While the British prisoners-of-war were held in Petrograd at the British Colony Hospital, they were given a tour of opulent private apartments in the Hermitage.
Leonard Vining could not resist playing a few notes on the magnificent gold piano that “still had a very sweet tone”, but Emerson MacMillan was more impressed by the Tsarina’s white marble bathroom that was decorated with marine views: “Beautiful it was as skill and art could make it, complete in every detail, but there was no water”. Their guards were still royalist to the core and quietly admitted that Russia was worse now than it had been under the Tsar.
Back in the hospital, the soldiers received many offers of marriage. “If only you will marry us so that we can get over the frontier out of Russia”, they would say, “we will promise never to worry you again”. The most persistent propositions were made by English women married to Russians who pleaded with Vining and the others to marry their daughters. Captain Brian Horrocks felt “very sorry for these unfortunate women and would gladly have helped them to escape from the country. But we all realised that we could not possibly just abandon them on the other side of the frontier. So after much discussion and soul searching we had to say no”.
After the ceasefire was agreed between Russia and Poland in Riga and Leonid Krassin’s delegation returned with positive news from London, a portly official from the Soviet Foreign Ministry visited the British prisoners-of-war and informed them they would leave for Petrograd on Wednesday, 20th October.
As they assembled in the courtyard, they felt bitterly sorry for their fellow prisoners whose pale, sorrowful faces gazed after them as they made their way across the icy cobbles to the police headquarters in Lubjanka Square.
There, they were joined by four of the British “grave offenders”, including Charles Maxwell with his daughter and niece. The soldiers made tea for them and began to sing. The guards came in to tell them to stop, but they continued to belt out their extensive repertoire.
Then the Chief of Staff, Colonel Popov, arrived and demanded payment for the cart they used to carry their belongings.
Quick as a flash, Leonard Vining replied that he could take it out of the money they owed them and asked for the remainder of the roubles, which had been confiscated in July. Popov smiled and left. Afterwards, the guards told Brian Horrocks that it was the only time they had ever seen him smile.
Eventually, they were taken to the railway station and ordered to board a cattle truck with wooden bunks. They had been given no food by the authorities and the train did not depart until after midnight, but to their great relief, they arrived the next morning in Petrograd where they were delivered to the British Colony Hospital and met by the careworn Matron, Violet Froom.
One of the key obstacles to the release of the last British prisoners-of-war in Moscow was the ongoing conflict between Poland and Russia in 1920.
Poland had achieved independence after World War I, but began a war with the Bolsheviks to regain territory lost to Russia one hundred years before. Fighting continued for 18 months before General Pilsudski defeated the Red Army at Warsaw and followed this up with a successful advance east towards Moscow.
Lenin sued for peace and the two sides agreed a cease-fire in Riga on 12th October that went into effect a week later.
There were still many questions to answer. What was to happen to Ukraine and Belarus, who fought with Poland for their independence? Would the Allies accept the new frontier which was 150 miles east of the Curzon Line that had been agreed at the Paris Peace Conference? The Peace of Riga was eventually signed five months later, but sadly it did not resolve the key issues, which festered until World War II.
However, the cease-fire on 18th October did solve one problem and that was the freedom of Captain Brian Horrocks and the other British prisoners held in Moscow.
At the beginning of October 1920, the King of Khiva arrived in the Andronovsky jail and appealed to the British prisoners for help.
Sayid Abdullah Khan was the last ruler who could claim to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. He was deposed after the Red Army invasion and transported to Moscow with the tattered remains of his entourage. They were half dead from cold and exhastion, but still looked magnificent in their long flowing robes and black sheepskin busbies.
Leonard Vining gave them food and helped them settle into prison life, but he could not secure the King’s release and he died later as a Soviet prisoner.
Khiva, which lies south of the Aral Sea on the Oxus river (Amu Darya), between Iran and Russia is now part of Uzbekistan. It became famous in Britain for the daring expedition by Lieutenant Richmond Shakespear, who was knighted by Queen Victoria for persuading the King of Khiva to abolish the capture and selling of Russian slaves. A high point in The Great Game.