Saturday, 18 June 2011

Royal Scots return to Leith from Russia - On this day in Scottish Military History 1919

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the guns stopped in France and Belgium. The Armistice with Germany signalled the end of the Great War and the end of four years of fighting.

For one Scottish unit it was a different story. On 11th November 1918 whilst the cease fire took place on the Western Front a Royal Scots battalion from Linlithgow was fighting a bitter battle against the Communist Bolsheviks in the snow of North Russia.

The reasons for British troops being in North Russia in 1918 go as far back as 1915 and the debacle at Gallipoli where so many Lothian men had died.

By 1915 Britain and France needed to help prop up their ally Russia. Russia was unprepared for war against an industrialised country like Germany and all sorts of arms and equipment were being shipped to Russian ports to support their war effort. With their victory at Gallipoli the Ottoman Turks controlled the Straits of Marmara which connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. That meant the Black Sea ports in Southern Russia were now out of reach to the British and French ships.

Instead the stores and supplies had to go up to the Arctic Circle to the port of Archangel and later to the British-built port at Murmansk. Throughout 1916 and 1917 the Allies landed thousands of tons of arms and equipment in the North Russian ports but poor transport links and mismanagement within Russia meant that huge stock of these stores were piling up at the docks and were not being shipped south to be used against the Germans and Austrians.

By late 1917 Russia was in turmoil. Revolutions in March and October 1917 left the Bolsheviks in nominal control of the country. They immediately sued for peace with Germany and then turned their attentions to defeating their enemies the ‘Whites’.

In Spring 1918 with the winter snow melting, the Bolsheviks started shipping the stockpiled British arms from Archangel south to fight the Whites. The British decided these arms and stores should be used by the Russian White Armies instead. With British and French backing it was thought the Whites could defeat the Bolsheviks and then start fighting the Germans again on the Eastern Front to ease the pressure on the Western Front. By late March the Royal Navy landed Royal Marines at Murmansk and the British started to put together an expeditionary force to be sent to Russia to advance on Archangel.

In late August 1918 as the war in France was reaching its climax the 2/10th Battalion Royal Scots, Territorial Force was approaching Archangel. The 2/10th Battalion had originally been raised in Linlithgow in September 1914. Its role had been to replace other first line Territorial units which had gone overseas. Up until 1918 it had only served in Scotland and Ireland. 935 of the fittest and able men had been drafted to other units on the Western Front and the men who served in the unit in 1918 were category B1, B2 and B3 – all considered unfit for active service. Every available man who could fight was already at the front fighting the Germans so when the task force being sent to Russia was being put together it was from home defence units serving on garrison duty in the UK.

The Royal Scots recruited up to their war strength of 1,000 men with drafts from other regiments and had sailed on the S.S. ‘City of Cairo’ from Newcastle on 17th August 1918. They arrived in Archangel on 25th August 1918 to a port caught up in a civil war, with troops and sailors from several nations based in and around it.

On the Allied side apart from the British were Canadians, Australians, French, French Colonials, Italians and Americans. There were also some Poles and Serbs who had been serving on the Eastern Front alongside the Imperial Russian Army. They all had their own reasons for joining the fight against the Bolsheviks and continuing the fighting on the Eastern Front against the Germans. (Elsewhere in Russia at the same time there were more British and French troops, as well as Belgian, Czech, Greek and Japanese troops; but they are not part of the 2/10th Battalion’s history).

Also fighting with the allies were local Russians recruited into an auxiliary regiment of the British Army (The North Russia Rifles) and there were also White Russian soldiers and sailors.

Against them were the Bolsheviks and just to add to the confusion the Finnish Army and their allies the Germans were also a potential threat to the Allies from the nearby Karelia Peninsula

By the time the Royal Scots arrived the Allies had been in North Russia for five months. They had captured the city of Archangel and were holding a line far south of the city along the River Dvina and across to the railway line running south out of the port of Murmansk.

On their arrival the Royal Scots marched through Archangel behind a US Marines band, over their shoulders were Mosin–Nagant rifles. The ‘City of Cairo’ had also been carrying a consignment of US made Russian rifles for the British and American forces in North Russia, and the Royal Scots were issued with them instead of the usual Lee Enfield rifle.

The next day most of the battalion sailed South up the River Dvina on barges to Bereznik where the Dvina meets the River Varga, and with some Royal Marines, Poles, Russians and some Royal Navy manned boats they formed a battle-group called ‘C’ Force.

‘D’ company of the Royal Scots moved to another part of the front and also served alongside some Royal Marines and Russian levies and they were called ‘D’ Force.

During September 1918 the Royal Scots of patrolled in forest and marshland on both sides of the Dvina around Bereznik and fought several engagements with Bolshevik troops. In mid September ‘C’ Force was bolstered by the American 339th Infantry Regiment.

By October 1918 the Bolshevik forces were attacking more frequently and in strength using gunboats and artillery. At the same time winter was starting to grip around the White Sea. The port of Archangel was frozen by the end of October and the Royal Navy’s ships were trapped in the ice. This allowed the Bolshevik river boats to sail up the Dvina and it forced the Allies to retreat back towards Archangel. By this time the Royal Scots had 100 wounded men in the hospital in Borok and they had to be evacuated in the retreat.

On November 11th 1918, Armistice Day on the Western Front, the Royal Scots of ‘C’ Force were attacked by 1,000 Bolsheviks at Toulgas. Their target was the Canadian Artillery of the Force and bitter hand to hand fighting developed as the Royal Scots struggled to repulse the attacks. On the day the people of the Lothians celebrated the end of the Great War for Civilisation the 2/10th Royal Scots suffered casualties of 19 men killed and 34 more men wounded. They were also awarded three Military Crosses, two Distinguished Conduct Medals and three Military Medals

For the troops in North Russia the conditions were now very harsh. In some places they had to patrol through snow over 10 feet deep. To deal with the conditions the Royal Scots adapted to patrolling on skis, snowshoes and on sleighs.

The skis especially were a hit. The ordinary soldiers of the Royal Scots could take some comfort from their miserable posting with the thought that it allowed them to indulge in a rich-mans sport which before the war had been the preserve of those who could afford to travel to the Alps.

The skiing was a small respite from the extreme cold and the constant attacks from the Bolsheviks. All this time the Bolsheviks were gaining in strength whilst the White Russian forces were suffering from poor morale, desertion and mutiny. In January 1919 without the support of the ice-bound Royal Navy the Allies were forced further back towards Archangel.

The British realised that they needed to send more troops to defend Archangel and prop up the Whites so volunteers from the troops returning from France who wished to stay in the Army and serve in Russia were formed into a new Brigade which would be sent to Archangel when the winter ice broke up.

In May 1919 as the Bolshevik 6th Red Army prepared for a new offensive the fresh British troops arrived. The Royal Scots got the welcome news that they were to be relieved of their front line duty and would return home.

On 6th June 1919 the 2/10th Bn Royal Scots were replaced by 2nd Bn The Hampshire Regiment and the Royal Scots moved to Murmansk to wait for a troopship.

A few days later the battalion embarked at Murmansk for home. By happy coincidence they were to land in Leith. The ‘Czartisa’ sailed into the Imperial Dock on 18th June 1919.

Along with the 277 Canadian Artillerymen, and 51 other soldiers who had sailed with them, the 987 men of the battalion marched through cheering crowds from the docks to Leith Central Station. They then travelled the short distance to Gorgie Station and marched up to Redford Barracks where they were to be demobilized.

Two days later they were entertained along with men from the recently retuned 1/9th Battalion Royal Scots by the Provost and City at Forrest Hill drill hall and then marched along Princes Street.

The 1/9th Bn had a long and distinguished war service on the Western Front but the service of the 2/10th Bn in Russia had been well reported in local papers. The men of the 2/10th Bn who had left the UK ‘unfit for active service’ returned as battle hardened soldiers and were treated as the equals of the veterans of the 1/9th Bn that day.

Over the next few days the battalion was wound up and on 25th June 1919 the 2/10th Battalion Royal Scots officially ceased to exist.

It wasn’t quite the end though. Not all the men had been demobilized and were sent to the 3rd Reserve battalion of the regiment. A few days later a party of 50 former 2/10th Bn men returned to the headquarters of the battalion at Linlithgow for another reception where they were warmly received.

The 2/10th Bn had missed the celebrations on Armistice Day but they were included in the Peace celebrations when the war officially ended in 1919. A grand peace march was organised in Glasgow on 4th August 1919 with 10,000 men and women from all branches of the armed services and those involved in war work taking part. Contingents from every Scottish regiment marched through George Square and one of the biggest cheers of the day were for the men who had served in the 2/10th Royal Scots. Coming from the city of ‘Red Clydeside’ for an Edinburgh regiment which had been fighting the Communist Bolsheviks it shows how much of an impact the actions of the Royal Scots had made at home.

The battalion had been in existence for nearly five years but had only served overseas for just less than ten months. In that time it suffered 132 fatalities. That was only a fraction of the number of casualties suffered by the Royal Scots battalions which served at Gallipoli, the Somme and at Arras; but they had served on a distant and almost forgotten battlefield on the edge of the Arctic Circle. They suffered from swarms of mosquitoes and horseflies in malarial marshland in the summer, and the bitter cold of the deep forests in the Russian Winter. They had to fight an enemy who never gave up and had to rely on White Russians who frequently did give up. In the ten months in Russia the battalion had been turned from unfit boys fit only for guard duty into soldiers praised by their commanding generals, and fĂȘted in their homeland.

There was one more act in the history of the 2/10th Bn Royal Scots. On 18th July 1920 former officers and men of the battalion assembled at Linlithgow and were presented with a King’s Colour. No other 2nd Line Territorial battalion of the Royal Scots was issued one. With the battalion disbanded it was handed over to the safe keeping of St Michael’s Parish Church next to the Palace. On it was proudly displayed the Battalion’s only, and hard earned, battle honour - Archangel 1918-1919

*Many thanks to Alistair McEwen for the images

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