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SIBERIAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE

WHY SIBERIA?

CANADIAN FOREIGN POLICY AND SIBERIAN INTERVENTION, 1918-19

P. Whitney Lackenbauer, University of Waterloo

©April 1998

Page Three continued from "the Canadian Economic Commission also took upon itself to assume the attributes of a trading corporation and to promote Canada to the Siberian populace......"

When Major-General Elmsley and the first dominion troops arrived in Vladivostok on 27 October 1918, the Borden government had "its own independent, direct source of political and military information from Siberia."(22) The news was not reassuring. Salient changes occurred almost immediately in the international and domestic contexts which dramatically affected Canadian intervention (military and economic). The end of the war raised a most fundamental and serious quandary.

When the guns of the First World War were silenced on 11 November 1918, the military rationale for involvement dissipated. The strategic requirement for a second front was gone. The Central Powers had been defeated and Canadian troops were heading home from the scarred landscape of Western Europe. The primary raison d'etre for Russian intervention had passed. Furthermore, the champion of the Allied cause (the Kolchak Government(23)) was clearly losing public support in Siberia.(24) Without the need for a second front, the Canadian and Allied forces appeared to be fighting a military battle with little chance of long-term success or relevance.

Despite this striking change in military context, Borden was convinced that the Siberian expedition should not be abandoned. In a 22 November 1918 letter to Sir Thomas White, the acting prime minister, he argued:

I think we must go on with this as we have agreed to do so and there seems some reason for our own standpoint as well as the common interest why the expedition should proceed. Evidently it is not anticipated that our troops will be called upon to engage in active warfare except perhaps to quell some local disturbances. They will assist in stabilizing conditions and in giving needed aid to the recently organized Russian Government, in training the newly organized formations of [White] Russian troops. Then it will be of some distinction to have all the British Forces in Siberia under the command of a Canadian Officer. Moreover the Economic Commission which we have otherwise sent over would be otherwise useless and would have to be recalled to our possible detriment in the future.(25)

Either Borden continued to believe that benefits could be derived from the existing military and economic initiatives, or he was using these considerations to justify his larger political agenda. The real reason for his adamant support for intervention and Canadian participation at this time was his desire to persuade the British that Canada should be included at the forthcoming Paris Peace Conference. Borden wrote:

In my judgment, we shall stand in an unfortunate position unless we proceed with Siberia expedition. We made definite arrangements with British Government on which they have relied. They could reasonably hold us responsible for great inevitable delay in making other arrangements. Canada's present position and prestige would be singulary impaired by deliberate withdrawal.

Borden's arguments "had little to do with Siberia per se, and much to do with adding to the British government's sense of obligation to their imperial junior partner."(26)

The international relations behind Allied intervention were increasingly unstable, and made Borden's task more difficult. The British and American authorities had been divided in their opinions on the form of intervention from the onset, and it was soon clear that a cohesive and concerted Allied policy in Siberia was unrealizable. While the British advocated a forward campaign along the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Urals (to support the Kolchak regime), the American plans were more limited and opaque. Borden did not commit the Canadians to either stance; he left the decision for Canadian involvement to the commanding officer. Major-General Elmsley opted for relative inaction, holding that his instructions did not permit him to move his troops forward, and thus came into conflict with General Knox, the senior British officer in Siberia. In fact, the uncooperative atmosphere amongst the Allied powers in Siberia was perplexing from a political perspective and thwarted the possibility of useful action [see appendix A]. As such, the activities of the Canadian troops were confined to "coal and water fatigues, while they shivered and grumbled in the Gournastai and East Barracks on the outskirts of Vladivostock, or watched the political jockeying of the Americans and the Japanese for positions advantageous in Siberia."(27) The limited Canadian role was hardly romantic, nor could it be sold to the Canadian public as essential.

Continue reading "From a structure standpoint, Elmsley immediately recognized...."

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ENDNOTES

22. Smith, "Canada and the Siberian Intervention," 872.

23. Admiral Aleksandr Vasilyevich Kolchak was the Cossack leader of the anti-Bolshevik forces in Western Siberia during the Russian civil war from 1918­20. Admiral Kolchak distinguished himself in the Russo-Japanese War and commanded the Russian Black Sea fleet during World War I. After the October Revolution of 1917, Kolchak became minister of war in an anti-Bolshevik government set up in Omsk, Siberia. Far from democratic in his methods, on 18 November 1918 he executed a successful coup d'état against the Socialist Revolutionaries in the Directory (which regarded itself as the successor to the fallen Provisional Government) and assumed dictatorship over Siberia with the title of Supreme Ruler and commander-in-chief of all the land and naval forces in Russia. Kolchak was initially successful against the Bolshevik forces and was recognized by the Allies to represent the provisional Russian government in Siberia. His fortunes soon ran out. Kolchak's "great offensive" of 1919 (aimed at joining the British forces and the Russian counter-revolutionaries on the coast of the White Sea) was quickly crushed by the Red Army, and during his retreat to Irkutsk he lost most of his supporters (most notably the Czechs who controlled the Trans-Siberian railroad). He was eventually betrayed to the Bolsheviks, who shot him in 1920 and promptly took possession of all of Siberia. "Aleksandr Vasilyevich Kolchak," The 1998 Canadian and World Encyclopedia, CD ROM (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1997); Swettenham, 99.

24. MacLaren, 190.

25. Borden, Memoirs, II, 159.

26. Borden and R.C. Brown quoted in Bothwell, 31. See also Smith, "Canada and the Siberian Intervention," 873.

27. Bothwell, 28; George F.G. Stanley, Canada's Soldiers: The Military History of an Unmilitary People, rev. ed. (Toronto: Macmillan, 1960), 335; Dana Wilgress, "From Siberia to Kuibyshev: Reflections on Russia, 1919-1943," International Journal, XXII, 3 (Summer 1967), 366.

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