Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2

Rémi Adam

1917: The Revolt of the Russian Soldiers in France

THE mutiny of the Russian troops at the La Courtine camp during the summer of 1917 remains to this day one of the least known events in the First World War. The first warning signs appeared when news of the February Revolution spread: this revolt was a unique event on the Western front, both for its revolutionary character and for the number of soldiers involved, as well as for the extent of the repression which finally put an end to it. The revolt was a direct consequence, as well as a repeat, of the scale of the Russian revolution and of the collapse of the Imperial army. But it equally belongs to the general movement of rebellion growing in the trenches of the French army, in the aftermath of the failure of the murderous offensive launched by Nivelle in April 1917.

‘Russia must let us draw from her immense reserves’

In the summer of 1915, the military situation on the Western front had reached an impasse, and all attempts to ‘overcome the deadlock’ had failed. The French armies were stuck in the trenches, and at the High Command worries began to grow in respect of the likely exhaustion of ‘human reserves’. It was at that point that the idea was proposed to appeal to Tsarist Russia to ‘throw on the scales’ – in France or within the Eastern army – a proportion of those soldiers it was unable to train and equip. A first such plan, under the name of How to Create a Reservoir of Russian Infantry in France, calculated that Russia would be able to supply 1.2 million men within six months, without weakening ‘to any notable degree its military resistance capabilities’. Just like Shylock, who wanted to recover his outstanding debts by taking human flesh from his debtor, France now demanded that her goods be paid for in men. Paul Doumer, and then Viviani and Albert Thomas, were appointed to negotiate the exchange with Russia in the winter of 1915. For the consideration of a few hundred thousand supplementary rifles, the autocracy – whose army already stood on the verge of disbanding – authorised the despatch of 20,000 men to France, and of 20,000 more in the direction of Salonika.

The Stavka (the Russian General Headquarters) promised to send ‘truly élite, carefully selected troops’. The ‘hotheads’ were excluded. Two units were created to fight on the French front. The First Brigade was partly assembled from among the reservists and recruits around Petrograd, Moscow and Kazan, and included a sizeable group of men of foreign origin. The Third Brigade, on the other hand, was formed through the aggregation of units taken from the front, and also with true ‘veterans’ of the war against Japan.

To head these troops, the Russian Command appointed the old general Palitsilin, a veteran leader of the Chief of Staff from 1905 to 1909, who in that capacity had been principally responsible for the cruel repression unleashed against the Russian population in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution. Higher-ranking officers were also among the ‘selected elements’.

After an extraordinary odyssey lasting three months, crossing by train the frozen expanses of Siberia, then on overcrowded boats from Dairen, in Manchuria, to the Mediterranean, passing through Saigon, Singapore, Colombo, Djibouti and Suez, the First Brigade finally arrived in Marseille in mid-April 1916. In the spring, the Third Brigade went down the sea route from Arkhangelsk to Brest, via Norway and the British Isles. Welcomed by ovations from the local people and handfuls of flower petals thrown at them, the Russians paraded the streets of Marseille and, on 14 July, those of Paris. ‘The troops arrived amid great ceremony on the heavenly soil of France’, wrote Henri Barbusse ironically: ‘Ovations, hymns and the Marseillaise galore. Ecstatic crowds. Soldiers were given cigarettes and chocolates, while patriotic and excited women hugged the best looking ones.’ The press never tired of praising the ‘Russian school’, which developed those ‘qualities so invaluable in a soldier: boundless devotion, blind obedience, endless patience; loyalty to the Tsar, who represents God, loyalty to their commander, who represents the Tsar, and loyalty to their orders, which are the Tsar’s promises’.

However, those ‘élite corps drawn from the best regiments’ soon put in their place these lackeys of government propaganda. For in August 1916, one Russian unit about to depart for Salonika assassinated Lieutenant-Colonel Krause, who, up until that point, had imposed an iron discipline over the soldiers. A Tsarist agent, who had distributed among the soldiers an issue of the journal Nashe Slovo (Our Word), published in Paris by a group of Russian revolutionaries, gave the French regime the pretext that it needed to ban the journal and expel Trotsky, who had been among its main contributors.

The Soviets at the Heart of the French Army

According to an old officer from the expeditionary corps, towards January 1917, ‘the majority of the Russian soldiers in France were already voicing their belief that they had all been “sold off” to the French in exchange for ammunition, and they had no sympathy whatsoever for their “masters and buyers”’. After several months spent at the front, where they had endured the cruelty of their officers – corporal punishment, reintroduced in the Russian army in 1914, was used against these two Russian brigades – the ‘obedience’ and ‘loyalty’ of these men was shattered with the announcement of the fall of the autocracy, news which had been deliberately delayed for a fortnight inside the camp. The soldiers then elected committees, expelled certain officers, and decided that the spring offensive would be their last action. In the bloody massacre of 16 April, counting all the dead and wounded, the Russians lost close to 6,000 men. All the while, they never ceased to demand their repatriation.

On 1 May, according to the Russian calendar, the troops booed their commanders and displayed red flags on which they wrote, both in French and in Russian, ‘Liberté’, ‘Egalité’ and ‘Fraternité’. For its part, the Provisional Government continued to urge the soldiers to follow their orders and continue to fight for France, until the final victory.

‘To avoid any contact between French troops and the two Russian brigades, who have been infected by the cancer of revolutionary committees’ propaganda’, as Pétain put it, the authorities moved the Russians in the direction of Neufchâtel, in the Vosges region. But the unrest showed no sign of abating. On 3 June, General Castelnau reached the conclusion that the soldiers’ committees ‘who had previously striven to restore order’ were, by now, irretrievably ‘overcome and already disowned by the men who had elected them in the first place’.

Meanwhile, in the Mailly camp, where the garrisons of the two brigades were quartered, incidents against the officers were growing by the day. The committees were at their most active in the rearguard, in the military hospitals. In the hope of being able to send these ‘undesirable’ troops back to Russia in the near future, and in an attempt to give the Russian officers the chance to regain control over their men, the French government then decided to move them to the camp of La Courtine, in the Creuse.

The Russian Soldiers in Charge of La Courtine Camp

This quarantining had the opposite effect in that it pushed the men of the First Brigade, who were fully armed and equipped, to rebel openly against the Russian High Command. A few days after their arrival at the military camp, the committee of this particular unit held a general meeting, also attended by several hundred men of the Third Brigade. The meeting adopted a resolution stating that the troops were demanding their repatriation ‘in the name of freedom, in the name of the working people and of war orphans’. They also refused to return to the French front. The officers were approached by their men and sometimes manhandled. ‘No more puffing out their chests’, wrote Léon Weber Bauler, the veteran Chief Doctor with the Russian health service, ‘no more happy sound of spurs – for a short while, they were stripped of their ranks.’ In the following days, they left the camp.

With this sudden worsening of the crisis, General Zankevich, the newly-appointed Commander of the Russian troops in France and the representative of the Provisional Government, was terrified that the men of the Third Brigade, which included about 6,000 soldiers in all, might join forces with the 10,000 men of the First Brigade and the garrison. Therefore, he ordered the latter to be moved to the north, initially within the perimeter of the camp and then near Felletin, just over 10 miles from La Courtine. But even this distance did not allow the ‘restoration of the Third Brigade’, as it came increasingly under the influence of the rebels in the camp. For at La Courtine the men who were in charge of the camp showed their strength and determination more and more each day, and the French authorities – by now deeply terrified of these developments – alerted the special forces at the beginning of July.

The soldiers were refusing to obey the orders of the Russian command. They met daily in small groups, or alternatively called a general meeting. ‘Everywhere there are discussions in the open’, wrote General Comby in his report. Despite his contempt, even the likes of Joseph Noulens gives us an idea of the growth in consciousness and the fear of the authorities when he writes:

You see utterly ignorant muzhiks coming from the depths of the Urals or the shores of the Volga debating endlessly, drawing conclusions, deliberating, not only on the duties of officers towards the soldiers, or the management of the troops’ various corps, or tactical problems, but also on the goals of the world war, the imperialism of Western governments, and the rights of France over Morocco and her colonies.

At La Courtine, power was now in the hands of the committees, dominated by the figure of Jean Baltais from Latvia, president of the soviet of the First Battalion within the First Brigade. Soldiers could be seen engaged in manoeuvres under the command of fellow soldiers. And while the government stated unequivocally that it intended to get rid as soon as possible of these ‘undesirable’ troops, the Provisional Government ran aground in its attempts to negotiate.

A visit to the camp and the speeches by its envoys on 17 July brought no change whatsoever. The soldiers stationed at La Courtine booed the political tirades of Svatikov, Russia’s High Commissar abroad, and of Rapp, the envoy of the Russian War Ministry. They also refused to surrender any weapons to their officers.

A few days later, Baltais and a delegation of soldiers at the camp travelled to Paris for an audience with the authorities. Kerensky’s spokesmen threatened them with the most serious consequences. On his return, Baltais explained that the only way forward was to convince the men of the Third Brigade to come over to their side, so as to avoid the use of force. However, his position was opposed by the majority and he resigned. Globa, a Ukrainian who had spoken most harshly against this ‘shameless capitulation’, became the new leader of the committee. But Baltais and those who decided to follow him in his journey to Felletin were betrayed and arrested and imprisoned upon their arrival at the Third Brigade camp. Kerensky effectively decided to reject all calls for repatriation and to re-establish order instead, ‘with the strongest measures, not excluding even the use of arms’, in an effort to avoid involving the French troops in any repression.

However, he could not impose the order he wanted so much. The orders of Russia’s High Command were no longer being followed. The ultimatum he repeatedly issued to the rebels was not heeded. Moreover, the men of the Third Brigade, who until a few days earlier had been regarded as ‘loyal and dependable’, now started to show signs of unrest, and they were hurriedly despatched to the Courneau camp in the Gironde region.

The 10,000 Russian soldiers continued to defy their officers, the Provisional Government and the French troops gathering around the camp. During the whole of August, the French government multiplied its pressures on Kerensky, asking him to send instructions to his High Command in France. General Zankevich’s dismissal was also considered.

Finally, on 21 August, Kerensky decided to take a detachment of several hundred men from the Russian artillery brigade which was ‘providentially’ crossing France at the time and was stationed in Orange, waiting to depart for Salonika. From then on, Zankevich was able to ‘detach’ over 2,000 men at Courneau, to launch an assault for which the French government had promised to supply the necessary cannon and technical personnel.

‘General, I do not believe that you shall succeed in ridding yourself
so easily of that bunch of parasites.’ [1]

Despite various appeals issued by soldiers at La Courtine to the French government and to their ‘comrades in the Third Brigade’, whom they accused of ‘letting themselves be betrayed by the bourgeoisie’, the assault order was given. As General Comby, commander of French forces, wrote: ‘We won’t have to wait long now to see action.’ The local population was evacuated and the ultimatum, which declared that those soldiers who refused to surrender by midnight of 16 September, were ‘traitors to the fatherland and the revolution’, was relayed to the mutineers.

That same day, 14 September, rations were halved, and the Russian troops surrounded the camp. The 5,000 soldiers of the French ‘protection forces’ formed a second circle, ensuring the total blockade of the entire area. Trenches were dug, and a battery of 75mm cannon was positioned on the hills overlooking the camp below.

At 10.00 hours on 16 September, four shells, three as practice and one blank, were fired. G. Cluzelaud recalls:

A cloud of dust rose from the mound, lighting the back of the camp, and then the notes of the music played by the Russians could be heard, together with many cries of ‘hooray’. To each shell landing inside the camp, the mutineers replied jubilantly, singing the Marseillaise [2] and the funeral march by Chopin, which they made sound like a cry of protest and disdain.

At 14.00 hours, the assault resumed. This time, shells cut to pieces the men who had gathered around the musical band of the brigade. Until 20.00 hours the cannon ‘methodically’ discharged their shells. Later, machine guns took over for the rest of the night.

At 10.00 hours the following morning, 40 shells had been fired, and at 14.00 hours the surrender began. The Russians were placed under the surveillance of the French troops, several miles to the south of the camp. However, a group of rebels was still fiercely holding out, despite the intense fire of the cannon and the machine guns, which were ensuring that the camp would be ‘cleansed’. Surrounded on all sides, the last group of fighters, headed by Globa, was finally placed under arrest on 19 September. That day, order reigned at La Courtine.

This was the most violent mutiny the French army had to face in 1917, a year characterised by the widespread disbanding of its own troops. In this connection, General Vidalon recalled ‘the real street fighting’ that took place ‘with the support of the artillery’. The commander of the French troops echoed these words, when he wrote that ‘it was like being in one of the most active sectors at the front’, and that damage within the camp had been ‘considerable’.

The official report on this last point spoke of nine Russian soldiers dead, and 46 injured. However, the rebels were buried in secret, at night, at unmarked locations, with neither a cross nor a name, and without the knowledge of their comrades. One thing is certain: there were most definitely hundreds of victims. As Charles Steber rightly wrote: ‘Kerensky’s attitude alone would not have led to a massacre, so the French government and the High Command agreed, lent a hand, and, in a nutshell, became accomplices to this massacre.’

One can therefore see in this French attitude a kind of general repetition of the policy that would be followed later, in the Civil War in Russia. Moreover, this act of repression was but one of several attempts with which the Russian command tried to re-establish its authority over an army which had completely disintegrated. Finally, it was a brutal conclusion to the first assault launched by the Russian Revolution in France.

After this revolt, the French government proposed that the Russian troops return to the front, provided that they submitted themselves to French discipline, that is, without any soviets. The alternative was inclusion in the so-called ‘voluntary workers’. A small fraction was made into a ‘Legion of Volunteers’, which, however, was soon disbanded as well. The majority of the men agreed to work in remote detachments within France, and to submit themselves to intense surveillance. They continued to protest against their fate, and constantly demanded repatriation. To bring the most ‘insubordinate’ men back into line, the authorities were forced to create disciplinary squads. Finally, over a third of the mutineers rejected these proposals, and they were deported to Algeria. Placed under the surveillance of French bayonets, they were compelled to engage in extremely harsh work alongside other settlers or at the service of the state, penned in internment camps. They were all held as hostages by the French government until 1919 or 1920, and were then exchanged, not without the coercion of some of them to enrol in the White armies, for members of France’s military missions detained in Russia.


1. Reflections of an American general when the assault on the camp began.

2. These are not the original words of Rouget de Lisle, but an adaptation of them by Lavrov, a populist, which became the anthem of the Russian Republic in the summer of 1917.

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011