The Russian Expeditionary Force in France
At the start of the war, negotiations between the French and the Russians were carried out regarding military support. Russia was seen by all as having an unlimited pool of men to pull from to sustain the fighting. France, therefore, requested the unrealistic figure of 300,000 men be allocated to the French army. Ultimately the French expectations were brought down and it was agreed upon that a couple brigades would be sent over to France under the condition that they be led by Russian commanders. The 1st brigade, mainly consisting of a number of factory workers turned soldiers from the Moscow area, left Moscow in February and arrived in Marseille in April. Multiple other brigades would then follow. The two other brigades were sent to the Balkans to fight with Italian, Greek, British and Serbian forces involved on the Salonika front. Under the leadership of General Lohkvistky, the Russian soldiers partook in multiple actions throughout the western front.
The social and political situation in 1917 changed drastically with the removal and subsequent execution of the Tsar Nichola II. Alexander Kerensky and other members of the Duma (Russian parliament) established a provisional Government and ensured their commitment to the war effort. The overthrow of the autocratic regime and establishment of a western style republic did offer a certain amount of hope to the allied government however, the uncertainty proved very concerning regarding their ability to continue the struggle against the central powers. On April 15th, on the eve of the Nivelle offensive, the news of the situation in Russia prompted the soldiers of the 1st brigade (see on page 13 of Le Miroir #181) to create a soviet (worker’s council) and debated whether to participate in the next day’s offensive. By a narrow majority, the men decided to participate in the attack and ended up taking the villages of Courcy. Their loyalty to the allied cause, however, would not last long among the men of that 1st brigade. A combination of German propaganda, concern for their families back home and their mistreatment by the French sufficed to tip the brigade in a full blown mutiny. Jamie H. Cockfield, professor of History at Mercer University describes how:
“To suppress the mutiny, the French transported both brigades to La Courtine, an isolated training camp in the south-central part of France. The more conservative brigade became disciplined there while the First Brigade became even more unruly. Not wanting to give the Germans any propaganda weapon by suppressing the revolt themselves, the French combed out the most loyal elements in the Third Brigade and used this force to crush the rebellion in the First in September 1917.” (Mutiny of la Courtine, Cockfield)
Ultimately, the Russian expeditionary force was dismantled with its most loyal members fighting in the Legion d’honneur Russe, a unit part of the French foreign legion. The legion would see continuous fighting throughout 1918, suffering 85% casualties at the battle of Amien in March 1918.