You may have heard of 1914. It’s the year the First World War began, yes, but there’s also a Ukrainian death metal band named after that year because they emulate the Swedish band Sabaton, whose songs are about military history. In their case, they focus on the Great War, hence the name they chose. In their latest and acclaimed album, Where Fear and Weapons Meet, released in 2021, they include a track with the curious title Corps d’autos-canons-mitrailleuses (ACM). This was the name of a Belgian military unit that fought on the Eastern Front alongside the Russians until 1918, when, after the Bolshevik Revolution, it had to withdraw in a long odyssey lasting more than three months across Asia.

The European powers (United Kingdom, France, Prussia, Russia, Austria, and the Netherlands) recognized the independence of Belgium—formerly Dutch—by the 1839 Treaty of London. However, this recognition came with the condition that Belgium remain perpetually neutral, obligating the signatory parties to safeguard this neutrality in case of invasion. Germany broke this commitment on August 4, 1914, when its army forcefully entered Belgium due to the lack of response to an ultimatum demanding passage through Belgian territory to reach French soil.

Belgian troops retreated westward to join the French and British, establishing a defensive line at Yser (Western Flanders) and another at the Marne, which stabilized the conflict by the end of the year. However, the majority of the country remained under German control, with the Germans brutally suppressing any attempts at civilian resistance. By the beginning of 1915, the Central Powers’ plan for a quick and brief war had failed, especially considering that the Russians, in accordance with France, had opened a second front in East Prussia.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff managed to secure the Eastern Front with victories at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. This, combined with the Ottoman Empire joining the war against the Triple Entente (United Kingdom, France, and Russia), provided a respite for the Triple Alliance (German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Kingdom of Italy) to launch a counteroffensive on the Russian border.

Czar Nicholas II made a desperate plea for help, and one of those who answered was King Albert I of Belgium. However, despite being engaged, Belgium still maintained its neutral status, preventing direct intervention in the war except for defending its own territory.

For this reason, a unit was organized, officially composed of volunteers, who would travel to the Eastern Front to join the forces of the Imperial Russian Army: the Corps Expeditionnaire des Autos-Canons-Mitrailleuses Belges en Russie or the Belgian Expeditionary Corps of Armored Cars in Russia. It consisted of three hundred thirty-three veterans of the Battle of Yser initially, later bolstered by another hundred, totaling four hundred forty-four men, under the command of Major Collon. They wore an exclusive black uniform designed by the French fashion designer Paquin, although the frigid Russian climate forced them to also use local coats and hats.

As the name suggests, they were equipped with fifty-eight armored vehicles, a pioneering effort by the Belgian army that proved less useful in the bogged-down trenches of the Western Front. This included armed bicycles, with a hundred twenty units provided, motorcycles (twenty-three), and most notably, a dozen Automitrailleuse Minerva. These were essentially automobiles from the Minerva brand (also made by Mors and Peugeot) with a four mm armored layer and dual rear wheels to support the weight. Two were armed with Hotchkiss M190 machine guns, and three with naval cannons of 37 mm; the rest served as command vehicles, transport, or ambulances.

The first contingent of three hundred volunteers and their vehicles embarked in Calais and traveled to Arkhangelsk (a city located at the mouth of the White Sea) aboard the British ship Wray-Castle, which also carried a similar unit sent by the Royal Navy, the RNAS Armoured Car Section.

They arrived in mid-October and then moved to Petrograd, stationed in the municipality of Peterhof. On December 6, they paraded before the czar, and a month later, they marched toward Galicia (not the Spanish region but another located in the Carpathians, between present-day Poland, Ukraine, and northeastern Romania).

Throughout 1916, they participated in the Brusilov Offensive, the largest Russian military operation of the war and one of the bloodiest in history. Led by General Alexei Brusilov, despite overwhelming human and technical superiority that caused three-quarters of a million casualties to the enemy, it became bogged down due to swampy terrain in the north and mountainous terrain in the south. This allowed the Germans and Austro-Hungarians to send reinforcements, halting the Russian advance. During this offensive, the Belgians fought in the battles of Vorobievka, Tsebrov, and Ozerna, wintering in the latter Ukrainian town.

In December, reinforcements arrived, which, as mentioned earlier, were a meager joke compared to the figures being handled (the British had returned to their country in the summer of 1915, and their unit was disbanded). With the modest troop completed, in the summer of 1917, they re-entered the fray in the battles of Konioukhy and Kozova, resulting from the Kerensky Offensive. The goal was to prevent the Central Powers from moving forces to the Western Front before the arrival of the Americans.

This offensive, starting in July and initially successful but eventually disintegrating due to soldier demoralization, was Russia’s last before the Bolshevik Revolution ended Russian participation in the war.

By the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on March 3, 1918, Russia ceded Poland, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Livonia, Courland, Ukraine, and Bessarabia to the Central Powers. It also left Ardahan, Kars, and Batumi in the hands of the Ottomans, allowing the Germans to send the troops they needed to the West.

The members of the Corps Expeditionnaire des Autos-Canons-Mitrailleuses Belges had fought with distinction and received five decorations. However, their presence was no longer necessary and viewed with suspicion. As the revolution turned into a civil war, having a potentially opposing army at home was dangerous for both sides. Therefore, the Belgian command ordered their immediate repatriation. In late December 1917, they gathered in Kiev, where they destroyed their vehicles to prevent their use by the Bolsheviks but found they could not leave through Murmansk (in northwestern Russia) because the route was guarded.

In mid-February, they set out for Moscow, from where they traveled by rail—first on the Trans-Siberian and later on the Trans-Manchurian—crossing Siberia, China, and Manchuria to Vladivostok. This transfer was not particularly fast, taking almost three months.

Finally, they boarded the Sheridan, crossed the Pacific, and set foot on American soil in San Francisco on May 12. They had to cross the country from west to east, and in New York, they took to the sea again aboard the ship La Lorraine, which took them to Bordeaux. It was July 23, 1918, and that long journey had come to an end.

Not everyone could see their homes again; eleven had fallen in battle, and another four died under various circumstances, aside from the forty who were wounded. However, they lost only one vehicle in combat.

Some achieved certain fame later on, such as Julien Lahaut (ironically, he would become the secretary-general of the Belgian Communist Party), Marcel Thiry (a poet who enlisted alongside his brother Oscar), Achille Vanderstichel (introducer of the Citroën brand in Belgium), Henry George (a cyclist and Olympic gold medalist), Henri Herd (world champion in Greco-Roman wrestling), Théo Halleu (a builder and founder of Standard Liege), and even aristocrats (Guy d’Aspremont Lynden, Yves d’Oultremont).

On July 16, the official farewell took place at the artillery training camp in the French commune of Eu (Normandy), and the Corps Expeditionnaire des Autos-Canons-Mitrailleuses Belges en Russie was disbanded. Thirteen years later, all veterans, including them, were awarded the Médaille Commémorative de la Guerre 1914–1918. The last fighter of the unit died in 1992.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 26, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en La historia de la unidad belga que combatió en Rusia durante la Primera Guerra Mundial, y su odisea de regreso

Sources

Michael Barden, WWI – Belgium Armoured Car Division in Russia (en The Philatelic Database) | Norman Stone, The eastern front, 1914-1917 | Louise E. Heenan, Russian democracy’s fatal blunder. The summer offensive of 1917 | Lily Portugaels, Constant-le-Marin et les autos-canons de 1914-1918 (en La Libre Belgique) | Wikipedia


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