Russian Revenge

After peace was restored (relatively) in the West at the end of 1920, the Soviet Union turned its attention to the Japanese who still occupied large tracts of Siberia.

Their puppet was the independent Ataman Grigory Semeonov, who had done huge damage to the White cause with his bloodthirsty followers. They had tortured, murdered, raped, stolen and burned for the best part of two years, undermining Admiral Kolchak and the Allied efforts to improve life for ordinary Russians.

In 1920, the Red Army under General Eiche forced Semeonov out of Chita and into the Maritime Province (Primorsky Krai), where he continued to fight until September 1921.

Failing to settle in Japan or America, he returned to Manchuria and worked as a mercenary for the deposed Chinese Emperor Puyi (celebrated in the 1987 film The Last Emperor).

All the while, he was tracked by the KGB and when the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria in 1945, he was captured by parachutists.

The Soviets finally had their revenge and his past caught up with him in prison as he suffered a year of terrifying interrogations before he was executed on 29 August 1946 at the age of 55.

The photograph below is of Semeonov’s armoured train that threatened the Hampshire Regiment and attacked American troops in the Trans-Baikal in 1919.

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.

Return to Philadelphia

After two and a half years away, Emerson MacMillan returned to America on 29th January 1921, arriving in New York with his new wife, Dallas, on board the White Star Line’s RMS Cedric.

He was interviewed by Raymond Carroll whose report was published in the Public Ledger under the title “Philadelphian Home from Reds Captivity”. This article highlights the hardships he suffered and plays down his role in the British Military Mission, describing it as the Inter Allied Economic Mission instead.

When he returned to Philadelphia, Emerson used his experience well. His engineering and management skills led to swift promotion in the railway industry, while he forged a reputation for entertaining talks about Russia, such as the one he gave at the Adelphia Hotel in May. Although, he didn’t produce a memoir (as did three of the other prisoners), he did write a number of articles that were published in the Public Ledger. Akin to all his compatriots, he felt Russia was a wonderful country that had been ruined by the Bolsheviks with their political system that was later allegorized so brilliantly by George Orwell in Animal Farm.

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

Australians In Siberia

More than a hundred Australians served in Russia after the Revolutions in 1917. The majority fought with the British forces in North Russia, where two soldiers, Sergeant Samuel Pearce and Corporal Arthur Sullivan, earned the Victoria Cross. Several also ended up in Siberia, including Captain O’Brien of the Australian Light Horse who arrived in Omsk on 29th January 1919 and 30 year-old Captain Ernest William Latchford MC of the 38th Infantry Battalion who taught musketry with the Training Team at Irkutsk.

One of the last prisoners to escape from Russia, Captain Dwyer Augustus Neville was born in Australia on 18th April 1892. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in February 1917 and transferred to the Royal Air Force when it was created in 1918. Just before the fifth battle of Ypres, he was forced down while on patrol over the Comines Canal and captured by the German Army, but was repatriated on 13th December 1918.

Volunteering for service in Siberia, he was captured on the retreat from Omsk in December 1919 with Lieutenant Colonel Eric Johnston, but then left behind in hospital when he contracted Typhus. Amazingly he survived this ordeal and almost a year later was sent to Moscow where he joined Brian Horrocks, another who had the ignominious distinction of being a prisoner-of-war in both Germany and Russia in World War One. Returning to Australia, Dwyer lived until October 1979 and is buried at Buderin Cemetery, Queensland.

Captain Ernest William Latchford MC in Siberia 1919

Left Behind in China in 1921

When the British mission in Siberia closed down, a few officers were left behind in Manchuria. Leading this group was Brigadier William Beckett who had been in charge of the British Railway mission during the retreat from Omsk, including those who were captured at Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk. He had been awarded the CBE in the 1920 honours list and as penance for losing his men, he was placed under control of the “British Minister, Pekin” and employed at Harbin as the representative on the Inter Allied Technical Board of the Trans Siberian Railway until 1923.

Several British soldiers were demobilized in Shanghai. One of these was the doctor who had written the final report of the British medical mission and handed over the X Ray machine in Krasnoyarsk, Captain James Alexander O’Driscoll LRCP. On 17th January 1921, he was living at 14 Museum Road and wrote to the War Office to claim the outstanding money it owed to him on discharge.

The situation in Manchuria remained tense as the fighting between the Red Army and the Japanese backed Ataman Semeonov’s forces continued until September 1921. At the same time a major influx of Han Chinese changed the demographics of the country overtaking the Manchu as the most populous ethnic group in North East China.

The First Head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary

When Major General Knox was recalled to England at the end of 1919, he passed command of the British Military Mission to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wickham, who was originally commissioned into the Norfolk Regiment and awarded a DSO during the Boer War.

As head of supply in Siberia, he dispatched millions of pounds worth of British arms, ammunition and equipment to Kolchak’s army on the front line, but in January 1920 he had to organize the evacuation of British personnel and help those captured by the Red Army. He sent dozens of telegrams updating Winston Churchill (they had both been to the same school) about Leonard Vining and the other prisoners and put together a resupply train for their relief. However, once the British captives were transported to Moscow, Wickham closed down his headquarters in Vladivostok and returned via Shanghai to England.

He was immediately posted to Ireland at the height of the struggle for independence to organize the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He remained in charge for 25 years, earning a bipartisan reputation for his integrity and civil manner. One of his greatest challenges was organizing the defence of Northern Ireland during the Second World War, but after it ended, he could not resist one final overseas challenge when he was invited to lead the British police mission in Greece during the communist insurgency, for which he was knighted in 1952.

Charles Wickham is on the right of this photograph of Major General Knox and his staff officers in Siberia. Cecil Cameron is on the left and the cheery face at the bottom is Henry Wellesley who was awarded an MC and Bar in Iraq before arriving in Russia.

Genius According to Evelyn Waugh

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.”