Russian Expeditionary Force in France
The Russian Expeditionary Force
Expeditionary warfare
Expeditionary warfare is used to describe the organization of a state's military to fight abroad, especially when deployed to fight away from its established bases at home or abroad. Expeditionary forces were in part the antecedent of the modern concept of Rapid Deployment Forces...

was a World War I military
A military is an organization authorized by its greater society to use lethal force, usually including use of weapons, in defending its country by combating actual or perceived threats. The military may have additional functions of use to its greater society, such as advancing a political agenda e.g...

 force sent to France
French Third Republic
The French Third Republic was the republican government of France from 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed due to the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, to 1940, when France was overrun by Nazi Germany during World War II, resulting in the German and Italian occupations of France...

 by the Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

. In 1915 the French requested that Russian troops be sent to fight alongside their own army on the Western Front
Western Front (World War I)
Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the German Army opened the Western Front by first invading Luxembourg and Belgium, then gaining military control of important industrial regions in France. The tide of the advance was dramatically turned with the Battle of the Marne...

. Initially they asked for 300,000 men, an absurdly high figure, probably based on their assumptions about Russia's 'unlimited' reserve
Military reserve
A military reserve, tactical reserve, or strategic reserve is a group of military personnel or units which are initially not committed to a battle by their commander so that they are available to address unforeseen situations or exploit suddenly developing...

s. General Mikhail Alekseev
Mikhail Alekseev
Mikhail Vasiliyevich Alekseyev was an Imperial Russian Army general during World War I and the Russian Civil War. Between 1915 and 1917 he was Chief of Staff to Tsar Nicholas II, and after the February Revolution, March–July 1917 the commander in chief of the Russian army...

, the Imperial Chief of Staff, was opposed to sending any, though Nicholas II finally agreed to send a unit of brigade
A brigade is a major tactical military formation that is typically composed of two to five battalions, plus supporting elements depending on the era and nationality of a given army and could be perceived as an enlarged/reinforced regiment...

 strength. The First Russian Special Brigade finally landed at Marseilles in April 1916. A Second Special Brigade was also sent to serve alongside other Allied formations on the Salonika Front
Macedonian front (World War I)
The Macedonian Front resulted from an attempt by the Allied Powers to aid Serbia, in the autumn of 1915, against the combined attack of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. The expedition came too late and in insufficient force to prevent the fall of Serbia, and was complicated by the internal...

 in northern Greece. In France, the First Brigade served with distinction until the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917. With Brigade morale
Morale, also known as esprit de corps when discussing the morale of a group, is an intangible term used to describe the capacity of people to maintain belief in an institution or a goal, or even in oneself and others...

 being sapped by political agitation, it was finally disbanded before the end of the year. However, some of the more determined formed the Legion 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
Armistice with Germany (Compiègne)
The armistice between the Allies and Germany was an agreement that ended the fighting in the First World War. It was signed in a railway carriage in Compiègne Forest on 11 November 1918 and marked a victory for the Allies and a complete defeat for Germany, although not technically a surrender...


Before March 1917

In December 1915, Paul Doumer
Paul Doumer
Joseph Athanase Paul Doumer, commonly known as Paul Doumer was the President of France from 13 June 1931 until his assassination.-Biography:...

, 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
Samara, Russia
Samara , is the sixth largest city in Russia. It is situated in the southeastern part of European Russia at the confluence of the Volga and Samara Rivers. Samara is the administrative center of Samara Oblast. Population: . The metropolitan area of Samara-Tolyatti-Syzran within Samara Oblast...

 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
Marseille , known in antiquity as Massalia , is the second largest city in France, after Paris, with a population of 852,395 within its administrative limits on a land area of . The urban area of Marseille extends beyond the city limits with a population of over 1,420,000 on an area of...

 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
Yekaterinburg is a major city in the central part of Russia, the administrative center of Sverdlovsk Oblast. Situated on the eastern side of the Ural mountain range, it is the main industrial and cultural center of the Urals Federal District with a population of 1,350,136 , making it Russia's...

 and Chelyabinsk
Chelyabinsk is a city and the administrative center of Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia, located in the northwestern side of the oblast, south of Yekaterinburg, just to the east of the Ural Mountains, on the Miass River. Population: -History:...

 and left for France in August 1916.

General Aleksei Brusilov
Aleksei Brusilov
Aleksei Alekseevich Brusilov was a Russian general most noted for the development of new offensive tactics used in the 1916 offensive which would come to bear his name. The innovative and relatively successful tactics used were later copied by the Germans...

 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 Estonia
Estonia , officially the Republic of Estonia , is a state in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the south by Latvia , and to the east by Lake Peipsi and the Russian Federation . Across the Baltic Sea lies...

n 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
Suippes is a picturesque commune in the Marne department in north-eastern France.It is home to France's 15th Artillery Regiment which once operated the nuclear Pluton missile as part of France's deterrent during the Cold war....

 and Auberive
Auberive is a commune in the Haute-Marne department in Champagne-Ardenne region in north-eastern France.-Geography:The Aujon flows westward through the north-eastern part of the commune....

 at the end of June, 1916.

By March 1917 the Special Brigades were in the Fort Pompelle
Fort de la Pompelle
The Fort de la Pompelle, also known as Fort Herbillon, is one of a number of forts built around Reims after 1870 as part of a fortification belt in the Séré de Rivières system. The forts saw combat during the First World War in the defense of Reims. The fort is located about north of the town of...

 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
Mourmelon-le-Grand is a commune in the Marne department in north-eastern France.-Camp Châlons:'Camp Châlons' is a military camp of circa 10,000 hectares nearby Mourmelon-le-Grand...

 in the Marne Department
Marne is a department in north-eastern France named after the river Marne which flows through the department. The prefecture of Marne is Châlons-en-Champagne...

 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
October Revolution
The October Revolution , also known as the Great October Socialist Revolution , Red October, the October Uprising or the Bolshevik Revolution, was a political revolution and a part of the Russian Revolution of 1917...

 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
La Courtine
La Courtine is a commune in the Creuse department in the Limousin region in central France.-Geography:An area of lakes, forestry and farming comprising the village and several hamlets situated in the Creuse River valley, some south of Aubusson, at the junction of the D25, D29 and the D992...

. 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.

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 then took place in the fighting around Amiens
Amiens is a city and commune in northern France, north of Paris and south-west of Lille. It is the capital of the Somme department in Picardy...

 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
Soissons is a commune in the Aisne department in Picardy in northern France, located on the Aisne River, about northeast of Paris. It is one of the most ancient towns of France, and is probably the ancient capital of the Suessiones...

 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 2 infantry companies as well as a mortar unit which turned the Brigade into a Regiment. The Regiment was then sent towards Laffaux
Laffaux is a commune in the Aisne department in Picardy in northern France....


Marshal Ferdinand Foch
Ferdinand Foch
Ferdinand Foch , GCB, OM, DSO was a French soldier, war hero, military theorist, and writer credited with possessing "the most original and subtle mind in the French army" in the early 20th century. He served as general in the French army during World War I and was made Marshal of France in its...

, 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
Moyeuvre-Grande is a commune in the Moselle department in Lorraine in north-eastern France.Since 1986 Moyeuvre-Grande has been twinned with Snodland, a town of similar size, located in Kent, England.-Personalities:...

. 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
Rodion Malinovsky
Rodion Yakovlevich Malinovsky was a Soviet military commander in World War II and Defense Minister of the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and 1960s. He contributed to the major defeat of Nazi Germany at the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Budapest...

, the future Soviet Minister of Defence.

Further reading

  • 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 regiments russes revoltes en 1917 au centre de la France",Payot Ed. ,Paris,1938.
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