11th December 1918 Wednesday
Mutiny in Archangel!
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“On Wednesday 11thDecember some Russian troops billeted in Archangel refused to go up the line, and barricaded themselves inside their barracks. They fired on anyone who came near them. American, French and British troops were rushed to the spot, surrounded the barracks, and soon quelled the disturbance. An aeroplane dropped a bomb on the place, and the Americans lobbed a few trench-mortar bombs over the building. The ring-leaders were arrested. They numbered 22 in all, and 11 of them were made to shoot the other 11, who had previously dug their own graves. This gruesome ceremony took place on the barrack square, which was surrounded on all sides by British soldiers with machine guns. Col. Shevtoff, whom I met up at Seletskoe, and who commanded these rebels, afterwards committed suicide, as he was so ashamed of his men.
This revolt scared us all rather badly. We were served out with rifles and bombs, and had armed R.A.M.C. sentries posted on our billets all day and night. It was not considered safe to go out after dark. It was quite a common thing at night to hear rifle shots, and many British officers had narrow escapes in Archangel. The Assistant Provost Marshall was fired at three times whilst leaving the hospital ship ‘Kalyan’, but was not hit. We also obtained two machine guns, and were trained in their use. Barbed wire entanglements, and sand-bag redoubts were built all round the hospital.”
This revolt by very reluctant Russian recruits is the subject of subsequent criticism by modern observers and historians. General Ironside’s account in his memoir Archangel 1918-1919 describes the event in terms that are in conflict with the reports of eye witnesses and those who were actually in Archangel at the time. The conflict of accounts has been highlighted by Damien Wright in his book ‘Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin’. Ironside told us that after the men had surrendered the ring leaders were tried by court martial and sentenced to death. Ironside claimed that by his intervention he managed to commute their sentences to a long term of imprisonment. Douglas’s account of the incident ties in with other diary entries. American, Charles B Ryan of the 339th Infantry gives more insight into the incident. Along with other reports here is my summary of the story.
The Russian population were in no mood to fight. The peasants from the country were more interested in where the next meal was coming from than in any political ideals. Life under the Tsar was simple, but in truth the population was totally unaffected by whoever was ruling the country. They may well have known about the Russian Royal family, but their day to day existence wasn’t touched by any kind of political influence, or at least that is how it would have seemed. They were surrounded everywhere here in the north by the natural resource that provided their living, trees. More important to the people was their Christianity which remains un-waivered even today.
The forest was the provider of everything they knew. It gave them material for building, fuel for burning, wood for selling. The forest was so immense that in most part every inch of the land was covered by dense woodland only pierced by the course of the rivers and the few paths made for sleighs and carts, carved through it to provide transport links. Until the railway from Vologda up to Archangel had arrived in 1897 the river was the only trunk route. The main transport went via river of which the mighty Dwina or Dvina was king. This however would only be fully navigable during the Summer from about May until November.
The Constantine Barracks were situated on Troitsky Street in Archangel and accommodated over 700 men. These men were part of an intended army of 17,000 men of which by this time only just over 1400 had been coaxed into service. Of these men quite a few were captured Bolsheviks that had been taken from the front line, or those reds that had volunteered and were effectively spying. There had been constant issues of unrest with them and they had consistently lobbied for improvements to their conditions. Some of the demands such us the right not to salute and a complaint that their officers were wearing Tsarist insignia might seem somewhat frivolous but their demands for increased rations including more cigarettes may well have been legitimate. It is well established that the British had treated the native population including military recruits with less than generous rations and this was a cause for resentment in Archangel.
Ironside’s version of events were that he gave orders that the men would be paraded at the barracks his intention being to “put the matter of discipline to the test” (1). Others have testified that he intended they be sent up the line to fight. Bearing in mind that the main reason that these men had signed up was to get regular meals and a pay packet and not to fight any fellow Russians, they duly refused to fall in. Having experienced life under Ironside’s predecessor General Poole, who ruled in the manner of a colonial governor and endeared himself to no one, the British weren’t universally popular.
On hearing the news of a revolt, Ironside went to the barracks to see the situation for himself. He was accompanied by a detachment of the 2/7th Durham Light Infantry and possibly a few R.A.F. men. The Durhams had not long arrived in Archangel and had been intended for garrison duty, which would have been more suited to the 2/10 Royal Scots who were not classed as fit for fighting. As he arrived he saw the men of the new 1st Archangel Regiment had locked themselves in waving a lot of red flags and brandishing rifles from the window. Shots were fired into the air from the roof.
General Marousheffsky who commanded the Russians, calmly ordered that some Russian N.C.O.s bring up a Lewis gun and from the rear trained it on the main building. Then a couple of Stoke’s Mortars were brought in. Morousheffsky used a loudhailer to shout orders to the men which only resulted in more flag waving and shouting. Firstly, under Ironside’s direction a mortar was sent over the building landing in the yard behind to no effect. A second mortar bomb landed and exploded on the roof which had the desired effect. All the flags were dropped and men began to appear from the building some half-dressed. The ring leaders were asked to identify themselves and thirteen older men, mostly N.C.O.s immediately stepped forward. They were arrested and marched off under guard. The rest of the men were returned to barracks and told to make themselves ready. This they did quite happily before being marched off to the station the following day to catch a train to Obozerskaya and the front. The mutiny therefore had resolved itself without further trouble and all could relax once more.
Ironside then states that following court martial the guilty men were all sentenced to death but following a previous communication from King George V requesting that no men be executed following the Armistice, General Ironside in an act of compassion commuted the death sentences to terms of imprisonment.
Compare this then to the account given by Captain Page above and the words of Charles Ryan.
Referring to the S.B.A.L (the Slavo-British Allied Legion) or the New Russian Army, he says that the situation “had been brewing for some time, but had been nipped in the bud on the other occasions” (2).
A combined British, French and American group armed with Lewis machine-guns opened fire on the building, breaking all the windows, killing one and wounding three men. The Russians returned fire before surrendering in a short-lived battle. The mortar that was sent over the roof had landed in the space behind killing an unfortunate man that was there.
The disconsolate Russians were then lined up while every tenth man was counted out. This was on the orders of Ironside as testified by Company Sergeant Major Fred Neesam of the Green Howards (3) It was then made clear in no uncertain terms that unless they gave the names of the ringleaders all of these men would be shot. Thirteen men were identified after which their own men were forced to shoot them under threat of a machine gun placed behind them. There was to be swift justice, a court martial (although no mention of one in Charles Ryan’s account). The men were forced to dig their own graves then shot in the back of the neck by their own men. One hundred years on this would almost certainly be classed as a war crime. There are some inconsistencies in the accounts but all conflict with the face-saving account of General Edmond “Tiny” Ironside.
(1) Naval and Military Press “Archangel 1918-1919” by Gen. E. Ironside.
(3) Tom Stacey “At War with the Bolsheviks” by R. Jackson
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