A gun crew from the 67th Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery pose for the camera on the banks of the River Dwina
The 67th Battery joined a force of British and United States infantry fortifying the villages of Tuglas on the left bank of the Dwina and at Kurgomen on the opposite side of the Dwina. This fortification followed a withdrawal from Seltso, ten miles further south on the river. The retreat was necessary mainly because the British gunboat supporting the Allies at Seltso had to be withdrawn north before it was trapped by the ice spreading south down the Dwina behind it. The Bolsheviks’ gunboats heading north from deeper in the interior still enjoyed an ice-free passage.
The Allies had calculated that by the time the Bolsheviks reached Tuglas or Kurgomen, the river ice creeping southwards would prevent their gunboats getting within range of the fortified block-houses there. Little fighting was expected until the 1919 spring break-up on the Dwina.
The British and American troops were not up to the same standard as the Canadians. The British contribution to the garrisons at Tuglas and Kurgomen was drawn from the 2/10th Royal Scots. This was a home defence battalion made up of men judged unfit, or no longer fit, for service on the Western Front. Before being sent to Russia the battalion had combed out its most decrepit members and replaced them with other B-class men from other garrison units stationed in Ireland. It had one company, approximately 100 men, at Tuglas divided into four platoons. The United States 339th Infantry, made up of men from Michigan and Wisconsin, also had a company at Tuglas. They were in better physical shape than their British comrades but were woefully inexperienced.
The Canadians impressed Lieutenant John Cudahy of the 339th who noted in his memoir that they were “tough gunners seasoned by four years of barrages and bombardments in France, rather keen for the adventure of North Russia while the fighting was on, and thoroughly ‘fed up’ when there was a lull in the excitement.”
He also noted that they were enthusiastic looters of dead Bolshevik troops and many sported high Russian boots and tall fur hats.
“Yet there was nothing debased or vicious about these Canadians,” he added.
“They were undeliberate, unpremeditated murderers, who had learned well the nice lessons of war and looked upon killing as the climax of a day’s adventure, a welcome break in the tedium of dull military routine. Generous hearted, hardy, whole-souled murderers.”
The 67th Battery had two 18-pounder field guns in Tuglas. These were easily outranged by both the Bolsheviks field guns and the larger calibre naval guns mounted on the Soviet gunboats on the Dwina. The 18-pdrs had a range of 6,600 yards while the heavier calibre Bolshevik field artillery could throw a shell 9,000 yards.
On the other side of the two-and-half-mile wide expanse of the Dwina, the Canadians had another four 18-pdrs at Kurgomen. These played little part in the Armistice Day fighting. The battery had also supplied the crew for a gun mounted on a barge in the Dwina but this was sunk on 20th October.
The thickening ice on the Dwina led the Allies to think that the fighting season was over. The final weeks of October and first week of November were spent improving their defensive positions.
The Bolsheviks, however, were increasing their patrol activity around Tuglas. Villagers in the strung-out settlement of 200 log houses were becoming hostile to the Allies. None of the local people previously employed as scouts would venture into the forest again, even for bonus payments.
On 10th November the British commander of the Allied forces on the Dwina, Brigadier General Robert Finlayson, visited Tuglas from his headquarters at Kurgomen. He dismissed fears that the Bolsheviks might outflank Tulgas’s forward defence line and attack it from the rear because he believed the forest was too swampy for more than a small patrol to navigate successfully. Hundreds of Bolsheviks were already in the trees behind Tuglas as Finlayson spoke.
Bolshevik gunboats took advantage of a thaw in the ice on the Dwina to move north and resume the shelling of the Allied positions on 10th November. They returned next morning and opened fire on the Allies’ positions at Kurgomen and Tuglas at around 8 a.m. Then hundreds of Bolshevik infantry poured out of the woods to the south of both settlements. The 67th Battery’s four 18-pdrs at Kurgomen had little trouble beating off the attack.
The defence of Tuglas was based on a central defensive zone. The 339th Infantry occupied the southern end of the bedraggled strip of log houses. A deep ravine carrying a deep numbingly cold stream running down to the Dwina formed the American’s main defence line. When the first 500 or so Bolsheviks launched their attack, the dozen or so Americans manning an outpost south of the ravine clattered back across the wooden bridge while their colleagues cut the charging Soviets down with Vickers machine-gun fire.
The Canadian 18-pounders also opened fire in support of the Americans. Some Bolsheviks also emerged from the trees to the east of the main defence line but these were driven back by fire from American light machine guns. News that the Bolsheviks had outflanked the forward defence line does not appear to have been shared with the British and Canadians behind the Americans.
Then with a cheer, the Red Army troops to the north of Tuglas, an estimated 400 men, came charging out of the trees. Around a dozen Canadian drivers and signallers emerged from their quarters, alerted by the cheers. Instead of being in the rear of the fighting, they were now in the frontline. But they were experienced men and well trained. They staged a fighting retreat to the two 18-pdr gun pits, keeping up a steady fire with their rifles at the advancing Bolsheviks. This fire checked the Red Guards’ charge, which had already lost some momentum as they paused to clear some houses at the north end of the settlement.
The fighting retirement of the drivers and signallers gave their gunner comrades time to swing one of the 18-pdrs around to face the new threat. A slight rise in the ground prevented the gunners from enjoying a completely unobstructed field of fire and this allowed some of the Bolsheviks to get within 60 yards of the Canadian position. Bolshevik marksmen managed to prevent the second 18-pdr’s crew swinging it around until darkness fell about 4 p.m.
Two platoons of Royal Scots went to the assistance of the Canadian gunners. They suffered heavily as they crossed the open ground between their positions and the gun pits and lost about a dozen men. The Royal Scots who reached the gun pits joined the signallers and drivers in keeping the Bolsheviks at bay with rifle and light machine gun fire. A stalemate soon developed. Three Soviet commissars who exposed themselves as they moved around trying to motivate their troops were killed by Allied marksmen. The Bolsheviks were tired and hungry after their march through the forest to get into position north of Tuglas in time for the Armistice Day attack. Two nights spent in the forest had also sapped much of their energy and vitality.
As the light faded it was possible for Canadian signallers using lamps to restore contact with the rest of the battery on the other side of the Dwina. A cable connecting Tuglas and Kurgomen had been cut by lucky Bolshevik artillery shellfire early in the battle. The battery commander, Major Frank Arnoldi from Toronto, at last knew who was where on the other side of the river and could safely direct the fire of 18-pdrs at Kurgomen onto the Soviets in Tuglas. Faced with this increasing Allied shelling, the Bolsheviks melted back into the forest, leaving around 20 to 30 dead. By 5:30 p.m. Arnoldi was able to record the situation was “All Quiet.”
The Red Guards’ retreat also allowed the Allies to regain possession of the northern end of Tuglas. This part of the settlement included the garrison’s first aid and medical post. It was here the Allies captured a Russian woman in military uniform whom they dubbed Lady Olga. She had earlier overruled one of her fellow officers, who also happened to be her lover, when he ordered the massacre of the first aid post’s occupants. This fellow officer, known as Melochofski, was fatally wounded in the attack on the 18-pdrs and she had nursed him until his death later in the day. A British medical orderly’s decision to give Melochofski two jars of rum may also have cooled his blood lust and helped avert the massacre.
The Bolsheviks who retreated north into the forest did not fare well in the harsh conditions. Fewer than 100 made it back to the Red Army lines south of Tuglas over the next few weeks.
The haul of Bolshevik prisoners from the Tuglas operation, captured either at the time or rounded up in the days which followed, included Germans, Finns, and Latvians.
The fighting continued for two more days as the Allies sought to wrest control of the southern end of the settlement from the Bolsheviks. The Soviets replied with artillery. They fired an estimated 4,000 shells from their field artillery guns and gunboats into Tuglas. Five Allied blockhouses were destroyed in the process. Examination of shell fragments revealed the bulk of the Bolshevik ammunition came from the USA. A wounded British officer pulled from one of the wrecked blockhouses was murdered.
The fighting on the 11th had claimed the lives of two Canadian artillerymen. English-born Corporal Stanley Wareham was shot as he attempted to get from the gun pits to the signals hut. Driver Walter Conville, from Kelowna but born in Montreal, was killed as he emerged from his quarters early in the battle. Wareham had survived more than two years on the Western Front while Conville had served just over a year in France. Wareham had celebrated his 38th birthday ten days before he died. Conville was four years younger. The fighting in Tuglas had cost the Royal Scots 19 dead and 34 wounded.
The Bolshevik gunboats pulled back down the Dwina on November 14 to avoid being trapped by the advancing ice. The homes of Russian villagers suspected of playing host to Bolshevik marksmen during the fighting were burned down by the Allies.
Allied commanders lavishly praised the Canadian artillery men. Theatre commander Major General Edmund Ironside wrote that, “The Canadian artillery, by the action of its drivers and gunners, had worthily upheld the traditions of British gunners” and he later extended his praise to say, “The Canadians out here, especially the artillery brigade, have been the backbone of the expedition.” The commander of the 16th Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Sharman, wrote to his superiors that, “It may interest you to know that General Ironside told me a few days ago that the exploit of the 67th Battery at Tuglas on November 11, when the drivers saved the guns, and concerning which I sent you a special report, is one which has only occurred twice in the history of British Artillery, once in the South African War and once in 1811.”
The troops at Tuglas and Kurgomen urged the British command to send up some guns which could match the range of the Bolshevik artillery. But the British insisted the required 60-pounders could not be moved overland and would not be delivered until the spring thaw re-opened the Dwina to barge traffic. The 67th Battery sent two men to Archangel to design and build sleds for the 60-pdrs. They arrived in April 1919.
By then the battery had been involved in another major fight at Tuglas. The Allies had turned the settlement over Anti-Bolshevik Russian infantry and artillery in March 1919 and moved across the Dwina to concentrate in Kurgomen. But the Russian infantry mutinied in April and murdered their officers. Russian artillerymen and their Allied liaison officers managed to break out of Tuglas thanks to supporting fire from the Canadian guns at Kurgomen and make their way to safety with anti-Bolshevik forces stationed 12 miles north down the Dwina.
By then, a lot of questions were being asked about the whole Allied mission in North Russia. The Germans had been defeated and many soldiers resented being used as pawns in a squalid civil war in a country about which they knew, or cared, little. Many were distinctly unimpressed by the quality of the Russian troops they were working alongside. The Bolshevik propaganda sheet The Call enjoyed wide circulation amongst Allied troops in Northern Russia and its constant questioning of the aims of the Allied mission had its effect. In April 1919 some Canadian artillerymen downed tools briefly and refused to accept orders. The official records for the period have been lost. French, British and American units all went further in their defiance and refused to move up to the front lines.
Sceptical members of the Canada's wartime coalition cabinet back in Ottawa had been questioning the deployment of troops in both North Russia and Siberia, where a force of 4,200 mostly conscript troops had been sent, since mid-November 1918. By January Prime Minister Robert Borden, who had earlier pressured his cabinet into rubber-stamping the commitment of troops, finally conceded that Canada had little to gain from continued involvement in Russia. He was reacting to growing Canadian nationalism which questioned the need to show unreserved commitment to the British Imperial project. A powerful lobby in Canada, including organized labour in Western Canada and the United Farmers of Ontario, also questioned the use of Canadian troops in what was now a civil war in Russia. Ironically, it was newspaper accounts of the Canadians' performance at Tuglas which drew national attention to their presence in Russia and fuelled opposition to the intervention.
By March 1919 the British were reduced to arguing that the Canadians could not be withdrawn from Northern Russia until the ice on the major rivers broke up. In mid-May Borden tried again, following the collapse of his two attempts to broker a peace between the Bolsheviks and the uneasy coalition made up of their “White” (i.e. anti-Red) opponents. He wrote demanding the immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops to the British Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, who had been a fierce advocate of intervention against the Bolsheviks who, he wrote colourfully, “hop and caper like troops of ferocious baboons amid the ruins of cities and the corpses of their enemies.” Within two weeks the Imperial General Staff in London had replaced the Canadians. The 67th Battery and the 68th, which had been fighting their own war on the River Vaga, were re-united at Archangel and on June 18, after a week at sea, were in Scotland. The Canadians had suffered five men killed in action, and one died of wounds in North Russia.
The evacuation of the Canadian troops in Siberia, who had suffered no combat deaths, had been begun on April 22 and was completed by June 5.
Archangel and Murmansk fell to the Bolsheviks within two days of each other in February 1920.
Canadian historians nearly all agree that the continued presence of the country's troops in Russia after the defeat of Germany was a mistake. Some, such as Benjamin Isett, have described it as a “fiasco." Roy MacLaren noted that by 1919, "Throughout Canada there was a general inclination to look upon the whole enterprise as misguided and ill-judged, a blunder to be brought to an early end." Official Army historian Capt. John Swettenham claimed the Canadians in North Russia had succeeded in foiling the Germans but afterwards failed in their campaign against the Bolsheviks due to the lack of a clear-cut and effective commitment to the intervention from the various Allied powers. His boss at the Army's Historical Section. Col. Gerald Nicholson, argued in his account of the Canadian Expeditionary Force that the interventions in Russia gave Finland, Poland and Baltic States enough breathing space to establish their independence by tying up Bolshevik troops elsewhere.
This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of the Dorchester Review
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