Britain At War February Article

The story of last British PoWs of World War is now available to read in the January and February editions of Britain At War magazine.

In the January issue I explain what the soldiers were doing in Siberia and how they were captured by the Bolsheviks one hundred years ago.  In the February follow-up, I tell the story about the prisoners’ ordeal and how they managed to return to England just after the Unknown Soldier was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The February magazine can be purchased online at the following link:

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The Betrayal of Admiral Kolchak on 15 January 1920

In January 1919, the Supreme Leader of the White Government, Admiral Alexander Kolchak was forced to hand over power to General Anton Deniken when he was held up in his train by the Czech Legion 280 miles from Irkutsk.  The Allied commander, General Maurice Janin guaranteed the safe conduct of the Admiral and his carriages were coupled to the train of the 6th Czech Regiment.  If he could just reach Lake Baikal, he believed he would be safe because the railway line from there was still controlled by the US and Japanese forces.

However, the train took seven days to reach Irkutsk, by which time the Bolsheviks had taken the city and the British and French diplomatic delegations had escaped to the east.  On 15th January, his carriages were surrounded by a hundred revolutionary soldiers with machine guns and the Czechs handed the Admiral over to the Red Commissars.  That night, Kolchak spent his first night in captivity, although he must have felt he had been a prisoner for much of the previous month.

IMG_4665Admiral Kolchak (fur hat) with Captain Francis McCullough (right) who ran the White Government’s Propaganda in Omsk

Captured in Siberia

On 6th January 1920, two months after escaping from Omsk, a group of fifteen British soldiers were held up in a queue of trains approaching Krasnoyarsk.  They put the long halt down to the fact that the locals were celebrating Russian Christmas Eve.

Suddenly, the locomotive in front blew its whistle and their train replied, but it did not move forward. Sergeant Joe Rooney struck up on the banjo and sang “Take me back to dear old Blighty”.  Then someone remarked “A Russian officer has just thrown his sword over the bank”.

Several more officers followed his example and all around, they saw White Army soldiers throwing down their rifles and pistols.  They had traveled 900 miles by train, sleigh and on foot through the bitter Siberian winter, but now they realized this was the end of their forlorn flight to freedom and the beginning of their captivity at the hands of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

SledgesSledges Used By British Soldiers on the Retreat From Omsk

 

 

Rewriting History?

In the list of the worst rail accidents in the world, there is no mention of the disaster at Achinsk which held up the British refugees fleeing from the Red Army.

On 31st December 1919, Leonard Vining, Brian Horrocks and Emerson MacMillan  walked past dozens of trains into the town to find a scene of utter desolation.  They discovered that the station was completely destroyed because three days earlier, a freight train carrying dynamite had exploded in the centre of a dozen refugee trains standing on parallel tracks.  More than five hundred people were killed instantly and thousands injured; many of them women, children and babies.  Emerson wrote “the dead were piled up like cordwood. There were hundreds of them but they were luckier than the injured, who lived and who could not possibly receive medical attention.”

In ordinary times, this would rank as a global disaster, but here it was just another episode in the unfolding tragedy of the retreat from Omsk.

Trans Siberian Railway.jpgTrans Siberian Railway Line From Omsk To Irkutsk – 1,500 Miles

 

 

 

 

Last Stand in Siberia

On 23rd December 1919, the Siberian Army fought its final battle, whilst the despondent “Supreme Leader”, Alexander Kolchak was held up in his train carrying the Imperial Treasury, by the Czech Legion at Krasnoyarsk.

Reporting on the comprehensive defeat, the Manchester Guardian commented: “the shattered remains of Kolchak’s army scattered and all stores, munitions and practically all artillery were lost”.  General Kappel issued orders to establish a defensive line near Krasnoyarsk, but this proved impossible as 45 echelons of the White Army were stuck on the railway line with frozen engines stalled between Bogotol and Kozulka.

The following evening, the last British contingent out of Omsk made the best of their situation.  Forty people, squeezed into a carriage designed for 16, ate their Christmas Eve supper of soup, rice and vodka.  A whisky bottle was shared and they held an impromptu sing-song until 11.30 pm with a magnificent rendition of Helen of Troy and Give Me The Moonlight.

IMG_2712The last British group that escaped from Omsk in the winter of 1919

 

December 1919

One hundred years ago, Leonard Vining, leading an “abandoned” group of refugees in their attempt to escape from the Red Army, wrote in his diary:

December 12th. We moved on a few more versts. Hear that Novo-Nik has fallen.  The Russian officer fairly excited, came and told us that within the next 24 hours the Reds will cut in at Oiash; if that happens we have to take to the road.  It would not be very much to worry about if we had not women and children with us. So many claimed British nationality at the last moment, and we were compelled to evacuate them.

Poor old Bates could not find his wagon with his child and all worldly possessions in it. From Novo-Nik he went back to Barabinski to hunt for his wagon.  It is like hunting for a needle in a haystack.  Mrs Bates is with us and spends most of her time crying…it is as bad a case as could be.

IMG_1054Major Leonard Vining of the Royal Engineers

Frustrating Dash For Freedom

At the beginning of December 1919, Brian Horrocks and his compatriots were held up in their train for five days at Novo-Nikolaevsk. Whilst waiting for the line ahead to clear, some of them took the opportunity to buy amethyst, turquoise, beryl and alexandrite stones from the Urals, which were readily available in the market outside the station.

On 6th December, their train pulled out of  the station at 1.30 p.m., but the weight of the carriages was so heavy that a banking engine had to push them up the hill. There was a shortage of fuel and water, so many broken down locomotives blocked the line.  Sometimes their train was halted for hours and the soldiers had to form a human chain passing baskets of snow forward, in order to maintain the steam pressure in their locomotive.

Francis McCullagh wrote: “All our energies were concentrated on satisfying our locomotive’s insatiable cravings. The struggle for water on occasions was a nightmare as half a dozen engines sometimes contended for the privilege of filling their boilers first and as the commandants of rival echelons almost came to blows”.

IMG_2110.JPGThe rebuilt station at Novo-Nikolaevsk, now named Novosibirsk.

A 50th Birthday At Barabinski

The oldest of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners, Warrant Officer Fred Walters, spent a forlorn 50th birthday, on 17th November 1919, stuck in a train at Barabinski, looking after British women and children fleeing from the Red Terror.

Walters was born in Birmingham and emigrated with his wife, Emily, to Canada where they parented eight children.  In 1916, he volunteered to join the Army and ended up in the British Railway Mission in Siberia in 1919.  He was famed for his “ramrod straight bearing” and was an important father figure to the younger soldiers, worried about what would happen to them. 

Uncle Charlie, as he was known, is standing on the left in the photograph below.

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Lord Mayor’s Banquet 1919

On 8th November 1919, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, revealed that the British Government had sent one hundred million pounds worth of military equipment to support the White Government in Siberia.  Knowing that the last British battalion had sailed from Vladivostok on 1st November, he told the Guildhall audience: “We cannot of course, afford to continue so costly an intervention in an interminable civil war”.

At the time, the Prime Minister did not realise that a group of British soldiers ordered to “remain to the last” in Omsk, would extend British involvement in the Russian civil war for a further 12 months.  See page 80 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners for this story.

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October Escape

On 31st October 1919, the Soviet Government announced that it had captured Petropavlovsk, an important trading town on the river Ishim.  In doing so, they cut off two British officers serving with Ataman Dutov’s Cossacks, Captain Phelps Hodges MC and Lieutenant Paul Moss, from their railway route to safety.

The only way of escape was to cross the infamous Gobi Desert by horse and camel.  It took them over four months, but eventually they reached the British mission in China and from there, returned to England.  Writing about his experiences, Phelps Hodges claimed: “No phase in history is more full of material for the historian or novelist than those four years of bitter civil war in Russia”.

Phelps Hodges in the Gobi Desert.jpgCaptain Phelps Hodges MC of the Royal Field Artillery, crossing the Gobi Desert in 1919