The role of Russian volunteers in the collapse of the international legion in the South African War

  • Boris Gorelik Institute for African Studies


The establishment of an international legion by General Georges de Villebois-Mareuil
in March 1900 was the most ambitious attempt to coordinate the activities of foreign
volunteer units within a single formation during the South African War. On the general’s
death (5 April 1900), De Villebois’s Russian deputy and successor, Lieutenant Colonel
Yevgeny Maximov, lost control of the legion. As a hierarchical formation, it survived
De Villebois by only two weeks. Given Maximov’s ample experience in conventional
and unconventional warfare, and the accolades that he later won from the republican
political and military leadership, including the rank of general, the legionnaires’
opposition to him appears to be unjustified. Accounting for the discrepancy between
historians’ perceptions of Maximov and his lack of success in controlling the legion
is based on a premise that legionnaires had compelling reasons to reject his authority.
Maximov had come to Africa ostensibly as a journalist. He was yet to earn the respect of
his subordinates because he had not seen action in the South African War. In subsequent
weeks, having resigned from his post in the legion, he distinguished himself in the
engagement at Tobaberg as the leader of the Dutch corps. By then, Maximov had the
‘moral authority’ to command an international unit, but his poor health prevented him
from carrying on fighting. Unlike De Villebois, who was supported by like-minded
French lieutenants, Maximov could not rely on his compatriots. Instead of endorsing his
claim to leadership, the Russian corps refused to join the legion while he was in charge,
and intentionally discredited him. In the power vacuum after De Villebois’s death, the
legion collapsed, and a chance to transform the emerging alliance of foreign volunteer
units into a formidable force was missed.

How to Cite
Gorelik, B. (2021). The role of Russian volunteers in the collapse of the international legion in the South African War. Scientia Militaria - South African Journal of Military Studies, 49(2), 29-41.