LITTLE HAS BEEN WRITTEN about British involvement in the Russian Civil War (1918-21). Yet following the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917, the British government supplied 'White Russian' forces with millions of pounds of aid, enabling them to fight the Red Army in an attempt to defeat the revolution. In North Russia, British forces actually fought the Red Army from the summer of 1918 until September 1919, when the British evacuated, leaving behind the bodies of over 400 dead servicement.
The tools of combat in North Russia extended beyond bayonets and bullets. Indeed, psychological warfare, supported and driven by a propaganda battle between Bolshevik and British authorities, was crucial in the unfolding of this forgotten story. As the conflict progressed, Bolshevik propagandists proved themselves masters of their trade, turning the minds of British soldiers and Russians alike, often with devastating consequences. So successful was Bolshevik propaganda that it influenced decision-making at the highest level of British government, thereby fundamentally shaping the course of the intervention.
The struggle for hearts and minds began soon after Marcia 1918, when British marines began landing at the north Russian port of Murmansk, deep inside the Arctic Circle. British authorities justified the landings on the basis of war strategy, as Russia's departure from the First World War, formalised on March 3rd, 1918, by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, left up to seventy German divisions free for redeployment to the Western Front. Initially, Soviet authorities acquiesced, as Trotsky was concerned about the activities of pro-German White Finns close by. As the British landed more troops and began pushing south, however, the fragile understanding shattered. Fighting between British and Bolshevik forces erupted, with the front steadying some 300 miles south of Murmansk. British forces soon totalled 5,000, hastily joined by a similar number of Americans and approximately 1,000 French.
General F.C. Poole, in command of the Allied forces, decided to occupy the port of Archangel, which fell on August 1st, 1918. Poole ordered his officers to proceed as far as possible into central Russia, but the Bolsheviks halted the Allied advance around 150 miles inland on the river Dwina by the railway link to Volodga. On August 10th, Poole received a telegram from the War Office instructing him to 'take the field side by side with the [White Russian] Allies for the recovery of their country'. It was now clear: the Allies were fighting an undeclared war against the Bolsheviks.
Poole attempted to banish any uncertainty about the purpose and nature of the campaign from the minds of his three, by providing them with a series of information pamphlets and proclamations. In these he divided 'The Enemy' into two categories: Bolshevik and German. As one leaflet expressed it:
We are not fighting Russia or honest
Russians. We are fighting Bolsheviks,
who are the worst form of criminals.
Poole's explanations built upon themes instilled in British soldiers by intelligence officers during their journey from Britain, describing alleged Bolshevik atrocities such as systematic murder of priests, and the rape and torture of civilians, including children. In spite of Poole's efforts, a decided ambivalence to the conflict quickly developed among the Allied rank and file. Detecting this, Poole addressed his forces in another document:
There seems among the troops a very
indistinct idea of what we are fighting
for here in North Russia. This can be
explained in a Few words. We are tip
against Bolshevism, which means
anarchy pure and simple.
In what amounted to a page-long justification of policy, d tiring which Poole claimed the Bolsheviks were led by 'a few men, mostly Jews', he again failed to counter the growing unease among forces under his command. …