This article is based on research I carried out in 2015 on Private 58043 Herbert Clayton, who was killed in action at Bol’shie Ozerki on 2 April 1919. The action formed part of the campaign in North Russia.
Background to the campaign in North Russia
Often referred to as the Allied Intervention in North Russia.
“Strong men were made cowards by the cumulative depression of the unbroken night and its crushing influence on the spirit: for the severest battles of the campaign were fought during the cold black months of winter time”Lt. John Cuddahy, 339th Infantry, United States Army
On 7 November 1917 the “Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies” proclaimed the overthrow of the Provisional Government of Russia and formed a new revolutionary government under Lenin. One of the key stated aims of the revolution was with withdraw from the Great War in which the Russian forces had suffered so badly in three years of fighting against the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians.
The revolution gave the allied forces (Great Britain, France, Italy, Belgium and the recently joined United States) considerable cause for alarm. It was seen as imperative that Germany was kept fighting in Russia, otherwise they would be free to transfer huge forces to the Western Front (which was eventually what did happen), but clearly the new government was going to disengage unless it could be persuaded otherwise. At the same time the allies were petrified at the possible westward spread of Bolshevism and at the sudden loss of investments and stockpiles of military goods in Russia.
On 3 March 1918 Lenin’s government reluctantly signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk: its army had to all intents disappeared yet the Germans maintained military force in Russia; the treaty was terribly one-sided and punitive, ceding much territory and economic wealth to Germany.
An unusual situation had meanwhile developed at Murmansk, the small northern port through which the allies had been providing the pre-Lenin Russian governments with arms and other supplies. The local Murmansk Soviet wired to Petrograd that “representatives of French, American and English missions continue to show themselves inalterably well-inclined towards us”. Gradually a small inter-allied force was landed at Murmansk, to protect the port and railway from a German (and/or Finnish) attack, with allied interests in mind. But it was also in Bolshevik interests. Lenin’s military commander Trotsky messaged the Murmansk Soviet that it must “do everything to protect the railway … [and] accept any and all assistance from allied missions”. In other words, what grew and developed into a military campaign against the Bolshevik Red Army actually began in somewhat nervous collaboration with them and encouraged Russians to continue the fight against Germany.
The allied force then took steps to establish defensive posts along the Murmansk-Trans-Siberian railway line. The force was greatly expanded in May 1918 by the arrival of a brigade of the British Royal Marine Light Infantry.
A large-scale map showing area of relevance to the military operations undertaken by the Inter-Allied Intervention Force in North Russia in 1918-1919. The key features are
- Murmansk (red arrowed): a tiny and underdeveloped port that is ice free in winter.
- Archangel (blue arrowed): a much more developed port but which is ice-bound in winter.
- The Trans-Siberian railway (black arrowed), linking the Russian capital St Petersburg (named Petrograd after the Russian revolution in 1917) with Vladivostock in the far east.
- A railway linking Murmansk to the Trans-Siberian and Petrograd.
- A railway linking Archangel to the Trans-Siberian at Vologda.
But within Russia were significant forces that were now beginning to strike back against the revolution: they intended to restore the Russian monarchy. They welcomed the arrival of the allied force, but on the basis that it would act against the revolution and not to support it. It had the effect of a gradual shift in the allied position.
On 10 August 1918 the British War Office issued instructions for a formal military intervention against Lenin. The allies would “Co-operate in the restoration of Russia with the objective of resisting German influence and penetration, thus enabling the Russians to take the field [against Germany]”. It was this instruction that led directly to the 6th Yorkshires going to Russia.
The allied forces were now greatly enlarged, with “Elope Force” being sent to secure the major port of Archangel and its linking railway down to Vologda. “Elope” was formed into two groups: the “Vologda Force” ( for holding the railway) and “Dvina Force” ( for holding the river of that name). The groups advanced inland and reached Obozerskaya and Bereznik. They came under the first determined Red counter attack on 6 October 1918, just before 236th Infantry Brigade, which included the 6th Yorkshires, left home to join the force.
The area in which the military operations took place. The area of relevance to the 6th Yorkshires is that between Onega and Obozerskaya. The latter lies on the Archangel-Vologda railway line. The Bolshevik threat to the railway was considered to be most serious, as if the line was cut, not only would co-operation with and supply to anti-Bolshevik forces in the Vologda area be comprised, but allied forces south of Obozerskaya might be cut off and destroyed in detail.
The British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, now issued instructions: “Your business in North Russia is to hold the fort until the local Russians take the field [against the Germans]. You are to prepare for a winter campaign. No joke that”. It certainly was not. The hope that the Russians might once again organise to fight the Germans was fanciful, and the physical conditions in which the force was expected to operate were almost impossible: deep snow and thirty degrees of frost, forest and tundra, no roads or road transport possible, swarms of mosquitoes, no possibility of leave, entertainment or even escape from monotonous military rations. The focus was meant to be on building an anti-Bolshevik Russian force to operate on its own by June 1919, but increasingly the allies came under direct attack from a well-organised and equipped Red Army.
During October and November 1918 Lenin’s forces mounted a number of determined attacks along the railway and against Archangel itself. It became increasingly clear that unless the force could be greatly enlarged and better equipped it would face the possibility of defeat and withdrawal. At home, Churchill pressed for expansion and even the use of poison gas (against which the Reds had no defence): another 4000 men were sent. British, American, Canadian, Italian, Finn and many other nationalities were represented.
The 6th (Service) Battalion
This unit had seen much action in France but had suffered such severe losses in the fighting against the German offensives of spring 1918 that it had been returned to England in order to be properly rebuilt. It was re-established at Mytchett Camp near Aldershot.
On 13 October 1918 the battalion left Mytchett, under orders to proceed to North Russia as part of “Syren Force”. It moved by train to Dundee and on 16 October 1918 boarded the ship Tras-os-Montes.
The battalion had a dreadful journey to North Russia and it was not until 26 November 1918 (by then having moved onto the ship Huntsend) that it arrived off Murmansk.
The battalion’s “D” Company left Murmansk for operations south along the Archangel-Vologda railway in the vicinity of Obozerskaya. It had been transferred from the Murmansk-based “Syren Force” to the “Elope Force” based on Archangel. On 4 March 1919 a column of the other three companies (all much reduced by illness) set off to join them, at first travelling 400 miles to Soroko. Ten days later they began a further six day, 140-mile journey by sleigh (in deep snow and bitter cold), to Onega. On 20 March news came that the village of Bol’shie Ozerki had been raided by Bolshevik forces and that “D” Company was there: this proved to be false, for it had already moved to Obozerskaya. Bol’shie Ozerki is 90 miles from Onega and the Bolshevik raid most troubling, as from there they could threaten to cut the railway. The column was ordered to move there and arrived on 22 March 1919.
Note the best of maps, but it shows the position of Bolshoi Ozerki (red arrowed) in relation to Obozerskaya. The railway line is not shown on this map. The fighting at Bolshoi Ozerki was comparatively minor. Much larger battles had taken place in the area shown, in late 1918 and early 1919, with that at Shenkursk (bottom right) being the most recent. The village is today sometimes spelled as Bol’shiye Ozerki.
The situation on arrival at Bol’shie Ozerki was obscure, but it was eventually found that a Bolshevik force of some 3000 men with 96 machine guns and assorted artillery was holding it. Allied forces in the area now comprised the three depleted companies of the 6th Yorkshires, two platoons of the 339th American Infantry and one decrepit French artillery piece. This motley collection mounted three separate assaults on the village but each with beaten off with losses. It was during this phase that Herbert lost his life. After the move in Arctic conditions across some 245 miles, and still in bitter weather, many men fell ill with exhaustion. Soon afterwards some heavy artillery arrived, shelled the village and the Bolsheviks withdrew.
The battalion’s war diary reports that in an attack carried out by “A” and “C” Companies on 2 April 1919, Captain Tom Edward Geoffrey Bailey and two “other ranks” were killed; two others were reported missing and ten wounded. The man who died alongside Private 58043 Herbert Clayton was Private 205526 John Bates. It is curious that Bailey is buried in Archangel Military Cemetery, implying that his body were transported there at some point, whereas the other men were not. Clayton and Bates are commemorated at the Archangel Memorial but the register details says they lie in Bolshoi Ozerki cemetery.
The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission give the date of death as 3 April 1919 but this is the day after the action as reprted in the battalion diary.
The dead of this fighting
The graves of men who had died in the North Russian campaign were widely scattered, although a large cemetery developed at Archangel. The cemetery was begun immediately after the occupation of the city in August 1918 and was used by No. 85 General Hospital, No. 53 Stationary Hospital, No. 82 Casualty Clearing Station, HM Hospital Ship ‘Kalyan’ and other allied hospitals while the force continued to operate. The memorial which was eventually erected there lists 219 men, most of whom have distant places of burial that were recorded but proved impossible to maintain or where there were other difficulties of access (and of course this was especially true in the 1920-30s but continued through to comparatively recent times).