ANZACS in Arkhangel: The Untold Story of Australia and the Invasion of Russia 1918-19
By Michael Challinger
Hardie Grant Books, 2010, 285 pages, $35 (pb)
“The remedy for Bolshevism is bullets”, was the blunt message of the editorial in Britain’s establishment newspaper, The Times, in 1919 as military forces from 16 capitalist countries invaded Russia after the 1917 revolution. Among the invaders were about 150 Australian soldiers, as recounted in Michael Challinger’s history of the Australian role in the invasion.
Nine Australian soldiers were part of a British secret mission (Elope Force) in 1918 whose apparent aim of countering a German foothold in the northern Russian port city of Arkhangel was soon dispensed in favour of the real purpose — to train and organise the counter-revolutionary Russian Army of the north and link up with the other White Russian armies to overthrow the Bolshevik socialist government.
The British-led invaders seized the city, running it as a military dictatorship under a puppet local government. By 1919, reinforcements of 15,000 foreign troops had joined the war against the Sixth Red Army.
Troubling notes were struck from the start, however. One American wrote of the scene on Arkhangel’s main wharf as the invasion force sailed in that “people simply went wild with joy”.
But, as Challinger notes, “what escaped his notice was that the welcoming crowds were exclusively middle class and that there wasn’t a working man among them”. The “working masses were at best apathetic and at worst, hostile”.
Their Russian allies also posed trouble behind their own lines with a mutiny of the troops of the First Arkhangel Regiment, who, infected by the Bolshevist spirit, were protesting against saluting and officers wearing epaulettes and demanding bigger rations. The British executed 13 mutiny leaders.
Morale within the occupiers’ own ranks eroded as the occupation continued past the WWI Armistice. With the war against Germany over, writes Challinger, all sense of purpose evaporated. Bolshevik propaganda appealed to the foreign soldiers not to shoot fellow workers and not to break strikes against the occupation. This resonated in particular with the US soldiers, many of whom were conscripted factory workers. A high number of US soldiers used self-inflicted wounds as their ticket home.
Military endeavour also waned among the French troops who refused to go to the front.One hundred and sixty demoralised French colonial troops had to be taken into military custody. Among the British, the 13th Yorkshires refused to relieve front-line troops and demanded that censorship be lifted so that people back in Britain could know what was really happening in the war.
With the Russian soldiers’ readiness to mutiny and go over to the Bolsheviks en masse, it quickly became clear to the foreign soldiers, says Challinger, that they were fighting a lost cause.
None of this was in the script of Winston Churchill (Britain’s secretary of state for war). A rabid anti-communist, his solution was more troops.
A foreign office report obliged by spreading faked stories of Bolshevik atrocities (murder, torture, conversion of churches into brothels and other “wildly hysterical propaganda”).
War-weariness, however, meant that the new troops had to be deceived into volunteering on the pretext of securing a withdrawal of the besieged troops in Russia who, it was said, would be driven into the sea and massacred. (“There was never a word of truth in it”, as one English major confided to his diary).
Recruitment was so sluggish that the British Army also had to scour the 70,000 Australian soldiers still in Britain. They scraped up little more than a hundred, most joining from economic motives (they would receive double what the ordinary soldier was paid, and more than any civilian job would pay) along with the late enlisters who had not seen action and still retained a rosy view of war as glorious adventure.
This “relief force” launched a renewed offensive into the heart of Akhangel province in support of the Russian counter-revolutionary armies. Bombs, bullets, bayonets and poison gas (Churchill’s favourite), slaughtered Bolsheviks, Red Army soldiers, Russian mutineers and prisoners of war with brutal efficiency.
It was all to no avail, however. The Red Army under Leon Trotsky (a leader of military “genius”, acknowledges Challinger) defeated all the counter-revolutionary and imperialist armies. Despite Challinger’s formulaic prejudices against the Bolsheviks (“brutal”, “ruthless”, the “enemy”), he does recognise that the Bolsheviks, who offered a “new social order”, won because they had “the acquiescence, if not support, of most of the population” including that of Arkhangel, which was liberated by the Red Army in 1920.
The adventure left 327 British, 244 US, 2 Australian and countless Russian soldiers dead.
Domestic anti-war opposition in Britain also greatly assisted this outcome. The union movement refused to load ships bound for Russia and even some Royal Navy crews refused to sail.
In Australia, the government was forced to lie about any Australian involvement, knowing, as Challinger notes, that the bulk of Australian working people either supported the Bolsheviks, were interested in the socialist experiment or simply believed the Russians should be left alone to decide how to govern their own country.
As Sergeant John Kelly, a member of the early Elope Force, put it: “None of us had any heart for the Russian campaign … We had no right to be there. Had I known beforehand what the aim and nature of the mission was, I for one, would never have volunteered for the job.”
Challinger’s book has some valuable insights. However, his primary aim is to enrol the soldiers who fought the Bolsheviks into the ANZAC tradition.
His conventional military history is “simply about the Diggers”. Inadvertently, though, there is enough in Challenger’s book to show Australian involvement in war crimes, atrocities and routine slaughter and occupation in defence of capitalism.
With the whole episode wrapped in lies from the start, the Australian anti-Bolshevik war indeed fits snugly into the militarist, imperialist ANZAC tradition.