When British forces invaded Russia to fight a campaign like no other – Yvonne McEwan

Conditions were so bad during the North Russia campaign at the end of the First World War that Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton was called in to help, writes Professor Yvonne McEwan.

Russian prisoners of war at a camp in Troitsa on the Murmansk-Archangel Front in 1919 during the Allied intervention in Russia (Picture: J W Lane Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Russian prisoners of war at a camp in Troitsa on the Murmansk-Archangel Front in 1919 during the Allied intervention in Russia (Picture: J W Lane Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In June 1919, the hospital ship Kalyan docked in Leith harbour. On board and returning from the North Russia campaign were 650 sick and wounded servicemen, among them a contingent from the Royal Scots.

Following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk peace pact between Germany and Russia in March 1918, the Allies had decided that it was essential to prevent Germany from dispatching Eastern Front troops to the Western Front.

And so the last British Expeditionary Force of the First World War – which included the Highland Light Infantry as well as the Royal Scots – was created.

However, after a long and bloody campaign with Germany and the cessation of hostilities, Russia was now fighting a civil war brought about by the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917. A brutal internecine conflict erupted between the Red Army and White Army forces which wrought havoc on an already war-torn, bankrupt country.

The British supported White Russian forces and supplied them with millions of pounds of aid enabling them to fight the Red Army. In North Russia, British forces fought the Red Army from the summer of 1918 until September 1919.

It began when, just a month after the peace treaty, a small British force of 150 marines landed at Murmansk on Russia’s north coast. The following month they were reinforced by a further 370 marines and, in June, 600 infantry and machine-gunners arrived.

As the force become more and more embroiled in Russian affairs, it expanded and by July 1918, the North Russia Expeditionary Force consisted of two forces of allied British, French, America, Italian Serbian and “loyal” Russian troops. The British were stationed at Murmansk (Syren Force) and Archangel (Elope Force) respectively.

Many of the men and women serving in North Russia had served in other theatres of war and were war-worn by their experiences and the climatic conditions. In North Russia, not only were they fighting the enemy, they were battling with a brutal climate and harsh environment.

The land consisted of tundra, bogs, marshes, snowclad forests, and lakes frozen hard in the winter. Combat conditions were appalling, and for those who succumbed to illness, or were injured due to enemy engagement or accidental injury, their care and transportation were highly complex. The weather and geography of the region did not allow for traditional forms of combat casualty care and evacuation to treatment facilities.

In order to deal with such a taxing environment, and prevent any deterioration in the physical and mental health of the troops, doctors from the Royal Army Medical Corps and trained nurses from the Queens Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Reserve were posted to North Russia.

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Amongst the allied force, only Britain had an organised medical service. Two main base hospitals were established at Murmansk and Archangel, both of them on ships. The Braemar Castle, built by Barclay, Curle & Co of Glasgow arrived at Murmansk in March 1918.

The ship spent nearly a year there as a Base Hospital for British and French troops. The Kalyan, berthed at Archangel was formerly a P & O liner, and was requisitioned by the War Office as a troop transporter between Britain, Egypt and Salonika then, in 1918, dispatched to North Russia. To cope with Arctic conditions, the ships had to undergo extensive alterations. Inner wooden walls were built about three inches from the ship’s side and the cavities were filled with sawdust. The glass roofs were covered with asbestos mats, radiators were installed and water pipes were wrapped in asbestos.

Internally, they were equipped as mini hospitals including operating theatres. Accommodation had to be restructured to cope with the segregation of men and women living and working on board the berthed ships.

Prior to the departure of the Kalyan, the refitted ship was visited by the Marchioness of Bute who, it was said, was most impressed by the new hospital wards, operating theatre and X-ray room.

Such a difficult and trying expedition required experience, skill, tenacity and compassion. Not only were the medical and nursing staff dealing with the troops, they also delivered much needed care to the local, impoverished and brutalised population.

The whole business of conducting military operations in such a hostile climate required the appropriate clothing and transportation systems to be devised.

The polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton was appointed as an adviser to the Expeditionary Force. Having returned from the Endurance Expedition in May 1917, Shackleton was gazetted as a temporary Major and joined the Syren Force at Murmansk. His task was to organise and advise on winter equipment, clothing, sledges and the use of dogs. He was joined by friends from the Endurance expedition, Alexander Macklin, Leonard Hussey, Frank Worsley and Joseph Stenhouse, the Chief Officer of the polar ship Aurora.

The stationed troops faced multiple operational and personal difficulties. The vastness of the tundra produced significant difficulties for the movement of troops and supplies. Casualties were evacuated on sledges, not in ambulances, and they were pulled by human endeavour or ponies. Rail travel was almost impossible because of the effects of freezing temperatures on the main Petrograd-Murmansk rail line. Insanitary conditions, particularly around inhabited villages and towns, increased the risk of infections. Influenza, intestinal disease such as typhoid and respiratory problems were the main medical conditions. Battle casualties were low compared to other theatres of war. In fact, the main treatment issues were not combat related.

There were emotional difficulties, not always associated with homesickness or worrying about families back home. Due to the nature of the internecine conflict, troops and individuals witnessed atrocities. One naval officer wrote in his diary about the sexual enslavement of women, live burials and mutilated bodies. One group of British PoWs was made to watch the torture and butchering of men and women.

However, the prevalence of psychiatric conditions was low with very few cases of neurasthenia/shell-shock. There were cases of depression recorded but these were attributed to the Arctic winter’s long dark nights with little daylight time. Much was made of encouraging the troops to engage in snow recreation, such as tobogganing and ice skating. Apparently, skiing was for officers only.

Recreation huts were built with the attendant books, games and impromptu concerts. There were also letters from home. However, there was a restriction of alcohol, especially whisky. Russian troops invariably drank their spirits undiluted and military high command was concerned that other troops learned by example.

The North Russia campaign was like no other. British and Dominion troops incurred 10,475 casualties before pulling out on 12 October 1919, as post-war peace treaties were negotiated in Paris. After four years of war, many lessons were learned about the management, treatment and welfare of troops. But the environment and nature of the conflict in Russia called for a whole new mind-set and skills development. It is a credit to the men and women who, having previously served in other theatres of war, so readily adapted to the extreme demands of the North Russia campaign. Their strength is testament to the indominatabilty of the human spirt.

Professor Yvonne McEwen, War and Conflict Studies. Wolverhampton University