They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
— Laurence Binyon, World War I
When I was at school in Scotland, very many years ago, we learned about the First World War from a distinguished historian who enjoyed enlivening his instruction with little anecdotes. And one day he told us that during that war there had been a story about Russian soldiers who allegedly were seen on the way to the Western Front in France. Supposedly they had landed by troopship in northern Scotland and were being transported south by train and people knew they were Russians “because they had snow on their boots.”
We laughed, as we were meant to do, because this was impossible. Although of a tender age, we knew that even in frigid Scotland, the snow would have melted and they couldn’t have had snow on the boots. Yes, said our teacher, that is so — but there were Russian soldiers in France, all the same, which was the point he wanted to make : that it was a truly World War, with representation from a very large number of countries. Indeed the effects of the war were global, in that it altered sovereignty and boundaries all over the world.
So we registered all this and went on to other historical studies, but it is regrettable that we and most of the world forgot about the engagement of Russian troops in battles on the Western Front, because this commitment was an important cameo in international affairs. Not only that — and more significantly — the suffering and sacrifice of Russian soldiers deserves to be remembered in the same vein as the misery, mutilation and death of millions of those of the many other nations involved.
As observed by Britain’s Imperial War Museum, “Britain’s policy was to maintain a balance of power in Europe. Germany’s growing strength and manifest pursuit of ‘world power’ status persuaded Britain to align with its traditional rivals: France in 1904 and Russia in 1907. This connected Britain, France and Russia in the ‘Triple Entente’…” and led to a request by France in 1915 for Russia to send troops to fight alongside the French on the Western Front.
By that time, Russia had suffered several serious reverses on its own borders and, as recorded by Professor Paul Dukes of Aberdeen University, “The Eastern Front in the First World War commands far less attention than the Western, even though it extended further, involved more soldiers and probably resulted in more losses. It saw four empires destroyed: Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Turkey. Russia lost at least as many men as any other combatant, yet its contribution has often been neglected, no doubt because Russia has often been considered apart from Europe, especially after the Revolution of 1917.”
In 1916 Russia established four special brigades of which numbers 2 and 4 were sent to Macedonia and 1 and 3 to France. 1st Brigade was formed in January 2016 with a strength of 8,942 men and, commanded by General Nikolai Aleksandrovich Lokhvitsky, left Russia on February 3 and arrived in Marseille on April 16. 3rd Brigade was formed in Yekaterinburg under command of General Fyodor Fyodorovich Palitzin and arrived in France in September 1916 to complete the Russian Expeditionary Force of some 20,000 men, of whom over 5,000 were killed in action.
The Russian cemetery and memorial at Saint Hilaire le Grand. 915 soldiers are buried there and the chapel is dedicated to all Russian soldiers who died in France in the First World War
Both formations fought well, but being under direct command of the French Army they were committed to the Nivelle offensive of April-May 1917, which was a disaster. As summarised by one analyst, “The huge offensive, involving 1.2 million men, was the plan of Robert Nivelle, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. By the time the Offensive was over, tens of thousands of Allied troops had been killed or wounded; the French Army had been pushed to mutiny in over half its divisions and Nivelle had been sacked.” The Russian brigades captured the town of Courcy and successfully defended it against German counter-attacks for three days but lost 700 soldiers killed and 3,000 wounded in what was the last operation the Expeditionary Force conducted as a formed body of troops.
The overthrow of the Tsar and the Revolution complicated affairs, and understandably there were violent disagreements among soldiers of the Expeditionary Force concerning their loyalties. The Force as such had to be disbanded, but the French government subsequently arranged formation of a Russian Legion of volunteers from the original contingents, and it served with great distinction as a brigade of the Moroccan Division, notably at the defence of Aisne in May 1918, against the German Spring Offensive, and the battle of Soissons in July.
Some Russians returned home after the war, but many stayed in France, which now has several memorials to those who served and died.
The Memorial in Paris to the Russian Expeditionary Force was sculpted by Vladimir Surovtsev and inaugurated on 21 June 2011 by President Putin and Prime Minister Francois Fillon. It is on the bank of the Seine, near the Grand Palais.
Lest we Forget…