Succor for Serbia: The Russian Expeditionary Force to Salonika in 1916

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By Carl Savich

Russia sent two infantry brigades to Salonika in 1916 to buttress the Allied or Entente forces in the Balkans. Their objective was to attack Bulgarian and German troops in Macedonia and to retake Serbian territory seized in 1915. They were integrated into the Allied forces which included Serbian, French, and British troops. Russian troops had earlier been sent to Belgrade to assist in the defense of the city from Austro-Hungarian attack. Russia, Serbia, France, and Great Britain had collaborated in the defense of Belgrade. Russia had also sent brigades to France to help French and British troops against the Germans.

The Salonika Front saw successes and defeats until the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918 and the final breakthrough. The Salonika Front remained a controversial and neglected battlefield of the Great War. The Russian role in that operational theater has rarely, if ever, been examined.

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The two Russian infantry brigades that fought in Macedonia during 1916 and 1917 consisted of approximately 10,000 men each in three infantry regiments. Each brigade was composed of two regiments, each made up of 3 battalions, and a machine gun company. They lacked heavy weaponry. The French equipped them with artillery.

The Russian Expeditionary Force was first dispatched to France by Russia, arriving in Marseille in April, 1916. The origin of the formations was in 1915 when the French requested that Russian troops be sent in combat to support French troops on the Western Front. The French leader Paul Doumer, during a trip to Russia, had asked that 300,000 Russian troops be deployed to France in exchange for the supply and delivery of French weapons and supplies to Russia. The Russian Chief of Staff, General Mikhail Alekseev, rejected the proposal. Nicholas II intervened in the matter, however, offering to send a Russian brigade to France. Russia was the largest and most populous of the warring countries. The Allies assumed as a matter of course that Russia possessed unlimited manpower resources.

The 1st Russian Special Brigade commanded by Russian Major-General Nikolaï Alexandrovitch Lokhvitski landed at the port of Marseille in southern France on April 16, 1916. The First Brigade distinguished itself in combat on the Western Front. The unit remained a cohesive and highly disciplined formation until the 1917 Russian Revolution and the subsequent political turmoil.

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The 2nd Special Brigade, or 2e Brigade Speciale d’Infanterie in French, was deployed to serve alongside other Allied formations on the Salonika Front in northern Greece. The brigade was made up of 224 officers and 9,388 men, coming from the port city of Archangel or Arkhangelsk in northern Russia. A total of 17,000 Russian soldiers were in Salonika by the end of 1916.

The 3rd Brigade consisting of regular troops and reserves was formed in Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk under the command of Fyodor Fyodorovich Palitzin. This unit departed for France in August, 1916.

The 4th Brigade commanded by General Maxim Nikolayevich Leontiev or Leontieff arrived on the Salonika front in November, 1916.

The 5th Brigade was ordered to be formed but never emerged due to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.

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The first to arrive at the port in Salonika was the 2nd Brigade which landed on July 30, 1916 by boat. The 4th Brigade arrived in October. The 2nd Brigade was commanded by General Mikhail Konstantinovich Diterikhs or Dietrichs who had been Chief of Staff under General Aleksei Brusilov.

With the start of World War I, Diterikhs was assigned as Chief of Staff for the Russian Third Army on the Southwestern Front under the command of General Aleksei Brusilov, with whom he assisted in planning the Brusilov Offensive or June Advance launched on June 4 and lasting until September, 1916. He was subsequently transferred to command the Russian expeditionary force in Salonika, or Thessaloniki in Greek, on the Macedonian Front in support of the Serbian Army.

The Russian brigades served with French and Serbian forces west of the Vardar River and took part in the capture of Monastir on November 19, 1916.

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The July 30, 1916 arrival of Russian troops was filmed. It was featured in a 1916 British Topical News newsreel on the arrival of Russian troops to Salonika by boat. The two segments were entitled “Russians in Macedonia” and “Help for the Allies”. Russian officers and troops were shown arriving at Salonika. The transport boat was filmed from the shore slowly sailing into the quay of the port. Then Russian General Mikhail K. Diterikhs, the commander of the Russian Expeditionary Force in Salonika, was shown climbing down the landing from the boat. He was followed by other Russian officers. Russian infantry troops were shown next disembarking. Then a camera from the side showed them leaving the boat while British and Serbian bands played in the streets at the dock to welcome them. Diterikhs was shown talking to other Russian officers. A French and a British officer met him on the quay. Other Allied officers watched them as they disembarked.

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The arrival was also captured in a Pathe newsreel for July 30, 1916. Russian troops are shown arriving at Salonika, the Balkan headquarters of the Allied powers, for service in World War I. The newsreel began with a wide shot pan across the ship revealing Russian soldiers on the decks while spectators and military personnel were waiting on the dock. Allied officers saluted as the ship docked. A wide shot showed a color guard disembarking and walking on the dock. A medium camera shot showed Russian infantry soldiers or ground troops disembarking. Russian soldiers were bringing down their banner. A wide shot focused on the commander of the multinational Allied force in Salonika General Maurice Paul Emmanuel Sarrail who was shown approaching with other multinational military officers. He stopped to salute at the camera and then proceeded. There was then a wide shot pan as Sarrail and other officers conducted a troop review of the Russian soldiers and passed the camera. A military band was shown leading the troops as they marched toward the camera and passed by as crowds cheered. Russian General Mikhail K. Diterikhs can be seen on the quay talking to other Russian officers. Then Diterikhs and General Sarrail salute as they review Russian troops. Two military bands pass by the ship to welcome the Russian troops. The first band is wearing French 1915 Adrian helmets. This is the Serbian band. The second band is wearing British helmets. This is the British band.

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The 4th Special Infantry Brigade, or 4e Brigade Speciale d’Infanterie, commanded by Russian Major-General Maxim Nikolayevich Leontiev, or Maxime Leontieff, was sent as part of the Expédition de Salonique, relaying first at Brest in Brittany in northwestern France aboard La Lorraine, a paquebot, or transport ship, which arrived in Salonika in October, 1916.

Russian General Mikhail Konstantinovich Diterikhs or Dietrichs was photographed talking to other Russian staff officers on the quay in Salonika when they arrived on July 30, 1916. A French officer was shown greeting him. Behind him was a British officer. In the background could be seen the transport ship which brought the Russian troops from France. Diterikhs was also photographed reviewing the Russian infantry troops with Sarrail after their arrival. The photographer of the Russian troops was American Ariel Varges, who was working for the British armed forces during the war. Diterikhs, the commander of the Russian forces in Salonika, “before coming to Macedonia had distinguished himself as one of the ablest of Brusilov’s staff officers in Galicia” and “was a determined and energetic officer.”

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In Macedonia, Russian troops participated in the capture of Serbian territory during the two battles for Monastir, or Bitola in present-day Macedonia, the Battles for Monastir in 1916 and in 1917.

The two Russian brigades had been engaged in active combat on the Salonika front for eight months by May, 1917. They had participated in non-stop military engagements on the front without any rest or respite. They had been engaged in the most intense fighting in the battle to capture Monastir. They had attacked the Kenali defenses in the opening gambit to seize Monastir. For five months they had been on alert on active duty on the Crna Bend. They were the front line infantry assault or shock troops on that front. They remained positioned within two hundred yards from entrenched Bulgarian and German troops. The troop strength of the brigade had been reduced by illness and by high casualties. They fought well and doggedly. They became increasingly disillusioned and wary, however, as exhaustion set in. The successes of 1916 quickly led to the stalemate of futile and costly attacks of 1917. The last major success of the 2nd Brigade was the capture of the village of Orle on May 9, 1917. Their deployment as assault or shock troops took its toll on the brigade. After the second battle for Monastir in 1917, the 2nd brigade suffered 4,000 casualties

On May 18, 1917, Diterikhs requested from Sarrail that he grant the brigade a rest period of six weeks in which to recover. This was seen as a needed time of respite from the non-stop duty on the front lines and as relief from the stress and fatigue of battle.

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The Fourth Brigade commanded by Maxim Leontiev was also showing signs of fatigue and unrest. They served with the Serbian forces. Spurred on by the revolutionary agitation which was sweeping the Russian armed forces, they displayed their disaffection with their role as shock troops, perceiving themselves as “expendable cannon fodder”. They vented their frustration at their commanders. Morale and discipline had deteriorated to such a low point that soldiers were not even saluting officers any more. The Russian-language newspaper in Salonika had to exhort them to maintain military discipline.

The Second and Fourth Brigades were less mutinous, however, than the First and Third Brigades which left Russia at the same time but which arrived in Marseille and were stationed in France. They were exposed to agitation by Leon Trotsky’s agents in Paris and were better informed of developments in Petrograd, the Russian capital, whose name had been changed from the German form Saint Petersburg in 1914 after the start of the war. The Salonika group in Macedonia was less informed about political developments but, nevertheless, was impacted by events: “But there is no doubt that the Second and Fourth brigades were left confused and uncertain by the political changes in Russia which culminated in the Czar’s abdication on March 15 and the establishment of a Provisional Government.”

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Diterikhs described on May 18, 1917 how the political unrest in Russia was taking its toll on the troops in Salonika: “The latest events in Russia, added to the slowness and uncertainty of postal communication and the various rumors and occasional gossip reaching the trenches from the rear and spread around by good-for-nothings, can only strain the men’s nerves still further, worrying them and paralyzing their will.”

Six weeks after the request by Diterikhs for rest and recuperation, “a Russian detachment that was being re-embarked at Piraeus to return to Salonika broke into open mutiny, and French troops had to be sent in order to quell the disturbance.” Sarrail still planned to use the Russian troops, however, and even considered asking for Russian reinforcements from Archangel if the new Alexander Kerensky provisional government sought to strengthen the Eastern Front.

In July, 1917, there were still 18,000 Russian troops in Macedonia. They were reorganized as an independent division. In the last week in July, 1917, the division returned to the front between Lake Ochrid and Lake Prespa in Macedonia. The new Provisional Government proposed to send a full divisional train of artillery to Macedonia in the fall of 1917. After Diterikhs was recalled to Petrograd in August, 1917, his replacement did not reach Salonika until the first week of November. He arrived in Salonika at the time of the October Revolution when Bolshevik forces overthrew the Kerensky government on November 7, or October 25 based on the old-style calendar, and were planning to take Russia out of the war. Communist agitators had infiltrated the artillery brigade and the pioneer battalion which had arrived in Salonika in early October. The reinforcements triggered unrest in the division. Soviets emerged in every regiment and the division became a source of revolutionary turmoil.

In January, 1918, the division was removed from the front lines and disarmed. Many joined the French Foreign Legion. Others continued under Allied command as part of labor detachments. Some Russian troops continued as part of the Russian Legion which fought in North Africa.

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The collapse of the Russian government in 1917 had an impact on the Salonika Front. Russian commander Maxim Leontiev was shown reading a decree from the new government to Russian troops on the Macedonian Front in a series of photographs in a magazine with the caption “La Revolution Russe Au Front De Macedoine.” “The Russian Revolution on the Macedonian Front.”

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The Russian General Maxime N. Leontieff and French General Maurice Sarrail were photographed on horseback with Russian infantry troops on the Serbian front in the background which appeared in the March 24, 1917 The War illustrated in the UK and the. March 4, 1917 Le Miroir, No. 171, in France.

By the end of 1916, there were 44,319 Russian troops in the Russian Expeditionary Forces in both France and Salonika. The Russian troops were issued French 1915 Adrian helmets. In France, the helmets were Horizon Blue with a Romanov dynasty eagle badge on the front. France also issued khaki mutard Adrian helmets for the Eastern Front to Russian forces. Both the helmet and the badge were the same color. In Salonika, the Adrian helmets issued to Russian troops were a dark Horizon Blue in color while the badges were khaki in color. The Russians were issued French 1907-1915 Berthier rifles. They wore Russian military uniforms and insignia.

The Russian forces were only part of the multinational contingents which were deployed to the Salonika Front. By August, 1916, there were up to 400,000 allied troops in Salonika. They were under the command of French General Maurice Sarrail but they could appeal to their governments if they disagreed with his policies or decisions. The Russians had two brigades in Salonika under the command of General Mikhail K. Diterikhs and General Maxim Leontiev. The French had 8 divisions. Sarrail was in command of all of the Salonika forces from August 11, 1916 until December 15, 1917. The British had 6 divisions. Serbia had three army groups, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Armies, commanded by Zivojin Misic, Stepa Stepanovic, and Pavle Jurisic Sturm respectively. Italy had a division. Greece had 10,000 troops in September, 1916. By January, 1918, Greece had 10 divisions consisting of 204,000 troops under the command of Panaglotis Danglis. Greece had been neutral until the Provisional Government of National Defense was established on August 30, 1916 in Salonika by Eleftherios Venizelos. In June, 1917, the pro-German government of King Constantine I abdicated. On June 30, 1917, Greece formally declared war on the Central Powers. Portugal had one brigade. Montenegro had irregular troops. Albania had 1,000 irregulars under the command of Esad Pasha Toplani at Salonika.

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Russian troops participated in the 1916 and 1917 battles for Monastir, Florina, and the Crna or Black Bend. In order to strengthen the Allies, Sarrail also had attached a Russian infantry brigade to the Crna Bend sector forces a few days before the attack. The 2nd Russian Infantry Brigade commanded by General Mikhail Diterikhs at the Crna Bend consisted of: The 4th Infantry Regiment consisting of 3 battalions, with 16 machine guns, the 3rd Infantry Regiment consisting of 3 battalions, with 16 machine guns, and an artillery section containing 54 guns. The 2nd Division Group, made up of two French divisions and a Russian brigade, attacked the Bulgarian right flank and, after hard fighting, retook Florina in northwestern Greece on October 2, 1916.

They were fighting German forces under the command of two Prussian generals, Otto von Below and Arnold von Winckler, in collaboration with Bulgarian forces. In October, 1916, Below was appointed to the command of Heeresgruppe Below on the Macedonian Front, consisting of the German 11th Army and the First and Second Bulgarian Armies. On 29 June, 1915, Prussian General Arnold von Winckler had received the command of the XXXXI Reserve Corps and in September over the IV Reserve Corps to participate in the Invasion of Serbia. In March, 1916, he took over the command of the 11th German Army from Max von Gallwitz on the Salonika Front. Together with the allied Bulgarian forces, under the command of Nikola Zhekov, Dimitar Geshov, and Kliment Boyadzhiev, he held the front line until he was relieved of command in June, 1917.

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The Franco-Russian 2nd Division Group attacked northwards on November 14 and seized Kenali south of Monastir in blizzard conditions. This success opened the way for the attack on Monastir. On November 17 the Allied forces were able to advance, and on the morning of November 19, French and Serbian cavalry, which were followed by French and Russian infantry, entered the city of Monastir. Military action ceased on December 11. The Franco-Russian 2nd Division Group held the line from Lake Prespa to Gradesnica. The Monastir Offensive had begun on September 12, 1916. Military action ceased on the front on December 11. The depleted Bulgarian 2nd Army had to be reinforced by the Ottoman Turkish 20th Corps. In the successful Allied counteroffensive from October 5 to December 11, Monastir was taken by Russian infantry and Serbian cavalry. Monastir was the first Serbian town that was liberated. Diterikhs was photographed with French General Paul Leblois riding in the back seat of a car as they entered the city after its capture. Russian infantry troops were photographed with fixed bayonets waiting to enter the town, entering the town, and marching down a street in the town in formation. Monastir was divided into four occupation sectors: Russian, French, Italian, and Serbian.

In the 1917 offensive in the Monastir sector, the two Russian brigades, the six French divisions, and the one Italian division were organized into three corps-sized groups of divisions commanded by French General Victor Louis Emilien Cordonnier. In the Crna Bend during the May 9-14 second assault on Monastir during the Allied spring offensive, the Bulgarian 1st Army successfully fended off the Russian 2nd Brigade and the Serbian 2nd Army.

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The 1917 Monastir Offensive began on May 9, 1917, when the French 17th Colonial Division attacked the 22nd German-Bulgarian Infantry Brigade in conjunction with the Russian 2nd Independent Infantry Brigade. There was an artillery barrage then an infantry attack. All three French attack waves, however, failed. The French were unable to take the key position codenamed Caesar which gave a tactical advantage to the Bulgarians and Germans who were able to focus on defending the Russian attack.

The capture of Dabica by the Russians, a field in Macedonia located southeast of Monastir, was regarded as the greatest and most important Allied achievement of the battle. The Russians were not able to exploit and build on this success, however, due to the inability of the French to take the vital position Caesar. As a result, the Germans and Bulgarians were able to retake the position Heintselman from Russian troops. The first major Allied attack was, thus, defeated. The Russians were able to retain Dabica.

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The 4th Regiment was attacked by Bulgarian and German troops who surrounded it from three directions. The commander of the Franco-Russian forces, General Georges Lebouc, ordered the Russian Brigade to assault and take position Heintselman with the 3rd Regiment. The 17th Colonial Division made a new attempt to take Caesar. There was first an artillery barrage. Russian and French infantry then attacked from their trenches and were able to get to the Bulgarian barbed wire enclosure. Bulgarian and German artillery batteries were then able to attack the advancing troops. Confusion resulted among the attackers. The three infantry assaults were defeated.

The Russian infantry attack on Heintselman was defeated by well entrenched German troops. Russian troops retained control of Dabica but they were now isolated and vulnerable. The commander of the 22nd Infantry Brigade colonel sought to regain the position by an assault from the west and east of Dabica. The Russian position was subjected to a heavy artillery bombardment. The infantry assault consisted of German Jaeger troops advancing from the west and Bulgarian troops advancing from the east. The Russian troops could not maintain their lines and the German and Bulgarian troops were able to retake Dabica. The Allied defeat resulted in the return of the Crna Bend section of the front to where it had been before the offensive. Russian casualties were estimated at 975 to 1325 killed or wounded.

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The Russian forces fought well and continued to do so even after the collapse of the Czarist regime in March, 1917 and the ongoing Communist subversion. They sustained heavy casualties that necessitated more reserves from Russia being requisitioned. They were first sent to France. Influenced by Communist agitation, they were less reliable and more supportive of the revolutionary movement. Their principal use as assault troops resulted in high casualties. This led to dissent in the ranks. Eventually, the brigades were fatigued and exhausted. In May, 1917, the Russian brigades were assigned to camps in central Greece for rest and recuperation.

Diterikhs was recalled to Russia in August, 1917. He was offered the position of Russian Minister of War by the Alexander Kerensky Provisional Government that same month. He rejected this post. He was able to flee after the October Revolution, commanding White Royalist forces during the ensuing civil war.

The brigades were reorganized to form the 2nd Special Infantry Division. Following the October Revolution, however, unity and structure disintegrated. The Allies disarmed the remaining Russian troops. They served in labor battalions. The French redeployed the most mutinous and pro-Communist troops to North Africa.

Georges Clemenceau dismissed the troops on the Salonika Front as “the gardeners of Salonika”. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff regarded it as the least important front during the war. Nevertheless, the 1916 Battle of Monastir was regarded as a rare French victory in World War I. It was seen as the most significant French military victory since the 1914 Battle of the Marne. France could not point to many military successes in the Great War. The front remained static. There were successes in 1916 that gained ground against Bulgarian and German forces but the front lines merely shifted northwards without any strategic breakthrough. These were followed in 1917 by Allied or Entente military defeats on the front as the German and Bulgarian forces dug in. Entrenched and fortified positions emerged. The front did not move much during the war. Salonika stabilized into a frozen front. Salonika mirrored the other fronts in the war. There was a stalemate or quagmire. There was only a breakthrough in the last days of the war as Germany collapsed politically, socially, economically, and militarily. It was seen as a sideshow or diversion. It could have assumed a much more strategically significant role in supporting the Gallipoli Campaign and the entry of Romania into the war in 1916. Those two military disasters lessened the importance and utility of the Salonika Front. Salonika is one of the least covered battlegrounds of the war and is regarded as the least important by historians.

Bibliography

Cockfield, Jamie H. With Snow on Their Boots: The Tragic Odyssey of the Russian Expeditionary Force in France During World War I. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.

Doshkinov, Peter. Maiskoto srazhenie zavoya na Cherna — 1917. [The Battle of the Black Bend in May —1917.] Sofia, Bulgaria: Voenno-izdatelski fond, 1935.

Palmer, Alan. The Gardeners of Salonika: The Macedonian Campaign 1915-1918. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965, pp. 137-139.