Russian Expeditionary Force in France
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 absurdly high figure, probably based on their assumptions about Russia's 'unlimited' reserves. General Mikhail Alekseev, the Imperial Chief of Staff, was opposed to sending any, though 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 Brigade morale being sapped by political agitation, it was finally disbanded before the end of the year. However, some of the more determined formed the Légion Russe (French for Russian Legion), and continued to preserve a Russian presence in the west and, indeed, in the Great War itself, right up until the Armistice in November, 1918.
Before March 1917
In December 1915, Paul Doumer, on a visit to Russia, proposed that 300,000 troops be sent to France in exchange for munitions. While the Russian high command was not enthusiastic about this proposal, Czar Nicholas II was. General Alexeyev, the chief of staff, made an offer to send Russian troops to France, as long as the Russian troops were overseen by Russian officers operating under the French High Command, and that the French Navy must equip and transport them.
The 1st Russian Special Brigade was formed in January, 1916, led by General Lokhvitsky. It was composed of the 1st and 2nd regiments, from Moscow and Samara respectively. The Brigade was formed mostly by reserve units, with the 1st regiment's troops mainly being factory workers and the 2nd's mainly being peasants, with a total of 8,942 men. It left Moscow on February 3, 1916 and arrived in Marseille on April 16 of the same year.
The 3rd, 4th and 5th Brigades soon followed. The 2nd and 4th Brigades arrived in the Salonika front in August and November 1916. The 3rd Brigade was made up mostly of professional soldiers and reserve units formed in Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk and left for France in August 1916.
General Aleksei Brusilov was responsible for the 4 Special Brigades which contributed a total of 44,319 men to the war in France. The 6th, 7th and 8th Brigades were never formed because of the Russian Revolution.
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.
On the 23rd of April the 1st Special Brigade was transferred to Châlons-sur-Marne and overseen by General Henri Gouraud of the 4th Army. The French President was impressed by the camp and awarded General Lokhvitsky with the "Commander of the Legion of Honor" medal. The 1st Brigade was then sent to the East between Suippes and Auberive at the end of June, 1916.
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.
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 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.
After the Russian October Revolution and subsequent withdrawal of Russia from the Allied countries the Russian troops were looked upon with distrust and relegated to labor companies and internment camps, primarily at Camp Militaire, near La Courtine. The camp was divided into the 1st and 2nd Brigades.
The Russian soldiers in one of the camps began questioning why they were fighting for the French at all and mutinied. The other camp was still led by Russian officers (notably Colonel Gotua) and was used to help suppress the rebellious one. Finally the French, backed by a newly arrived Russian manned 75mm field artillery regiment, shelled the rebellious camp, resulting in approximately 10 dead and 44 wounded, as well as an unknown number of dead and wounded shot by Gotua's camp. The survivors were at first sent to jail camps in North Africa and France, and after some months many were sent back to Russia, while a good number of the men integrated into French society.
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 then took place in the fighting around Amiens in March 1918, with severe losses to the Moroccan Division and the Russian Legion. Captain Loupanoff of the Russian Legion was decorated with the Medal of the Legion of Honor by the commander of the Moroccan Division, General Douzan.
In May 1918 the Moroccan Division took part in the fierce fighting on the road from Soissons to Paris. The Russian Legion was sent in by Colonel Lagarde as badly needed reinforcements for the Moroccan Division. Losses during the fighting accounted for nearly 85% of the Russian Legion's forces.
In July the Legion was sent reinforcements made primarily of volunteers from old regiments of the Expeditionary Corps and was reformed into the 1st Brigade of the Moroccan Division. More reinforcements arrived in August to bring the total to 21⁄2 infantry companies as well as a mortar unit which turned the Brigade into a Regiment. The Regiment was then sent towards Laffaux.
Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Commander of the French Army, awarded the Russian Regiment with a special flag after their actions on September 12, where the Regiment managed to pierce the German defences, making its way through 3 lines of fortifications and capturing prisoners and materials, despite taking heavy losses. This attracted more volunteers, so that by November 1, 1918 the Regiment had 564 men. The battalion in turn was divided into a machine gun company and 3 infantry companies.
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. 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.
- The Volunteers of the Russian Expeditionary Corps in the Moroccan Division during the Second Battle of Marne, by Henri Maurel. Retrieved 14 March 2009.
- CRW Flags. History of the Flag of Estonia. Retrieved 4 July 2007.
- WW1 rebellion of Russian troops on the Western Front at Courtine, France. Retrieved on 4 July 2007.
- 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.