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Cordon Sanitaire - French Naval Mutiny - April 1919

Opposition to the Bolsheviki in South Russia centered in the Ukraine and in the trans-Caucasian country. With the withdrawal of the Germans from the former territory numerous claimants eagerly seized the opportunity to expropriate the soil of the Little Russians. French reinforced by Greeks and Sengalese occupied Odessa. The Ukranians, opposed to all these claimants, rallied around General Petlura and Vladimir Vinnichenko, both members of the Social Democratic party. These leaders, although they had sufficient men, lacked money, officers and transportation experts; but their urgent appeals to the Allies met with no response. In March, 1919, Petlura was driven out of Kiev by the Bolsheviki, the French refusing to come to his assistance unless France should have complete military and industrial control of Ukraine for an "indefinite" period.

A general offensive launched in early April 1919 was most unsuccessful. The Franco-Grecian army of 50,000, instead of pushing triumphantly northward and winning brilliant victories over the Bolsheviki and capturing Kiev, as was fictitiously reported, was decisively defeated, Odessa being abandoned on April 6. The French soldiers refused to exhibit any enthusiasm in this enterprise and the offensive virtually collapsed from within.

The original report from Moscow of the sudden evacuation of the Ukraine by French troops was received with incredulity by the world at large and was declared in Parliament by Winston Churchill, a week after the withdrawal had begun, to be Bolshevik propaganda. It was indeed incomprehensible how the French and Greek forces in southern Russia, supplied and supported by the Black Sea fleet, should have abandoned without a struggle the city of Odessa and the stronghold of Sevastopol to the Bolsheviki, who were said to be inferior in discipline and one-fourth the number of the Allies.

The secret was kept for two months, but finally was revealed in the French parliament by Emile Goude, a Socialist deputy. The origin of the disaster was the same feeling as manifested itself in the disaffection of the Canadian troops at Vladivostok, the Czechs at Omsk, and the American troops at Archangel - the desire of the soldiers to return home and their dislike to fighting for an unknown cause and in an unauthorized war. In the French fleet at Odessa the movement went as far as mutiny.

On the morning of 09 April 1919, when the signal was given to clear the decks for action, the men on the flagship refused to obey and gathering on deck sang the Internationale. The sailors on the other ships and the Russians on shore joined in the revolutionary hymn. The red flag was hoisted beside the tricolor on the French warships. The whole affair was carried on in good order and good temper except for one incident. A young ensign, seeing the French soldiers and sailors on shore fraternizing with Russian men and women, ordered a machine gun fired on the group. A naval lieutenant rushed up and stopped the firing, but several persons had already been killed or wounded.

After four days of negotiation the French admiral granted the demands of the mutineers that the fleet should return to France and that they should not be punished on their return. When the fleet reached Toulon the seamen stationed there approved of the action of their comrades at Odessa and threatened to strike if any punishment for the mutiny was imposed.

It is evident that the conquest of the Ukraine by the Bolsheviki was accomplished more by argument than arms. The Russian warships in the Black Sea went over to the Bolsheviki and the army of the Don Cossacks, supposed to be incorruptible, melted away under the influence of the Soviet propaganda. Many of the Ukrainian troops, who under Petliura have been fighting the Bolsheviki, deserted to the Soviet side in a body.



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