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The Russian Expeditionary Forces in France

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Kurt Steiner:
We all know, more or less, about the big battles which were fough in France in 1914-18. We know about the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdún, Amiens... but I bet that something has got unnoticied to many of us. The effort of many Russian soldiers who fought and died in France, too.

What you're going to read now comes from a silly anecdote. Looking at the biographies of several Aces of the WW1, I began to pay attention about the victories achieved by some Russian aces. To my surprise, I discovered that some of them -Pavel Vladimirovich Argeyev, 15 victories; Yevgraph Nikolaievich Kruten, 7 victories; Victor Fedorov, 5 victories;  Ivan Orlov, 5 victories; Eduard Martynovich Pulpe, 5 victories, for instance- had fought in France, and then, I discoverd that, to help to the effort of the Western Allies, Russia send troops to France.

This is what I discovered:

Kurt Steiner:
wo infantry Brigades, the 1st and the 3rd, were sent to France in 1916 by Tsar Nicholas II both as a morale booster to the Allies on the Western Front and as a part of "men for arms" trade arranged with the French government. Originally 40,000 soldiers per month were to be sent to France, but this arrangement was never carried out in full. Nevertheless, a total of four brigades were sent to the West, with the 1st and 3rd brigades going to France and 2nd and 4th brigades going to the Macedonian Front at Salonika.

First brigade, composed of the 1st and 2nd Special purpose regiments and commanded by Major General Nikolai Alexandrovich Lokhvitsky boarded their trains at Moscow on February 2, 1916, and traveled across Siberia to the port of Dal'ny, where they sailed in four ships past Hong Kong and via the Suez Canal to Marseilles. They arrived in France in April of 1916. By April 23rd, the First brigade of the Russian Expeditionary Forces in France was training at camp Mailly-le-Grand in Champaigne. The 3rd brigade of the REF arrived in Brest from Archangel in September of 1916. On September 17, 1916 Joffre ordered the 1st and 3rd brigades to form a Division at Mourmelon-le-Grand in Champaigne.

In July of 1916 units from the 1st brigade occupied a section of the trenches between Mourmellon-le-Grand-Auberive and Verzy Prunay, near the village of Courcy and Fort de la Pompelle. On July 15th and 16th they successfully repelled a concentrated German attack. The 1st brigade stayed in the trenches until it was relieved by the newly arrived 3rd brigade on October 16.
Through the rest of 1916 REF fought and trained in Champaigne. In January of 1917 the 6th regiment of the 3rd brigade experienced a German gas attack for the first time and suffered heavy casualties.

In March of 1916, after the abdication of Nicholas II, and "underground" meeting of "soldiers' representatives" took place in the 1st regiment of the 1st brigade. They drafted a resolution demanding repatriation back to Russia. The seeds of rebellion were sown.

In April of 1917, the REF took an oath of allegiance to the Russian Provisional Government. During the preparations for the Nivelle offensive the REF became a part of the French V Army. During the first days of the offensive, on April 16th-18th, REF units successfully captured the town of Courcy and held it against German counter attacks for three days. They took over 500 prisoners. Russian losses were 700 dead and 3,000 wounded. After an unsuccessful attack on strongly fortified and fiercely defended Fort Brimont, the REF were pulled back from the front on April 23. This was the last coherent military action by the 1st and 3rd brigades of the Russian Expeditionary Forces in France as such.

Russian 1st brigade openly rebelled on May 25, 1917, after being sent to Neufchateu. Mutinouse troops refused to obey their officers, chanting "To Russia and nowhere else!"

In June the 1st brigade was moved to camp La Courtine. The 3rd brigade followed in July. In a matter of days open hostilities developed between the two brigades. The 1st brigade was in full rebellion, while the 3rd brigade was obeying its officers and was still ready to continue fighting in France.

After many fruitless attempts to restore order at La Courtine, the French authorities were forced to act. The Russian 3rd brigade was ordered to surround the camp with the rebels. On September 18, 1917, the camp was shelled by Russian-manned battery of French 75mm guns. The rebels surrendered. The French authorities imprisoned the rebel leaders and sent a great number of mutinous troops to prison and the colonies in Algeria.

Kurt Steiner:
On October 5, 1917, General Zankevich (commander of the REF in France) wired St. Petersburg for permission to form the Russian Legion which would continue fighting the War in France. The Russian government agreed. On October 15th, former commander of the 1st Brigade, General Lokhvitsky, held the first meeting of the Russian Legion. This was held outdoors and was open to officers, NCO's and rank and file alike. The Russian Legion was born. On December 10, 1917, the French Government officially recognized the Russian Legion and established its base of operations in the town of Laval. The Legion was comprised of four battalions, commanded by Colonels Gotua, Ieske, Balbashevsky and Simenov, respectively. Colonel Gotua's 1st battalion of the Russian Legion was moved to the front on January 5, 1918, where it joined the 4th Moroccan Infantry, Moroccan Shock Division.

Subsequent military action by the Russian Legion evoked nothing but praise from the French command.

On April 25th and 26th, Gotua's 1st battalion was involved in heavy fighting at Villers-Bretonneux, near Amiens. Captain Lupanov's 1st company and Captain Razumov's machine gun company fought so well that all officers were awarded the French Military Crosses. Captain Lupanov was awarded the Croix de la Legion d'Honneur.

On May 20th, the 1st battalion and Simenov's 4th battalion fought at Chamin-des-Dames. 3rd company of the 1st battalion of the Russian Legion rescued the 1st Zouave battalion which was being surrounded by the enemy. In this action the company lost three quarters of its officers and almost 200 men. For this and other action around Soissons, the citizens of the town started calling the Russian troops "the Russian Legion of Honor".

On July 18, 1918, as part of General Magin's X Army, the Russian Legion took part in the action at Chateau Thierry road. The entire operation resulted in the capture of 30,000 German prisoners.

In September, General Daugan, commander of the Moroccan Division, part of which was the Russian Legion, praised their action all along the front from Amiens to the Somme: "The battalions, of which the implacable hatred of the enemy enlivens all their actions, possess a complete scorn of death to the most beautiful enthusiasm for a sacred cause…"

On the Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, the Russian Legion, as part of the Moroccan division, was in the trenches in Lorraine, near Lanneaucort.

Kurt Steiner:

The arrival of the Russian Legion

Russian soldiers disembarking from ships, in Marseilles, April 1916

Russian Expeditionary Forces -- landing in Marseilles, 1916

General Lokhvitsky at the head of Russian troops in Marseilles, 1916

Source http://members.aol.com/begemot/legion/lrhome.htm

Thank you so much for this fascinating information.  I think I've known for a long time that some Russian troops served on the Western Front, but I don't think I ever knew how they got there or what they did.

I remember reading quite some time ago an account of an American field hospital in France which admitted a number of Russian patients.  All of them were astonished at how well the hospital was equipped (especially the dental clinic), the level of care they received, and the quality of the food they were served.

It would be interesting to know how many of these men chose to stay permanently in France or Western Europe as things began to fall apart in Russia.


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