‘What Do They Fear? Mutiny Perhaps?’
Special to The Great War Project
(26-27-28 December) As 1914 comes to a close, a new attitude toward the war becomes ever more apparent.
Whereas the first days of the war, in August, saw an outpouring of patriotic support for the war on all sides and in all belligerent nations, so much slaughter has already taken place. It is quite unexpected by soldier and civilian alike.
Historian Max Hastings reports on one French soldier who writes home in the autumn: “We are happy. Very well fed. Of course there are plenty of moaners, but I would say that men’s morale is generally better than it was at the start of this thing.” Only a few men, the soldier writes, started muttering about deserting.
Some German soldiers in the opposing trenches, he writes, did come forward “with raised hands crying out ‘Vive La France.’
“Interrogation,” Hastings reports, “revealed complaints of poor rations and ill-treatment by their officers.” As the weeks go by and the weather worsens, writes Hastings, this soldier’s spirits flag “along with those of millions of others.”
Millions of soldiers begin to feel “a growing sense of futility, intensified by each new operation,”
…carrying out orders that only result in more slaughter and no progress.
The British Minister of War, Lord Kitchener, predicts that this war is certain to drag on. In response to that, one British officer writes, “it is impossible to believe that the world can stand such a thing for two years.”
Resistance on the battlefields grows. Reports Hastings, “every nation imposed some capital sentences for battlefield flight or desertion.”
Troops turn more and more callous. Writes one French soldier, “we no longer take heed of the dead – we care only for the living.”
No less a figure than Sigmund Freud recognizes, according to Hastings, the unprecedented savagery of the conflict. “It is not only more bloody and more murderous than any previous wars, but also more cruel, more relentless, more pitiless.
“It does not recognize the privileges of the wounded man or of the doctor, and it does not distinguish between non-combatants and the fighting part of the population.”
Some commanders resort to trickery to get their men to fight.
Hastings cites one example, in December 1914 when a regiment of French soldiers receives orders to be relieved, with departure on foot at four in the morning.
This naturally lifts their spirits. But the men are stopped before they reach the designated rest areas. At that moment they realize, they are being prepared to fight once more. Then their officers tell them, they must attack at down.
Writes one soldier who survives this deception, “So this was to be our rest; yes – eternal rest for some…But why this ridiculous comment, this hateful trickery? What do they fear, a mutiny perhaps?”
Indeed, reports Hastings, carnage follows.
The regiment is pinned down in a field, providing mere target practice for the Germans.
By this time, “in several French units, there are the first spasms not of mutiny but of resistance to such mindless follies.” Discipline is disappearing. “Some reservists have lost the habit of discipline, and indicate to their leaders that they don’t care to advance under fire under their command.”
Mutiny does come – later.