Forgotten story of when Britain invaded Russia
A century ago, a British-led force were fighting Russians on Russian soil, writes Lucy Ash
Lord Ironside opens the leather-bound album to show me his favourite photograph. “Look at that!” he says, pointing to a picture of a broadshouldered man in a coat made from reindeer skins. The mustachioed wall of fur towers over a small Russian boy standing next to him in the snow. “My father was a huge fellow, 6ft 5in,” says Ironside, “so his nickname was ‘Tiny’.”
I have been invited to tea by the 94-year-old son of Brigadier General Edmund Ironside, the man in charge of an ill-fated military intervention at the tail-end of the First World War. The sitting room in Lord Ironside’s Hampshire nursing home is stacked with diaries, photographs and intricately drawn maps. They once belonged to his father who, in September 1918, was unexpectedly recalled from his infantry brigade in France and sent on a secret mission to Archangel, a port on the White Sea, in the far north of Russia.
Today, few know that thousands of foreign troops once fought Russians on Russian soil. But when the guns fell silent on the Western Front, Allied soldiers were still at war in forests and along frozen rivers near the Arctic Circle. As millions around the world danced in the streets to celebrate the Armistice, in North Russia the fighting only intensified.
Although this follow-on conflict was largely dismissed by historians, it has left a scar on the Russian psyche. The Intervention helped to create fear of encirclement and an intense distrust of the West, especially present in Russia today.
Why did the Allies fight in Russia? After all, under Tsar Nicholas II, the country began the Great War on the same side as Britain and France. In 1918, Vladimir Lenin, the newly installed Communist leader, ratified the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, which meant Russia was out of the war and no longer needed to defend against German attack. Ostensibly to reactivate the Eastern front, the Allies sent its troops to the south, others to Siberia and the Far East of Russia. Eventually, a multinational force of 30,000 mainly American, French, Canadian and British soldiers were based in Archangel and Murmansk under British command.
Ordinary soldiers were told their job was to protect military stores and to stop the Germans from establishing a submarine base in the north of Russia. They were astonished to find themselves battling on the side of the anti-Bolshevik Whites against the Reds in Russia’s nascent Civil War.
George Green, a printer’s son from south London who served as a private with the Machine Gun Corps, seemed confused about his mission when interviewed by researchers at the Imperial War Museum decades later. He had struggled to find Russia on a map, and had “no idea” what he was being sent to do in Archangel, only that he and his fellow soldiers were “going to meet some unknown enemy”.
When the first big contingent of Allied troops sailed into Archangel on Aug 2 1918, local dignitaries and priests flocked down to the port to welcome them with the traditional offering of bread and salt. Elena Pavlova, a churchwarden from the nearby town of Kholmogory, remembers her grandmother praising the British for bringing white flour and sweets to her village. Many hoped the foreign troops would end the food shortages and conscription into the Red Army.
But when Intervention forces failed to deliver peace and plenty, forced “loyal” Russians to fight alongside them and sent men suspected of Communist sympathies to a prison camp, disillusionment quickly set in. Initially, the Allies hoped for a speedy victory, but it soon became clear they had over-extended themselves in a harsh and unforgiving terrain. A bluff, pragmatic character, General Ironside was the inspiration for Richard Hannay, hero of John Buchan’s spy thriller, The 39 Steps. He believed his role was to restore order. But on the battlefields around Archangel, his “tiny army of not very first-class troops”, as he described them in his diary, were dying every day. His soldiers and the White Russians who fought alongside them faced another enemy – the bitter cold. Lord Ironside shows me some gruesome photographs in his father’s collection taken in a primitive hospital of blackened, gangrenous limbs. “The weather was appalling,” he says, “many of the men got frostbite.”
Mike Grobbel, who runs the Polar Bears Association, the memorial group for Americans who fought in North Russia, told me his grandfather, Clement Grobbel, a raw recruit in charge of a Lewis machine gun crew, had to fight in temperatures of minus 40 d degrees.
“They slogged through wet marshes and frozen slippery paths,” he says. “They could never get their feet dry because they were not allowed to light fires for fear of giving their position to the enemy.” I visited Archangel in J June when conditions were more bearable, apart from the clouds of vicious mosquitoes. My guide was Aleksey Sukhanovsky, a local journalist with a passion for battlefield archaeology. Armed with metal detectors, within a few hours, we had unearthed shell fragments, grenades and bullets.
As the months following the Armistice dragged on, the Intervention became increasingly unpopular. There were debates at the Labour party conference, trade unions passing “Hands off Russia” resolutions and newspapers arguing that “the frozen plains of Eastern Europe are not worth the bones of a single grenadier”.
To make matters worse, some of the Russians who had been fighting with the Allies mutinied and murdered their officers. In the neatly kept but rarely visited cemetery in Archangel, I saw the grave of Captain David Barr of the East Lancashire Regiment. The 25-year-old from Glasgow was shot seven times, but managed to fight his way out of the barracks where he had been sleeping and swim across the River Dvina to raise the alarm. Just hours before he died, he was awarded a Military Cross for his gallant behaviour.
General Ironside described Russia as “a great sticky pudding”. He wrote that a hand could be easily thrust into the country, but he had a “horrible fear” that extracting it
‘They were not allowed to light fires for fear of giving their position to the enemy’
would be much more difficult.
As it was, this mission turned misadventure which dragged on for 18 months, cost the lives of 534 British Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and marines. On his return to UK in late 1919, General Ironside suffered the humiliation of being put on half pay.
As we finish our tea in his sitting room, Lord Ironside tells me his father’s mission in North Russia may have been a failure, but it was “his moment of truth”, and the memory of that time never left him.
When Gunner Green was asked for his opinion about his time in Russia, he was blunt. “I don’t think we did an atom of good. Perhaps we stemmed the advance of the Bolsheviks for a month or so, but other than that, we achieved nothing.”
Lord Ironside with one of the journals of his father, General Edmund Ironside, right. Above, British troops in Archangel