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The Volunteers of the Russian Expeditionary Corps in the Moroccan Division during the Second Battle of Marne
by Henri Maurel
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During his second trip to Russia in December 1915, Paul Doumer envisaged the sending of 300,000 troops to France, in exchange for munitions which Russia was in great need of.  The French proposal wasn’t received with much enthusiasm by the Russian high command, but Czar Nicholas II expressed his desire to send the troops to France.  The Chief of State, General Alexeyev, proposed a compromise saying that Russian soldiers would be sent under the following conditions:  the soldiers would be sent in consolidated units to be overseen by Russian officers who would be working under the French high command.  These troops would be armed by the French and transported to the battle site by the French Navy.  Paul Doumer expressed his wish that the amount of 40,000 men per month be achieved rapidly.

This agreement resulted in the January 1916 formation of the First Russian Special Brigade, composed of two regiments,  the 1st formed in Moscow, the  2nd in Samara (on the Volga River). This Brigade was formed essentially by battalions of reserves, that is to say men who hadn't undergone a baptism by fire, which was probably a mistake. The 1st Regiment was composed primarily of factory workers, and the 2nd  Regiment -  of peasants, which can explain some of the forthcoming events.

The regiments were divided into 3 battalions of 4 companies each.  Each regiments also had a liaison and a service section.. The reserve battalion has 6 companies.  The First Brigade was commanded by General Lokhvitsky, and was comprised of 180 officers and 8762 enlisted men. Each brigade had a double supply of clothing: each had a kitchen on wheels.  France was charged with taking care of the material side of things.

The first echelon left Moscow on the 3rd of February, 1916 by rail, through Siberia to Manchuria to Dairen (Ta-Lien) and then by sea to Marseille. They arrive on April 26th, after a 30,000 kilometer voyage and 60 days at sea. The troop debarcation in Marseille made a big impression on the French: all of the papers showered compliments on the Russian army. This was an event which sealed the friendship of the two allied countries.

The formation of three other Russian brigades was undertaken not long after. Because of certain difficulties, the Second Brigade was sent to Salonika where they arrived in August 1916. The Third Brigade was formed in Yekaterinburg and in Cheliabinsk, formed half of professional soldiers and half of reserves.; they were sent to France in August 1916.   Finally, the Fourth Brigade arrived in Salonika in November of the same year.

During the year 1916, despite the offensive which was enormous both in scope and loss of life, General Brusilov, situated on the Austro-German border, of the General Staff,  still managed to make available 4 special brigades to France, or 745 officers and 43,547 foot soldiers. The formation of the 6th, 7th and 8th brigades still wasn't complete when the Russian Revolution started.

The year 1916 was a difficult one for France: the year of the battle of Verdun where France lost 350,000 soldiers, which accounted for 25% of France's total losses during the Great War.  The First Special Brigade, which disembarked on the 20th of April was transferred on the 23rd of April to the Mailly Camp near Chalons-sur-Marne which was given over totally to the Russian troops.  This camp depended on the 4th Army of General Gouraud which looked after the Russian troops and helped them with any needs that arose.

In December, 1916 there was an Instruction Camp created within the camp for diverse specialists; this is where Russian troops came to rest or to sharpen their skills.

The French President himself paid a visit to the camp and was struck by the excellent shape the Brigade was in and decorated General Lokhvitsky with the medal "Commander of the Legion of Honor". At the end of June, 1916, the First Brigade was sent to a sector occupied by the Western Group of the 4th Army, to the East between Suippes and Auberive.

In 1917, the fighting power of the two brigades is wholly appreciated by the Allies.  In March, 1917, they are in the Fort Pompelle region. During the "Nivelle" attack of April 16th, 1917, in the same cadre as the 5th Army, the First Special Brigade takes Courcy, the Third Brigade attacks and occupies Mount Spin. The losses for the two Russian brigades totaled 70 officers and 4472 soldiers killed, wounded or missing in action.

Formation of the Russian Legion of Honor

After the Russian Revolution, Russia left the Allied ranks and the Russian regiments in the expeditionary corps were demobilized from the front by the French government, reformed and transformed into work companies.  Even the word "Russian" became the synonym for "traitor".

This situation became intolerable, and hundreds of Russian military men, under the direction of Colonel Gotua, their national pride very hurt, organized and demanded to be redeployed to the front. After many hesitations and meetings, the authorization was finally given for the creation of the Russian Legion.

On December 23, 1917, this unit under Colonel Gotua's command united with the Moroccan Division, considered to be the best French unit at the time. The renowned heroism of the Russian soldier reached unprecedented heights within this unit.

At the end of March, 1918, the Germans pierced the Allied front around Amiens between the French and English army divisions and entrench itself in the created "hole". The situation having become critical, the French High Command gave the Moroccan division the order to engage in a counter-attack. The Russian Legion was placed at the head of this counter-attack: the eyes of the best French division were riveted on the Russians.

Describing this attack in his "Pages of the Moroccan Division's Glory", an historian tells us the following:

"The whole line seemed nailed to the ground. Suddenly a movement, a detachment raises up in the valley, sallies forward, like a hurricane between the enemy forces and magnificently, from bayonnette to canon fire, brings such a violent strike against them that they are literally thrown back to the "Monument Path"."

Who were these admirable men who, shouting incomprehensible slogans, accomplished what seemed impossible? They crossed the death zone where no other men could cross....these were the Russians of the  Moroccan Division! Glory to them!

General Douzan, Commander of the Morroccan Division, decorated Captain Loupanoff with the Medal of the Legion of Honor and the Battalion received a rest period. The losses were severe.

May 1918. The Germans, using their best troops, managed to break through French lines. In one fell swoop, they crossed "the Ladies Path", cross the Aisne and come up to Chateau Thierry.  Soissons fell, and the road straight to Paris was wide open!! The Moroccan Division was urgently called in, and they immediately occupied the road from Soissons to Paris and received the worst of the German military might. The gunners could deal with the enemy onslaught but started to give in after battling under extreme enemy pressure. Just when all seemed lost, the Command threw the Russian Legion into the battle.

"To stop this menancing advance, the Colonel Lagarde orders the Russian Legion to counter attack. The Russian Legion throws itself into battle, officers in the lead. Even the medics, forgetting their mission of mercy in the enthusiasm of the battle at hand, pentrate into the enemy ranks."  Of 150 soldiers, 110 were left on the bank of the Vauxbin. This battle alone cost the Russians 85% of their soldier and almost all of their officers.

The French press of the time, in admiration of Russian heroism, underlined the large number of Russian soldiers who received the Medal of the Legion of  Honor and the Croix de Guerre and employed the term "Legion of Honor" to describe the Russian unit for the first time.

After their battles in the month of July, the Russian Legion receives (for the first time) reinforcements comprised of volunteers from old regiments of the Expeditionary Corps and they merge and become an independent unity in the First Brigade of the Morrocan Division.

In August they received reinforcements and became a Battalion of 2 and ½ infantry companies and a mortar detachment to make a complete unity within the First Brigade of the Moroccan Division. This Battalion was sent to the north of Aisne where they set off to Terny-Sorny towards Laffaux, one of the most advances points on the Hindenburg line.

During the fighting of 12 September, the Battalion fought through 3 lines of fortifications and pierce the German defense, taking a large number of prisoners by surprise and accumulating a great deal of material as booty.

For all of these operations, the Commander in Chief of the French Army, Marechal Foch, gives the Russian Battalion a special flag with Battle Cross colors and another Battle Cross with two palms on its flag, with the following quotes:

"A Battalion of elite fighters whose actions are animated by an implacable hatred of the enemy, joined with a complete disgust for death and a total dedication to our sacred cause. They showed rare courage in the operations in the Somme (26th to 30th of April, 1918) and only through their heroic resistance and a great loss of life we were able to stop the march of the enemy on Amiens. Also played a brilliant part in the battle of Soissons, the 29th, 30th and 2nd of September, 1918, where they displayed the same qualities of self-sacrifice, fighting without mercy to preserve the conquered territory, taking many prisoners and making many material gains."  (Decision of the General Commander in Chief - 30th September, 1918)

The Russian Legion of Honor became so renowned that they attracted many volunteers to their ranks coming from workers companies or even the Foreign Legion. Despite their losses, their numbers continued to grow: by November 1st, 1918, the Russian Legion of Honor had 564 men, divided into three infantry companies and a machine gun company.

From the 1st of October, the Germans were forced to evacuate the whole Hindenburg line and to retreat to the border. In these conditions, the entire Moroccan Division was transported to Nancy and engaged in a final campaign along the Moselle river towards Moyeuvre and this operation was stopped by the Armistice of 11th November.

Despite this, the Russian Legion of Honor continued to exist and to participate with the Allied Armies in their journey along the left bank of the Rhine - they crossed the Lorraine, Alsace, Sarre, and arrive at Friedrickshafen, and eventually at Worms
which they occupied until December.

At the end of 1918, the Russian Legion of Honor was evacuated to the interior of France and demobilized.

e- translated by Elena Schachter
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