- From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1917–1919 by Benjamin Isitt
‘Watch your step; you will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite.’ This was the advice of the US Secretary of State to the commander of the American Expeditionary Force to Siberia in 1918. The same warning could have been given to the Canadian Expedition, a force of some 4,000 troops that spent half a year in and around the port of Vladivostok, departing in June 1919.
In 1917, revolutionary Russia had abandoned its allies and collapsed into civil war. The initial rationale for intervention was to bring Russia back into the war. Allied leaders perceived Lenin’s government as a German puppet. They feared – unrealistically – that German ex–prisoners of war in Siberia would take control of eastern territories and seize substantial stockpiles of armaments in Vladivostok. Western leaders also mistrusted the Japanese government, which dispatched some 70,000 troops to Siberia, ostensibly to help restore order.
Despite the misgivings of his Canadian advisers, Prime Minister Borden chose to follow the Imperial War Cabinet and commit Canadian forces to the intervention. Arriving just as the European war was ending, the troops found themselves in a military and political maelstrom. Coordination between themselves and the British, American, Japanese, and Siberian forces was poor to non-existent. Disunity among the Russians/Siberians approached total chaos, including numerous acts of repression and atrocity by rival factions and bandits. Canadians had difficulty distinguishing friend from foe, but they generally managed to stay clear of the fighting. ‘I would feel I was breaking faith with my own Government,’ wrote the Canadian commander, ‘if I moved a single unit from Vladivostok under these conditions.’
Canadian officials repeatedly assured Parliament and the public that the troops in Siberia were volunteers. In reality, many were conscripts who actively resisted being shipped overseas. Members of two companies of the 259th Infantry Battalion tried in Victoria to refuse embarkation. Forty were arrested and twelve court-martialed for mutiny. Nine were [End Page 553] convicted but ultimately released. Official censorship ensured that these cases, and many other details of the intervention, remained secret.
In December 1918, Prime Minister Borden proposed a peace conference to bring together the Russian Bolsheviks and their rivals. When the idea was decisively rejected by Russian anti-Bolsheviks and senior Allied diplomats, Borden resolved to bring the Canadian troops home. Benjamin Isitt’s book, abundantly illustrated and footnoted, offers a forceful though not always nuanced account of this episode. Isitt’s contribution to the broader story of intervention is a social history ‘from below’ that focuses on grass-roots Canadian opposition to the intervention, on the experiences and attitudes of the Canadian soldiers, and on the interface between military and working-class history. His book is strongest when using Canadian sources to illuminate the specifically Canadian dimensions of the story.
Isitt presents the Siberian Expedition as part of a broader effort to overthrow Communism in Russia. This is certainly how the hawkish proponents of intervention, Winston Churchill prominent among them, perceived it. It was also the perception of Canadian radicals, who railed against capitalist efforts to ‘steal from [Russians] the fruits of revolution.’ One could argue (though Isitt does not) that both of these sides were equally ill-informed about the true state of Russia, and both were disposed to see only those features of the civil war that matched their own predispositions. In reality, the Canadian Expedition’s mission was poorly defined and contradictory. The intervention was utterly ineffective in promoting the anti-Bolshevik cause. In the words of one Canadian sapper, ‘There are a lot of [Bolsheviks in Vladivostok] now, but as long as they keep quiet they will be left alone.’ The Canadians fired few shots and suffered no combat casualties, though nineteen died of other causes. Russia’s civil war lasted three more years, with devastating consequences for the country’s future, but Canada would play no military role.
The Expedition was opposed and denounced by Canadian socialists and labour activists...