Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War
Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War consisted of a series of multi-national military expeditions in 1918. The stated goals were to help the Czechoslovak Legion, to secure supplies of munitions and armaments in Russian ports, and to re-establish the Eastern Front. Overthrow of the new Bolshevik regime was an additional, covert motivation.
After the Bolshevik government withdrew from World War I, the Allied Powers openly backed the anti-communist White forces in Russia. Allied efforts were hampered by divided objectives, war-weariness from the overall global conflict, and a lack of domestic support. These factors, together with the evacuation of the Czechoslovak Legion, compelled the Allied Powers to withdraw from North Russia and Siberia in 1920, though Japanese forces occupied parts of Siberia until 1922 and the northern half of Sakhalin until 1925.
Prologue to the Allied intervention
In 1917, the Russian Empire was in a state of political strife, and public support for World War I and Tsar Nicholas II was dwindling. The country was on the brink of revolution. The February Revolution changed the course of the war; under intense political pressure, the Tsar abdicated and the Russian Provisional Government was formed, led initially by Georgy Lvov and later by Alexander Kerensky. The Provisional Government pledged to continue fighting the Germans on the Eastern Front.
The Allied Powers had been shipping supplies to Russia since the beginning of the war in 1914 through the ports of Arkhangelsk, Murmansk, and Vladivostok. In 1917, the United States entered the war on the Allied side. US President Woodrow Wilson dropped his reservations about joining the war with the despotic Tsar as an ally, and the United States began providing economic and technical support to Kerensky's government.
The war became unpopular with the Russian populace. Political and social unrest increased, with the Marxist anti-war Bolshevik Party under Vladimir Lenin gaining widespread support. Large numbers of common soldiers either mutinied or deserted the Imperial Russian Army. In the offensive of 18 June 1917, the Russian Army was defeated by the German and Austro-Hungarian forces as a result of a counter-attack. This led to the collapse of the Eastern Front. The demoralised Russian Army was on the verge of mutiny and most soldiers had deserted the front lines. Kerensky replaced Aleksei Brusilov with Lavr Kornilov as Commander-in-Chief of the Army.
Kornilov attempted to set up a military dictatorship by staging a coup in late August 1917. He had the support of the British military attaché, Brigadier-General Alfred Knox, and Kerensky accused Knox of producing pro-Kornilov propaganda. Kerensky also claimed Lord Milner, member of the British War Cabinet, wrote him a letter expressing support for Kornilov. A British armoured car squadron commanded by Oliver Locker-Lampson and dressed in Russian uniforms participated in the failed coup. In 1917, the October Revolution led to the overthrow of Kerensky's provisional government, and the Bolsheviks assuming power.
Russia exits the war
German troops invaded the Russian Empire and threatened to capture Moscow and impose its own regime in early 1918. Lenin wanted to cut a deal with Germany but was unable to get approval from his council until late February. Bolshevik Russia then switched sides and supported the German position. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Allied Powers felt betrayed and turned against the new regime, aiding its "White" enemies and landing troops to prevent Russian supplies from reaching Germany.
The betrayal removed whatever reservations the Allied Powers had about overthrowing the Bolsheviks. According to William Henry Chamberlin, even before Brest-Litovsk, "Downing Street contemplated a protectorate over the Caucasus and the Quai d'Orsay over Crimea, Bessarabia and Ukraine", and began negotiating deals for funding White generals to bring them into being. R. H. Bruce Lockhart and another British agent and a French official in Moscow tried to organize a coup that would overthrow the Bolshevik regime. They were dealing with double agents and were exposed and arrested.
The Czechoslovak Legion was at times in control of most of the Trans-Siberian railway and all major cities in Siberia. Austro-Hungarian prisoners were of a number of various nationalities; some Czechoslovak POWs deserted to the Russian Army. Czechoslovaks had long desired to create their own independent state, and the Russians aided in establishing special Czechoslovak units (the Czechoslovak Legions) to fight the Central Powers.
The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ensured that prisoners-of-war (POW) would be repatriated. In 1917, the Bolsheviks stated that if the Czechoslovak Legions remained neutral and agreed to leave Russia, they would be granted safe passage through Siberia en route to France via Vladivostok to fight with the Allied forces on the Western Front. The Czechoslovak Legions travelled via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. However, fighting between the Legions and the Bolsheviks erupted in May 1918.
The Allied Powers became concerned at the collapse of the Eastern Front and the loss of their Tsarist ally to communism, and there was also the question of the large quantities of supplies and equipment in Russian ports, which the Allied Powers feared might be seized by the Germans. Also worrisome to the Allied Powers was the April 1918 landing of a division of German troops in Finland, increasing speculation they might attempt to capture the Murmansk-Petrograd railway, and subsequently the strategic port of Murmansk and possibly Arkhangelsk. Other concerns regarded the potential destruction of the Czechoslovak Legions and the threat of Bolshevism, the nature of which worried many Allied governments. Meanwhile, Allied materiel in transit quickly accumulated in the warehouses in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. Estonia had established a national army with the support of Finnish volunteers and were defending against the 7th Red Army's attack.
Faced with these events, the British and French governments decided upon an Allied military intervention in Russia.
Severely short of troops to spare, the British and French requested that President Wilson provide American soldiers for the campaign. In July 1918, against the advice of the United States Department of War, Wilson agreed to the limited participation of 5,000 United States Army troops in the campaign. This force, which became known as the "American North Russia Expeditionary Force" (a.k.a. the Polar Bear Expedition) were sent to Arkhangelsk while another 8,000 soldiers, organised as the American Expeditionary Force Siberia, were shipped to Vladivostok from the Philippines and from Camp Fremont in California.
That same month, the Canadian government agreed to the British government's request to command and provide most of the soldiers for a combined British Empire force, which also included Australian and Indian troops. Some of this force was the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force; another part was the North Russia Intervention. A Royal Navy squadron was sent to the Baltic under Rear-Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair. This force consisted of modern C-class cruisers and V and W-class destroyers. In December 1918, Sinclair sailed into Estonian and Latvian ports, sending in troops and supplies, and promising to attack the Bolsheviks "as far as my guns can reach". In January 1919, he was succeeded in command by Rear-Admiral Walter Cowan.
The Japanese, concerned about their northern border, sent the largest military force, numbering about 70,000. They desired the establishment of a buffer state in Siberia, and the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff viewed the situation in Russia as an opportunity for settling Japan's "northern problem". The Japanese government was also intensely hostile to communism.
The Italians created the special "Corpo di Spedizione" with Alpini troops sent from Italy and ex-POWs of Italian ethnicity from the former Austro-Hungarian army who were recruited to the Italian Legione Redenta. They were initially based in the Italian Concession in Tientsin and numbered about 2,500.
However, while Soviet propaganda often portrayed Allied intervention as an alliance dedicated to crushing a nascent, worldwide communist revolution in the cradle, in reality the Allies were not particularly interested in intervention. While there were some loud voices in favour, such as Winston Churchill, these were very much in the minority. The main concern for the Allies was to defeat the German Empire on the Western Front. While the Bolshevik's repudiation of Russia's national debt and seizure of foreign-owned industries did cause tension, the main concern for the Allies was the Bolshevik's desire to get Russia out of the First World War. The Allies disliked the Whites, who were seen as nothing more than a small group of conservative nationalists who showed no signs of planning reform. Government ministers were also influenced by anti-White public opinion, which was being mobilised by trade unions. The low casualties suffered by the Allies is indicative of the low-level of their combat involvement. However, the Soviets were able to exploit the Allied intervention for propaganda purposes.
Foreign forces throughout Russia
Numbers of Allied soldiers who were present in the indicated regions of Russia:
- 600 French and British troops landed in Arkhangelsk
- A number of British troops in Vladivostok
- A number of Romanian troops in Bessarabia
- 23,351 Greeks, who withdrew after three months (part of I Army Corps under Maj. Gen. Konstantinos Nider, comprising 2nd and 13th Infantry Divisions, in the Crimea, and around Odessa and Kherson)
- 15,000 French also in the Southern Russia Intervention
- 13,000 Americans (in the Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok regions)
- 11,500 Estonians in northwestern Russia
- 2,500 Italians in the Arkhangelsk region and Siberia
- 1,300 Italians in the Murmansk region.
- 150 Australians (mostly in the Arkhangelsk regions)
- 70,000 Japanese soldiers in the Eastern region
- 4,192 Canadians in Vladivostok, 600 Canadians in Arkhangelsk
- British Empire
- Royal Navy: a flotilla of over 20 ships including the seaplane carriers; HMS Pegasus and HMS Nairana
- British Army: 236th Infantry Brigade, 6th Battalion Royal Marine Light Infantry (RMLI), 548th (Dundee) Army Troops Company, Royal Engineers, 2/10th (Cyclist) Battalion, Royal ScotsRoyal Scots, 52nd Battalion, Manchester Regiment, and elements of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
- Slavo-British Allied Legion (SBAL): a British-trained and led contingent composed mostly of expatriate Russian anti-Bolshevik, Finnish and Estonian volunteers (including Dyer's Battalion).
- Canadian Field Artillery (67th and 68th Batteries of the 16th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery)
- Royal Air Force: contingent comprising Airco DH.4 bombers, Fairey Campania and Sopwith Baby seaplanes along with a single Sopwith Camel fighter.
- United States
- North Russia Expeditionary Force (also known as the Polar Bear Expedition): approximately 8,000 personnel from the US Army, including the: 310th Engineers, 339th Infantry, 337th Field Hospital, and 337th Ambulance Company. Also the 167th and 168th Railroad Companies, which were sent to Murmansk to operate the Murmansk to Petrograd line.
- US Navy: the cruiser USS Olympia during August and September 1918 (including 53 personnel attached to British naval units)
- France: 2,000 French Army personnel, mainly from the Armée coloniale (e.g. the 21st Colonial Battalion) and engineers.
- Other countries: 1,000 Serbian and Polish infantry attached to White Russian forces in the north (as distinct to those in Siberia forces, which included the Czechoslovak Legion); a small number of volunteers from countries such as Italy.
Baltics and Northwestern Russia
Although the Estonian Army had attained control over its country, the opposing 7th and Estonian Red Armies were still active. The Estonian High Command decided to push their defense lines across the border into Russia in support of the White Russian Northern Corps. They went on offensive at Narva, catching the Soviets by surprise and destroying their 6th Division. The attack was supported along the Gulf of Finland's coast by Royal Navy and the Estonian Navy and marines. With the front approaching, the garrison of the Krasnaya Gorka fort mutinied. But the 7th Red Army received reinforcements and counterattacked, pushing the White Russians back, until the front was stabilised with the support from the Estonian 1st Division at the Luga and Saba Rivers.
The Estonian Pskov offensive commenced simultaneously on 13 May 1919. Its Petseri Battle Group destroyed the Estonian Red Army, captured the town on 25 May, and cleared the territory between Estonia and the Velikaya River. A few days later, the Northern Corps forces arrived in Pskov. On 19 June 1919, the Estonian Commander-in-Chief Johan Laidoner rescinded his command over the White Russians, and they were renamed the Northwestern Army. Shortly afterward, General Nikolai N. Yudenich took command of the troops.
The next offensive of the Northwestern Army was planned on 10 July 1919, but the armaments and supplies expected from the Allies did not arrive. Nor did the Estonians desire to proceed with the fruitless war since with the initial peace approach of April 1919 the Russian Bolshevik government already guaranteed the recognition of the independent Estonian state. So when British Gen. Gough requested on 8 August Estonians for the military assistance to Yudenich, Estonians in return asked both Yudenich and the Allies to recognise their state first. Gough's deputy, Brigadier Gen. Frank Marsh required Yudenich to immediately issue a statute that would establish the Government of the North-West Russian Region encompassing Petrograd, Pskov and Novgorod Governorates that would officially guarantee de jure recognition of Estonia. On 16 August Times made the deal public that angered the Foreign Office and the War Cabinet, and caused a decline in further military aid to Yudenich.
However, the Northwestern Army launched operation White Sword, the last major effort to capture Petrograd on 9 October, with arms provided by Britain and France, and the operational support by the Estonian Army, Estonian Navy, and the Royal Navy. The Estonian and British forces made a joint land and naval attack against Krasnaya Gorka, while the Estonian 2nd Division attempted to throw the 10th Red Division across the Velikaya, and the 3rd Division attacked toward Pytalovo and Ostrov. The Northwestern Army approached to within 16 km (10 mi) of Petrograd, but the Red Army repulsed them back to the Narva River. Distrustful of the White Russians, the Estonian High Command disarmed and interned the remains of the Northwestern Army that retreated behind the state border.
Southern Russia and Ukraine
On 18 December 1918, a month after the armistice, the French occupied Odessa and Sevastopol. This began the intervention in southern Russia (later Ukraine) which was to aid and supply General Denikin's White Army forces, the Volunteer Army, fighting the Bolsheviks there. The campaign involved mainly French and Greek troops. By April 1919, they were withdrawn after an attack by Nikifor Grigoriev's Army before the defeat of the White Army's march against Moscow. General Wrangel reorganized his army in the Crimea; however, with the deteriorating situation, he and his soldiers fled Russia aboard Allied ships on 14 November 1920.
After the Bolshevik forces of the Rumcherod attacked the region of Bessarabia, the Romanian government of Ion I. C. Brătianu decided to intervene, and on January 26 [O.S. January 13] 1918, the 11th Infantry Division under General Ernest Broșteanu entered Chișinău. The Bolshevik troops retreated to Tighina, and after a battle retreated further beyond the Dniester. The battle of Tighina was one of the two significant engagements of the 1918 Bessarabian Campaign. It lasted for five days, between 20 and 25 January, and ended in a Romanian victory, albeit with significant Romanian casualties (141 dead). Romanian troops captured 800 guns.
The second important battle was fought at Vâlcov, between 27 January and 3 February. The actions of Bolshevik warships (including three Donetsk-class gunboats), managed to delay the Romanians for several days, but the ships had to retreat on 3 February due to no longer being able to adjust and correct their aiming, after Romanian artillery destroyed the shore-based Bolshevik artillery observation posts. Later that day, Romanian troops occupied Vâlcov. The Romanians captured the Russud-class landing craft K-2 as well as several more barges armed with a total of eight 152 mm Obuchov guns.
The joint Allied intervention began in August 1918. The Japanese entered through Vladivostok and points along the China–Russia border with more than 70,000 troops eventually being deployed. The Japanese were joined by British and later American, Canadian, French, and Italian troops. Elements of the Czechoslovak Legion which had reached Vladivostok greeted the Allied forces. The Americans deployed the 27th Infantry and 31st Infantry regiments out of the Philippines, plus elements of the 12th, 13th and 62nd Infantry Regiments out of Camp Fremont.
The Japanese were expected to send only around 7,000 troops for the expedition, but by the end of their involvement in Siberia had deployed 70,000. The deployment of such a large force for a rescue operation made the Allied Powers wary of Japanese intentions. On 5 September, the Japanese linked up with the vanguard of the Czech Legion, a few days later the British, Italian and French contingents joined the Czechs in an effort to re-establish the Eastern Front beyond the Urals; as a result the European Allied Powers trekked westward. The Canadians largely remained in Vladivostok for the duration. The Japanese, with their own objectives in mind, refused to proceed west of Lake Baikal. The Americans, suspicious of Japanese intentions, also stayed behind to keep an eye on them. By November, the Japanese occupied all ports and major towns in the Russian Maritime Provinces and Siberia east of the city of Chita.
The Allied Powers lent their support to White Russian elements from the summer of 1918. There were tensions between the two anti-Bolshevik factions, the White Russian government led by Admiral Alexander Kolchak and the Cossacks led by Grigory Semyonov and Ivan Kalmykov, which also hampered efforts.
All Allied forces were evacuated by 1920, apart from the Japanese who stayed until 1922.
In 1917, Dunsterforce, an Allied military mission of under 1,000 Australian, British, and Canadian troops (drawn from the Mesopotamian and Western Fronts), accompanied by armoured cars, deployed from Hamadan some 350 km (220 mi) across Qajar Persia. It was named after its commander General Lionel Dunsterville. Its mission was to gather information, train and command local forces, and prevent the spread of German propaganda.
Later on, Dunsterville was told to take and protect the Baku oil fields. The force was initially delayed by 3,000 Russian Bolshevik troops at Enzeli but then proceeded by ship to the port of Baku on the Caspian Sea. This was the primary target for the advancing Ottoman forces and Dunsterforce endured a short, brutal siege in September 1918 before being forced to withdraw.
However, having been defeated in World War I, the Ottoman Empire had to withdraw its forces from the borders of Azerbaijan in the middle of November 1918. Headed by General William Thomson, the British troops of 5,000 soldiers arrived in Baku on 17 November, and martial law was implemented on the capital of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic until "the civil power would be strong enough to release the forces from the responsibility to maintain the public order".
Allied military action began on 11 August 1918, when General Malleson intervened in support of the Ashkhabad Executive Committee, who had ousted the Tashkent Soviet Bolsheviks from the western end of the Trans-Caspian Railway in July 1918. Malleson had been authorised to intervene with Empire and British troops, in what would be referred to as the Malleson Mission. He sent the Machine Gun Section of the 19th Punjabi Rifles to Baýramaly located on the Trans-Caspian railway. After combat at Merv, they were joined by the rest of the regiment. There was further action at Kaka on 28 August 11 and 18 September. They were reinforced on 25 September by two squadrons of the 28th Light Cavalry. Fighting alongside Trans-Caspian troops, they subsequently fought at Arman Sagad (between 9 and 11 October) and Dushak (14 October).
By 1 November, they had re-occupied Merv and on instructions of the British government, halted their advance and took up defensive positions at Bairam Ali. The Trans-Caspian forces continued to attack the Bolsheviks to the north. After the Trans-Caspian forces were routed at Uch Aji, their commander Colonel Knollys sent the 28th Cavalry to their support at Annenkovo. In January 1919, one company of the 19th Punjabi Rifles was sent to reinforce the position at Annenkovo, where a second battle took place on 16 January. The British Government decided on 21 January to withdraw the force, and the last troops left for Persia on 5 April.
The Allied Powers withdrew in 1920. The Japanese military stayed in the Maritime Provinces of the Russian Far East until 1922 and in northern Sakhalin until 1925, following the signing of the Soviet–Japanese Basic Convention in Beijing, in which Japan agreed to withdraw its troops from Russia. In return, the Soviet Union agreed to honor the provisions of the Treaty of Portsmouth.
Assessment by historians
Historical assessment of the intervention has been universally negative. Frederick L. Schuman wrote that the consequences of the expedition "were to poison East-West relations forever after, to contribute significantly to the origins of World War II and the later 'Cold War,' and to fix patterns of suspicion and hatred on both sides which even today threaten worse catastrophes in time to come." For Soviet leaders, the operation was proof that Western powers were keen to destroy the Soviet government if they had the opportunity to do so. Modern historian Robert Maddox summarised, "The immediate effect of the intervention was to prolong a bloody civil war, thereby costing thousands of additional lives and wreaking enormous destruction on an already battered society."
Americans' knowledge of the intervention
Until recently, American high school history textbooks failed entirely to mention this military invasion. A couple of new textbooks now do mention it but still fail to explain that this was a military intervention in the Russian civil war or that a chief aim of the operation was the overthrow of the Soviet government.
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