If often overlooked by historians, the mutinies nonetheless deserve closer attention. They had their origin in the Allies’ intervention in the Russian Civil War, beginning in 1918. This intervention was a consequence of the threat posed to the victorious powers in World War I by both the Russian Revolution and the defeat of Germany, which still had large armed forces active in the East.
The first mutiny began on November 21, 1918, shortly after French armed forces first reached Russia, when soldiers of the 21st Colonial Infantry stationed in Archangel refused to fight. This isolated rebellion had no apparent connection to other mutinies, but it anticipated three further waves of protest. The first phase of mutiny began at Tiraspol, in the Ukraine, between January 30 and February 8, 1919. It took place among the 58th Infantry, which had been fighting against Bulgarian troops in Bessarabia. The mutiny culminated when 467 men refused to cross the river Dniester. The mutineers were taken to Bender, where they were kept imprisoned for three days and court-martialed for disobeying an order in the face of the enemy.
This first phase of mutiny occurred against the backdrop of a humiliating retreat for the Allied occupation forces. Mutinies affected the 176th Infantry and a detachment of sailors of the battleship Justice at Kherson between March 4 and 9, when General Philippe d’Anselme decided to evacuate. The following day, d’Anselme telegraphed General Henri Berthelot with news that two French units that had arrived from Kherson the previous day had refused orders. A month later, on April 5, mutinies broke out at Odessa with the 7th Engineers as well as the 19th Artillery. Two days later, in the north, the 21st Colonial Infantry regiment mutinied once more at Archangel.
With the second phase of contestation, the mutinies passed from the land to the fleet. On April 16, the officer mechanic André Marty’s clandestine organization and contact with Romanian Social Democrats were discovered aboard the destroyer Protet at Galaţi (Galatz), a port city on the Danube in eastern Romania. Three days later, the revolt began aboard the battleship France at anchor in Sevastopol harbor, quickly spreading to other battleships — the Jean Bart, the Justice, the Vergniaud, and the Mirabeau — and the smaller gunboats Algol and Escaut.
On the second day of protests — April 20, Easter Sunday — a notorious incident took place: the Morskaïa Road “ambush” or “massacre.” Greek troops under French command opened machine-gun fire on a demonstration of the local population and French mutineers in Sevastopol. Motivated by a desire for demobilization, a crucial grievance on the France was the order to perform coal loading duties on the Easter holiday. Under the pressure of the revolt, the commander agreed to the return home and the postponement of coal duties. These were performed without supervision of the officers on Tuesday, April 22, and the France set sail on the following day. The mutineers aboard the France believed that they had secured victory and that they had the commander’s word of honor. It was not until their arrest in the Tunisian port of Bizerte on May 1 that they realized the ephemeral nature of their victory.
As news of the Sevastopol rebellion spread, the mutinies recommenced elsewhere in the Black Sea. The battle cruiser Waldeck-Rousseau was in Odessa. On April 23, the crew learned that an officer accused of conspiracy from the Protet was on the ship. Two days later, sailors from the supply boat Suippe told of the events of Sevastopol. On April 26, Rear-Admiral Caubet hastily removed Marty from the ship, shortly before the first assemblies of men, who sang the Internationale and elected delegates. Playing for time, the admiral offered to do all he could for a swift return to France and that there would be no punishments. The outbreak of unrest took hold on the nearby torpedo boats Mameluk and Fauconneau. The battle cruiser sailed to Tendra, apparently en route to Istanbul. At Tendra, the mutiny spread to the battle cruiser Bruix. However, having bided his time, the admiral was able to arm his officers and restore order on the Waldeck-Rousseau and then threaten the mutineers of the Bruix. In the final episode in this sequence of revolts in the Black Sea, the torpedo boat Dehorter at Kerch mutinied between May 1 and 10.
A third, more expansive stage of revolt spread across the Mediterranean to France itself. It involved sailors, soldiers, and workers in port cities, where the desire for demobilization and military grievances mixed on the streets with the demands of labor. At Istanbul, on May 2, the battle cruiser Ernest Renan joined the movement, with three days of effervescence. On May 20, the 117th Heavy Artillery disobeyed orders in Toulouse. On May 27, the 4th and 37th Colonial regiments did so in Bender, Bessarabia. The movement reached the capital of the French navy, Toulon, in the second week of June. The Toulon agitation took its most serious turn on June 10 aboard the battleship Provence, during which a group of two hundred sailors attempted to seize weapons and roughly handled officers. The Jean Bart, the Démocratie, the Courbet, the Diderot, the Lorraine, the Jules Ferry, and the Pothuau in the harbor were caught up in the mood of insubordination as were the naval depots, the 112th Infantry and 143th Colonial Infantry. Large street demonstrations occurred in Toulon on June 12 and 16.