How not to fight a war in Russia

  • Themes: Russia

The Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War contributed to America’s inter-war isolationism and intensified the Soviet Union's paranoid fear of encirclement.

US Infantry marching along railway lines during the Russian Intervention, 1918-20.
US Infantry marching along railway lines during the Russian Intervention, 1918-20. Credit: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

A Nasty Little War: The West’s Fight to Reverse the Russian Revolution, Anna Reid, John Murray, £25

There was no official military history of this forgotten conflict and no campaign medals were issued to its British participants. On village war memorials across the country the names of the 938 British servicemen killed during the Intervention of 1919-21, in which troops from 16 countries invaded Russia to fight alongside the White Russians against the Bolsheviks, are listed among the fallen of the Great War. Indeed, more British servicemen were killed in this war than were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq af ter 9/11. The Intervention ended in withdrawal and the politicians who had been its sponsors hardly mentioned it in their memoirs. (The British press had referred to it as ‘Mr Churchill’s Private War’.) Failure has no friends.

Anna Reid takes the title for her book from a 19-year-old British seaplane pilot stationed in the Caucasian oil-boom city of Baku. The Intervention, he told an interviewer years later, was ‘a political nonsense. Waste of time, money, and everything else. I suppose it kept a few of us from cluttering up the unemployment bureaux at home, but that’s about all… It was an uncomfortable business really. A really nasty, dirty little war.’

Indeed, as Reid tells it, with sharp commentary and occasional bemusement, the Intervention, proved an object lesson in how not to fight a war.

Following the Russian Revolution, the new Bolshevik government signed a peace treaty with Germany in early 1918, whereupon the Western allies took control of two Russian ports, Murmansk in the Arctic north and Vladivostok in the far east of Siberia, with the sensible goal of preventing the vast supplies they had dispatched to the Tsarist army from falling into German hands.

As many as 50,000 Czech troops, who had fought with Russia against Austro-Hungary, found themselves stuck in the Urals and at points further east. Rather than surrender their arms and be conscripted into the Red Army, they headed towards Vladivostok in the hope of being evacuated back to Europe. In order to achieve this, they took control of the Trans-Siberian railway.

It was only after they had captured Vladivostok that 7,000 American troops and an equal number of Japanese were sent to reinforce the position. Britain sent a battalion from Hong Kong, it captured Archangel in northern Russia using the Royal Navy and marines, and it sent another force from neutral Persia to defend the oil wells of Baku from the Turks as well as the Bolsheviks.

Admiral Kolchak advanced through Siberia to the Urals, but was turned back at Ormsk.

General Yudenich led a small army in a four-month campaign against Petrograd until Trotsky brought Bolshevik reinforcements from Moscow.

At one point, General Denikin, commander of the White Russian army in the Caucasus embarked on a push towards Moscow, but that too soon petered out.

There were several theatres in this sprawling and chaotic war – the Arctic north, around Archangel and Murmansk; the Karelian north, near Finland; the Baltic Sea; the south, around Ukraine, Crimea, and the Kuban; the Caucasus; Siberia in the east; and even a Transcaspian campaign. There were barely any set-piece battles of any significance, just a series of desultory skirmishes and holding operations. The exception was in Bessarabia, where the Romanians captured Tighina (in modern-day Moldova) and Vlacov (a city on the Danube Delta).

The most exciting operations from a military perspective were a couple of raids against the Red Fleet at Petrograd by Royal Navy plywood ‘skimmers’, or coastal motor boats (CMBs). With a draught of only three feet, these CMBs, carrying one or two torpedoes were able to run the gauntlet of the coastal forts on moonless nights. Despite the odd faulty engine and torpedo that misfired, the CMBs struck a couple of hefty blows: in the first raid near the fort of Krasnaya Gorka, a depot ship was sunk and the Russian cruiser Oleg was ‘left lying on her side like a large dead whale’, and in the second raid three warships were sunk or disabled in Kronstadt harbour itself.

The barbarities and cruelties of the Intervention far exceeded those of the Great War. Karelians (those Russians living near the border with Finland) formed an ‘Irish’ regiment under British command and fought pro-German Finns. They took virtually no prisoners and skinned Finnish scouts, stuffing their skins with leaves to make macabre effigies.

British aeroplanes dropped cannisters of arsenic gas known as ‘M Devices’ on enemy-held villages. ‘We have no evidence as to what effect these things are having,’ wrote General Ironside, commander in the North, but ‘I am certain that they can’t be nice.’ When the British withdrew from North Russia, they dumped 47,000 unused M Devices in the White Sea.

Summary executions of prisoners of war and civilians were commonplace. The official positions of mayor and stationmaster were inherently risky, inviting a hangman’s noose or firing squad whenever a town changed hands.

The White volunteer armies consisted of bedraggled, unshaven, and ill-kempt soldiers, who were regarded by the rural population with as much animosity as the Bolsheviks, since they fell upon livestock like wolves and plundered grain like locusts.

In the south, there was a maelstrom of opposing armies: a Polish army, a Ukrainian People’s Republic army, a Ukrainian Soviet army, General Denikin’s Volunteer Army, the Don and Cuban Cossack ‘Hosts’, and four warlords as well as ad hoc bands of peasant guerillas known as Greens. The regime in Kyiv changed a dozen times during the course of 1919. The economy had collapsed and hence corruption was rife: 1500 nurses’ uniforms reappeared as fashion items on girls about town, while beds and bedding intended for hospitals ‘found their way into the houses of staff officers and members of the government’.

Cold and typhus were mass killers. In one building in the Baltic region, where prisoners lay on the floor, a Red Cross man observed a column of lice marching from the hair and beard of a dead man across the floor to the hair and beard of a man who was still alive. For 16 months the Inter-Allied Typhus Train, operated by the American Red Cross, treated over a million people as it traversed Siberia and it proved to be the most beneficial consequence of the Intervention. But towards the end the number of typhus deaths was so immense that there were insufficient coffins to give the dead a proper burial.

By far the most disturbing aspect of this book is the prevalence of pogroms against the Jews. The White Russians equated Jews with Bolsheviks and seemed to think that an effective solace to every setback was to grant their troops permission to conduct pogroms. British diplomats and soldiers averted their gaze from these excesses and even accused the Jews of provocation. As Reid writes, ‘the fact that Britain knowingly funded, supplied, trained, and sent men to fight alongside the armies that committed them [pogroms] is shocking and shameful’.

When the British were about to leave Siberia, a young Royal Engineer observed ‘that both Govm’t troops and insurgents were wearing British clothing and boots, and firing British ammunition out of American rifles and Canadian machine-guns. There you have in a nutshell the result of Allied “help” in Russia.’

Another British soldier offered a similar critique when he came round on a departing hospital ship, after 12 days of typhus delirium: ‘It was all over – one long list of failures, which became more complex and more irremediable the more I looked at it… Failure in ideals, failure in plan, failure in execution. What would history say of the failure of the British Mission to South Russia?’

The last days of the Intervention saw a scramble to leave. Refugees from Odessa and Novorossiysk stampeded in their effort to clamber aboard boats, a paddle-steamer capsized and disgorged its human cargo into the sea, Cossacks swam out to boats on their horses, while warships let off parting salvos, ‘barking like a lot of terriers’. In Crimea there was ‘almost a holiday air’, with Russian women plunging into the sex trade, which one English observer assumed they would later cast off ‘like a dirty, ill-fitting coat’.

In the summer of 1920, with the White Russians reduced to a redoubt in Crimea, the British government was negotiating peace with Moscow at the same time as engaging in trade talks. Unemployment and rising prices at home overcame moral objections and Lloyd George asked the Cabinet the rhetorical question, ‘do we not trade with cannibals in the Solomon Islands?’ Churchill harrumphed and considered resigning, but ultimately stayed in post, losing his parliamentary seat at the 1922 election.

Why did the Intervention in Russia fail? Churchill was correct in believing that insufficient political will was the principal factor. Lack of commitment to another costly foreign war in the wake of the Great War is understandable, especially as it was accompanied by domestic economic woes. The Intervention contributed to America’s inter-war isolationism and Russia’s continuing paranoid fear of encirclement, and marked out Churchill as a military strategist of dubious quality. Years later, however, Churchill had greater credibility when he insisted that the West should have ‘strangled Bolshevism in the cradle’.

The Russian-born British diplomat William Gerhardie, who was part of the British military mission to Siberia, wrote a novel about the Intervention and gave it a stark title: Futility. The Intervention was hardly the stuff of heroic legend. Yet in laying bare its reality Reid has performed heroically and her book deserves to be admired for its subtle interweaving of barbarism, incompetence, and incidents of absurd comedy. As one British officer recalled: ‘Quite an interesting week. Rather tragic, but several very amusing incidents.’


Christopher Silvester