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The 100 days when Odesa was a French province: historic photos

Odesa French province
Renault tanks with French soldiers, civilians and White Guards near Oleksiivska Square in Odesa, 1919. Wikimedia
The 100 days when Odesa was a French province: historic photos

103 years ago, in December 1918, Ukraine’s largest southern port city of Odesa was a French province for a little over 100 days. The French wanted to sweep away the Bolsheviks but quickly became confused about who fought with whom and for whom in Ukraine. The Ukrainian news site Babel has gathered historic photographs from the times of the short-lived French rule over Odesa 103 years ago.

On 18 December 1918, French troops occupied Odesa and announced that they were taking the city under their protection. It was part of the intervention of the forces of Entente and its allies in the former Russian Empire to fight the Bolsheviks, later known as Communists who had taken power in Russia in early November 1917 and effectively unleashed the civil war in the former Russian Empire.

The French stayed in Odesa until early April 1919. During this time, they tried to reach an agreement with the White Guard, the pro-tzarist anti-Soviet movement who wanted to restore the empire, and with Symon Petlyura’s Directory of the Ukrainian National Republic, who strived to build a Ukrainian state. In both cases, the French didn’t succeed. Moreover, there were warlords — otamans — operating in the area, who now formed alliances, then fought against their former allies.

In March 1918, Austrian troops entered Odesa and liquidated the Odesa Soviet Republic, which the Bolsheviks managed to organize in February.

Field Marshal of the Austro-Hungarian Army Baron Eduard von Bohm-Ermolli (right) in Odesa, March 1918. Getty Images / “Babel”

After the capitulation in the First World War in November 1918, Austrian troops began to withdraw from Ukraine. Odesa came under the control of the troops of Hetman Pavel Skoropadsky of UNR.

Austrian artillery on Velyka Arnautska Street in Odesa, 1918. k.u.k. Kriegspressequartier

In early December 1918, a French warship squadron led by the cruiser Mirabeau arrived in Odesa. The French hoped to negotiate with Skoropadsky to land in Odesa, then go to Kyiv, and from there — to “finish off the Bolsheviks in Moscow.” But at that time the hetman’s regime fell, and the army of Simon Petlyura’s Directory of the Ukrainian National Republic entered the city.

Battleship of the French Navy “Mirabeau”, which was part of a squadron off the coast of Odesa in December 1918. Getty Images

After the ultimatum of the French command on 18 December 1918, the troops of the UNR Directory left the city for Petlyura didn’t want to spoil relations with the Entente. After that, the French announced that they were taking Odesa and the Odesa region “under the protection of France.”

Unloading of French military equipment in the port of Odessa, 1918.
Unloading of French military equipment in the port of Odesa, 1918. ECPAD

By the end of December, about 15,000 French troops had arrived in Odesa, including Senegalese, Moroccan, and Algerian soldiers from French colonies in Africa.

The checkpoint of French troops in Odesa on Mykolaiv (now Prymorskyi) Boulevard, early 1919. Wikimedia

Additionally, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Greek, and British military battalions entered Odesa.

Odesa French province
Odesa during the French intervention, March 1919. Wikimedia
Loading of wheat on French ships in the port of Odesa, February-March 1919. Source: TsDKFFA of Ukraine named after H. Pshenychnyi

The Entente fleet entered the Black and Azov Seas, and their troops entered Odesa, occupied Sevastopol, Feodosia, Yevpatoria, Yalta, Kerch, Simferopol, Kherson, and Mykolayiv. Kherson Ataman of the Ukrainian National Republic Nikifor Hryhoryiv, who joined the Bolsheviks together with his soldiers, didn’t like this.

Officers of the British military mission in the south of Ukraine on a French Renault tank, 1919. Source: National Archives at College Park

France tried to create some kind of government from the local population in Odesa, which became a French province. But it was difficult for them to understand who was fighting against whom and for what. At first, they tried to reach an agreement with the White Guard leader Anton Denikin, who, unlike Petlyura, was satisfied with the idea of restoring a “united and indivisible Russia.”

Renault tanks with French soldiers, civilians, and White Guards near Oleksiivska Square in Odesa, 1919. Wikimedia

Denikin was considered an English creature, and the French did not like it. Therefore, in early 1919, General Philippe d’Anselme arrived in Odesa, who headed the command headquarters and took all power into his own hands.

General Philippe d’Anselme with his son in Odesa, 1919. ECPAD

While Odesa was a French province, life in the city stabilized a bit – shops, restaurants, and theaters opened. Relying on French protection, industrialists, bankers, and other wealthiest people in the crumbling Russian Empire flocked to the city.

View of the Odesa Opera House from Richelieu Street, 1918. GettyImages/Babel
Panteleimonivska Street in the historical center of Odesa, 1918.

At that time, moviemaking resumed in Odesa, and French connoisseurs of cinema admired the Ukrainian silent film actress Vira Kholodna.

Vira Kholodna, 1917. Getty Images / “Babel”

The French troops’ command constantly postponed the march to Moscow, and the French soldiers weren’t eager to fight. Riots broke out among French sailors who listened to Bolshevik propaganda.

French sailors of the battleship Voltaire convicted of the uprising, 1919. Source: TsDKFFA of Ukraine named after H. Pshenychnyi

Disappointed in Denikin, the French began negotiations with the UNR Directory and even agreed to recognize the UNR in exchange for cooperation in fighting the Bolsheviks. But it was too late — the Bolshevik’s Red Army and Otaman Hryhoryiv who had gone to them approached the city.

At the end of March 1919, at a conference in Paris, the members of the Entente decided to cancel the intervention. And on April 2, the French command announced an urgent evacuation from the city. Odesa ceased being a French province.

Locals on Mykolaiv Boulevard watch the evacuation of French troops from Odesa, April 1919. Source: TsDKFFA of Ukraine named after H. Pshenychnyi

During the First World War, France was one of Russia’s main money loaners. Retreating from Odesa, the French tried to take away everything that had at least some value. So they took away part of the ships of the White Guard fleet that were stationed in Odesa.

French ships during the evacuation from Odesa, April 1919. Wikimedia
Residents of Odesa, who fled the city before the arrival of the Red Army, are waiting in a camp at the mouth of the Dniester to board French military barges, April 1919. Getty Images / “Babel”

On 6 April, Odesa saw units of the Red Army led by Hryhoryiv who boasted that he had personally defeated the French. But soon, in May 1919, he led an uprising against the Bolshevik government in Ukraine. After his defeat, he tried to join anarchist Nestor Makhno, but was killed by the Makhnovists.

Odesa Soviet demonstration
Soviet demonstration in Odesa after the evacuation of French troops, April 1919. Wikimedia
Odesa French province
Equipment left behind by the French on the Duma Square in Odesa after the evacuation, April 1919. Source: TsDKFFA of Ukraine named after H. Pshenychnyi

In August 1919, the White Guard drove the Reds out of Odesa. Finally, the Soviet regime was established in the city in February 1920.

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