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Scientific section > The search for the Russian brigades in the French military archives

The search for the Russian brigades in the French military archives

Image locale (image propre et limitée à l'article, invisible en médiathèque)
Octobre 1916, les généraux Gouraud et Lokhvitsky passent en revue la 1ère brigade russe à l’entrainement au camp de Mailly.
© Collection Andreï Korliakov (France)

Between 1892 and 1894 France and Russia signed and ratified a military agreement which would soon become known among public opinion of the two countries as “The Franco-Russian Alliance”. Essentially, it provided for the mobilisation and joint action in the event of war against one of the countries of the Triple Alliance and ruled out any option of a separate peace.

When war broke out the agreement came into full effect. The rapid mobilisation of a part of the Russian army and its initial victory over Germany in Prussia at Gumbinnen probably saved France in the days leading up to the battle of the Marne. In August 1915, France and Great Britain who had just endured the most deadly year of the war, although they weren’t to know it yet, started running short of manpower. In Paris as in London, Russia, the most populous country in Europe, was a subject of considerable interest. Wasn’t it true that Russia had some 17 million men who could be called up? Couldn’t it send men to fight on the western front?  The approaches were made and the negotiations started. The Stavka, the Russian High Command was not very in favour of sending Russian troops to fight on French soil. However Nicolas II opposed the opinion of his military staff. A protocol was signed in May 1916. It resulted in the sending of 4 Russian brigades, of around 40,000 men to France and to the Salonica front. They were, for better or for worse to take part in the “French war”, in the Nivelle offensives in 1917, to endure the difficulty of the revolution for which, many miles away, they would suffer the trials and tribulations and of the revolutionary period as well as experience ups and down in their ranks.

Throughout this “French chapter”, documents, which were many in number, would be compiled and preserved by the administration in the Ministry for War, the High Command etc.. These documents, which today are in the form of around 200 boxes of archives which are kept in the defence history department, represent, alongside the Russian archives, an essential part of the remembrance of these Russians who fought on French soil during the war. What we’re offering here is an initial general insight.

Examination of the French military archives and the documentary typology

France classifies and organises its military archives using three simple principles. The first is basically chronological. It needs no explanation. The second is that the preserved documents, that is to say those which become, at the appropriate time archives, are those which have been compiled and preserved by their creator, which is to say in archive terms, their “producer” or their “issuer”. Which means that a note sent for example by the Slavic office head from the General Headquarters   (GQG) to General Lokhvitsky, would be kept in the archives of the Slavic office bureau slave of the General Headquarters GQG. Conversely a report sent by the baron Laguiche, the French military attaché in Petrograd, to the 2nd office of the General Headquarters GQG would be kept in the archives of the military attachés and not in those of the General Headquarters GQG. This procedural system is important because in theory it allows the research to be directed towards the collection of archives which corresponds to the subject of the research.

It suffers however from an interesting exemption that the French share with the Russians. The governments of both countries loved bureaucracy and, contrary to appearances, were very attached to their respective hierarchies. The consequence of this was a fortunate one for historians. For indeed the documents, which over the decades through the ups and downs of history, had disappeared from the archives of their “producer”, could, sometimes, be retrieved in those of their “recipients” quite simply because the non-commissioned officer in charge of archiving, had, back at that time quite reasonably, judged that he neither could nor should destroy a document received from such and such authority, be it French or in this case Russian. The third principle is the most important one because it determines the type of filing of the archives and as a consequence creates the right conditions for a search to be conducted. The classification of the military archives is the same as that of inventories, and essentially the same as the political organisation of the State and the army under the 3rd Republic, with, at the top, the President of the Republic, the chairman of the Council, the minister for War and his staff, the higher Councils, the army high command,… and at its bottom the archives from the units, armies, army corps, divisions, brigades, regiments, etc. Which means that a search on military politics, alliances, war plans, is done in the “first” series of archives, that another search on the relations between the  GQG and the Stavka (High Command) on the sending of the Russian troops to France and to Salonica is done in the  “intermediate” series, that the administration of the brigades in France is to found in the archives of the 1st office of the military staff and that the archives relating to their use at the front will be found in the archives of the assigned armies which is to say in the last series of inventories.

What types of documents and what volume of archives?

By consulting the archive inventories of the First World War we have been able to identify, from among around 11,000 boxes of archives examined (series 1 N to 20 N) between 220 and 240 boxes containing,  in theory information about the brigades. These pieces of information are sometimes scattered among other far more numerous pieces of information, with for example a single telegram sent from Petrograd which was drowned among hundreds of military and diplomatic dispatches. Sometimes they form logical sets made up of several boxes, or even several dozen boxes in succession and contain “virtually” only information about the brigades. This was the case for the “Laval base”, which we shall mention later on.

From a typological point of view, the documents which can be found range from the personal letter and the diplomatic telegram consisting of a few lines to the entire political file which is several dozen pages long. By sorting through them the following types can be identified :

  • documents in Russian which have perhaps never been examined since the end of the war: Various documents in Russian (17 N 585), and which it is unclear as to whether they concern the brigades or not ;
  • diaries or extracts from diaries in Russian : Allied diaries (Russian, Serb, Belgian, Italian) published in France and abroad, 1914-1918 (5 N 396) ;
  • letters : Letters in Russian, 1917-1918 (16 N 1564) ;
  • military organisation notebooks and documents : Tables listing the number of Russian and French armed forces, telegrams concerning the 1st Russian brigade, correspondence exchanged with the G.Q.G.,… (7 N 390) ;
  • documents of an operational nature : Defence plan for the French Army of the Eastern front, for the Italian expeditionary corps and the 2nd division of the Russian infantry, Serb and aerial defence plans, June 1917 - September 1918 (20 N 587-588) ;
  • administrative documents of a general nature : General order when the Russian troops arrived in France, 23 April (16 N 1681) ; letters sent to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, notably: the morale of the Russian troops in France, 9 June 1917 (16 N 3059) ; order from General Palitzine to the Russian troops in France (16 N 3180) ;
  • reports from the intelligence services : Information on the “league of Russians loyal to the fatherland and to the alliances”, split between this league and “the union of Russian patriots friendly to the entente”, status of the “league for the regeneration of Russia in unison with the allies”, November 1917 - October 1918, (7 N 616);
  • information bulletins known as fortnightly information Bulletins : Fortnightly information bulletin No. 11631 on  the relations between the Russian troops and the population during the summer of 1917 (7 N 754) ;
  • reports from the prefects and monthly reports from the general security service sent to the War ministry about the Russian revolutionaries in France in 1917 and 1918 (16 N 1539) ;
  • notes sent by the Foreign Office to the War Ministry on the subject of Soviet protests against the treatment of the Russian contingents fighting in Macedonia and request for the repatriation of all the Russian contingents, 17 January 1919 (5 N 181) ;
  • complete political files like those intended for the ministerial meetings, dealing with among other things the sending of troops to France, [and] the reaction in Russia to the presence of Russian troops in France.

A consistent set, the case of the archives on the Russian base in Laval

The documents mentioned above appear either one by one as part of the 200 or so boxes mentioned, either  “more or less” grouped together in one or two boxes, or in consistent sets. This latter possibility, which in itself is the most appealing, is also the rarest. The archives said to be from the Russian base in Laval constitute a good and rare example with 20  consistent boxes of archives (16 N 632 – 652) which deal with, as the Summary inventory of the archives of the 1914-1918 war reminds us (series 15 N à 20 N), not only the base in Laval, but “all the questions concerning Russians in France, in North Africa and in the East from 1917 to 1924”. These twenty or so boxes, no doubt, contain a lot of administrative information about life at the Laval base from its establishment in 1917 to its dismantlement in 1920. The organisation notes, the surveys on the conditions for the Russians in France are supplemented by some interesting and original documents on financial matters, military justice or even discipline. These archives also offer some interesting information on internal and external political matters for a period stretching from 1917 to 1924.

Primarily they cover the question of the French perception of the situation in Russia during the revolutionary period by offering political, economic and military information concerning Russia, the situation and the state of minds in Ukraine, the evacuation of Odessa, opinion in Siberia,… (16 N 651). They are far more concerned with the anti-Bolshevik propaganda among Russians in France (16 N 642), the fight against Bolshevism (16 N 644) and the ways of involving the Russians in France in this by bringing up the question of the Russian officers sent to the East for General Denikine (16 N 645). As far as more precisely concerns the Russian presence in France, this collection looks at the subject of the Russian officers in France and in North Africa in1919-1920 (16 N 635), at the Russian workers in France (16 N 637-638), at the Russian forester detachment (16 N 640), and at the special sections formed by the soldiers incarcerated on the Île d’Aix (16 N 641). At this point we should also note an original box on the workings of the Russian health service in France, in Salonica and in Algeria (16 N 640) which only ceased functioning in 1924. There is also a set of boxes which, covering the end of the war, deal with the demobilisation of the Russian troops, (16 N 649-650), the return of prisoners of war from Germany, some of whom perhaps belonged to the brigades (16 N 638 – 640), the repatriation (16 N 646 – 648) but also the question of enrolment in the ranks of the Foreign Legion, the French army or… the American army (16 N 641 – 643). Finally, it should be pointed out that, as well as a box on the dismantlement of the Laval base in 1920, there are several boxes on the arrival in France of Russian refugees from the civil war.

What were the documents placed in the boxes during the war years ?

Even before the arrival of the brigades in Marseille, the archives show a French interest in the recruitment of Russian volunteers  who went on to join the Foreign Legion, without it however being always possible, for known political reasons, to clearly identify whether the volunteers were “Polish” or “Russian” as they claimed to be . A trace of this phenomenon can be found in the Poincaré collection in which mention is made as from 1914 of “the legionnaires notably Poles and Russians”, but also of the incidents of 18 June 1915 at the 2nd foreign regiment at Courlandon dans Marne. These archives, which were are limited in number for the years of 1914 and 1915, become more abundant in 1916.  The priority, as it appears in the documents, concerns transport (16 N3056), training (16 N 3015) and the deployment of Russian soldiers on French soil (19 N 1397-1399), then at Salonica (16 N 3057, 20 N 133-134).

From time to time one also comes across original documents such as this interview about corporal punishment which was allegedly inflicted on the soldiers in the Russian units operating in France (16 N 3018). On a different level, the monitoring of the morale of the Russian troops makes its appearance from April 1916. It is and continues to be carefully monitored. This means that for 1917 it is possible to follow step by step, the life of the brigades with their deployment to the front, the request for their withdrawal from the army zone (16 N 1686), the questions about their morale (16 N 3059), but also the effects, either real or perceived, of the revolutionary propaganda, up to the events of La Courtine that we all know about.  We should note here a particular concern, that of the Russian provisional government which fearing the effect on morale that the return of Russian troops from France might have, asked on [30 July 1917] for them to be sent to Salonica (16 N 1507).

1918 is the year that highlights the break-up of the brigades with information on the use of the Russian officers and soldiers who had asked to serve in the French army (16 N 3060), the distribution of the soldiers between the Russian Legion, units of workers, units sent to Algeria or incarcerated on the Île d’Aix island. We also note the use remotely of the brigades by the Bolsheviks who had recently come to power, when, in June 1918 the people’s commissariat for foreign affairs drew the attention of the French government to the treatment of Russian soldiers in France.  Finally, the archives for 1919 give an account of the Soviet protests against the treatment of the Russian contingents fighting in Macedonia increasing (5 N 181), and the question of repatriation taking up centre stage, first to return home but also to link up with the white armies or join the Bolsheviks, all of which worried Denikine who told the Allies on 24 December 1919, about, the threat that Odessa could face with the arrival of Russian soldiers returning from France. For this period, the archives mention for a final time, the commitment of the Russians in the legion which needs to be very closely examined, and look at the fourragères (military awards) to be awarded to the Russian Legion (16 N 1600-1601) and to the Russian soldiers who remained in France (12 N 3).