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Imperial British Involvement in Russia 1918-1920


The following summary is a very useful description of the involvement of British and other Imperial forces in Russia during the Great War. Note: very few (likely less than one hundred) Russian men in the Canadian army went back to Russia with Canadian forces.

1) In August 1914 France, Britain and Russia, under Tsar Nicholas II, declared war on the Central Powers. The Russian declaration of war on Germany meant that Germany had to maintain an Eastern Front to protect herself from attack from the east.

2) Russia was horrendously unindustrialised and "backward," a country of two distinct classes, the uneducated dirt poor peasant and the aristocracy and officer class which ran the country, the dirt poor doing the dying and the aristocrats doing the commanding. The welfare of the men was not usually the concern of their commanding officers, there was a very big gap in Russian society, the peasant being largely expendible. So ill-equipped was the average soldier that there were sometimes one rifle between several men, not to mention inadequate rations, uniforms and footwear.

3) Russia had immense manpower but little in the way of military equipment to fight with. The Allies France and Britain set about to supply Russia with vital war stores. There were two main routes through which the Russians could be supplied, the Black Sea ports of Sevastopol and Odessa (today the Ukraine) via the Mediterranean (easy) and the White Sea ports of Murmansk and Archangel via the North Atlantic arctic route (difficult). When Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, access to the Black Sea was denied to the Allies, hence the objective of the Gallipoli campaign was to force the Dardanelles, knock Turkey out of the war and open up the Black Sea to British and French transports.

4) Gallipoli failed miserably and the French and British transports began to make their way via the treacherous arctic route to the White Sea ports of Murmansk and Archangel. Everything from Divisional stationery to unassembled aircraft in packing crates were sent. Millions upon millions of tonnes of stores and equipement. The railway built by the Russians using German and Austrian prisoners as slave labour (thousands died) couldnt handle the supplies coming in and the crates began to be stockpiled near the docks.

5) In 1916 the Russians launched a massive offensive against the central powers in the Carpathians, tying up many German divisions. This offensive was timed to coincide with the British attack on the Somme. The Allies never considered the Eastern Front to be the cruicial front in the war but saw its strategic importance in tying up German divisions that would otherwise be able to be despatched to France.

6) In March 1917 there was a revolution in Russia, the Tsar's government deposed and a provisional government formed. This provisional government agreed to continue the fighting on the Eastern Front. In November 1917 (October in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time) the Bolsheviks (later Soviets) under V.I. Lenin took power from the Provisional Govt and declared itself neutral, causing a cessation of all hostilities on the Eastern Front. And so the seeds were planted for the Russian Civil War between those loyal to the deposed Tsar's monarchial government (the "Whites") and those loyal to the workers revolution (the "Reds").

7) In March 1918 Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, formally ending Russia's participation in WW1 and making huge concessions to the Germans in the form of reparations and giving Germany significant parts of western Ukraine, Russia's wheat basket.

8) Due to the closure of the Eastern Front, about 30 German divisions were able to be sent from the east to the west just in time to participate in the 1918 "Spring Offensive" along the British line in France launched on 21st March 1918.

9) Britain and France were feeling the strain in the west, it was possible that the Germans would reach Paris. They desperately wanted the Eastern Front to be reopened so that the 30 divisions of German troops would have to be immediately returned there. They were also concerned that Germany's allies in the "White" Finns ("White" Finns were German allies, "White" Russians were not - confusing I know!) would take possession of small ice free inlets on the Murmansk peninsula and use them as U-boat bases to menace the transports crossing the Atlantic bringing fresh US Army divisions to France.

10) Additionally, even after the Bolsheviks declared their neutrality they did not stop shipping the Allied war stores from the stockpiles at Murmansk and Archangel south to Moscow. The British and French had the idea that they could intervene in the Russian Civil War and align themselves with the pro-monarchist factions in Russia (the "Whites") who with their assistance would overthrow the Bolshevik government (the "Reds") and subsequently re-open hostilities on the Eastern Front.

11) The first British troops to set foot on Russia were a landing party of Royal Marines who were landed at Murmansk from HMS Glory in March 1918. They were there ostensibly to guard the war stores stockpiled along the docks. It was not long before they were fighting White Finnish (German Allied) troops in western Karelia. There was no fighting between the British and Bolsheviks at this time, the Bolshviks maintaining their neutrality, even if they were very perterbed by British troops fighting White Finns in Russian territory.

12) Uncomfortable with the British presence in northern Russia the Germans were threatening to send their troops garrisoned in the Ukraine marching east towards Moscow. This put the Bolsheviks between a rock and a hard place, they did not want to participate in the war on either side but they had the Germans threatening to annex land on one hand and the British threatening to occupy the northern ports and side with the White Russians on the other.

13) The British and French made the decision for them when in August 1918 the British attacked and occupied the city of Archangel at the mouth of the Dvina River, on the White Sea. This was the first time that British troops actively fought with Bolshevik soldiers, over the next weeks chasing them for many miles down the Dvina River. The British and to a lesser extent French, Italians, Serbians, Poles and Americans sent troops to occupy Archangel and Murmansk, the British called their contingent the North Russian Expeditionary Force (NREF), comprised mostly of men not fit enough to serve in France. The British also sent two training missions to Murmansk (SYREN Force) and Archangel (ELOPE Force).

14) The Bolshevik garrison at Archangel had been attacked by the Allies and the town captured. The Allies and Bolsheviks were now at war, albeit an undeclared one. The British government never officially declared war on the Bolsheviks and it is a little known fact that both British and American troops actually fought a war with the Soviets. Major battles were fought between the two sides in late 1918 culminating in the Bolsheviks offensive of January 1919 that pushed the Allies from their advanced positions south of Archangel and put them on the back foot. German advisers were sent to aid and train the Bolshevik forces, just as the British were doing with the Whites.

15) Despite their best efforts the Murmansk forces pushed the Bolsheviks south to Lake Onega and at Archangel to Troitsa on the Dvina River, but no further. The troops fought through a horrendous arctic winter but by early 1919 the decision had been made that the British would withdraw by the following winter and the White Russians would have to go it alone. The Canadian and American governments had withdrawn permission to use their troops in combat against the Bolsheviks and they were withdrawn and sent home in June 1919.

16) To this end the North Russian Relief Force (NRRF) was formed to strike a decisive blow to the Bolsheviks on the Dvina River thereby allowing the British to withdraw from Northern Russia without the Bolsheviks snapping at their heels. Part of the NRRF was a contingent of approx 120 Australians who had been discharged from the AIF to serve as volunteers in the British Army, two of these men were awarded VC's in N. Russia 1919, one of them posthumously.

17) After striking serious blows agains the Bolsheviks, killing hundreds and taking thousands prisoner the NRRF and NREF were evauated first from Archangel and then Murmansk, all British forces being withdrawn by the first week of October 1919.

North Russia was the major theatre of the British intervention in the Russian Civil War but there were significant contributions in other parts of Russia:

18) There were also training contingents sent to Siberia, as were the 5,000 strong Canadian Siberia Expeditionary Force (CSEF) and the 1/9th Hampshire's and 25th Middlesex but they saw virtually no fighting and were purely garrison troops. The RN and RM operated two Russian gunboats on the Kama River in central Russia, the RN also operated naval guns mounted on railway carriages during the Ussuri battles in August 1918.

19) A "British Military Mission" was sent to the Crimea to train and equip the White Russian forces there. As was No. 47 Sqn, RAF under Raymond Collishaw which actively fought the Bolsheviks both in the air and on the ground. There was also a small Tank Corps training detachment sent to S. Russia with Mk V and Whippet tanks, they were forbidden from participating in any fighting but against orders they did on one occasion participate in the attack on Tsaritsyn in 1919, later known as Stalingrad.

20) There was a large RN presence in the eastern Baltic Sea tasked with keeping the Bolshevik Fleet in dock, they did on more than one occasion engage in surface actions with Bolshevik ships. A small fleet of Coastal Motor Boats (CMB's) operated in the Baltic Sea. On one occasion Lieut A. Agar on his own attacked the Bolshevik cruiser Oleg and sunk it with a single torpedo, he was later awarded the VC. In August 1919 CMBs slipped through the chain of forts around Kronstadt Harbour and attacked the Bolshevik Fleet in port leading to the award of another 2 VC's.

21) A small Militiary Mission to Finland and the Baltic states overseeing the large German troop presence in the area. It is a fact that in 1919 German troops were still fighting British toops in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. A small Tank Corps detachment aslo served with White Russian troops in Estonia.

The Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Foce were all heavily involved in the Russian Civil War 1918-20. By mid to late 1920 all British forces had been withdrawn from Russia. As it turned out the Bolsheviks triumphed in 1924 and the Soviet era was born.

If anyone comes across anything to a British or Commonwealth soldier, sailor or aiman who served in Russia 1918-20, medals, photographs, papers, anything at all, please feel free to drop Damien Wright a line. Additionally, if anyone has any questions Damien would be pleased to help where he can.

Reproduced by kind permission of Damien Wright.

CSEF

CSEF