3.3

Between Mutiny and Obedience

Leonard V. Smith

The manpower of the 5e DI1 remained essentially constant from the summer of 1916 through the mutinies. As noted earlier, the division suffered approximately 5,500 casualties in the Douaumont engagement, over 40 percent of its entire strength.2 Although given the surviving documentation one can make only a reasonable approximation concerning the replacements, probably one-third of them were recovered wounded and about two-thirds new recruits (these a mixture of soldiers from the youngest classes and men previously classified as unfit for active duty).

In such documentation as survives, the age distribution in the division seemed a matter of the foremost concern, despite the image of the bearded, ageless poilu. The division had indeed aged since August 1914, even allowing for differences in perceptions of age between that time and the present. By March 1917, for the three regulararmy regiments (the 74e RI, 36e RI, and the 129e RI), approximately 40 percent were between 19 and 24 years old, some 50 percent between 25 and 35, and about 10 percent between 36 and 42. For the one reserve regiment (the 274e RI), the respective figures are 17 percent, 45 percent, and 38 percent. Some 60–70 percent of the soldiers in the division came from the prewar recruitment areas of Normandy and Paris and its suburbs, the remainder from other parts of France.

The 5e DI sector at Les Eparges varied between about seven and ten kilometers during its time there. Considering that according to the 1916 infantry regulations, only about one-third to one-sixth of the troops were supposed to be in the front line of trenches at any given time, this meant a thin disposition of manpower throughout the sector. At least as the French told it, in no area of the sector did the terrain work in their favor. To be sure, they held much of the high ground. But given the abiding weakness of French artillery, this proved less of an advantage than might be expected. Indeed, high ground could actually work to their disadvantage, given the German skill at digging tunnels for high explosives under enemy positions, known simply as mining. In other areas of the sector, such as around the village of Les Eparges itself, both French and Germans held high ground, with the low ground as No Man's Land between them. This put frontline soldiers in an unusually exposed position. In the southern part of the sector, the Germans had a heavily wooded area to their rear, which made it difficult for the French to gauge the extent of their defenses.

Command interest in what transpired in trench warfare proved inversely proportional to hopes for decisive results during pitched battle. British commanders had a

-195-

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