Tuesday 9 May 2017

Failure at Fresnoy and Rumours of Mutiny

Wednesday 9th May 1917

5th Division was given the task this morning of trying to recapture Fresnoy after its seizure by the enemy yesterday. As it transpired the attack never really got going because the Germans shelled Arleux, forming-up point for the intended assault, very heavily. The 1st Bedfords did not take part in this abortive attack and are now holding the line east of the village of Willerval. 

Today the Devons have made another attempt to take The Red Patch in Bullecourt. Again they made ground but again they were beaten back.

We have heard rumour today that the offensive undertaken by the French in on a stretch of the front line known as the Chemin des Dames between Soissons and Laon and in Champagne further east has ground to a halt. My journalist colleagues have taken to calling this attack the Nivelle Offensive after the commander-in-chief of the French Army. Our allies have gained a good amount of territory in which they have been aided by tanks of their own design(1). They are reported to have taken around thirty thousand prisoners.

It is difficult to know with any certainty but there are dark rumours. Some French units are reputed to have resorted to drunkenness and to have refused to take part in any attack. This seems scarcely credible given that they are fighting in and for their own motherland, and some suspect these rumours are the work of German spies and fifth-columnists(2)

The 6th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, is in billets at Berlencourt-le-Cauroy, about eighteen miles west of Arras. They are evidently in fine fettle as their transport section won 37th Divisional Transport Competition by 87 points from all other regiments in the division. A Company also won the Divisional Field Firing Competition against one company each from the other twelve battalions in the division.

Source: X550/7/1

(1) The Saint-Chamond (below top) and Schneider CA (below bottom) tanks

(2) Not so. This period and what happened next have been called the French Mutinies, where units refused to take any offensive action, though they would hold the line against attack. This seems to have begun on 3rd May when 2nd Division refused to attack and, later became collectively drunk and abandoned their weapons. By the end of May twenty more divisions were infected by some form of mutiny. The reason is not difficult to understand. France had suffered huge numbers of casualties during the war so far, proportionately vastly higher than those of Great Britain. Up to 9th April 1917 France had already lost 978,000 dead, Britain and her Empire just under half that number at 478,000. By the beginning of this offensive France had lost about one million men (out of a total male population of twenty million).

After the war the US War Department produced casualty statistics which make grim reading. France and her colonies mobilised 8,410,000 - from these there were 6,160,800 casualties this would suggest nearly three men in every four became a casualty though, of course, many men were wounded more than once, still the proportion would have been high. Of these casualties 1,357,800 were fatalities (16% of those mobilised), there were 4,266,000 instances of wounds (50% of those mobilised) and the remaining 537,000 taken prisoner (6% of those mobilised). Total French population was 39.6 million and deaths of soldiers and civilians combined were between 1.697 and 1.737 million - between 4.29% and 4.39%. By contrast the figures for Britain and her Empire are 8,904,467 mobilised and total casualties of 3,190,255 (36% of those mobilised) of which 908,371 (10%) were fatalities, 2,090,212 cases of wounds (23%) and 191,652 prisoners (2%). The population of Britain was 45.4 million (380 million if one includes the principal Imperial combatants - Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa). Deaths for British soldiers and civilians alone came to between 867,829 and 1,011,697 or between 1.91 and 2.23% of the population. From this it is evident that in the French Army one stood a one in six chance of dying compared to a one in ten chance in the British Army, one was also twice as likely to be wounded, so perhaps it is no surprise that one was three times as likely to surrender. No combatants other than Romania, Serbia and the Ottoman Empire lost more people during the war as a proportion of their total population than France - German figures are proportionately fractionally lower than those of France.

Nivelle had promised less costly attacks as part of this offensive and had planned for about 10,000 - in the event it is calculated that between 118,000 and 180,000 became casualties. This overshadowed what may be regarded as an otherwise successful offensive compared to others undertaken by the Allies before the end of 1918. By contrast the British lost around 160,000 around Arras and the Germans about the same number, meaning that for the combined offensive the Allies lost roughly twice as many men as the Germans.

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