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Book Review: Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners


Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners, by Rupert Wieloch

In 1917, as the Russian revolution forced a myriad of strident political ideology upon its people and left even more death and destruction across the world, a young Winston Churchill, fresh back from the Western Front, was serving in Parliament as War Minister. Then a vocally voracious member of a right-leaning Liberal Party, he believed Britain should support the (anti-communist) White Russians in their fight and “destroy Bolshevik buffoonery in its lair”.

The then Prime Minister David Lloyd George and a government, nervous a tide of socialism might sweep across the world, supported such a belief. The Cabinet was also impressed by Churchill’s soldiering history and persuasive arguments and so decided to send a special expeditionary force of men to Russia who would join the White Army in a bid to defeat Trotsky and his militia.

Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners describes how those 15 Allied soldiers, including an American contingent aligned with the Red Cross, soon found themselves alone and abandoned in a war-ravaged country with no choice but to take part in the fighting along the Trans-Siberian Railway in the 18 months before Trotsky’s Red Army prevailed. The story is told exceptionally well by author Rupert Wieloch, a Russian history academic and former military officer.

The men’s bravery is astounding, and what they witnessed was harrowing. For example, in Omsk, Siberia, the Allied men had been ordered to “remain until the last” and assisted thousands of terrified citizens to escape on the last train before the Red Army seized the town. During one dash to freedom by sleigh, they saw tens of thousands of refugees dying in the harsh Siberian winter. One British solder recalled how a wagon load of dynamite in a freight train exploded in the centre of a dozen refugee trains standing on parallel tracks. He wrote: “The dead were piled up like cord-wood. There were hundreds of them, but they were luckier than the injured who still lived and could not possibly received medical attention.” People of Lenin’s new Soviet Union just shrugged and said, Nichevo! (which roughly means to accept one’s fate).

By the end of 1918 the men, among them the future Lt Gen Sir Brian Horrocks who went on to command 30 Corps at the battle of Arnhem, were captured and sent to endure the notorious prisons of Moscow. The Soviet Union was born, and a fickle British government was keen to work out separate trading and economic policies with Vladimir Lenin’s regime.

The fight was certainly over for the supporters of a Tsarist Russia who had been gunned down, beaten and tortured for opposing the country’s new leader, but what of Churchill’s abandoned prisoners, now stuck behind bars, starved, marched between prisons and left to the torture of their aggressors?

Their families and MPs demanded the government rescue them from the Reds. Detailed negotiations by Labour MP Jim O’Grady (who was part of the Franco-British socialist delegation which visited the Russian Provincial Government after the abdication of the Tsar) began and a deal was struck with Lenin’s envoy Maxim Litvinov in Copenhagen on 15 April 1920.

A prisoner exchange plan was agreed, however, the 15 soldiers of the British Mission to Siberia were deceived in Irkutsk and sent 3,000 miles to the headquarters of the secret police in Moscow. Lloyd George was pressed in the House of Commons about the welfare of these men and there were demands for Churchill to be impeached over British operations in Siberia.

Images of paperwork and insightful photographs in this fascinating and compelling book illustrate a deeply troubled Russia and details those involved in the swap agreement. A foreword written by Nikolai Tolstoy is a personal one. His father Dimitri was nine years old in 1920 when he was smuggled out of Russian captivity by his English nanny Lucy Stark. On board a British ship they met some of former captives who had finally been allowed home under the swap agreement. Tolstoy writes how Lucy described in her diary how thin and pallid the former prisoners of war had been, and outlines that under the rules of the agreement each one had been forbidden to talk about their experience in the hands of the Red Army.

We learn from this book of the dangers of military intervention and why Russia still distrusts the UN Security Council. It’s a must-read. Reviewed by Melody Foreman.

Publisher: Casemate.

ISBN: 9781612007533. Hardback, 256 pages

RRP: £20

(All images via Casemate)

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