A century on: remembering the Australians who fought in the Russian Civil War

| September 8, 2019

On 29 August 1919, Sergeant Samuel Pearse, an Australian veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front, was killed in action fighting against Red Army forces in northwest Russia. He fell during a British Army attack on a series of Bolshevik blockhouses near the remote railway village of Yemtsa, about 150 kilometres south of Archangelsk.

His unit, pinned down by machine-gun fire, was unable to push forward until Pearse cut his way through barbed-wire entanglements, lobbed grenades into the Bolshevik strongpoint and killed the inhabitants. Moments later he was cut down by a burst of enemy fire, and he later died of his wounds. He was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions. He was 22 years old.

Pearse died in an obscure action in a confusing conflict: the Russian Civil War. It is a war seen by many as an afterthought to the Great War of 1914–18, but the Russian Civil War led to the death of an estimated 10 million people and gave bloody birth to the Soviet state. Unlike the relatively static war fought on the Western Front in France and Belgium, the war in Russia consisted of several competing armies, shifting allegiances and dynamic fronts.

Vladimir Lenin’s Red Army eventually emerged victorious over anti-Bolshevik White forces, anarchist Black armies, a Blue army composed of former Czechoslovak ex-prisoners of war, and Green bands of marauding peasants. Historian Richard Pipes once commented that attempting to draw a map tracing the movement of the various armies leaves one with something resembling a Jackson Pollock painting.

Pearse was killed fighting as part of the anti-Bolshevik foreign intervention in the war. Over 200,000 foreign troops served in the conflict across the length and breadth of Russia, from Vitebsk in modern-day Belarus to Vladivostok on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Australians served on naval reconnaissance missions on the Black Sea, and in command and training roles across the Caucasus and Siberia. By far the largest Australian involvement was in north Russia, near the key ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.

The first group of Australians to take part in the war were nine experienced soldiers drawn from Australian Imperial Force Headquarters in London in 1918 as part of the top-secret mission code-named Elope Force. This intervention force, along with its accompanying mission, Syren Force, was charged with protecting tonnes of war materiel and coal sent to Russia to support the tsarist fight in the First World War.

With the instability that accompanied the 1917 Russian Revolution, British authorities feared the supplies would fall into German hands. Once Germany signed the Armistice in November 1918, that fear shifted to the threat posed by the Bolsheviks.

The Australians of Elope Force spent the winter of 1918–19 training anti-Bolshevik White forces and building defences near Arkhangelsk and along the Dvina River as far south as the camp at Osinova. Not long after the arrival of Elope Force, however, the British leadership recognised that the men could have little bearing on the outcome of the war, and decided that the force should be withdrawn. The British cabinet soon approved the withdrawal, and established the North Russia Relief Force to ensure that it was well protected.

Australian authorities did not wish to contribute units to the new expedition, so any Australians who wanted to serve were required to seek discharge from the AIF in order to enlist in the British Army. Australians troops were, however, allowed to retain their uniforms (including their distinctive slouch hats) and serve in the same units. All Australians who served in the North Russia Relief Force served in the 45th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, and the 201st Machine Gun Battalion, Machine Gun Corps.

When the call went out for volunteers, hundreds of Australians showed interest, and around 140 took part in the expedition. There’s little evidence that any signed up for political or ideological reasons; rather, it appears they had arrived in Europe too late to take part in the fighting on the Western Front, or were bored waiting for repatriation from England, and wanted to keep their wartime adventure going.

The Australian volunteers arrived in Arkhangelsk in early June 1919 and moved down the Dvina River to the camp at Osinova, where Elope Force had based its operations the previous year. The initial plan was to train White Russian forces so that they would constitute a strong presence after the withdrawal of foreign forces, and to harass the enemy ensure that it could not form an effective fighting force in the region.

They worked in tough conditions in harsh terrain, often with hostile and untrustworthy peasant guides, and faced attacks and ambushes from bands of Bolshevik troops. More than 550 British troops and nearly 100 Americans were killed serving with the mission. Australian Gallipoli veteran Captain Allan Brown was killed near Onega when the group he was training defected to the Bolsheviks and turned their weapons against him.

The major actions for Australians in North Russia occurred in August 1919. Early that month British and Dominion troops made a concerted attack along the Dvina River to destabilise the enemy and give White forces a morale boost before their withdrawal.

On 10 August, a company consisting mainly of Australians had seized targets and was fighting a rearguard action when an officer and three other ranks fell into the Sheika River while crossing over a narrow plank. Corporal Arthur Sullivan jumped into the water and saved the men.

Sullivan was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions, described in his citation as a ‘splendid example of heroism as all ranks were on the point of exhaustion and the enemy less than 100 yards distant’. Nineteen days later the fighting had shifted to a strategically important railway line further west. It was during this phase of the action that Sergeant Pearse was killed. Sullivan and Pearse received the only Victoria Crosses awarded to troops for actions during the campaign.

In the weeks after the offensives of August 1919, foreign troops withdrew to Arkhangelsk, and were completely withdrawn by 29 September. The last relief force troops were withdrawn from Murmansk by 12 October.

Australian service in North Russia is often seen as a confusing episode tacked on to the end of the Great War. Australians never fought on the main fronts or in the decisive battles of the Russian Civil War. Given the scale and brutality of the conflict, it’s easy to view Australia’s role as little more than an insignificant annoyance for the leaders of the Russian Revolution.

One veteran described it as ‘another of the many pathetic side shows of the Great War’. However, his criticism seems directed more towards the politicians who sent the men to fight rather than the men themselves: ‘[The] most tragic thing of all was the number of splendid men who lost their lives in the venture, men who, after having passed through the dangers of France, Gallipoli, and other theatres of the war, deserved a better fate.’

In all, the men fought hard and acquitted themselves well in harsh conditions far from home. We should remember their role in a conflict that decisively shaped the history of the 20th century.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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