Succor for Serbia: The Russian Expeditionary Force in the Western Media

By Carl Savich

The Salonika Front

The arrival of Russian troops on the Salonika Front on July 30, 1916 was portrayed positively in the Western media. British and French news accounts presented the deployment to the Balkans as a major event in the progress of the war. It was perceived as an unexpected and unanticipated action that would boost the Allied presence in that theater of the war. The Russian troops would play a key role in the offensives against Monastir, Florina, and Crna Bend, which resulted in their capture.

The Allies had suffered a string of military defeats in southeastern Europe in 1915 with the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign and the overrunning of Serbia and Montenegro by the Central Powers. Romania joined the Allied side on August 27, 1916, by declaring war against Austria-Hungary, further destabilizing that theater. Italy declared war on Germany the next day.

British and French troops first arrived in Salonika on October 5, 1915. The troops were deployed to support Serbia militarily against the combined German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian attack on Serbia. That invasion began on October 7. Russian forces were deployed the following year, consisting of the 2nd Brigade under General Mikhail Diterikhs which arrived in July, and the 4th Brigade under General Maxim Leontieff, which arrived in October.

Russian Marines were the first to arrive on the Salonika Front in early 1916. “Enter the Russians in the Balkan Arena” was the headline in The War Illustrated, based in London, in the March 11, 1916 issue. A series of photographs showed Russian Marines as they landed in the Balkans where they were greeted by British troops.

A Russian sailor and a British “Tommy” were shown together in the first photograph. “They need not know the ‘lingo’ in order to fraternize.” The query was posed: “More types of Russian Marines at a Levantine fort. Does this prelude any concentration of Slav forces in the Near East?” It was noted that their sailor uniforms were similar to British ones. They were shown with their kits which they placed on the grass. They arrived on Greek territory shortly after the sinking of the transport Norseman by a German U boat on January 22 outside of Salonika. The Russians were described as about to go on a few hours of reconnaissance. The report noted that “some British soldiers are contemplating their new allies in the Balkan field.” The British welcomed the Russian presence in the Balkan Theater.

In another photograph, Russian sailors were shown docking their boat at the Salonika pier.

Arrival in Salonika

The second Russian Brigade departed from Archangel or Arkhangelsk in northwestern Russia in three ships, arriving first at the northern French port city of Brest on July 16. From there they travelled to Marseilles from where they departed for Salonika on July 23. They reached Salonika on July 30.

Newsreel accounts of the arrival of Russian troops to Salonika were upbeat and confident in tone. They noted the boost in morale and manpower strength. They would provide support and assistance to the French, British, and Serbian troops already based in “neutral” Greece.

A British Topical News newsreel entitled “Russians in Macedonia” showed the landing of Russian troops to Salonika on July 30 by boat. “Russian troops disembarking from the transport to help the Allies in Macedonia.”

The second newsreel segment was entitled “Help for the Allies”. “Russian Staff Officers watch their men landing. These troops are some of the finest in the Russian Army.” British, French, and Serbian troops could be seen prominently at the dock greeting the troops on their arrival.

British newspaper accounts of the landing in Salonika were likewise unanimously laudatory and supportive. They were perceived as a needed shot in the arm to the dormant forces in that theater of war.

The Graphic, based in London, in its August 26, 1916 issue proclaimed “The Coming of Russian Troops.” Russian troops were shown at the quay after getting off of the ship marching in a long column past the ships in the background. A second photograph displayed a Russian soldier holding a banner with an Orthodox Christian religious image. The regimental color was a flag made of white silk, with an embroidered motto in Russian Cyrillic, translated as “God is with us”, with an image of Christ in the center. The banner was held up by rifles with bayonets on the street.

The Graphic described the landing as “one of the most dramatic developments of the war”, made public only on Tuesday, when for the first time the British public was allowed to know of the Russian landings.

The Graphic emphasized the unannounced and surprising nature of the arrival by the headline “A Well-Kept Secret of Salonika.” The arrival of Russian troops was shown. Russian troops were seen disembarking at the port greeted by military bands, both British and Serbian. A photograph of Mihail Diterikhs and Maurice Sarrail reviewing the troops on a street in Salonika was also featured. Diterikhs saluted while the soldiers stood at attention wearing Russian Army uniforms with ammunition belts over their shoulders and upraised bayoneted rifles.

“Both the Russian and Italian contingents were accorded a most enthusiastic welcome.” They are referred to as “our Muscovite Allies.” Five nations were now on the Salonika Front: Russia, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Serbia.

The Illustrated London News had the headline “Russians for the Balkan Front: The Arrival in Salonika in its August 26, 1916 issue.

The Illustrated War News, based in London, also focused on the theme of “surprise”. In the August 30, 1916 issue, its headline announced “The Surprise in the Balkan Campaign. At the landing of the Russians at Salonika. The Russian General in command.” Russian Major General Mikhail K. Diterikhs, the commander of the 2nd Russian brigade, was shown in the center. A French officer could be seen on the right at the dock in Salonika. Behind him was a British officer. On the left was another Russian officer. The transport ship could be seen in the background.

The French media reaction to the landing was similar to the British. The Russian arrival at Salonika was applauded and cheered. It was perceived as providing reinforcements and succor to an undermanned sector of the Balkan front.

In the Sunday, August 20, 1916 issue, the French newspaper Excelsior, Journal Illustre Quotidien, Daily Illustrated Journal, No. 2105, Le Guerre Illustree, The War Illustrated, featured the landing on its front cover. The arrival of Russian troops in Salonika was shown in two photographs. In the top photo, the caption was: “Le drapeau d’un regiment.” “The flag of a regiment.” The bottom photo caption was: “Les Russes defilent sur les quais de Salonique.” “The Russians march at the dock in Salonika.”

In the Excelsior issue of Saturday, September 2, 1916, a full page photographic essay appeared on the Russian troops at a Salonika camp: Russian Army regiment in Salonika, 1916. “The life of the Russian soldiers in the Salonika camp.” “La vie des soldats russes dans le camp de Salonique.”

Various aspects of life at the camp were documented. The Russian Army regiment was depicted arriving at the camp, getting soup, and at a wash house. The photo captions translated from the French: “A real Russian sock.”  “At the wash house.” “The hour for soup.” “A shave by a French hairdresser.”

The 4th Russian Brigade under General Maxim Leontieff arrived in October, 1916. Their arrival was also depicted in a laudatory tone in the British and French press accounts.

“More Russians Take the Field in the Balkans”, reported The War Illustrated, based in London, in the December 2, 1916 issue.

This news account emphasized the man-power resources of Russia as compared to the Central Powers. Russia’s large population base would give the Allied Powers an advantage. “Another contingent of Russian troops arrives in Salonika, 1916.” “Russia’s inexhaustible supply of man-power constitutes the most readily appreciable menace to the Central Empires, who are coming within sight of deficiency of reserves. Russian contingents have been fighting for some time now in France and in the Balkans, and a fresh contingent is here shown arriving at Salonika.” The account was accompanied by an “official photograph”.

Postcards also chronicled the Russian arrival: “Souvenir of Salonica — Serbian band for the Russian defiling.” Salonika, Greece – A Serbian band playing as a part of a parade to welcome newly-arrived Russian troops joining the forces at Salonika fighting on the Macedonian Front, 1916.

1916 Monastir Battle

The combined Russian, Serbian, and French offensive that took Monastir on November 9, 1916 received glowing and enthusiastic coverage in the British and French media. The Russian role in the successful assault garnered extensive news coverage. General Mikhail K. Diterikhs was photographed entering the city in a motor car. General Maxim Leontieff was shown with General Maurice Sarrail as the latter saluted Russian troops after the fall of the city.

After the capture of Monastir, French General Maurice Sarrail, the commander of Allied troops on the Salonika Front, was shown saluting a contingent of Russian troops marching on his right outside Monastir in 1916 in the French newspaper L’Illustration.

The Russian role in the capture of Monastir and the character and demeanor of Russian troops was detailed in the Western media. The War Illustrated, in the February 3, 1917 issue, under the headline “In and Around Monastir After the Teuton Exodus: Russians bivouacking at Monastir”, presented a very favorable impression and assessment: “A felicitous impression of the character as well as of the outward appearance of these splendid allies, hardy men of simple wants, and, though formidable fighters, singularly good-tempered.”

In At the Serbian Front in Macedonia by British author Edward Percy Stebbing, published in London by John Lane in 1917, he offered his own observation of Russian troops en route to Monastir during the 1916 offensive: “A magnificent Russian infantry regiment appeared one morning and made the usual halt. They were a fine body of men of unusual physique, many with long fair beards cut square and blue eyes, others smooth round-faced youngsters. Some of the younger officers laughingly hoped that they would ‘get a bullet,’ and be sent down here. I think this was one of the finest regiments I saw in Macedonia. Their regimental transport which passed later was also very good.” He also described the Russian infantry regimental transport: “The soldier near the centre of the picture is nearly 7 feet in height.”

The Illustrated London News in the December 23, 1916 issue commended and praised both the Russian and French after their military breakthrough:  “Where flowers and garlands were offered to the victorious Allies: French and Russian generals entering Monastir.”

The Daily Sketch, based in London, in the Thursday, December 14, 1916 issue featured the entry into Monastir under the headline “The Allies in Monastir.” The entry into the city was described: “The French and Russian Generals commanding the Allied troops in the Balkan operations made a triumphal entry by motor-car into the captured capital of Macedonia.” Russian General Mikhail Diterikhs was shown in the back seat of the car with French General Paul LeBlois. General Paul Leblois commanded the Armée française d’Orient or AFO from 19 October 1916 to 1 February 1917. He had commanded the 57th Army. Monastir was divided into four occupation sectors: Russian, French, Italian, and Serbian. The Bulgarian commanders during the offensive were Nikola Zhekov and Kliment Boyadzhiev.

The Sphere also offered a positive judgment of the Russian force in its December 30, 1916 issue: “With the Russian troops outside Monastir waiting for breakfast in an open bivouac.”

Russian General Maxim Leontieff was featured in the National Geographic Magazine in the May, 1916 issue, published in Washington, DC, in the story “On the Monastir Road”. The photo caption read: “General Leontieff, at the moment in command of the Fourth Brigade of the Russian Army in Macedonia.” The photograph was by the author of the article Herbert Corey.

The Illustrated London News, in the December 23, 1916 issue, showed General Sarrail and General Leontieff saluting Russian troops after the fall of the city: “A march-past of the Allied troops after the capture of Monastir: General Sarrail (with Kepi raised), the commander-in-chief of the Allies in the Balkans, salutes the Russian contingent.”

The collaboration between the Russian and Serbian forces on the Macedonian Front was illustrated in the French publication Le Miroir in the June 17, 1917 issue in a feature on an inspection tour of the Macedonian mountains on horseback by Serbian Crown Prince Alexander. Russian General Maxim Leontieff, the commander of the fourth infantry brigade, also on horseback, and Alexander, riding in front, were photographed on the Macedonian Front in 1917. Alexander was touring the Serbian, French, and Russian sectors of the front.

The same issue also featured a photograph of Alexander kneeling beside and offering encouragement to a Russian amputee lying on a stretcher in the mountains of Macedonia. The Russian soldier had his leg amputated. A French medic was shown to the side.

Florina Battle

The Russian troops also played a key role in capturing the Greek city of Florina in northwestern Greece in 1916. Florina, located in northern Greece on the border with then occupied-Serbia, was the first major assault by the Allied forces based in Salonika, consisting of French, Russian, and Serbian troops. Russian and French troops seized the fortified hills north of the city. By the beginning of October, the Russian casualties were 1,400 with 400 hospitalized.

On September 20, 1916, the capture of the city was reported in The Melbourne, Australian newspaper The Argus under the headline “Florina Falls”. “Russo-French Victory.” “Bulgars in Full Retreat.” With a London dateline of September 19, the story described the victory: “A brilliant victory by French and Russian troops on the Florina front (Northern Greece) was officially announced in Paris on Monday evening.”

The Australian newspaper The Barrier Miner reported in the Wednesday, September 20, 1916 issue that Bulgarian troops had been routed by a combined French and Russian force: “Bulgarian Retreat from Florina”. (Reuter’s Message.) Paris Monday. A French official message from Salonika says: “The Bulgarians are falling back in disorder from Florina towards Monastir, following on a desperate battle with the Franco-Russians, lasting the whole day, on September 17 (Sunday). The following night the Bulgarians offered a furious resistance, frequently counter-attacking. The cavalry have been charging. The Servians are progressing everywhere.”

Multi-National Army

The Russians were part of several national contingents at Salonika. These included the Annamite, or Vietnamese soldiers from French Indo-China, Senegalese, Indian troops, Greek soldiers from Crete, and Albanian volunteers.

The Russian soldiers appeared on the Christmas card photographs that were produced during the holiday in 1916. “Xmas Greetings 1916 from the Salonika Army. Historic Group of Comrades in Arms.” Montenegrin, British, Serbian, Italian, French Colonial Zouave, Indian, Greek, French Colonial Cochin Chinese, Russian, French, and French Colonial soldiers were shown.

Legacy

The political upheavals in Russia would result in the disbandment of the brigades. They were able to distinguish themselves on the Salonika Front by playing key roles in Allied offensives against Bulgarian and German troops.

In 2015, to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the start of offensive operations on the Macedonian Front, a monument in the central square Marafonos or Marathon of the city was unveiled on Saturday, December 19 to the Russian soldiers who had died in the September, 1916 Florina Battle by sculptor George Kikotis. Florina was the first major battle by Allied forces on that front. The ceremony was attended by Consul General of the Russian Federation in Salonika or Thessaloniki Alexey Popov and Florina mayor Yannis Voskopoulos. The 12 foot marble monument depicted a Russian soldier holding a Mosin-Nagant rifle with bayonet upraised.

Russian troops contributed to the final military triumph on the Salonika Front and ultimate victory in the war.

During World War II, the alliance between Great Britain, France, Serbia, and Greece and Russia, as the Soviet Union, was re-established. In the Balkans, Russia continued to maintain close diplomatic ties with Serbia and Greece after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.