Australians and the Russian Civil War

In the years following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Empire descended into a brutal civil war in which millions of people died. Throughout 1918 and 1919, several hundred Australians served in foreign intervention forces in the terrible conflict. Australians served in training, reconnaissance and advisory roles in regions ranging from the territory of the Don Cossacks in Ukraine, and as far as to western Siberia. The largest Australian contribution was in Russia’s north, as part of a multinational force sent to the port towns of Murmansk and Archangel’sk. There they assisted anti-Bolshevik White Russian forces and protected allied stores that had been sent to the now deposed tsarist armies in their fight against Germany. The only two Victoria Crosses awarded to British and Dominion forces in the campaign were awarded to Australian servicemen: Corporal Arthur Sullivan and Sergeant Samuel Pearse.

Three unidentified Australians serving in the 45th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, in north Russia. 

When the British authorities called for volunteers to take part in the North Russian Relief Force in 1919, the AIF indicated that it would not send any units as part of the campaign. Any Australians that did serve were required to discharge from the AIF and enlist in the British Army. Those that did take part in the North Russian Relief Force served in two British units, the 45th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, and the 201st Battalion, Machine Gun Corps.

Two unidentified Australians in the snow of north Russia, 1919.

Service in the North Russian Relief Force was voluntary, and there is little evidence to indicate that any of the men volunteered for political reasons. Some, such as Corporal Arthur Sullivan VC, had arrived in Europe too late to take part in the First World War and likely wanted to see some active service. Others were decorated veterans of Gallipoli and the Western Front who were interested in continuing fighting. They were perhaps curious to see Russia while taking part in a conflict that was not likely to be any more arduous than the fighting on the Western Front.

Corporal Arthur Percy Sullivan VC

On 10 August 1919, North Russian Relief Forces took part in a major attack on Bolshevik positions along the Dvina River. The plan was to attack and weaken the enemy in the area so as to allow a safe withdrawal of the force from Archangel’sk. During the attack, Corporal Arthur Sullivan, of Crystal Brook, South Australia, was part of a small detachment sent to take the towns of Sludka and Lypovets. After successfully taking their objectives, Sullivan’s platoon were fighting a rearguard action to rejoin the main force when, under enemy fire, they were forced to cross the swollen Sheika River over a small plank. During the crossing, an officer and three other ranks fell into the water. Without hesitation and under intense fire, Sullivan jumped into the river and rescued each man. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. His citation read that without his action his comrades “would undoubtedly have been drowned” and that “It was a splendid example of heroism as all ranks were on the point of exhaustion and the enemy less than 100 yards distant.”

Sergeant Samuel Pearse VC.

On 29 August 1919, Sergeant Samuel Pearse, a Welsh-born veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front, took part in the British attack on the railway village of Yemptsa, 170 kilometres south of Archangel’sk. During the attack, Pearse’s unit came under attack from a Bolshevik-controlled blockhouse. Under heavy enemy rifle and machine-gun fire, Pearse cut his way through enemy barbed wire, charged the blockhouse and killed the occupants. Not long after clearing the blockhouse he was hit by enemy fire. He was evacuated from the front line for treatment, but died soon afterwards. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, his citation stating: “His magnificent bravery and utter disregard for personal danger won him the admiration of all troops.” He was 22 years old.

Australian, French and Russian members of the allied mission to the Don region, December 1918.

Although the bulk of the Australian role in the Russian Civil war occurred in the north, Australians were scattered across wide areas of the complicated conflict. In December 1918 HMAS Swan took part in a reconnaissance mission to support anti-Bolshevik forces in the Don region near the Black Sea.

The Russian Civil War was a brutal war fought over thousands of kilometres. In Wartime issue 86, Stephen Brown examines how it was fought, and how the Red Army eventually triumphed.

For more information on Australians in the Russian Civil War see Jeffrey Grey, ‘A Pathetic Sideshow’: Australians and the Russian Intervention, 1918–1919: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/north_russia/journal