The Allies’ Siberian Intervention of August 1918 marked a new phase in the Russian Civil War in Northeast Asia. At the same time, it was deeply linked to the European battlefields of the First World War. Its aims were to protect the Czechoslovak Legion – which wished to join the fight against the Central Powers – and support anti-Bolshevik governments that would keep Russia in the War. The rapid collapse of Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria-Hungary in September-October, as well as the outbreak of revolution in Germany in late-October, soon cast doubt on these objectives. One after the other, the Central Powers sued for peace, culminating in the Armistice of 11 November. Was there any reason for further Allied involvement in Russia?
Messages soon arrived in Beijing on the future of the Intervention and of the Bolshevik regime. Germany’s impending exit from the war meant that the Allies could throw their full weight against the Soviets. Secretary Zheng Yanxi, one of the few members of the Chinese embassy left behind in Russia, described the Soviets’ desperation.
On the 30th of this month [sic, should be 5th], the German government demanded of the Russian ambassador [A.A. Ioffe] that all representatives and officials stationed in Russian [sic] Berlin should leave in 24 hours. Russian officials in Germany should also leave with them. As for German representatives and officials in Russia, they will also leave within a similar time. It is said that this diplomatic breach between Russia and Germany is due first to the suspicion that Russian officials were involved in Germany’s revolutionary wave, and second that the assassin of the former German ambassador to Russia [Mirbach] has not been punished. The Bolshevik government is isolated and cannot carry on. It is now entrusting the Norwegians with mediating on their behalf to sue for peace with Japan, as well as Britain, America, France and Italy.Telegram from embassy secretary Zheng Yanxi, 24 November 1918 (sent 23 November). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 580.
Berlin had, in fact, no concrete evidence for Soviet provocation at the time, despite ambassador Ioffe’s later claims of hectic propagandising and organisational efforts. Nevertheless, the momentum of revolution in Germany and Austria was such that Ioffe’s embassy had to be expelled. At any rate there was no need to parlay with a Soviet regime that the Germans thought would soon fall.
The attempt to placate the Allies failed. Commissar for Foreign Affairs G.V. Chicherin’s 3 November note to the Norwegian ambassador – and his intimation that the Soviets were “prepared to go very far” to accommodate the Allies – was met with stony silence. Zheng, who was with other Allied representatives in the North Russian interventionary headquarters of Arkhangel’sk, reported that the Allies were determined to combat Bolshevism.
I trust that the telegram of the 8th has been received. On the matter of the Bolshevik government suing for peace with the Allies, it is said that the various countries are all ignoring it. At this moment the diplomatic corps is holding discussions, all are saying that since the European War has ended, there are plans to send troops to clear out the Bolsheviks all the way to Petrograd.Telegram from Zheng Yanxi, 27 November 1918 (sent 25 November), Ibid., p. 582.
In the Far East, there was some doubt as to how long the Allies would continue with the Intervention. President of the Chinese Eastern Railway Guo Zongxi, who had seen Czechoslovak and Allied troops – to say nothing of the Imperial Japanese Army – cross Manchuria on the line in large numbers, asked if preparations should be made for a withdrawal.
According to a letter from General Jia Deyao:
‘A letter has been received from CER president Guo, saying that now that the European War has ended, Beijing should consult with the various ambassadors to ascertain how the international forces dispatched to Russia will be wound up. He asked if an outline of both the time and procedure for withdrawal could be made known, so that a means of dealing with their transportation may be readily determined.’
We consider that – as the president states – the means by which the troops dispatched to Russia will be withdrawn, as well as the time and procedure, will indeed affect transport on that railway. As for how we should ascertain the general outline of this from the Allied ambassadors, so as to deal with the matter, we request that Your Ministry consider and carry it out, as well as provide a response that we can convey.Letter from the War Participation Bureau, 6 December 1918. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919): chubing Xiboliya, p. 433.
But here, too, it soon became apparent that the Allies would continue to fight in Russia. In response to a Navy Ministry enquiry as to whether China should withdraw its warship from Vladivostok, consul-general Shao Hengjun advised against it categorically. So, too, did Liu Jingren, who had been ambassador to Russia when the 1917 revolutions broke out and was now China’s civilian envoy to the Allied headquarters in Vladivostok.
Wired instructions of 5 March received. The migrants are ignorant and it has been very difficult to investigate the losses. Those relating to military materiel are not included. Now according to the results of the enquiry, the total sum obtained was: Expenditure costs, 4,197,218 rubles; loss of life, total 31,500,000 rubles; direct damage to property, 21,425,734 rubles; indirect damage, 32,959,500 rubles. Apart from this, some investigations have not yet been completed and several places have not sent reports. In obedience to the instructions I am urgently submitting the above figures; the rest will follow. Regarding the warship: The American ship has temporarily berthed in Manila and the French one, which is made of fragile wood, has also momentarily left for an ice-free port. Both will return next year. Apart from that, the rest have not withdrawn. From both a domestic and a diplomatic perspective, the Hai Rong should not be immediately withdrawn. Observing the situation, it is best for it to stay for the long term. The ambassador [Liu Jingren] came yesterday, all Your telegrams have been given to him. The warship situation was also laid out and he is in full agreement.Telegram from Shao Hengjun, 8 December 1918. Ibid., pp. 434-435.
It was now abundantly clear to the Chinese that the Intervention would continue. But Allied aims in Russia had changed, from winning the Great War to opposing Bolshevism tout court. As a justification for committing more men, materiel and money, however, this grew increasingly untenable, especially to the public. Why were American, British and Japanese soldiers not coming home, now that peace had arrived? What was the point in supporting White leaders who seemed incapable of governing their own territories effectively or defeating the Reds on the battlefield? Such questions would grow more pressing in 1919, even as the Allies attempted to reshape the new, post-war world.