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.
While the British prisoners-of-war were held in Petrograd at the British Colony Hospital, they were given a tour of opulent private apartments in the Hermitage.
Leonard Vining could not resist playing a few notes on the magnificent gold piano that “still had a very sweet tone”, but Emerson MacMillan was more impressed by the Tsarina’s white marble bathroom that was decorated with marine views: “Beautiful it was as skill and art could make it, complete in every detail, but there was no water”. Their guards were still royalist to the core and quietly admitted that Russia was worse now than it had been under the Tsar.
Back in the hospital, the soldiers received many offers of marriage. “If only you will marry us so that we can get over the frontier out of Russia”, they would say, “we will promise never to worry you again”. The most persistent propositions were made by English women married to Russians who pleaded with Vining and the others to marry their daughters. Captain Brian Horrocks felt “very sorry for these unfortunate women and would gladly have helped them to escape from the country. But we all realised that we could not possibly just abandon them on the other side of the frontier. So after much discussion and soul searching we had to say no”.
After the ceasefire was agreed between Russia and Poland in Riga and Leonid Krassin’s delegation returned with positive news from London, a portly official from the Soviet Foreign Ministry visited the British prisoners-of-war and informed them they would leave for Petrograd on Wednesday, 20th October.
As they assembled in the courtyard, they felt bitterly sorry for their fellow prisoners whose pale, sorrowful faces gazed after them as they made their way across the icy cobbles to the police headquarters in Lubjanka Square.
There, they were joined by four of the British “grave offenders”, including Charles Maxwell with his daughter and niece. The soldiers made tea for them and began to sing. The guards came in to tell them to stop, but they continued to belt out their extensive repertoire.
Then the Chief of Staff, Colonel Popov, arrived and demanded payment for the cart they used to carry their belongings.
Quick as a flash, Leonard Vining replied that he could take it out of the money they owed them and asked for the remainder of the roubles, which had been confiscated in July. Popov smiled and left. Afterwards, the guards told Brian Horrocks that it was the only time they had ever seen him smile.
Eventually, they were taken to the railway station and ordered to board a cattle truck with wooden bunks. They had been given no food by the authorities and the train did not depart until after midnight, but to their great relief, they arrived the next morning in Petrograd where they were delivered to the British Colony Hospital and met by the careworn Matron, Violet Froom.
One of the key obstacles to the release of the last British prisoners-of-war in Moscow was the ongoing conflict between Poland and Russia in 1920.
Poland had achieved independence after World War I, but began a war with the Bolsheviks to regain territory lost to Russia one hundred years before. Fighting continued for 18 months before General Pilsudski defeated the Red Army at Warsaw and followed this up with a successful advance east towards Moscow.
Lenin sued for peace and the two sides agreed a cease-fire in Riga on 12th October that went into effect a week later.
There were still many questions to answer. What was to happen to Ukraine and Belarus, who fought with Poland for their independence? Would the Allies accept the new frontier which was 150 miles east of the Curzon Line that had been agreed at the Paris Peace Conference? The Peace of Riga was eventually signed five months later, but sadly it did not resolve the key issues, which festered until World War II.
However, the cease-fire on 18th October did solve one problem and that was the freedom of Captain Brian Horrocks and the other British prisoners held in Moscow.
At the beginning of October 1920, the King of Khiva arrived in the Andronovsky jail and appealed to the British prisoners for help.
Sayid Abdullah Khan was the last ruler who could claim to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. He was deposed after the Red Army invasion and transported to Moscow with the tattered remains of his entourage. They were half dead from cold and exhastion, but still looked magnificent in their long flowing robes and black sheepskin busbies.
Leonard Vining gave them food and helped them settle into prison life, but he could not secure the King’s release and he died later as a Soviet prisoner.
Khiva, which lies south of the Aral Sea on the Oxus river (Amu Darya), between Iran and Russia is now part of Uzbekistan. It became famous in Britain for the daring expedition by Lieutenant Richmond Shakespear, who was knighted by Queen Victoria for persuading the King of Khiva to abolish the capture and selling of Russian slaves. A high point in The Great Game.
The Andronovsky Prison
A fantastic audience joined the Zoom talk hosted by the Royal Green Jacket museum this week. All the regiments represented by the four famous military museums in Winchester played an important part in the British Military Mission to Siberia. The senior officer was Colonel Sir Edward Grogan Bt DSO of the Rifle Brigade, who attended Winchester College and was awarded a CMG in the Siberian Honours. One of his officers was William Gerhardie, who wrote so exquisitly that Evelyn Waugh exclaimed “I have talent, but he has genius!”. Gerhardie described the “courteous” Grogan as “meticulous to absurdity, but kind and very nervous – a great enigma”.
Grogan handed command of the Training School at Vladivostok to Lieutenant Colonel Henry Carter MC of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Carter was the second British officer to die in Siberia in February 1919 and when he succumbed to the Spanish Flu, Major Thomas Baring of the Rifle Brigade stepped into his shoes and was awarded an OBE for his part in the campaign.
One of the young officers working in Vladivostok was Captain Henry Wellesley who had won three Military Crosses leading his Ghurkas in Mesopotamia, before deploying to Russia in 1918.
Probably, the most famous son of Winchester in Siberia was Colonel Robert Johnson who was later knighted for running the Royal Mint. He was President of the Oxford Union and commanded the 9th Hampshires from when they were raised in 1911 until they were part of the Anglo-Russian Brigade at Ekaterinburg. In April 1919, he uttered the famous words: “We hope to march into Moscow…Hants and Russian Hants together.”
Johnson was awarded a CBE as was Major John Fraser Neilson of the 10th Hussars, another Winchester Regiment. Neilson ran the Military Intelligence operation in Omsk and was accused by the French contingent of inspiring the coup that brought Admiral Kolchak to power one week after the Armistice.
So many extraordinary characters served in Siberia during the two years of the British Military Mission that ended with the last British Army PoWs of World War One.
In 1920 the House of Commons rose on Monday 16th August and did not return until nine weeks later (three weeks longer than the normal summer recess). The shadow of Russia again dominated the final day’s agenda. Tetchy questions covered the Government’s policies on the blockade of the Baltic and Black Sea, the international support for General Wrangel in southern Russia, the Japanese control of Eastern Siberia, the independence of Poland and the Soviet Trade Delegation.
The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, reported that the naval mechanics in Baku were now living in a private house. He was less clear about the British prisoners-of-war in Moscow and said “I am not sure” when asked by the interventionist, Noel Billing, whether they had been “liberated”.
The five hour Motion for Adjournment was particularly bitter. The Government sought agreement to call the House back at two days notice if the Polish-Russian situation worsened, but the future Labour leader John Clynes attacked the Government’s “supply of munitions” to Poland and threatened a General Strike if Britain intervened against the Soviet Union. He suggested that if the Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, could not “accept the peace policy as announced by the Prime Minister, I fail to see how he can continue to hold office in a Government whose policy he so constantly contradicts…”
The nine-week adjournment allowed the Government to negotiate with Lenin’s envoys for a prisoner exchange and a trade deal. In its Cabinet Papers of September 1920, the National Archives holds a note sent by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon to Lev Kamenev detailing the conditions for any treaty and emphasizing the need to release all the British prisoners in Russia. Meanwhile, as the situation in Poland eased, the Russian Trade Committee, headed by Sir Hubert Llewellyn, proposed an amendment to the secret Draft Trade Agreement with the Russian Soviet Government.
During the Anglo-Russian prisoner exchange negotiations in March 1920, Lenin’s envoy inserted a clause which allowed the Soviet Government to keep hold of anyone who had committed grave offences against the state. Chief among these were a group of ex-pats in the Committee for the Relief of the British Colony in Petrograd. This wealthy group of British subjects helped those less fortunate who were affected by the 1917 revolutions, but also provided funds for the MI6 network of agents, built up by Major John Scale and Captain Francis Cromie RN.
The leader of the committee was George Gibson, who worked for United Shipping. He was imprisoned following the successful British raid on the Soviet fleet at Kronstadt by the Royal Navy’s coastal motor boats on 18th August 1919. Another prominent member was Charles James Maxwell who ran John Hubbard & Co’s cotton mill. He was arrested with his niece and and cousin Miss MacPherson (his wife who died in 1907 was a member of the famous MacPherson family, who provided the first president of the Russian Football Federation).
When the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, heard that these “grave offenders” were still in their Moscow jail, he described the situation as “scandalous” and made sure their release was made a condition of the Prime Minister’s trade deal.
Mrs Clara Sheridan was the widow of Captain William Sheridan, great grandson of the famous playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Her husband was killed leading a Rifle Brigade assault at the Battle of Loos on 25th September 1915, five days after the birth of his son. She became a renowned sculptress through her busts of Herbert Asquith and Winston Churchill, but her political sympathies lay with the Bolshevik cause, rather than the British government.
Clara was entranced by the head of the Soviet trade delegation, Lev Kamenev, when she met him in London and accepted his invitation to visit Moscow. Arriving after the Second World Congress of the Communist international on 11th September 1920, she was given privileged access to Russia’s magnificent art collections and completed busts of many Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin and Trotsky.
She did not visit Brian Horrocks and the other British soldiers in prison, who were appalled when they heard that she had sculpted a bust of the murderous head of the Secret Police, Felix Dzerzhinsky. They were even more shocked when they read her obsequious description of him: “one can see martyrdom crystallized in his eyes” and her feelings of “real sadness that I may never see him again” because they had witnessed the abject misery forced on millions of ordinary Russians by Dzerzhinsky’s Red Terror.