Share This Article
With their country’s reservoir of young men almost depleted after the horrendous losses suffered at Verdun, the French approached their Russian ally with a plan for an unusual exchange: materiel for manpower.

In the chaotic early days of August 1914 a rumor swept Great Britain that Rus­sian soldiers had been seen landing in Scotland on their way to fight in France. The person who had allegedly seen these soldiers had known they were Russians because they had had snow on their boots. The fact that it was a very warm August in no way led people to question the story’s veracity. There were, of course, no Russians landing in Scotland or anywhere else in western Europe, but within two years there would be Russian soldiers in France, about 20,000, and their long odyssey from Russia to France and back became one of the most curious episodes of the Great War.

Before 1914, the French army had adopted the philosophy of attaque á out­rance championed by Colonel Louis de Grandmaison. The doctrine called for spirited, almost reckless attacks on the premise that elan would somehow assure victory over German firepower. Lack of aggressiveness had led to defeat in 1870, Grandmaison argued, and in the next war aggressiveness would carry the day. The directive would have been success­ful in 1870 and may have been in 1940, but in 1914 it was a disaster. Before Christmas 1914, France had sustained more than 400,000 casu­alties, and by the end of 1915 the French nation was literally bleeding to death.

While France had serious manpower problems, Russia, France’s ally, had a different problem. Her military strength was based on her vast supply of manpower, and the Russian steamroller had often crushed better armies by sheer numbers. Although she had sustained staggering losses during the first year of the war, Russia still had enormous human re­sources on which to draw. Indeed, before the war was over, Russia was able to mo­bilize 14 million men. Her deficiencies lay in arming this colossus. Easily the most economically and industrially back­ ward of the great powers, Russia had a poor armament industry that was inca­pable of supplying her enormous needs.

The French, reeling after the losses of the first two years of the war, were quick to perceive a solution to both their prob­lems. In December 1915 they sent a prominent politician, Paul Doumer, to Petrograd to propose to the Russians an exchange of manpower for war materiel. The French would send rifles, shells, and heavy artillery to Russia in exchange for soldiers. Doumer negotiated with a reluc­tant Russian military for 400,000 Russian soldiers to be sent to France. The Russians never fully lived up to the bargain, but in 1916 they dis­patched four brigades of about 10,000 men each to the West–the First, Second, Third, and Fourth brigades. The Second and the Fourth were eventually sent along to the Allied Expeditionary Force in Salonika, but the First and the Third ended up in France, becoming the Russian Expeditionary Force (REF).

The composition of the two REF bri­gades differed greatly, a factor that in time became very important. The First Brigade was largely recruited from among the working-class sections of Moscow, where its members had at least heard the rhetoric of Marxism spread by radicals. The Third Brigade, by contrast, was mostly composed of peasants, who had not been exposed to Marxism and were more conservative.

The First Brigade, led by General Niko­lai Lokhvitsky, was directed to France via the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Far East. Loaded onto boats in very crowded conditions in Darien, Manchuria, the men passed south through tropical wa­ters, across the Indian Ocean, and through the Suez Canal. In April 1916 they arrived in Marseille and were greeted gleefully by the French. As they marched through the streets, the Russian soldiers were showered with flowers, pieces of candy, and even oranges, the first that most had ever seen. The Third Brigade, meanwhile, shipped from Archangel via the White Sea around Norway and across the North Sea, an extremely dangerous route in view of German submarine ac­tivity. It landed at Brest in July to the same hysteria that had greeted the First Brigade in Marseille. Both brigades came together at Mailly, where they began to train for warfare on the Western Front.

The French government believed it was necessary to give these men addi­tional training before sending them to the trenches, since warfare in the East was so different from that in the West. For instance, in the face of a furious Ger­man assault in Poland or Galicia, Rus­sian armies had the luxury of being able to retreat for miles without giving the enemy any substantial tactical or stra­tegic advantage. Such was not the case on the Western Front, where every foot of ground had to be contested. The French had to instill in the Russians that to retreat was no longer an option.

With their training complete in July 1916, the First Brigade went into battle in the Champagne sector east of Paris, fought extremely well in various engage­ments, and won the French authorities’ praise for their valor. In October they were relieved by the Third Brigade, which also fought extremely well into the winter. Trouble, however, began brewing among the Russians that winter. Thou­sands of miles away from their homes and loved ones, homesickness became endemic. Russian soldiers in the East were never granted leave, but they at least received word from home. In France there was little news of home ex­cept the military newspaper, and letters from Russia rarely if ever arrived. Fur­thermore, their food was unfamiliar; they longed for the black bread and kasha (porridge) of the Russian peasant diet.

All of this discomfort was exacerbated by the natural antagonisms that univer­sally occur between allies. The French ridiculed their diet, adding insultingly that they fed kasha to their cows. When Russian soldiers complained about their primitive camps and facilities, they were told that they were better off here than at their homes in Russia. On leave, the Russians were often overcharged in the French canteens, and there was a perception, accurate or not, that they were often given the most difficult duty as­signments and that they stayed in the trenches longer than French units.

One of the greatest catalysts of low morale, however, was the radical Rus­sian emigre community in Paris. Forced from their homeland before the war by the czarist government, Russian political exiles often gravitated to France. Many of these leftist emigres were pacifists and published anti-war newspapers and tracts, which they circulated among the REF’s soldiers. The emigres took bewil­dered Russian soldiers to the cheap bars and cafes of Paris’ Latin Quarter, plying them with drink and telling them that the should not die for the capitalists or to recover France’s German-annexed region of Alsace-Lorraine, that they had been “sold for shells.” They said that these homesick men should be fighting for Russia on Russian soil, not as cannon fodder for the French or as “white slaves of capitalism.”

These homesick Russian soldiers were like putty in their hands. A number of these emigres were doubtless paid agents of the Germans, and the result was as in­tended: a deadly corrosion of morale. When the Russian Revolution began in Petrograd in March 1917, the officers of the two brigades did their best to keep the news from the troops, but information eventually leaked out. The first word came from the soldiers’ newspaper, The Military Gazette, in the form of the an article in which the censor had obliterated every word except the title: “The Revolu­tion has begun!” French security police reported rejoicing among the troops when they received the news, and they all calmly took the oath to the Russian Pro­visional Government. They were, how­ever, given a choice of taking a “civil” oath or a “religious” one, and officers noted the ominous sign that the over­ whelming majority took the civil pledge. Despite the burst of emotion when of­ficial confirmation of the revolution was received, discipline held. In April Gen­eral Feodor Palitsyn, the highest Russian military authority in France, asked his officers the state of troop morale, and they replied that it was strong. In contrast, the Russian army on the Eastern Front had begun to fall apart.

Ironically, the last elements of the im­perial Russian army to maintain their discipline were the units fighting in France. This was primarily due to their isolation from events in Russia and their delay in receiving General Order No. 1, a decree on soldiers’ rights issued by the Petrograd Soviet. The Soviet was a self­ styled shadow government that had ap­pointed itself guardian of the rights of the masses. The Soviet’s authority was greater than that of the Provisional Gov­ernment because the mobs, which are always the muscle in any revolutionary atmosphere, supported it and not the revolution’s initial, moderate Provi­sional Government.

The order on soldiers’ rights usurped the government’s authority by outlining the relationships between officers and men. This new relationship greatly re­duced officers’ authority. Most disrup­tive of all was the creation of soldiers’ committees to be elected from the bat­talion level up to the full army for the purpose of monitoring soldiers’ rights, di­recting policy, and, in effect, preempting the authority of the officers. The com­mittees could override the decisions of officers, and they deprived officers of the right to use corporal punishment to re­inforce their authority. With the old authority gone, the effectiveness of the Russian army collapsed and with it Rus­sia’s role in the war.

In April 1917 the French launched the Nivelle Offensive, named for its com­mander, General Robert Nivelle, which was designed as a concentrated assault on the German lines northwest of Reims in the Champagne region along the Chemin des Dames road. The Russians were ordered to join the Seventh Corps of the French Fifth Army, commanded by General Olivier Maze. The Fifth Army’s initial objective was to advance eastward along a 35-kilometer front running from Reims northward, focusing on an attack on the Fort de Bri­mont, north of the village of Courcy, about midway in the line. The First Brigade was placed in the line north of Reims and given the objective of taking Courcy on the first day of the attack. The Third Brigade, meanwhile, was placed as a reserve of the First.

The Russians fought well. They began their advance on the morning of April 16, 1917, outdistancing the French units on either side. The First Brigade moved so far out in front of the advance that incoming German artillery fell behind them. With the Seventh Corps they occupied part of Courcy south of Brimont before stalling. The First Russian Regiment drove to the Tete de Cochon, a small rise north of the village, where it was stopped as the German resistance stiffened. The center battalion of the regiment enveloped Courcy from the south and southwest, and the left battalion reached and crossed the Aisne-Marne canal, which passed by the edge of the village.

The Second Regiment joined, and the first and second enemy lines before Cour­cy were taken. All day the battle raged throughout the village, and by nightfall of April 16 it was in Russian hands. The Germans furiously counterattacked on the 17th and 18th. Each at­tack was broken, but the Russian losses were staggering. By an official account, almost half of the First Regiment were killed, wounded, or missing. The Rus­sians could hold what they had taken but did not have the strength to advance.

The Third Brigade entered the fight on the 17th, its strength divided between the Seventh and Thirty-second corps. The Third Battalion of the Sixth Regiment went into action first. The re­mainder of the Sixth, meanwhile, was to join the First Brigade in its advance on the Courcy front.

Little progress was made. Enemy ar­tillery fire pounded the Russians and prevented further advance. A German counterattack launched at 5 p.m. was stopped with machine-gun fire, although the Germans did succeed in temporarily taking some Russian positions. On the 18th, the First Brigade’s Third Bat­talion, First Regiment, pushed forward and captured 20 German soldiers and some equipment and made contact with the French 151st Regiment on its right, but its advance was also stopped. Aerial reconnaissance revealed that the Germans had organized new defensive lines and strung more barbed wire. With this intelligence, the Russians advanced no farther. The First Brigade had taken such a mauling it was removed from the line and placed in reserve.

The Third Brigade advanced to the north of the First as late as April 19 and even took the third German line, where hard hand-to-hand fighting took place. Later in the day a vigorous German counterattack pushed them back to the first German line taken earlier in the day. One battalion of Russians was trapped behind the German advance and had to blast its way back to the Allied lines with hand grenades. Both the First and Third suffered terrible losses, so great in fact that they were not used for another ad­ vance before the April 25 termination of the offensive.

When the push ended, the Russian bri­gades’ casualties were so heavy that the officers requested 6,000 replace­ments. They were pulled from the line and eventually sent to the Chateaus of Bay and Montmort in Lorraine for recuperation.

It was here that the Russian Revolution completely overtook the REF. The re­cently elected soldiers’ committees planned a May Day demonstration fol­lowing the offensive. In the politically charged atmosphere among the Russian soldiers, the rally soon turned into a riot. Men ran amok, firing their weapons and waving black and red flags. When General Palitsyn rode among the sol­diers to calm them, he was driven off with shouts of “To Russia, to Russia!” Discipline spun out of control in both brigades, and military order turned into chaos. Everywhere units passed resolu­tions demanding to be returned home.

At this point, the French armies were undergoing serious discipline problems of their own, with units refusing to go into the trenches and large numbers of soldiers deserting. At one point there were only two reliable divisions between the Germans and Paris. Faced with revolt within their own army, the French gov­ernment hardly needed this new Russian predicament. Yet a shortage of transports capable of returning the brigades to Rus­sia presented a major obstacle. Moreover, the Russian Provisional Government had enough rebellious troops of its own at home; it did not want to augment them with an additional contagion from France. As a prerequisite for repatriation, Alexander Kerensky, then the Russian gov­ernment’s minister of war, demanded that discipline first be restored, something the officers were powerless to do. The REF, so eagerly welcomed the year before, had now become a major headache for the French. If order were to be restored, the French would probably have to do it. That would mean some of the mutineers would have to be shot, and the propa­ganda value for the Germans of French soldiers shooting down their Russian al­lies was inestimable, to say nothing of the damage such actions would cause the Franco-Russian alliance, which had been crucial to France’s survival.

France was on the horns of a dilemma: She could not suppress the mutiny, and she could not send the mutineers home. One point, however, was clear. These troops could not remain in the war zone where they were of no use and could augment France’s problem with her own troops. As a temporary solution, the French War Ministry decided to move the two brigades to a small training camp at the village of La Courtine, far from the front where it would be isolated from French units. The First Brigade arrived there late in June, totally out of control and having elected a soviet drawn from leftist elements in the brigade.

The brigade eventually fell under the spell of a charismatic, blond-haired, blue­ eyed Latvian named Anastasy Globa, who in civilian life had been a salesman and, by religion, a Baptist. A natural leader of men, this handsome soldier moved easily among the civilian population of La Courtine, learned some French, and ac­quired a mistress from among the local women whose husbands were at the front. He established rigid control over his men in the camp and directed the So­viet to pass resolutions calling for repa­triation and an end to the war. They took control of the camp, and the few re­maining officers fled.

The Third Brigade, composed of more rural recruits, arrived several days later. Observers quickly noticed that it was more orderly than the First. Knowledge that they would not be returned to the front had had a calming effect on these men. They had at first driven off their of­ficers, and while they had elected soldiers’ committees, their political composition was markedly more conservative. They passed resolutions calling for Russia to remain in the war and denouncing the subversive activities of the Petrograd So­viet. The Third Brigade rejected the First’s encouragement to radicalize, and after several clashes with the mutineers of the First, the soldiers of the Third pulled up stakes and moved 15 miles north to the village of Felletin.

Here, away from the radicals, the offi­cers restored a mild discipline. The sol­diers of the Third established a good rapport with the citizens of Felletin, holding a fete for them on July 14–Bastille Day. Each evening, hundreds of the Russian soldiers visited the town, led by a soldier (called their “pope”) who performed acrobatics on horseback. They bypassed the cafes and brasseries of the town and went instead to the stores, where they bought cologne, which they drank instead of beer or wine, and toothpaste, with which they made sandwiches. On their visits to town they took their mascot, a Siberian bear named Mishka, who had been bought by several officers as a small cub for a few rubles before leaving Russia. He had grown up tame among the men, had shared their food, endured enemy artillery bombardments and gas attacks, and lived with them in the trenches. On the visits to Felletin, he performed tricks to the great delight of the populace.

This behavior sharply con­trasted with that of the First Brigade. There the soldiers ter­rorized the community; stole chickens, vegetables, and fire­ wood; and abused the locals. They made matters especially difficult for the patrons and em­ployees of the local brothel whose services they sought but were de­nied. Because their attempts at patron­ age were rejected, the soldiers actually commandeered the establishment for a night, to the great distress of the women there. A disaster was only avoided after the intervention of the First Brigade’s soldiers’ committee.

The French were quick to take notice of the difference between the two brigades, and the idea dawned on the Ministry of War that perhaps the Third might be used to subdue the First. Backed by the French, the Russian offi­cers began winnowing the Third to create a force that could, with French backing, disarm and suppress the mutinous First. Soldiers were interviewed to determine whether or not they would fire on their former comrades, and efforts were made to indoctrinate all in the ideas of duty, discipline, and honor. The process con­tinued throughout August 1917, and by the end of the month a new, disciplined Russian force, dubbed the “Special Brigade,” was born. The subsequent col­lision between the Special Brigade and the mutineers became the first battle of the Russian Civil War.

After several ultimatums to stack arms and leave the camp were ignored by the First Brigade, General Alexander Zankevich, the commander of the loyal­ists, ordered his units to suppress the rebels. Backed by French troops, who were given instructions not to become in­volved unless the vrai (“loyal”) Russians faltered, the Special Brigade, supplied with French artillery, began its attack on the morning of September 16, 1917.

The first assault was solely with ar­tillery. Andre Obey, a French witness, called it the “dance of the cannons.” Shells were casually lobbed all morning into the besieged camp, with the gun­ners taking care not to aim at the build­ings. The attackers then took a leisurely two- or three-hour break for lunch be­fore resuming their desultory shelling in the afternoon. At about 5 p.m., they stopped for the night. The rebels did not take the attack too seriously and re­sponded to the hostile fire with only the musical strains of “La Marseillaise” and, curiously, Chopin’s “Funeral March.” That evening they flooded their camp with light and held raucous meetings in the open, obviously not believing that their former comrades in arms would re­ally fire on them. During the daytime bombardment and that night, however, about a 1,000 of the 8,000 encircled mutineers filtered through the lines and surrendered. Strangely, the few wounded mutineers were sent by their leaders through the lines to the loyalists’ dressing station.

The next day, the attack became more serious. The artillery shells landed closer to the buildings, and any assembled men who realized the danger took cover in the stone barracks. The scarcity of food and the more serious nature of the besiegers led to several thousand additional deser­tions. In a desperate move, the rebels re­leased hundreds of horses that had not eaten for days. They were allowed to pass through the encirclement and graze wherever they could find grass. By now, only several hundred of the most com­mitted mutineers were left, and they barricaded themselves in some stone buildings and prepared to make their last stand.

On September 18, the loyalists made an all-out attack, which led to the scattering of the last of the mutineers into a small forest north of the camp. Globa was captured with his mistress while trying to escape down the road to a nearby village. The de­feated mutineers were corralled and disarmed. Globa and the most recalcitrant mutineers were dispatched to a dank fortress-prison on the Ile d’Aix some miles out in the Bay of Biscay, from which there was no possi­bility of escape. The island had once held Napoleon on his way to St. Helena.

Civil wars often pit brother against brother and this mini-civil war was no exception. Obey reported making friends with a Russian officer who commanded a loyalist artillery unit. They shared common interest in classical music and literature. During one of their conversa­tions, the Russian seemed very morose and kept repeating that when the time came his men would do their duty. After the first day of fighting between the two units , Obey found the officer sitting on the edge of the road, his head in his hands. The officer asked Obey, “Have we killed anyone?” Then he added, “Kostia was among them, you know?” Obey asked who Kostia was. “He’s my brother. I wrote my father that he had died at Courcy, fighting the Germans, for it was at Cour­cy that I last saw him as a loyal soldier, after the attack, dirty, covered with mud, but very happy. Yet in the cantonment he became an orator. For me the war is still long. Thousands of occasions, thou­sands of beautiful occasions to die.” Obey never saw his friend again.

Despite the defeat of the rebels, the French were not yet rid of their Russian problem. They were still saddled with al­most 20,000 Russian troops in various degrees of discontent and indis­cipline, and it had become increasingly obvious that they could not be returned home until the war’s end. After many de­bates, the French decided to divide these men into three categories. Category A would be those who did not want to fight but who would volunteer to work for the French in the fields, forests, and facto­ries. They received the wages of a French soldier, food, clothing, and housing. Eventually a majority of all the Russian soldiers volunteered for this service, and a triage took place where 50 or so were sent to one department, a hundred or more to another, until Russians were working all over France. Category B were the “incorrigibles,” i.e., those who re­fused to work for France and were con­sidered politically dangerous. All of these usually passed through the dungeons of Ile d’Aix before being sent to penal camps in North Africa, where they were forced to work under terrible conditions in temperatures of more than 100 degrees. Many of them did not sur­vive the ordeal.

The third group consisted of those who wished to continue the fight. They formed what came to be known as the Russian Legion, and later, after the Bol­sheviks took Russia out of the war, the Russian Legion of Honor.

A ringing appeal went out to Russians everywhere from General Lokhvitsky, urging them to join the Legion of Honor. Most of the volunteers came from the Third Brigade, but others came from as far away as the United States and India, finally forming four battalions. The first Russian soldiers returned to the front lines in December 1917. Others followed. For the most part they were placed with a Moroccan corps, but some served in other units.

When the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed between Russia and Germany in March 1918, however, a legal question arose concerning Russians’ continuing to fight. With Russia formally out of the war, what would be the status of any Russians captured by the Germans? The French solved this problem by giving the legion the same status as the French Foreign Legion, which meant that they could no longer fight under the Russian flag or wear Russian uniforms. The Russian sol­diers pleaded with the French govern­ment for the right to fly their colors, but they were denied permission.

The Russian Legion of Honor con­tinued to perform well. During a counter­ attack with a Moroccan Zouave division at Villers-Bretonneux in the Somme Valley on April 26, legionnaires sustained heavy losses but captured the line of enemy trenches. General Albert Daugan, the commander of the Moroccan division re­ported that the Russians had fought “with a spirit and bravery without equal. They went to attack with an impetuous dash and a superb disdain for death.” An­ other Russian Legion entered the fight on May 30 at Soissons and “fought like lions.” Until the end of the war, reports of their actions were replete with phrases such as “sang-froid” and “oblivious to death.” The Legion’s most prominent action came in September 1918, when it was the second wave in the drive to take the village of Terny-Sorny on the road from Soissons to Bethune. The German advance culminating in the Second Battle of the Marne had failed, and the Allies were driving into the base of the salient to try and trap the thousands of Ger­mans in the bulge. A battalion of the Le­gion made a flanking attack behind a rolling artillery barrage on the village from the north, while French forces moved around it from the south. The enemy was dug into the village, which was little more than a pile of rubble. But with close fighting throughout the night, the Russians had taken the village by morning. It remained in Russian hands despite furious enemy counter­ attacks. For their heroic actions, they received a commendation, and after the war the people of Soissons held a special ceremony to honor their valor in liberating the town.

With the end of the war in Europe, the fate of the Legion’s members was to take another turn. The French government, as well as those of the other Allies, had become committed to toppling the Bol­shevik regime because it had repudiated the debts to the Allies of the czarist and provisional regimes. France had sunk billions of francs into Russia before the war and billions in loans after the con­flict had begun. The French naturally saw it in their interest to help put in place a government that would honor these loans. By 1919, soldiers of France, as well as England, the United States, Canada, Italy, and Japan, were on Rus­sian soil fighting to destroy communism. In this situation, it is no surprise that the French thought of recruiting Rus­sians from among those who had served in France to fight against the Bolsheviks. Units were indeed raised from the Rus­sian Legion, the workers, and the de­tainees in North Africa. Volunteers were not lacking, primarily because the sol­diers saw that joining these forces would be the quickest way to return home. Not surprisingly, these volunteers did not fight well, and both Generals Anton Denikin and Peter Wrangel, the two most prominent leaders of the White Russians in the South, pleaded with the French to stop sending them. Frequent­ly these units, on disembarking, went wholesale over to the Communists.

The French now faced yet another problem with repatriation: the new So­viet regime. Fighting for its very exis­tence and diplomatically recognized by none of the major powers, the Soviet gov­ernment seized on the presence of the thousands of Russians in France as a pro­paganda weapon largely for internal con­sumption. Claiming that the French were mistreating these men, a charge not wholly without foundation, the Soviet government arrested several thousand French citizens in Russia, including em­bassy and consular personnel, and held them hostage for the return of the Rus­sians in France and Africa.

The pressure on the French was further intensified when one of their diplomatic personnel, M. Pierre Darcy, was severely beaten in a Moscow prison and died of a brain hemorrhage in a Russian hospital. France’s unenviable position was made all the worse because the absence of nor­mal diplomatic channels required that the French and the Russians negotiate via awkward lines of communications: Radio signals were transmitted from the Eiffel Tower to a receiving station near Petro­grad, then the message was telegraphed to Moscow; Russian diplomats followed the reverse procedure. Using this medium enabled the whole world to tune in on France’s humili­ation. In fact, many of the missives passing back and forth appear word for exact word in the German foreign ministry archives. Each time the Russians chose to jerk the French chain, which the Soviet foreign minister, Georgii Chicherin, did with sadistic regularity, the entire civilized world bore witness.

One requirement that the Russians imposed on the French government was the admission into France of a Russian Red Cross del­egation to oversee the de­parture of the REF. Since the Soviets had already used the Russian Red Cross for subversive purposes in Switzerland, for which it had been expelled, the French were wary of allow­ing the group into the country. Insisting that no duplicitous use be made of the delegation, the French government finally agreed to allow it to enter France, but it was es­corted into the country under strict iso­lation and, having entered the country, was not allowed to leave the French coastal area.

Among the delegates, which the Soviets tried to treat like an embassy, were Inessa Armand, a French Bolshevik living in Russia and reputed to have been Lenin’s lover, and Dmitri Manuilsky, who later attended the founding meetings of the United Nations. When French intelli­gence learned that a Belgian driver had been paid to smuggle Armand into Paris, the delegation was expelled from France despite Armand’s protests that she needed to go to Paris to shop for a new hat.

After torturous negotiations about numbers of persons to be exchanged, ports of embarkation, and charges and countercharges of duplicity, an agree­ment on repatriation was finally signed in 1920. The French, however, had not waited that long to begin returning the Russians. Indeed, they had begun ship­ping boatloads of former REF soldiers from the south of France and from North Africa as soon as the Dardanelles opened and tonnage was available, whether there was an agreement with the Russians or not. At one point the French tried to enlist the Americans and Japanese in a scheme to ship the Rus­sians to the United States in the empty bottoms of ships that had first brought American soldiers to France. The French planned to then transport the Russians across North America by train to Califor­nia, where they would be picked up by the Japanese navy, which would deposit them in Vladivostok. One quickly envi­sions the chaos of bewildered Russians shocking small towns from New York to California. Fortunately, the American government flatly refused to cooperate. Later in 1920, the last French hostage was exchanged for the last Russian sol­dier who wished to return home.

All of the Russians who came with the REF did not, however, go home. About 3,500 of them chose to stay in France rather than to risk a life of uncertainty in the new Russia. They remained in a land that did not want them, among a people many came to hate. They married French women who bore them children who grew up speaking a language their fathers could barely understand. 

These expatriates kept the memory of imperial Russia alive with organiza­tions such as the Associa­tion of Russian Officers Who Fought on the French Front and with their ortho­dox faith. Today, the Rus­sian emigre community still holds a memorial serv­ice at the Russian cemetery near Mourmelon-le-Grand for those REF soldiers who died during the war. In 1960 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev brought Rodi­on Malinovsky with him to Paris for the abortive sum­mit with President Dwight Eisenhower. Malinovsky, who had served in the REF, attended the annual service that year. These old emi­gres of course flew the imperial Russian flag, and the story circulates today in the Russian community in Paris that when the flag of the Russian empire passed Malinovsky, the defense minister of the Soviet Union snapped to attention and saluted it.

Near the church at Mourmelon, built in the 1930s, Russian groups erected a monument. The obelisk was inscribed with the words of Andrei Bogoslovsky, a Russian priest with the Legion who died of wounds received while fighting with his unit: “Frenchmen, when the enemy is no longer in your fields and you can wander freely there, remember us and pick some flowers for us.” Bo­goslovsky is not ignored. When this au­thor visited the cemetery in 1986, a bouquet of fresh flowers had indeed been left there.

JAMIE COCKFIELD is a professor of Russian history at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, and author of With Snow on Their Boots (St. Martin’s Press, 1998).


This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1999 issue (Vol. 12, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Sold for Shells

Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!