The Siberian Expeditionary Force

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Amid the First World War and the arrival of the Spanish Flu, there was something else going on in Canada that most people don’t know about. At the time, Russia was dealing with the Bolshevik Revolution, which was threatening its ability to continue the fight against Germany in the First World War.

The Allied powers had a stake in this, and in an effort to keep Russia in the war, they would conduct the Siberian Intervention, also known as the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War. This intervention would last from August 1918 to July 1920, and consist of 600,000 troops from the Russian Federative Socialist Republic and the Mongolian People’s Party, against 140,000 troops from the Russian State, Japan, the United States, Italy, Canada, China, Japan, France and Poland, among other countries. This episode is not going to go into detail about the intervention itself, which saw 7,791 casualties on the Soviet side and over 5,000 dead on the Allies side. This episode is about Canada’s role, and specifically, the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force.

The Allies were not fans of the Soviets at this time. There was a strong worry, with the war so close to ending, that military supplies would be used by the Germans, and that access to the natural resources of the Russian Far East would tip the scales of the Western Front in favour of the Germans. In early 1918, the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin had switched sides and began to support the Germans. As a result, the Allied leaders just plain didn’t like the Bolsheviks and wanted them removed from power because of what they saw as a betrayal.

Enter in Canada.

At the time, Canada was a dominion, so it was not a full member of the Allies but a part of the British Army, but it was more than just a colony. Prime Minister Robert Borden argued that Canada’s involvement had more to do with adding to the British government’s sense of obligation to, as he said, their junior partner, than anything to do with Siberia itself.

Within Canada, the expeditionary force was presented to a war-weary public as a trade and economic opportunity.

The force was authorized by the Privy Council in August 1918 but the deployment of the troops was heavily delayed due to the fact that a volunteer force could not be raised. Even with the force being painted as a trade opportunity, there was significant opposition to it from the public, especially farmers in the prairie provinces who had a promise over conscription broken by Borden, as well as several newspapers including the Toronto Globe.

Canadian troops would go to two main fronts during this brief intervention. The 67th and 68th batteries of the 16th Brigade would take part in the North Russia Intervention. This contingent of the troops would see some action, but I am going to focus on the force sent as part of the Siberian Expeditionary Force.

The force was made up of two infantry battalions in the 16th Canadian Infantry Brigade, as well as machine gun, artillery and engineering companies. On top of that, 200 Mounties from the Royal North West Mounted Police were deployed, along with 300 horses.

A major problem with this force, as we will see soon with an incident in Victoria, was that two-thirds of the force was made up of conscripts and conscription was a dicey issue in Canada at the time after the Military Service Act was passed in 1917. With the war ending, and 6,000 troops dying between September and October 1918, there were not many voluntary enlistments into the new expeditionary force and 1,653 of the troops for the force would come from conscription.

The first battalion was the 259th Battalion, under the command of Lt. Col Albert Swift, a career soldier. Within that battalion, there were four companies. A Company was made up of troops from Toronto, B Company was from Kingston and London, C Company was from Montreal and D Company was from Quebec City.

The second battalion was the 260th Battalion, under the command of Lt. Col. F.C. Jamieson. This Battalion consisted of four companies. A Company from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, B Company from Manitoba, C Company from Saskatchewan and Alberta and D Company from British Columbia.

The troop trains taking the soldiers across Canada to Victoria for departure got off to a very bad start thanks to the Spanish Flu. As the the Siberian Expeditionary Force travelled across Canada, some of the troops were infected with the flu. As they got sick, the soldiers would be dropped off at local hospitals. Looking at medical records for Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver, the first cases of the flu arriving in those communities come only a few hours after the trains passed through the cities.

The entire force was put under the command of General James H. Elmsley, who was a veteran of the Second Boer War and the First World War, and the first part of that force would arrive with him in Vladivostok in October 1918. Things got off to a great start when General Elmsley took over the Pushinsky Theatre to serve as his headquarters. This did not sit well with the leaders of the city, who demanded that the premises be vacated.

The main body of the troops, which would number 4,192 in total, were set to depart on Dec. 21, 1918 from Victoria aboard two ships. Unfortunately, the mutiny of two companies of the French-Canadian troops in the 259th battalion in Victoria, B.C. Caused a delay in troops getting to Siberia. They would not arrive until mid-January 1919.

Prime Minister Robert Borden, who was on his way to Europe for peace talks, would receive a telegram from Sir Thomas White, the acting prime minister, that showed that the Canadian public was not looking to fight any more wars at the moment.

The telegram stated, “All our colleagues are of opinion that public opinion here will not sustain us in continuing to send troop, many of whom are draftees under the Military Services Act and Order in Council, now that the war is ended. We are all of the opinion that no further troops should be sent and that Canadian forces in Siberia should, as soon as situation will permit, be returned to Canada, Consider matter of serious importance.”

Borden decided to ignore the message.

Going back to that mutiny, it occurred as conscripts were marching from Willows Camp to the Outer Wharves of Victoria. The troops in the rear refused to halt midway through the march. Officers then fired their guns into the air to quell any sort of dissent. This did not work, so the officers ordered the other troops, most of whom came from Ontario, to take off their belts and whip the mutineers back into line. The men were pushed by bayonet towards the Outer Wharf, where it took 23 hours to herd the troops onto the ship.

The ship would leave the next day and a dozen men were in cells awaiting a court martial trial. The trial would find that the men were guilty of mutiny and willful disobedience but their sentences would be commuted by General Elmsley in early April since there was a great deal of concern among officials in the army and government about the legality of deploying men under the Military Services Act, for a mission that was barely connected to the defence of the British Empire.

Both ships would sail towards Russia, overloaded and dealing with terrible weather. During one storm, a large case of ice and meat broke loose and landed on three soldiers, killing Private Harold Butler and injuring two other soldiers.

One women was part of the expedition as well. Nursing Matron Grace Potter went to Vladivostok in November 1918 with her husband Colonel Jacob Porter. She would serve with the Canadian Red Cross Mission in Siberia.

With the troops in Siberia, there would be little in the way of fighting. With no authorization to proceed up country, the men kept themselves busy with guard duty, parades, hockey, soccer and boxing matches, along with vaudeville shows, two newspapers and Russian language lessons, as well as journeys into the local countryside.

Private Alexander Calhoun would serve in Siberia for six months as a paymaster. He describes his experience as such

“There, we sat on our fannies, it was all a complete farce.” He would later call the entire incident the folly of Churchill thinking the Russian Revolution could be stopped.

The relaxed atmosphere for the soldiers is shown in the hospital cases for the soldiers. One quarter of all hospital cases for Canadian soldiers were related to dealing with venereal diseases.

While the force of Canadians in Siberia have fond memories of their activities in the area through sports, the friendships they made and being in an exotic part of the world, they also saw horrors as the citizens dealt with the Russian Civil War that was upsetting their entire lives. Capt. Eric Ellington provides an excellent look at this terrible chapter in the city’s history for the Russian citizens.

“The Trans-Siberian railway station in Vladivostok was full of thousands of starving refugees. Literally starving. They had a little area on the floor and they all fled from the Bolsheviks. Well, we did what we could. We took them supplies, what we could. I can always remember having a loaf of bread, and a woman came rushing up and I gave it to her, and she had the most starving looking baby you ever saw in your life.”

Of the small contingent of troops who actually  advanced up country into Siberia, about 100 in total, they served as mostly administrative support to the 1,500 British troops. Others would take supplies up to the Russian army. By January 1919, Canadian command still believed that the rest of the expeditionary force would make its way up country but this did not happen.

There would be a brief, close to combat, incident for the troops in Vladivostok. Many peasants in the area had resentment towards the Allied occupation of their city. This would fuel a partisan insurgency nearby under the command of a farmer named Gabriela Shevchenko in the spring of 1919, that would threaten the Allied coal supply for the area. To curb this insurgency, an international force that included 200 Canadians, travelled to the nearby town that had been taken over by the farmers, to deal with the situation.

When the Allied force marched towards the town, Shevchenko would issue a proclamation to them stating, “We demand that you evacuate our territory and go back from where you came. Just as the Allied troops left Odessa and Archangel, so also you will be forced to leave Vladivostok. Until that time we will never lay down our arms.”

Upon reaching the community, it was found that the partisans had left to the hills. The men then marched back on the same day and were rewarded by the Japanese commander with a lavish banquet that included three cases of sake, 18 bottles of whisky and 96 bottles of wine.

By May, it was clear that it was time to leave.

The entire intervention in Siberia would be very brief. The old Russian government and its forces were badly led, and the Bolsheviks were able to slowly gain ground on them. At the same time, the Western governments were dealing with a war weary public, and they would bring their troops home.

In May and June 1919, the Canadian troops left Vladivostok on four ships. A memorial stone was put down by troops to commemorate those men who died in Vladivostok, including Private Edwin Stephenson, who died of smallpox a week before he was scheduled to return home. On the return home, five soldiers would die at sea and upon reaching British Columbia, two more would die while in quarantine. In all, 13 men would be buried in Vladivostok Marine Cemetery. Of those 13 men, five died of pneumonia, one of exposure, one of small pox and the rest from various illnesses. Three men were buried at sea, while four more were buried in North America.

On June 10, 1919, MP Henry Belard would speak to the House of Commons, stating

“This expedition was a political error, a military mistake and a wanton extravagance.”

Back in Russia, the rest of the Allies would pull out by April 1920, with the Japanese leaving in 1922.

The force that went to Siberia has been largely forgotten in Canada and the decay of the gravestones of those soldiers who died in Siberia is the perfect metaphor for this. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a Canadian Naval Party aboard the HMCS Protector travelled to Vladivostok, which had been closed to the outside world by the Soviets for decades. They found the cemetery that housed the graves of the soldiers. In a letter to the Canadian Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, it was stated

“There are Canadian graves left in Vladivostok that are in terrible shambles. Headstones have been stolen or knocked over. Graffiti has been painted on some of the headstones. It seems a shame that we forgot about those.”

Information comes from Wikipedia, WarMuseum.ca, SiberianExpedition.ca, Citymakers: Calgarians after the frontier,

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