Into the cold: The Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force

Personnel of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force with truck. c1919. Photo courtesy Raymond Gibson/Library and Archives Canada/C-091749
Personnel of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force with truck. c1919. Photo courtesy Raymond Gibson/Library and Archives Canada/C-091749

Montréal has finally descended into winter and the cold here has me thinking about the Canadians who volunteered or were drafted to fight in Siberia during the last year of the First World War. In total, over 5 000 troops were gathered to be sent to northern Russia; in actuality, roughly 4 000 of those would be sent to the area before the withdrawal of Canadian troops in February 1919. Most did not see any fighting, staying instead stationed at Vladivostok. The CSEF is perhaps best known for the mutiny of members of the 259th Battalion while boarding their ship in Victoria in December 1918; soldiers in the largely conscripted battalion refused to board their troopship in protest at being sent to Russia. The mutiny delayed the arrival of troops from Canada at Vladivostok, meaning that many were still only 1 month in to service in Siberia when the CSEF was withdrawn.

The expedition to Siberia is another odd chapter of World War One history. Russia had begun the war as an empire and an ally of the French and British. By 1917, it was in the throes of a revolution and in 1918, the Bolsheviks, now leading the country after a successful coup in the fall of 1917, negotiated a separate peace with Germany, effectively closing down the two front war in Europe. Around the time of the Bolshevik coup, the Allied governments decided to give military aid to the factions in Russia wishing to continue the war against the Germans, mainly the White, or imperial forces, and the Czech Foreign Legion, a military organisation put together by the Russian army of Czech nationalists looking to fight Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire for an independent Czech homeland. Allied aid would organise these forces and provide additional supplies and men for an attack from behind on the German forces now occupying western parts of Russia, under the assumption that the Bolsheviks would let an Allied army pass through its territory unmolested.

Canada, as in the decision to send troops to Europe in 1914, was given a choice regarding its contribution, and Prime Minister Robert Borden decided to send an expeditionary force of 5 000 men, raised from volunteers returning from the Canadian Corps. The enthusiasm of regular soldiers to re-enlist or continue their service fighting in an area even further from home, for even more murky goals was not particularly appealing, and volunteer participation was extremely low. By 1918, it was decided to use those conscripted under the Military Service Act of 1917, an even more unpopular decision. The Siberian and north Russian campaigns were caught by the armistice in November 1918. Suddenly, their reason for being in Siberia had disappeared, as there would be no rear attack on the German army. The Allies remained in Russia, having committed to helping the White forces battle the Red communist forces in what was fast becoming a savage civil war, but under public and parliamentary pressure Borden first limited use of Canadian troops to non-combat situations and later withdrew them all together in February 1919. The final members of the CSEF would return to Canada in the summer of 1919 and the expedition all but forgotten.

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