Winston S. Churchill on the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War

The British North Russian Relief Force (NRRF) was composed of volunteers who arrived in Archangel at the end of May 1919 to relieve the departing American North Russia Expeditionary Force (Polar Bears). During the summer of 1919, the NRRF held the lines against the Bolshevik forces while the British politicians slowly came to the conclusion that further British military involvement in North Russia was pointless. In September 1919 the NRRF began an offensive designed to create a window for White Russian forces to take over the front lines and allow the NRRF to be evacuated back to England by that October.

With the close of British military operations in North Russia, the British Secretary of State for War was directed to prepare a full report of their evacuation. That report was titled "The Evacuation of North Russia, 1919 - Presented to Parliament by Command of His Majesty" and was published by the Great Britain War Office in 1920 [PDF version]. It begins with the following introduction from Winston S. Churchill:

I.-MEMORANDUM BY THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR.

This Blue Book was prepared six months ago in fulfilment of the undertaking given by me on 12th September last year that at the close of the operations in North Russia "when it is certain that the lives of British soldiers will not be endangered by publicity or the interests of the National Russians prejudiced, a full account of the measures taken and the military reasons for them will be prepared by the General Staff and presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State."

It affords a complete statement of the reasons underlying the various phases of the military operations connected with the British evacuation of North Russia, and will enable all those who wish to understand to measure the difficulties and anxieties which attended the successful attempt to withdraw from North Russia without being involved in disaster or discredit.

The general policy towards the Bolshevik Government, of which the operations in North Russia were a single part, was settled by the Supreme Council of the Allies. Every important step in its execution was approved by the War Cabinet. Parliament was kept continously informed at every stage to the utmost limit possible without compromising the success of impending or contemplated operations, and the House of Commons at every stage by overwhelming majorities approved the course that was being adopted.

w. s. c.
WAR OFFICE,
15th July, 1920.

 

The report also contains these excerpts from a speech delivered by Winston S. Churchill, Secretary of State for War, on the Army Estimates, in the House of Commons on 29th July, 1919, explaining how the situation in North Russia at the beginning of 1919 arose out of the war against Germany.

"After Lenin and Trotsky had signed a shameful peace whereby they betrayed their country and falsified its engagements to its Allies, and whereby they liberated more than 1,000,000 Germans to come over and attack our people in the West after that fateful event in history had occurred there was a Czech army of about two corps made up of prisoners taken from the Austrians by the Russians whose hearts were always on the side of the Allies, and this army refused to continue any longer with the Bolsheviks in Russia, and it demanded to be set free from Russia, and to make its way over to the Western front, where it could continue the struggle which the Bohemians were waging against German-Austria. After an attempt to secure the exodus of this army by Vladivostock it was proposed that they should cut their way out by Viatka to Archangel. There was the danger of Archangel becoming a submarine base for the Germans, and the danger of the loss of all that great mountain of stores we had accumulated there in order to keep that means of contact with Russia, and for all these reasons, combined with the fact that it was hoped the Czechs would make their way out by that route, the Allies in (August)1918, as an essential military operation and as part of the war, decided to occupy Archangel and Murmansk and put an inter-Allied force on shore there.

"The pressure upon us at that time was very great indeed, and it was not possible to spare any large force from any of the countries of the Allies, but a number of French, American, British and Italian troops, the British in larger numbers, were landed at Archangel and Murmansk, and the population generally welcomed them. The town and surrounding district passed into our hands, and we became very deeply involved in the fortunes of that region. We were not able to send enough troops to occupy the whole of the area from which it was hoped a sufficient uprising of Russian manhood would have resulted to enable a really large unit of Russian Government to be established. We were not able to go to Vologda or Viatka, and we had to confine ourselves to the comparatively small region of Archangel and Murmansk, and about 100 to 120 miles in various directions from those towns. The Czech troops who were trying to escape from the country via Archangel were unable to get as far as Viatka, and they got only to Ekaterinburg. Their advance slowed down and what had originally been intended to be a measure for effecting a junction with these troops and securing their safety, became a mere occupation of Archangel. But the Committee would make a great mistake if they condemned the decision of policy which led the Allies and this country to make this movement. Although it did not achieve all the results we expected of it, it achieved results greater than anyone would have dared to hope for.

Let the Committee consider this. Up to the time we landed in Murmansk in May, 1918, German divisions were passing from the Eastern to the Western front at an average rate of six divisions per month to attack the Allied forces. From the time we had landed there not another division was sent from the Eastern front, and the line there remained absolutely stable, the whole of the German forces being rivetted by this new development, and the anxiety they had about Russia until the complete rebuff occurred in October or November of that year. Therefore it is very wrong to regard this as a mistaken enterprise either from the political principles which inspired it or still less by the results by which it was attended.

"Before the German resistance was broken and the Armistice signed, the winter had settled down on the North Russian coast, and the port of Archangel was icebound, or practically icebound, and our men were forced to spend the whole of last winter in this bleak and gloomy spot in circumstances which caused the greatest anxiety, because it was evident that the Bolsheviks with whom they had been in collision, could, if they chose, have concentrated against this particular sector of the circle by which they were invested a force of indefinite size, and because our men were utterly cut off from the outer world except as far as small parties were concerned. Therefore their position was one of much anxiety. They were men mostly of the C 3 class, but they had a fine spirit, and once they were assured and promised that they should be brought home before another winter occurred, they discharged their duty with great determination, and maintained the position against some quite serious attacks, and others which might well have become very serious had they been allowed to proceed, and maintained the situation throughout this dark period. Not only was there considerable unrest amongst these troops during their imprisonment, on this coast during the winter but also, as the Committee recognizes in the exhaustion and prostration of the public mind which followed the triumph in the great struggle owing to the general dispersal of energies which had been so long held up by the great strain, there was the greatest difficulty in sending out any form of relief or assistance to those troops for several months.

"Such was the situation that I inherited when I was sent to the War Office in the middle of January of the present year. But although I had not been responsible for any of the events which called this state of things into being, although I heartily agree with them, no one could view that situation without the gravest anxiety."

Winston S. Churchill
Secretary of State for War
July 29, 1919

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