One of the officers who served with Colonel Alfred Knox in Petrograd during the Russian Revolution and joined him, when he became commander of the British mission in Siberia in 1918 was the enigmatic William Gerhardi, who subsequently earned fame as an author, but ultimately died in poverty in 1977.
His parents, who were expatriates living in Russia, were ruined by the revolution and only just managed to escape to England. As a 23 year-old staff captain, fluent in Russian, he was employed as a liaison officer in Vladivostok, but did not see action on the front line. He was awarded an OBE for his services, but this was mysteriously delayed for a year after the main Siberian Honours were announced in the London Gazette.
After the war, Gerhardi returned to the University of Oxford where he wrote his critically acclaimed first novel, Futility. His fan club included Evelyn Waugh who wrote about him: “I have talent, but he has genius”. Perhaps even more impressive is the comment by Graham Greene: “to those of my generation, he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life”.
Among Gerhardi’s literary work is Memoirs of a Polyglot, published in 1931. In this elegant book, he describes the fate of some of the officers who he worked for in Siberia, including the “charmingly courteous baronet” and the Brigadier “overwhelmed with duties”, who died in Serbia. By then, he was firmly opinionated about the waste and cruelty of war and became a darling of the 1930s appeasement movement.
Perhaps this is the reason why his writing lost potency after the Second World War and was “re-discovered” by anti-war activists after the invasion of Iraq. Whether he was right or wrong about its utility, he certainly has a memorable turn of phrase, including this abiding comment about historical analysis: “In the exercise of prophecy one is inclined to expect history to describe the same pattern as before, forgetting that if the initial curves are sometimes the same, those who follow often diverge, forming the initial curves of a new pattern.”
You can find Winston Churchill’s instructions to Major General Sir Alfred Knox as commander of the British Mission to Siberia on page 37 of the secret “Narrative of Events in Siberia 1918-1920”. Paragraph 10 orders him to “address all your reports to the Director of Military Intelligence” in the War Office. Paragraph 8b2 states: “Major CA Cameron RA graded as GSO 3rd Grade to take charge of your Intelligence Service, will leave England in about a fortnight.”
Cecil Aylmer Cameron was a controversial appointment because he had served three years in prison for fraud after he claimed £6,500 for the theft of his wife’s pearl necklace, which had not been stolen. However, after his wife admitted sole responsibility for the crime, he was given a royal pardon and allowed to resume his commission in the army. During the First World War, he was awarded the DSO for running a spy network in German occupied France and Belgium under his code-name Evelyn.
In Siberia, Knox used Cameron as his Chief of Staff because he was fluent in Russian and knew everything about everyone. He also directed the network of officers, who kept tabs on Kolchak’s decisions and how the Siberian army fared in its fight with Trotsky’s Red Army. For his services in Siberia, he was awarded the CBE in the 1920 Honours List.
After the war, he was posted to Ireland where he continued to work for Military Intelligence. When the Labour Party won the General Election in 1924, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald immediately recognized the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and appointed Robert Hodgson as Ambassador. He had taken over from Sir Charles Eliot as High Commissioner in Omsk in 1919, but escaped with General Knox after they abandoned the soldiers, who became the last prisoners in World War One. Hodgson was very familiar with Cameron’s work and approved the War Office’s proposal for him to become the Military Attache.
Cameron was the best candidate for the job, but the Soviet government knew about his espionage background and used its influence with the Labour Party to get at the Prime Minister, who refused to endorse the War Office appointment on the grounds that he had previously been convicted (so ignoring his royal pardon).
Sadly, Cameron believed his career prospects were over and was found dead at Hillsborough Barracks in August. Together with Labour’s support for the communist newspaper’s incitement of British Service personnel to mutiny in the notorious “Campbell Case” and their controversial concessions to the Soviet Union, Cameron’s death contributed to the fall of the MacDonald government on 29th October 1924.
Several of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners were part of the British Railway Mission in Siberia and Manchuria. Initially, this was led by Brigadier Archibald Jack, but he handed over to Brigadier William Beckett at the beginning of November 1919. Jack was awarded the CBE and CMG in 1919 and the CB in the Siberian Honours. In 1920, he became General Manager of the railways in Havana, Cuba. He was shot through the head by a striker, but survived this (he had already been torpedoed three times during the war) and was also a survivor of the 1927 Sevenoaks railway disaster. Beckett was awarded the CBE in the Siberian Honours despite abandoning his soldiers on the way back from Omsk. His penance was to remain behind when the British Mission closed in Vladivostok in May 1920. He continued to serve at Harbin in China as the British representative on the Inter Allied Technical Board of the Trans-Siberian Railway until 1923, for which he was awarded the distinguished Chinese Order of Chia Ho.
The leader of the prisoners-of-war, Major Leonard Vining, who had saved the lives of his men, was given neither public reward nor recognition and had his acting rank taken away from him by the War Office, while still a PoW. He published his diary and returned to his country of birth, to serve with the Indian State Railways. In the Second World War, he was eventually awarded an MBE (downgraded from a recommendation for an OBE) for his work in East Africa, where he cleared and reconstructed the port of Massawa and organised the railway and ropeway network in Eritrea.
Captain William Dempster, who had been awarded the Military Cross in 1918, returned to Canada where he became embroiled in a political scandal at the end of World War II. As a virulent anti-communist, he served in the Ontario Provincial Police Special Investigation Branch tasked to root out 5th Columnists. In this role, he compiled reports on the activities of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and opposition members of Canada’s Provincial Parliament. He was cross-examined over several days during the 1945 Royal Commission that exonerated the Drew government for knowingly spying on MPPs.
Warrant Officer Emerson MacMillan married Dallas Ireland (who had resigned as a American Red Cross nurse in Vladivostok) in London and returned to Philadelphia, where she gave birth to a son. Emerson then emigrated to Brazil with his family and developed the tram network in Sao Paolo, the financial centre of the country. During the Second World War, he kept an eye on German agents trying to persuade the Brazilian government to join the Axis and for his efforts, he was awarded an OBE in 1946.
The two infantry captains in the group of prisoners became famous generals in the Second World War. Brian Horrocks, who represented GB in the 1924 Olympics, impressed General Montgomery so much when he commanded 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment during the battle of France, that he was rapidly promoted through the ranks of Brigadier and Major General to take over 13 Corps after the first battle of El Alamein in 1942. When he arrived at the front on 18th August, he was worried that “command in the desert was regarded as an almost certain prelude to a bowler hat”. However, he earned an immediate DSO at the second battle of El Alamein and in Libya, he took over 10 Corps and fought with it all the way to Tunisia, where he led the critical outflanking manoeuvre that won the battle for Montgomery. He also successfully led 9 Corps after its commander was wounded, but his luck ran out in June 1943, when his lungs and stomach were shot through by a strafing enemy aircraft. It took him a year to recover fitness and in August 1944, he took over 30 Corps in France, leading this iconic formation all the way into Germany and commanding a pivotal role at Arnhem (he was played by the distinguished actor Edward Fox in the film A Bridge Too Far). Unfortunately, he was medically discharged before taking up the appointment as Commander in Chief, but there is no doubt that if it wasn’t for his wounds, he would have become Chief of the Imperial General Staff after after Bill Slim in 1952. Of his many achievements, perhaps the most remarkable was that he is the only person to have commanded four different corps in battle.
Horrocks owed his life in Siberia to his best friend, Eric “Georgik” Hayes, who also rose to high command. After taking 2nd Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment to France, Hayes was promoted to lead a brigade in Kent and in 1941, he took over 3rd Infantry Division, which had been led by Montgomery in France. A year later, he was given command of West Africa and in the final year of the war, he became General Officer Commanding British troops in China, where he witnessed the surrender of Japan in September 1945.
Hayes died soon after the war after a short illness, but Horrocks had a very successful life, working as Black Rod in the Houses of Parliament and carving out a unique career in the media with his battlefield histories. He would never talk about his time in Russia, but in his memoir, he did admit that the ordeal “was an excellent preparation for the stresses and strains of command in war.”
Within a month, the last prisoners-of-war to return from Russia had scattered around the world, but before they departed to Argentina, Australia, Canada, India, Ireland and the USA, they submitted claims for their stolen property to the Russian Claims Department at the Board of Trade in Stamford Street. They also held a farewell dinner at the Cafe Royal when they were joined by Hector Boon and other members of the Siberia Mission. The prisoners signed the back of a photo that was taken on HMS Delhi and all of them acknowledged the part played by their inspirational leader, Leonard Vining who lost none of the soldiers during the year of their extraordinary ordeal.
Brian Horrocks (who was awarded an immediate DSO at El Alamein and commanded three different British Corps in the Second World War) knew something about leadership and wrote in his memoir “Thanks to [Vining] our morale had always been high and discipline in our strangely assorted party had withstood the strain of all those months of captivity. On his shoulders had rested the ultimate responsibility and now he had brought the whole party safely out of the darkness of Bolshevik Russia into the light of the free world again.” However, the only recognition he received for his outstanding leadership was a brief letter of thanks from a civil servant.
In the run up to Christmas, I will provide an update on what happened to the main characters in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.