1919: Britain's forgotten war on Russia

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A British tank captured by the Russians in 1919. Pic: Imperial War Museum

As celebrations commenced at the signing of the General Armistice that ended the First World War, the British army, among others, decided to continue hostilities, this time against the new Soviet Republic of Russia. Steve Guy tells the story of this shady episode in British history.

When the Russian revolution finally toppled the Tsarist autocracy in November 1917 and swept Lenin and the Bolsheviks into power, one of their first acts was to seek a peace settlement with the Central Powers, Germany and Austro-Hungary. In December an armistice was signed, formally ending hostilities on the Eastern Front.

Russian casualties in the Great War had been horrendous, with some historians putting the number of dead in excess of two million, with at least three times that number wounded and maimed. In the few brief weeks of peace following the armistice, the Bolsheviks endeavoured to establish their authority throughout the whole of the country, and they were initially successful in overcoming all internal opposition to the revolution. They set about instituting their cardinal policies.

As Lenin said in January 1918: “The reorganisation of Russia on the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the nationalisation of the banks and large scale industry, coupled with exchange of products in kind between the towns and the small-peasant consumers’ societies is quite feasible economically, provided we are assured a few months in which to work in peace.”

Formal peace negotiations commenced in February 1918, with the Bolsheviks inviting all the warring protagonists to come to the table. The Allied powers, led by Britain and France, urged the Russians to resume hostilities. The Bolsheviks rejected their overtures, antagonising the Allies, who shunned their invitation; the war on the other fronts continued.

The Bolsheviks had hoped that their actions would inspire the working classes in all the combatant nations to follow their example. But revolutionary agitation among the subordinate classes in both the warring camps did not immediately translate into movements capable of overthrowing their governments, or at least forcing them to sue for peace. As a consequence, the Russians were left isolated. Their attempts to stall for time, while agitating for international revolution, resulted in their strongest opponent, Germany, losing patience and going on the offensive, advancing hundreds of miles into the interior. Without an army to oppose the invasion, the Bolsheviks were forced to make major concessions to secure a peace deal. The Russo-German peace agreement, signed at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, recognised the reality of the occupation by Germany of huge areas of the hinterland, including Ukraine, the “grain basket” of Russia.

Spheres of military operations

In December 1917 the two principle Allied powers, Britain and France, concluded a secret agreement dividing up the south of Russia into spheres of military operations, aimed at challenging the Central Powers, and implicitly, the Soviets. In early summer 1918, two British army contingents advanced into the Caucasus region and the area now known as Turkmenistan. At the same time, a naval task force was dispatched carrying troops with instructions to occupy the northern port of Murmansk, ostensibly to prevent its possible occupation by German forces advancing through Finland. A similar operation was organised at the easternmost extremes of the old Russian empire, with the Royal Navy landing troops at the Siberian port of Vladivostok, to “safeguard” the stockpiles of military supplies previously provided to the Tsarist regime. Forces from Japan, France and the US also landed, but overall, only played a minor role in the intervention.

Thus far, the avowed aim of the Allies was to counter the advance of the Central Powers, who were capitalising on the military weakness of the fledgling Soviet state. But by mid-1918 Allied forces, especially the British, were taking a more aggressive stance towards the Bolsheviks. In July the North Russian force, including anti-Bolshevik White Russian troops, attacked the port of Archangel and succeeded in driving out the Bolsheviks. This was the first overt act of aggression by the forces of the intervention against the Soviet regime. Significantly, the British then conspired with the local Whites’ leadership to depose the moderate administration of the anti-Bolshevik socialist Nicholai Tchaikovsky and install a reactionary White administration in its place.

The British force advancing into the Caucasus occupied the oil-producing city of Baku and imposed martial law there. The other British force, advancing east of the Caspian Sea, supported the anti-Bolsheviks of the “Ashkhabad Committee” based in the capital city of that region. The British commander and his senior liaison officer were implicated in the arrest and execution of 26 Bolshevik commissars by that committee. In both cases, the British expended more time and effort in fighting the Bolshevik forces than fighting the Germans and their Turkish allies.

In Vladivostok the Allied forces, having expelled the Bolshevik administration, cast about for anti-Soviet elements to carry the struggle into the interior. They soon discovered that there were some 40,000 Czechoslovak soldiers in Western Siberia who, having previously served in the Austro-Hungarian army, were captured by the Russians and then volunteered to fight in the Tsarist army against the Central Powers. Britain and France connived at the recruitment of these Czech formations, the Czech Legions, for the struggle against the Bolsheviks. They were even deployed to support a coup, stage-managed by the British, to impose the reactionary White Admiral Alexander Kolchak as the “Supreme Ruler” of all Russia, with his capital in Omsk.

Series of attacks

With the signing of the General Armistice in November 1918, the campaign against the Soviets intensified. On 13 November, while the Armistice celebrations in London went into their second day, a key cabinet committee took the decision to continue military operations in Russia. There was a tacit agreement that this information would not find its way into the public domain. By late 1919 the navy had staged a series of attacks on the Russian naval base at Kronstadt, one attack being in support of anti-Bolshevik mutineers who had seized the fortress of Krasnaya Gorka, a key element of the base’s defences.

British forces and military missions were now active in all the main theatres of operations against the Soviet regime when, in January 1919, Lloyd George announced the appointment of Winston Churchill as the Secretary of State for War. Churchill’s attitude to the Bolsheviks could best be judged from a notorious speech that he gave during the 1918 election campaign:

“Russia is being reduced by the Bolsheviks to an animal form of Barbarism… Civilisation is being extinguished over gigantic areas, while Bolsheviks hop and caper like troops of ferocious baboons amid the ruins of their cities and the corpses of their victims.”

Churchill consulted the military chiefs about mobilising a task force for a full-scale invasion of Russia, but mutinous opposition from rank and file servicemen, who had no intention of being dispatched to fight there, forced a turnaround by the authorities, and the idea was abandoned.

Meanwhile the position of the British and their Allies was becoming more precarious. The Bolsheviks had undertaken a military reorganisation, promulgated by Leon Trotsky, and now the Red Army was becoming a force to be reckoned with. Worryingly for the British, their military operations in the north and in South Russia were increasingly sabotaged by mutinies within the ranks of the White Russians serving with the British. These were brutally suppressed, and executions authorised by British commanders, of both mutineers as well as Bolshevik prisoners, became routine.

Many British rank and file soldiers became disillusioned with the campaign, and began to question what they were fighting for. Serious breaches of discipline occurred, including incidents of outright mutiny. But the government, fearing a political backlash, prohibited the British commanders from executing British mutineers. Then in September 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Sherwood-Kelly, VC, CMG, DSO, a much-decorated officer serving in Russia, created a sensation when he sent an open letter to the press condemning the motives for the intervention:

“I formed the opinion that the puppet government set up by us in Archangel rested on no basis of public confidence and support, and would fall to pieces the moment the protection of British bayonets was withdrawn. At the same time I saw British money being poured like water and invaluable British lives sacrificed in backing up this worthless army and in keeping in power this worthless government.”

Sherwood-Kelly’s indictment of British policy was not the only one from a senior officer, although it was the most public. In South Russia, Lieutenant General Bridges echoed Kelly’s comments, stating, “our ill-staged interference in the Russian civil war cost us some thousands of British soldiers lives and £100,000,000 in money, while we earned the bitter enmity of the Russian people for at least a decade… On the credit side I can think of nothing.”

The writing was on the wall for the intervention forces as they were forced to retreat on all fronts by the relentless pressure from the Red Army, while domestic opposition to further British involvement was hardening, especially among the working class. By the end of 1919 the evacuation of all British military personnel was almost complete, leaving the White Russians to fight on alone.

The imperialist intervention had denied the Bolsheviks those “few months in which to work in peace”, and with Britain playing the leading role in promoting the White counter-revolutionary movement, the Bolsheviks were compelled to fight on until the last vestiges of opposition were extinguished. The cost in Russian lives, estimated at between 7 and 10 million, dwarfed the casualties sustained in the Great War, and prolonged the agony of the Russian people for years after the Great War had ended.

Further reading:
Russia 1917, Dave Sherry (Bookmarks 2017)
The Russian Civil War, Evan Mawdsley (Birlinn 2011)
Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin, Damien Wright (Helion & Company 2017)