For­got­ten story of when Bri­tain in­vaded Rus­sia

A cen­tury ago, a Bri­tish-led force were fight­ing Rus­sians on Rus­sian soil, writes Lucy Ash

The Sunday Telegraph - - Features - Fifi p

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

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