Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

With Snow on Their Boots
Reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf

With Snow on Their Boots: The Tragic Odyssey of the Russian Expeditionary Force in France During World War I

by Jamie H. Cockfield, PhD
St. Martin's Griffin edition, 1999

Russian Forces Arrive at Marseilles 

Dr. Cockfield is currently Professor of Russian History at Mercer University in Georgia. Previous works include articles on late Tsarist Russia and White Crow, the Life and Times of the Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich Romanov 1859–1919.

I have seen very little about the Russian Expeditionary Force (REF) over the years, believing that the force was very small and contributed little toward the war effort on the Western Front. The paragraphs that I read from various sources did little more than say the soldiers arrived, were immediately swept up in revolutionary ideals, were isolated from other Allied armies, and then disappeared overnight. Dr. Cockfield's work has substantially expanded my brief knowledge and provided a much deeper picture of the importance of the REF. The first chapters go far in explaining how the REF, consisting of three brigades, came about and where they came from.

Russian Troops in the Trenches, Western Front
I can well imagine the rancor felt by the soldiers when they found out they were going to France and northern Greece to fight the Germans and Bulgarians—not for the valor of Russia, but in exchange for French artillery shells and various other armaments that Russian depots had run out of due to the first battles of the war. The First Brigade's origin was in Moscow among politically savvy workers who had a history of labor unrest, while the Third Brigade (the Second Brigade was shipped to Salonika and doesn't enter into this picture) came from the more conservative rural settings across Russia. I could see a conflict within the ranks in the future. Both brigades' soldiers had a distinction that was uncommon in the Tsar's Army: they were recruited with one question, "Can you read?" This capability had severe consequences in France.

The REF's arrival in France was greeted enthusiastically. The French people met them at the ports and followed them through France to their training camps with undying verve. This adoration had a twofold result. First, rumors began circulating that the Russians were immediately, after landing, launched into the Verdun battle in which they singlehandedly saved the French from defeat. Second, the Central Powers believed that the arrival of the Russians meant that the French Army was on the verge of collapse. Few tried to squelch either rumor, which led to growing resentment between the French and Russians. The REF's baptism under fire came in one of the worst disasters of French generalship, the Neville Offensive. Noted for horrendous casualties among French units because Neville tried to re-introduce the tactics of 1914, the Russians did exceptionally well attaining their objectives while the French did not.

But as a result, they endured many casualties. Their bravery and tenacity were noted by the French, but when they returned to their camps news came of the Revolution and the infamous Order No. 1 attempting to level the field regarding Army authority. The result was disastrous and led to the soldiers refusing orders. Herein lies the theme for subsequent chapters of the book: controlling an army that refused to obey orders, which expelled their officers, and which became a nuisance to the French countryside. Eventually order was restored but the REF disintegrated in an effort to weed out agitators. Almost the entire First Brigade wound up in prison or in North Africa serving as augmentation to French units keeping the peace there. The Third Brigade dissolved into farm labor across France with a few thousand donning the name of the Russian Legion and fighting as a French unit until the end of the war.

Cockfield's With Snow on Their Boots is an excellent read and very adequately shows a microcosm of the developing Russian Civil War. Perhaps its strongest point is in showing how ineffective and incompetent Russian officers were in dealing with revolutionary concepts. Find a place on your shelf for this book amid other works about the Russians and World War One.

Michael P. Kihntopf

1 comment:

  1. Like many Hessian soldiers in the American Revolution, how many Russian soldiers elected to stay in France after the war?