The British army in south Russia, and stories of civil war

Pyotr_Wrangel_1920,_painting   The more I read about the Russian civil war, the harder it is to believe there were any “good guys” on either side. Wrangel seems to have been one of the best.

I’ve just finished reading Evan Mawdsley’s book, The Russian Civil War, which gives an excellent big-picture overview of this bitter conflict. Orlando Figes’ heavyweight tome A People’s Tragedy also covers it in more gruesome detail.

Yesterday, I found an excellent paper online which covers one of the lesser-known aspects of the Russian Civil War in excellent detail: The British Intervention in South Russia 1918-1920. I learned a lot that I didn’t know before, and more about things I was already aware of about the activities of the British army in support of Denikin’s forces in south Russia and the northern Caucasus, and the lesser efforts to support his successor, Wrangel – the “Black Baron”, who held the last major White outpost: the Crimea. I say Wrangel appears to be one of the few “good guys” because by all accounts he was one of the few generals to keep good order amongst his armies, with less looting and maltreatment of civilians than was the case with other armies of either side. He succeeded in evacuating most of his forces in good order to Turkey when the Bolsheviks finally broke his defences; their subsequent fate is mentioned in this excerpt from Sailing Across Europe by Negley Farson.

Farson was a fascinating character: his Wikipedia entry doesn’t do him justice. As a businessman and later journalist he was deeply embedded in the chaotic society of St. Petersburg during the First World War. His book, The Way of a Transgressor – which I found entirely randomly in a second-hand bookshop at home in Wales – gives a vivid insight into the corruption, debauchery and political intrigue of the time, as well as first-hand accounts of major historical events. Like many Americans, he joined the British Army later in the War, serving as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. When the war ended, he was one of the ‘adventurers’ referred to in Lauri Kopisto’s paper which I link to above, and was supposed to have gone as a volunteer pilot with the British forces assisting Denikin. (He didn’t go in the end, resigning for personal reasons shortly before his unit left). With his wife, he later lived self-sufficiently in a houseboat on a Canadian lake, drove from East Africa to West Africa via the Belgian Congo, and traversed Europe from the North Sea to the Black Sea on a narrowboat, using canals that no longer exist. That’s one heck of a life.

While I’m free-associating, I’ll mention Ferdinand Ossendowski, who also packed a heck of a lot into his life. I became aware of him through his book Beasts, Men and Gods. The book describes how Ossendowski escaped from Siberia during the Bolshevik takeover, living alone in the countryside for months before trying to get to Tibet with fellow White refugees. He gives intense descriptions of the horrors and chaos of the civil war. This only gets worse as, unable to get to Tibet, the small band try to go through Mongolia instead – only to encounter the forces of the “Bloody Baron”, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. Ossendowski became one of Sternberg’s key officers, eventually escaping to the US as one of Sternberg’s envoys. Baron_ungern.ruem Ungern-Sternberg was definitely not a “good guy”. In terms of the wider civil war, his story is pretty minor; as such, it merits only a dismissive sentence in Mawdsley’s book. However, as a story, it’s gripping. A junior cavalry officer from the Baltic German aristocracy, he was a war hero, decorated several times for courage. He knew Wrangel, and eventually formed the Asiatic Cavalry Division – a ragtag combination of Cossacks, Mongolian nomads, Tibetan cavalry and regular army units. He conquered Outer Mongolia, believed himself to be the reincarnation of a Mongolian god of war, and planned to re-form Genghis Khan’s empire under the leadership of the living god of Mongolia, the Bogd Khan (whose position was equivalent to that of the Dalai Lama in Tibet). It’s described in much more detail in James Palmer’s book The Bloody White Baron – which I first bought in Beijing, at a time when I was watching lots of Mongolian music at gigs in the ancient hutongs…

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