One hundred years ago, Britain was entangled in a messy military intervention on four fronts in Russia. This controversial campaign was orchestrated by the new Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, who was buttressed by many gallant members of parliament.
Their aim was to support the White Russians, who had fought against the Central Powers and now sought to overthrow Lenin’s Bolshevik regime in Moscow.
A disunited government
The War Secretary, who had taken over from Viscount Milner in January, was in deep disagreement with the Prime Minister about what he described as a “nebulous” government policy.
David Lloyd George wished to repair relations with Lenin’s government in Moscow and reopen trade with Russia. However Churchill supported the only viable alternative, Admiral Alexander Kolchak’s White Government in Omsk.
Churchill’s greatest military commitment to Russia lay in the Arctic where 10,000 British and American soldiers fought an ultimately futile campaign in the ice and snow.
However, this was a mere distraction to Lenin and Trotsky, who was forging the Red Army into the most feared force in the world against Kolchak in the Urals and General Anton Denikin in the Ukraine.
The British contribution
There were more than 100,000 allied troops in Siberia in March 1919; the British contribution was founded on two infantry battalions.
The 25th Middlesex, reinforced by 150 soldiers of the Manchester Regiment, had deployed from Hong Kong in the summer of 1918. They were joined by 1st/9th Hampshire, which had sailed from Bombay in October and arrived in Omsk in January 1919.
There was also a Royal Marine detachment that fought from two tugs on the River Kama, 4,000 miles from their mother ship, HMS Kent. Additionally, Churchill sent a vast quantity of war materiel and a technical team to help run the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Reports reaching London in March were mixed. At the beginning of the month, the first British officer to die in Vladivostok, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Carter MC of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was buried with full military honours.
On 14 March Kolchak’s army captured Ufa on the western side of the Urals; in the Arctic, the allies were beaten at Bolshie Ozerki, but in the south Denikin’s White Army captured much of the region along the Don.
In London, Churchill had to tread carefully. His former ally Lord Beaverbrook, who had built the Daily Express into the most successful mass-newspaper in the world, strongly opposed the intervention in Russia. Britain was weary of war and restless for social change.
More importantly, the economy was in a dire situation; unemployment was high and in London, simple produce such as butter and eggs were prohibitively expensive. To many people, including the prime minister, trade with Russia offered a much-needed stimulus.
Churchill capitalises on Communist chaos
Churchill’s sense of frustration is clearly evident in his letter to Lloyd George, written at the end of the week when the communist party in Germany declared a general strike throughout the country. The War Secretary confirmed:
“You have also decided that Colonel John Ward and the two British battalions at Omsk are to be withdrawn (less any who volunteer to stay) as soon as they can be replaced by a military mission, similar to that to Denikin, composed of men who volunteer specifically for service in Russia.”
Fears of the spread of communism were inflamed with news that a Soviet Republic was established in Hungary by Béla Kun. In the chaos, Churchill devised a three-pronged strategy for the summer.
The first strand was to support Kolchak in his appointment as the Supreme Leader of the All White Government in Omsk.
The second was to lead a campaign in London against the Prime Minister’s appeasement.
The third, and this was the big prize, was to persuade President Woodrow Wilson in Washington to recognise the Omsk administration as the official government of Russia and to authorise the 8,600 American troops in Vladivostok to fight alongside the White Army.
“We hope to march to Moscow”
Churchill delayed the order to repatriate the British battalions, hoping that Kolchak would defeat the Bolsheviks decisively. He authorised the creation of an Anglo-Russian Brigade in Ekaterinburg where the Hampshire’s commanding officer exclaimed:
“we hope to march to Moscow, Hants and Russian Hants together”.
He also sent hundreds of volunteers to bolster the force; among these was the future corps commander, Brian Horrocks, who gained fame at El Alamein and at Arnhem.
Horrocks, together with fourteen other soldiers were ordered to remain behind when the Red Army routed Kolchak’s forces later in the year. After an incredible attempt at escape by train sleigh and on foot, they were captured near Krasnoyarsk.
Abandoned by their army commanders, Horrocks and his comrades believed they were being released at Irkutsk, along with some civilians, in an exchange known as the O’Grady-Litvinov Agreement. However, they were deceived by the authorities and sent 4,000 miles to Moscow, where they were incarcerated in infamous jails.
They were placed on starvation rations in lice infested cells, where political prisoners were shot in the back of the neck on a nightly basis. British delegations visiting Moscow ignored them and Horrocks, who nearly lost his life from typhus in Krasnoyarsk, now contracted jaundice.
Meanwhile in London, Parliament was dismayed that the Government had lost track of the prisoners whilst negotiating with Soviet trade missions. Huge pressure was put on the Prime Minister by angry MPs to secure their release, but all attempts failed until late October 1920.
The full story of how the last British Army prisoners of World War One survived their horrific ordeal is told in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners: The British Soldiers Deceived in the Russian Civil War. Published by Casemate, with a foreword by Nikolai Tolstoy, this fast paced adventure is available in bookshops for £20.