Murder in Murmansk

For many soldiers, the end of the First World War did not mean the end of conflict, danger and incredibly testing conditions.

This summer our special exhibition will focus on those soldiers’ involvement in the Russian Civil War. Museum volunteer Paul Elliott – whose own grandfather served with the Durham Light Infantry in Russia at the same time, used our archive records and eye-witness accounts to reveal the case of one of them – 2nd Lieutenant Plumpton.

“In July 1918, the 6th and 13th Battalions of the Yorkshire Regiment began a period of reconstitution after earlier being reduced to small cadres of officers and NCOs and used for training. Throughout July, August and September troops joined in small groups from approximately thirty other regiments. The majority had been either wounded or classified as not fit for service in France, or they had no experience of front line service and were relatively untrained.  Among these many soldiers was the 34 year old, newly commissioned, 2nd Lieutenant Robert Plumpton. He had previously served in the ranks of the 28th London Regiment and does not appear to have served abroad.

Robert Plumpton was born in 1884 in Newcastle. His father was a boot manufacturer; by 1901 Robert was an apprentice in the boot trade. The 1911 census shows he had become a manager in the wholesale boot trade and was married to Jeannie Taylor.

Officers of the 6th Battalion pictured in 1919 before their deployment to Northern Russia.  Tantalisingly, Lt Plumpton could be pictured here amongst this group.  Unfortunately, so far, we have been unable to find an image which identifies him.

The 6th Battalion was part of the force to be sent to North Russia, ostensibly to protect the huge quantity of munitions given to the Russians to help with their efforts on the Eastern front, which were intended to reduce the pressure on the Western front in France and Belgium.  Various reasons for the campaign have been suggested, but either by default or intention the multi-national force in the north and other parts of Russia began to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks.

The 6th Bn travelled north to Dundee in order to sail for Murmansk. On 16 October they boarded a ship called the Tras-os-Montes which was reportedly in very poor condition and badly run. The war with Germany was nearing its end and enthusiasm for the Russian venture was not high. In Dundee the officers were allowed ashore, but the men were not.  This led to a mutiny where 300 men rushed the gangway and went ashore.  Courts Martial and punishments subsequently followed.

Things returned to normal, and the following day the ship sailed. Very close to a large minefield the ship developed a list and the boiler burst. A recent visitor to the museum, who was researching her family history told us that her father, who was part of the force on board, had told her that he was instructed to take a lamp to the front of the ship.  As the vessel listed, he was to cling on, holding the light.

The ship was towed into a bay in the Shetlands, where it stayed until 6 November when it sailed to return to Scotland. It again broke down, the steering gear failed, and a man was lost over board.

They reached the Orkneys, and to much relief were towed into Kirkwall. There was continuing discontent and talk of dumping kit and mutiny. On the 21st the Battalion transferred to a sister vessel, the Huntsend and left for Murmansk. They disembarked on 28 November to face temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees centigrade, and just 3 hours of daylight.

The troops were initially retained at Murmansk, although the main base was now at Archangel. They endured a grinding routine of guard duties, fatigues, helping to erect buildings and train protection. Robert Plumpton was in ‘B’ Company and in command of 7 Platoon.

We are incredibly fortunate to have in the museum archive, a diary kept of the voyage and the early stages of his Russian experience by Private Stanley Harrison of the 6th Battalion.

On Christmas Day 1918 he records…

“Mr Plumpton (7th Platoon) Officer murdered by a Ruski (unknown) near cinema. Pockets emptied, Sam Browne and revolver stolen also Jack boots. Everyone truly sorry as he was a really decent officer. All the lads, including me, anxious to go on a raiding party to avenge his death. Why won’t they let us go? Jolly bad luck on Xmas Day. He leaves wife and kiddies so I understand.”

The Battalion diary has less detail; merely stating that he was found in a ravine, murdered. Other entries state that he was shot and suffered head injuries. Immediate enquiries were instigated but no light was thrown on the incident. Robert Plumpton’s body was taken to the 86th General Hospital of the RAMC and remained there until the funeral.

Private Harrison had the following entry for Sunday 29th December…

“Mr. Plumpton’s funeral. Military honours for a hero. Coffin draped with the Union Jack and drawn on a gun carriage. Very impersonal except at the graveside. His own Platoon formed firing party and three volleys were fired and the “Last Post” sounded. My first, and, I hope, last parade for military funeral. Officers of B Coy carried coffin to the grave. Buried in a wood amidst the eternal snow. My feelings and sympathy go out to the bereaved at home.”

On January 9th Private Harrison recounts how a “Young Ruski came in to the hut for jam. Said he was 16, but looked 12. Could swear like a trooper. Spoke a little English and said his father and two brothers had been killed in the war.”

This young man was apparently responsible for events on January 15th.

“Ruski caught shooting during the night, found to be wearing Mr Plumpton’s watch. Patrol raided their hut at 1am and party of 30 raid at 8am. Revolver ammunition found. 50 Russians placed under arrest. 16 put on the “Chesma” [a Russian battleship]. The young Russian who visited us on Jan 9th gave them away. Everywhere thoroughly searched. 50 men and 9 women living in one hut under the most filthy heathen conditions. Odour awful. Government stores of all kinds found which were stolen from the quay. The prisoners all informed that if the murderer does not confess all may be shot. The hut inside was ‘like a rag shop’ after the searching. Thank God we British do not live under such conditions. The guards all brought souvenirs to celebrate the raid. One woman for whom I felt very sorry was crying, with a bairn in her arms. Poor soul.”

The Battalion records have less detail…

“On the 14th of January, whilst ascertaining from where shots were being fired, a working party from B Company entered Russian quarters and found Government stores and Lieutenant Plumpton’s watch. The occupants were searched and examined by the Provost Marshall.”

Private Harrison’s diary entry for the 30th recounted his return to Murmansk on Court Martial Guard (Mr Plumpton). The Court Martial took place on 1 February.

“Prisoners brought off the ‘Chesma’ at 8.30. Trial on murder charge started at 11. Blizzard. 7 prisoners guarded up to cinema by 25 men, 12 police. Russian soldiers also on guard. Open court. Cinema hall packed with people of all classes. Guard outside was terrible owing to the blizzard. Only Britishers in court were witnesses and guard. All conducted in Russian. Judge was a Russian Naval Officer from Petrograd. Russian General and Officers in Russian Army also present. Many wearing swords and revolvers. Court adjourned at 2.30 till 5 pm. Again adjourned about 11oc. Crowds flocked later in evening. It was not till gone 1am today that the verdict was delivered. Three prisoners were sentenced to death and others to 10, 8 and 5 years penal servitude respectively. Only rations were cold bully and biscuits. Quite an exciting experience guarding prisoners in court. Silence when Judge examined revolver and ammunition. Peculiar smell again much noticed. Not quite as bad as in 518 Barrack. Court was unbearable about midnight. Hot, stuffy and “smelly”. Splinter and Goo Goo had “wind up” when escorting prisoners back to ship. Only 50 guards with loaded rifles and revolvers to 7 unarmed men, and yet wind was up. “You know what to do.” Not the slightest resistance shown. One sighing, another crying on return journey. Eating bread and water. A very tiring but exciting day. Rounded in cheers (C Coy’s) at 2.30 am. Some experience.”

The Battalion report was again rather more prosaic…

“A court was assembled at Murmansk on 30th January to try those accused of Lieutenant Plumpton’s murder. 1 Officer and 20 men were detailed as guard for the court. On the 5th February ‘A’ Company found a firing party for Russian civilians sentenced to death for the murder.”

Other records say only the owner of the property was shot.

On 1 March, after being unwell, Private Harrison was in hospital and he recounts how a Russian child was brought in. On the 3rd he found out that the child was the one who figured in the murder trial.

“On the 7th the child was seriously ill, he had a temperature of 105.2 and the Doctors thought it was spotted fever. He had an operation, a sample of some liquid was taken from his spine and he had blood tests. After his anaesthetic he came round all OK.”

The old British cemetery where Lieutenant Plumpton was buried was moved in 1930, with 40 burials were transferred to a new cemetery outside Murmansk. Two other soldiers of the Yorkshire Regiment are also buried here, Private Joseph Potter and Private James Ferns. The cemetery fell into disrepair, but in 1991 it became municipal property and was renovated, with headstones and tablets being financed by UK veterans.

Lieutenant Plumpton had premises in 7 Bigg Market, Newcastle and a home in North Heaton. His estate was left to his wife, Jeannie, and amounted to £4653 (about £185,000). He is also commemorated at the grave of his parents, Robert and Ann, in the All Saints Cemetery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

On Thursday 4th September 1919 The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail reported…

‘Murderers Tracked’

The summary vengeance exacted by the British authorities upon the murderers of the British officer whose body was found shot and frozen stiff in a ditch in Murmansk last Christmas Day had an excellent effect upon lawless elements of the polyglot civilian population. After lengthy enquiries by the British and Russian Intelligence agents, the suspected men, three in number, were tracked to a certain wooden barrack near the railway terminus. A surprise search of the building was made and a thorough examination revealed skilfully hidden behind a concealed partition, which had to be torn down, a small revolver and some cartridges, the calibre of which corresponded to the bullet which was extracted from the dead officer.

Three men were immediately arrested and later confessed to their guilt. The court-martial held upon them declared them guilty, and condemned them to be shot.

The actual execution, which took place on a bare hill above the cemetery shortly after dawn on a bleak January morning, was carried out by a joint British and Russian firing party by the light of electric torches. Three volleys were fired, and the bodies were subsequently buried in graves which had to be blasted out of the frozen ground by a detachment of sappers.”

Are you a relative of Lt Plumpton?  We’d love to hear from you.