the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre, Boulevard des Invalides, where Pétain had his office, on the ground floor, I remember, not very far from the entrance. My own office was on the floor just above his.
Had I felt any elation and pride at being almost the first to hear of his appointment from the new commander-in-chief himself, it was of short duration. Pétain was anxious to reach his headquarters as quickly as possible and wished to entrust me with a message before he left. "I am going to Compiègne (French GHQ) to take over command in a few minutes," he said. "By the time I get there General Wilson [the chief British liaison officer] must have left. C'est un intriguant." (He is an intriguer.)
There was no question of not doing what I was told, but it was very much the equivalent of being ordered to deliver your own professional death warrant, for I knew this vindictive man would never forgive the bearer of such bad tidings, and I feared that his influence with Foch might tend to negate the good will I believed I had been able to acquire with the French army over the years.
Compiègne is only fifty miles from Paris and even in that war of execrable roads it was not a long journey, so in order to carry out Pétain's orders in the time available I dashed upstairs to telephone to my chief, General Maurice(3) at the War Office. I do not know how he arranged things, but General Wilson had disappeared from the GQG when Pétain arrived.
It was on the same day, the 15th May, as I was being driven to the Ministry of the Interior on the far side of the Champs Elysées, that my car was stopped near the Rond Point des Champs Elysées by a procession of girls carrying banners.
These were the junior employees of the great 'couture' houses, some of whom had their establishments in the neighbourhood, girls called technically and pathetically 'les petites mains', the small hands, and indeed most of the demonstrators were very young. They were some of the vast number of girls employed by the grande couture, the fashion houses, who, because they emerged into the streets for lunch at noon, midi, were called charmingly 'les midinettes'. The crowd were evidently sympathetic and rather amused and touched by the unusual sight of women being so bold as to demonstrate in the public streets.
When I learnt subsequently that the strike was for an increase of one sou, five centimes, a halfpenny an hour, I felt very moved by these young things whose demands were so modest and who doubtless worked very hard for their small pittance. I followed the procession for some time, hoping to learn something of public opinion by observing the reactions of the passers-by. These included many soldiers on leave, and it was noticeable that their reaction was different from that of the civilians. They showed anger, a desire to identify themselves with the girls' protest, and many stepped off the pavement to join them, often taking their arms, which tended to give the whole thing the aspect of a jolly party. But I remembered the expressions of the soldier sympathisers and compared the impression they gave me with an incident which had occurred a few days earlier in a more populous part of Paris when, sitting in the smart French car of a friend, there had been a slight accident, and the attitude of a typical French crowd had been anything but friendly at the sight of a foreign uniform. A sergent de ville had intervened, a member of the excellent Paris police force, and all had been well, but the obvious, close-to-the-surface, easily aroused hostility of men on leave against possible 'embusqués' was striking.
I learnt from this incident also that these same 'embusqués', whom I believed I could identify, sleek men in uniform, very, different from the 'poilus' among whom I had lived for so long, were anxious to seize upon any opportunity to demonstrate a bellicosity their mien belied. This was also the first occasion when I realised the very deep and natural resentment of the Parisians against foreign soldiers who, strikingly different from their own, gave the anxious civilians the impression that their capital was being invaded by foreign play-boys aping soldiers, while their men, from lads to ancient territorials, fed the insatiable holocaust of the war.
It had never dawned on me to doubt the steadfast resolution of the French nation, any more than the thought would have occurred to me that the army would not hold out until the resources of America had built up those of the Alliance into an overwhelmingly irresistible force. Nor do I believe that either the French army or the French people ever doubted each other, though some high-ranking and responsible commanders and staff officers distrusted the loyalty of a few politicians and in consequence felt some qualms concerning the morale of those sections of the industrial population which were subject to influence from the Left and the extreme Left.
The worst pessimists, until despair at the bloody failure of the spring offensives affected the army, were to be found among those who ran no danger, civilians far from the front.
In May 1917, all I knew of French politics and of the situation in the interior of the country I had gleaned from the officers I worked with, some of whom were Deputies. I knew there were some trouble makers, some pacifists, some industrial centres which gave the staffs concern, and some very dangerous elements, probably in German pay, who tried to subvert men on leave, to spread pessimism through the post, and by every means to spread the doctrines of the Russian revolution, of which the two Russian brigades in France were the focal point. I was also aware from the blank spaces in the papers that there were those anxious to print views the military authorities did not approve of. I knew that Monsieur Malvy, the Minister of the Interior, was the bogey of the general staffs, inexplicably tolerated by the government in spite of his disreputable associates and more than doubtful friends. This indulgence was assumed by the army to be due to his influence with the trade unions whose political support he enjoyed.(4)
During my early days in Paris everything was strange.
The officers I had to deal with at the Ministry of War and at the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre were always friendly, but complete confidence can only come with time, and it presently became evident that I should have to define the scope of my own mission, and what were my attributions. Knowledge of political trends was all-important to the military authorities, but how far could I go without trespassing on the Embassy's preserves? The Field Army I had henceforth nothing to do with, that was the responsibility of our military missions with the GQG, the French General Headquarters, yet the relations of the French government with its own army were very much my business. I also presently realised that, very quietly in the background, sustained by officers on leave, there existed in Paris a discreet and very pleasant life, just what the fighting army resented but was only too glad to participate in when opportunity offered. I did not know to what extent events in the interior of France concerned me, or whether this also was a diplomatic preserve through the Consuls General. Presently my work evolved to cover the whole immense field of France at war, but meanwhile the apprehensions I voiced to the new set of French officers and officials I now worked with concerning the morale of the country, the reaction of the provinces to the appalling setbacks and blood-lettings of Nivelle's offensive, were met by reassuring but vague generalities. And I was not unduly alarmed at the situation; with Pétain as commander-in-chief and Painlevé as Minister of War everything is bound to turn out right I thought. Painlevé I saw practically every day. His integrity was impressive, but I never fathomed the extreme depths of his radical convictions which, for instance, led him to believe that Sarrail was a good general because he was a man of the extreme Left. He liked and admired the British and had a great regard for Mr Lloyd George. I got on well with him, though it took some time to establish a friendship that once cemented lasted as long as his life.
I sometimes wondered whether M. Painlevé had not wandered into politics by mistake. It was of absorbing interest to watch this mathematician set his precise brain to solve the imponderable problems raised by the military situation, attempting to find logical answers to moral questions, to state in absolute quantities such things as fear, lost hopes, the desperate longing for rest and home. It was an education in itself to observe him assess and attempt to adjust the point of view of the Ministry of War staff, of the GQG, of the Cabinet and of the Chamber and Senate. And he managed it somehow because he was so honest.
It was when working with him that I learnt something of the interplay of allies on each other, each with their national problems to be adjusted to those of the others, and the endless examination of the enemy's situation, and what were his resources and consequently his plans. There was also the immensely depressing task of fathoming the putrescent depths the Russian army had fallen into, and a new problem which loomed ever more disquietingly: the determination of General Pershing to hold back the slowly growing American army until it could fight as a fully constituted force, whereas the Allied forces were withering for lack of men. Pershing refused to provide men until he could do so in divisions and army corps.
I knew nothing of the mutinies until, on the morning of the 4th June, I met General de Maud'huy outside the entrance to the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre. In spite of the difference in age and rank between us I could claim him as a very old friend. In fact I revered and loved him. He was so rich in kindness and genuine chivalry, so understanding of the feelings of simple private soldiers, so exuberantly brave, that he enriched every soul he ever came in contact with. I had met him during the battle of the Marne at a moment when unpleasantly large shells were falling, causing even him to incline his head as one does to keep one's hat on in a high wind.
"How do you like the war?" he had shouted through the noise. "I have not had a single dunning letter since it started," I shouted back, "which is a nice change." This must have appealed to him, for he often referred to the young English cavalry officer who, before Montmirail, developed the thesis that there was something to be said for battles since tailors and their bills were allergic to them.
When he commanded the 10th Army in Artois I was a frequent guest at his table, merely warning in when attending. He was not a great commander and had lost the command of his army, but his courage and magnetism made him an unequalled leader of men in war. After a period of unemployment during which he had begged for any post that entailed fighting, an infantry company would do, he had been given the command of the XII Corps.
Delighted as always to see him, I asked him on that 4th June what he was doing in Paris. Although used to being treated by him with complete frankness, I was very much taken aback and greatly concerned to be told that his corps was engaged in dealing with widespread disorders on the Aisne front. He had had to take charge of two of the regiments (six battalions) in which trouble had occurred.
He took me for a walk along the Boulevard des Invalides and gave me many details of what had happened. "The trouble, which looked uncommonly like a mutiny, broke out all at once and bore every sign of having been very carefully organised, apparently by socialist leaders from the interior." Officers' servants had been kept in the dark and the officers had no idea of what was going to happen. In the units he had had to deal with so far the men's attitude was extremely correct. They formulated their complaints to their officers and were at pains to explain that they were fond of them and wanted to keep them. The main burden of their grievances was that they were sick of the war and demanded peace. They also suffered from a deep sense of injustice. They all knew there were thousands of 'embusqués' in the interior, men drawing big money in soft and safe jobs, courting the women of men who were fighting. For the hardest grievance of all to bear was the endless disappointment over leave, and the unfair way in which it was granted, without rhyme or reason, units longest in line often being given the lowest priority.
The general said that in his view the profound reason for an outbreak that had occurred with such spontaneousness could only be that the troops had all had a practically identical reaction to the failure of the April offensive. "A quoi bon?" "What's the good?" and he indicated clearly that somehow the new commander-in-chief must infuse a new hope into the army and that this could only be done by success. "But first discipline must be re-established." If this was the view of one who understood the soldiers so well and had such sympathy for their point of view although a strict disciplinarian, then it must be so, I thought. "The men have great faith in Pétain," he said, "but there have been so many changes in the command of corps and divisions that there are at present no general officers at that level who have personal influence on the mutinous regiments."
He referred to the depressing effect on morale of some very pessimistic articles by influential deputies which were appearing in the daily press.
A curious aspect of the trouble in the affected regiments was that the machine-gun detachments generally kept out of it and in some cases set up their guns in battery under their officers against the remainder of the regiment. Pioneer sections tended to do the same, from which it might be concluded that detachments working in close touch with an officer they knew well had a point of view of their own which prevented their being carried away by the wave of general indiscipline.
General de Maud'huy was relying on the cavalry regiments to round up mutinous units and to represent disciplined authority generally, but he hinted broadly, and his very mobile features made it clear, that the men hated the job and had made it obvious that it was most unlikely that they could be induced to answer a similar call again.
Then he spoke of the influence of the news from Russia on the troops.
This was disastrous and provided the ideal fulcrum for the 'mauvaises têtes' in the regiments and the defeatists in the interior, and a theme song for all the elements of the Left, the soft underbelly of the nation. News of the Russian army fascinated the soldiers.
The papers said that in the Russian army officers were no longer saluted. This appealed as a grand idea. Saluting was a silly formality anyhow. There were also reports that in Russia officers now took part in fatigues. Some thought this a splendid notion but others thought it was going too far. The election of officers found general favour. Who better than the men knew the good officers? It seemed as if in some obscure way the men felt that the spirit of their own revolution was sweeping over Russia, but there was one great difference that today's mutineers had not perceived: the men of the 1790's had insisted on being led to war to throw the enemy out of France, whereas the present-day admirers of Russia held a contrary point of view. The mutineers were also totally unaware that the tattered but freedom-loving soldiers of the Revolution who had swept across Europe in countless victories had been quite useless until very strict discipline had been re-established and the election of officers abolished.
De Maud'huy said that one of the dreadful aspects of the present crisis was that it was often the very best regiments, those that had been ungrudging in their efforts, exemplary in their staunchness, that were giving most trouble.
He concluded by telling me that there had been symptoms of similar trouble in the army at the time the two years Military Service Bill had been introduced. Care had then been taken to keep away staff officers, gendarmes and generals from the regiments whose discipline had been affected.
As he left me the general said he believed the trouble would be over in five or six days.
He was over-optimistic.
I reported all this on the same day in a letter to General Maurice, Director of Military Operations at the War Office, through whom I reported to the CIGS, adding that I gathered that the only measures being taken at the moment were to separate disaffected units from the remainder of the troops and send them off in different directions.
Meanwhile the War Cabinet in London and Sir William Robertson, the CIGS, although completely unaware of these facts, were uneasy, sensing something of the low morale of the French army as a result of the military failures of April. Robertson wrote to Sir Douglas Haig on the 12th May that the unsettled state of affairs in France together with the probability of a separate peace by Russia might have a detrimental effect on the efficient prosecution of the offensive operations agreed between the two governments.
To this Sir Douglas replied on the 18th that he maintained the view previously expressed that action of a wearing-down kind must be maintained.
But meanwhile the War Office had expressed further concern in a letter to Sir Douglas dated the 16th May.
Their fears were aroused because the printed French versions of the agreements reached between the two governments concerning future plans made no reference to the promise given by the French government to continue offensive action. The CIGS thought this might mean that the French government had, on reflection, decided not to bind itself to carry out its undertaking. He went on to say, expressing the views of the War Cabinet, that a situation was not to be allowed to develop in which "costly operations were embarked upon in which the British Army was left to fight practically alone".
Whereupon, intent upon clarifying the situation, Sir Douglas arranged a meeting with General Pétain on the 18th May at Amiens, three days after the latter had assumed command of the French armies. Haig was impressed with Pétain's frank and straightforward manner.
He struck him as clear-headed and businesslike, and he was outspoken concerning the unrest within the French army.
The English commander asked the French general about his offensive plans and was told that he had four attacks in preparation. The first one was at Malmaison and was scheduled to take place on the 10th June (it was in fact carried out in October) and another by fifteen divisions at Verdun to be delivered towards the end of July (it took place on the 20th August).
The British Official History states that the British commander said that these operations might be synchronised with the projected British offensives in Flanders, which he described in some detail. General Pétain objected to the distant aims of these operations, pointing out that this was contrary to the advice he had given at the Paris conference, when he had urged that operations during 1917 should have strictly limited objectives. Sir Douglas said that his successive objectives would be so limited. The French general said that what was essential was that the British army should attack. Where and how was Sir Douglas' business.
It may be presumed that General Pétain, like General de Maud'huy, underestimated the gravity of the trouble in the French army and how deep rooted was the malady born of years of hardship, neglect and disappointment.
Up to the date of the meeting of the two commanders-in-chief the signs of unrest had been disquieting enough, based in the first instance on the exasperated despair of a division ordered back for an attack over ground where it had previously failed, whereas other divisions in the same case were allowed to rest.
From then on further and ever graver acts of insubordination were reported over a widening area.
Thereupon General Pétain, the mutinies having reached their climax, though he could not have known this, very loyally sent his chief of staff; General Debeney, to see Sir Douglas Haig on the 2nd June. The situation must have appeared well nigh catastrophic at the French GQG, but General Pétain lost neither his head nor his confidence either in himself or in his army. But he rightly felt he was in duty bound to inform his British colleague, to some extent at least.
What General Debeney told Sir Douglas no one will ever know, for the Frenchman pledged him to secrecy and the British general treated what he had been told as a military secret and apparently did not tell even the most senior and intimate members of his staff anything at all precise. He certainly did not tell the CIGS, beyond making it clear that it was essential, in view of the exhaustion and discouragement of the French army, that the British offensives should be maintained. It is certainly not impossible that he felt that had the British government had any inkling of the true state of the French army they would have panicked and forbidden the offensive he was about to undertake and which was to prove such a success: that of the Messines ridge.
This, and little more, was known and appreciated by the very senior British commanders and staff officers at GHQ. It was recognised and acknowledged that the French intended only to maintain such offensive action as was open to them in the circumstances, that is, the continuation of the artillery battle on the Aisne and the preparation for the attacks already decided upon, to be launched as soon as possible so as to ensure that the German divisions on the French front were maintained there, and not allowed to slip away to the British sector.
It has always seemed strange to me that at this period, at the height of the mutinies, when there were only two completely reliable divisions between Soissons and Paris,(5) the British Military Mission at French GHQ, under Sir Henry Wilson, which was sixty officers strong, had no inkling that there was anything seriously amiss with the French army. When General de Maud'huy told me of the situation, it did not occur to me that Sir Douglas Haig was not fully appraised of it by Sir Henry Wilson. Wilson was apparently shown the notes made by General Debeney of his interview with Sir Douglas Haig, but given no information about the mutinies.
On the day after my talk with General de Maud'huy I wrote to General Maurice again and on a kindred subject.
That morning, driving past the base of the Eiffel Tower as usual on my way to my office from my flat, I noticed that the Indo-Chinese soldiers who usually guarded it had disappeared, replaced by old Territorials. This evidently meant something, possibly something serious. I had obtained with some difficulty that my mission should be composed half of French, half of British officers, and my second-in-command was French. I asked the French officers to find out the explanation of this sudden innovation.
By lunch time I knew what had occurred. On the previous night, in a tumultuous and populous quarter of Paris, at St Ouen, a row had started in a café between some Annamite and French soldiers. Women were certainly involved.
The French, soldiers and civilians alike, did not like these secretive, unsmiling little Asiatics. Furthermore, the people, unable to speak their language, felt completely cut off from these strangers, whose mysterious presence made them uneasy. Why were they in Paris anyway? 1f they had been brought from their distant land to fight, then the trenches and not Paris was the place for them. And the deeply suspicious French temperament was not slow to draw the conclusion that the government intended to use these yellow men to bend the people to its will. They were worse than the police or the gendarmes, there was no appeal to anything recognisably human behind those expressionless masks.
And so the café row degenerated rapidly into a riot. The French of the class encountered at St Ouen were prone to noise and angry gestures. The Annamites knew nothing of the French Revolution, but they doubtless saw for themselves how soon a Paris mob can become murderously dangerous. They fled back to their barracks, no doubt in fear for their lives, the mob in hot pursuit, and closed the doors, which the French began to batter. The Annamites ran for their rifles and opened fire, that is, fired some shots from windows at their pursuers. There were some casualties, I was told (in point of fact one woman was killed and several people wounded). The mob was infuriated and ready for anything.
By this time the authorities had been alerted and the wise decision was taken to get the Annamites out of Paris immediately ; they all left on the morning of the 5th.
The bare bones of this I reported to General Maurice that evening (the 5th June) and told him of the excitement the incident had caused in the populous centres of the capital, feelings reflected in Parliament, where it was being proclaimed in the lobbies that coloured troops had been employed against the people. I was able to inform him that M. Painlevé had made a great speech which had carried the House and quiet was restored. The incident would do harm in the country, I warned, for it would be widely spread and certainly exaggerated.
I had asked to see General Weygand in the morning and told him I understood there was trouble in the army. Would he be so kind as to tell me what it amounted to? He said he would be glad to do so, but in the strictest confidence of course.
There had in fact been some trouble, but it was not as serious as it might have been, for the men had no military grievances and were in no way dissatisfied with their military chiefs or with their leadership. But on the other hand they were profoundly discontented with the political direction of the war. The whole trouble emanated from the interior and was hatched out in the unwholesome political atmosphere created by left-wing politicians. The result was that discouraging and even defeatist propaganda reached the troops unchecked in some areas; it even penetrated to rest billeting zones behind some sectors of the front.
The greatest responsibility for the trouble, said General Weygand, rested with the Minister of the Interior, M. Malvy, who was very weak. He was himself quite satisfied that order would soon be restored provided the government was firm. He also thought General Pétain's influence would be very helpful, which was the sort of cool praise I would have expected from that quarter.
Well, I was now at least aware of what it was desired we should believe.
At the 'Cabinet du Ministre', that is, from the officers who worked in very close touch with the Minister of War, preparing and digesting for him the immense amount of information reaching him from the GQG and other sources affecting the army, I gathered a different preoccupation as far as the British were concerned. That they were worried about the morale of the army I could feel and sense, not that I asked many questions. I never did. I always learnt more from my eyes than my ears and the required information seemed to be generally forthcoming in good time. There was an obvious and apologetic anxiety not to let the British down. The problem of the French was clear and was felt to be humiliating.
These officers and the Minister were fully aware of the way the British had been treated during the Nivelle period of command, and in the light of recent events these memories could not evoke satisfaction in the hearts of fair-minded men. It was generally recognised in political as well as in military circles that the British had carried out their part of the bargain with success, and resentment against Nivelle served to underline their quiet reliability under very trying circumstances. In fact eulogy of all things British became an embarrassment, so much so that lately unsolicited praise for British military operations and bravery in action had crept into the French press, which had literally for years, as if by some secret covenant, shrouded the British army in a fog of silence.
Indeed, presently M. Painlevé, in a parliamentary speech, cited British tactics as an example General Pétain was following. After describing the new commander-in-chief's methods he went on: "These were the same which you have seen applied with such mastery in the last British battles [Messines] whose results you arc aware of and which were obtained at the cost of losses so small that they seem incredible."
General de Maud'huy's information had posed a personal problem as far as I was concerned. Although, as I have said, it did not occur to me that our Mission at the GQG had not reported on the unrest in the army, I also knew that its duties were connected with staff questions and that it would not have been the habit of any of its members to visit army units and find out for themselves what the situation was, nor would it have been proper that they should have done so. They would have been moving among strangers and would have found out nothing. Their presence would certainly have been resented as an intrusion. On the other hand, my work had always been with the fighting units and the staffs of lower formations, and I was certain that if I were to return to the divisions whose units I knew I could form a pretty exact picture of the morale of the troops over a wide front.
I had been doing so for years, giving my chiefs a sympathetic but true picture of the French units among whom I lived.
As this information, always important, was probably now more so than it had ever been, ought I not to try to provide it and report to my chiefs in London?
But it had been clearly laid down that my duties no longer lay with the army but with the Ministry of War, and I had been the first to insist that our Mission at the GQG should give up the rather desultory liaison they had maintained by occasional visits to Paris and leave me solely responsible for the War Department, confining themselves exclusively to the offices at Compiègne. If I myself infringed a rule I had so vehemently upheld, would not the Mission, which I was so anxious should be a success, fade away in disharmony and recriminations, killed at its inception by my fault?
But such considerations did not cause me to hesitate long. The one thing that really mattered was that my chiefs should have a true picture of what was going on in the French army. Any other consideration was of little moment. So, asking no one's leave and telling no one of my intention, I left Paris early next morning, the 6th June, at high speed and quite alone save for the chauffeur and the French soldier who had been my constant escorts since the retreat from Mons, making for the village of Vic-sur-Aisne, which had been Franchet d'Esperey's advance HQ when I was working and living with him not much more than a month ago. I avoided Compiègne and questions.
The examining posts were notoriously obstructive and would probably be more so than usual now. However, I was only stopped two or three times by the usual exasperatingly slow-witted Territorial posts who finally grasped the significance of the special passes I carried. Generally speaking the quickest way was to spell them to them.
When approaching Vic-sur-Aisne I was stopped by a rather nervous lieutenant standing alone. "Où allez vous?" "Where are you going?" he questioned, but before I had time to answer, suddenly aware of my uniform, asked, "Etes-vous anglais?" "Are you English?"
Then, "If were you, à votre place, I do not think I would go down this road; not long since a car came past me, then came back, the officer in it saying he had been stopped by a post wearing red rosettes who refused to let him pass unless he went into the village to be interrogated, goodness knows by whom, so he turned his car and came back. I myself," he went on, "had come in the regimental horse cart, sent to fmd out the position in the village ahead, but when I heard what the officer in the car said I thought I had better stop and find out more, but the driver, as soon as I got out, whipped up his horse and was gone."
Leaving him, I took side roads, trusting that my faithful escort would vouch for me in case of need, as he had often done before, and finally reached my destination, which turned out to be as strange an experience as I have ever had. When I had left it it was full of movement, soldiers everywhere, sentries much in evidence. Now it was completely and absolutely deserted, which in itself was uncanny, for there were normally no empty villages in the army zone. I tramped about but there was not a soul to be seen.
Now one thing I had been looking forward to on this trip, and that was to see my dog, Rex, the superb police dog trained by the Paris police who had been given me by one of the Balzan brothers. I had left him in charge of Captain Altmeyer (who commanded a corps next to the British in the Second World War). If I could not find anything else I would locate my dog if he was there, so halting at street corners I whistled my loudest, and presently, after an interval which, I knew quite well, was used by Rex in a careful test of oral memory to make sure there was no mistake and it was indeed his master returned, I heard a terrific and joyful howl and knew he was on his hind legs somewhere yelling his head off.
Following up the sound, I soon located and released him, and he galloped about me round the village, but could give me no indication of where the other occupants had gone, so I had to leave him where I had found him, determined that, come what might, he at least should not be forgotten in his barn.
I drove on towards the front, keeping a sharp look-out, and quite soon came on a barrier, a ladder across the road between two carts, and a post of men, their 'capotes' (the combined coat and jacket of the French soldier) unbuttoned, wearing red rosettes.
An NCO was in charge, polite but inquisitive. "Where are you going? What are you looking for?" "I would like to see your commanding officer." The man looked cross but not threatening. "Not possible, the officers are over there, but for the moment, pour le moment, they are seeing no one. But what do you want? You are English? Vous êtes anglais?"
"Yes." "Ah, les anglais," and he shrugged as if to convey the idea: "Ah, the English and what good are they?" I thought it wise as well as proper to seem aloof, manifesting a shocked surprise, and when I was asked again what I wanted, said that the English army was attacking the Germans further north as was agreed and that I had been sent to see what support we were being given by the French. "'Attack?' We aren't attacking. On en a marre. We are fed up."
"It is worse than last year. The wire was cut nowhere --- it was a massacre."
"We can't beat the Boches, so why get killed uselessly? A quoi bon? What's the use? The generals don't know the answer," and some more of the same kind.
This was leading nowhere, so I said rather sharply to the leader, "Remove the ladder, please, I am going on." There was a moment's hesitation. "If you do not, we shall. I am going on. I have my orders and will carry them out" --- and, in a final argument that drew rather shamefaced apologies, I pointed to the ugly ribbon with a red enamel star, the badge of the French wounded I wore with my other two ribbons, and said, "That was given me in Artois. I was wounded on Vimy and at Notre Dame de Lorette." There was not a soldier in the army who did not know what hell both places were.
The ladder was removed and pulled across the road after me. I drove on, selecting my course according to where I thought I would run into units belonging to the sectors which had been engaged in the last offensive.
I was lucky and gathered a good deal of information. I was stopped next by a machine-gun post mounted alongside the road. With it were two officers who said there were mutinous troops ahead, "qui ne veulent rien savoir" ("who will not listen to reason"). "Furthermore they are drunk," and they also told me a good deal of what they had heard about various sectors. According to them, drunkenness had sparked off explosions of despair and misery. And from what they told me I sensed the fear of the men at being thrown once more into the arms of a death fashioned out of barbed wire that this time must enfold those who had so far miraculously escaped it. They had heard that whole units had made for railway stations and rushed trains, demanding to be taken to Paris. Even units of black troops had done so, not knowing what they meant when they shouted, "A Paris, Paris!"
Between them they gave me a terrifying description of these black troops, the Senegalese, who had alarmed me often on the Somme. During the April offensive they had lost, early in the attack, most of their officers whom alone they recognised and obeyed. Without leadership they had lost direction, wandering round in circles, waving their enormous pangas, the formidable coupe-coupe, liable to assume that any white man they did not recognise was a German.
Later I ran into a battalion whose officers were in control and who seemed certain of their men. Having explained my mission in connection with the British offensive, I was made welcome as one who could contribute information gleaned earlier which was very interesting news to this group. I told them what I had learnt so far and I listened to them.
They spoke of many cases of regiments refusing to embus for the front, and of others where the 'Internationale' had been sung, giving me the numbers of the units involved.
At another halt I was told that often the men were behaving like industrial strikers, as if the trenches were a place of work that had become distasteful and which consequently they had decided not to visit.
I got back to Paris, following side roads until well away from the army zone, having had only one unpleasant experience, running into a barricade put up by some rather suspicious men, who, conforming with a French atavistic tendency, accused me of being a spy, but saw the logic of the argument that if they had grievances the more people knew of them the better.
Not wanting to impinge too flagrantly on the sphere of the GHQ liaison officers, I kept the special knowledge recently acquired to myself for the moment, and concentrated on gathering information concerning the interior, and this was disquieting enough. Strikes were either taking place or were threatened in several of the neuralgic industrial centres of France.
The government did not appear to be taking strong measures to match those the commander-in-chief was taking in the army zone. And, beginning to feel able to assess the political situation, I warned the CIGS that at the first sign of trouble the Chamber of Deputies would get out of hand.
I expressed the view that in the present crisis the constantly made claim that the British should extend their front and hold a line in proportion to their strength was certain to be revived with renewed vigour, as, indeed, it was.
There were at the time many British troops in camps all down the long lines of communication to Italy; writing from memory, 30,000, perhaps even 50,000 men, were stationed in the neighbourhood of large towns such as Lyons, a very large city of unpredictable moods and prone to disturbances. There were strikes there at the moment and the atmosphere was reported to be explosive. Then came news that there were persistent rumours in Lyons that the British troops there had been sent to fire on the strikers, who were about 3,000 strong. A report to this effect was received by the commander-in-chief, who informed the ambassador.
The consul general at Lyons suggested in considerable alarm that a notice should be inserted in the local papers stating that the British troops were merely in transit.
This was obviously very serious. It was most important not to play into the hands of the revolutionary elements who were on the watch everywhere for incidents which could be represented as intimidation of the civil population by the English or the Senegalese.
A quick visit to some departments of the Ministry of War underlined the extreme danger such reports indicated. Could not the British troops on the lines of communication be confined to camp and not be entrained in the town, which would entail their marching through the streets? People seeing British troops marching through a town would rush off without attempting to find out why they were doing so and report that they were on the way to shoot down the women.
How to have these views acted upon presented a problem, for at this stage I could not venture to make suggestions to GHQ. Fortunately the military Attaché at our Embassy, Colonel Leroy Lewis, was a kind and understanding elderly gentleman. White-haired and boasting a magnificent moustache, a Yeomanry officer with a splendid leg for a boot, generally of shining leather, he could bow to a lady or salute a superior in a way that was the envy of less gifted men. He spoke excellent French, but military problems had hardly come his way, and, in so far as they had, did not appear to have greatly burdened his mind, which was that of a rich and successful business and hunting man. I saw him and explained the problem and, with the weight of the Embassy behind him, he telegraphed to the commander-in-chief recommending that British troops outside the British zone should be confined to their camps and not entrained in towns where there were either strikes or threats of strikes.
This I reported to General Maurice, emphasising the extreme seriousness of the report and the vital importance of acting on it.
Meanwhile I had received additional and very disquieting news of the situation in the French army, in the main in connection with the leave trains.
There were reports of the gravest acts of indiscipline, red flags waved from doors, windows smashed, engines unhitched, station staffs maltreated and on occasion the 'commissaires de gare', the officials charged with discipline at stations, insulted and sometimes beaten.
Horrified officers had heard stations through which leave trains passed echoing with revolutionary songs. All the men on many of the trains seemed to be drunk.
All this was quite frightful, but to me it was just a ghastly ordeal, just one more station we had to pass on the Calvary we must climb on the agonising road to victory.
It never occurred to me that General Pétain and the other French leaders I knew and whom I had seen exercising such a hold on their troops would not re-establish discipline.
That the French army should collapse and refuse to defend France never crossed my mind. These Latins were no Russian moujiks. There will be many executions, I thought grimly, and that was as far as my prognostications went.
It was clear from the timing that it must have been within a very short time of the receipt of my letter of the 7th that a signal was sent me which I received mid-morning on the 9th June ordering me to leave Paris immediately for Abbeville to meet the CIGS at the Officers' Club there.
This I did, and was greatly astonished that Sir William Robertson, who had come from London and had had the Channel to cross, arrived only half an hour after me. He took a bedroom and told me to follow him there. Though it was so long ago, I remember the scene clearly, the burly Wully, the shape of a very large barrel, encircled by his Sam Browne belt, to which he gave slight taps with his hands as he spoke, his drawn-in chin emphasising the incredible thickness of his eyebrows, a veritable zareeba, and above all I remember his voice. I can only remember people well if I can recall their voices and his I shall never forget. It was deep, came up from very low down, in the region of his belt perhaps, rather asthmatic, veiled as if he was speaking through a woollen blanket, and provided a continuous uninterrupted sound as if it were produced by the turning of a handle.
The general effect was one of immense, vital strength, that this was a steam-roller of a man. In a long life in which I have met many leaders of men never have I had to do with one who gave a greater impression of power. He was formidable and very intimidating, but I loved this living lump of granite in spite of his brutal rudeness on occasions, because of his loyalty and his complete faith in and devotion to the army whose honour, one knew, was safe in the hands of this ex-private of dragoons.
Foch said of him, "he does not build high but he builds solid", which was perhaps the correct assessment of his strategic conceptions.
He did not lend himself on this or indeed on any occasion to hero worship. Nothing less like a dandy at his toilet could be conceived. He let himself down grunting into a chair and with much effort removed his leggings and then his boots, a process I watched fascinated, for they were remarkable in that they had bulges, the shape and size of the moulds children used to make mud pies, evidently designed to house large bunions. In the intervals of getting his breath he said, evidently with annoyance, that my report was the first he had heard of the mutinies. I found it difficult to conceal an astonishment that might have seemed to be a reflection on the British Mission at French GQG. Wully had no such scruples and no such reaction. "Do they do nothing beyond waiting to be told what the French want us to believe?" he growled, and by now, puce in colour although obviously relieved by the removal of his boots, asked me to tell him in detail what I had seen and heard. This I did.
Then, having made up his mind on what he wanted me to do, he told me to return at once to the army zone I had come from and find out as much more as I could. I was to endeavour to form an opinion of the extent of the malady and how deep it went and how the troops affected were reacting to the remedial measures applied --- was discipline being re-established? I was then to return to Paris. I might receive an order to go to London at once, for it was possible that the Prime Minister might wish to see me.
I left Abbeville immediately for the Aisne front and after motoring all night on very bad roads was lucky enough to find Franchet d'Esperey fairly early next morning.
He was confident as usual but looked his sternest and I knew how stern he could be. I had been the British liaison officer to the 5th Army in which he commanded a corps during the latter part of the great retreat from Mons and Charleroi and the homeric struggle of the Marne. His army had had then probably the most important role to play and was weary to death, dispirited beyond measure, after being driven back over some hundred and fifty miles of its own country, but he had inspired faith and confidence in his exhausted troops, kindled hope in their hearts and led them on to victory. I knew of his inflexible purpose and severity. His will worked like a steel gin.
If he could not re-establish order no one could.
He knew my position, so there was no necessity to explain to him that I did not report to the commander-in-chief, or to the British mission at the GQG.
I explained it was the problem of our troops on the lines of communication that had led to my wondering what the situation really was and so I had come back for a quick visit to the army zone and I told him what I had seen. "By whose permission did you do that?" he asked. "By yours, mon général," I said. "I have a paper in my pocket signed by you authorising me to visit any part of the front at any time. And you know I have never misused any information I acquired. Our mission at the GQG has apparently no inkling of what is happening."
I told him that it was impossible the secret could be kept indefinitely and that grossly exaggerated stories would be spread if great care was not taken. It would be quite wrong not to keep the British informed in general terms. "They will not expect details it would be dangerous to formulate, but will expect to be told whether discipline is being re-established. The British command knows and has faith in you. They will believe you"; and, as for myself, I went on to say that having seen the power he could exercise over the army when necessary, I had no doubt that he would quell these mutinies which it was becoming clear were the result of seeing a promised victory receding to regions inaccessible to hope. Hope must be rekindled as he had rekindled it before the Marne.
When I had been attached to the staff of his group of armies he had been aware of the feelings of the British at the way they had been treated at and after the Calais Conference.
I thought I was now entitled to say, very gently, though with Franchet d'Esperey it was more advisable to be frank than tactful, that it should be recognised that General Nivelle had, to put it mildly, treated his British allies very shabbily. Just as he had mistaken his successful raids at Verdun for a heaven-inspired new doctrine of war that conjured away all the obstacles that had hitherto held up the Allies, so he had mistaken the British nation's contribution to the war on land for that of a colonial militia which it was the duty of the French command to control and guide.
Now was not the occasion to count old scores, but it was evident enough that General Nivelle's estimation and treatment of his allies was as mistaken as his doctrine.
Today it was the British who were successful and it was essential that they keep the enemy occupied on their front, draw his fire so as to give the French time to recover. These things would be done by us if only because it was to our evident interest that they should be, but surely our effort would be the greater, our co-operation the more complete if the French showed a greater realisation of the humiliations the British had so recently suffered from and under Nivelle's bumptious régime and recognised with a warm and even grateful welcome the brotherly support they were now being offered.
I asked him to allow me to put him a direct and a very important question on the answer to which much might depend.
He knew the deep and respectful confidence long personal experience had led me to place in him. Was he sure the army would recover? I might well be asked to express an opinion and could do so with far greater assurance if he had expressed a view.
He told me he was certain the patriotism and fundamental intelligence of the French soldier would assert itself. It would perhaps be unfortunate if the enemy attacked just now, but there was no sign of his doing so, and even if he did would it in fact be a 'grand malheur'? Even the troops that had given most trouble would certainly resist. They had said they would. He was certain they would. A German attack might well have a sobering effect.
But, he said, it was absolutely essential that discipline should be re-established.
When I pressed him, as I was leaving, for a personal conclusion, he repeated that now his only real fear was that the government would be intimidated by left-wing politicians and would be panicked by threats of strikes into countering the severe measures that were necessary. It was impossible, looking at Franchet d'Esperey, to think of him as being intimidated or frightened by anything. Looking his grimmest, he said once again that he himself had absolutely no doubt that the trouble had been fomented and directed from the interior. There was ample proof of this, but he was satisfied that his method of dealing with mutinous units was the best: allowing parties to climb onto trains or convoys in charge of trustworthy personnel that took them to inaccessible parts of the country and then left them to fend for themselves without shelter or food. There had been no more trouble from any of the units thus treated.
I asked his permission to continue my wanderings in his zone. "Have you not done enough?" he said. But I answered that I had been told to go and see for myself. If I were not allowed to do so it would have an effect that was the contrary of reassuring. After all, this is what I had been doing since 1914 and no one had ever either stopped me or complained of the results.
He agreed, but asked me not to go to Soissons, a big place and no one could tell how the presence of a foreign officer would be received there.
I am grateful to this day for the honour done me by the general in telling me as much as he did. It may well be that he did not himself know that the situation was even worse than he said, and was unaware of the extent of the contamination. He may not have known there had been acts of mutiny all over France, from Bordeaux to Nantes and Limoges, and that a hundred and ten units belonging to fifty-four divisions, more than half the divisions constituting the French army, had mutinied.
I am glad in any case that I did not know, for if I had it may well be that I could not have maintained an optimism that proved to be useful.
Had I known the scope of the disease I could but have reported it, and this might have had very grave consequences.
Having located the whereabouts of some formations where I had friends or acquaintances, I went my way.
Officers I knew were not surprised to see me and spoke freely enough. The greetings I received from past acquaintances were warm and friendly. They were even more anxious to hear my news than I was to hear theirs. How were things going? they asked.
It was reassuring to note that I found no trace of defeatism, no despair at the present turn of affairs, but confidence that this was a passing phase, that Pétain, with his severity and the respect and affection in which he was held by the troops, would soon reestablish order.
It was striking how much the need for severity and strictly enforced discipline was dwelt upon, and generals who enforced it were much praised.
I heard of how some troops ordered up to the line had obeyed, but when passing other troops had baaed like sheep, implying they were on their way to the slaughterhouse.
"Your turn for the turnstiles," was a form of greeting that had found favour among men watching others embus for the front.
Those who told me this, whilst not underestimating the dangers such an attitude presented, tended on the whole to attribute it to a kind of sour self-pity, a way of jeering at your own misfortunes which is characteristic of some regions of France, notably Paris. And as I listened I remembered both reading and being told that the troops engaged in the uneven struggle against the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 used to sing songs to gay tunes describing themselves as being driven out to inevitable death like rats,(6) a form of humour, a kind of self-pity which has never manifested itself in our island, but which, it should be noted, never prevented these rather pathetic cynics in uniform from fighting when called upon to do so, even if dimmed hopes sapped the vigour of their offensive spirit. But it is true that for a long time now the furia francesa had disappeared, to be replaced by a stoical endurance our forebears had believed the French to be incapable of.
I got to Paris in the early afternoon of the 13th June and found a message to call up General Maurice on my arrival. He told me to report at the War Office next morning at 10 am. This meant some pretty fast driving over bad roads. I arrived at Boulogne in the night and produced my most precious document, one instructing the Navy to get me across the Channel at any time I requested a passage.
The demand was received without enthusiasm. It was pointed out that the Royal Navy was not a post chaise establishment and furthermore that as it was low tide the danger from mines was that much the greater. But they got me across, and at Dover I was allowed to ride on an engine part of the way to London, arriving in time to have a bath and shave at the Cavalry Club before keeping my appointment.
At the War Office I gave the CIGS a short account of what I had gathered on the Aisne front, and, as we walked over to Downing Street, he said: "Say what you have to say, answer questions and keep to the facts you are sure of." At No. 10 he was called into the Cabinet room and I was kept waiting for some time in a room outside. Then he came out to fetch me. By then if there had been Ministers in the Cabinet room most of them had dispersed. I recognised Lord Robert Cecil talking to someone sitting at the table, and Colonel Hankey, the cabinet's secretary, whom I knew well, in conversation with someone else, both standing, and there was the Prime Minister.
Mr Lloyd George beckoned me into a window recess giving on to the garden. He looked enquiringly at me and I am sure I gazed at him with curiosity and certainly in some anxiety, possibly in some fear of the alarming tricks army messes spoke of as lurking up both his sleeves.
He was obviously weighing me up.
I do not think he remembered that on one occasion when he and John Simon had visited the front in the Arras sector, probably in 1915, 1 had sat between him and General Foch at lunch, a miserable position which despite every effort on my part to translate both French and English with my mouth full led to my having to leave an unusually good meal half eaten.
It was evident that the look that ricochetted over me to the CIGS was not a friendly one. It would in fact be no exaggeration to say it was the contrary.
"Colonel Spears," he began, "you have been given your present position because presumably the military authorities believe you are thoroughly familiar with the French army. Is that so?" I answered that I had been attached to it since the beginning of the war. I then remembered, and remembered vividly, as a pain is remembered, that not very long before, soon after my appointment to Paris, Colonel Repington, the celebrated military correspondent of The Times, had come to see me. Unused to the press or anything to do with it, I had been very much on my guard for fear he might try to draw from me some information I should not have disclosed, but instead he had given me political news from London which was entirely unexpected and very startling: this was that the Conservative members of the government trusted the Prime Minister not at all. "You are no doubt aware," said Repington, "of the peace feelers that are being put out from a number of directions, notably by Austria. Well, there are people in London who feel that Lloyd George might snatch at an opportunity to conclude a separate peace at his Allies' expense, and would do so if a part of any of the armies of the coalition collapsed," and he had asked me how solid I thought the French really were after their failed offensive, a question I had answered very convincingly, I hoped; but now, face to face with the Prime Minister, his question made me remember Colonel Repington's statement, and something very like panic seized me as it dawned on me that my report might furnish Mr Lloyd George with just the pretext he needed, according to Repington, to fade out of the war. Subsequent knowledge of the Prime Minister made me realise that such apprehensions were completely unjustified.
Standing in that window recess, these and other thoughts flashed across my mind. I was aware of being scrutinised, but I was examining my interlocutor myself, and I noted that the Prime Minister was snappy and concluded that this was perhaps caused by his evident hostility to the CIGS. He certainly eyed him with extreme distaste, an expression that seemed to be amplified as its waves struck against the solid bulk of his chief military adviser.
This attitude of Mr Lloyd George must have struck me as a weakness for, instead of intimidating me further, it gave me considerable encouragement.
Glancing at Wully Robertson I felt the whole strength of the army beside me; so long as one hung on to that solid rugged boulder no political blizzard could sweep one away.
As the Prime Minister gave me the impression he was going to begin to cross-examine me, another fear seized me.
Any description I could give Mr Lloyd George, any picture I might draw for him of what I had seen, of the incidents I had heard of at first hand, however truthfully told, would certainly mislead him; having not the least knowledge of the French army (or of any army for the matter of that) he would draw the wrong conclusions from my words, see pictures that were not those I was attempting to draw, and above everything else he could not possibly begin to understand the French soldier's temperament, or grasp his incredible recuperative powers, and so I resolved to avoid getting involved in detailed descriptions. The Prime Minister helped me in this for he said suddenly, "Colonel Spears, you have been appointed to a responsible position by the military authorities. I understand you have just visited some sections of the French army where there has been serious trouble. This is a very serious situation. The question I am asking you is a grave one, I presume you realise how grave: Is the French army going to recover? You should be able to express a positive opinion."
The bluntness, the directness of the question took me aback. It was certainly better than being asked to describe what I had seen, but it struck me as surprising to be asked to foretell the conclusion of a tale as yet only half told.
I had not expected to be asked to do more than recount what had so far occurred.
Mr Lloyd George was looking at me keenly. "Well?" he asked.
Then again: "Will the French army recover or not, that is the question."
I was flustered and must have seemed stupid or evasive, for the Prime Minister now pressed me like a terrier. "I am sure it will," I said, and told him that General Pétain was a wonderful leader, one in whom the men had confidence, and a great disciplinarian as well.
It seemed to be of immense importance to convince the Prime Minister. The fear of failing to do so was frightening. It could not even be contemplated.
I was sure now, desperately sure, that General Pétain could nurse his army back to health were he but given the time to do so, and this the British could do by carrying out the attack they had planned. But these, I felt, were not considerations that could be mentioned to Mr Lloyd George, they would only raise more doubts in his mind. It would not give him encouragement and confidence to suggest that the French army must look to the British commanders, in whom he had no confidence, for its salvation.
So I tried to make him understand the immense power the commander of an army trusted by the troops could exercise over them if they felt he could lead them to success while being sparing of their lives, and I was certain the French soldiers felt this about Pétain, for I had lived through some of his brilliant operations with his troops. So I asserted that the French army would soon recover its morale and its vigour, for its powers of recuperation under good leadership were seemingly miraculous. I reminded the Prime Minister how it had fought at the Marne after suffering a continuous series of shattering defeats. The French soldier was turning out to be in many ways the opposite of what we had believed him to be. Far from being fickle and volatile he was proving to be stable, staunch and tenacious.
Suddenly Mr Lloyd George's voice changed. It was now bland, persuasive, with a musical undertone. His words, like birds about to glide into flight, gave the impression they were on the point of changing into musical notes. But they did not. Being unmusical I would not have understood if they had. A worm falling into a pot of honey might feel as I did, at first delighted at the sweet smoothness of my environment, then receiving a violent shock to find things were not what they seemed, for the Prime Minister was saying, "Will you give me your word of honour as an officer and a gentleman that the French army will recover?"
Completely taken aback, I was simply furious. It seemed evident that to ask such a question, to request a man to pledge his word of honour on a matter still in the future and likely to remain so, simply meant that the questioner did not know the meaning of either officer or gentleman and could indeed only have the most imprecise views concerning the meaning, purpose and obligations of giving a word of honour, and I said so. I have a picture of myself gibbering with rage, for I told the Prime Minister he could not understand the meaning of the words officer and gentleman to put such a question. Feeling desperate now, terrified of seeming to evade the question, anxious to put my maximum stake on the advice I was giving, I told the Prime Minister I would stake my life on what I was saying. "Call Hankey and he can take down what I say. You can have me shot if I am mistaken. I will stake my life on it," I repeated and then added stubbornly, "But not my word of honour." And then repeated once more: "The French army under Pétain will surely recover."
"That will do," said Wully and I followed him as he walked out of the room.
I remember feeling a bit dizzy in the street and rather ashamedly steadying myself against the railings of Number 10.(7)
I was soon back in Paris, haunted by the fear I might not have rightly assessed the situation of the French army.
In the days which followed my return I kept in as close touch as was possible with M. Painlevé, the Minister for War. I did not, nor could I possibly know everything that was going on, nor all the aspects of his problem, but I gained some inkling of the weight of the moral responsibility that rested on the shoulders of this modest and just man.
It can never have been the lot of a kindlier man to have a voice in the decision as to whether an individual soldier should live or die. In after years Painlevé often spoke to me of the agonising duty of attempting to weigh the evidence of mutiny or insubordination against the excuses a kind and imaginative heart could conjure up. I knew at the time something of what was involved, but perhaps only appreciated later what he had gone through every hour of the short agony each condemned man experienced before his time came of an early morning. The minister knew full well the commander-in-chief hated taking the final irrevocable decision as much as he himself did, yet he fought and argued every point in a condemned man's favour as if he were struggling to pull a living creature out of the clutches of a bloodthirsty fiend.(8)
He could not have done this with such tireless vigour had he not known he was pleading with a man who perhaps suffered more than he did because of the weight of the harness of the stern and harrowing duty that was his to carry. And so both men, night after night, spoke to each other either over the telephone, or when the tired minister walked rather uncertainly, after driving from Paris, into the commander-in-chief's room at Compiègne, having dropped everything to discuss the small matter of one man's life, when the lives of scores of thousands were at stake and the fate of France herself was in the balance. On the whole the moral burden that rested on the general was the heavier, for the ultimate responsibility was his, and the minister knew that he could unleash the full torrent of his sentimentality on the soldier who would, he knew, resist all appeals if he knew it was his duty to do so. He could therefore indulge in putting forward every plea for mercy, knowing that the other would enforce only the minimum retribution essential to the army's return to moral health.
But when all is said and in the light of after knowledge there can be no doubt that it was the re-establishment of the Cours Martiales that restored discipline at one brutal stroke. These had been suppressed in 1916 and no one had been gladder than I, for I had seen something of how they had worked and I hated them. They had been proved to be often unjust and were too much even for the French outlook in such matters, which is prepared to accept many encroachments both on justice and on freedom if the safety of the nation is involved.(9)
General Pétain and his commanders were proved to have been right in insisting on the re-establishment of discipline at all costs. The government's decree setting up military courts promulgated on the 9th June was made known to the army next day, the 10th June. From that date there was not a single case of collective disobedience entailing the death penalty.
I was not aware then that it was only because the situation of the army was described as desperate by the commander-in-chief and accepted to be such by the government that these peace-loving radical politicians were driven to support measures repugnant alike to their convictions and instincts. Had I been fully aware of this I would have been in an agony of doubt about the report I had made to the Prime Minister in London.
As it was I could only guess what Painlevé's problems really were from my meetings with him, which grew more frequent with time as I learnt to appreciate a kind of man hitherto quite outside my experience.
Painlevé was a man of the Left, a radical but not a socialist, a great mathematician whose heart sometimes seemed to hesitate and lose its way as it followed his mind, for ever exploring the paths of the stars, measuring the inconceivable distances of their infinite ways.
He was as great a patriot as any of the generals who were now theoretically ruled by him, but his love of France was not that of the heroic legends that live for ever embodied in Rude's statuary on the Arc de Triomphe. It was that of the family grouped round an oil lamp of an evening, the children doing their homework, the father reading his paper while his wife knits, it was that of the workshop but not that of the estaminet.
On the 19th June I wrote to General Maurice once more. I was deeply concerned by the responsibility of the report I had made to the Prime Minister, but far more so by the importance of attempting to assess the real state of the French army.
I reported on this occasion that I had felt it my duty to return to the northern group of armies to find out how matters now stood, and that I had seen many officers, from General Franchet d'Esperey and the army group commanders down to battalion commanders in the line. As a result of this visit I had to admit that the mutinies had been far more serious than I had believed, but I was given to understand that the trouble was now well in hand.
Some details worth noting were told me. I was informed, for instance, that the most serious trouble occurred in the 5th Division of the III Corps, but the whole corps had been involved. (It was the 5th Division which, under General Mangin, took Fort Douaumont at Verdun.)
I was given the numbers of several corps and divisions affected, the 14th and 41st Division of the VII Corps (which had attacked very gallantly on the 16th April), also General Pétain's XXXIII and XXI Corps, but it was painful to hear that the XX Corps, the pride of the whole army, had also been contaminated, fortunately only slightly. Strangely enough two corps with excellent reputations, the III and the XXI, both having had long periods of rest previous to the outbreak, gave serious trouble, lending colour to the belief that agents of subversion had been active in their billets and rest camps. I reported that there might well be more incidents that I had not heard of. There were. It was only much later that I learnt that over half the total of the French army, that is fifty-four divisions, had been involved. One hundred and fifty-one cases of collective rebellion were investigated. Of these seventy-four proved to be of real gravity. Nearly all had taken place in the Aisne region behind the Chemin-des-Dames.
I gave the following as examples of some incidents I was told of by officers who had witnessed them.
A battalion of the 370th Regiment scattered, was rounded up by cavalry but, defying their escorts, took possession of a village, then elected their own officers, who maintained strict discipline.
The village was surrounded by loyal troops, consisting in the main of artillery and cavalry, and the mutineers were starved. The inhabitants were allowed out twice a day when meals were given them.
One evening the mutineers offered to surrender but were told they could only do so next morning at a given time, by groups of ten, unarmed. This they did, marching in step, beautifully turned out and, an almost unbelievable touch at the time --- in the circumstances --- with their boots polished. Each squad was halted and scrutinised by their own officers and security men; they pointed out the men they suspected of being the leaders. They were fallen out, packed into a waiting train and taken to the place where Courts Martial sat permanently. No one knew what had happened to them after that. I gathered that the brave and resigned attitude of the mutineers had deeply impressed the troops that had beleaguered them, and once again I was told it would be unwise to rely on their performing the same task again. Censored letters revealed the deep disquiet of the men at being thus employed and some wrote they would refuse to obey similar orders if repeated.
The mutiny had evidently taken many forms and the methods employed had varied greatly.
Two regiments of the 5th Division, proving insubordinate, were sent to the XI Corps, all stations on the way guarded by cavalry. At the time of my visit the cavalry still held the stations and the regiments were still held by the XI Corps.
There was the case of a battalion attacking the motor convoy which was to drive them to the trenches, threatening the drivers and its own officers, and another in which a battalion commander was pursued by his men. And there were many other incidents; no one had been killed, nor had there been any wounded, but I was able to see for myself that in many cases the inhabitants had been terrified. Very many had been those who had turned an honest penny by selling illicit alcohol to the men, but they had been sorry indeed when they saw bands of drunken soldiers, rejecting all discipline, wandering about the villages and towns.
The military authorities were more convinced than ever that the whole trouble had been organised by the syndicates, the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), that the time had been well selected, taking advantage of the discouragement of the army and the effect of the Russian Revolution. It was felt that the movement might have contaminated the whole army (it almost did) but had failed principally owing to some premature mutinies which broke out before the whole plan was ripe.
All insisted on how the action of the disaffected men had resembled a strike. I was on the whole well received, often with curiosity. I generally expected to get on best with cavalrymen, being one myself, for there were always common grounds of interest, horses, but this occasion was an exception, and the officers were neither friendly nor very polite.
These aristocratic men were bitterly humiliated by the fact of the mutinies, a slur on the bravery which was to most of them the epitome of France, the France they understood and accepted. And here they were, acting as gendarmes to these misguided hordes, and here was a foreign officer viewing the whole scene, spying on them was what some of them no doubt thought, although it may have occurred to individuals that in view of our involvement in the present campaign we were entitled to keep ourselves informed of events in the main theatre.
There had been occasions when I had witnessed with amazed and rather admiring interest the ease with which some French aristocrats had, with inherited dexterity, reduced an intruder to abashed silence, and that with the most exquisite expertise, the most perfect politeness. But it was unpleasant to have, for the first and last time, this technique applied to me.
A symptom of the depth of the anxiety felt by senior officers was the earnestness with which I was asked by several whether the British government would bring pressure on their ally to ensure that such coercive measures as were necessary were taken so as to ensure that a recurrence of the trouble in the interior would be impossible.
The very direct questions I put to senior officers whom I knew personally were answered in a way calculated to make me feel we must either place our faith in Pétain or accept that we must assume more of the burden of fighting the war ourselves. But the consensus of opinion expressed seemed to be that the trouble would be quelled in two or three weeks, although no one could yet say how soon the troops affected would be fit to attack again or when the army as a whole would have regained its moral health.
As an indication of the state of affairs, I noted that a forthcoming attack in the St Gobain sector was to be carried out by the cavalry.
My own conclusions were that while the mutinies had been far more serious than I had at first thought the situation was now well in hand.
But putting an end to a mutiny and transforming the men involved into good fighting troops were two totally different things. The French army, I was certain, could not withstand a recurrence of similar troubles.
I believed at the time, as did the high-ranking officers who informed me, that the repressive measures taken by the command were far more severe than they actually were. This was due to a merciful deception conceived by General Pétain whereby men condemned to death by Court Martial and reprieved disappeared completely, all their comrades believing they had indeed been shot, whereas they had been sent to some distant place of detention in Morocco or Indo-China where they remained incommunicado for a long period.
The number of executions attributable to collective disobedience was remarkably low: twenty-three, out of an army of four million men, more than half of whose divisions had been affected; these are M. Painlevé's figures.
General Pétain states that there were fifty-five executions, but that only thirty of these related to the "re-establishment of morale", which means that twenty-five were executed for looting, highway robbery and similar crimes calling for the death penalty in time of war, while only thirty executions were carried out on men guilty of collective disobedience.
It may be that the disparity between the figures of the soldier and the politician is due to the fact that two men in M. Painlevé's list seemed to have been tried on charges of both mutiny and looting and that the condemnation was attributable more to the second than to the first crime.
There were other sanctions. Detachments from units which had given trouble were quietly shipped to distant dependencies. Rumour had it that their destinations were not salubrious nor renowned for their amenities, but I do not know. It is what one would have expected.
On two or three occasions I saw in the streets of Paris small canvas-covered brakes drawn by two horses, close behind which rode two mounted gendarmes. In these brakes, seated low and peering over the low door were men I knew to have been condemned by Court Martial. They were, I believe, on their way to some overseas destination, but they may have thought they were being taken to the fort where they would be executed next day. Although it is so long ago their faces haunt me still. The Inquisition sometimes chalked the faces of its victims on their way to the stake. One such face seemed to peer at me out of the back of one of the carriages, snow white it seemed, and horribly grinning, a mask of intolerable pain clamped onto lunatic features. I still feel as if on that occasion I had seen a trolleyload of lost souls being driven at a fast trot down into hell.
From the moment he had assumed the supreme command General Pétain, his line of conduct clearly in his mind, had set about his task of healing, which entailed some drastic surgery, with an indomitability of purpose which would have been impossible had he had the slightest doubt of the soundness of the remedies he proposed to apply.
I, the observer, watched with intense admiration this sure-handed military surgeon standing over the torn body of the French army which, mangled and tortured nearly to death by bad generalship and insensitive handling, was now in the course of being cured by inspired leadership and humane understanding. The first and overriding quality which he revealed was the power to control completely his physical being which, seemingly without effort, dominated fatigue and dispensed with sleep. He was on the road day and night until he had visited every one of the contaminated divisions. His second great asset was the simplicity of his doctrine, which was that whatever happened and at whatever cost discipline must be re-established, immediately and in all its rigour. The first victims of this axiom were the officers who invoked as a pretext for their pusillanimous conduct the fact that, as the movement was a general one, it was difficult to detect its leaders. To this excuse Pétain retorted icily that: "Nothing is easier than to transform a collective act of disobedience into individual rebellion. It suffices to give an order to a few men, preferably to the notoriously difficult characters, and, should they refuse to obey, have them immediately arrested and handed over to a military court to be dealt with without any delay whatsoever."
Without ceasing to control the army as a whole, Pétain, after visiting the affected divisions, added to his stupendous task by visiting all the others, and in doing so displayed a unique faculty of making those he spoke to feel that they had found a father in the ideal sense, an older man who understood the problems of each and was bent on helping to solve them, but one who, fathering so many, was bound to be severe, cutting out any elements which might corrupt the rest.
He laid it down that officers, NCO's and men from each battalion and indeed of each company should be represented at his meetings.
The commander-in-chief's aim was to establish at once a feeling of confidence in those he addressed. Sometimes standing in an open field, as likely as not leaning against the bonnet of his car, he described the war situation, asserting that the boundless resources of the United States in men and material must inevitably bring victory, it was just a question of holding out, of hanging on until the stream flowing from America swelled into a spate.
Using expressions comprehensible to his audience, he cast the light of his clear appreciation of the situation on the various sectors of the front in France and Italy, and then spoke of the other theatres, and the men to whom he spoke, until that moment only vaguely informed of what was involved in the war beyond their own narrow field of vision and experience, suddenly felt they were at the hub of it, the confidants of the commander-in-chief whose word they had that they only had to hold on to win. Every man who heard him grew in his own estimation, as presently did all his comrades to whom he recounted his astonishing experience.
No one realised better than General Pétain that in the final result the conduct of a unit is a reflection of the officers' powers of leadership, and he knew how important it was as a general rule never to weaken the authority of an officer by reproving him before his men, yet he achieved the extraordinary effect, whilst not damaging the hierarchical structure of the army, of castigating some officers so severely that their men wept for them, and asked him to be less severe. I do not imagine that the officers thus castigated remained with their units (some were reduced in rank), but I heard from those who had been present on such occasions of the extraordinarily uplifting effect these meetings had on the men.
It was hard to withhold sympathy for some of the infantry officers. Most of them were not fitted by position or training to act as leaders. Ex-NCO's, they had been promoted by German bullets which had caused the vacancies which, of necessity, they had been promoted to fill.
General Pétain had always read in advance the reports concerning the engagements and casualties of the division he was addressing and had details of acts of bravery both of units and of individuals. These he commented upon and rewarded on the spot. He had a plentiful supply of Médailles Militaires, Croix de Guerre and Legions of Honour which he gave on the recommendation of the responsible officers without any more formality than noting the name of the recipient. He then distributed lavishly small presents, packets of tobacco and cigarettes, and pipes inscribed with a facsimile of his signature (an idea inherited from Joffre). These were greatly prized.
The commander-in-chief would then inspect cookhouses, cross-examine cooks, often order better cooked food, and inspect rest billets, concerning which he often had much to say. Then he would examine the leave rosters and make sure leave was granted with complete fairness, for he well knew that nothing could cause more heart-burning than postponed or cancelled leave.
An incident will illustrate the effect Pétain's methods had on the army.
On the occasion of one of these visits, a private soldier asked leave to speak to him.
He had had no leave for eighteen months, his wife was ill and very anxious to see him.
The man went on leave. A few months later Pétain inspected the same division and recognised the man. Calling him out of the ranks he asked how his wife was. "My going did her good, but she told me to do something about you, mon Général, that I dare not tell you." "Why shouldn't you tell me? Out with it," said Pétain.
"She told me to embrace you, mon Général." "And what is stopping you?" said Pétain. And there, in front of the astonished troops, a private was seen to kiss the commander-in-chief on both cheeks.
Stories such as this spread through the armies with astonishing speed and very soon the leader was enshrined as a titular deity. How much did not Napoleon owe to tales such as that of his taking up the gun of the sleeping sentry and carrying out his duty for him?
In a very short time the whole army became aware that everything to do with welfare had vastly improved, and, quite rightly, attributed this to General Pétain. The men going on leave were no longer packed into trains with broken windows. Hitherto there had been nowhere to sit down under shelter at many railway halts, and there had been no one to organise the journeys and advise bewildered and bedraggled men how to reach their often distant destinations. Now all this was changed. Every effort was made to help the weary man homeward so that he should not lose a minute of his precious leave. Attractive reception centres were created and the soldier released from the front felt at last that he was being treated otherwise than as an escaped convict. No longer did you hear quips such as "Even pigs are driven to market".
How Pétain re-established the morale of the French army is a subject that should be carefully studied by all commanders. But it should be remembered that he was dealing with Frenchmen, whose qualities and faults are not easily comparable with those of men of other nations.
You could not superimpose Pétain's remedies on another set of circumstances or another army as you would a transparency on a plan and expect similar results.
If it were your purpose to study and understand the French soldier you should not commit the mistake of assuming he had much in common with the French civilian.
As a civilian he had been critical and resentful of authority, mistrustful of his employer whom he suspected, generally with some justification, of being bent on taking advantage of him. Hardworking and abstemious, such pleasures as he got out of life in his limited sphere were simple. He had within him all the elements that make a good citizen.
As a soldier he stood up to the very hard army life because it was a traditional and inescapable ordeal that every generation of his countrymen bore in turn.
As he put on his uniform he knew he was falling under a strong discipline that was probably harsh and might well be unjust, but that was a matter of luck, what his NCO's would turn out to be, and this, after all, was the same for all the other lads of his age: a sacrifice for France.
One great compensation was that he had shed all responsibility, and the hold of his family, generally strong in France, had relaxed. All he had to do now was to obey a new and exacting authority, used however to dealing with generations of young Frenchmen, severe in matters of routine, but indulgent to the young male just aware of his manhood. The young soldier felt himself enveloped in an atmosphere in which patriotism and discipline tended to assume the same aspect. The flag, France, 'honneur et patrie' the universal motto, learning how to repel the enemy, all this blended in his mind as it was hammered into his head by the irresistible, the irrepressible roll of the drums. He had always been taught to love France and it was his deepest instinct to do so, just as he loved his mother, naturally.
France to him was his village nestling cosily into its province, and France was its background; the army was his province still, for his regiment was recruited from it. His fellows had the same accent as he had. This he could not perceive as a characteristic of his own voice but could recognise it in others. Other regiments spoke French too but it was not the same thing, they had a rather funny way of saying things, slow or heavy, not to mention the men of Provence who were so funny and whom everyone enjoyed imitating.
Here in the army the great companionship of men, deeply felt by all the human races, had the effect it always had of binding soldiers into a great fraternity, loyal to itself and deeply comforting. Had it not been for this primordial instinct none of the armies involved in the Great War would have held out. But with the French it did not go as deep as it does with the British, who, when things go badly, instinctively hold together more stoutly and fight together shoulder to shoulder. A body of the more individualistic Frenchmen whose splendid qualities of quick initiative and rapid movement serve them so well in battle tends to disintegrate when nerves are overstrained. We have no words in our language to express the 'sauve qui peut' --- 'let all flee who can' ---- an expression not unknown among French forces, even those who have fought very well. And again the cry 'nous sommes trahis" which had often spread panic in French armies, denotes a proclivity to blame others for defeat which is incompatible with the solid cohesion which on most occasions is the characteristic of British troops in retreat.
The French soldier, freed of his civilian attributions, emerges as a singularly simple, confiding, affectionate man, ready to trust his leaders, easy to lead, appreciative of kindness. In civil life intensely responsive to outward forms of politeness, ready to resent any expression of superiority, the military forms of greeting are accepted by the soldier: the sealed pattern of the army's social behaviour, the salute, the joined heels, the invariable greeting 'mon' to a superior, 'mon' capitaine, 'mon' général, appeal alike to the Frenchman's sense of propriety, of good order and of politeness. All this tends to create a universality to which he responds. But the army itself, its organisation and its purpose, was necessarily impersonal, a machine for transmuting two or three hundred thousand anonymous civilians each year into an equal number of anonymous soldiers. This did not allow for frills or niceties when so much had to be done in so short a time, when the stupid, the clumsy and the lazy, together with the clever and the agile, had to be pressed into the same mould, which left little room for sentiment or cultivating personal relationships between officers and men.
General Pétain, the dour infantryman of hard northern peasant stock, understood the French soldier and staked everything on his belief in his fundamental patriotism, confident that, on reflection, he would realise that to give up the struggle would be a betrayal of the hosts who had died to carry on the war so far.
His point of view was that of another French officer whom I had quoted to him once in Artois, Duval by name.(10)
Duval had said, "I am of country stock, of the tough Cévennes protestant mountain folk, we are hard-headed realists and had learnt the lesson of the Napoleonic wars and of our defeat by the Germans in 1870. The odds for victory were against us, we knew that, but we had acutely suffered over the years from German bullying, we had seen that the Germans lost no opportunity of humiliating us, of spitting in our faces, so that when the call came in August 1914 the whole country rose as one man, glad, even if it meant dying, of the chance to cleanse the face of France of all those outrages, to redeem all those humiliations.
"And so we flung ourselves at the throat of Germany in deadly earnest. There was no fanfare as in 1870. We all staked our lives in a furious and unanimous determination to shake off the shackles our defeat had riveted on our limbs."
"I agree with that," said Pétain when I told him.
And I who had lived those hours in 1914 knew it was true, knew that every man in the army realised that on his personal steadfastness and endurance depended the survival of France, that the immense casualty lists which lengthened every hour, every minute of the day and night, increased his responsibility to so many dead, for if he gave way their colossal sacrifice would have been in vain.
General Pétain, by force of circumstances, and also because it was his instinct to do so, introduced an entirely new method of treatment of the soldier within the military machine. His conception of the army was of a great number of individuals brought together by the necessity of national defence into disciplined units, but individuals all the same, instead of the accepted theory of a yearly human crop to be poured into moulds from which they emerged as automatons to be moved about maps according to whatever was the military theory of the moment.
The battle of the Marne has often been spoken of as a miracle. The sudden transformation of beaten weary masses of men into aggressive armies was indeed a miracle, the miracle of hope rekindled burning out despair in a million hearts.
But General Pétain's achievement was in fact a greater, a far greater miracle than the Marne. To turn soldiers who did not feel beaten but only indignant, as indignant as extreme fatigue would allow, and unleash them at an enemy they had been longing to get at for weeks, was as easy as opening the gates to a football final crowd compared with transmuting mutineers into soldiers, changing insolent strikers into disciplined troops, converting bands of drunks into steady battalions. And it was no superficial change. Carefully nursed, re-educated in the tactics of war as they were then, encouraged by being engaged in extremely well-thought-out and meticulously prepared attacks in which artillery had done all those things the infantry had for so long prayed for but prayed for in vain, such as effectively cutting paths through the barbed wire, putting down barrages that preceded the attacking waves instead of pounding them or leaving them far behind; rested, now well looked after, confident in the leadership, the French soldier was transformed.
The modest successes of the latter part of 1917 made possible the victories of 1918 which in turn made the French army a reincarnation of what it had been in the great periods of its history.
It was as if the spirit of Valmy, which had hurled the ragged levies of the First Republic across its frontiers, rekindled in 1914 but killed by a slow strangled death in the mud of the trenches, had been reborn.
It was a small flickering light at first, but presently grew very strong until it filled every man's heart, now cleansed of fear, with hope.
I realised this fulfilment when I was present at the entry of the French troops into Strasbourg after the Armistice in 1918. I stood near General Pétain when he heard the first Mass celebrated in French in the cathedral after an interval of forty-five years, and stood just behind one-armed General Gouraud when he reviewed the French army as it marched into the capital of Alsace.
I have seen many magnificent parades in my life, including the celebration of victory by the Allied troops in the Chimps Elysées in Paris, but none has ever moved me as deeply as the entry of the French troops into Strasbourg. The spirit was superb and illuminated all those faces deeply marked by war; the trumpets, shrill and harsh, tore the ears as they blared their cadenced notes into hearts that swelled in pain as if they would burst in the pangs of giving birth to a new conception, that of victory, while the drums, row upon row of them in loud, muffled, hurried, pounding throbs, were as the heart beats marking the stride of armies on their relentless revengeful march to occupy the land of the enemy they had defeated.
The parade over, deeply moved, I told General Gouraud that I was overwhelmed by the miracle I had witnessed, that of the resurrection of an army that had been threatened by death in 1917. And I told him I had had a kind of vision as I stood near him watching the regiments go by: I had felt that behind him, all the way up to Heaven, there was tier upon tier of men, endless rows of them, all the dead of the war, and that an immense satisfaction prevailed among them as they looked down on his army, for they knew they had not died in vain, for this army of the end of the war was better than had been theirs of the beginning. And he told me that he had had very much the same impression, and that he had felt sure that his mother, who had died very recently, was standing close behind him, deeply happy at what she saw.
I told General Pétain of this, and later recalled the Strasbourg review several times. My theme was that the attitude of Frenchmen, both military and political, in the years after the war, was mistaken. They shunned the subject of the mutinies, looked embarrassed if it as much as peeped over the fringe of a conversation, evidently feeling it was a topic best avoided, something to be ashamed of. It was hardly mentioned in their official history of the war, whereas I contended the story should be a matter of great pride, in the same category as the action of the officer in General Maunoury's army who at the dawn of the Marne, mortally wounded and surrounded by stricken men, on seeing the Germans advance, arose, seized a rifle and shouted, "Debout les morts!" --- "Up the dead!"
Time passed. One day I received a note from Marshal Pétain saying he would like to see me the next time I was in Paris. He handed me a folder containing his narrative of the mutinies with his manuscript notes on the typescript, and told me he would like me to publish it. As usual, his remarks were short, clear and to the point. He said in effect that as I had been so long at the point of junction between the French and British Armies and had lived through so many of the battles of the war with the French, sharing their good as well as their bad fortunes, he would like me to write the story of the mutinies and here were his own notes to enable me to do so.
To say that I was taken aback would be an understatement. In spite of the explanation he had given me, I asked why he had selected me for this honour. He said that he had come to the conclusion that an Englishman would tell the story more objectively than a Frenchman, who would find it difficult not to become involved in controversy, to defend or condemn one set of people rather than another.
Presently, having thought the matter over, I decided that to tell a coherent story I must include all the events of 1917 in my narrative, since the mutinies were deeply rooted in the politico-military problems which developed so catastrophically at the beginning of the year. But the task proved to be a formidable one for a man who had parliamentary duties to perform and was also earning his living in business.
By 1939 I had written quite a long book, but the mutinies of 1917 were still months away; furthermore, the horrible face of a new war was peering over the horizon.
I was afraid that the lesson I believed I had underlined and which should be useful would be lost if a war was started before the story of the mutinies was published.
So I decided to publish what I had written under the title of Prelude to Victory, hoping that one day I would be able to write the sequel.
But the war had barely started when the very structure of my study showed formidable cracks. Its point had been to describe the mutinies, talk of the disease and its symptoms, but above all to acknowledge the debt Britain and France owed to the great doctor who had devised a cure --- Pétain. But by June 1940 Pétain was the leader of the France of Vichy, which allowed herself to become involved in collaboration with an enemy bent on our destruction.
The responsibilities of the Pétain of 1917 were very different from those he assumed in 1940, but it was the same man, however loaded with years he had become.
Immediately after the second war ended, I simply could not praise for his achievements the man who had so often, under the pretext of helping France, placed weapons in Hitler's hands to use against my country.
But the years passed, and it seemed to me to be not only a great injustice to Marshal Pétain but a cruel distortion of history to allow the dust of years to settle on what is, I am convinced, a heroic achievement which in the First World War brought victory out of defeat.
In publishing Pétain's narrative, and paying this belated tribute to him, I dedicate this story to those magnificent soldiers, the 'poilus' of 1914-18.
A Crisis of Morale in the French Nation at War by General Pétain
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