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Allied intervention in Russia, 1918-19

Allied intervention in Russia, 1918-19

The collapse of the Russian empire and the subsequent Glossary - opens new windowBolshevik revolution in 1917 seriously compromised the Allied war effort. The situation was exacerbated by the signing in March 1918 of the Glossary - opens new windowTreaty of Brest-Litovsk, an agreement that stripped from Russia the last vestiges of its European power and gave Germany a free hand to pursue its imperial ambitions in the East.

German troops quickly occupied the former tsarist Baltic territories of Glossary - opens new windowBelorussia, Glossary - opens new windowTranscaucasia and the Glossary - opens new windowUkraine. In the meantime, from late 1917 onwards, anti-Bolshevik agitators began to form a volunteer army that would form the basis of 'White' opposition to the newly installed Communist government.


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Anti-Bolshevism and fear of Germany

Allied intervention in the Glossary - opens new windowRussian civil war was not the product of either fervent anti-Bolshevism or a grand military plan. Western politicians such as Glossary - opens new windowWinston Churchill, the British war secretary and a leading supporter of the 'White' military cause, were certainly ideologically predisposed to support a crusade against the Bolshevik 'menace'. But other, more important figures such as the British prime minister Glossary - opens new windowDavid Lloyd George and the American president Glossary - opens new windowWoodrow Wilson were extremely reluctant to become embroiled in a fratricidal Russian conflict for the sake of anti-Communist and 'democratic' principles. The threat of German pre-eminence in the region was, at least until the signing of the armistice in November 1918, a far more compelling reason to provide the 'Whites' with military aid.


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Muddled and half-hearted

Such equivocal attitudes helped to account for the piecemeal deployment of Allied troops in Russia during 1918. Some 30,000 men, almost half of them British, were stationed at the Arctic ports of Glossary - opens new windowMurmansk and Glossary - opens new windowArchangel under Glossary - opens new windowGeneral Edmund Ironside. A similar number of men were under arms in the Glossary - opens new windowCaucasus and southern Russia, where Glossary - opens new windowGeneral Denikin was recognised as the leading 'White' general.

RAF unit at Kem aerodrome - opens new window
RAF unit at Russian aerodrome

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North Russian Expeditionary Force - opens new window
Fighting the Bolsheviks
in North Russia
Transcript

Finally, there were the heterogeneous forces available in Siberia to another leading 'White' officer, Glossary - opens new windowAdmiral Kolchak. These included the 70,000 men from the Glossary - opens new windowCzech Legion, whose conflict with the Bolsheviks precipitated civil war in May 1918, as well as smaller numbers of British, American, French and Japanese troops.

The 'Whites' valued this support highly, believing that it held the key to the defeat of the Bolsheviks. In reality, the Allied commitment to their cause was muddled and half-hearted. The strapped war economies of Britain and France provided minimal levels of financial and military support. During the first few months of aid, for example, Denikin's forces in southern Russia received from its Western allies just a few hundred khaki uniforms and some tins of jam.


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Despite the best efforts of Glossary - opens new windowGeneral Knox, the head of the Allied military mission in Siberia and a staunch supporter of Kolchak, Allied troops in eastern Russia were of little help to the 'Whites'. The British troops that arrived in the region in July 1918 consisted mostly of men declared unfit for battle, whose primary job was to guard Allied stores and keep open the Glossary - opens new windowTrans-Siberian railway.

In Siberia and elsewhere, the Allied powers dispatched a sufficient number of troops to maintain a show of interest in Russia's fate, but not enough to give the 'Whites' a real chance of victory. Soviet propaganda, nonetheless, portrayed Allied intervention as a conspiracy of international capitalism.

 

British support for 'Whites' - opens new window
British support for
'Whites' in Siberia
Transcript
The path to Bolshevik victory
 
By the summer of 1919, it was evident that the Allied venture in Russia had run its course. The expedition was diverting precious resources - many of which were being wasted by notoriously venal 'White' army officials - from vital post-war reconstruction programmes. War-weary public opinion was unwilling to sanction further loss of life in a distant conflict. Despite the limited remit of the Allied forces in Russia, men were still being killed in action there almost a year after the Great War was supposed to have finished. The USA, for example, lost 174 men in fighting with the Bolsheviks at Archangel and Glossary - opens new windowVladivostok during 1918 and 1919.

One of the last decisions made at the Glossary - opens new windowParis peace conference was to withdraw all Allied forces from Russia. By the autumn of 1919, this operation was largely complete. The path to victory in the Russian civil war, which lasted until 1921 at the cost of 1.2 million lives, now lay open to the Bolsheviks.


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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

Reference
Document
FO 175/1-29: Various correspondence from the Allied High Commission, Archangel, 1918-19.
WO 32/5751: Material on General Gough's mission to assist in the defence against Bolshevism in the Baltic states, Nov 1918-Aug 1919.
WO 95/5430: War diaries of 45th and 46th battalions of Royal Fusiliers, 1919.
WO 106/1169, 1177: Notes on the evacuation of Archangel and Murmansk, 1919.
WO 158/737-742: Correspondence from General Knox, head of the British military mission in Siberia, 1918-19.

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