With the “Die-Hards” in Siberia
By Col. John Ward
C.B., C.M.G., M.P.
With Eight Plates
To MY COMRADES
OFFICERS, N.C.O.s AND MEN OF THE
18th, 19th, 25th AND 26th BATTALIONS OF THE MIDDLESEX REGIMENT
who, on sea and land, in sunshine and snow, so worthily upheld the traditional gallantry and honour of their people and country
Originally written for the private use of my sons in case I did not return, this narrative of events connected with the expedition to Siberia must of necessity lack many of the necessary elements which go to make a history. I wrote of things as they occurred, and recorded the reasons and motives which prompted the participants. Many things have happened since which seem to show that we were not always right in our estimate of the forces at work around us. Things are not always what they seem, and this is probably more evident in the domain of Russian affairs than in any other. It would have been comparatively easy to alter the text and square it with the results, but that would have destroyed the main value of the story.
The statesman and the soldier rarely write history; it is their misfortune to make it. It is quite easy to be a prophet when you know the result. You can, as a rule, judge what a certain set of people will do in a certain set of circumstances, but where you deal with State policy which may be influenced by events and circumstances which have not the remotest connection with the question involved, it is impossible to give any forecast of their conduct on even the most elementary subject.
The recent tragic events played out in the vast domain of Siberia are a case in point. It is certain that Admiral Koltchak would never have gone to Siberia, nor have become the head of the constitutional movement and government of Russia, if he had not been advised and even urged to do so by the Allies. He received the most categorical promises of whole-hearted support and early Allied recognition before he agreed to take up the dangerous duty of head of the Omsk Government. Had these urgings and promises been ungrudgingly performed a Constituent Assembly would be now sitting at Moscow hammering out the details of a Federal Constitution for a mighty Russian Republic or a parliamentary system similar to our own.
On the declaration of the Koltchak Government, General Denikin, General Dutoff, General Hovart, and the North Russian Governments made over their authority to Omsk. There was at once a clear issue–the Terrorist at Moscow, the Constitutionalist at Omsk. Had the Allies at this juncture translated their promises into acts, from what untold suffering Russia and Europe might have been saved!
The mere act of recognition would have created a wonderful impression on the Russian mind, in addition to giving the Allies a lever by which they could have guided the course of events and stabilised the Baltic. It would have given security to Russian finance, and enabled trade relations to have commenced with the wealthiest part of the Russian dominions.
The reconstruction of Russia, about which the Allies talk so glibly, would have gone forward with a bound by natural means, which not even Allied bungling could have prevented. The Omsk Government could have got money on better terms than any of the Allies, because, accepted within the comity of nations, it could have given better security than any of them, even including America. Europe would have been fed, Russia would have been clothed, and the world would have been saved from its greatest tragedies. All this and more would have naturally followed from the barest performance of our promises.
We did worse than this. Breach of promise is only a negative crime. The Allies went to the other extreme; their help took the form of positive wilful obstruction. The Japanese, by bolstering up Semianoff and Kalmakoff, and the Americans, by protecting and organising enemies, made it practically impossible for the Omsk Government to maintain its authority or existence. The most that could be expected was that both would see the danger of their policy in time to avert disaster. One did; the other left when the evils created had got beyond control. Koltchak has not been destroyed so much by the acts of his enemies as by the stupidity and neglect of his Allied friends.
As the Bolshevik rabble again sweeps over Siberia in a septic flood we hear again the question: “How can they do so unless they have a majority of the people behind them?” I answer that by asking: “How did a one-man government exist in Russia from ‘Ivan the Terrible’ to Nicholas II?” Both systems are autocratic; both exist by the same means–“Terror.” There is, however, this difference. The autocracy of the Tsars was a natural product from an early form of human society. The Bolshevik autocracy is an unnatural product, and therefore carries within itself the seed of its own destruction. It is an abortion, and unless it rapidly changes its character cannot hope to exist as a permanent form of organised society. It is a disease which, if we cannot attack, we can isolate until convalescence sets in. There is, however, the possibility that the patient during the progress of the malady may become delirious and run amok; for these more dangerous symptoms it would be well for his neighbours to keep watch and guard. This madness can only be temporary. This great people are bound to recover, and become all the stronger for their present trials.
1. FROM HONG-KONG TO SIBERIA
2. BOLSHEVIK SUCCESSES
3. JAPAN INTERVENES
4. THE BATTLE OF DUKOVESKOIE AND KRAEVESK 5. JAPANESE METHODS AND ALLIED FAR-EASTERN POLICY 6. ADMINISTRATION
7. FURTHER INCIDENTS OF OUR JOURNEY 8. BEYOND THE BAIKAL
10. ALONG THE URALS
11. WHAT HAPPENED AT OMSK
12. THE CAPTURE OF PERM: THE CZECHS RETIRE FROM THE FIGHTING 13. THE DECEMBER ROYALIST AND BOLSHEVIST CONSPIRACY 14. A BOMBSHELL FROM PARIS AND THE EFFECT 15. MORE INTRIGUES
16. RUSSIAN LABOUR
17. MY CAMPAIGN
18. OMSK RE-VISITED
19. IN EUROPEAN RUSSIA
20. MAKING AN ATAMAN
21. HOMEWARD BOUND
22. AMERICAN POLICY AND ITS RESULTS 23. JAPANESE POLICY AND ITS RESULTS
24. GENERAL CONCLUSIONS
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
COL. JOHN WARD, C.B., C.M.G., M.P. _Frontispiece_
LANDING OF THE 25TH MIDDLESEX AT VLADIVOSTOK
ALLIED COMMANDERS IN FRONT OF HEADQUARTERS AT VLADIVOSTOK
GEN. DETRIKS (CZECH) AND COL. WARD AFTER THE ALLIED COUNCIL at VLADIVOSTOK
A CONFERENCE OUTSIDE HEADQUARTERS WAGON.
COL. WARD AND THE CZECH LEADER (COL. STEPHAN) EXAMINING THE USSURIE FRONT
BRITISH PARADE AT OMSK
RUSSIAN HEADQUARTERS “STAFFKA,” OMSK
BRITISH STAFF AND C.O.’s WAGON
ARRIVAL OF THE BRITISH AT IRKUTSK
WITH THE “DIE-HARDS” IN SIBERIA
FROM HONG-KONG TO SIBERIA
The 25th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment had already such a record of travel and remarkable experiences to its credit that it was in quite a matter-of-fact way I answered a summons from Headquarters at Hong-Kong, one morning in November, 1917, and received the instruction to hold myself and my battalion in readiness to proceed to a destination unknown. Further conferences between the heads of departments under the presidency of the G.O.C., Major-General F. Ventris, revealed that the operations of the battalion were to be conducted in a very cold climate, and a private resident at tiffin that day at the Hong-Kong Club simply asked me “at what date I expected to leave for Vladivostok?”
The preparations were practically completed when orders to cease them were received from the War Office at home, followed by a cable (some time in January, 1918) to cancel all orders relating to the proposed expedition. So we again settled down in Far Eastern home quietly to await the end of the war, when we hoped to return to the Great Old Country and resume the normal life of its citizens.
Things remained in this condition until June, 1918, when we were suddenly startled by an order to call upon the half of my battalion stationed at Singapore to embark on the first ship available and join me at Hong-Kong. This seemed to suggest that the truly wonderful thing called “Allied Diplomacy” had at last made up its mind to do something. After a great deal of bustle and quite unnecessary fuss the whole battalion embarked on the _Ping Suie_ on a Saturday in July, 1918.
It should be remembered that my men were what were called “B one-ers,” and were equipped for the duty of that grade; but, after our arrival at Hong-Kong, Headquarters had called in most of our war material to replenish the dwindling supplies of this most distant outpost of the British Empire. Very little information could be gathered as to the kind of duty we might expect to be called upon to perform, and the ignorance of the Staff as to the nature of the country through which we were to operate was simply sublime. Added to this, most of the new material with which we were fitted was quite useless for our purpose. Those things which had been collected on the first notice of movement in 1917 had been dispersed, and the difficulty of securing others at short notice was quite insurmountable.
The voyage was not remarkable except that one typhoon crossed our track not ten miles astern, and for eighteen miles we travelled alongside another, the heavy seas striking the ship nearly abeam, and causing her to roll in a very alarming manner. The troops had a very uncomfortable time, and were glad to sight the coast of Korea and the calm waters of the Sea of Japan.
At Hong-Kong many of the men, including myself, had suffered much from prickly heat, which had developed in many cases into huge heat boils. It was very strange how rapidly these irruptions cured themselves directly we reached the cool, clear atmosphere of the coast of Japan.
Elaborate preparations had been made for our reception, insomuch that we were the first contingent of Allied troops to arrive at Vladivostok. Two Japanese destroyers were to have acted as our escort from the lighthouse outside, but they were so busy charting the whole coastline for future possibilities that they forgot all about us until we had arrived near the inner harbour, when they calmly asked for our name and business. Early next morning, August 3, they remembered their orders and escorted us to our station at the wharf, past the warships of the Allied nations gaily decorated for the occasion.
At 10 A.M. a battalion of Czech troops, with band and a guard of honour from H.M.S. _Suffolk_, with Commodore Payne, R.N., Mr. Hodgson, the British Consul, the President of the Zemstrov Prava, and Russian and Allied officials, were assembled on the quay to receive me. As I descended the gangway ladder the Czech band struck up the National Anthem, and a petty officer of the _Suffolk_ unfurled the Union Jack, while some of the armed forces came to the present and others saluted. It made quite a pretty, interesting and immensely impressive scene. The battalion at once disembarked, and led by the Czech band and our splendid sailors from the _Suffolk_, and accompanied by a tremendous crowd of people, marched through the town to a saluting point opposite the Czech Headquarters, where parties of Czech, Cossack and Russian troops, Japanese, American and Russian sailors were drawn up, all of whom (except the Japanese) came to the present as we passed, while Commodore Payne took the salute for the Allied commanders, who were all present.
Our barracks were outside the town at Niloy-ugol; they were very dirty, with sanitary arrangements of the most primitive character, though I believe the local British authorities had spent both time and money in trying to make them habitable. The officers’ accommodation was no better, I and my Staff having to sleep on very dirty and smelly floors. A little later, however, even this would have been a treat to a weary old soldier.
On August 5 I attended the Allied commanders’ council. There were many matters of high policy discussed at this meeting, but one subject was of intense interest. General Detriks, the G.O.C. of the Czech troops, gave in reports as to the military situation on the Manchurian and Ussurie fronts. The conditions on the Manchurian front were none too good, but those on the Ussurie front could only be described as critical, and unless immediate help could be given a further retirement would be forced upon the commander, who had great difficulty with his small forces in holding any position. The Ussurie force had recently consisted of some 3,000 indifferently armed Czechs and Cossacks. The day I landed a battle had been fought, which had proved disastrous, and resulted in a hurried retirement to twelve versts to the rear of Kraevesk. The Allied force, now reduced to about 2,000 men, could not hope to hold up for long a combined Bolshevik, German and Magyar force of from 18,000 to 20,000 men. The Bolshevik method of military organisation,–namely, of “Battle Committees,” which decided what superior commands should be carried out or rejected–had been swept away and replaced by the disciplined methods of the German and Austrian officers, who had now assumed command. Should another retirement be forced upon the Ussurie forces, it could be carried out only with great loss, both of men and material. The next position would be behind Spascoe, with Lake Hanka as a protection on the left flank and the forest on the right. If this could not be held, then the railway junction at Nikolsk would be endangered, with the possibility of the communications being cut with other forces operating along the Transbaikal Railway and at Irkutsk. Under these circumstances the council decided that there was nothing left but to ask for authority from the War Office to send my battalion forward at once to the Ussurie front to render what assistance was possible. I naturally pointed out that my battalion was composed of B1 men, most of whom had already done their “bit” on other fronts, and that a few weeks before I had had about 250 General Service men in my ranks, but on a blundering suggestion of the G.O.C. at Singapore they had been taken from my unit and transferred to others doing garrison duty in India. I had protested against this at the time, but had been over-ruled by London, so that my command was reduced to men of the lowest category. However, after making this statement I informed the council that in view of the desperate circumstances in which the Ussurie force was placed I would render every assistance in my power.
About 2 P.M. Commodore Payne, R.N., came to my quarters and showed me a paraphrased cable he had received from the War Office. The cable authorised the immediate dispatch of half my battalion to the front, subject to the approval of the commanding officer. It seems to me they might have plucked up courage enough to decide the matter for themselves, instead of putting the responsibility upon the local commander. As it was left to me, however, I gave the necessary orders at once. That very night, August 5, I marched through Vladivostok to entrain my detachment. It consisted of 500 fully equipped infantry and a machine-gun section of forty-three men with four heavy-type maxims. Leaving my second in command, Major F.J. Browne, in charge of the Base, I marched with the men with full pack. The four miles, over heavy, dirty roads, were covered in fair time, though many of the men became very exhausted, and at the end of the march I found myself carrying four rifles, while other officers carried packs in addition to their own kit.
The train was composed of the usual hopeless-looking Russian cattle-trucks for the men, with tiers of planks for resting and sleeping on. A dirty second-class car was provided for the Commanding Officer and his Staff, and a well-lighted first-class bogey car of eight compartments for the British Military Representative, who was merely travelling up to see the sights. When I got to the front I found a first-class car retained by every little officer who commanded a dozen Cossacks, but I proudly raised the Union Jack, to denote the British Headquarters, on the dirtiest and most dilapidated second-class contraption that could be found on the line. But of course we meant business; we were not out for pleasure.
I was advised before I started from Vladivostok that Nikolsk, the junction of the Manchurian and Central Siberian Railways, was the most important strategical point on the South Siberian end of the line, and that though the position on the Ussurie was pretty hopeless and retirement might take place at any moment, we were not in any circumstances to retire below Nikolsk. The place to which we were to retire and take up a new position had been already decided–a line just below Spascoe, with Lake Hanka on the left and a line of forest-covered mountains on the right.
We arrived at Nikolsk in the early morning, but the platform was crowded with inhabitants and two guards of honour, Czech and Cossack, with band, which mistook “Rule Britannia” for the National Anthem. I was introduced to all the officers, the British Vice-Consul, Mr. Ledwards, and his energetic wife. Breakfast was served to the men by the other corps, and my officers received the hospitality of the good Consul and Mrs. Ledwards. Then a march through the town, to show the inhabitants that the long-sought-for Allied assistance had really arrived at last.
It appears that a very sanguine French officer had travelled over the line some months previously and had made lavish promises of Allied support, which accounts, perhaps, for my previous orders received at Hong-Kong towards the end of 1917. The Allies had decided to make a much earlier effort to reconstruct the Russian line against their German enemies, but, like all Allied efforts, their effective action had been frustrated by divided counsels and stupid national jealousy.
It was the prospect of Falkenhayn, with the huge army of half a million men, flushed with its recent easy victory over Rumania, being freed for employment on the French front, that caused our hurried over-late expedition to Siberia. If the effort had been made at the right time the Russian people and soldiery would not have become so demoralised and hopeless as they had when I arrived, and millions of lives would have been saved from untold tortures. A famous statesman once sternly admonished his colleagues for their fatal policy of doing nothing until it was too late; in this case he himself is open to the same censure.
At Nikolsk had recently been fought an important battle between the Czechs and the Terrorists, and we were shown a series of photographs of horribly mutilated Czech soldiers who had fallen into the hands of the Bolshevik army as prisoners of war. By a section of people at home the Bolsheviks are thought to be a party of political and democratic idealists, but when one is brought face to face with their work they are then proved to be a disgusting gang of cut-throats, whose sole business in life appears to be to terrorise and rob the peasant and worker and make orderly government impossible.
We received equally warm welcomes at many other stations, and at length we arrived at Svagena, which is the last fairly large town before Kraevesk, the station without a town, and very near the range of hostile artillery. Here quite a full-dress programme was gone through by the Czech band and the Czech and Cossack soldiers, ending with a short march past, and speeches by the English and Russian commanders. My speech was made along the lines of my instructions, which were mostly to this effect: We Britishers had entered the territory of Holy Russia not as conquerors, but as friends. The Bolshevik power had made a corrupt and dishonourable compact with their German masters, by which the territories of their Motherland, Russia, had been torn from her side, and a huge indemnity wrung from her people. Under German pressure the Bolshevik Soviet power had armed the released German and Austrian prisoners of war, and by means of this alien force was terrorising the Russian people and destroying the country. The Allies looked upon the Bolshevik power as a mere hireling branch of the autocratic German menace, and as such the enemies of British and Russian democracy alike. We came to help, resurrect and reconstruct the orderly elements of Russian life, and promised that if they would join us in this crusade, we would never cease our efforts till both our enemies were utterly defeated. And here the soldiers of the two nations made their pact, and though it was not an official utterance it had official sanction. My troops retired to quarters at Spascoe, which I had made my forward base.
Next morning, August 7, with my interpreter, Lieutenant Bolsaar, I visited Kraevesk, and had a long consultation with the commander at the front, Captain Pomerensiv. I personally examined the line right up to the outposts, and eventually it was decided that I would send forward 243 men with four maxims to take up a position towards what I considered to be the threatened part of our right flank. As I was senior officer, Captain Pomerensiv handed the command of this front over to me, promising all help.
Once in the saddle I asked for intelligence reports from all directions, and found it impossible for the enemy to make a frontal attack down the narrow space of the railway, flanked as it was on both sides by impassable marshes. The enemy centre was at Shmakovka, the place from which the Czechs had been forced to retire: that day, however, he had been observed moving a company of about 180 men with three machine guns along the road towards Uspenkie, a small town situated on our extreme right front. After consultation with Captain Stephan, Czech commander, and Ataman Kalmakoff, commanding the Cossacks, I decided to take the necessary steps to destroy this recently formed outpost. Ataman Kalmakoff had that morning announced to me his intention to leave my front and make a wide detour on the right behind the hills, and join his Cossack friends at Iman. I discovered that he was dissatisfied with the lack of enterprise hitherto shown on this front, and had decided to make a raid “on his own” on the rear of the enemy. But the moment I stated my intention to mop up Uspenkie he fell into line, and forgot all about his previous ill-humour. He took up an advanced position at Olhanka, reconnoitred the Uspenkie position the next day, and unmasked the Bolshevik formation, with a loss of two horses and a Cossack badly wounded. I formed my plans on his observations.
My scheme was to advance one company of Czech troops from Khamerovka to Olhanka, the Ataman’s most forward post on my right front, where they were to prepare a small entrenched camp. I would also advance 200 infantry with two machine guns the first night from Kraevesk to Khamerovka.
The next day I ordered 200 men to entrain from Spascoe to Kraevesk to act as a reserve. They were to night march to Khamerovka, and occupy the place of my forward party, who would advance by night and join the Cossacks and Czech troops at Olhanka. I would be with the advanced group and make a daylight examination of the post to be attacked, and be joined at night by my second detachment from Khamerovka. By this means I should have had 400 British rifles, a machine-gun section of forty-three men with four maxims, a company of Czech infantry of about 200 men, and last, but by no means least, Ataman Kalmakoff with about 400 Cossack cavalry–a total of about 1,000 men. I ordered the two roads along which any reinforcements for the enemy post must pass to be patrolled at night and also closely observed during the day.
I had drawn up my plan of attack and the first stage of the operation had actually been executed, when I was brought to a sudden standstill by a piece of fussy interference.
There was no linguist in my battalion capable of speaking Russian sufficiently well for my purpose, hence I had to seek the services of an agent of the British Military Representative at “Vlady.” This agent returned to “Vlady” directly the necessary arrangements for the attack had been completed. I ought to have compelled him to remain with me, but as he appeared to favour the proposed forward movement I did not scent any danger to my purely defensive policy. He did not wait until he had reported to the Military Representative, but when only half way telegraphed from Nikolsk warning me that in his opinion this forward movement should not take place, as he had already received important information which altered the entire situation. I ignored this interference of an understraper, but a few hours later received definite instructions from the Political Representative, that I was to stand purely on the defensive, and not move an inch beyond my position. I was compelled to accept the instruction, but was disgusted with the decision. It proved to me in a forcible way what I had never realised before, how impossible it is for a man at a distance, however clever he may be, to decide a military problem, limited in locality and isolated, as was this case, from questions of public policy. When the one purpose of a force is the protection or maintenance of a limited front, only the man on the spot can be the judge of what is necessary to accomplish that purpose.
My actual plan of operations was very simple. Having assembled my force at Olhanka, I should at dusk have occupied the roads leading from Shmakovka to Uspenkie, and from Uspenkie to the monastery by cavalry, thus making it impossible for enemy reinforcements to reach the post to be attacked under the cover of night. My own troops, together with the Czech company, would have approached the position from the south, and during the hours of darkness have taken up a line within rifle- and machine-gun range. At daybreak fire would have been opened from such cover as could be obtained, and while our eight machine-gunners barraged the post, the infantry would have advanced rapidly on the south front at the same time as the Cossacks charged in from the rear. The result would have been as certain as anything in war could be, and, as since then I have met the Bolsheviks in open fight, I am convinced that this small effort might have had decisive political and military influence in Eastern Siberia. But the “politicals” in uniform are not always noted for daring, and in this case were very timid indeed, and our position grew worse from day to day.
I made the best dispositions possible in view of my cautious instructions, and soon every man, British, Czech and Cossack, was imbued with a determination to baulk the enemy’s eastward ambitions at all costs. The numbers I had brought to their assistance were nothing compared to the influence of the sight of the poor, frayed and dirty Union Jack that floated from my Headquarters, and the songs of the Tommies round the mosquito fires in the bivouac at night. These two factors together changed the whole atmosphere surrounding the valiant, ill-fed and ill-equipped Czech soldiers.
The day following the night I had fixed for the destruction of the enemy outpost two companies of enemy infantry and three guns marched out of Shmakovka as a reinforcement to the debatable position. I watched through my binoculars their slow movement along the dusty road. I judged what the enemy’s intentions were, and knew also that I was powerless to prevent them. He quickly placed his guns in position, and the following day sent a few trial shots at Kalmakoff’s position at Olhanka; after getting the range he ceased fire. About 11 P.M. the flash of guns was observed on our right, which continued until midnight. At 12.30 the field telephone informed me that the Czech company I had pushed forward, together with Kalmakoff’s Cossacks, had been shelled out of their positions at Olhanka and were retreating along the Khamerovka and Runovka roads. I disregarded the imperative instructions I had received from “Vlady” not to move, and advanced my detachment by a midnight march to occupy a position where I could protect the bridges and cover the retreat of our friends. Had I failed to perform this simple soldierly duty we should have placed ourselves in a ridiculous position in the eyes of our Russian and Czech comrades. But though I acted against orders, I think in the circumstances I was fully justified in doing so.
The Czech company retired safely behind the river at Khamerovka, and Kalmakoff’s Cossacks took up a new position at Runovka, where he could still hang on to the skirts of the enemy and keep constant observation upon his movements. I retired to a bivouac of branches and marsh grass behind “Lookout Hill,” where for a fortnight I carried on constant warfare against infected waters and millions of mosquitoes, without transport, tents, nets, or any of the ordinary equipment required by such an expedition. I admit that my ignorance of the conditions which might be expected to prevail in Siberia was colossal, but so also was that of those whose duty it was to have made themselves acquainted with the situation.
At Hong-Kong I had suggested that we might find tents useful, but the proposal was turned down, either because there was none or because they were considered quite unnecessary. I asked timidly whether I should require mosquito nets, and well remember the scorn with which the Chief of Staff greeted my question. “Who ever heard of mosquitoes in Siberia?” Well, the fact is that while there are a few in the tropics, there are swarms of these pests all over Siberia. In the tropics their size prevents them from doing much damage, except as malaria carriers. In Siberia they take the shape of big, ugly winged spiders, which will suck your blood through a thick blanket as easily as if you had nothing on. They have a knack of fixing themselves in one’s hair below the cap and raising swollen ridges round one’s head until it is painful to wear any headgear at all. In my case my wrists were puffed out level with my hands. After sleeping, one woke unable to open one’s eyes. The absence of any protection wore out the patience and nerves of the men, and the searching Bolshevik shells were accepted as a welcome diversion.
No blame was attached to my chiefs; I was fully equipped as a B1 Garrison battalion, and as such I was dispatched to Vladivostok. I was sent there to perform a certain duty, but on arrival was at once called upon to perform another of quite a different character. I had to carry out the duties of a first-line service battalion with the personnel and equipment of second grade garrison troops. Whether those with whom the order originated in London were aware of the nature of the duty I was expected to perform I do not know; but it is obviously dangerous to send British troops of any category to an actual scene of operations and expect them to stand idle, uninterested spectators of the struggles of their friends. They should either be kept away or sent ready for all emergencies.
The outflanking movement by the enemy which I had anticipated from the day I first took over the command, and which I had made my plans to counteract, was now in full swing, but so far no damage to our main position had been effected.
General Detriks visited the front and informed me that the Allied Council had chosen Major Pichon, of the French detachment which was timed to arrive next day, to take over the command of this front. After a personal inspection he expressed himself as satisfied with my dispositions and suggested that I should still retain the command, and that he would see that the decision relating to Major Pichon’s appointment was reconsidered in view of the changed conditions he now found. But I could see that a revision of the Allied Council’s resolution might affect French _amour propre_, and place both Council and commander in an anomalous position. I therefore requested General Detriks to take no steps to alter the resolution of the Allied Council, and stated that I would gladly serve under Major Pichon or any other commander elected by the Council. British prestige, I added, was too well established for such trifles to be considered when the only reason for our presence was to help our Czech and Russian friends. He, however, pointed out that it was impossible to allow a British colonel to serve under a French major, and that my command must be considered quite an independent one.
Major Pichon arrived on August 18, 1918, and I formally handed over the command. He asked me to consider myself as jointly responsible for the operations on that front, and said that we would from time to time consult together as to any action that might be necessary. I found him both polite and considerate and most anxious to meet the wishes of the several parts of his command; in fact, he was a gentleman whom it was a pleasure to meet and work with. His battalion-commander, Major Malley, was equally urbane, and together I think we made a very happy combination.
The great outstanding personality of this front was Captain Stephan, the commander of the 8th Czech Battalion. Originally a brewer of Prague, he had been compelled on the outbreak of war to join the Austrian Army. He had done his duty as a soldier of that effete Monarchy, been captured by the Russians, and while a prisoner of war had been liberated by the Revolution; he was one of the men who had organised their fellow exiles and offered their services to France and the Allied cause, believing that in the success of England’s arms was to be found the liberation of their beloved Bohemia. I asked him why he had offered his services to France, and his answer and his compatriots’ answer was always the same: “It is to great England we always look to as our saviour, but the German armies are in France, and to meet our enemies on the field of battle was, and always will be, the first ambition of every Czech soldier, for if England says we are a nation, we know we shall be.”
I must say I felt flattered by the almost childlike confidence which Pole, Czech and Russian had in the name and honour of England. We were undoubtedly the only nation represented on this front and in Siberia generally against whom not one word of suspicion was directed. I naturally expected that the prestige of France, in view of her pre-war alliance with Russia, would be very great, but from the closest observation of all ranks of Russian society I think it would be impossible to say which was most suspected in the Russian mind, France, America or Japan. The presence, however, of French soldiers, and the politeness of the French officers, may do much to generate a warmer feeling in Russia towards France. The presence of the soldiers of the Rising Sun, and the manners and general attitude of her officers towards the Siberian population, will, if persisted in, certainly result in changing fear to universal hate.
On the afternoon of his arrival an important movement of enemy forces on our right front caused Major Pichon to ride through my bivouac, when he was formally introduced to the officers and men under my command. Later he informed me that he did not consider the movement sufficiently important to make any change in our dispositions necessary. Towards dusk Captain Stephan, accompanied by his adjutant, rode up and reported an important movement of enemy forces towards Runovka, our solitary remaining position on the opposite side of the river, which formed the natural defence and limit of our right flank. Again I was asked to move forward to render such assistance as might be necessary in case our right were forced to retire across the river. We marched forward in the darkness with the flash of the Bolshevik guns lighting up the way, but as their attention was entirely directed to our outpost at Runovka, we were as safe as if we had been in Hyde Park. The Czechs have a fatal preference for woods as a site for defensive works, and they selected a wood on the left flank of the road for my position. I rejected their plan, and chose a position about two hundred yards in front of the wood at a point where the roads cross, and a fold in the ground, aided by the tall marsh grass, almost entirely hid us from the observation-post of the enemy. Millions of mosquitoes, against which we had no protection whatever, attacked us as we began to entrench, but officers and men all worked with a will, and by dawn we had almost completed what was probably the best system of field-works so far constructed on this front. How we wished we might see the enemy advance over the river and attempt to deploy within range of our rifles! He had by vigorous artillery fire driven our remaining Czech company across the river, and so had become complete master of the other side.
It was here that a second chance came to deal effectively with this attempt to outflank our entire position. A sudden dash across the bend of the river in the north-eastern corner at Khamerovka on to the unprotected line of enemy communications would have resulted in a complete frustration of the enemy plans, with a fair prospect of his decisive defeat. I even suggested this, but had to confess that I had moved forward twice, contrary to my imperative orders, and that unless I chose to run the risk of court-martial, if not dismissal, I could not join in the attack, though I would come to the rescue. This was too ambiguous for the other leaders, and the opportunity was allowed to pass.
Shortly after, I met an old tramp with his pack, and handed him over to my liaison officer. We could not very well detain him as he had already in his possession a Czech and a French passport, but afterwards I much regretted that I had not perforated his papers with a bullet as they rested in his breast pocket. He tramped along the road, and my sentries deflected his course away from the trenches, but he saw my men scattered about in the wood behind, and at daybreak the enemy artillery began to spatter the wood with a plentiful supply of shrapnel and shells. One dropped within twenty yards of myself and officers whilst at breakfast; pitching just under a tree, it lifted it into the air in a truly surprising manner. The number of shells–some of which were German make–the enemy wasted on that wood proclaimed an abundant supply of ammunition. To this persistent shelling we had nothing to reply, and at last from sheer exhaustion the enemy fire died down. With darkness he began again, and the feeble reply of three small mountain guns, which we knew were with the Runovka Cossack outpost, indicated that an attack was developing in that direction.
The unequal duel continued intermittently until 2 A.M., when a field telephone message informed me that Runovka had been abandoned, that the Czech company was retiring across our front, and that Kalmakoff’s Cossacks were retiring over the river lower down and taking up a position at Antonovka on our extreme right rear. This meant that our whole defensive positions were completely turned, and the next enemy move would place him near our lines of communication.
This, however, was not our only difficulty. Until two days previous we had been able to give an occasional shot in return for the many sent towards us; then the Bolshevik gunners found the mark on the two guns whose duty it was to prevent an advance along the railway, and our two and only field guns were called in to fill the gap, leaving the infantry without any artillery protection. I cabled to Commodore Payne, R.N., who commanded H.M.S. _Suffolk_, at Vladivostok, informing him of our critical position and asked him to send such artillery assistance as was possible. The commodore was as prompt as is expected of the Navy. In an incredibly short space of time he fitted up an armoured train with two 12-pounder Naval guns and two machine guns, and dispatched it at express speed to my assistance, with a second similar train following behind, the whole being under the command of Captain Bath, R.M.L.I. It is scarcely possible to describe the feeling of relief with which our exhausted and attenuated forces welcomed this timely aid from our ever-ready Navy. It enabled us to bring the two Czech guns into position to keep down the fire of the enemy, and gave us a sense of security in that our rear was safe in case retirement should be forced upon us. It put new heart into the men, though they never showed the slightest sign of depression in spite of their many discomforts. The British soldier certainly offers the most stolid indifference to the most unfavourable situations.
The Bolshevik leaders were not long in showing their hand. They remained silent during the following day, but at night they began to shell us from their new position in Runovka itself, selecting as the site for their two batteries the hill on which the Orthodox church stood, and using the Greek tower as their post of observation.
About 9.30 A.M. an enemy armoured train moved slowly forward from Shmakovka, followed by four others, which directed a flank fire at my position. The shells all plunked into the marsh about four hundred yards short, affording much amusement and causing many caustic Cockney comments. Next came a troop train which gave us great hopes of a real attack developing on our front, but our Naval 12-pounders on the _Suffolk’s_ armoured train began to do good practice, and a shot registered on the front enemy engine caused volumes of steam to burst from her sides, and great consternation suddenly appeared amongst the trains’ personnel. The Naval gunners did not seem inclined to lose the mark, and so the whole attempt fizzled out, and the trains steamed back to shelter.
The two old Czech field guns, which had been repaired by H.M.S. _Suffolk’s_ artificers at “Vlady,” wheeled into position behind a fold in the ground on our right rear and began a duel with the two enemy batteries at Runovka. This duel was most entertaining. The enemy artillery searched our wood and works, and the line of trees occupied by the French was plentifully sprayed with shrapnel, but they failed to locate our guns, or get anywhere near them, or indeed to cause a single casualty either to man or horse. During the night a peasant gave the guns’ position away, and in the early morning exchanges one gun came to grief. The remaining gun changed position, and the duel became still more interesting. By skilful manoeuvring the gun was got much nearer, and at once the range was obtained to a nicety. Every shot was placed so near the mark as to rouse the infantry’s obvious excitement to fever heat, and finally a shell was planted right into the enemy observation tower, setting it on fire and burning it to the ground. By placing four shells near to hand, and working like Trojans, the Czech gunners fired four shots so rapidly as to deceive the enemy into the belief that four guns were now opposing them, and after about two hours of this relay work the enemy batteries were beaten to a frazzle, and retired from the unequal contest with two guns out of action. It was simply magnificent as a display of real efficient gunnery. There is no doubt the enemy had intended to make an effort to cross the river at Runovka and that his artillery had been placed with a view to protecting the passage of his troops. The young Czech gunnery lieutenant by his stratagem with one solitary field-piece had made this plan appear impossible to the enemy commander. Never was deception more complete.
Having felt our right flank and found it too strong, the enemy continued his movement towards our right rear. He could only do this with safety by correctly anticipating our strategy. He took our measure to a military fraction. He saw that, though he offered the most tempting bait, we made no effort to move forward to snap it up, and doubtless came to the conclusion that we were chained to our positions by either dearth of numbers or military incapacity. In the last stage of his movement his communications stretched for twenty-three miles along our flank, with three posts of just over one hundred men to protect his supply trains. If the commander of that force is still alive he probably has a poor opinion of the ability of his opponents. We were ready to deal him a death-blow at any moment from the day he occupied Uspenkie until he crossed the river before Antonovka. He and his column were only saved by orders from Vladivostok.
For two days no movement was observable in the enemy lines, and it began to look as though he would or could not take full advantage of his extremely favourable position.
I had waged an unequal contest with millions of mosquitoes while trying to sleep in a field telephone hut made of rough branches and marsh grass. The Czech soldier who acted as operator had helped me as much as possible, but at last in desperation I got up and walked about until the wonderful colouring in the East heralded another glorious Siberian summer day. The bluey-purple pall had given place to a beautiful orange-tinted yellow such as I had never seen before. The sentry prodded a sleeping Tommy who had a huge black frog sitting on the highest point of his damp, dewy blanket, and a bugle glistening by his side. The sleeper awoke, and after washing his lips at the tank, sounded the soldiers’ clarion call, the “Reveille.” Instantly the whole bivouac was alive, but scarcely had the bugle notes died away when the telephone buzzer began to give forth a series of sharp, staccato sounds. The Czech operator gave a sharp ejaculation, like “Dar! Dar! Dar!” looking more serious as the sounds proceeded. He then calmly hung up the speaking-tube on the tree that supported our home and began to explain to my interpreter, Lieutenant Bolsaar, the message just received. It was that Major Pichon wished to see me at his headquarters at once in reference to the serious position of Antonovka. I mounted my horse, “Nero,” which was a beautiful present from Captain Pomerensiv on handing over his command, and soon arrived at Kraevesk and heard the full story of the surprise at Antonovka.
From Major Pichon I gathered that Ataman Kalmakoff with his Cossacks had taken up a position on the high ground in the village of Antonovka, keeping touch with the French on his left, and a company of the 5th Battalion of Czechs on his right, who guarded the road to Svagena, and that though he posted sentries in the usual way during the night, the enemy in large numbers crept between them, and when the alarm was given and Kalmakoff mounted his horse he found some thirty of his men already wounded or dead and his machine guns in enemy hands. Most of his troops were in a cul-de-sac, and had to charge a high fence and by the sheer weight of their horses break a way out. Kalmakoff with a few Cossacks tried to retake the guns with a superb charge, but though he got through himself he lost more men, amongst whom was a splendid fellow, his second in command, named Berwkoff, who was greatly loved by us all. A Magyar soldier seeing Kalmakoff with his Ataman banner borne by his side, took a point-blank shot at his head, but he forgot the high trajectory of the old Russian rifle, and the bullet merely grazed the top of the Cossack leader’s head and sent his _papaha_ into the mud. His banner-bearer could not see his leader’s cap so left, and jumped off his horse to rescue it. Raising the cap from the ground, he found himself challenged with the bayonet by the same Magyar soldier. He had no time to draw, but with a mighty sweep, sword in scabbard, he felled the Magyar to the ground; he had no time to dispatch him, and was barely able to get away.
The Czech company was retiring slowly towards Svagena, and the Cossacks, while keeping in touch with the enemy, were retiring towards the railway on our rear. This was a very startling situation, and required immediate action if we were not to be caught in a trap.
We both decided that a retirement was the only alternative to being completely surrounded.
We there and then drew up the orders necessary to secure that the retreat should be both methodical and orderly. The Czechs were to retire first, past my lines, and entrain at Kraevesk, followed by the English and the French, who were to bring up the rear, which was to be covered by the English armoured train, assisted by the machine-gun section of the Middlesex Regiment under Lieutenant King. So the evacuation of our splendid position regretfully began.
It should be remembered that directly it was decided by the Paris Council that a diversion through Russia was the surest way of relieving pressure on the French front, the English apparently decided to be first in. Though Japan was unquestionably in the most favourable position to send help quickly, she was known to have German commitments of such a character as precluded her from taking the lead in what was, at that time, more an anti-Teutonic than pro-Russian expedition. Her Press was, and had been all through the war, violently pro-German, and however much the Tokio Cabinet might wish to remain true to the Anglo-Japanese Treaty, it was forced to make a seeming obeisance to popular feeling in Japan. If it had been only an English expedition, Japan’s hand would not have been forced; but the American cables began to describe the rapid organisation by the U.S.A. of a powerful Siberian expedition, which gave the Japanese Government ample justification–even in the eyes of her pro-German propagandists–to prepare a still larger force to enable her to shadow the Americans, and do a bit of business on her own. Several months earlier Japanese suspicions had been aroused by the dispatch to Siberia of an alleged civilian railway engineering force to help Russia reorganise her railways, and the immense benefit that this force had admittedly conferred on the Far Eastern populations was acknowledged on all sides. But the very success of American enterprise in this beneficent direction had created in the minds of the Japanese a doubt as to the wisdom of allowing free play to American penetration.
Japan consequently hurried forward her preparations, and a few days after I had taken over the Ussurie command her 12th Division, under the command of General Oie, landed at Vladivostok. He at once established his headquarters at Nikolsk, and his Chief of Staff, General Kanaka, took up his position behind our lines at Svagena, using us as a screen for the deployment of his command, which had already begun.
Major Pichon informed me that he had telephoned the Japanese general at Nikolsk describing the new situation on our front, and asking him to move up sufficient forces from Svagena to protect our right. I went to my wagon to get breakfast. A little later Major Pichon informed me that the Japanese commander had asked us to suspend our retirement as he was moving up from Svagena a battery of artillery and one battalion of infantry, who would re-establish the position at Antonovka on our right rear, from which we need not fear any further danger. In consequence of this message I ordered my men to re-occupy their old positions, and by 9.30 we had carried out the orders of the Japanese commander.
Having got back into our old position, we inquired the direction of the Japanese advance that we might, if necessary, co-operate with their movement, and to our utter consternation were informed that the Japanese had not started, had no intention of doing so, and that we must take what steps were necessary for our own safety, but if we retired at all we were to fall back behind their lines and, we suppose, take no further part in the operations.
The first promise of help and its countermanding had placed us in an extremely dangerous situation. We had left our positions once, and nothing but the lack of vigilance on the part of the enemy had enabled us to reoccupy them without fighting. Our movements must have been seen, and though he had not understood them till too late to take full advantage the first time, that he would allow us to get away so easily again seemed to us to be very unlikely. In fact, it appeared as though we had been sacrificed to give a clear field for some manoeuvre or purpose which we could not understand.
Our conference was a very urgent one, and for a time Major Pichon thought it best to hang on to our positions and trust to someone making an effort for our relief. Had British or American troops been collecting in our rear, we would not have hesitated a moment to remain, for we should have been certain of immediate help.
We knew that a battalion of Czech infantry had been moved up from Svagena towards Antonovka to threaten the enemy’s outflanking columns, and that this battalion had made it a dangerous proceeding for the enemy to close in on our rear. Hence we decided to withdraw certain units to Svagena, and for the remainder to retire to a position at Dukoveskoie and make a new line from the railway through that village, thus linking up with the Czech troops who had marched to our assistance; they would thus become the extreme right of our new line.
This movement would enable the Japanese 12th Division at Svagena to continue their deployment behind our screen, and if the enemy continued his outflanking tactics would involve the Japanese in the fighting whether they willed it or not.
The retirement was carried out as arranged in perfect order, with the loss of very little material and not more than a dozen men taken prisoners. The French were the last to entrain. The whole movement was covered by the two armoured trains under the command of Captain Bath, R.M.L.I. Before retiring the bluejackets blew up the bridge on our front and otherwise destroyed the line in a very workmanlike manner. If we had been supported, the retirement would have been quite unnecessary; it was the result of lack of confidence in our Allies after the first let-down.
The new line was held as follows: On the left of the railway one company of Czech infantry; the two British armoured trains occupied the railway, and a Middlesex machine-gun battery of four maxims occupied the right, while the wooded slope leading to Dukoveskoie was held by the French, and a battalion of Japanese infantry extended beyond the village. The right of the village was very sparsely held by a reduced battalion of the 5th Czech Regiment and Kalmakoff’s Cossacks. The whole force was under the personal command of Major Pichon.
The enemy quickly repaired the bridges and the line, and within forty-eight hours his armoured trains were observed moving cautiously into Kraevesk, my old headquarters. Simultaneously his patrols advanced from Antonovka and came into touch with Kalmakoff’s scouts on the right, and three days from our retirement his advanced elements were testing our line from end to end.
On the morning of August 22 the Japanese 12th Division began to move up from Svagena to Dukoveskoie and deploy immediately behind the new line. As is usual in all Japanese tactics, they pushed their right out far beyond the enemy positions, and early in the evening began to envelop his left with their usual wide turning movement. Their right was supported by two heavy batteries, and from the centre, near Dukoveskoie church, their units, now acting as a reserve, were in position before sunset. Large bodies of Japanese troops were in bivouac immediately behind the centre of the village near their headquarters ready to deploy in either direction.
On the evening of August 22 orders were received to push forward the observation post of our armoured trains to a spot indicated, which proved to be six hundred yards ahead of our positions and near enough to be easily raided from the enemy lines. Lieutenant T.E. King, my machine-gun officer, was at the same time ordered to move forward two maxims, with a reduced company of Czech infantry in support to protect this advanced post. The night was enlivened by constant skirmishes between British and Terrorist patrols until about 8.30 A.M., when it was observed that the Japanese patrols on the right had quietly retired without giving any notice of their intention, and that the enemy were in position on the plain for an attack and had already advanced along a ridge to within a hundred yards of the outpost. The movements of the enemy were observable only from the main look-out, from which orders were already on the way gradually to withdraw the party to a position nearer the lines. Before the order could be delivered the enemy attacked. Lieutenant King proceeded to withdraw the guns alternately, working the foremost gun himself, but defective ammunition frustrated his effort. He gallantly tried to restart the gun, but the enemy were now upon him, and he had no alternative but to retire without the gun. The small Naval party in the advanced look-out were practically surrounded, but under Petty Officer Moffat, who was in charge, they managed to get out, with the enemy on their heels. This party was saved by a marine named Mitchel, who, seeing Petty Officer Moffat in difficulties, turned on his knee and faced his pursuers. Their fire was erratic, but his was cool and accurate, and after three or four rounds the Magyars kept their heads well down in the long marsh grass, which permitted the party to escape. The result of this skirmish, however, allowed the enemy armoured train to advance to a point dangerously near our defensive works, which, with a little more enterprise and determination, he might easily have enfiladed. But though the enemy train had mounted a 6-inch gun our 12-pounder Navals were too smartly handled to allow any liberties to be taken. This was the situation on the morning that the Japanese 12th Division began to deploy behind the new Allied line at Dukoveskoie.
About 3 P.M. on August 23 I asked my liaison officer, Colonel R. Antonivitch Frank, of the Russian Army, to accompany me towards the front line, as I had heard rumours of large concentrations of the enemy, who, elated with this small initial success, seemed determined to dispute our possession of the village of Dukoveskoie. I arrived in time to witness a duel between one of our armoured trains and a rather spirited fellow of the same sort on the other side. The Bolshevik shells would persist in dropping to the right of our train on a road on which Colonel Frank and I were sitting our horses, so we decided to dismount and send the animals out of range, while we boarded the train and enjoyed the contest. One of our 12-pounders went groggy and obliged us to retire slightly, but we dared not go back far, as the Terrorist train had all the appearance of following, and would soon have made short work of our infantry, which were occupying very indifferent trenches near the railway, Captain Bath saw the danger and steamed forward, firing rapidly; shells burst all round his target, and so bewildered his opponent that he soon turned tail and retired to safety. I applied to the Japanese commander, General Oie, through Major Pichon that our trains, directly it was dark, might be allowed to return to Svagena to shunt the injured gun to the rear train. About 7 P.M., while preparing to return for this purpose, a few sharp rifle-cracks were heard near the centre of the line. These reports grew rapidly in volume, and now became mixed up with the bass “pop-pop” of machine guns. The rolling sound of conflict spread from the centre along the whole right front. Till now it had been exclusively a small-arm fight. At this point the Bolshevik artillery began to chime in, followed by the Japanese and Czech batteries. The lovely Siberian summer night became one huge booming, flashing inferno, terrible but intensely attractive. The silent tree-clad mountains to right and left vibrated with the music of battle, while shell and shrapnel screeched like frightened ghouls over the valley below, where white and yellow men were proving that there is no colour bar to bravery. This din lasted about two hours, and then died away almost as rapidly as it began.
Our trains which had remained to take a hand in the business if necessary steamed slowly back to Svagena, and I turned into my wagon for the night. After the usual battle with the mosquitoes, I fell asleep, but it seemed as though I had only slept a few minutes, when a banging at the door announced a visitor, who turned out to be a Staff captain from the Japanese Headquarters with an urgent message for the Commander of the Reserves at Svagena, who with great ceremony handed me the following order of the day:
“To COLONEL WARD,
Officer Commanding Reserves.
Operation Order by
LIEUT.-GENERAL S. OIE,
Commanding 12th Division,
“_August 23, 1918._
“1. All enemy attacks were driven back to-day. We gained two machine guns and five captives.
“2. The Allied troops will attack the enemy, inflicting upon them an annihilating disaster, to-morrow, August 24.
“3. The Japanese troops will attack the enemy, starting the present line, at 3 o’clock, the 24th, morning.
“4. The reserve British, French, Kalmakoff’s forces, and a few Japanese companies will be under the command of Japanese. Colonel Inagaki will arrive at the north-western side of Dukoveskoie at 2 o’clock to-morrow morning.
“(Signed) S. OIE,
Commanding 12th Division.”
THE BATTLE OF DUKOVESKOIE AND KRAEVESK
I Looked at my watch, and called the Japanese officer’s attention to the fact that the time was 1.45 A.M., and that Dukoveskoie was four miles distant. Although he could speak perfect English, he held out his hand and with a profound bow pretended not to understand the point of my observation. It was in point of time simply impossible to arouse the British, Czech, Cossack and Japanese detachments and march four miles in the middle of the night in fifteen minutes; but I had lived long enough in the East to know that the Oriental never sets a European impossible tasks without a good reason from his own point of view. I dispatched orderlies to each detachment with definite instructions to be ready to move at once. The Japanese refused to move or even get out of their tents. The Czechs were enjoying a much-needed rest, and refused to budge, while Kalmakoff’s Cossacks remained asleep beside their horses. Ataman Kalmakoff was at Vladivostok, and his second in command was dismissed on his return for refusing to obey my orders, as the Ataman was most anxious that his men should be always in the fighting line wherever it might be. Captain Clark, M.C., reported the 25th Middlesex as ready to march, transport and all complete, twenty-five minutes after receiving the order.
To make doubly sure there was no mistake, I called personally upon the Japanese officer, who point-blank refused either to arouse or move his men in accordance with his own Headquarters’ order. I am bound to admit that from that moment I had a suspicion that the order of General Oie was so much Japanese camouflage, and that it was not intended that we should take any part in the immediate operations. I also determined to frustrate this attempt to exclude the Allies from participation, and gave the order to my own men to move.
Our road for about two miles lay alongside the railway, after which the soddened nature of the ground and the danger of losing direction in the darkness forced me to take to the railway. About a mile and a half along the track brought us to our armoured trains, where we were to pick up our Machine-Gun Section, which was to act with us if necessary, or remain as a reserve or rallying-point in case of need. Except for the sentries, the train crews were asleep, and almost within rifle range of our place of assembly. I halted my men and roused Captain Bath to inquire if he had received instructions as to his part in the coming battle. He informed me that he had received a telephone message from General Oie (through Major Pichon) which he could not understand and had asked for it to be repeated. He thereupon produced the message, which was to the effect that a battle would commence at 3 A.M., but that the British armoured trains and the British troops were not to be allowed to take any part in the impending engagement. On the production of the actual message I began to understand why the order of battle had been given to me too late for me to be at the rendezvous with Colonel Inagaki, and the refusal of the units of my command to march with me. These instructions to Captain Bath from the Japanese Headquarters explained the riddle. I gave Captain Bath instructions to move forward in my support in case of need and to watch the proceedings generally, to render aid to any Allied detachment which might be in difficulties, and otherwise to obey General Oie’s orders. This duty he performed with complete satisfaction to the commanders of the French and Czech detachments.
Having arranged my rear, the men of the 25th were ordered to move forward in file on each side of the railway track to the point selected for our rendezvous. The time was now 3.25 A.M., the dull light of dawning day enabling us to distinguish moving objects four hundred yards away. A scout came back to report the presence of cavalry on the left, but in the early morning haze we could not make out whether it was friendly or enemy. I moved my troops to the opposite side of the railway embankment and prepared to receive their charge. I then dispatched my liaison officer, Colonel Frank, forward to discover their strength and character. He quickly returned with the information that the cavalry was Japanese, moving into position on our extreme left. I re-formed my men and advanced towards my position as ordered, ninety minutes behind time. I halted and examined the ground, but saw nothing of Colonel Inagaki or any of the detachments on the spot selected for our assembly. Standing on the line, I saw the foremost enemy armoured train about four hundred yards ahead, and their outpost giving the alarm. No shot had so far been fired, but I gave the order to load. At this stage an incident happened which put an end to the hitherto silent advance of the attacking army. In the act of loading a rifle went off accidentally. The soldier to whom it belonged was standing just behind me, and I ordered Captain Browne to examine and report. In doing so the rifle again went off; it saved the man from punishment, but it began the battle. There was a puff of white smoke, and an instant later a 5-inch shell burst over our heads. The men opened out into the corn and scrub, and I dismounted while the advance continued. Taking my servant’s rifle, I led the way.
The enemy must have anticipated our rendezvous, for the place was ploughed with shells from end to end. The first pitched just under the centre of a peasant’s cottage, and in a moment cottage and peasant were no more. The heavy purple pall hung on the ground, and had we been on the spot selected, this description would have been written by other hands than mine. By the increasing light and the aid of my glasses I was able to make out the entire scheme of the advance, which was a continuous line from one mile on the left of the railway, extending to about ten miles on our right. A space of about one hundred yards on each side of the line was unoccupied–for the reason, as I afterwards learnt, that it was considered too exposed and dangerous for the purpose of an advance. Unable to find anyone to direct my movements, on my own initiative I decided to fill this vacant space, so making the line continuous, and move forward with the Japanese to the attack. Disposing my men in the shelter of the scrub on either side of the railway, I directed their movements from the centre of the track. There was an ugly moment when a maxim situated in a cornfield began to fire point-blank at a range of one hundred yards, but a Czech outpost entrenched quite near made it so hot for the gunner that after firing about 150 rounds he scooted, leaving a well-placed gun and 5,000 rounds, all belted, behind. We now advanced over the Czech and French trenches, for these forces, like our armoured trains, had been ordered to take no part in the advance. It was while near these trenches that a grey-coated Magyar, four hundred yards away, took deliberate standing aim at myself. It was a most difficult shot, and I felt quite safe, but though the Magyar missed me, he killed a Czech soldier five yards to the left, the bullet entering the centre of his forehead just over the nose. About sixty shots answered his, and he sank across the rails. When we reached him he lay, with many others, quite dead. Captain Clark picked up his rifle and bandolier, and used it with good effect upon the retreating enemy.
There is no doubt that if we had failed to get into position under the cover of darkness we should have had the greatest difficulty in making any headway along the railway except with very heavy casualties. As I have stated previously, the end car of the enemy armoured train had a 6-inch gun, but it was mounted so high that the whole platform could be swept with rifle-fire. The reason for the high mounting was to enable two machine guns to be worked along the track from the bed of the car under the heavy gun. If our advance had been observed the enemy would easily have smashed it, but we got within 400 yards before they knew we were there. By concentrating all our fire on the end of the car we swept the platform clear, perforated the body underneath with a hail of bullets so that nothing could live, and put every gun which could be brought to bear along the track out of action. By this means the apparently most dangerous point of our advancing line became the safest, and we accomplished our purpose without a single casualty. Five enemy armoured trains were on the line disputing every inch of the way, but their shrapnel was either too high or exploded so far behind the front line that, though it made havoc amongst the laggards, it had but little effect upon those who kept well to the front. The battle was now joined at all points and reaching the decisive moment.
In the centre by skilful manoeuvring, a Japanese 5-inch battery had taken up a position actually in front of the general infantry advance. Such daring deserved to succeed, and in this case it did so beyond all expectations. The point selected was a thin group of trees, which gave a view of the railway from the left, across the plain to Kraevesk, and enabled the leading enemy trains to be shelled almost from the flank. The infantry, while still going methodically forward, were receiving far too much attention to feel comfortable, and Japanese soldiers were putting tufts of grass and leaves in front of their caps to hide the red band, which made an excellent target for riflemen and machine-gunners. Occasionally one would rub a handful of mud around the tell-tale band; experience soon taught the Japanese soldiers the dangers of a little colour. It was just ding-dong open fighting, wonderfully spectacular in character. Then a shell burst plunk under the line behind the two foremost enemy trains, which made retreat for them impossible. Desperate efforts were made to repair the line, but well-directed rifle and light machine-gun fire made this impracticable. Another well-placed shell dropped just under the gunners’ quarters on the front train, and instantly the car was enveloped in flames. In turn the fire spread to the gun-carriage, which had become untenable from rifle-fire. This proved a complete catastrophe for the enemy, who from positions on our extreme left and centre had a full view of the slaughter around the doomed trains. Their nerves were completely shattered, their fire became spasmodic and erratic, and then among the trees on a hill to the left appeared a white flag.
That flag was too late. The Japanese cavalry shot out in file as a straight extension of our left. Having come parallel with the farthest group of resistance, they right turned, and instantly swept up the slope in a beautiful line and forward over all resistance, white flag and all. They took no prisoners.
My men were only “B one-ers,” and the pace was beginning to tell; still they were leading, owing to the fact that our advance was along the railway and the usual tracks at the side, while the Japanese had to contend with the marshes and woods farther away. I therefore ordered a rally, and advanced only with such troops as could be reasonably expected to keep the line. This party numbered about sixty, and included Captain Clark, the Padre (Captain Roberts), Lieutenant Buckley, my Czech interpreter (Vladimir), Regimental Sergt.-Major Gordon, Sergeant Webb (who, I am sorry to say, died a few days later at Spascoe), Colonel Frank (my liaison officer), and rank and file. With this party we advanced within fifty yards of part of the burning train, amid a shower of debris from the exploding shells stored in its magazine. The second train looked quite deserted, and therefore, beyond examining the ammunition cart of a 5-inch gun left derelict on the road and counting ten rounds of unfired ammunition, we passed without molestation up the railway embankment on the way to Kraevesk.
We had passed the trains and left them about two hundred yards in our rear when we were startled by rapid rifle-fire behind us. On looking round, we were astonished to see spiteful jets of rifle-fire issuing from both sides of the uninjured train directed against thick bunches of Japanese troops who were passing along the track over which we had just advanced. Even the Eastern temperament has limits to its serenity. For a moment the Japs were completely off their guard, but they soon recovered, and dropping flat in the grass, they opened a brisk fusillade. The Magyars were protected by the plated sides of their wagons, and were making sad havoc amongst the soldiers of the Rising Sun. Taking in the situation at a glance, a Japanese officer gave the order to charge. Every man instantly bounded forward, and, like a disturbed nest of ants, they swarmed all over the train, stabbing, clubbing and bayoneting every Bolshevik they could get at, tossing their dead enemies out of the carriages off their bayonets with the same motion as if they were shovelling coal. Then they posted a sentry on the highest part of each train, and the gun in the road, and called them their “trophies of war.” My great regret was that no Bolshevik was left alive to tell us the reason why they allowed about sixty English officers and soldiers to pass unmolested at point-blank range of about forty yards, and only began to fire when the Japanese soldiers came under their rifles. Many explanations were given at the time, none of which seemed to be quite satisfactory, so the mystery remains.
It was here that a polite request was made that the British detachment should not keep so far ahead of the other troops, but I was anxious to keep well ahead for an important reason. The Bolsheviks had ravaged and tortured both young and old, rich and poor, male and female throughout the country till their very name stank in the nostrils of the common people. Their blood lust had been so great that when they had no Russian peasant to torture they fell back on the poor unfortunate Czech soldiers who had fallen into their hands as prisoners of war. Many authentic cases of this kind are so revolting in character that it is better to keep them in the dark rather than advertise how fiendishly cruel men can be to one another. I knew that the Czechs had threatened to retaliate. The incident of the white flag previously recorded may have had something to do with the same sentiment, though I can scarcely think it had. I decided, however, that the more humane rules of war should apply so far as I was concerned, and I soon had a chance of making a demonstration of my views before the whole army. A fugitive Bolshevik soldier had escaped from the Japanese cavalry, and started to make his way across our left front in an attempt to join the retreating Bolshevik trains. Exhausted by the heavy going of the marsh, he had dropped for cover and rest. The Japanese line was fast approaching the spot where he had taken shelter, so he raised himself from the grass and began to run. I levelled my servant’s rifle, but misjudged the distance, and he took no notice. I took aim at a point over his head, and he dropped in the grass so suddenly that Colonel Frank thought I had killed him. As we approached the spot his black hair showed up above the green, and I took aim again, but did not fire. I informed Colonel Frank I wanted the man, if he would surrender, to be an example of how a prisoner of war should be treated. Colonel Frank shouted to the man to surrender. The man shouted back that the Japanese killed all prisoners. He was then informed that I was an English officer, and if he would surrender I guaranteed his life unless he had committed some greater crime than merely fighting as a Bolshevik soldier. He made no further parley, but almost ran to me as for protection. I was standing on the embankment, in full view for miles, and it was easy for the whole incident to be seen. I took his rifle, with fixed bayonet, and bandolier and fifty rounds from him. His papers showed him to be a demobilised Russian soldier. I placed him under a guard of two men with orders to see him safely to the rear. Time after time demands were made to his guards to allow the murder of the prisoner. But those two British bayonets made his life as safe as though he had been in Trafalgar Square. I could tell by the atmosphere which the incident created that our Allies thought this regular conduct wholly out of place on a battlefield, but it fulfilled its purpose, and surrenders were accepted during the further operations.
Our progress was now very rapid, and except for a few bursts of shrapnel which continued to fly harmlessly over the front ranks and injure such as were far behind, we approached our old station, Kraevesk, easily. As to the method from the military point of view of approaching this place, the less said about it the better. A single company of British troops would have held up the whole show and inflicted losses on the attackers out of all proportion to the object gained. The stuffing, however, was completely knocked out of the Bolshevik army, and the advance took more the form of beaters driving big game. Having previously reconnoitred the whole ground, I again chose the railway for my party. The Japanese swarmed up through the wooded slope on the right. I chose the railway because I knew the shallow cutting had a slight curve which would give a safe line of approach to the station, situated about three hundred yards behind this low-lying hill. The Japs advanced through the wood in masses, huge bunches of men without regular formation. On rounding the curve, I saw an enemy armoured train about four hundred yards distant. A Bolshevik officer walked leisurely out of our old headquarters and put one foot on the step of the engine, looking straight at myself standing on the line. I drew a bead on him with Lance-Corporal’s Moorman’s rifle. I do not believe I hit him, but I was near enough to make him skip quickly into the engine shelter. A flash from the leading gun, and a 2-inch shell passed so close to my head that I fell into the four-foot way, and felt the top of my skull to find out if it was still there. This shell exploded about one hundred yards behind me and mortally wounded two Japanese and injured several others. The machine guns on the train now swept the wood, where the Japs were advancing, with such effect that for a few moments there was a regular stampede back over the brow of the hill. My party had taken cover in the scrub on the left, and I crawled on hands and knees in their direction. I found a deep dyke at the foot of the cutting covered with high weeds, and into this I rolled. Gradually raising my head over the thistles, I potted rapidly at the gunner, and my party did the same.
The Japs by this time had recovered from their first shock, and began to open fire on the train, which steamed slowly back to the far end of the station, when it came to a standstill and pumped shrapnel along our front. We had got far ahead of our artillery, so it became a contest of rifle versus armoured train. On the left of the station was a thick log store, and keeping that between ourselves and the armoured train, we crept into the station and began to fire at close range at the gunners, whose heads appeared above the sides of the armoured carriages. The Japanese used a red brick cottage for a similar purpose on the other side, while others tried to outflank the train and cut off its retreat. The officer in charge detected this manoeuvre, and, using all his guns, he retired behind the hill, and later was reported as steaming towards Shmakovka. We took possession of the station, and near our old headquarters found a hut in which was the Bolshevik officers’ breakfast, with potatoes cooked to a nicety on the fire. These were looted by Colonel Frank and Sergeant-Major Gordon. The sun was very hot–the time was about 8.30 A.M.–we had fought over very difficult country for twelve miles, and as we sat on the crossing of the railway the potatoes were very good. By some hopeless blunder the Japanese cavalry had been ordered to close in from the flank on this station instead of the next, so we lost the huge bag of prisoners which was waiting to be captured. The Jap cavalry commander sat down and sampled my potatoes, but he lost the culminating stroke of the whole movement. This small minor action proved to be one of the most decisive of the war, as it destroyed the whole Terrorist army east of the Urals.
I was ordered by General Otani to remain in reserve, and returned to my base at Svagena to find the proverbial luck of my battalion had been maintained. The Japs had over six hundred casualties, some of which occurred close to my men, but not a man of the 25th was hit. We had many cases of complete prostration, but, in view of the category of my unit, not more than was to be expected considering the strenuous month’s work they had undergone. One and all behaved like Englishmen–the highest eulogy that can be passed upon the conduct of men.
General Oie sent a letter of special thanks to the Commanding Officer of the British unit for their great services in the engagement. At 4.25 P.M., August 28, I received the following communication from the General Headquarters:
“1. On August 26 the Division had occupied the heights situated at the north of Shmakovka. The inhabitants reported the enemy had left there between nine and twelve on the night of August 24 by eleven trains, strength of which was about 5,000 men; 2,000 men retired by road from Uspenkie. The Division bivouacked at Shmakovka.
“2. On the 27th the enemy continued their retreat to the north of the River Ussurie, and no enemy could be seen to the south of it, though nine railway bridges out of ten between Shmakovka and Ussurie had been destroyed. Damage done is some ten metres each, and a few days would be required to repair them. The Ussurie railway bridge is not damaged, and on the night of the 26th, after a small detachment had occupied it, one company of infantry reinforced. Against the enemy on Lake Hanka, which was known to have gone down the river with gunboats, one company of infantry has been dispatched to the right bank of Ussurie east of Shmakovka.
“3. The Division remains at the present position, and prepares to move forward on the 28th.”
This completed the Ussurie operations, for the battle was absolutely decisive. The enemy were entirely demoralised, and never made another stand east of Lake Baikal.
JAPANESE METHODS AND ALLIED FAR-EASTERN POLICY
The Japanese, for their own peculiar reasons, as will have already appeared, had decided in the early stages of the operations that the maritime provinces were their special preserve. They looked with the greatest suspicion upon the forces and efforts of the other Allies, especially British and American, and by their orders tried deliberately to exclude them from their counsels and as far as possible from the administration of the territory recovered from the Terrorists. The 27th Battalion of American Infantry had landed at Vladivostok a few days before the battle of Dukoveskoie, and promises were made that they should be hurried forward to take a share in the fighting; but the Japanese, who controlled the railway, saw to it that they arrived a day late. Instead of pushing them ahead, they were detrained at Svagena, and then entrained again from day to day, always about fifty versts behind the Japanese front. In addition the Japanese never trusted their Allies. No order to the Japanese Army was ever given to the Allied commanders until the operation had been carried out or had got to such a stage as to make it impossible for them to take part or offer suggestions.
Captain Stephan (now Major), of the Czech Army, and myself knew every road and track from Shmakovka to Svagena, and were certain that with proper care the whole enemy force on the Ussurie front could have been destroyed or captured. The Japanese would neither consult nor inform any of their Allies about any movement until it had taken place. They treated the Czech commanders with the most scant courtesy; the English officers’ carriages were invaded by their private soldiers, who would insolently ask what business we had in Siberia and when did we propose to go home; but they reserved their most supreme contempt for the Russian people. These poor wretches they drove off the railway platforms, using the butts of their rifles upon the women as well as the men, just as though they were dealing with a tribe of conquered Hottentots. I did not understand this behaviour on the part of our Eastern Ally, and felt it could only be the irresponsible bullying of a few individual men and officers. Later on I found it to be the general policy of the Japanese Army to treat everybody as inferior to themselves; they had learnt this Hun lesson to a nicety.
I give two instances which are neither glaring nor isolated, but of which no doubt official record remains. I was standing on Nikolsk platform waiting for a train; there was a crowd of Russian people, and a Japanese sentry was standing near. This man quite suddenly darted forward and jammed the butt of his rifle in the centre of a Russian officer’s back; the force of the blow knocked him flat on the floor in such pain that he rolled about for a few minutes, while the Jap, grinning, held his bayonet at the “On guard!” Though there were many standing near, not one Russian had the pluck to shoot him, and not wishing to mix myself up in the affair, I took no action, but watched further developments. Ten minutes later another Jap sentry repeated the performance, but this time the victim was a well-dressed Russian lady. So cowed were the Russian people that even her friends were afraid to help her. I stepped forward to offer assistance, with the Jap standing over me; when, however, he saw my revolver he put up his bayonet, but continued to laugh as though it was a huge joke. A few Tommies were attracted to the spot, and the Jap saw that things were beginning to take a serious turn. I proceeded to the Japanese Headquarters, situated in a carriage near by, and reported the occurrence. The officer seemed astonished that I should interfere on behalf of mere Russians, who he said may have been Bolsheviks for all he knew, and inquired whether the sentry had ever treated me so. I answered that “the first Japanese that touches an English officer or soldier in my presence will be a dead man.” This seemed to surprise the Japanese officer, who pointed out that the Japanese were in occupation of Siberia, and were entitled to do what they liked. I had to inform him that the Japanese were acting in alliance with the other Powers, including Russia; that we were here as the friends of the Russian people, and not as their conquerors. This he would or could not understand. I ended the interview by warning him that if his sentries were not instructed to behave a little less like savages, there would be an end to those sentries’ careers. I later heard that the interview did good, but could not in the case of Japanese troops do more than slightly mitigate their behaviour to the defenceless Russian inhabitants.
That is merely a type of their conduct towards ordinary people. There is, however, one excuse for them: given the right circumstances, they treat all alike. A battalion commander was not quite the sort of material to operate upon, for the simple reason that he was usually surrounded with sufficient force to secure proper respect, but a general without a powerful escort was always fair sport for their gentle attentions. Not even the chief of the British Military Mission could hope to escape from the most insulting behaviour. An incident placed my unit in charge of a part of the telegraph system, which enabled me to handle personally the sort of message which entered the Japanese Headquarters relative to a special train that was approaching their station. I handled the message myself. It ran as follows:
“A special train, No. ………, will enter your section at ……… time; it conveys the chief of the British Military Mission, General ………, and Staff from Vladivostok to Ufa for important conference with General Surovey, the Commander-in-Chief of the Czech and Russian Armies. You will please give ‘line clear’ throughout the journey.” Did the Japanese give “line clear” throughout? That will never be the way that this highly efficient and interesting little people will do anything, if their army is a sample of the whole. They stopped the train, and boarded it with a squad of men with fixed bayonets. They insulted the chief of the British Mission by placing him and his Staff under arrest, and then proceeded to make elaborate inquiries to find out whether they were not German emissaries in disguise. The impudence of the whole proceeding was so remarkable and yet characteristic that when the Staff of the General reported the occurrence to me I did not for a moment know whether I should die with rage or laughter.
I went to Siberia entirely biassed in favour of this admittedly wonderful people. I took care to instruct my soldiers to salute every Japanese officer and to be most polite to every Japanese soldier, and they carried out my instructions to the letter; but my attention was called to the fact that only on rare occasions did a Japanese officer take the trouble to return the salute of my men, and still more rarely did a Japanese soldier salute an English officer. He was much more likely to give an insulting grimace. I say quite frankly that I admire the workmanlike way the Japanese go about their soldierly duties, but it is impossible to ignore their stupidly studied arrogance towards those who are anxious to be on terms of peace and amity with them. It is unfortunately true that they were misled into believing that Germany was ordained to dominate the world, and, believing this, they shaped their conduct upon this awful example. They quite openly boast that they are the Germans of the East. Let us hope that they will read aright the recent lesson of history.
During my stay in the maritime provinces I never saw or heard of a single act or order from the Japanese Headquarters which would help in the slightest degree in the administrative reorganisation of the country. On the contrary I saw many things which convinced me that the Land of the Rising Sun was at that time more concerned in maintaining disorder as the surest way of fostering her own ambitious designs.
At this stage the other Allies were without a Far-Eastern policy. Their sole object was to push back as far as possible the German-Magyar forces, which were carrying out the sinister policy of Teutonic penetration under the guise of Bolshevism. Bolshevism in the Far East at this date was an attempt to reduce to a system the operations of the Chinese robber bands of the Mongolian border. Mixed with and led by released German and Magyar prisoners of war, they became a formidable force for destroying all attempts at order in Russia and resisting the possible reconstruction of the Russian front against the Central Powers. Previous to the Bolshevist regime these Chinese bands had lived by murder and loot; it was their trade, though hitherto considered illegal, and sometimes severely punished. No wonder they joined the Soviet crusade when it declared robbery and murder to be the basis upon which the new Russian democracy must rest. This German-Magyar-Chinese combination was bound to meet with remarkable initial success. The Chinese got his blood and loot in a legal way without much danger, and the German prisoner played an important part in the defence of the Fatherland and the destruction of its enemies.
If Germany lost on the Western Front, and by means of this unnatural combination still retained her hold upon the potential wealth of the late Tsar’s dominions, she had indeed won the war. This was the reason for our presence in Siberia, but it was not the reason for the presence of Japan.
Shortly after the incidents referred to in Chapter IV, I received General Otani’s orders to take over the command of the railway and the districts for fifty versts on either side, from Spascoe to Ussurie inclusive. My duty was to guard the railway and administer the district, taking all measures necessary to keep open this section of the line of communications. I was instructed to fix my headquarters at Spascoe, and make all arrangements to winter there. In accordance therewith I proceeded to get into touch with what remained of the old Russian authorities, civil and military, and the new ones wherever such had been created. So far as the men’s comfort was concerned, new roads were constructed and old ones repaired, broken windows and dilapidated walls and woodwork were either replaced or renovated. Electrical appliances were discovered and fixed, and what had previously been a dull, dark block of brickwork suddenly blossomed out into a brilliantly lighted building and became at night a landmark for miles around.
We also began painfully to piece together the broken structure of human society. For over a year no law but force had been known in these regions, and many old wrongs and private wounds demanded liquidation. I made many journeys to outlandish villages and settlements, with a small personal escort, fixed a table in the centre of the street, and with the aid of the parish priest and the president of the local council, heard and decided disputes, public and private, from threats and injury to the person to the possession and occupation of a farm. There was no appeal–the stolid Tommies who stood behind me with fixed bayonets put my judgments beyond question. I remitted one or two points of property law to legal decision, but all parties in each case protested that they would have preferred my instant judgment. Three murderers I remitted to a court which I called together with an old Russian officer to preside, but he was so terrified at the prospect of having to order their execution for fear they might be Bolsheviks–whose name was a terror to everybody–that I had to send them to another district to enable the law to be carried out. The report of these proceedings spread with such rapidity that it became quite embarrassing, if not impossible, to deal effectively and thoroughly with the daily increasing number of litigants. I began to understand the reason why in more civilised communities legal proceedings are made so expensive. Either the Russian peasant is a most litigious person, or else he mistook a free system of justice as a healthy English pastime which he thoroughly enjoyed.
It was extremely flattering to be told that these people preferred that the “Anglisky Polkovnika Boorpg” should decide their disputes than that they should be reserved for a Russian tribunal. It was the most interesting work I had so far done in the country. The trial of even the simplest case gave me many insights to Russian institutions and character that only years of book study could otherwise have accomplished. I learnt the difference between the right of the peasant holder as compared with that of the Cossack circle. The law of the forest afforded an education in itself. The intimate relationship of Russian family life, from the highest to the lowest, was constantly laid bare before me with all its romance and mediaeval trappings and its sordid substratum of violence and superstition. In fact, I became so interested in this work that it was with the greatest regret that I relinquished it for a more urgent and important call.
The Allied forces in the Transbaikal had now accomplished their task of dispersing the forces of lawlessness, and had made some progress in the work of administration, but if this work was to be consolidated and made of permanent value it must be given a centre, other than the Allied command, around which it could rally and to which it might reasonably look for guidance and support. The Siberian Government had been established by the alive elements of the old regime and the more showy members of the Social Revolutionary party, but their authority was ignored and their orders were not often conspicuous for their wisdom. This great people can do almost anything, but even they cannot live without a head, and the question was, how was some sort of head to be provided? The Allies had taken control of the far-eastern provinces, but, if their object was to be carried through and German designs frustrated, it was necessary to push at once their control to the Urals and, if possible, beyond. The brilliant feats of the Czechs had temporarily thrown the Terrorist forces into confusion, but with wealthy, helpless Russia as their prize cupidity alone would be sufficient to excite them to renewed effort. To be effective, Allied help and activity must be transferred nearer to the scene of actual conflict, and Ekaterinburg or Omsk appeared to be the only possible centres which could provide the proper accommodation and surroundings for this next step in the Allied programme. This much as a general proposition was conceded by all, but everybody held differing views as to the way in which it should be carried out.
Japan, having firmly planted her feet in the much-coveted maritime provinces, did not look with enthusiasm upon the suggestion that she should leave what she most wanted in order to lessen the pressure upon a front in which she had no interest. That Paris should fall under German blows was of no importance compared with American control of the Chinese Eastern Railway or the presence of the _Brooklyn_ at Vladivostok.
America had not exactly made up her mind what particular part of the Far East was most precious in her eyes, but wished to be friendly with everybody and get as much as possible out of all. Her armies were on the Western front, but her eyes were on the Eastern Pacific, and was it not better after all to remain where you could keep an eye on the other fellow?
Who would think of taking a military force over six thousand miles from its base through a partially hostile country? Would it get through the many dangers and difficulties it was certain to encounter on the way? And if it did, who could guarantee a friendly reception? and if not, how could a ghastly disaster be avoided? These were some of the problems which called for decision, and once decided could never be recalled.
The Americans and the Japanese were otherwise occupied and therefore not available, and though it may seem mere national egotism to make such a statement, there was only one force in which moderate Russians of all parties had absolute confidence–without which anything might happen. All eyes turned to the old “Die-Hard” Battalion which had now proved its mettle on land and sea.
Russian society had been ripped up by the roots, and the whole country reduced to a huge human jungle. Human life was at a discount, in fact was the cheapest thing in the country. If a centre of order was to be created anywhere, force must be provided for its initial protection. Statecraft cannot work with violence ever threatening its very life. The risks were great, a big force would create suspicion, a small force must rely upon something more than mere bayonets for its safety. It was with due regard to its dangers, but with a certainty that it was worth it, that I accepted the task which the fates had forced upon me.
We had settled down for a winter in Spascoe, when I received the necessary orders to proceed to Omsk, with the suggestion that before executing them I had better visit Headquarters at Vladivostok for a conference with General Knox. I tried to get a carriage suitable for the journey for my Staff from the railway authorities, but failed, and ended by purloining a cattle-truck. In this contraption we got as far as Nikolsk, where our truck was to have been hung on to the Harbin Express; but the station-master, the best type of Russian public official, thought it a disgrace that the Commander and Staff of their most trusted Ally should travel so. He placed his private car at my disposal on my promise to return the same if and when I could find another. We arrived at “Vlady,” and in four days had completed the arrangements for the move and secured verbal and documentary instructions as to the general policy to be pursued. The means to be employed to worm my way towards the Urals were left entirely to myself.
I had already formed a very high opinion of the Russian character. Much can be done by sympathy and persuasion, but if they fail, then the “big stick” of Peter the Great, used sparingly, is the only method which is certain to secure obedience to orders.
On the return journey I was hung up at Nikolsk for several days. Heavy rains had caused the valleys and marshes to become flooded, and a haystack which had been carried off its bed by the water had lodged against the temporary sleeper buttress and swept the bridge away. The hay had held the torrent back till it became so high that it rushed over about two miles of the railway, destroying that also. The Japs would not repair the damage, nor for some time would they give a chance for the Russians to do so. I managed to get orders through to Major Browne so that no time was actually lost. It was estimated that it would take seven days to get on the move, but by a general hustle all round in three days we began our 5,000 miles journey. Starting from Spascoe we travelled to Nikolsk, and then turned back up the Manchurian-Chinese Eastern Railway. On arriving at Nikolsk we were informed that the French Tonquin Battalion had also received orders to move west some seven days prior to us, but were not yet ready, nor were they likely to be for two or three days. We had arrived at “Vlady,” and gone thence to the Ussurie front before the French; so now again we led the way towards the sinking sun.
This French unit was under the command of Major Malley, who from his appearance ought never to have dropped the “O” before his surname. He and his officers were some of the best; but the atmosphere of South China had robbed them of some of their native energy. He informed me that his destination was a point on the railway near the borders of North-West Manchuria, and by consulting my own instructions I guessed the object of his move. In case of need I should at least have the border open. In addition to which the move was an indication that so far as this venture was concerned English and French policy ran parallel.
The first part of the journey was through hundreds of miles of uncarted corn. As far as the eye could see, to right or left, one vast sea of derelict corn, left uncared for on the land to rot in the Siberian winter. The entire absence of labour, and the complete breakdown of internal administration and communication had produced stark want in the presence of plenty. It made one feel quite sad to look day after day upon this waste of human food and remember the food rations and regulations at home. All along the line there was a continuous stream of refugees of all nations and races–poor, hunted creatures who had horrible stories to tell of the ravages of the Bulgar and the atrocities of the Bolsheviki. At one place the Serbian women and children got the breakfast of my men, the Tommies refusing to eat until the kiddies had been satisfied. And the pathetic homage they paid to our flag when they discovered it was the flag of England! I shall never forget some of the scenes which showed us also the wonderful trust the struggling nationalities of the world have in the power, humanity and honour of our country. It is a priceless possession for the world which Englishmen must for ever jealously guard.
Through apparently never-ending uplands we entered the great range which forms the natural boundary between China and Siberia. On and on, through mountain gorge and fertile valley, we broke at length out on to the wide open plains of Manchuria. Perhaps it could be best described as a combination of all the most wonderful scenery in the world. It is somewhat difficult to keep three huge trains of over forty trucks each together on a single line. This, however, had to be done, first for purposes of safety, and secondly for defence in the then lawless state of the country. The next difficulty was transport. Horses had to be watered, and if they were to be ready for use the train must stop and the animals be exercised every fourth day. Hence much scheming and management had to be exercised for the journey to be successfully carried through.
I saw much about the “hidden hand” in the newspapers we received from home, but our experiences of the same character were sometimes amusing and sometimes serious. The railway was under a sort of joint control, Russian, American and Japanese, and it soon became clear that one or the other of these groups was unfriendly to our western advance. It may have been all, but of that I have no proof. The first incident was a stop of four hours. After the first two hours a train passed us that had been following behind; after another two hours, when slightly more vigorous inquiries were being made as to the cause of delay, we were quite naively informed that the station-master did not think we ought to risk going farther. We soon informed him to the contrary, and again started forward. The next stop of this character was at a fairly big station about twenty hours from Harbin. This station-master held us up for seven hours. This I thought the limit. At last he showed my interpreter a telegram asking him to prevent us going any farther. It was not signed, and when I demanded that we should be allowed to proceed, he said that there were no engines. I had seen two standing idle outside. I rushed on to the platform just in time to prevent the engines disappearing. While the station-master had been parleying with me he had ordered the engines to put on steam. I gave orders for my guard to form up across the line at each end of the station and either bayonet or shoot anyone who tried to take the engines away. I then forced the operator to tell me if the line ahead was clear, and threatened to take the station-master under military arrest for trial at Harbin unless he announced my intention to start in that direction and cleared the way ahead. I put a soldier with fixed bayonet on the footplate to see that the driver held to his post and did not play tricks with the train, and started on our journey. We made every inquiry possible, but no one could give us the slightest reason for our stoppage, but seemed to think that there was something wrong with the works which had allowed us to get so far. From then on I took no risks.
There are no special features about Harbin. It is just a conglomeration of houses of a more or less Chinese character thrown together in three heaps, the first two attempts of the thrower not getting quite near enough to the target, which was the junction of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Elaborate preparations had been made by an Allied Committee for our reception, and when we drew into the station about 4 P.M. it was crowded with about as cosmopolitan a crowd of Far Eastern races as we had so far met with–the Mayor, the Chinese Governor and all the notabilities, foremost amongst them being the British Consul, Mr. Sly; but most important of all was General Plisshkoff, the commander of the local forces known as “Hovart’s Army.” Speeches were delivered, and a reply given which elicited from a Cossack band the most astounding rendering of the British National Anthem that was ever heard around the seven seas. The gem of the proceedings was a presentation of two lovely bouquets by the English ladies of Harbin. I never felt so much the necessity for adopting the Eastern custom of kissing all the ladies you are introduced to as at this one supreme moment of the journey; it was a real test of the power of restraint. But the ladies’ husbands were there, and everything passed off quietly, even though some wretched fellows took snapshots of the presentation for home production. I inspected the several guards of honour, and General Plisshkoff returned the compliment, while the famous “25th” band discoursed what was declared to be the sweetest music that had been heard in Harbin since its history began. Tea was served in a specially decorated marquee on the platform and all the men were given presents of one sort or another, and the town gave itself over to tumultuous enjoyment, happy in the thought that at last one of the Allies had appeared on the scene, a faint indication that a desperate effort was about to be made by the oldest and most trusted nation in Europe to conjure order out of chaos. The officers were entertained by the British Consul, and preparations were made for a ceremonial march through the town next day. This turned out a great success and greatly impressed the inhabitants.
The day following we were entertained by the Chinese Governor, a very courtly old gentleman, and the local Chinese general at the headquarters of the Chinese administration. The band was in attendance, and during the meal dealt with some of the British military choruses which have spread themselves round the world. Of course we all joined in, as only Englishmen can, and this became so infectious that even the staid mandarins unbent and added their quota to the noise. It is surprising to note the resemblance between the solemn Chinese and the self-centred Englishmen. The solemnity of the one reacts upon the other, and both become what neither is in reality nor can be separately. After our hard work and harder fare on the Ussurie this gorgeous banquet was equal to a month’s leave, and we let go with a vengeance. What the Chinamen thought about it next morning I do not know; for myself, I only remembered the kindness of this act of friendship and the _camaraderie_ of the whole affair. How strange that we should feel more at home with these pukka Chinamen than with others we have met who are supposed to have much closer affinity.
Immediately after leaving Harbin we crossed the finest bridge of the whole journey to Omsk. It carries the railway over the River Sungary, which meanders about over the enormous yet fairly well cultivated plains of Northern Manchuria. It is not my intention to describe either the peoples or the countries through which we passed, but no study of the blending and dovetailing of totally different races into the different types that we particularise under the names of Chinese, Mongol, Tartar and Russian, would be complete without a journey along the Siberian and Eastern Chinese Railway. The same remark applies to their dress, habitations and customs. It is an education in itself, especially if, like us, one had to stop occasionally to drive bargains, negotiate help, and have the closest and most intimate intercourse with the common people. None of them had even seen the British flag, few of them had the slightest idea where the “Anglisky” lived, and one old Kirghis explained to his wondering tribemen that we were a strange tribe that had broken away from “Americanski” and gone to live on a great island in the middle of the lakes, where no one could touch us unless they risked their lives on great wooden rafts. I thought the amount of inverted truth in this charming description very pleasing if not very flattering to our national vanity.
After climbing the great Hinghan Range the plains of Mongolia came as a wonder to me. Imagine if you can a perfectly flat land through which your train glides hour after hour, day after day. The whole is covered with rough grass and a growth somewhat like a huge horse daisy or marguerite. At the time we passed these plants had dried, and a terrific wind sweeping over the plains had broken countless numbers of the dry herb off near the ground. They fell on their round sides. Directly the plants had lost their anchorage away they bounded like catherine wheels over the plains. It does not require much imagination to picture hundreds of thousands of these rounded tufts of dried grass bounding along over immense distances. It is quite a fascinating pastime to select a few of the larger and better formed ones coming over the horizon and calculate how long they take to arrive opposite your position. Calculations made in this way convinced me that a small coloured message properly fastened to these moving objects might have been carried five hundred miles in twenty-four hours. If, instead of looking at one, you look at the whole, the impression is of the solid earth passing rapidly from west to east. There are occasional obstructions in the shape of a huge flock of sheep which would cover half of Rutlandshire. These are herded by quaintly dressed Mongolian Tartars, on wonderful shaggy-haired horses, who ride at a furious pace around their flocks and guard them from attack by the wolves which infest this part of the world. It is worth recording how they do so. The wolf is a very cunning animal who has numerous methods of attack, and, like a hare, is very difficult to locate if in his form and practically level with the ground. But his very cunning is often his undoing. On no account will the wolf allow a string on which there are little coloured rags fluttering to pass over him, nor will he willingly get near it. The Tartar herdsmen go forward in line over the plain in the direction their flocks are feeding with a small strong string with little coloured flags fluttering along it, fastened from horse to horse. This effectively sweeps the whole space as the trawler sweeps the sea. No wolf can hope to escape the trained eye of the Tartar near the horse where the strain of the line lifts it high off the ground, and no wolf will allow the line to pass near him, hence the herdsman gets both sport and profit out of his occupation. Having fed off the grass and herbs in one place, the whole Tartar tribe moves forward at regular periods on what appears to be an endless crawl across the world, but what is really an appointed round, settled and definite, within the territorial lands of the race to which it belongs. Their women and children journey with them and hunt and ride with the men, free as the plains over which they travel. In spite of this community of interests the men seem to place but very little value upon their women except as a sort of communist coolie attachment for carrying the camp from one place to another, for preparing the rude meals, and for the care of the boys, of whom the tribe is very proud.
Over this featureless wilderness we progressed day after day, each stopping-place marked by a few aspen trees mixed up with a few others that look very much like mountain ash but are not. The winter houses of the people are single-roomed, square, wooden structures, very strangely built, with flat roofs consisting of about two feet of earth. Against and over these structures in winter the frozen snow piles itself until they have the appearance of mere mounds, impossible to locate except for the smoke which escapes from a few long crevices left open under the eaves of what is intended to be the front of the house. These smoke-escapes perform the double duty of chimneys and also keep clear the way by which the inhabitants go in and out. Their herds are either disposed of before the winter begins or are housed in grass-covered dug-outs, which in winter, when the snow is piled over them, take the form of immense underground caverns, and are quite warm and habitable by both man and beast. The one I entered had over two hundred beautiful little foals housed in it, and others similar in character had cows and sheep and poultry all as snug as you please. The entrance was lighted with a quaint old shepherd’s lantern, not unlike those I had seen used