Canadian Connections

With over 4,000 Canadian soldiers serving under command of Major General James Elmsley in Vladivostok and a dozen of these mentioned in the Siberian Honours, there are many Canadian Connections to Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners. Remarkably, more than half the soldiers captured by the Red Army at Krasnoyarsk in January 1920 had a strong attachment to Canada before, or after the War.

The Banjo playing Bertie Prickett and Edward Stephens, who were both born in England, joined the Canadian Army and were members of the Expeditionary Force in Siberia, but transferred to the British Army when the Canadians were recalled in the summer of 1919. In contrast, Captain William Dempster was born in York County, Ontario, but joined the British Army and was awarded the Military Cross in Flanders, before volunteering for service in Russia and ending up in the British Railway Mission.

The youngest soldier, 20 year-old Bernard Eyford, was born in Manitoba to an Icelandic family. He was conscripted in Winnipeg on 15th July 1918 and served in the 260th Battalion Canadian Rifles, but his training as telegrapher led to his transfer to railway troops and eventually to joining Leonard Vining’s group. The oldest soldier, Fred Walters emigrated from Birmingham with his young wife Emily to Canada and moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. His attestation paper shows that he was a rivetter and plate worker when he joined the Army.

Emerson MacMillan’s family had emigrated from Scotland to Canada in the 1820s, but he was working in Philadelphia when he joined the British Army in 1918. During his training with the Inns of Court OTC, he volunteered for service in the Far East and was with Leonard Vining all the way from the Clyde, where they boarded the SS Stentor together in March 1918, through their Russian ordeal, until they said farewell to each other in London in November 1920.

Percy James’ connection came after the Second World War when two of his daughters married Canadians and he emigrated with two of his sons to Ontario, where he lived a happy life in Toronto. The final connection is with Sapper Smith. Both Leonard Vining and Francis McCullagh confirm that he was Canadian, but I haven’t been able to find his army details, or anything about him other than a contact in Kent on the back of the HMS Delhi photograph. However, this address at Willesborough, near to the Royal Engineer garrison at Chatham, no longer exists. Can anyone help?

William Dempster and Bernard Eyford after their capture at Krasnoyarsk

Percy James’ Life After Russia

One of the youngest soldiers held by the Soviets in 1920 was Percy James. Percy trained as a typesetter and bookbinder before the war, but joined his local regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry before transferring to the Hampshires. He spent two years in India and unfortunately contracted Yellow Fever. Recovering in Jellalabad hospital, he created the most magnificent tapestry, celebrating Victory for the Allies with the flags of eight countries.

Travelling to Russia with the regiment, he ended up with Leonard Vining's group in Omsk, before sharing the ordeals as a prisoner-of-war in Moscow. After the prisoners' release, he was placed in quarantine in Finland and wrote home: Dearest Mother, Free at last, absolutely a free man and in the land of white bread and freedom. It's great after the terrible conditions of prison life, dirt and filth, now sleeping between clean sheets and beautiful food and smokes and I am glad to say I am none the worse off in health after my awful experiences...I do hope you are keeping well.

Returning to England, the army couldn't believe Percy had survived and suspected a Russian spy had stolen his papers, but his family confirmed his identity. Once he was demobilized, he settled in Bournemouth (where hundreds of his regimental comrades lived) with his wife and six children. He worked successfully in the publishing world until the Second World War when he volunteered for the Home Guard and the dangerous work of a munitions factory. Eventually, he emigrated to Canada where he continued to live a full and happy life with his family for many years. I am very thankful to his daughters Louise and Donna for providing the information about his later life and the photograph below of Percy in India.

Russian MI6 Officer Appointed Director of Secret Intelligence Service in Asia

To pave the way for General Knox in Siberia, MI6 sent one of their top Russian officers, Captain Leo Steveni to Vladivostok in April 1918. Steveni’s grandfather was a Swedish Consul and his mother was a Russian Countess, but he was educated at Rugby School. During the first part of the First World War, he worked in the Russian War Office at Petrograd, where he met some of the top MI6 officers including Cud Thornhill, Stephen Alley and John Scale, who played a hand in the murder of Rasputin.

Arriving in Harbin in June, the British Consul Henry Sly introduced him to Admiral Kolchak. The renowned Arctic explorer offered him railway carriage number 2013, which became his accommodation for nearly two years. Before Knox and the other members of the British Military Mission joined him in Siberia, Steveni helped some of the desperate people fleeing from the Red Terror, such as Maria Ivana Zvegintsova, nee Obolensky, who was living with her three children among dozens of refugees in a cattle wagon at Ufa.

After the November coup that brought Kolchak to power, he took over the role of military intelligence in the Stavka and provided London with detailed information about the Siberian Army’s dispositions. He was awarded an OBE for this work in 1919, but the London Gazette spelled his name incorrectly. Steveni remained close to Kolchak throughout his time in power and only left him in Irkutsk in January 1920, when the British Consul decided to move all the British diplomatic staff east of Lake Baikal. His account of the retreat from Omsk was serialized in the Manchester Guardian in July that year.

Returning home via Shanghai, he was demobilized, but soon decided to rejoin the Army and was commissioned into Brian Horrocks’ Middlesex Regiment. For several years, he languished as a junior officer, but in the Second World War, he was rapidly promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and in 1942, he was appointed Director of Secret Intelligence Service in Asia; a fitting title for someone who is included in the list of the “real James Bonds” of the spy world. For more on the role he played in Siberia, see Chapter 3 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.