After the Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey, the way was clear for the latest Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Delhi, to pick up Captain Brian Horrocks and the other British prisoners-of-war, who had been waiting patiently in Finland.
The Royal Navy treated the freed men very well and landed them in Copenhagen where they spent a night in the same hotel that Jim O’Grady and Maxim Litvinov signed the Anglo-Russian prisoner exchange treaty.
The next day they caught a passenger ferry to Harwich and arrived early on 22nd November 1920, just over a year after they had been ordered to “remain to the last” in Omsk. Sergeant Joe Rooney ran straight up to a policeman and shook his hand, while Captain Bertie Prickett arranged quarantine for their mascot, Teddy. The Army tried to divert the men to Colchester, but the leader of the group, Major Leonard Vining slipped the net and took everyone straight to London on the train.
Arriving at Liverpool Street Station at lunch time, the gaunt soldiers were met by a gaggle of reporters and photographers. They were cautious about what they revealed because they knew that the Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Kelly, had been court-martialled on 28th October for writing to the Press about the campaign against the Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, they made it abundantly clear that the picture painted by official British visitors to Moscow was very different to the truth, adding: “People in England have no idea of the dreadful state of things that exist in Russia”.
On 17th November 1920, David Lloyd George met his cabinet at 10 Downing Street, with the agenda dominated by the question of resuming normal relations with Russia.
The Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon and the Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, began the meeting by confirming that matters were in hand to send 300 British troops to help the League of Nations conduct the plebiscite in Lithuania.
The main discussion centered on the trade deal. The President of the Board of Trade, Sir Robert Horne, made an impassioned plea to vote in favour based on the dire economic situation in Britain, with business confidence low and unemployment high.
Curzon and Churchill spoke against the motion and wanted Britain to continue supporting Poland. However, the Prime Minister exclaimed: “When I mentioned the possibility of our going to war to support Poland, a shudder passed through the House and those who were clamouring against Bolshevism showed the white feather.”
The debate continued into a second day when Churchill made one final “frantic” appeal. The Lord Chancellor had mentioned that £10 million of diamond sales would be spent in England if the deal went through. However, Churchill claimed that these diamonds “were all stolen, many of them from the dead bodies of the Russian aristocracy”.
When they were asked to vote, the majority of the Cabinet sided with the Prime Minister. But Churchill asked for it to be recorded in the minutes that no Cabinet Minister was fettered with regard to speaking against Bolshevism and that night, he travelled to Oxford where he delivered a “violently anti-Bolshevik speech” at the university.
As the final preparations for the Cenotaph unveiling was happening in London, Leonard Vining was interviewed in Finland by John Scale, who had been head of MI6 in Russia before the revolution and was involved, allegedly, in Rasputin’s death in 1916.
Scale had been awarded the DSO and OBE for his intelligence work in Russia. He knew all the main British characters involved in the British Mission to Siberia, including the commander, Sir Alfred Knox and John Fraser Neilson of the 10th Hussars, who will forever be associated with the coup that brought Kolchak to power. He was also a friend of Robert Bruce Lockhart, who reveals all four of them met off the coast of Norway on the way to his ill-fated assignment in Moscow. Scale was also heavily involved in the raid on the Soviet fleet at Kronstadt in August 1918 and was lucky not to share the fate of Captain Francis Cromie.
The report from this interview was sent to the Foreign Office and Vining’s comments were used by Lord Curzon on 17th November in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Meeting discussion about the resumption of normal relations with Russia: “we have it on the authority of Major Wining [sic] a Siberia prisoner who has reached Helsinki. he says there are considerable number of prisoners [still] in Russia.” Curzon’s vote against reopening trade was in vain as the President of the Board of Trade’s motion was passed.
The convoluted Anglo-Russian prisoner exchange was described in the House of Commons on 26th October by Cecil Harmsworth, younger brother of newspaper viscounts Northcliffe and Rothermere. Replying to Sir Frederick Hall’s question, he explained that the Russian political prisoner, Babushkin and seven Bolsheviks held in London were being transferred in the Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Dauntless, while the British prisoners-of-war crossed the Finnish frontier.
In Finland, the soldiers were met by an MI6 officer and taken by sleigh to a camp overlooking the Baltic Sea. This was formerly a collection of wooden dachas owned by the rich and famous from Petrograd. Here, they had a frustrating wait while the Unknown Soldier was buried at Westminster Abbey. Private Lionel Grant complained about the delay while “negotiations are suspended” in a letter to his regiment on 12th November.
Finally, news came through that Babushkin had crossed into Russia and the British soldiers were released at Vyborg where they rented a room each. The stillness of sleeping alone after more than two years military service was too much for the soldiers and many of them could not sleep on their first night of freedom.