Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jamie H. Cockfield - With Snow On Their Boots

The disintegration, mutiny and rebellion of Russia's troops on the Eastern Front was a central part of both the Russian Revolution and the ending of World War One. The soldiers, sick of the harsh conditions, the pointless battles, the lack of ammunition and supplies as well as the vicious discipline of the Imperial Army, refused to fight en-masse. Their rebellion helped drive the Revolution as the government that followed the fall of the Tsar refused to end the war.

But a less well known story, which follows a similar path, is the tale of the Russian Expeditionary Force that fought in France on the Western Front. Jamie Cockfield's book is the first recent book that I have found on this topic, though there are frequent references to the rebellion in accounts of 1917, such as Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution.

The presence of thousands of Russian troops in France from 1916 has its origins in the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two nations. France lacked manpower to fight in the trenches, particularly after the mincing machine of Verdun. Russia on the other hand had an enormous population but lacked the material resources to fight the Germans in the East. One Russian soldier who eventually made it back to Russia in the 1920s called his memoirs of his regiment's time in France as "Sold for Shells", an apt description of the transfer of men for munitions that took place. Of course, there was more to it than a simple economic transaction. Cockfield's book details the complex diplomatic discussions that preceded the embarkation of nearly 20,000 troops. Russia wanted to demonstrate its commitment to the war effort, and France hoped that the presence of Russian soldiers would demonstrate the broad coalition that was committed to fighting Germany. 400,000 troops were promised by the Russians though only two groups embarked. The differences in these two brigades' origins had a fundamental impact upon what took place on French soil.

Thus the arrival of the Russian troops was met with parades, flag waving and speeches that extolled the brotherhood of the allies. Yet even early on in their arrival in France, the Russian troops were typically neglected. During their involvement in one of the most brutal and vicious of the battles of the Western Front, the Nivelle Offensive, the Russian soldiers proved brave and tenacious combatants, officers and men winning medals for bravery and sacrifice. But the military disaster of this offensive led to an enormous mutiny in the French army, which was infected by a collective desire to stop fighting.

The Russian units too rebelled. Isolated from both the French army and events in Russia they had little idea what was taking place. But lack of supplies, conditions at the front and the horror of the war fed the propaganda they were beginning to receive from leftist Russian exiles in France. The (mistaken) belief that they were accorded second rate rations and medical care by the French also helped feed rebellion. Another important factor was that the Russians were still under the discipline that they would have experienced in the East. Their officers were rude and occasionally violent. In the early days of their arrival in France, angry soldiers had actually killed a Russian officer and control had only been reasserted by the imprisonment of several and the shooting of other ringleaders.

In a theme that was to become a key part of the French authorities concerns, the mutiny in the French Army was blamed on the negative influence of the Russians. As Cockfield stresses, "the blame for it fell, however, not on the real causes but on the innocent Russian bridages that had fought so well in Champagne.... It became convenient, therefore, to blame the Russians."

Yet there was clearly something taking place in the Russian units. The soldiers were organising, and their methods of organizing bore striking similarities to what was taking place in Russia. "On May 10 [1917] the radicals ordered new elections for a series of committees, one deputy for every fifty men and a separate Soviet of Officers' Deputies." Cockfield points out that an observer of the Russian army was "stupefied" that the "revolutionary methods adopted by the soldiers in Russia had been accepted so quickly". The troops went further than elections, with the Third Brigade acquiring its own printing press and publishing a newspaper.

The actions of agitators clearly had an effect. A newspaper influenced by Trotsky in exile had poured in revolutionary propaganda. But Cockfield notes that in the most radical of the two brigades, the First, most of the men were from Moscow factories and would have had experience, or at least knowledge, of the Bolsheviks' arguments during the 1905 revolution. The other brigade was mostly men from peasant areas who were more isolated from such rebellious ideas.

For their mutiny, the Russians were isolated and dispersed, as the rebellion grew and the refusal to fight continued the soldiers grew more confident. As the Kerensky government continued the war, and then the Bolshevik uprising began the presence of the troops went from being an embarrassment to the French to a major problem. For the revolutionaries in Russia it was a superb opportunity to make propaganda. Cockfield suggests that the Bolsheviks exaggerated stories of hardship, hunger and deprivation among the troops, though he also acknowledges they experienced real difficulties.

Eventually the refusal of the Russian troops to disarm led to military confrontation. Though cleverly, the French used the most loyal Russian troops in the Third Brigade against those in the First. After several days of shelling, and a handful of casualties (Cockfield says that later claims by the Bolsheviks that 100s died have no evidence) the soldiers gave in, to face more imprisonment while the authorities debated what to do. Cockfield notes though, that "notes of the ministry of foreign affairs, rather details before and very detailed afterward are nonexistent for the three days of the battle."

With the armistice on the Eastern Front, the troops had further arguments to refuse to fight. After all, why should they take up arms while no other Russian was still in the war. Some soldiers were given work in France, others remained in camps or were shipped to the Middle East. Those troops were were loyal and wanted to fight, did so, and eventually went on to form a small (but ineffective) core to the French intervention against the Russian Revolution in Russia. The shelling of Russians by Russians forming, for Cockfield, "a dress rehearsal for the Russian Civil War."

Eventually most of the Russians made it home, though many did not, and many were trapped in France. Cockfield meticulous history of this strange military and revolutionary episode details much of the rebellion and the lives of the soldiers. Those interested in the Russian Revolution will find much of interest here, not least the parallels in rebellion. The book is marred, in my opinion, by Cockfield's tirades against the Bolsheviks and their Revolution. While being scrupulously fair to those soldiers who are his subject, his accounts of the situation in Russia drifts, on occasion, into anti-Bolshevik propaganda. Writing of those who infiltrated France to ferment rebellion, Cockfield suggests that "many were by now Russian Leftists of some sort who were prostituting themselves for German gold, as Lenin did, and held little if any real allegiance to specific Bolshevik ideology."

Such statements ill-become a work of serious history and will certainly annoy readers who are more sympathetic to the Revolution and have knowledge of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Nonetheless, even with this personal bias, Cockfield captures the mood of those who hated the Revolution. At the surrender of the rebel First Brigade, an American General told another commander, "I did not believe, general, that you would get rid of this bunch of lice so elegantly."

While I also disagree with Jamie Cockfield's analysis of the Russian Revolution, I do recommend this book to those people who are trying to understand the Russian Revolution and find out the real history of World War One. The story of mass, armed rebellion on the Western Front among Russian (and French) troops is unlikely to appear in many commemorative books and programs. But it is a story that should be told, if only to remember those 1000s of Russian men, trapped in France, who only wanted to return home.

Related Reviews

Stone - The Eastern Front
Sherry - Empire & Revolution: A socialist history of the First World War

No comments: