At the beginning of December 1919, Brian Horrocks and his compatriots were held up in their train for five days at Novo-Nikolaevsk. Whilst waiting for the line ahead to clear, some of them took the opportunity to buy amethyst, turquoise, beryl and alexandrite stones from the Urals, which were readily available in the market outside the station.
On 6th December, their train pulled out of the station at 1.30 p.m., but the weight of the carriages was so heavy that a banking engine had to push them up the hill. There was a shortage of fuel and water, so many broken down locomotives blocked the line. Sometimes their train was halted for hours and the soldiers had to form a human chain passing baskets of snow forward, in order to maintain the steam pressure in their locomotive.
Francis McCullagh wrote: “All our energies were concentrated on satisfying our locomotive’s insatiable cravings. The struggle for water on occasions was a nightmare as half a dozen engines sometimes contended for the privilege of filling their boilers first and as the commandants of rival echelons almost came to blows”.
The rebuilt station at Novo-Nikolaevsk, now named Novosibirsk.
The oldest of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners, Warrant Officer Fred Walters, spent a forlorn 50th birthday, on 17th November 1919, stuck in a train at Barabinski, looking after British women and children fleeing from the Red Terror.
Walters was born in Birmingham and emigrated with his wife, Emily, to Canada where they parented eight children. In 1916, he volunteered to join the Army and ended up in the British Railway Mission in Siberia in 1919. He was famed for his “ramrod straight bearing” and was an important father figure to the younger soldiers, worried about what would happen to them.
Uncle Charlie, as he was known, is standing on the left in the photograph below.
On 8th November 1919, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, revealed that the British Government had sent one hundred million pounds worth of military equipment to support the White Government in Siberia. Knowing that the last British battalion had sailed from Vladivostok on 1st November, he told the Guildhall audience: “We cannot of course, afford to continue so costly an intervention in an interminable civil war”.
At the time, the Prime Minister did not realise that a group of British soldiers ordered to “remain to the last” in Omsk, would extend British involvement in the Russian civil war for a further 12 months. See page 80 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners for this story.
On 31st October 1919, the Soviet Government announced that it had captured Petropavlovsk, an important trading town on the river Ishim. In doing so, they cut off two British officers serving with Ataman Dutov’s Cossacks, Captain Phelps Hodges MC and Lieutenant Paul Moss, from their railway route to safety.
The only way of escape was to cross the infamous Gobi Desert by horse and camel. It took them over four months, but eventually they reached the British mission in China and from there, returned to England. Writing about his experiences, Phelps Hodges claimed: “No phase in history is more full of material for the historian or novelist than those four years of bitter civil war in Russia”.
Captain Phelps Hodges MC of the Royal Field Artillery, crossing the Gobi Desert in 1919
On 12th October 1919, the future WWII hero, Captain Brian Horrocks of the Middlesex Regiment was fighting with the White Army on the front line in Siberia when he met Major Leonard Vining of the British Railway Mission at Lebedyja.
Vining had been tasked to ascertain the damage to a bridge that was only 15 yards from the front line. He came under fire whilst taking photographs in a biplane, but survived the ordeal and returned to Omsk before the Red Army broke through the following week.
I am looking forward to talking about these exploits at Horrocks’ old school, Uppingham, one hundred years on.
In September 1919, the future British generals, Brian Horrocks and Eric Hayes were attached to General Diterikhs’ White Army in Siberia when it recovered nearly 100 miles of territory east of the Ural mountains. This widely-reported success gave the people of Omsk a false sense of security. They did not realise that the Red Army was consolidating its forces before an autumn advance.
I am looking forward to giving a talk at the wonderful Haslemere Bookshop at the beginning of October, but before then I will be supporting The Soldiers’ Charity by signing books at the Early Early Christmas Fair evening reception at Tedworth Park, Tidworth SP97AH on Tuesday 24th September at 6 pm.
On Thursday 5th September, I will be giving a book talk at Waterstone’s in the Brooks Centre, Winchester at 6.30 pm.
The are many connections to Winchester in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners. The Commanding Officer of the Hampshire battalion went to school there, before he went on to become the President of the Oxford Union and the Deputy Master of the Royal Mint when he was knighted twice.
Several soldiers lived in Winchester in houses that still exist today, including Ranelagh Road, Victoria Road, St Swithun Street, Tower Street, Middlebrook Street and Western Road.
These soldiers all returned to England with the battalion in December 1919, but they left behind a few of their friends, such as Sergeant Bob Lillington, who fell in love with 24 year old Ludmilla Martinova and married her in Omsk on 31 August 1919. Little did he know then that as a result of missing the boat home, he would become one of the last prisoners of war in World War I.
I am looking forward to meeting visitors and signing books at the Churchill War Rooms in London on Friday 23 August.
I will explain the Great Man’s role, as Secretary of State for War and Air, in rescuing the fifteen British soldiers abandoned by the army in Omsk in November 1919. They became the last British prisoners-of-war and were not released by the Bolsheviks to return to England until two years after the Armistice.