Britain’s Russian fiasco: the Allied intervention in the Russian civil war

A century ago, British troops were engaged in the maelstrom of the Russian civil war. Their campaign against the Bolsheviks, writes Nick Hewitt, was a bloody debacle that enraged a restive public back home

Japanese soldiers march past White Russians and representatives from the international coalition in Vladivostok, September 1918. The Russian civil war saw soldiers from 15 nations fighting the Bolsheviks in a chaotic conflict that dragged on for years. (Image by Alamy)

Last year, the world marked the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. But for thousands of British soldiers, the fighting went on. On 11 November 1918, Thomas Dunlop, from Newton Heath, was part of a 400-strong garrison shivering in improvised trenches around Tulgas, north Russia. As Dunlop’s comrades-in-arms on the western front laid down their weapons, the 19-year-old private in 2/10th Battalion, the Royal Scots, was in a vicious firefight with 2,500 Bolsheviks, supported by gunboats.

Advertisement

For four days Dunlop’s company, alongside American riflemen and a few Canadian field guns, defended their nondescript piece of Russia. The Bolsheviks finally withdrew, leaving hundreds of dead behind, but victory came at a price. US sergeant Silver Parrish recalled how “we licked the Bolo [Bolshevik] good and hard but lost seven killed and 14 wounded, and the Canadians lost quite a few and the Royal Scots lost 36 men”.

Nick Hewitt talks about the lessons for today from the Russian civil war here

Thomas Dunlop was one of them. His body was lost, but his name appears on a lonely memorial at Archangel. One hundred years on, it’s perhaps appropriate to ask, what was he doing there?

Dunlop’s terrible fate was partly the result of what today’s military might call ‘mission creep’. At first, Britain’s primary motivation in its dealings with Russia was to keep it in the First World War: to prop up a leading ally in the fight against the Central Powers. Yet, by 1917, that strategy was unravelling.

The British often found that the White Russian troops they were fighting alongside hated each other more than the Bolsheviks

Russia’s tsarist autocracy had been tottering for decades. In 1917 it finally broke under the pressure of a world war for which it was ill-equipped to fight, and growing demands for greater freedom by a resentful and hungry population. Tsar Nicholas II’s regime collapsed in March, to be replaced by a Provisional Government. The new administration, however, failed to extricate Russia from the war, and paid the price when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized the capital, Petrograd, on 7 November 1917. Less than three weeks after the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin began negotiations with the Germans, which ended with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918.

But no sooner had Russia quit one conflict than it entered another. Counterrevolutionary armies and alternative governments, known collectively as ‘White Russians’, now began to form all over the country. They were soon posing a serious threat to Bolshevik authority. By July 1918, Nicholas II and his family had been executed, and Russia had disintegrated into a chaotic civil war.

Russia’s collapse was a catastrophe for the Allies, as it offered Germany an opportunity to transfer millions of troops to the west. Allied policy makers also feared that Germany might gain access to Russian oil and grain, and that German troops might seize nearly a million tonnes of armaments, munitions and other stores, now piled in great heaps on the dockside at Archangel and Murmansk in northern Russia, and Vladivostok in Siberia.

In a desperate attempt to forestall this nightmare scenario, the Allies decided to hurl troops from Britain, France, the United States and a dozen other countries into the middle of the bloody maelstrom that Russia had become. Most had little idea what they were doing. Among them was 18-year-old Bob Vincent of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment who, despite serving in southern Russia for nearly a year, later wrote that he “never really met any Russians at all or had any idea why I was there”. If Vincent failed to grasp what he was fighting for, he was far from alone. But that fact didn’t stop the British government despatching troops to combat zones across the massive Russian landmass – most notably in the north.

One of the most significant deployments came in August 1918 when Allied troops landed at Archangel in support of the White Russian ‘Northern Regional Government’. Over time the British-led force expanded to include US, Canadian and French troops, and pushed south along the Dvina and other rivers to secure the railways. Supported by aircraft and the Royal Navy’s improvised Dvina River Flotilla, the Allied Expeditionary Force made unexpectedly good progress against the Bolsheviks, but many of its soldiers were old or unfit and they were dreadfully exposed. Their Russian allies were unreliable, and winter was approaching.

Elsewhere British warships operated against the Bolshevik Baltic Fleet, losing more than 100 sailors and several warships in the process. The Royal Navy also scored the intervention’s most unlikely success, when Lieutenant Augustus Agar’s tiny torpedo-armed coastal motor boats penetrated the heavily defended Bolshevik naval base at Kronstadt twice, sinking the cruiser Oleg and a submarine depot ship, and claiming two battleships damaged. Agar was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Smaller British expeditionary forces and ‘military missions’ were sent into Siberia, the Caspian and the Caucasus. In the latter, ‘Dunsterforce’, a few hundred soldiers and some armoured cars under the command of Major-General Lionel Dunsterville, worked with local nationalists and other counterrevolutionaries – but found that they often hated each other more than the Bolsheviks.

Siberian landgrab

The underlying politics of the international intervention was incredibly complex. Britain and France actively supported attempts to overthrow the Bolsheviks, with President Woodrow Wilson of the United States in reluctant support, against the advice of his own War Department. Yet by far the largest intervention force was the 70,000-strong Japanese one, and their crusade was anything but ideological. The Japanese government had an eye on seizing territory in Siberia, and the behaviour of their troops, according to one British Foreign Office memorandum, “was… that of a people who intend to annex what they have occupied”. They cared little about keeping Russia in the war or who governed it afterwards.

Even within the British government, there were hawks and doves. Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted to keep Russia fighting, but was perfectly happy to work with the Bolsheviks if necessary, telling his war cabinet in early 1918 that “it was of no concern to the British government what socialist experiment or what form of government the Bolsheviks were trying to establish in Russia”.

In contrast Winston Churchill, Lloyd George’s war minister after January 1919, was a zealous ideological crusader against Bolshevism, who declaimed in a speech in Dundee that “civilisation is being completely extinguished over gigantic areas, while Bolsheviks hop and caper like troops of ferocious baboons amid the ruins of cities and the corpses of their victims”. Churchill even argued for rebuilding the defeated German army as a bulwark against Bolshevism. These internal contradictions were reflected on the ground, to the detriment of military cohesion. At one point, the British were operating in a notional partnership with the Bolshevik administration in Murmansk (which sought Allied help in facing down the threat of a Finnish attack) while fighting against Bolshevik forces elsewhere in the country.

By the time Churchill had become war minister, of course, the First World War had ended, and the only comprehensible motive for intervention had disappeared. A war-weary British population now started to question exactly why British soldiers were still fighting and dying in Russia. With democratic socialism gaining traction, many people opposed making war on communists to restore tyranny. In January 1919, the Daily Express reflected popular opinion when it paraphrased Bismarck, writing that “the frozen plains of eastern Europe are not worth the bones of a single grenadier”.

With democratic socialism gaining traction, many Britons opposed making war on communists to restore tyranny

British opposition coalesced around the ‘Hands Off Russia’ campaign, which was launched by prominent socialists in January 1919. The Socialist Labour party politician William Paul, a founding member of the movement’s National Committee, summed up its motives when he wrote that “the sheer savagery of these [White Russian] usurpers has only had the effect of driving honest moderate socialists and non-Bolshevik elements into the camp of Lenin and Trotsky”.

The communist firebrand Harry Pollitt described how the ‘Hands off Russia’ message was promoted in London’s East End by a now-forgotten evangelist, “Mrs Walker”, who roamed the streets “talking to groups of women, telling them about Russia, how we must help them, and asking them to tell their husbands to keep their eyes skinned to see that no munitions went to help those who were trying to crush the Russian Revolution”.

‘Hands Off Russia’ scored its most celebrated success on 10 May 1920, when dockers in London stopped loading a ship, the Jolly George, when they discovered it was carrying munitions bound for Poland, the latest British anti-Bolshevik proxy. By now, government enthusiasm for intervention had waned and the cargo was unloaded. ‘Hands off Russia’ went on to provide a strong nucleus for the Communist party of Great Britain when it was founded a few weeks later.

With the fighting against Germany over, opposition to a new war that nobody understood spread to the troops in the field. One Royal Engineer serving in north Russia wrote that it was “simply scandalous… to be fighting now and under such conditions when there is peace on other fronts”. Meanwhile, Major EM Allfrey of the Royal Fusiliers recorded a rumour in his diary on 2 July 1919 that “the coal miners have threatened that unless the British force in Russia is home within 40 days, they will all come out on strike… in other words, they too are Bolsheviks”.

Brutal little battles

Many members of the British forces found themselves living in squalid conditions, fighting unacknowledged but brutal little battles against a determined and ferocious enemy. There were too few troops, and many were second-rate and desperate to get home; even the Royal Marines embarrassingly experienced a mutiny in Russia.

The White Russian troops were even more prone to mutiny and desertion; many were also Bolshevik sympathisers. Lieutenant Brian Horrocks of the Middlesex Regiment trained some of them: “The filthiest and most unkempt mass of humanity I have ever seen in my life… the dregs from all the call-up depots in Siberia.” There was almost no chance of unifying them into an effective opposition. One regiment of British-trained White Russians went over to the Bolsheviks en masse on 21 July 1919, arresting their commanding officer, a Colonel Laurie, and the other British officers. “At the British offices the day was passing in its usual way,” recalled one of the ring leaders, Viktor Schetinin. “We rushed in and… pointed our rifles at the colonel. He was so surprised he just sat there as if he was nailed to the chair…”

By now, it was rapidly becoming evident that the British-led force was too small and its Russian allies too unenthusiastic for the intervention to end in anything but failure. In fact that had been the case since at least the spring of 1919 when the British commander-in-chief Brigadier-General Edmund Ironside, who had led his multinational army in the north with skill in the face of a ferocious enemy, decided to carry out one last offensive to buy time to withdraw. To help him, strong reinforcements – the British North Russian Relief Force – arrived in May largely at Churchill’s instigation, commanded by General Sir Henry Rawlinson. The British launched a series of attacks then retreated, fighting all the way. “As we fought our way up the river,” recalled Lieutenant-Commander Kenneth Michell of the monitor HMS M.33, “the Bolshies… drifted down all sorts of mines, frequently covered by brushwood”.

On 26–27 September the British evacuated Archangel, and Murmansk two weeks later. By the spring of 1920 the British and most other Allied contingents had departed Russia altogether. Only the Japanese force remained, finally withdrawing in 1925.

The Russian civil war came to an end in 1922. But the legacy of suspicion caused by the Allies’ military support for the Whites, and their associated spying and sabotage in Moscow and Petrograd, lasted long after the last soldier had left. This might help explain Stalin’s difficult relationship with Churchill during the Second World War, and even the well-documented grudging reception received by Allied convoys to the Soviet Union. After all, the last time some Murmansk citizens had seen western ships in their harbours, the same countries had been trying to destroy the revolution, not defend it.

For James and Jane Dunlop of Newton Heath, however, undoubtedly the most significant consequence of this ill-judged decision was to condemn their son Thomas and hundreds of men like him to a lonely death in the snow.


IN CONTEXT: The Russian civil war

The Bolshevik Revolution of 7 November 1917 was followed by a wave of armed insurrections across the former Russian empire by anti-Bolshevik factions loosely characterised as ‘White’ Russians. At the height of the civil war the Whites appeared to surround the Bolshevik strongholds of Moscow and Petrograd, but in reality they were a disparate group of moderate socialists, ethnic nationalists, Romanov loyalists, proto-dictators and bandits, and never really formed an effective opposition.

In Siberia the Whites were led by their self-proclaimed ‘supreme leader’, the former tsarist naval officer Admiral Alexander Kolchak. The Allied intervention in north Russia was partly intended to link up with Kolchak, but his regime was corrupt and unpopular and he lost the support of his most formidable force of 40,000 former Czech and Slovak prisoners of war and deserters, known as ‘the Czechoslovak Legion’. Kolchak was captured by the Bolsheviks and executed.

Around the Baltic coast, Estonians and Latvians were fighting for independence alongside the former tsarist general Yudenich’s White Russians, who were trying to seize Petrograd. To further complicate matters, German troops and the paramilitary Freikorps were still trying to seize territory. The Germans left and Latvia and Estonia secured independence, but Petrograd remained defiantly ‘Red’.

In southern Russia and Ukraine, the Whites coalesced around General Anton Denikin’s ‘Volunteer Army’. Denikin (pictured below) won a series of early victories but, as well as the Bolshevik Red Army, he also had to contend with Ukrainian and other separatist forces, ethnic militias and even the Turkish army. Although the British sent Denikin millions of pounds’ worth of arms his army still disintegrated; the remnants were destroyed in Crimea in 1920.

The Russian civil war effectively ended with the founding of the Soviet Union on 30 December 1922, although some insurgencies continued into the 1930s. In total, the conflict may have cost as many as 12 million lives.


Nick Hewitt is an author and historian, who works as head of Exhibitions and Collections for the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth

LISTEN AGAIN: To listen to Lucy Ash tell the story of When Britain Invaded Russia in 1918, go to bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098nlcm

Advertisement

This article was first published in the March 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine