November 7, 1917
106th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution
Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force – Canada’s Role in Attempts to Overthrow the Great October Socialist Revolution
The ruling elites in the countries of Europe, including Britain and some of its former and current colonies, and countries such as the U.S., China and Japan sent troops to Soviet Russia from January 1918 to May 1925, in failed military attempts to overthrow the Bolsheviks and the Great October Socialist Revolution.
The main mission of the interventionist forces was to defeat the Bolshevik revolution, while other concerns were raised, such as keeping Russia in the fight against Germany, safeguarding the Czars’ gold reserves being taken out of Russia to back up the war loans – a debt cancelled by the new people’s power led by V.I. Lenin.
Canada was part of the intervention in Siberia that began in August 1918. That month, it authorized the creation of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (CSEF), with its contingent of 4,192 troops. It was commanded by Major General James H. Elmsley and sent to Vladivostok, Russia, in December 1918 and returned to Canada between April and June 1919.
In October 1918, as Canadian troops were mustered to Victoria for the trip to Siberia, the Privy Council authorized the formation of a Canadian-Siberian economic commission, led by trade commissioner Dana Wilgress, which included representatives of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Royal Bank of Canada. It is said the Commission was established based on the belief that the Bolshevik revolution would be unsuccessful and lead to business and trade opportunities.
The opposition of the Canadian workers and people to the intervention against the Russian Revolution grew, in particular following the Armistice November 11, 1918 that ended World War I. A notable event took place on December 21, 1918, when soldiers from Quebec, conscripts in the CSEF, mutinied in the streets of Victoria, BC. These young men broke ranks while marching from the Willows Camp to the troopship Teesta, about to embark for Vladivostok, Russia.
Canadian historian Benjamin Isitt, in a paper published in 2006 by the Canadian Historical Review titled “Mutiny from Victoria to Vladivostok, December 1918,” writes:
“Revolver fire sounded through the city, as the obedient men were ordered to whip the mutinous back into line. At the point of bayonets, the march proceeded up Fort Street and through downtown Victoria to the outer wharf. Twenty hours passed before the last dissenters were herded aboard the Teesta. In the ship’s hold, along with twenty-one tons of gear for the YMCA and 1700 tons of ammunition, a dozen ringleaders were detained in cells, the two worst handcuffed together. At 4:15 a.m. on 22 December 1918, the 259th Battalion of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force set sail for Vladivostok.”
Canada’s intervention in Siberia came during its participation in the First World War, an inter-imperialist war for redivision of the world, in support of British forces. There was significant opposition to participation in the war, especially in Quebec. Conversely, workers across the country drew inspiration in their struggles for rights and empowerment from the victorious Russian Revolution led by the Bolsheviks.
It was in these circumstances that the ruling circles in Canada decided to take part in the Siberian intervention to enrich themselves, despite their inability to create public sentiment for this cause and the inherent rejection of working class Canadians and especially Quebeckers to being sent abroad to fight against Soviet Russia.
Isitt explains the situation:
“As the last guns sounded on the Western Front, 4,000 Canadian troops assembled at Victoria for deployment to Siberia. Born at a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet in London in July 1918, the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (CSEF) was plagued from the outset by lack of clarity about its aims; a month after the main body of the force arrived in Siberia, the order was issued from Ottawa to begin preparations for evacuation. Few troops in the CSEF ever saw direct fighting. Ambivalence in Allied strategy prevented their deployment into the interior of Siberia. Most of their time was spent training White Russian conscripts and conducting routine security operations around Vladivostok – responding to looting, theft, assault, and murder in the port city. The threat of Bolshevik insurgency precipitated countermeasures by the Canadian command and the deployment of a small number of troops to the village of Shkotova. An attempt to move a body of troops up the Trans-Siberian Railroad was thwarted by a strike of Russian rail-workers, while another train carrying the horses and men of the Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) was wrecked near Irkutsk. By June 1919, all but a handful of troops had returned to Canada.
“The Siberian Expedition was part of a larger Allied campaign to alter the outcome of the Russian revolution and install a more sympathetic government in Russia. From Murmansk and Archangel to Baku and Vladivostok, Canadian troops joined soldiers from thirteen countries in a multi-front strategy of encirclement designed to isolate and defeat the Bolshevik regime in Moscow. In Siberia, the Canadians backed a succession of White Russian governments, headed by General Dmitri Horvath, Grigori Semenov, and finally, Alexander Kolchak, former admiral of the czar’s Black Sea Fleet, who seized power at Omsk in November 1918. Armistice on the Western Front liberated Allied forces for battle against the nascent Soviet state. The British Columbia Federationist, newspaper of the BC Federation of Labour, quoted G.W. Tschitcherin, Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, who presented a Bolshevik interpretation of the conflict:
“‘A handful of capitalists who desired to repossess themselves of the factories and banks taken from them on behalf of the people; a handful of landowners who want to take again from the peasants the land they now hold; a handful of generals who again want to teach docility to the workers and peasants with a whip… have betrayed Russia in the north, in the south, and in the east to foreign imperialist states, by calling foreign bayonets from wherever they could get them.’
“The failure of Canada and its allies to defeat the Bolsheviks consigned this story to the margins of history, far removed from the heroism of the Canadian Corps in the trenches of France and Flanders.
“The mutiny that erupted in the streets of Victoria on 21 December 1918 was located at the intersection of class and national cleavages. It provides a compelling window into persistent tensions in Canadian society, tensions that were amplified in the heat of wartime. The historic antagonism between French and English, heightened around the issue of conscription, combined with the political radicalism of British Columbia’s working class. The French-Canadian conscripts who arrived in Victoria were mustered from the districts around Quebec City and Montreal, which had experienced rioting in opposition to the Military Service Act; in the British Columbia capital, they encountered a robust socialist movement that identified with the aims of the Russian revolution and launched a determined campaign to prevent their deployment to Siberia. In street-corner meetings and in packed auditoriums, working-class leaders of the Socialist Party of Canada and Federated Labour Party provided a vocal critique that transformed latent discontent among the troops into collective resistance. Both class and ethnicity drove the conscripts toward mutiny; neither can sufficiently explain the complex motivations behind an event that military and press censors did their best to conceal at the time. At this junction of social forces – the converging interests of working-class Québécois and British Columbia socialists – a violent standoff erupted in Victoria.”
Issit poses the question, “Why Siberia?” He explains as follows:
“To understand the working-class response, and also the growth of discontent among the troops, it is essential to understand the rationale behind the Siberian Expedition. From the outset, Canada’s aims in Russia were complex, fluid, and confused. Military strategy, international diplomacy, economic opportunity, and ideology influenced the decision of Canada and its allies to intervene in the Russian civil war. Militarily, the Siberian Expedition must be understood in the context of Russia’s transition from trusted ally to de facto enemy. In March 1917, as unrest mounted in Petrograd and the Romanov 300-year rule neared its end, a group of Canadian military officers toured Russia, meeting with Czar Nicholas II and other Russian leaders. ‘Russia is now thoroughly supplied with munitions,’ Victoria’s Daily Times reported. ‘The Czar’s huge armies are prepared … industries and transportation are fully organized … everything is in readiness for a great offensive, simultaneously with a similar move by the Western Allies.’ Within a week of this optimistic report, the czar abdicated the throne. By November, the Bolshevik party under V.I. Lenin had displaced the pro-war provisional government and entered into negotiations with Germany and other belligerent nations that ultimately removed Russia from the war – and liberated German forces for battle on the Western Front. The Allied Supreme War Council, meeting in London in December 1917, pledged support to those elements in Russia committed to a continuation of war against Germany. The stage was set for Allied intervention.
“In a speech to the Canadian Club and Women’s Canadian Club in Victoria’s Empress Hotel in September 1918, Newton Rowell, president of the Privy Council, described the loss of Russia as the most ‘tragic surprise’ of the war. The Siberian Expedition was necessary, he said, ‘to reestablish the Eastern front’ and ‘support the elements and governments of the Russian people, which are battling against German armed force and intrigue.’ This theme of Germanic influence on the Bolshevik side tapped into public fear of ‘Hun’ aggression and harked back to Lenin’s famed passage through Germany in a sealed railcar; it provided justification for opening fronts far removed from Germany and continuing fighting after Germany’s surrender. Allegations of Bolshevik atrocities, including the supposed ‘nationalization of women,’ were amplified to bolster public support for the Siberian campaign. A final component of this military rationale was the presence in Siberia of the Czecho-Slovak Legion, an anomalous body of troops, sixty thousand-strong, which was marooned in the Russian Far East from 1917 and 1920, and formed the advance party of the Allied campaign in a desperate bid for national recognition.
“Diplomacy also shaped Canadian policy in Siberia, as political and military leaders sought greater power and independence within the British Empire. As Rowell told the Canadian Club, the achievements of Canadian troops during the war had won for the country ‘a new place among the nations,’ obliging Canada to do her part on the world stage. He informed Parliament that, after refusing a request from the British War Office to send another contingent to France, Canadian leaders felt obliged to provide a brigade for Siberia. Borden underscored this diplomatic motivation in a letter to a skeptical colleague, as domestic opposition to the Siberian Expedition mounted: ‘I think we must go on with this as we have agreed to do so… [I]t will be of some distinction to have all the British Forces in Siberia under the command of a Canadian Officer.’
“More significant than diplomacy, however, was the economic motivation. For decades Canadian, American, Japanese, British, and German investors had eyed the resource wealth of Russia’s Far East and the region’s consumer market. The German-controlled Kunst & Albers Company had established a vast retail-wholesale network in Siberia before the war, an enterprise similar to the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada. When Russia’s provisional government ordered the firm be sold, a Canadian intelligence officer saw ‘a wonderful chance for Canada.’ Trade commissioners had been posted to Petrograd and Omsk in 1916, and a Russian purchasing mission was established in Canada; exports to Russia reached $16 million, making it the seventh largest market for Canadian goods. In June 1917, Russia’s consul-general to Britain, Baron Alphonse Heyking, described Siberia as ‘the granary of the world’ and urged, ‘Let capitalism come in. It will develop quickly.’ The Bolshevik revolution interrupted these efforts to develop the Russian economy along capitalist lines. Rather than welcome foreign investment and trade, the new regime nationalized the assets of Russians and foreigners. ‘This vast country is in a very precarious position from the standpoint of trade and commerce,’ Rowell warned. ‘She needs capital and expert guidance in the work of reconstruction … [With] more intimate relations the greatest benefit may result both to Canada and Siberia.’ In October 1918, as Canadian troops were mustered to Victoria, the Privy Council authorized the formation of a Canadian-Siberian economic commission, including representatives of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Royal Bank of Canada; the latter opened a branch in Vladivostok at the end of 1918.
“The Allied countries also had a direct financial interest in the defeat of the Lenin regime. An estimated 13 billion rubles in war loans had been repudiated by the Bolsheviks. Against this outstanding debt stood the Imperial Russian Gold Reserve, the largest holdings of the precious metal in the world. Valued at over 1.6 billion gold rubles, one quarter of this gold had been shipped from Vladivostok to Vancouver in December 1915, June 1916, November 1916, and February 1917, to guarantee British war credits; it was transported on the Canadian Pacific Railway and stored for several months in a Bank of England vault in Ottawa. The portion remaining in Siberia has its own intriguing story, moving from one train to another, and from town to town, as the czar and an array of White generals retreated eastward. As a military officer told a December 1918 meeting of Federated Labour Party in Victoria, ‘We are going to Siberia as far as I know because Britain has loaned a great amount of money to Russia. I don’t know how much, and the Bolsheviki has repudiated the loan money. This is as much ours as anybody’s, and we are going there to get it.’
“The final motivation behind the Siberian Expedition was ideological. In all industrialized countries, the events of 1917 amplified divisions between the social classes. As working-class grievances against profiteering and conscription mounted in Canada, with labour demanding the ‘conscription of wealth,’ the Russian revolution provided a powerful symbol of resistance. Fear of revolution informed Allied policy from the outset. An editorial in the Federationist summed up a growing sentiment among BC workers: ‘There is no other sign post upon the social horizon pointing the way to peace than the movement which is now typified in the Russian Bolsheviki. Well may rulers and robbers hail its advent with terrified squawks and bourgeois souls quake with terror at its probable triumph. For with that triumph their game of loot and plunder will end.’ To radical sections of BC labour, the Bolshevik insurrection was celebrated as a bold response to the two-fold scourges of war and capitalism; it provided a framework through which BC workers came to interpret their own class position. Within the Canadian elite, however, the Bolshevik revolution was received with grave misgivings, viewed as a catalyst to domestic unrest and an example of radical movements that were left unchecked. The Siberian Sapper, newspaper of the CSEF, warned that ‘Bolshevik missionaries are spreading their doctrines in every country in the world … There is a mad dog running loose among the nations, and it would seem to be the duty of the nations to handle it as mad dogs are usually handled.’ This fear of domestic Bolshevism was intensified by statements such as those of Joseph Naylor, president of the BC Federation of Labour and a socialist leader of the Vancouver Island coal miners: ‘Is it not high time that the workers of the western world take action similar to that of the Russian Bolsheviki and dispose of their masters as those brave Russians are now doing?’
“This complex array of Canadian motives – military, diplomatic, economic, ideological – is reflected in a cryptic letter, received by the Victoria Trades and Labour Council from the deputy minister of militia and defence, Ottawa, ‘acknowledging a letter from the Council opposing the Siberian expedition’:
“‘The Department does not consider Canada at war with the Russian people, but that they, the Government of Canada, are supporting certain governments in Russia, such as that organized at Omsk and Archangel, which governments are, by the way, quite socialistic. At any rate no aggression is meant by the Dom. Govnt, rather an economic development.’
“This official statement of Canadian policy, despite its confusing syntax, reveals implicit opposition to the spread of socialism, but also a clear intent to alleviate labour’s fear that Canada was acting on purely ideological grounds.”
To read Issit’s paper in full, click here.