North Russia - 1919
A little known conflict in Australia, the North Russian conflict was a passage of events disconnected from the Great War, but conducted in its twilight. The campaign is notable for the fact that the only two Victoria Crosses awarded for land operations were both won by Australians as part of the Relief Force sent to cover the extraction of the intial deployment. It was an act of military intervention by Britain in support of its ally, Tsarist Russia, at that stage engaged in a Civil War with the Communists or Bolsheviks. The British commitment comprised two elements; an intervention force and then a second Relief Force sent to assit the extrication of the initial commitment.
Significant numbers of Australians had been recruited from among men demobilising in the UK. They were assigned to the the 45th Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, a British unit. Corporal Arthur Sullivan, a South Australian, won his for rescuing drowning men under fire on 10 August 1919. The other, Sergeant Samuel Pearse, was awarded a Victoria Cross on 29 August 1919, for an audacious assault on a Bolshevik position which ultimately cost him his life.
The campaign began before the Armistice of 1918 but did not conclude until well after the Treaty of Versailles was concluded in mid 1919. It's affiliation with WW1 is therefopre arguably somewhat tenuous.
Russia, one of the original members of the Triple Entente (the others being Britain and France), did not fare well in the opening stages of the Great War. Resoundingly defeated at the battle of Tannenburg in 1915 and by 1917 beset by internal dissent, the Tsarist Government was overthrown in October 1917 in the Bolshevik Revolution, and a bloody Civil War began.
The withdrawal of Russia from the War freed up large number of German troops who were fed into the major offensive on the Western Front in March - April 1918. Also of concern were large quantities of supplies sent to the Tsarist forces which the British did not want to fall into German hands.
The British raised and dispatched a force to Northern Russia in June of 1918, in support of the White Army, known as the North Russian Expeditionary Force (en.wikipedia.org) (NREF). The NREF numbered 70 officers and 500 enlisted men, and was chosen from men who had volunteered in Britain for "a secret mission". Their mission was primarily to act as a training team in support of White Russian forces and ostensibly to open a new front against the central powers (Germany and Austria- Hungary).
Included were nine Australians—three officers and six sergeants—who had been selected by AIF Headquarters in April 1918. All were experienced soldiers, with three having served at Gallipoli as well as in France. They along with the rest of the force were despatched in June 1918. One of their number, Captain Brown, was later murdered by his own men when they deserted to the Bolsheviks. Similar incidents led to a decision to withdraw the group in March 1919. To do so in the face of the enemy and with considerable distrust of the very units they were supporting, required a Relief Force; preferably before the onset of the Russian winter.
Recruiting began in England, targeting men awaiting demobilisation or repatriation to home countries. It seems many recent arrivals in reinforcement drafts saw this as an opportunity to see action that they we would otherwise have been denied.
North Russian Relief Force
No Australian units were engaged in the operations in Northern Russia but significant numbers of men of the AIF who were in England in 1919, awaiting repatriation to Australian, joined a volunteer force raised to relieve British and Allied troops already in Russia. The new force was designated the British North Russian Relief Force. In order to join this body the Australians had first to obtain their discharges from the AIF, and this was done in the UK. They were then enlisted in the British Army, and were allotted to the 45th Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers and the 201st Battalion, Machine Gun Corps. Two companies within the 45th Battalion were composed of Australians. Thus, between 200 and 300 Australians were prepared to accept a further period of vigorous active service.
The volunteer brigade of the relief Force was commanded by Brigadier-General LW de V. Sadlier-Jackson, and arrived in Russia on 5th June 1919.The Australians were prominent in several actions, their first of major importance being on 23rd July. On this occasion, 150 of them had gone with General Ironside when he went to investigate a meeting of White Russian forces at Obozerskaya. It was this group who repulsed a Bolshevik attack on a railway in the area. The Australians surprised the enemy during a relief of their forward blockhouses, killed thirty with the bayonet, wounded many others and set fire to the blockhouses before withdrawing.
Brigadier-General Sadlier-Jackson launched an attack with his brigade, including the Australians, on the Dwina front on 10th August and this also was a complete success. Over 3,000 prisoners were taken and heavy losses inflicted. The objective of enveloping and destroying the enemy was attained, thus opening the way for the peaceful evacuation of British and Allied forces. Nineteen days later, the two Australian companies were again employed in routing the Bolsheviks in a bayonet charge on the railway near Seleskoe.
By this time General Lord Rawlinson had arrived in the country to direct the evacuation of all Allied forces and, on 10th September, the withdrawal to Archangel commenced. This operation was completed by the 23rd, and the troops embarked for home five days later.
Taken from 'They Dared Mightily' (1986) by Lionel Wigmore.