A Different War: Off to Archangel and more conflict.
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After being gassed on the Western Front Captain Douglas Page now a seasoned 25 year old war veteran was returned to England via a hospital ship and train. Landing at Southampton from where he had embarked on his incredible journey in November 1915. He was taken to Sommerville College Oxford which had been requisitioned for service as a hospital for officers during the Great War and it was here that he began the slow process of recovery. Unfortunately for us Douglas’s diary entries had stopped during his convalescence, but what we do know is that he did make a full recovery. It is remarkable that not only did it take a month to succumb to the effects of the mouthfuls of gas that he ingested on the morning of the 11th March 1918, but also that it then made him so ill that he was sent home to recover.
When he was well enough to work he went to help the sick and wounded at Chester War Hospital, but by late August he was to be returned to the theatre of war once more. This time though his adventure was to be a different one. He had been signed on to serve another term in November 1917, so in effect Douglas was still under contract when he received orders to return to duty. This time however it wasn’t the Western Front, despite the fact that a further 440,000 were sent there from the start of the Kaiser’s “Spring Offensive” from March until August. Possibly as a surprise twist to his army career Douglas was to be sent to support the British participation of the North Russian Intervention.
Prelude and backdrop to the North Russian Intervention.
Following the February revolution of 1917 and Russia’s subsequent withdrawal from the War in Europe, civil war erupted in Russia. Britain as a former ally of Tsarist Russia was now part of the group of nations, Britain, USA, Canada, Australia and France that formed the Entente Powers group to intervene in Russia. They together with the White Army would oppose the Bolsheviks who had taken over the Russian government during the further rising of October 1917.
Britain and her allies were anxious to keep Russia in the war despite its formal withdrawal. The Entente Powers had a vested interest for Russia to keep fighting Germany on the Eastern Front. America, having joined the conflict in April 1917 had given support to the Provisional Russian Government, both financial and with materials. However, much of the materials arriving in the northern ports of Archangel and Murmansk had become stuck there.
During the uprising the Russian Provisional Government army known as the White Army had received much support from the Czechoslovak Legion. The Czechs and Slovaks living in Russia at the beginning of the war in 1914 had offered their services to the Imperial Russian government on the understanding that in return Russia would support them in their quest for homeland independence. They had formed an army of about 100,000 men including about 8000 Slovaks and others. By 1917 their purpose was to ultimately gain allied support for independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unfortunately for the Czechs the Russian White Army was plagued with desertion and mutiny making things much more difficult for the brave and organised Czech Legion. The Entente Powers’ forces were to give the Czechs support against the Bolsheviks.
Following the success of Lenin and the Red Army during October, Lenin had offered safe passage for the Czechs if as neutrals they withdrew from Russia. An orderly withdrawal was to take place via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. During the withdrawal an intervention by Trotsky ordered the arrest of the Czechs and the surrender of their arms. The Czechoslovak Legion resisted and fighting broke out in pockets along the Trans-Siberian Railway. By July 1918 the Czechs had taken Vladivostok and controlled the south of the country along the Trans-Siberian. The deposed Tsar Nicolai II and his family had been held prisoners in the southern city of Yekaterina. Lenin then ordered their execution which took place on the 17th July 1918, just days before the Czechs would arrive there which would probably have saved them.
The news of the Czech successes was well received by the allied governments that inspired the joint intervention. However, Britain’s part in the proposed action, although enthusiastically supported by some members of the government like Lord Milner the Secretary of State for War and his successor in 1919 Winston Churchill, it was much less popular with the general population who had suffered four years of war, losing so many loved ones for what seemed like a just cause. This new campaign stretched the loyalties of the British public a bit too far.
UK recruits for the North Russia Expeditionary Force were drawn from members of the Royal Marine Artillery and formed the Royal Marine Light Infantry. Not many of the men were over 19 years old. Hardly any of its officers had seen any action on land and into this were mixed recently released Prisoners of War that were sent straight back into action without being given any leave. America had sent over 5000 men with more to follow along with a smattering of Canadians
As soon as Douglas was to reach Archangel or Arkhangelsk as it was known then, he was plunged into the thick of it. At the beginning of August, the White Army had secured the Archangel area and the allied forces had made advances to the south. The port of Archangel was in the control of several allied ships and the area seemed to be secure. By the 28th the new RALI was ordered to take a village called Koikori, but sustained heavy casualties with 3 killed and 18 wounded. This was obviously something of a morale breaking event for the inexperienced men and when a week later a second attack again failed it only added to their concern. Then when a third attempt was ordered the battalion refused and withdrew to a safer location under the control of friendly villagers. 93 men were court martialled, 13 received the death sentence the rest given hard labour. The sentences were considered too harsh, so when many British MPs objected the government were forced to quash the death sentences and reduce the sentences of the others.
This then was the atmosphere in Northern Russia to which Captain Douglas Page RAMC MC was introduced at the end of August 1918.
Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here