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.