BY HOLLY FISHER
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong
1917 was a year of rapid turnovers, and massive leadership upheavals that set the stage for who would be in power when the Great War finally drew to its exhausted conclusion. No country demonstrated this better than France, who suffered disagreements, distrust, and internal battles that almost destroyed her.
France started 1917 with a domino-effect shift of authority that rattled the country continually throughout the twelve-month period. Though this added weight to what was already the bleakest, lowest point of the conflict, it also facilitated the appointment of the man who would finally see the country through to victory.
Though the conflict had never been easy on them, France had been feeling the pains of war even more acutely since the Somme and Verdun campaigns wore to their bloody conclusions. Adding to the exhaustion were resource shortages, ravaged land, and rapidly increasing complaints and desertions among soldiers who were tired of being thrown into meat grinder campaigns for no real result. This boiling stew of problems increased in intensity to a fever pitch over the summer and fall, threatening to take France out of the war all together. With Russia vanishing from the field by the end of July, this would have been a blow the Allies could not have recovered from.
The French government of 1917 resembled less a ruling body, and more a desperate game of “hot potato” as shifts and changes jockeyed the Prime Minister, the Commmander-in-Chief of the French Army, the War Minister, and others back and forth throughout the legislature. The position of Prime Minister, held since October of 1915 by Aristide Briand, was up in the air as the ruling body scrambled to calm the populace and assure their allies of their continued viability. Briand’s term came to a dismal end on March 20 when public pressure, and lack of faith in his already-reduced cabinet reached too high a point. Alexandre Ribot, a man who had already held the position for a short while at the start of the war, replaced him with what proved to be a very short administration. His resigned just six months later when the collapse of the Nivelle Offensive sparked the infamous soldier mutinies that rattled the army to its core. Paul Painlevé took up the office on September 12 with the unenviable task of dealing with the repercussions of the mutinies, the Russian Revolution, and the collapse of multiple major campaigns. His time in office ended at just nine weeks duration, with a political defeat that forced him to step down.
The position next passed to Georges Clemenceau, who was appointed on November 13 as the fourth body to fill the slot since the start of the infamous year. A doctor, journalist, newspaper owner, and politician, Clemenceau was not short of opinion, or stubbornness.
Nicknamed “Le Tigre” (The Tiger), he was an outspoken critic of previous French War policies, and held views different from, or even in complete opposition to previous Ministers. He was known for his “will to victory” with which he challenged the lethargy that had gripped the wearied government and country. Though he was 76 at the time of his appointment, he served as both Prime Minister and Minister of War throughout the remaining year of the conflict.
He cracked down on issues within the military and government, court-marshaled or arrested for treason those in command positions who agitated for peace with Germany, and sought to reignite French fighting spirit. Some accused him of setting up a dictatorship, citing how many arrests had happened, and that his holding multiple government positions could be a ploy for greater control. However, the majority of people supported the renewed administration. His fiery disposition and indomitable will spread to soldiers and civilians alike, bringing France back together, and ready to make the final push to victory. “We believed in Clemenceau rather in the way that our ancestors believed in Joan of Arc.” Novelist Maurice Barrès’ quote summed up the attitude of the French People as they began to reunite under the stronger, stricter, victory-determined leadership.
Unlike the rapid passing of power before his time, Clemenceau held the role of Prime Minister until the end of the war. He was one of the major players in the creation of the Treaty of Versailles, though his aggressive desire to impose economic destruction on Germany had to be tempered by the other Allied leaders. He continued in his leadership role until he was voted out in 1920. He chose to retire from politics, taking time instead to write a memoir of his term as the wartime leader who saw France through the darkest hours of the Great War.