Churchill and the White Russians: The Russian Civil War, 1919

Churchill and the White Russians: The Russian Civil War, 1919

Extract­ed from “Churchill: A Mil­lion Allied Sol­diers to Fight for the White Rus­sians?” for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, Novem­ber 2019. For the orig­i­nal text click here.

A read­er refers us to The Polar Bear Expe­di­tion: The Heroes of America’s For­got­ten Inva­sion of Rus­sia 1918-1919 (2019). It repeats a mis­un­der­stand­ing about Churchill’s role in aid­ing the White Rus­sians against the Bol­she­viks. By the spring of 1919 in Rus­sia, we read:

…the cat was out of the bag: whether its allies—English, French, White Russians—liked it nor not, the U.S. was pulling out. On March 4, the British War Cab­i­net decid­ed to fol­low suit, ignor­ing the argu­ments of the vir­u­lent­ly anti-Bol­she­vik Win­ston Churchill, who as sec­re­tary of war had pro­posed increas­ing the Allied com­mit­ment in Rus­sia to one mil­lion men.

“The pas­sage makes Churchill sound like a mad­man,” our read­er writes. “What is the truth of the matter?”

The Allied Venture

First, it wasn’t sim­ply America’s inva­sion. After the Armistice of Novem­ber 1918, var­i­ous Allies sent troops to assist Anton Denikin and Alexan­der Kolchak, lead­ing rebels against Lenin’s Sovi­et gov­ern­ment. Allied inter­ven­tion on behalf of the White Rus­sians involved hun­dreds of thou­sands of troops. By far the largest con­tin­gents, up to 70,000 each, were from Czecho­slo­va­kia and Japan. America’s com­mit­ment was 11,000, Britain’s 7,500, France’s 15,000. Czech casu­al­ties dwarfed those of the oth­ers. Sec­ond, Win­ston Churchill nev­er demand­ed the Allies send a mil­lion troops. He did men­tion the like­ly involve­ment of a mil­lion White Russians.

What real­ly hap­pened? Sir Mar­tin Gilbert’s Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy, World in Tor­ment 1916-1922, offers the truth. Churchill did pow­er­ful­ly sup­port aid­ing the White Rus­sians. He was also mind­ful how far the Allies could go. He also favored a firm deci­sion. When he real­ized they would not go far enough, he urged disengagement.

Quandaries over White Russians

The British War Cab­i­net met on 10 Jan­u­ary 1919, a week before the Paris Peace Con­fer­ence began. The day before, Churchill had accept­ed Prime Min­is­ter David Lloyd George’s offer of the War Office. Churchill’s chief task was to demo­bi­lize and bring home four mil­lion men. He was well aware of their sac­ri­fice. A mil­lion British, Indi­an, Cana­di­an, Aus­tralian and oth­er sol­diers had giv­en their lives. Mar­tin Gilbert describes the White Rus­sians discussion:

Sir Hen­ry Wil­son point­ed out that dur­ing the past week “there had been signs of unrest in the Army at home, and it was noto­ri­ous that the prospect of being sent to Rus­sia was immense­ly unpop­u­lar.” [But Mar­shal Foch had said it was urgent] “to stop the advance of Bol­she­vism before it pen­e­trat­ed Aus­tria and Ger­many.” Churchill sup­port­ed Foch’s appeal…. He then sug­gest­ed that the defeat­ed Ger­man army should be used to check the west­ward advance of Bolshevism….

Wil­son was Churchill’s senior advis­er on mil­i­tary affairs, but fre­quent­ly dis­agreed with his civil­ian chief. Wil­son was con­vinced, he wrote in his diary, “that we (British) should keep out of the scrum. If the Amer­i­cans and French like to go in, let them.” He agreed with Churchill’s idea about using the defeat­ed Ger­man army: “We should order the Boches to hold up Bol­she­vism.” But few in the Cab­i­net want­ed that.

Paris Peace Conference

So informed, the Prime Min­is­ter went to Paris. Lloyd George, Gilbert con­tin­ues, “favoured con­cil­i­a­tion rather than inter­ven­tion.” Backed by U.S. Pres­i­dent Wil­son, he invit­ed the Bol­she­viks to a peace con­fer­ence at Prinkipo, a Turk­ish island near Con­stan­tino­ple. Learn­ing of the Prinkipo pro­pos­al, Churchill protest­ed that it would amount to rec­og­niz­ing Lenin’s vicious regime.

In Lon­don, Cab­i­net opin­ion was strong­ly against British inter­ven­tion. Lord Cur­zon, short­ly to become for­eign min­is­ter, want­ed oth­er coun­tries to act. Austen Cham­ber­lain want­ed no inter­ven­tion by any­one. Pres­i­dent Wil­son in Paris opposed inter­ven­tion. If it occurred, he said, Britain and France would “have to sus­tain the whole cost.” The White Rus­sians, Wil­son believed, could not sur­vive “for a moment” by themselves.

Above all, Gilbert writes, Churchill want­ed a firm deci­sion. “He offered his col­leagues three clear choic­es: autho­rize him to inter­vene with British troops; aid the Whites with guns and equip­ment; “or to with­draw.” Lloyd George, con­tin­ues Mar­tin Gilbert,

… asked Sir Hen­ry Wil­son to pre­pare a state­ment show­ing the mil­i­tary effect of each of the three pos­si­ble poli­cies…. Churchill him­self sent a long note to Wil­son, in which he asked him to assume, in his cal­cu­la­tions: (a) that the Prinkipo Con­fer­ence will not take place and that the Allied Gov­ern­ments will instead make a unit­ed appeal to all loy­al Rus­sians to exert them­selves to the utmost against the Bol­she­viks; (b) that no troops can be sent from this coun­try by com­pul­sion to car­ry on the war in Russia.

Churchill’s Views

Churchill envi­sioned help­ing the Whites but not bear­ing the full bur­den. Repeat­ed­ly he insist­ed, “the only chance of mak­ing head­way against the Bol­she­viks was by the use of Russ­ian armies,” Gilbert continues:

There were, he said, near­ly half a mil­lion anti-Bol­she­vik Rus­sians under arms, and the Rus­sians them­selves planned to dou­ble this fig­ure. “If we were unable to sup­port the Rus­sians effec­tive­ly,” he added, “it would be far bet­ter to take a deci­sion now to quit and face the con­se­quences, and tell these peo­ple to make the best terms they could with the Bolsheviks.”

“I am all in favour of declar­ing war on the Bol­she­viks,” Sir Hen­ry Wil­son declared, “but the oth­ers, except Win­ston, won’t.”

Before leav­ing  the Peace Con­fer­ence, Pres­i­dent Wil­son sup­port­ed the Prinkipo meet­ing, but lat­er he waf­fled.  The Bol­she­viks had “raised a num­ber of issues” he said, which were “insult­ing”: repay­ment of debts, con­ces­sions and ter­ri­to­r­i­al com­pen­sa­tions. In the event, the Prinkipo con­fer­ence nev­er occurred.

A Plea for Decision

Win­ston Churchill didn’t waf­fle. Again as Mar­tin Gilbert shows, he implored his col­leagues to make a decision—but to under­stand what with­draw­al would mean:

The com­plete with­draw­al of all Allied troops was, at least, “a log­i­cal and clear pol­i­cy,” but [Churchill] feared that its con­se­quences “would be the destruc­tion of all non-Bol­she­vik armies in Rus­sia,” a total of half a mil­lion men, whose num­bers were increas­ing. “Such a pol­i­cy,” he con­tin­ued, “would be equiv­a­lent to pulling out the linch-pin from the whole machine. There would be no fur­ther armed resis­tance to the Bol­she­viks in Rus­sia, and an inter­minable vista of vio­lence and mis­ery was all that remained for the whole of Russia.”

“There is no ‘will to win’…”

The Pres­i­dent no soon­er arrived in Wash­ing­ton than he announced with­draw­al of U.S. troops “at an ear­ly date.” On 23 Feb­ru­ary, a British bat­tal­ion, the 13 Yorks, refused to march in sup­port of fel­low forces on the Archangel front. Their Com­man­der, Gen­er­al Iron­side, said they’d been aggra­vat­ed by the Amer­i­can announce­ment. Four days lat­er, Churchill  sent Lloyd George an anguished let­ter, which per­fect­ly under­stood the atti­tude of the British bat­tal­ion: “The lack of any “will to win” com­mu­ni­cates itself to our troops and affects their morale: it com­mu­ni­cates itself to our Russ­ian allies and retards their organ­i­sa­tion, and to our ene­mies and encour­ages their efforts…. [The Alliles] are paus­ing mid­way between these two cours­es with an equal dis­like of either…. It is nec­es­sary [that you] ham­mer out a pol­i­cy…. No one below you can do it.”


Lloyd George act­ed. When he returned from Paris, the War Cab­i­net vot­ed to begin evac­u­at­ing British troops from Rus­sia. On 5 March Churchill asked his chiefs of staff to imple­ment with­draw­al. Again we have Mar­tin Gilbert to thank for his exact words. They show Churchill as any­thing but a mad war­mon­ger. He asked for

a def­i­nite timetable for this oper­a­tion pre­pared with the nec­es­sary lat­i­tude… I am extreme­ly anx­ious about this posi­tion, and from day to day my anx­i­eties increase [and] I have announced to Par­lia­ment and pledged the War Office to leave no stone unturned [so long as we act in] a man­ner not incom­pat­i­ble with the hon­our of our army. I should like also to be able to raise the morale of our men out there by promis­ing them def­i­nite­ly in a mes­sage direct from me that they will either be relieved by vol­un­teers from Eng­land or with­drawn alto­geth­er as soon as Archangel is open….

In Retrospect

His­tor­i­cal assess­ments of the Allied inter­ven­tion on behalf of the White Rus­sians are almost all neg­a­tive. The Bol­she­viks con­clud­ed that the West wished to destroy them. The oper­a­tion pro­longed a bloody civ­il war with noth­ing to gain at the end but Russ­ian enmi­ty. It is debat­able whether that enmi­ty still mat­tered when Rus­sia and the West faced a more implaca­ble foe in 1940. Stal­in was many ter­ri­ble things, but he was also a pragmatist.

Churchill’s view in 1919 was clear:  As he wrote to Gen­er­al Har­ing­ton, Deputy Chief of the Impe­r­i­al Gen­er­al Staff: “We may live to regret bit­ter­ly the oppor­tu­ni­ties and resources we are los­ing through the present inde­ci­sion.” Churchill’s view many years lat­er was unal­tered. “If I had been prop­er­ly sup­port­ed in 1919, I think we might have stran­gled Bol­she­vism in its cra­dle,” he said at a Wash­ing­ton press con­fer­ence in 1954. “But every­body turned up their hands and said, ‘How shocking!’”

No evi­dence exists that Churchill wished to com­mit a mil­lion Allied troops. The British con­tin­gent he envi­sioned was small, and made up of vol­un­teers. Above all, Churchill want­ed deci­sion, not hes­i­ta­tion, which he abhorred all his life.

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