Russian Civil War Siberia II


The original intention had been to withdraw the Czech Legion through Archangel but, to delay the Legion’s arrival on the Western Front, the Germans had pressured Trotsky into changing the exit route to the far longer and more difficult journey via Vladivostok. Deliberate obstruction from the Bolshevik authorities played a part in further delays, but the Trans-Siberian was genuinely over-loaded with trainloads of Central Powers POWs who had been released from the camps in Siberia and were required under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to be repatriated speedily, so the Czechs had a low priority on the line. Their progress stopped entirely at Chelyabinsk on 14 May 1918, when a released POW being repatriated westwards threw a stone or piece of metal that killed a legionnaire. Tensions between the legionnaires and their westbound compatriots, whom they regarded as traitors, were high. Hauling the stone-thrower off his train, the legionnaires lynched him on the spot. After local Bolsheviks arrested several Czechs for this, other legionnaires occupied the whole city with some bloodshed and released their comrades, proceeding to take over Petropoavlovsk, Kurgan, Novo-Nikolayevsk and several other towns along the railway until they were masters of the whole stretch of the Trans-Siberian from the Urals to Lake Baikal.

Some sources, however, disagree as to exactly why and how the Czechs became masters of the strategic railway line. As so often after Brest-Litovsk, when Russian history was completely re-written in accordance with the party line and Allied accounts conflict, confusion rules. Some historians believe that the take-over of thousands of miles of track could not have been accomplished spontaneously, which would indicate that British and/or French money was made available to a body calling itself the Czech National Council, which enabled the extended coordination called for by such an exercise in hostile, Bolshevik, territory.

In early July 1918, after Japan had landed some 70,000 troops in eastern Siberia and Manchuria to seize control of the Chinese stretch of the Trans-Siberian as far as Chita, President Woodrow Wilson seemed suddenly to realise that the billion dollars-worth of US materiel sitting in warehouses at Vladivostok and in the Far North was being filched away to the Red Army, fighting not the Central Powers as planned but the interventionist forces. On 2 August General William Graves was ordered to meet Secretary for War Newton Baker in Kansas, where he was instructed not to proceed to France with US 8th Division, but to take command of an American Expeditionary Force of 8,000 US servicemen being shipped to Vladivostok to protect the stores and assist the Czechs to extricate themselves from Russian territory – but not to fight Russian troops! It was like ordering a man to save a child from a crocodile without hurting the crocodile.

France also sent a battalion of colonial soldiers from Vietnam. A battalion of the 25th Middlesex Regiment arrived fom Hong Kong for garrison duty, the men being almost all medically unfit for active service. General Knox returned to the scene, arriving at the head of a British Military Mission with responsibility for setting up a training school for the White forces 4,000 miles to the west at Ekaterinburg – and organising the rear area, including all those stores. There were even some Canadians for a while, conscripted in fraught conditions by a coalition government that was unsure whether to back Britain’s intervention or not, but agreed to send a Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (CSEF) on condition that it was not to be sent into action! A number of men mutinied before even embarking at Vancouver, which resulted in a dozen courts martial.

After arrival at Vladivostok, pressure from General Knox and others to support Kolchak’s troops against the Bolsheviks was resisted by Canadian Brigadier General James Elmsley, although he did contribute guards to escort supply trains and despatched a token force of one lieutenant colonel and fifty-five men to Omsk, where they were to act as headquarters staff for the British battalions there – in other words, standing sentry to free British soldiers for more active service. By February 1919 questions were being asked in the Canadian parliament as to why, the war being over, Canadian citizens were still deployed in Russia. One Party leader said explicitly: ‘The question of how Russia shall settle her internal affairs is her concern – not ours.’ Fortuitously, a few Canadians just missed seeing action in April 1919 after American troops refused to get involved in a rescue column tasked with driving off some Bolsheviks attempting to liberate comrades taken prisoner by Kolchak’s forces, but by the time they arrived on the scene, the Bolsheviks had fled. Between late April and early June all the CSEF was withdrawn.

By September 1918 the Czechs had control of the Trans-Siberian from the Pacific to Samara (modern Kyubyshev) and Kazan, only 400 miles east of Moscow. Admiral Kolchak held the title Supreme Ruler of Russia after a murky deal that was attributed to Knox and the British Secret Service – and also because he had managed to secure a significant part of the Russian gold reserves, which travelled everywhere with him on his armoured train. However, this did not go down well with the other White generals, who regarded him as an amateur in ground warfare – which he was. Kolchak’s increasingly large staff became too top-heavy for him to exercise command efficiently, and included for a time General Maurice Janin, head of the French military mission, as well as a gung-ho officer from Suffolk by the name of Commander Wolfe-Murray. By a combination of circumstances, on 13 October 1918 Kolchak reached Omsk and set up a provisional White government there. In July it had seemed briefly possible that the Czechs might unseat the whole Bolshevik regime as their columns advanced towards Saratova and Kazan, only 400 miles from Moscow, but news of the General Armistice on 11 November caused considerable unrest in their ranks. Why, the Czech and Slovak legionnaires asked, are we still fighting in Russia when our homelands have been freed from German and Austro-Hungarian domination under the terms of the Armistice? At the end of the year, all the Czech columns were pulling back eastwards, so that, when Kolchak’s forces looked likely to reach Moscow and link up with a British force from Archangel in the spring of 1919, the game was lost after the Czechs failed to support his initiative.

The resilient Joseph Bumby described the chaos of being stuck in Petropavlovsk with 30,000 other European ex-POWs:

There was no accommodation for so many men, so we had to sleep on the pavements. Then we found an apartment in the house of a trader in Tatar goods and 250 men lived on the first floor above his shop and in the next house. For food, we had to walk about one hour to the central kitchen, where you could eat from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For a lunch there, we had soup with a piece of meat the size of a sparrow’s head and kasha or buckwheat gruel. It was already snowing in early October, so they were building a wooden camp of huge sheds, each with two stoves to warm 500 men. We had very little cash left. Even water had to be paid for. When some mail arrived, everything quietened down, especially when we got the Czech-language newspaper from Kiev.

Shore patrols from Suffolk and Kent were not confined to Vladivostok city and port. The most distant mission the RN personnel undertook was executed by a mixed bag of thirty-three British volunteers from Kent under Royal Marine Captain Thomas Jameson which departed in April 1919 to join the Kama River Flotilla after Suffolk’s artificers fitted out an armoured train with a 6in naval gun and four 12-pounders. This headed west to support White and Czech forces. The medically unfit men from Middlesex found themselves in action after all, along the line of the Ussuri River, north of Vladivostok. Others were posted to Knox’s training school at Ekaterinburg, along with – believe it or not – a battalion of cycle troops from the Hampshire Regiment. Both battalions were withdrawn from the theatre in November 1919.

Patrolling the immense Kama, a major tributary of the Volga some 600 miles east of Moscow and 3,000 miles inland from Vladivostok, was no sinecure. The flotilla was composed of eighteen craft under the command of Rear Admiral Nikolai Smirnov. Allotted a supernumerary paddle-wheel tug and a river barge, on which to mount the naval guns they had brought with them, the RN personnel named these two craft Kent and Suffolk. Flying the White Ensign, they distinguished themselves by being the only British forces under Russian command. Placed on the ration strength of Smirnov’s flotilla, they lived on a diet of stale or mouldy black bread and bear meat with whatever locally grown vegetables they could purchase.

With the advent of winter, poor food and inadequate clothing would have caused problems, but the guns they had brought were already suffering excessive wear from sustained use long before then. The 6in gun fired 356 rounds in two days of engagements. At the end of June, Smirnov decided that the Reds were getting too close for comfort and relocated eastwards to Omsk. The RN team stripped all the armament off the two boats and loaded it onto a train with the help of conscripted women labourers. Some muscle, those ladies! A total of 225 tons had to be transported and loaded, the 6in gun alone weighing nearly seven tons. The two vessels were then scuttled to deny them to the enemy. With the city of Perm crowded by thousands of refugees fleeing the advancing Reds and all trying to find transport to the east, Captain Jameson took an armed squad to the marshalling yards, commandeered a locomotive at gunpoint and had it coupled up to the British train on 29 June. That he was right to do this was abundantly clear when the Reds marched into the city just three hours after the train pulled out – next stop Omsk, 1,000 miles to the east. There, Jameson handed over much of the equipment to the Whites, although it was already obvious that time was running out for Kolchak. Bidding farewell to the other naval personnel, Wolfe-Murray stuck it out alone as an adviser to the admiral while Jameson took command of the train, travelling through a vast zone suffering an epidemic of cholera and typhus, where he kept railway staff at a distance with loaded rifles, to avoid infection.

By mid-September, Kolchak’s bolt had been shot. His last reserves having been beaten, he withdrew his HQ to Irkutsk on the Angara River, which runs into Lake Baikal – from where there was no retreat. In January 1920 he ‘resigned’ as Commander-in-Chief White forces, passing command to General Anton Denikin in southern Russia. Having alienated the Czech Legion and the Japanese with typically Russian xenophobia, Kolchak was now abandoned also by the British, and ‘traded’ by General Janin to the Reds, together with the gold, in order to buy free passage along the railway for the 50,000 Czechs, Poles, Yugoslavs and other Europeans stuck at Irkutsk, so that they could travel through to Vladivostok. General Janin became known as ‘the general without honour’ for having betrayed the Russian leader. Whether he was right to do so or not, one would have to ask the 50,000 men who might otherwise have been lost forever in the vastness of Siberia that swallowed up 100 times more people than that with no difficulty in the Gulag years.

By the end of December 1919 men of the Czech Legion were already being shipped back to Europe from Vladivostok, the evacuation being completed a few months later. Fortunately for history, Tomek, Filacek and Bumby were among them. Inevitably, Kolchak was executed by firing squad on 7 February 1920. As to what became of the Russian gold bullion known to be kept on his armoured train, there is a mystery.

Tourists visiting Prague who look for the McDonald’s fast food outlet on Boulevard Wilsonova may stray down the nearby street named Na Poříčí. There, they will find an extraordinary Cubist building that was obviously very expensive to build. Commissioned as the offices of Legionářská Banka – the bank of the legionnaires – it is the work of the famous architect Josef Gočár, whose services did not come cheaply, and incorporates the work of several well-known sculptors. The idea of a bank to help out legionnaires who would be in financial straits when they got home was mooted by a number of senior officers in the Legion before they left Russia. Some say that the funds to build the bank came out of savings the legionnaires had put by from their meagre pay in Siberia, but unconfirmed reports infer that some at least of the gold bullion on Kolchak’s train was brought back to Prague and financed the construction of Legionářská Banka. Next to the famous Charles Bridge in Prague is a bridge ceremonially opened in 1904 by Emperor Franz Josef I and named in his honour. In a microcosm of Czech history, it was renamed Most Legii – the Bridge of the Legions – twenty years later and, twenty years after that, under the German occupation, Smetana Bridge. The Communists who took over after 1948 renamed it again as 1st May Bridge. With them too consigned to history, it is again called Bridge of the Legions.

The American ground troops were evacuated from Vladivostok in April 1920. In October of that year some 70,000 Eastern European soldiers who had survived the Russian front hostilities, the POW camps in Siberia and the civil war embarked on eight British troopships, sent to bring them back to Europe. After their departure some kind of law and order was kept by the Japanese ground forces because the government in Tokyo had it in mind to exploit the chaos in Russia to regain the territory Japan had occupied and then lost under the terms of the peace conference after the war of 1904–5. They too were withdrawn in the autumn, when a variety of vessels embarked the last thousands of desperate refugees, destination the international concessions in Shanghai. These included the author’s teacher Anna Nikolaevna. Last to leave was HMS Carlisle, which cleared the port one week after the Reds occupied Vladivostok on 23 October 1922.


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