Monday, April 16, 2007

Anniversary of Largest Mutiny in History

Barbara Hendricks sang a requiem at Verdun. Prince Charles spoke at the Somme. And last week Queen Elizabeth paid homage at Vimy, another of the great battle sites of World War I.

But ceremonies will be decidedly less elaborate Monday as France observes one of its most tortured and enigmatic anniversaries: the start nine decades ago of the battle of Chemin des Dames, which led to the largest mutiny in modern military history.

The battle, fought on a barren ridge less than two hours from Paris by modern road transport, is seared into French collective memory and has fascinated historians as the moment when man said "no" to the machine gun.

The military story is horrific, if not unusual for World War I. At 6 a.m. on April 16, 1917, General Robert Nivelle sent an army of 1.2 million men into a battle roughly 130 kilometers, or 80 miles, northeast of Paris that would be France's go-for-broke gamble to end World War I.

The result was catastrophe. Underestimating the German advantage of entrenched hilltop positions, Nivelle found his offensive blocked. Still, he refused to let up, and at least 30,000 were killed in the first 10 days.

Then the soldiers mutinied. They did not retreat, but they refused to obey orders for further attack. Many officers had been killed, and their replacements were green. Amid a breakdown of hierarchy, the troops cursed their commanders, drinking and singing seditious songs in the trenches, according to published memoirs. Haunting questions persist about this dark chapter.

Military records are confusing, but it is known that as many as 40,000 men in as many as 130 regiments took part in insubordination. About 3,400 "mutineers" were taken before military tribunals in ensuing months; 554 were sentenced to death. The number of sentences actually carried out remains in dispute, but a figure of about 50 is widely cited.

"This is not just one more commemoration," said Yves Daudigny, head of the General Council in Aisne, the department where the battle took place. "This was an episode that was long blocked out of official memory." ...

In April 1917, all the basic ingredients for mutiny were present: three years of mud, rats, and lice in the trenches; mild spring weather; political revolt in Europe; and a classic tale of hubris.

Nivelle, a hero of Verdun the previous year, wanted a quick breakthrough, and he did not relent, even when nearly all signs pointed to defeat.


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