Monday, January 3, 2011

Belgians on the Russian Front

In the First Great War my highest respect must goes to those monarchs who gave leadership to their soldiers on the battlefield. The best examples of this were our own King Albert I and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. They both were sovereigns devoted to doing their duty by their country but with very different results. Because it was small, neutral Belgium which was liberated and the vast powerful, politically involved Russian Empire that collapsed. I have posted before on the history shared by Belgium and Russia, how Tsar Peter the Great visited Belgium and how Belgian King Leopold I fought in the Russian army against Napoleon. It is known because of the Great War that Belgium and Russia fought on the same side against the Germans but not so many people know that they actually fought side by side. It is a triviality not included in most history books but the Russian Tsar did send some troops over to France to fight on the Western Front. Not many people know that, and even less know that King Albert I also sent Belgian troops to fight on the Russian front.

Of course, clearly, it is obvious, Belgium did not have the resources to send over a large force or even as much as the other allied powers sent later, but there was a Belgian contribution and it came in the form of armored cars. Belgium had been an innovator in this area and before the other powers developed armored cars that made the very heavy and cumbersome machine guns of the period mobile. These were made by the Minerva Motor Car Company in Antwerp and they saw service during the German invasion of Belgium and the siege of Antwerp, racing down the roads, shooting their machine guns at the pickle heads and having a more glamorous part of a war becoming uglier every day. Of course, after Antwerp was abandoned and there was the battle of the Yser and a stalemate on the western front, clearly the Belgian army did not have much use for armored cars in the flooded box trenches of Flanders. It was suggested that these could instead be put to good use on the Russian front which was much more fluid and mobile than the west.
A Russian officer suggested it and of course King Albert I was always willing to help but the Tsar had to ask first because, since Belgium was a neutral country, the small kingdom and the massive empire were fighting on the same side but not exactly were allies in the strictest sense. Also, because of this, on paper at least, the Belgian troops were volunteers in the Russian Imperial Army rather than officially soldiers of the Belgian army for this special mission. In all there were over 300 men who went with the armored cars, motorcycles and bicycles to the Russian front, over time around 400 men were served as troops rotated out. They saw their biggest battles on the Galician front and their speed and firepower were proven to be very good at eliminating Austrian machine-guns positions. These brave men far from home fought even after the Germans had clearly gained the upper hand and they also kept on fighting and doing their duty even after the 1917 Revolution. It was not until the new Russian government made their own peace with the Germans that the Belgians decided it was time to go home.
That was difficult to do because of the revolutionary forces that viewed the Belgian forces as enemies and they blocked the way to all the major ports. The Belgian forces then because of this had to travel across the whole of Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Pacific where they took a ship to San Francisco, California and then went by train across the United States, being much celebrated along the way, reaching New York and from there sailed across the Atlantic to finally reach Paris two weeks later. In all, their losses were few, only 16 men during all of their fighting and travels were killed. The last Belgian veteran of service in Russia died in 1992.

No comments:

Post a Comment