This article is based on a research project that I undertook for a private client back in 2007. It took me far beyond the normal path one follows when studying a soldier of the Great War and into (for me, at least) a whole new world.
I first need to introduce the two key players in the story.
The is the man I was asked to research. Sadly, his service record does not exist. The roll of the British War and Victory Medals confirms that James went overseas as Private M2/194380 of the Army Service Corps. I found that he was mobilised on 19 July 1916 and trained as a vehicle driver of the corps’ Mechanical Transport section. Born in Fife on 11 September 1878, he was almost 40 when he first went overseas and could barely have expected the adventures that lay ahead of him.
I was intrigued to find that Goldsmith’s campaign medal information shows that he arrived in France on 30 July 1914 – five days before Britain declared war on Germany. At that time his name was George Marie de Goldschmidt: he legally changed it to Goldsmith in August 1914. The medal documents say that he was with Intelligence Corps, but this hides a more shadowy role: he was in fact working for Mansfield Smith-Cumming, head of the Foreign Section (Secret Service Bureau), and was being sent for undercover work in Brussels.
He had originally enlisted into the ranks of the Imperial Yeomanry and saw service as such during the Second Boyer War, but in August 1900 was commissioned into the 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen’s Bays). Born in 1874, he had married and by June 1911 had two children. He had also become a stockbroker and a member of the London Stock Exchange.
By 1918, Goldsmith had been moved to Mesopotamia, ordered to act as military advisor to Captain G. F. Gracey in the organisation of Kurdish and Turkish Armenian forces for the purpose of raiding and destroying the Ottoman Turkish lines of communication between and Diyarbakır and Mosul. The former is in central Anatolian Turkey; the latter in northern Iraq.
Douglas joined Goldsmith at Baghdad when a Corporal Dewry and three Ford cars and drivers were allocated to him by Major-General Dunsterville. The detachment left Baghdad on 22 January 1918 and proceeded to Khaniqin, in preparation for the longer journey to Hamadan. Preparations were to be made for Dunsterville to set up a headquarters there for his scratch “Dunsterforce” which was intended to go on and occupy Baku and Tiflis.
On 4 February 1918, Dunsterville arrived at Hamadan. Goldsmith was now ordered to take his convoy to Enzeli, then possibly on to Baku, and make arrangements for the arrival of “Dunsterforce”. It began to move on 9 February. After hair-raising encounters with Cossacks and bandits assisting escaped German and Turkish POWs, it reached Enzeli on 11 February. Goldsmith then neogotiated for his small force to go by sea to Baku on a steamer carrying Bolshevik soldiers home to Russia. When he arrived, he set about making arrangements for “Dunsterforce” to travel the same route to Baku, by buying a fleet to take them.
By 23 February 1918, Goldsmith and his men had arrived by train at Tiflis (now Tbilisi, capital of Georgia). He reported to the head of the local British Mission Colonel G.D. Pike MC of the 9th Gurkha Rifles. Pike was not at all pleased with the promise of the impending arrival of “Dunsterforce” and gave Goldsmith fresh orders. He wa to proceed to Erzerum to co-operate with the “White Russians” (monarchist, reactionary anti-Bolshevik forces).
Goldsmith’s band went on to Erzerum and Sarakamish, where amongst other tasks they helped evacuate 4,000 Amenian women and children and also destroyed with bombs three stores containing 10,000 rubber tyres. They then returned to Tiflis. The entire region was by now essentially in a state of anarchy. Large bands of well-arned Tartars were raiding railway stations and trains, sacking villages, and “murdering Armenians wherever found”. In Baku, the Armenians were getting the upper hand: Goldsmith reported that 7,000 of them marcehd out to Shemach where they murdered most of the population and looted the town. After Erzerum fell on 12 March, there were terrible scenes of slaughter of Armenians at that place, and at Alexandropol and Kalakallissa.
The poor ASC drivers must have been wondering what terrible trick of fate had brought them into this deadly area.
James Douglas is recognised for acts of bravery
James Douglas is first mentioned in Goldsmith’s report in connection with an attempt by Captain George Frederick Handel Gracey to reach Maku: he had been ordered there to try to persuade a local Sirdar to come over to the allied side and gain his help in reopening the Indo-European Telegraph Company’s telegraph line which was being wrecked by Tartar bands. This journey was ultimately unsuccessful owing to severe fighting in the area, but was clearly bravely undertaken. James Douglas was assigned as his driver. The date is not given but appears to be early March 1918. Now a Corporal, Douglas received the Russian Medal of St George First Class on or about 12 April 1918. It is likely that it was specifically for the Maku action.
With Georgia now declaring independence, the Pike’s British Mission moved northwards to Vladikavkaz, which was by then in Bolshevik hands.
At 5am on what appears to be 25 May 1918, James left – driving Ford car 874 – carrying Goldsmith and a guide of the Ingush Muslim tribe – from Vladikavkaz, toward Kazbek. They were attempting to reach a group of British, French, Italian and other consuls and in some cases their wives, with a view to extracting them from what was an increasingly hostile area.
A few hundred yards after crossing Dariel Bridge the car came under fire, which killed the guide. It is not clear from the report whether this was fire from the Bolshevik force at and near the bridge or from another source. Goldsmith recommended James for his great gallantry, which eventually lead to the award of his DCM.
The citation of James’s DCM clearly reflects the Dariel Bridge incident; there are no citations for the Meritorious Service Medal which he also received and which was usually awarded to non-commissioned men who had carried out good work whilst not under fire.
On 14 August 1918 James appears to have come very close to death or captivity, in another rather “boy’s own” mission. He was sent with two Ingush to Nasran to persuade the local people to cease supporting Bolshevik attacks on local Cossacks. James was dressed in civilian clothing for this enterprise. The car was captured, the Ingush arrested and Corporal Douglas was subsequently recovered but only with great difficulty.
In the same month, Vladikavkaz was occupied by Bolshevik forces. Pike was killed on 15 August. He was buried at buried Vladikavkas Hospital Cemetery but is now commorated at the Haidar Pasha Memorial in Istanbul.
Goldsmith and a number of others including James Douglas fell into Bolshevik captivity at Vladikavkaz on 6 October 1918. The circumstances are described in detail in Goldsmith’s report, and it was clearly a violent and probably terrifying moment. All manner of things were taken from the men during searches, in which James lost his rubber boots – no doubt a precious commodity at that time of year. The reports also cover the subsequent captivity in Moscow and Astrakhan and finally their repatriation via Finland.
Not exactly a typical story of the Great War, I am sure you will agree.
Foreign Office reports and correspondence. FO371/3938, FO371/3941 and FO371/3942.
War Office. Caucasus Military Agency report WO95/4960 and WO154/328.