On 26th March 1920, Brian Horrocks and the other British PoWs arrived at Irkutsk anticipating that they would be heading east to Vladivostok before the ice on the river melted in April. A few days later, Sgt Frank Illingworth and Lieutenant Edward Stephens joined them after “Illy” had recovered from a bout of dysentery.
While they waited for a connecting train, the commander of the British Military Mission to Siberia, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wickham, updated the War Secretary in London and sent the following signal: A full train load of medical stores, drugs and clothing has been despatched to Chita area in charge of Colonel Young, Captain O’Driscoll RAMC and Captain Peacock. This is the best consignment of medical stores ever supplied by the Mission. It will be able to satisfy the urgent demand for drugs which is being made by every hospital from Harbin westward into which the sick from the remnants of the Siberian army are crowding in numbers out of all proportion to the space, staff or material available to deal with the situation. (WO 106/1278)
Shortly before the British PoWs departed from Krasnoyarsk, it was decided that Lydia Yates, a British refugee with her husband William and son Ernest, was too heavily pregnant to travel with them in the 4th class carriages they were assigned.
Lydia had to give birth in one of the most disease-ridden cities in the world. There were 30,000 cases of epidemic typhus reported during February 1920 and the hospitals where these poor people went to die were crammed full of patients lying in their own vomit and excreta.
William Yates, who was born in Ekaterinburg to English parents, was trying to take his family back to England where they could live with his uncle, William Glover, a renowned explorer of the Siberian forests. Glover was now the Congregational Minister in Tiverton and lived at The Manse, having moved from Heaton in Newcastle.
On 18th March 1920, Captain Brian “Jorrocks” Horrocks and Sergeant Frank “Illy” Illingworth had fully recovered from the epidemic typhus that had laid them low for a month and the British prisoners’ train departed from Krasnoyarsk.
Travelling east, they were led to believe their destination was Vladivostok, which was still in the hands of the Allies. During the first day, however, Illy suffered severe gastric problems and Major Leonard Vining was concerned that he needed specialist medical care. They took him to a hospital during a two-hour halt and Lieutenant Edward Stephens volunteered to remain with him for the duration of his illness. When Vining returned to the station, the train had vanished and he had to hitch a lift for 25 miles before catching up with his compatriots at Ilanskaya.
That evening, he was visited by the Tcheka; the notorious secret police “indulging today in an orgy blood the like of which has never been seen”…
Brian Horrocks with his fellow prisoners-of-war at Krasnoyarsk in March 1918
Hot on the heels of World Book Day, we are “Realizing Women’s Rights” on Sunday.
One of the themes in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners is women in the Russian Civil War. In May 1918, women’s food protests sparked the first wave of worker’s unrest against the new Bolshevik authority in Petrograd. Later in the war, tireless women of all classes put their menfolk to shame as they stood up to the Red Army and sustained the orthodox faith.
The resistant spirit of Russian women was observed by many of the British soldiers in Siberia, who held them in awe and wrote about the strength of their character. Apart from the bravery and magnificent work of the Red Cross nurses, my book includes inspiring examples of superior female mental fortitude, witnessed by the British PoWs in Siberia, Moscow and Petrograd during their ordeal in 1920.