Britain and Russia in 1919 – how not to intervene

Having read Bruce Lockhart’s autobiography I’m now about halfway through Clifford Kinvig’s military history of the British intervention in post 1917 Russia.

It’s a sorry tale of how what started as an effort to stiffen the Kerensky government’s resolve to continue Russia’s participation in the first world war morphed from a straightforward military assistance mission into a badly thought out and under resourced effort to support the White forces in the post revolutionary civil war, principally Denikin in the south and the pro-SR pro-Menshevik government in Archangel.

While Britain did lend support to the provisional government in Omsk and to Kolchak after his coup support was on a much smaller scale, and essentially confined to military and political advisers. The Americans, Canadians, and of course the Japanese were much more involved as they had easier geographic access to Vladivostok, which was the only way of sending supplies to the Omsk government.

One of the other themes to emerge is the mutinous state of some of the British soldiers – war weary and expecting to be demobbed they were less than charmed to be shipped off to somewhere far away, hostile, and in the case Archangel, cold. Ben Isitt details similar rebelliousness on the part of the Canadian forces in the east.

The other real themes are that the British never really reached an internal consensus as to why they were in Russia and what they hoped to accomplish

Initially it was to stop valuable supplies falling into the hands of the German forces after the treaty of Brest Litovsk. Somewhere it turned into first protecting these supplies from the Bolshevik government and then into something more than tacitly supporting the White forces.

Supporting the White forces was in itself problematical as there was no coherent opposition – Russia had fractured into a set of polities and armies with changing allegiances. Of the opposition, the Omsk government looked the most plausible but even then they lacked a coherent plan. Bernard Pares, who was attached to the British mission to the Omsk government was more than a little scathing about their organisational abilities, or their ability to cope with the new realities

The incoherence of the opposition is what of course allowed the Bolsehvik government to prevail – not only did it control the two largest cities, and consequently industrial centres, they managed to build an army, hold on to a degree of popular support, and manage to pick off the opposing polities one by one.

Trotsky once said that during the revolution power fell into the streets. The Bolshevik achievement was putting an end to the chaos.

There are implications for the wars and civil wars of our time. In Afghanistan we see a government ridden by factionalism, unable to maintain order and reliant on foreign forces for its existence. In the Middle East we see governments unable to govern and opposition factions unable to maintain even a facade of unity.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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1 Response to Britain and Russia in 1919 – how not to intervene

  1. Pingback: 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920 … | stuff 'n other stuff

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