La révolution d'avril

April 25th, 1917 The Nivelle Offensive which started 9 days prior but to no avail so far. Three years into WW1 and the war seemed still far from done, "Home by Christmas" is a joke but makes no one laugh. This reality falls hardest on no one more than the French Army and it's soldiers bearing the brunt. As the fighting ends on the 25th general Robert Nivelle sits down with members of his staff, he has nothing good to show the government back in Paris. The worst fact was that this offensive was drawn up and planned by him, his dismissal seemed imminent and members of his staff like Philippe Pétain and Charles Mangin waited patiently for their promotion to Chief of the Army Staff.

As night fell after the Second Battle of Aisne, General Mangin enters his tent to retire for the night. But before he falls asleep he hears rounds fire outside his tent, he walks out and takes a bayonet to the stomach before falling back into his tent. The person who plunged the bayonet into to him was a soldier, one of his. At that moment the French Army Mutinies began in earnest.

April 26th, 1917 General Nivelle wakes up to a member of his staff kicking him awake. After catching his bearings he's told of the death of General Mangin but not how he died. Although troubled by this fact he still faces bigger issues with the government. Not too long later he tries to reach the men under Mangin the Sixth Army to no avail after that Nivelle begins to worry of a possible overrun of their position by Germans during the night. Nivelle thought long and hard about his current position within the next few days calamity could occur either he'd be fired or the Germans would counterattack the reeling French. He came to a decision, he must rally his men.

General Nivelle alongside Generals François Anthoine and Joseph Alfred Micheler stood in front of around 1,000 French soldiers many of whom were either exhausted, wounded, war weary, or upset. Nivelle tried to spin the recent battles and offensive as not as much as a setback and inconclusive but more as of a first step at reclaiming the homeland. Generals Anthoine and Micheler also tried to lie about conditions elsewhere on the frontline and even said that General Mangin was even pushing the Germans back as they spoke. There was no real reaction from the men attending the speech but for the most part it was a cringy spectacle.

April 27th, 1917 General Nivelle sends several hundred men and General Micheler to reach the 6th Army to take control of the situation with Mangin gone. Later than day Nivelle received word from Paris that his termination of office would be effective by April 30th. Nivelle had failed he wasn't going to save France, "maybe no one will" he cynically told himself. As he entered his makeshift office where he expected his remaining officers to be waiting for him he found no one. He however found a letter from General Pétain who left the letter just before Nivelle's speech. "Sir, I find it hard to continue to execute your commands after the recent days and weeks of fighting we've lost. Objectively despite the fact we still stand on French soil we cannot replace over 100,000 dead Frenchmen. If have received whispers from several of my men and officers that General Mangin's men have either abandoned or revolted against him. It's not long until the Germans find out if they haven't already. I've taken around 3,000 of my men and repositioned myself behind your lines as our position is either to be overrun by mutineers or Germans, I suggest you do the same.

April 28th, 1917 German scouts find around 10 miles of the frontline practically abandoned and begin to move in. Crown Prince Wilhelm notifies his father and the government in Berlin of a possible retreat or mutiny of the French. As this happens General Nivelle begins the process of falling back to a line just north of the Reims Forest. Several hundred of his men refuse to march in retreat and decide to stay behind.

After hours of moving down the lines General Micheler and his men reach the 6th Army. The sight of dead French officers sent a shock through Micheler's body. Several of Micheler's men abandon him on the spot as mutineers arrest Micheler. Almost the entire 6th Army had mutinied and the ones that were forced to surrender began to give up their loyalty to the Army and joined the mutiny day-by-day. (Conflicting recounts or stories tell one French soldier took a French flag ripped off the blue and painted the white in red with the blood of dead French officers and then raised the new red flag from a makeshift flagpole).

April 30th, 1917 General Nivelle is fired and in turn is replaced with General Pétain as Chief of the Army Staff by the government. In a private letter Raymond Poincaré tells Pétain that people back in Paris are receiving letter from the front and they aren't particularly painting a good picture when it comes to "who is in control", the letter ends with "may god help you, and the devil not be a French soldier with a knife above your head". General Nivelle after being fired requests Pétain to send him home or possibly back to Paris to demand more men for the front, Pétain denies his requests. Mutineers and loyalist meet near Fismes and after a confusion of who was who a fire fight begins. As the battle ends just before midnight the mutineers stand victorious, and they raise a red flag from the town church and the mutineers cheer out into the night vive la révolution d'avril! (ironically it may have been May 1st when the mutineers reached the church).


French Mutineers raising the Red Flag.
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May 1st, 1917 Former French Foreign Legion soldier and poet Frédéric-Louis Sauser reaches the bulk of the mutineers in the town of Soissons. The novelist who had lost his right arm fighting in Champagne during 1915, came to rally the mutineers by reasoning with their choice to mutiny. Partially inspired by the mutineers' decision to stand up against their officers who had put them into a meat grinder, Sauser sought to rally the men to stand their ground against the Paris government. Sauser was joined by mutineer Louis de Cazenave who had fought with a Senegalese battalion during the recent offensive and had grown frustrated by his superiors. Together Sauser and de Cazenave rallied the mutineers which sized around 160,000 soldiers behind socialism, armistice, and the return home. At midday around half of the mutineers began marching on the city of Compiegne where loyalist French forces were already preparing for the Germans.

May 2nd, 1917 News of the mutiny reaches Paris where the populace find the news both good and bad depending on who had heard. Some hoped that the mutiny would end peacefully and conditions would improve, others hoped that the mutiny would succeed with the government bending to their demands and then some. But many worried that the mutiny slowly turning revolution would help the Germans march and take Paris like in 1871. The French Section of the Workers' International and it's leader Jules Guesde responded to the news by calling on all Frenchmen to denounce the authoritarian and buffoonish government and military high command. This was the government's biggest nightmare that the leftist factions which had since the beginning of the war decided to lay down divides had decided to restart tensions.

The French mutineers come upon the loyalist in Compiegne. The loyalist were completely taken by surprise as many thought the mutineers were reinforcements to defend the city. As the dust settled the mutineers had won but suffered around 4,000 casualties, but they had sent what remaining loyalist un the run back to Paris. Frédéric-Louis Sauser, Louis de Cazenave, Georges Duhamel, Charles Delzant, and Benoît Frachon signed the Déclaration de Compiègne a manifesto which painted out the demands of the new revolution. It called for the resignation of the Paris government, a armistice with Germany, the demobilization of at least half of the army especially ones who had served since 1914-15. The end of the war economy and market to prevent possible starvation. And the arrest of the military high command especially Nivelle.


Poster of Frédéric-Louis Sauser.