Sad Fate of the Anglo-Russian Brigade Commander

Brigadier James Molesworth Blair was educated at Winchester and commissioned into the Black Watch in December 1898, serving with the 2nd Battalion in the South African War. By the time he deployed to Siberia in 1918, he had transferred to the Gordon Highlanders and been awarded the CMG and DSO. During the First World War, he worked in Petrograd with Alfred Knox and William Gerhardi, who suggested in his memoir that Blair: “possessed perhaps the noblest nature of any man I have known”, but that he “had his wife [Lilian] and young boy [Charles] in Petrograd with him, and used to carry her things, her overcoat and umbrella, holding her up with the same arm, because on the other he carried the boy, who gripped a cage with a canary in one hand and a vessel with goldfish in another.”

In Siberia, he was quickly promoted from his appointment as Lieutenant Colonel GSO1 to be Head of the British Training Mission. After its success, General Knox invited him to command the Anglo-Russian Brigade in Ekaterinburg, which was endorsed by Winston Churchill. For six weeks, the British contingent comprising the Hampshire Battalion and volunteers such as Captain Brian Horrocks worked hard to make this an effective formation, but “every conceivable difficulty was put in our way”. At the end of June, the Brigade was broken up and Blair informed London that all the British forces “left Ekaterinburg on 12th July [1919]”.

Blair subsequently fell out with Knox when General Gajda attempted to take control of Vladivostok after Kolchak’s Omsk government had fallen. Knox supported the brutal General Rozanov, whereas Blair believed the British should remain neutral in any coup. As a result, Knox sent Blair home and he received neither reward, nor recognition in the Siberian Honours list published in January 1920.

However, after Knox was recalled by the War Office, Blair was ordered to return to Russia to command the remnants of the British Mission. It must have been a depressing two month journey across the Atlantic, America and the Pacific to Japan, where he was delayed in Nagasaki. Eventually, HMS Carlisle picked him up and he arrived in Vladivostok for the second time on 12th April, but there was little for him to do other than help Colonel Charles Wickham close down the mission and depart for Shanghai in May.

After the war, he was appointed Military Attache in the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Sadly, he did not live to see King Alexander rename the country as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia because he died aged 44 on 7th June 1925, just as the award of a CBE was published in the Birthday Honours. His other decorations included: Order of the Sacred Treasure 2nd Class (Japan); Order of Saint Vladimir 4th Class with bow and ribbons (Russia); Croix de Guerre (Czechoslovack Republic); and Legion of Honour (France).

His son, who had the canary and goldfish in Petrograd, eventually commanded 1st Black Watch in the Second World War and after he was invalided out of the army became a senior MI6 officer, whose autobiography was barred by the Government’s D Notice Committee, but that’s another story…

Brigadier James Molesworth Blair CMG CBE DSO
Commander of the Anglo-Russian Brigade in Ekaterinburg and Head of the British Training Mission in Siberia 1919

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