A 'Pathetic Sideshow': Australians and the Russian Intervention, 1918-1919

The following text is from:

Jeffrey Grey

The poor quality of the source material has made it difficult to write a full account of the part played by Australians in the unsuccessful allied intervention in Russia after the revolution of 1917. A further reason for historians' neglect of the incident is that because the men served in British, not Australian units their involvement in such a dubious enterprise raised no real moral dilemma back home in Australia.

The allied intervention in Russia between 1917 and 1920 has spawned a sizeable body of literature, but the material tends to be of varying quality and to leave some areas relatively unexplored. Academic historians, in particular, have tended to concentrate on the higher levels of political and strategic decision-making and diplomacy.

Although the fact of Australian involvement in the intervention forces is relatively widely known, little of substance has been written about it.1 There is no mention of these activities in the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, and although several of those involved went on to become journalists in later life, none produced memoirs or books about their experiences. Australia evinced little interest at the time, and little interest has been expressed subsequently. On the surface, this is surprising. Australians have considerable interest in their military past, as the healthy state of popular military history in this country demonstrates. Although C.E.W. Bean was unable to include the episode in his official history, one might have expected that more recent historians would have subjected Australian participation in the intervention forces to closer critical scrutiny. This has not been the case.

Part of the explanation lies in the nature of the source material. Because the Australians involved fought as part of imperial, rather than Australian units the relevant war diaries and other written records are held in Britain, and generally speaking copies have not been made for retention in Australian. In any case, these records often do not discriminate between Australian members of a unit and their British, South African, Canadian or New Zealand comrades. It is therefore very difficult to write about specifically Australian activities, because the material does not help in identifying them. Some other material that was held in Australia was destroyed in the 1920s and 1930s, presumably because it was thought to be neither of historical interest nor contemporary usefulness.2 Finally, the relatively very small number of men involved and the considerable distance in time from the event mean that the gap in the documentary evidence is unlikely to be made up by recourse to the participants themselves because the vast majority of them are dead, and the survivors, understandably, are uncertain in their recollections. Although a certain amount can be reconstructed from the available evidence, the above reasons explain why Australian historians and other writers have generally had little to say on the subject.

The role of allied soldiers in the intervention was varied, and allied advisers were to be found all over Russia. This was true even of the small Australian contingent. An Australian naval vessel, HMAS Swan, had conducted a reconnaissance in the territory of the Don Cossacks in December 1918 on behalf of the British military mission then advising the White general, Anton Denikin.3 There were several Australians acting as advisers with this mission, one of who commanded a company of the 7th Battalion, the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Forty-eight officers and NCOs were attached to Dunsterforce during 1918 and 1919 and fought in Mesopotamia in an attempt to keep the Turks and the Bolsheviks out of Persia and Transcaucasia by rearming and leading those elements of the old Russian imperial army still prepared to fight.4 A number of Australians also served as advisers with the British Military Mission to Admiral A.V. Kolchak in Siberia. By far the greatest number, however served in north Russia in 1918–19, first as advisers and later as part of a relieve force sent in to extricate the earlier party.

The initial allied involvement in north Russia was a reaction to the withdrawal of Russia from the war following the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917. The cessation of fighting in the west would not only allow the Germans to transfer large numbers of troops to the western front, but the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk also permitted German occupation of large areas of European Russia. Within these territories were large stocks of military equipment, much of it supplied by the allies. In particular, there were large stocks of such supplies in the northern ports of Murmansk and Archangel (now Arkhangelsk), and the allies were concerned that these should not fall into German hands.

The first Australians to see service in north Russia were part of a military mission of 560 men, made up of experienced officers and NCOs drawn from the imperial and dominion armies fighting in France. Their job was to train a Russian force in the area as the first step in the formation of a new eastern front. The Australian group of six sergeants and three officers had been chosen from 25 to 30 men selected by Australian Imperial Force (AIF) headquarters in April 1918 in response to a British request for experienced soldiers to take part in a secret mission. All had seen considerable service in France, with three being veterans of the Gallipoli campaign.

The force was divided into two, Syren, which was bound for Murmansk, and Elope, which was to land at Archangel. Murmansk was reached on 24 June, and Elope Force then sailed on to Archangel after a stop of some five weeks' duration. The advisers did not serve together as a composite unit and the Australians, like to rest, were split up and assigned to a variety of tasks over a wide area. As one member of the force later recalled, “By virtue of this we saw very little of each other and had little or no knowledge of the whereabouts or doings of our Aussie mates”.5 For this reason it is difficult to make general statements about the activities of this small party of Australians. Captain P.F. Lohan served in a variety of administrative positions in the regions of Murmansk and Archangel. Sergeant R.L. Graham was commissioned in the field and became railway transport officer on the Archangel–Vologda railway, while several of the other sergeants were involved in the training of various White Russian and White Finnish units. Captain Allan Brown was attached to the North Russian Rifles based at Onega, and like a number of other advisers during the intervention was murdered by his men when they mutinied on 20 July 1919 and went over to the Bolsheviks.6 Two things are clear. Like advisers in subsequent revolutionary civil wars, the men of Syren and Elope Forces were in danger not only from the enemy, which they expected, but also from the men they commanded or advised. While Brown was the only Australian in the force to be killed, there was at least one other major mutiny among the White forces in the same month and several other Australians in the force had narrow escapes from bands of mutineers. The commander of forces in north Russia, Major General (later Field Marshal Lord) Edmund Ironside, wrote many years after that the mutinies “had caused me a greater shock than I like to admit even in my innermost thoughts. I now felt a distinct urge to extricate myself and my troops as quickly as I could”.7 The second point is that the tiny force was entirely ineffectual. The tremendous conflict of revolution and civil war was far too complex to be resolved by a handful of allied soldiers who spoke little or no Russian and who did not understand the background of the events in which they found themselves involved. One British officer, in a dispatch to the War Office at this time, wrote that “to destroy the Bolsheviks an army of 300,000 men is necessary, and no reliance can be placed on any Russian National Army which may be raised … until the presence of a disciplined foreign army in Russia has set them an example of authority and order”.8

In such circumstances, how could the men of Syren and Elope be expected to affect the outcome?

Although it was felt that service in north Russia was not arduous after the experience of Gallipoli and France, the Australians at least did not look back on their service very favourably. Some felt that they had no place being involved in a civil war and that, after the defeat of Germany, they should have been withdrawn at once. After all, these men were not volunteers. One member, upon later reflection described their participation as “another of the many pathetic sideshows of the Great War. It achieved nothing, cost the British taxpayer 15,000,000 pounds (1919 value), but [the] most tragic thing of all was the number of splendid men who lost their lives in the venture, men who, after having passed through the dangers of France, Gallipoli, and other theatres of the war deserved a better fate.”9

Instead of being withdrawn, the men were condemned to the rigours of the Russian winter. The fact of their being iced in caused some consternation in the British press and several instances of soldiers from the French and American battalions and the Royal Marines refusing duty caused concern to the British government. It was increasingly clear to the Cabinet that further effort was not going to bring about the desired result and Mr. Winston Churchill, the minister with most enthusiasm for intervention, was no longer able to carry his colleagues with him. On 4 March 1919 the decision was made to withdraw. To ensure the orderly and safe evacuation of the forces already committed, it was decided to form a relief force whose sole purpose would be to safeguard the evacuation.10

Recruiting began almost at once. The force was to consist of two brigades and was to be specially raised for brief service in Russia. It was dubbed the North Russian Relief Force, and attracted officers and men of the British army from every regiment and corps. Efforts were also made to enlist the men of the dominions, who enjoyed a uniformly high reputation for their exploits in France. The Australians destined to join the force were recruited Major Harry Harcourt, a Royal Dublin Fusilier who had had extensive contact with the men of the AIF during the war, and Warrant Officer Charles Oliver, late of the 21st Battalion AIF and a former physical training instructor at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. Some 400–500 Australians may have indicated a willingness to join, but nothing like this number actually enlisted.11

All Australians who volunteered were to be discharged from the AIF and were to re-enlist in the British army as private soldiers for one year. This was necessary because the dominion prime ministers had already indicated that they were not interested in providing forces for the intervention, and indeed opposed it altogether. The AIF authorities relinquished control over the men and responsibility for them while they were part of the relief force, but undertook to repatriate them to Australia after they returned to Britain from Russia. Some Australian officers undoubtedly changed their minds when they found that they would have to enlist as private soldiers and would not be able to keep their rank, and it is probable that quite a number of men, having joined on impulse, exercised the right to reconsider. Among the reasons for withdrawing were the prospect of harsh conditions in Russia, the requirement to join the British army, and the overriding allure of returning home to Australia. This ambivalent attitude was noted by General Sir William Birdwood in a letter to the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, when he wrote that he was “almost inundated by applications or recommendations to send some of our troops to Russia. It really seems astounding that apparently such large numbers of our men should be keen on this, while presumably the same men are ready to make a tremendous fuss if not returned to their homes without delay.”12

The 100–120 Australians who finally enlisted had several reasons for doing so. Some had arrived as reinforcements in Britain too late to see any fighting, and wanted to experience active service before returning to Australia. Others were decorated veterans of the campaigns on Gallipoli and the Western Front, and some at least were motivated by a desire to see Russia, confident that any fighting would be far less arduous than that which they had already experienced.13 Some of this group undoubtedly did not feel able to “settle down” after their war experience, and may well have seen service in the relief force as a means of further postponing the return to civilian life which many viewed with apprehension. Interestingly, there appears to have been no overt political motivation among those who volunteered.

The majority of the Australians served in the 45th Battalion (Service) Royal Fusiliers, and the 201st Special Battalion, Machine Gun Corps. The force arrived in Archangel in early June and almost immediately moved up the Dvina River to a camp at Osinova. This was to be the base for the force for the rest of the short campaign. The months of June and July were taken up with training exercises, which were often conducted with White Russian forces, and small-scale patrol and ambush operations around Troitska to the south. These operations were intended both to keep the Bolshevik forces off balance and at a distance, and to instil in the White forces a willingness to come to grips with the enemy again the day, rapidly approaching, when the allied forces would withdraw.14 Members of the force were also used to suppress the July mutinies among the White troops.

On 26 July the British government dispatched Lord Rawlinson to Archangel to oversee the conduct of the evacuation. Before he arrived, Ironside launched a large-scale offensive on both sides of the river. It was designed to deal the Red forces in the region a heavy blow in order to prevent them from interfering with the withdrawal of allied troops, and it was hoped that such a blow would strengthen the regime in Archangel. It was overall a very successful operation, with the 6th Red Army suffering many casualties and losing large numbers of prisoners and much equipment. After its successful conclusion, small-scale patrol activity continued in order to screen the removal of stores and equipment downriver to Archangel, and by the night of 26–27 September the relief force had been successfully withdrawn from the city. Murmansk was evacuated on 12 October, after which the flotilla of troopships and escorts sailed for Britain.

The August offensive had been very successful, but had probably also been unnecessary. The Red forces in the region numbered only about 6,000 men and were engaged in little more than holding operations, although they were quick to try and exploit openings such as those offered by the July mutinies. Indeed the very success of the August attack may have resulted from the fact that the Reds had no intention of interrupting the allied evacuation, and were caught unprepared by the sudden, vigorous and unwarranted offensive action. The main Red Army activity in early August was on the Siberian front, where Kolchak's White armies were falling back in disarray. This serves to emphasize even further the pointlessness of allied intervention in north Russia. The area was a peripheral theatre of operation during the Russian civil war – a side-show within a side-show from the British point of view. The decisive theatres were elsewhere, and in these the fighting was being done by the Russians themselves. Only in north Russia did interventionist forces have the potential to be decisive, but they could decisively have influenced the outcome even of this secondary theatre of war only if they had been present in much larger numbers. Since all participating governments lacked enthusiasm for the small commitment actually made, a large commitment was never likely.

The reaction in Australia to these events, and to the involvement of Australians, was muted. The newspapers carried many stories about the fighting in Russia, but most of these were reprints of articles in the British press, and rarely mentioned Australians. The raising of the relief force had caused some comment, however. The journal of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League, The Soldier, had wondered how Australian soldiers would like working under British officers.15 Several of the papers produced by the labour movement carried critical editorials, generally on the theme that Australian soldiers should have no part in putting down a popular revolution.16 Apart from reports of the men's return to Australia and the award of two Victoria Crosses to them, the mainstream press paid the contingent little attention. The one exception to this was a trenchantly argued editorial in the Melbourne Truth on 24 May. Like the labour press, this newspaper argued that Australians should not be part of an attempt to suppress a popular revolution and set up a military dictator ship. The paper stated that the Australian uniform “has not yet been stained by anything of which an Australian need be ashamed”, and called for the removal of Australians from the force.17

An attempt was made to raise the question in the Federal Parliament on 8 August during question time. The Acting Prime Minister, William Watt, dealt with it in a generally uninformative way. “I do not know” he admitted, “whether it is a fact that Australian soldiers are taking part in the occupation of Russia, nor do I know the circumstances under which any Australian soldiers who may be in Russia were enlisted.”18

Another attempt to raise the matter on 21 August was similarly dealt with and the issue did not trouble the parliament again.

The lack of interest in Australia should come as no surprise. In the aftermath of the Great War and the bitterness engendered by the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917, attention had focused upon the devastating influenza epidemic and the peace conference at Versailles. In the second half of 1919 the labour press, which might otherwise have seized upon the issue of intervention, was distracted by the forthcoming election and concentrated its energies on a campaign against its bitter foe, Prime Minister Billy Hughes. In any case, there were no foreign policy considerations involved, because the Australians taking part were fighting as members of the British army. It was therefore a simple matter to overlook their involvement.

The dominion prime ministers had earlier made it clear that they were not interested in providing forces for quixotic imperial adventures in north Russia. In Britain there had been left-wing disturbances in the army, as weary conscripts demanded rapid demobilization, and there had been unrest among the conscript troops already in Archangel. The British population in general was profoundly war-weary. In order to raise the relief force it was natural that the British government should have sought to enlist colonials and others whose involvement in Russia would not arouse much comment in Britain. As a result, there were clearly identifiable groups of Australians, Canadians, South Africans and New Zealanders in the British battalions of the North Russian Relief Force. For the involved it was an interesting, even an exciting, interlude before they returned home. But their presence was unable to alter the fact that external intervention in the Russian civil war could not affect the outcome, and their activities in north Russia condemned to death the White Russians who had placed faith in them.

First published in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial 7, October 1985, pp. 12–17

Further Information

  • The two major studies on the subject are:

    1. Peter Burness, “The Australians in North Russia 1919”, Sabretache: journal of the Australian Military Historical Society, vol. XXII, no. 4, August 1976; “The forgotten war in North Russia”, Defence force journal, 22, May–June 1980.
    2. The report and associated papers of Captain Ernest William Latchford, formerly of the 38th Battalion, AIF, and the British Military Mission, Siberia. The destruction of this material is recorded at the Australian Archives, Brighton, Victoria.
    3. Jeffrey Grey, “HMAS Swan in Russia”, Sabretache, vol. XXV, no. 2, April–June 1984
    4. C.E.W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1919, vol. V, The AIF in France 1918, Sydney 1937, pp. 703–57; C.H. Ellis, The Trans-Caspian Episode, London, 1963.
    5. Mr J.R.C. Kelly, letter to the author, 28 May 1979.
    6. Mutiny Slavo-British Legion, North Russia 1919-21, WO 149/7604, Public Record Office (PRO), London.
    7. Lord Ironside, Archangel, 1918–19, London, 1953, p. 160
    8. Lavergne to War Office, 14 October 1918, WO 149/8378, PRO.
    9. Mr J.R.C. Kelly, unpublished manuscript lent to the author. The problems faced by advisers in Russia are well described in LT Morris, “Disillusioned friends: British officers in South Russia, 1919–20”, British Army quarterly, April 1983.
    10. R.H. Ullman, Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1917-1921, vol. 2, Britain and the Russian Civil War, November 1918­–February 1920, Princeton, 1968, pp.133–5.
    11. Harcourt claimed many years later that this number had been recruited, but his claim cannot be substantiated. See his letter to the editor, Army, 21 November 1968.
    12. Birdwood to Munro-Ferguson, 13 May 1919, Novar papers, 3DRL 2574, Australian War Memorial.
    13. Mr Norman Brooke, conversation with the author, 20 March 1979.
    14. The day-to-day activities of the relief force can be followed in the unit war diaries. The war diaries for the 45th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, and the 201st Battalion Machine Gun Corps, can be found at WO 95/5430, PRO.
    15. The soldier: official organ of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia, 6 June 1919, p.4.
    16. Australian worker, 3 July 1919, p.15; The worker, Brisbane, 10 July 1919, p.11.
    17. Truth, 24 May 1919, p.4
    18. Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 7th Parliament, 2nd session, vol. LXXXIX, p.11438.

Last updated: