The Crusader-Era Knights Who Volunteered to Fight World War I

Less than a year after the Russian Empire entered World War I, a band of Georgian men came down from the Caucasus Mountains. Dressed in chain armor and wielding shields and broadswords, they rode to the governor’s house in modern-day Tbilisi and asked, “Where’s the war?”

At the onset of World War I, the Russian Empire was massive. It stretched from the Pacific Ocean in the east to what is today Finland in the west. It also encompassed most of the Caucasus regions, including the area where Georgia and Armenia are today.

Even by the standards of 1914, Russia was a backward country. Most of its citizens were serfs, often tied to the land they worked, like serfs in the Middle Ages. In the more far-flung areas of the empire, people could be frozen in time. In Russian Georgia, the Khevsurs were this kind of people.

Locals believed the Khevsurs were descendants of knights who settled in the area after the fighting in the Crusades in the 12th century. Instead of marching to the holy land, their forefathers instead moved north through Turkey and into the Caucasus Mountains. Other scholars say their ancestors were still crusading, just fighting Muslims in a different direction.

What is known for sure about the Khevsurs is that they were relatively autonomous in their mountain settlements, loyal only to the ruler of Georgia and their local traditions. Being so far removed from society, they naturally enjoyed a degree of autonomy in their governance, according to the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia.

They rode into battle wearing a red Jerusalem Cross on their chests and on their flags. Georgian history regards them as reliable warriors, guardians of the mountains who always answered the call of the defense of Georgia. So it makes sense that upon hearing news of the war, they would get ready to fight it.

When the Khevsurs rode into Tiflis in 1915, their shields and swords bore the motto “Ave Mater Dei,” “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” the motto of the Crusaders. News of the war’s outbreak had taken seven months to reach them in their mountain homes. They headed for the capital as soon as they heard what was happening.

The story of the Khevsurs comes from American adventurer Richard Halliburton’s 1935 book, “Seven League Boots,” a collection of his essays written while traveling off the beaten paths of the early 20th century. It includes an interview with the assassin of Tsar Nicholas II and a dinner conversation with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I. Halliburton described the event thus:

“In the spring of 1915, some months after Russia’s declaration of war against Turkey, a band of twelfth-century Crusaders, covered from head to foot in rusty chain armour and carrying shields and broad-swords came riding on horseback down the main avenue of Tiflis [Tbilisi]. People’s eyes almost popped out of their heads. Obviously this was no cinema company going on location. These were Crusaders — or their ghosts.”

Georgians had been part of the Russian Empire since 1801, when Russia ended Persian domination of the area for good. Eventually, Georgians and other Caucasian people were integrated into the Russian armed forces and fought alongside Russia in wars with Persia, the Ottoman Empire and German-led Triple Alliance in World War I.

An estimated 200,000 Georgians were mobilized to fight in World War I in the Russian Army. Though Khevsurs fought on the front lines of the war against Georgia’s traditional Ottoman enemy, it’s unlikely that broadswords were their primary weapons.

Armor was a common sight on the battlefields of World War I. Broadswords weren’t so much. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Armor was a common sight on the battlefields of World War I. Broadswords weren’t so much. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

— Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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Blake Stilwell