Hostile Environment: the regiment in Russia 1918 to 1920
The 11th of November 1918 wasn’t the end. It really wasn’t the end at all.
Instead of returning home following the armistice, thousands of British soldiers, including the regiment’s 6th and 13th battalions, were deployed, via Dundee, to northern Russia; part of a multi-national force tasked with turning the tide of revolution.
Mutiny, murder and ending up on the losing side; battling the elements, a determined enemy and unpredictable allies, this special online exhibition reveals the hidden stories of the men sent into the most hostile of environments.
A STARK REALITY
Many soldiers sent to Russia in October 1918 had already experienced the harsh reality of war on the Western Front but little could have prepared them for Russia. Peasants and urban workers lived in extreme poverty. Russia was home to almost 200 different ethnic groups. In the north around Archangel and Murmansk troops would have seen nomadic tribes such as the Nenet and Saami. The landscape and the people made a powerful impression on Yorkshire Regiment soldiers. Newspaper cuttings, diaries, postcards and photographs now in the museum collection, give a flavour of their time in Russia.
Read the transcript
TO THE RESCUE!
BY ONE OF THE VOLUNTEERS
A story of the Murmansk Coast
With true British spirit officers and men are volunteering in considerable numbers for the relief expedition to Russia. The advance guards have already left this country, and the main force is expected to leave in the first weeks of May.
Oh, I thought that I was finished with
The battle and bloody strife,
Safe ‘ere at ’ome,
No more to roam
From the kiddies to and the wife;
And I’d ‘ung me old tin chappo up,
Wot I wore with the Fusiliers,
When I jumps up spry,
For I ‘ears a cry:
“We’re a-wantin’ some volunteers!”
“We’re a-wantin’ some volunteers, me lad,
To sail to the Murmansk coast,
Where them Bolshy cads
‘Ave got out lads
On most pertickler toast-
Lads ‘olding on by their eyebrows, ‘ard,
As perky as chanticleers,
But they’re being pressed-
It’s a toughish test-
It’s up to you volunteers!”
Now wot they’re doing amid the ice
In that Gawd-forsaken spot
I cannot say,
To argey about it ‘s rot.
I only know that our comrades true
Are there in them damned glaciers
With the Bolsheviks,
So- way for the volunteers!
Yer see, them blighters wot politish
Fer a living, ‘ave I should guess
(Oh, clever chaps
They are- per’aps!),
Got things in an ‘ellish mess-
A rotten, dirty muddle, and so
They ‘owl fit to split yer ears:
“Things aren’t going well
‘Elp us out, O volunteers!”
If the British force in them icy parts
Was made up of statesmen great,
Or of White’all toffs
With their sneers and scoffs-
Just ‘ark wot I’m telling you, mate!
I’d let ‘em stew in their blinkin’ juice,
And get theirselves out, me dears,
For the ‘ole shebang
Might all go ‘ang
And whistle fer volunteers!
But d’ye see, they’re not, they are decent lads,
Wot’s doing their duty true
On their scanty pay,
And they must obey
Wotever they’re told to do.
And it’s not their fault they are in an ‘ole-
It’s a deepish one, I ‘ears;
So don’t let’s lag,
Or chew the rag,
But get on with it, volunteers!
‘T will be nip-and-tuck, fer them Bolsheviks
Is making a push, they say,
To get there first
With their ‘ordes accurst
Afore we arrive in May;
But I’m backing the British Army’s luck-
We’ve ‘ad some these last five years!-
That the lads ‘ll ‘old out
With courage stout
Till they’re ‘elped by us volunteers!
So hey! Fer a wallop fer Mister Bolsh-
One straight in ‘is o.p. eye:
While ‘e’s on the ropes
Ironside, I ‘opes,
Won’t scruple to do a guy.
Fer we’re all fed up with fighting now-
‘Ad enough to last fer ‘ears,
So it’s hey! fer Peace,
And may warfare cease,
Is the view of us volunteers!
Any overt act of defiance or attack upon military authority by two or more person subject to such authority.
definition of mutiny
“The soldiers expected to be left off the ship that night but found the gates locked and guarded by military police and men with fixed bayonets.
The officers are asking the men to play the game but are told ‘it’s our time now’. The Colonel draws his revolver and says the next man to get over the side will be shot. He is told that if he does, rifles will be fetched and he will be shot.”
Private Fred Hirst’s diary, 15th October 1918.
“Some trouble was incurred with some of the men who tried to get into Dundee at 5pm, but this was settled at 7pm.”
The 6th Battalion War Diary
Private Sidney Child is tried by court martial on the 16th November 1918, convicted of mutiny and insubordination and sentenced to 112 days in detention for his involvement in the events on board the Tras-os-Montes at Dundee. Private Child did eventually join the regiment in north Russia. He was ‘struck off strength’ in mid August 1919 and returned to England.
On 22 February 1919 soldiers from the regiment’s 13th Battalion refused orders to move on to support other British soldiers and their Russian allies at Srednemechenga. After hearing about the Yorkshires mutiny, French soldiers mutiny the next day, and again on 1 March. Some are transferred to garrison duties away from the fighting, others are sent back to France.
“The ill-discipline of the 13th Battalion Yorkshires is now settled, and when I saw them off from Seletskoye to Srednemechenga they were quite cheery. No further trouble with this battalion is anticipated.” General Ironside to the War Office from Archangel, 3rd March 1919
Four men from the Yorkshire Regiment are tried by court martial for their part in the Seletskoye mutiny.
Private Percy Griffths, Private Henry Cole, Lance Corporal Arthur Hanson and Acting Lance Sergeant John Metcalfe are convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour. These sentences are then significantly reduced.
A HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
Specially designed equipment was needed to combat the extreme temperatures and fighting conditions faced by British troops serving in Russia. Famous Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton was tasked with designing kit and rations. He also trained troops to understand the logistics of long distance winter travel and survival. In stark contrast, soldiers also had to deal with the discomfort of the Russian summer, with searing heat, lack of water and diseases such as malaria.
TEA, TENTS, STOVES, SLEIGHS: the logistics of reconnaissance and defence
Company Sergeant Major Fred Neesam's special mission
21 May 1919: A group of 21 men, three British, the rest Cossack, arrive in Omsk. They must rendezvous with ‘Supreme Leader of all the Russians’, Admiral Kolchak. Company Sergeant Major Fred Neesam is one of the group, he’s carrying official diplomatic papers from the British government. They’ve travelled more than 2000 miles, sometimes through Bolshevik-controlled territory. Mission complete, Fred returns with more documents, to Archangel, arriving on 28 June 1919. He’s been away almost four months, and covered more than 4000 miles.