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On Nov. 11, soldiers were fighting desperate battle, says Robert Smol.
Over the last century, our well-meaning attempts to commemorate Nov. 11 as the end of fighting during the First World War have ignored an important historical truth that needs to be recognized together with everything else that Remembrance Day has come to mean.
That is that while the fighting stopped with Germany and her allies, it was literally only just beginning for the Canadian units serving in Russia.
Indeed, as the ceasefire order for 11 o’clock was being wired to all Canadian units on the German front, Canadian units serving as part of the Allied North Russia Expeditionary Force were engaged in desperate close-quarter fighting with the Bolshevik Red Army at Tulgas on the banks on the Dvina River south of Archangel. By Nov. 13, four Canadian soldiers would die at the hands of the Red Army, and more would perish in the largely forgotten “Allied intervention” that was to continue in North Russia and Siberia until June 1919.
In the closing months of the First World War, the 16th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, consisting mainly of the 67th and 68th Batteries, was one of several reorganized units sent from the Canadian Corps in Europe and Western Canada to support Allied intervention in Russia in the aftermath of that country’s withdrawal from the war in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Initially mandated to protect Allied assets in Russia from the Germans, the force’s tepidly defined mandate sputtered and stumbled in late 1918 into a de facto alliance with the various White Russian forces fighting the growing Bolshevik Red Army in what was to become one of the bloodiest civil wars of the 20th century.
This was made abundantly clear in the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 1918 when the 67th Battery, situated on the banks of the Dvina River at Tulgas, was suddenly attacked from behind by a force of 500 Red Army troops who, taking advantage of a thick fog, managed to evade the American and British infantry in the area.
As the Canadian gunners desperately struggled to turn their artillery around, the unit’s drivers and support troops took up their rifles and spread out in front of their guns, managing to hold off the attacking Red Army troops until reinforcements from the British army arrived.
Part of the 67th Battery War Diary (unit log) report for the afternoon of Nov. 11, 1918 reads:
“By this time (4 P.M.) they were able to get A. Sub gun out of its pit and reversed and owing to its position were able to bring direct fire to bear over open sights on the enemy.”
Two Canadians, Cpl. Stanley Wareham and Gunner Walter Conville, were killed by the Russian Red Army in the fighting that day.
This was not the first time the Canadian Army would fight and die at the hands of the Russian Red Army in open combat. On Nov. 13, 1918, two more Canadians (Bombardier David Fraser and Gunner Frank Russell) from the 68th Battery were ambushed and killed while on reconnaissance patrol by a force of Red Army troops during the fighting at Ust Padenga. Their bodies, according to their unit’s report, were left “mutilated by enemy with axes.”
For Canada and its allies, the First World War “encore experience” would not end until the summer of 1919. Once patriated, as with all veterans of their time, the Canadians who participated in the Russian campaign managed to move on with their lives.
But maybe, on the centenary of the end of the conflict with Germany, and the start of our “intervention” war in Russia, a subtle thank you is owed to the memory of Canadian servicemen who lost their lives on Nov. 11, 1918 and beyond fighting the ideological totalitarian machine that ultimately bred the likes of Josef Stalin and Vladimir Putin. These Canadian servicemen are worthy of our thoughts, prayers and silence. Robert Smol served for more than 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces. He is currently an educator and writer in Toronto.
The 68th Battery’s gunners with prisoners in May 1919 in Russia, where the fighting went on until summer.