Fiasco in Siberia

February 23, 2019 by J.L. Granatstein
Siberian dock workers unload ordnance and supplies under the watch of Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (CSEF) members in a 1919 painting by Colonel Louis Keene.

It was all Sir Robert Borden’s doing. The prime minister was in England in July 1918 attending the Prime Ministers’ Committee when the British government asked if Canada might supply troops for a Siberian force that could help prevent a 60,000-strong force of Czech fighters, anxious to support the Allies, from being annihilated by German and Austrian PoWs freed by Vladimir Lenin’s communist Bolsheviks. The Allies also saw it as a way to reconstitute an eastern front against Germany.    

Borden had been pushing for at least three years for more say in the direction of the Great War and more autonomy for Canada. Now Britain was asking Canada to lead the British Empire’s contribution to an international force in Siberia.

Having played a major role in making policy that sought to restore Russia to a major part in the war against the Central Powers, Borden, as his biographer R. Craig Brown conceded, “could hardly refuse a request from the British government to contribute troops for Siberia.”

In fact, Borden believed it was a good idea, one that would demonstrate his country’s increased status and power. Yet it was not the military reasons that interested him so much as the economic ones: “Other nations will make very vigorous and determined efforts to obtain a foothold and our interposition with a small military force would tend to bring Canada into favourable notice….” Power and profits were a strong lure, but the result unfortunately was to be a fiasco.

Many of the Canadian soldiers sent to foil communism in Russia in 1918-19 were unhappy conscripts. Regardless, most of the force was back home by June.
Colonel Louis Keene/CWM/19710261-0325

In Ottawa, the cabinet duly accepted Borden’s recommendation on Aug. 21, by which time the chief of the general staff had already begun to organize the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (CSEF) with a brigade headquarters, two infantry battalions—the 259th and 260th—a battery of artillery, a machine-gun company, a squadron from the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) with 300 horses, and other supporting units. Named to command the CSEF was Major-General Sir James Elmsley, the commander of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade who had served successfully with the Canadian Corps before being relieved of duty on medical grounds. A British battalion was soon ordered to join the CSEF.

In all, the army would provide almost 4,200 men and one woman, Nursing Matron Grace Potter. The initial idea had been that volunteers would constitute the CSEF, but by the summer of 1918, volunteers were scarce. As a result, 1,653 men, or nearly 40 per cent of the force, were unhappy conscripts.

CSEF members tend to two sick horses in British Columbia before shipping out to Russia.
City of Vancouver Archives/CVA 99-662

An advance party of 680 troops left Canada for Vladivostok on Oct. 11 aboard the Canadian Pacific’s Empress of Japan and arrived shortly before the Armistice ended the war with Germany on Nov. 11.
One member of the advance party was Sergeant Filip Konowal, who had earned the Victoria Cross at Hill 70 in August 1917.

The Armistice came before the main body of the CSEF could depart Canada. That changed matters. With Borden still in Britain, the cabinet now became worried that “public opinion here will not sustain us in continuing to send troops, many of whom are draftees,” acting prime minister Sir Thomas White cabled Borden.

True enough, there was very active opposition to the CSEF from left-wing and labour elements in British Columbia, where the troops had concentrated, and scant media support anywhere for the intervention. Many soldiers had apparently attended “Hands off Russia” meetings in Victoria, and when the troops had marched through Victoria to board ship, there were protests by francophone conscripts in the 259th Battalion who halted at the corner of Fort and Quadra streets. One conscript shouted “On y va pas à Siberia,” two companies refused orders to march, and the battalion commanding officer fired his pistol in the air and ordered loyal troops to remove their web belts and beat the mutineers into line, which “they did with a will,” said one junior officer in the 259th.

They were then marched to the docks, guarded by troops with fixed bayonets. Thirteen men proceeded to Siberia in the ship’s cells and 10 faced field general court martials on arrival, receiving prison terms or field punishment as a result. In an editorial, the Toronto Globe acknowledged that a majority of the expedition’s soldiers “went unwillingly,” agreeing with them that the fight was one in which Canada “had no real interest.” By late January 1919, nonetheless, the complete CSEF had arrived in Vladivostok.

Before the war, Ukrainian-Canadian Sergeant Filip Konowal, VC, was a fighting instructor in the Imperial Russian Army. He was in the CSEF’s advance party that sailed to Vladivostok in October 1918.
Sharif Tarabay

Despite his ministers’ concerns, Borden had consulted the War Office and decided that the commitment should be honoured to help the anti-Bolshevik forces “as well as for the economic considerations which are manifest.” The cabinet tried once more to argue with Borden, but the prime minister rejoined that he had made a commitment and that Canada’s “position and prestige would be singularly impaired by deliberate withdrawal….” Clearly, so would his own. Those considerations outweighed all else, or so it seemed.

The unhappy cabinet finally agreed, adding that the CSEF was to be limited to one year of service and—as there were already signs of tension between the Japanese and American components of the international force—insisting that the CSEF would not engage in military operations without Canada’s express consent. By now the War Office had lost patience, committed a second British infantry battalion to Siberia, and asked that the Canadians, save for a number of trainers helping to prepare anti-communist White Russian officers, be recalled. Somehow Ottawa continued the deployment. At this point, 1,100 Canadians had reached Siberia and ships carrying 2,700 more were en route. By late January 1919, the complete CSEF had arrived in Vladivostok.

On the ground in Vladivostok, all this indecisive palavering left Elmsley in a difficult position. The head of the British military mission, Major-General Alfred Knox, wanted the Canadian brigade to move on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Omsk, some 4,300 kilometres away, and there to help form an Allied front. Elmsley wanted to do so, but the government was determined that the CSEF not fight the Bolsheviks’ Red Army. In fact, Elmsley was reduced to protesting Ottawa’s efforts at a hasty withdrawal, and the soldiers, bored with the routine training, were shouting, “Home or fight!”

Canadian soldiers spent much of their time in Vladivostok doing routine training. Diversions included contests of tug-of-war.
Raymond Gibson/LAC/C-091750

Elmsley’s brigade still had the two British battalions serving under his command. The British, based at Omsk, did have a CSEF administrative staff of eight Canadian officers and 47 other ranks attached to them. It was ordinarily a four-day rail journey from Vladivostok to Omsk, an absurdly long supply route, and Bolshevik partisans sometimes attacked the trains. In one attack, 18 RNWMP horses were killed; Czech troops captured and summarily executed most of the attackers. That was as close to the action as the Canadians got, although in April 1919, one company of the 259th Battalion received orders to drive out a Bolshevik force from a village north of Vladivostok. By the time the Canadians deployed, the Reds had retreated.

The Canadian troops had been housed in Russian barracks outside the centre of Vladivostok. The city itself, swollen to more than 150,000 residents by floods of refugees fleeing the Bolsheviks and the Whites opposing them, was a swamp of “corruption and vice,” or so the Army official historian described it. There were shootings and robberies galore, and the refugees were in pitiful condition, sick with typhus and many starving. Eric Elkington, a Canadian Army Medical Corps captain with the 16th Field Ambulance, later wrote that “I’ve seen a great many tragic scenes in various parts of the world but that—Vladivostok—was the worst.”

American troops, housed nearer the centre, quickly became unpopular with the local Russians because, or so said Dana Wilgress, one of five trade commissioners dispatched from Ottawa to Siberia, “of their habit of accosting respectable women. The Russians,” Wilgress said, “kept asking when the Americans were going to fight.” The Americans, like the Canadians, would not fight anyone. Wilgress, a member of the Canadian Economic Commission to Siberia and later a deputy minister in Ottawa and wartime ambassador to the Soviet Union, found no trade of economic benefit to Canada. The Royal Bank of Canada opened a Vladivistok branch, but quickly closed it.

Canadian soldiers spent much of their time in Vladivostok doing routine training. Diversions included contests of tug-of-war (above). Troops gather at a canteen (left) in British Columbia before shipping out.
City of Vancouver Archives/Mil P102.2

So, it was up to the soldiers to pass the time. There was a hockey league, soccer games, two brigade newspapers and an international sports day. For the more adventurous, there was a thriving district of movie theatres, cafes and brothels on “Kopek Hill,” and the Canadians and soldiers from a dozen more armies frequented them all. Not surprisingly, one-quarter of the admissions to the Canadian hospital were cases of venereal disease.

Apparently immune to the carnality of the city, one private, Douglas McAdam, a 26-year-old teacher from Beeton, Ont., who had arrived with the advance party, wrote home that his two months in Siberia “has been full of inactivity in the war line” and that he was “getting rather tired of army life…. The grub is none the best, and the inactivity makes life more or less monotonous….” Then came Christmas, and McAdam at last was happy and well-fed. “Our barrack-room was gaily decorated with bunting and flags. A spruce tree, decorated, stood in a corner. But the best view of all was the two long tables with real white tablecloths, white dishes, clean cutlery, and dishes of fruit, nuts and candy on the table. The menu consisted of tomato soup, pheasant instead of goose, pie and plum pudding.

“In the evening,” he went on, “most of us went to the American Y.M.C.A. building, where a concert was given by soldier and sailor talent, and a two-reel comedy film shown, which caused our sides to split with laughter. Eats, drinks and smokes were freely bestowed on everyone.”

Troops of the CSEF depart from Vladivistok for Canada aboard the SS Monteagle on April 21, 1919.
LAC/C-091775

By now, Prime Minister Borden had come to realize that there was neither economic gain nor military glory to be found in Siberia. Early in February 1919, he told the British government that he intended to pull the Canadian brigade out. There were objections from London and fears that the Canadian action might spark a general withdrawal with serious consequences for the war against the Red Army. But Borden remained resolute, and the first boatload of Canadians left Vladivistok on April 21. All members of the CSEF (except a few volunteers who remained with the British forces) were gone by early June.

Without the administrative support provided by the Canadians, the British in their turn left Siberia in the autumn. Admiral Alexander Kolchak’s Whites had some military successes in 1919, but Leon Trotsky galvanized the Red Army and won the Bolsheviks’ war for survival. In 1920, the Czechs signed an armistice with the Red Army and returned to their newly declared state of Czechoslovakia. Allied support for the White Army proved to have been singularly ineffective, the international forces in Siberia all returned home in 1920 (except for the Japanese who remained another two years), and Canada’s role in Siberia proved to have been a waste of time and effort.

In all, 21 deaths were attributed to the Siberian expedition, including five at sea, none in action, and most from disease or mischance. One of the dead, Private Edwin Stephenson from southern Ontario, had been ordained as an Anglican priest in the spring of 1918. He had then enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps in June and was sent to Vladivostok, where he died on May 28, 1919, of smallpox. Seven of the dead were conscripts, wrote Patrick Dennis, a historian of Canada’s Great War conscripts, “none, thankfully, in the streets of Victoria.”

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