Russian Expeditionary Force in France

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The Russian Expeditionary Force was a World War I military force sent to France by the Russian Empire. In 1915 the French requested that Russian troops be sent to fight alongside their own army on the Western Front. Initially they asked for 300,000 men, an unrealistically high figure, probably based on assumptions about Russia's 'unlimited' reserves. General Mikhail Alekseev, the Imperial Chief of Staff, was opposed to sending any Russian troops, although Nicholas II finally agreed to send a unit of brigade strength. The First Russian Special Brigade finally landed at Marseille in April 1916. A Second Special Brigade was also sent to serve alongside other Allied formations on the Salonika Front in northern Greece. In France, the First Brigade served with distinction until the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917. With morale being sapped by political agitation, the First Brigade was finally disbanded before the end of the year. However, some elements formed the Légion Russe (French for Russian Legion), and continued to maintain a Russian presence in the west and, indeed in the Great War itself, until the Armistice in November, 1918.

Before March 1917[edit]

Russian troops arriving in Marseille with the Himalaya steamship
General Lokhvitskiy, summer 1916

In December 1915 the French politician, Paul Doumer while on a visit to Russia, proposed that 300,000 Russian troops be sent to fight in France in exchange for French munitions. While the Russian High Command showed little enthusiasm for this proposal, Tsar Nicholas II supported it. General Alexeyev, the Russian chief of staff from August 1915, made an offer to send Russian troops to France, as long as they remained under Russian officers (while operating under the French High Command). Another requirement was that the French Navy transport them.[1]

The 1st Russian Special Brigade formed in January, 1916 under the command of General Nikolai Aleksandrovich Lokhvitsky. It did not consist of regiments already in existence but was made up mostly of drafts from various reserve units incorporated into the newly formed 1st and 2nd Regiments, from Moscow and Samara respectively. The 1st Regiment's troops were mainly conscripted factory workers while the 2nd's were generally drawn from rural areas. The 1st Special Brigade totaled 8,942 men. It left Moscow on February 3, 1916 and arrived in Marseille on April 16 of the same year.[1]

The regiments were divided into three battalions of four companies each. Each regiments also had a liaison and a service section. The reserve battalion had six companies. The First Brigade was commanded by General Lokhvitsky, and was composed of 180 officers and 8762 enlisted men. Each brigade had a double supply of clothing and a kitchen on wheels. The French Navy and Army undertook to provide shipping, supplies, and equipment.

The 3rd, 4th and 5th Brigades soon followed. The 2nd and 4th Brigades arrived on the Salonika front in August and November 1916. The 3rd Brigade comprised serving soldiers plus reserve units formed in Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk; it left for France in August 1916.[1]

General Aleksei Brusilov, commander of the Russian Southwest Front from March 1916 was responsible for the four Special Brigades, which contributed a total of 44,319 men to the Entente effort in western and southern Europe. The 6th, 7th and 8th Brigades were never formed due to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.[1]

Approximately 450 Estonian troops also served with the REF, mostly in the 1st and 3rd Brigades. After February 1917 these troops wore small Estonian flags to distinguish themselves from their Russian allies.[2]

On 23 April the 1st Special Brigade transferred to Châlons-sur-Marne area, overseen by General Henri Gouraud of the French Fourth Army. French President Raymond Poincaré, impressed by the camp, awarded General Lokhvitsky the Commander of the Legion of Honor. The 1st Brigade then re-deployed further east up the Marne valley between Suippes and Auberive at the end of June 1916.[1]

By March 1917 the Special Brigades were in the Fort Pompelle region, and on April 16, 1917 the 1st Brigade took Courcy and the 3rd Brigade took Mount Spin, resulting in 4,542 men killed, wounded or missing in action.[1]

The Cimitière Militaire Russe de Saint-Hilaire le Grand at Mourmelon-le-Grand in the Marne Department contains the graves of 1000 Russian officers and men. In 1937 a chapel was built[by whom?] here to commemorate all of the Russians who died on the Western Front. There are also two Imperial Russian war graves in the Gouzeaucourt New British Cemetery, near Cambrai.


With the outbreak of the October Revolution, following the example of their comrades at home, soldiers of the Expeditionary Force based in the camp of Courtine rejected their officers and elected soldier committees. At one meeting the committee representatives made an appeal to their fellow soldiers to refuse to drill, since they would not continue fighting.[3]

The rebellious units, considered a dangerous revolutionary influence, were ordered to Salonika. They refused, demanding to be sent to Russia. With this the military representatives of the Provisional Government on 25th June ordered loyal soldiers to vacate the camp of Courtine, leaving only those soldiers who said they would submit 'conditionally' to the Provisional Government, if allowed to return to Russia.

Within 24 hours the French and Russian commanders isolated the rebel camp, cutting off pay and rations, lining the surrounding roads with troops and guns. On September 1st 1917, the remaining revolutionary soldiers, numbering around 2,000 were ordered to lay down their arms by 10:00 September 3rd or be destroyed.

The rebels refused and on 3rd September, light and increasing artillery fire reduced their numbers. The majority of the soldiers surrendered and were arrested. By September 5th, those remaining in the camp came under artillery fire, the Russian rebels opened fire on the French in response. By 09:00 on September 6th the Russian camp was completely occupied by French forces and the mutineers were disarmed.

The Russians were at first sent to prison camps in North Africa and France. After some months many were sent back to Russia, while others integrated into French society.[4]

Russian Legion[edit]

Main article: Russian Legion

The loyal men under Colonel Gotua demanded that they be allowed to fight and thus was formed the Russian Legion. It joined the French 1st Moroccan Infantry Division on December 13, 1917. The combined units fought around Amiens in March 1918 and on the road from Soissons to Paris in May 1918 with losses during this fighting accounted for nearly 85% of the Russian Legion's forces.[1]

In July and August Russian volunteers, mainly veterans of the Expeditionary Force, meant that the Legion became first a Brigade and then a Regiment with a total of 212 infantry companies as well as a mortar unit. They were sent towards Laffaux.[1] On September 12 the Regiment pierced three lines of fortifications despite heavy losses and were awarded a special flag by the Commander of the French Army, Marshal Ferdinand Foch as well as attracting more volunteers. By November 1, 1918 the Regiment had 564 men with a machine gun company and 3 infantry companies.[1]

After the German withdrawal to the border the Moroccan Division, including the Russian Regiment, advanced upon Moyeuvre. The operation was halted by the signing of the armistice treaty on November 11. Near the end of 1918 the entire Russian Regiment was recalled and demobilized.[1] Some Russians chose to remain in France, while others returned to revolutionary Russia. Among the latter was Rodion Malinovsky, the future Soviet Minister of Defence.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j The Volunteers of the Russian Expeditionary Corps in the Moroccan Division during the Second Battle of Marne at the Wayback Machine (archived January 19, 2008), by Henri Maurel. Retrieved 14 March 2009.
  2. ^ CRW Flags. History of the Flag of Estonia. Retrieved 4 July 2007.
  3. ^ Reed, John. Ten Days That Shook The World. Penguin Classics. 
  4. ^ WW1 rebellion of Russian troops on the Western Front at Courtine, France at the Wayback Machine (archived July 29, 2009). Retrieved on 4 July 2007.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cockfield, Jamie H. With Snow on Their Boots: The Tragic Odyssey of the Russian Expeditionary Force in France During World War I. ISBN 0-312-17356-3.
  • Poitevin, Pierre, "La Mutinerie de la Courtine. Les régiments russes revoltés en 1917 au centre de la France", Payot Ed., Paris, 1938.