- From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada's Siberian Expedition, 1917-19
This generally engaging volume "draws from military and labor sources to reconstruct the experiences of the Canadians who served in the Russian Far East as well as the perceptions of those on the Home Front." (9) It tells the story of 4,210 men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (Siberia) who spent five months in Russia in 1919, as possibly the most toothless yet mutinous contingent of the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War: most of the men spent their time in barracks around Vladivostok 'Doing Nothing,' as a section of the book on their experience is entitled. They had gymkhanas, tug-of-war contests, and theatrical productions to divert them but other forms of entertainment were strictly off-limits: the prevalence of venereal disease was such that sexual intercourse with a woman was regarded by the authorities as equivalent to a self-inflicted wound and punished accordingly! Only 55 of them ever went 'up country' to Omsk, the capital of anti-Bolshevik Siberia, and there were only a couple of minor skirmishes with Red partisans in the Far East. Indeed, the Canadian Privy Council had decreed on 22 December 1918, just a day after its first ship had embarked from Victoria, that the CEF(S) should not be deployed 'up country;' and in February 1919, just one month after the force's arrival in Vladivostok, the Privy Council decreed that preparations should be made for its evacuation. All but a handful of the men were back in Canada by June.
So, why another study of this brief, aborted effort to combat Bolshevism? Official histories of the Canadian Army may pay it scant regard, but we already have three monographs on the Canadian intervention in Russia, by J. Swettenham (Allied Intervention in Russia, 1918-1919, and the Part Played by Canada, 1967), R. Maclaren (Canadians in Russia, 1918-1919, 1976) and J.E. Skuce (Canada's Soldiers in Siberia, 1990), augmented by many scholarly articles (as attested to by the author's excellent bibliography). Isitt's answer is that his work will "force a rethink" of how the Great War [End Page 219] is remembered and "give voice to soldiers and workers who advocated a different course." (xi) In this, he has some success. Earlier studies tended to concentrate on Canada's role within the intervention writ large and dealt in high politics. Isitt makes the odd aside in this regard - intriguingly suggesting, for example, that Borden's willingness to participate in the intervention reflected not a young dominion asserting itself but "a fundamental streak of subservience" to Britain in Canadian foreign policy (169) - but his emphasis is on history from below: the exploration of the interaction between organized labour and the CEF(S) and how negative reactions to the expedition fed, in 1918-19, into the largest wave of industrial unrest that Canada had ever seen. Thus, the book opens with an enlightening account of how, of the first 78 soldiers of the 259th Battalion to be issued kit for Siberia, 77 refused to accept it; (1) and how a mini-mutiny ensued as the men were marched to the docks in Victoria on 21 December 1918 and herded on board the troop ship Teesta at bayonet point (They had also to be disembarked under guard in Vladivostok). The soldiers, it is herein revealed, had been the target of a vigorous campaign against the intervention by Canadian socialist organizations that had caused them to wonder "what the devil self-determination of nations really means," as a contemporary source put it. (92) Seven hundred members of CEF(S), we are told, attended the inaugural meeting of the Victoria branch of the Federated Labor Party on 8 December 1918 and had loudly applauded socialist speakers opposing intervention in Russia (92) (It was probably not coincidental that many of the French-speaking conscripts were from districts of Quebec and Montreal that had experienced rioting in response to the Military Service Act of June 1917).