André Loez, 14-18. Les refus de la guerre. Une histoire des mutins [Refusing War : A History of the Mutineers], Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Folio Histoire », 2010.
For a long time the mutinies of 1917 have been interpreted as the expression of the discontent, real but transient, of soldiers weary of war. In a detailed original study André Loez presents them as being, by contrast, a genuine social movement of which pacifism is only the most worked-out form.
In the historiography of the Great War the time of refusal has come. (1) The publication of André Loez’s work devoted to the French mutinies of 1917 confirms this turn. Since historian Guy Pedroncini’s pioneering 1967 book* this iconic event has often been considered marginal, ephemeral, and inconsequential: if it wasn’t the outcome of a pacifist plot, it was, according to Pedroncini, not about ‘refusing to fight’ but about ‘refusing a certain way of doing it’. (2) Subsequently, collective memory has stuck the mutinies in a consensus of compassion, vividly illustrated in Lionel Jospin’s speech in Craonne in 1998. (3)
With notable rigour and clarity, André Loez distances himself from those hallowed interpretations, He convincingly refutes Pedroncini’s conclusions and so opens new perspectives for a global socio-history of refusals of war between 1914 and 1918, breaking with the cultural anthropology of conflict constructed around the hypothesis of « consent ».
The crisis of disobedience in the French army in 1917
The mutinies of April-June 1917 were not a minor, marginal episode during the conflict. With 27 more mutinies being taken into account – making a total of 111 mutinies in 61 divisions – the direct range of the episode is broadened: to arrive at this figure, Loez has actually set aside the hundred or so incidents counted by Guy Pedroncini or Denis Rolland (4) whose basis in facts is virtually unknown, and added the new outbreaks of disorder revealed by archives and witness testimony. No doubt there will some quibbling over the extent of the movement, with the inevitable gaps in its documentation making a complete picture impossible. This would be to miss the main point that Loez is making: that the mutinies form a kernel surrounded by a « halo » of indiscipline throughout the French army in spring 1917. Desertions and overstaying leave multiplied: in the five divisions studied by the author, the number of desertions doubled in mid-May 1917, and even tripled at the end of May and in June (p. 209). In the 77th Infantry Division (DI), 15% of the strength left the front « illegally » : so we have to rethink how far disobedience went at the end of spring 1917, when a self-demobilisation movement got under way, comparable to what happened in the Russian or German armies. In fact, it was this wave of collective disobedience that forced a halt to offensives until the autumn, against the wishes of Pétain, who was appointed Commander-in-Chief just before these events.
Moreover, the mutinies are located in a « continuum of indiscipline » (Timothy Parsons ) that runs through the conflict from its beginning. Therefore the events of spring 1917 must not be read in a linear fashion : it wasn’t a matter of [self-]demobilisation followed, when it failed, by a patriotic remobilisation. The meaning of the term « refusal » itself needs to be re-thought. It is not to be understood as a motivated, politically coherent rejection of the rationale for war; pacifism was only at the most articulate end of a vast spectrum of standpoints. Rather, these refusals occur at the intersection of two mental processes, that of withdrawing from the war and that of illegally resorting to indiscipline. To refuse war does mean “wanting it to end, not wanting to be part of it any longer, putting that wish into practice”. (p.545) So the refusal of war can take the form of unstructured disorder, noisy one-off demonstrations, or on the other hand lead to petitions, processions, marching on Paris; even the tamest forms cannot by any means be discounted.
The Mutinies as a social movement in wartime
The mutinies constitute, within the massive social institution that the French army was in 1917, a wartime social movement; they can thus be considered with the help of a sociology of obscure or emerging social movements, of which the author has a thorough grasp. At the same time they unfolded in the particular context of the 1914 conflict, during which demonstrations and taking up a position in public, whether against the war or not, were under strict surveillance. By definition, the mutinies were transgressive, even if it was possible to limit their effects. The fact that they occurred in – and not before or after – spring 1917 is nevertheless due to the rising tide of events preceding them; it was the cumulative modification of the structure of opportunities perceived by those who acted that gave them the feeling they could act. This new interpretation thus requires that we establish the precise chronology of the events to place them in their exact sequence, but also that we study the improvised cohort of mutineers sociologically.
Why do soldiers mutiny? Most often, mutinies break out because of a perceived immediate threat – of an attack or of going back to the trenches – or by contagion from another movement, spread by rumour. The soldiers’ “characteristic thought process” (p.178) tends to reinforce anxiety. In 1917, the rear in fact became the transmitter of stress to a previously unheard-of extent: catastrophist rumours circulated around the strikes that broke out in Paris and elsewhere but were to die down before the mutinies reached their height between 30 May and & 7 June 1917.
The collective anxiety the rumours conveyed gained strength from the series of events cropping up here and there with the Nivelle offensive and its failure in the Chemin des Dames, which ended any hope of the “final” offensive. The announcement of the German withdrawal of March 1917, the publication of the Bolshevik peace proposals on 14 May, the start of the campaign to report on revolutionary Russia in Le Petit Parisien on 20 May, the strikes in Paris and anticipation of the international socialist conference in Stockholm which was to open the way for a reconvened International to formulate a peace agenda – all those events combined to make the soldiers aware of a possible “end” on which their standpoint could focus. After that, the appointment of Pétain as Commander-in-Chief on 15 May was sometimes viewed by the troops not as a sign of restored stability, but of things going adrift in the army. An analogous, but converse movement influenced the mutinies’ decline: the refusal of passports for Stockholm under pressure from Pétain, and the speech made by the President of the Council on 1st June rejecting any compromise peace, deprived the movement of any realistic outcome, while the gradual resumption of control by the military establishment stifled its dynamism. The end of the mutinies parallels, in a different context, the way social movements ordinarily fall apart in peace-time (p502)
The role of Pétain
Redrafting the exact chronology of the mutinies dispels whatever remained – really not much – of Pétain’s 1917 aura. Two received ideas still surround his role: that he was appointed to put a stop to the mutinies; and that he showed in that process a measure of leniency towards the soldiers who mutinied. In reality, the generalissimo was not called in to “re-establish order” since he was appointed several days before the government was informed about the state of mutiny, on 26 and 27 May. Neither is the limitation of the number of executions to be laid to his account: the repression was not so much moderated as circumscribed and toned down by the political authorities.(p.516) On the contrary, it was Pétain who reinstated at the beginning of June the exceptional judicial measures identical with those that obtained at the start of the war: the special courts martial, ended in April 1916, were brought back for a few weeks, during which 57 soldiers were executed. (6) But the repression – prison, forced labour – was real and cannot be reduced to those shot as an example in the absence of “leaders” who were very difficult to identify.
The decision to act was taken by a minority of soldiers; the author consequently does not at all dispute the fact that the mutineers formed a limited group of individuals. Many historians have used this to argue the conclusion that the mutinies were only a limited, marginal movement of dissent; in reality, commitment and refusal are always and everywhere the exception, numerically (p.200) . The mutinies are therefore no different from other social movements. So we now have to try to arrive at a detailed sociology of the mutinying group.
A sociology of the mutineers
The author acknowledges that the task is a difficult one, due to the lack of sources. He bases himself, however, on a substantial set of 1757 individuals taken from five divisions (7), subdivided into 443 “mutineers” (condemned for demonstrating against the conflict during the 1917 mutinies) and 1314 “non-mutineers” (sentenced for various acts of disobedience throughout the year 1917). The proportion of previous offenders in the two groups is almost the same: so the mutineers are not “hard cases” or “bad soldiers” who have been sentenced before. Belonging to a département occupied by the enemy doesn’t in any way preclude participation in the mutiny movement. The presence of the “Parisians” is stronger, no doubt from a shared experience of how to make demands, more widespread in the capital. The mutineers, on the other hand, are “youngsters”: more than 50% of them belonging to the 1914-1917 intake. So they didn’t get “1914”, the point when the case for the war to defend France crystallised, and they were socialised in a body permeated with a discourse of refusal. The socio-professional make-up of the mutineer group is equally revealing: industrial workers are practically absent, like the most socially dominant jobs – carters, building workers and day labourers. Among the troops at risk, it is the best educated and least subordinated who take the active step; the presence of teachers only among the mutineers is also significant. The inclination to mutiny is stronger in proportion as the feeling of being trapped in an endless war can be expressed in a socially articulate way.
By making use of sociology, the author distances himself from interpretations which treat individual will and conscience as the springboard for collective acts and practice. An army at war is a mass institution which requires to be studied as such. Thus it is not necessary to want war in order to have to wage it; modern states have in fact developed their power through mobilising their citizens more or less against their will. So soldiers have been forced to justify their presence at the front, without ever having a real possibility of withdrawing from it. To be a soldier is an involuntary condition, provisional and incomplete. (p.27) The author, following Gérard Noiriel, consequently challenges the way numerous historians attribute to ordinary people patriotic sentiments whose existence is not massively corroborated by the archives: according to André Loez, on the contrary, there is a normal relation to the conflict which does not presuppose any voluntary, explicit adherence to the rationale imposed, essentially, by élites to justify the war.
It must not be forgotten, however, that the states putting mobilisation techniques into operation, up to the eve of the 1914 war, did so precisely through a process of making the masses nationalist. The state’s construction from a diverse population of a common national identity, allowing an invented people to see itself as a subject of history, is an extremely powerful institutional and symbolic process that gets a grip on individuals. Without naming it explicitly, Loez repeatedly alludes to its main elements: the education system and a national theology formulated by the intellectuals and the holders of cultural authority. Admittedly, the types of adherence it leads to cannot be reduced to voluntary, explicit consent; there is no divorcing from an army at war. But this national co-opting of the masses cannot remain entirely unconsidered, even if it turns out that we need to get away from a reductionist idea of it. That is the mystery of the 1914 mobilisation: individuals acknowledged, from having too little understood and tacitly accepting it, the existence of an entity that legitimised the act of killing and demanded the anticipated sacrifice of oneself. Something of this remained, in 1917, when the unfinished social movement aborted.
If war is a secret known only to those in the fighting, peace is not their business: according to Loez, it was not they, either in Russia or elsewhere in Europe, who decided the outcome of the conflict – or of any other – however radical their movement and thorough-going their indiscipline. The overwhelmingly ‘legitimate’ character of the French defensive war condemned them to wait until it was won for repayment of the incalculable debt demanded of them by a state in which their “rights”, vaunted by Clemenceau in 1919, were in reality very feeble.
Translated version: LW, February 2014
From a review essay by Romain Ducoulombier, 21 April 2010
 Romain Ducoulombier, « La guerre des profiteurs et des embusqués », La Vie des Idées, 11 novembre 2008.
 Guy Pedroncini, Les Mutineries de 1917, Paris, PUF, 1967, p. 312-313.
 Philippe Olivera, « Le mutin derrière le fusillé, ou le silence durable de l’acteur », in André Loez, Nicolas Mariot (dir.), Obéir/Désobéir. Les mutineries de 1917 en perspective, Paris, La Découverte, 2008, p. 416-432.
 Denis Rolland, La Grève des tranchées. Les mutineries de 1917, Paris, Imago, 2005.
 Timothy Parsons, The 1964 Army Mutinies and the Making of Modern East Africa, Londres, Praeger, 2003.
 26 soldats sont condamnés pour des manifestations « collectives » de désobéissance, les autres à titre seulement « individuel ». On peut débattre par conséquent de l’appartenance des seconds au groupe des fusillés pour actes de mutinerie.