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The ‘Die-Hards’ in Siberia

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The ‘Die-Hards’ in Siberia
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Author(s): John Ward
Date Published: 2008/04
Page Count: 180
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-423-2
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-424-9

With the Middlesex Regiment against the Bolsheviks 1918-19

This unusual book from the First World War period. It tells of the attempts of the British—in company with European and American allies and the Japanese—to stem the red tide of Bolshevism in Russia by providing military aid to the White Russian forces. These are the experiences of the men of Middlesex Regiment-'B-oners'—already worn out in other theatres of war and hoping their days of campaigning were about to be over—as they rose to an extraordinary challenge in the harshest of environments in the Siberian winter. This is a fascinating book for those interested in the sideshows of the Great War in which the typically stolid 'Tommy' served—here portrayed in the most affectionate terms by the author—who was also their Colonel. It is also a vital work for those interested in the Russian Revolution, the Civil War and the policies and attitudes of the involved nations as they created the conditions for another World War and helped establish the international balance of power for three quarters of a century.

Shortly after, I met an old tramp with his pack, and handed him over to my liaison officer. We could not very well detain him as he had already in his possession a Czech and a French passport, but afterwards I much regretted that I had not perforated his papers with a bullet as they rested in his breast pocket. He tramped along the road, and my sentries deflected his course away from the trenches, but he saw my men scattered about in the wood behind, and at daybreak the enemy artillery began to spatter the wood with a plentiful supply of shrapnel and shells. One dropped within twenty yards of myself and officers whilst at breakfast; pitching just under a tree, it lifted it into the air in a truly surprising manner. The number of shells—some of which were German make—the enemy wasted on that wood proclaimed an abundant supply of ammunition. To this persistent shelling we had nothing to reply, and at last from sheer exhaustion the enemy fire died down. With darkness he began again, and the feeble reply of three small mountain guns, which we knew were with the Runovka Cossack outpost, indicated that an attack was developing in that direction. <br>
The unequal duel continued intermittently until 2 a.m., when a field telephone message informed me that Runovka had been abandoned, that the Czech company was retiring across our front, and that Kalmakoff's Cossacks were retiring over the river lower down and taking up a position at Antonovka on our extreme right rear. This meant that our whole defensive positions were completely turned, and the next enemy move would place him near our lines of communication.<br>
This, however, was not our only difficulty. Until two days previous we had been able to give an occasional shot in return for the many sent towards us; then the Bolshevik gunners found the mark on the two guns whose duty it was to prevent an advance along the railway, and our two and only field guns were called in to fill the gap, leaving the infantry without any artillery protection. I cabled to Commodore Payne, R.N., who commanded H.M.S. Suffolk, at Vladivostok, informing him of our critical position and asked him to send such artillery assistance as was possible. The commodore was as prompt as is expected of the Navy. In an incredibly short space of time he fitted up an armoured train with two 12-pounder Naval guns and two machine guns, and dispatched it at express speed to my assistance, with a second similar train following behind, the whole being under the command of Captain Bath, R.M.L.I. It is scarcely possible to describe the feeling of relief with which our exhausted and attenuated forces welcomed this timely aid from our ever-ready Navy. It enabled us to bring the two Czech guns into position to keep down the fire of the enemy, and gave us a sense of security in that our rear was safe in case retirement should be forced upon us. It put new heart into the men, though they never showed the slightest sign of depression in spite of their many discomforts. The British soldier certainly offers the most stolid indifference to the most unfavourable situations.<br>
The Bolshevik leaders were not long in showing their hand. They remained silent during the following day, but at night they began to shell us from their new position in Runovka itself, selecting as the site for their two batteries the hill on which the Orthodox church stood, and using the Greek tower as their post of observation.<br>
About 9.30 a.m. an enemy armoured train moved slowly forward from Shmakovka, followed by four others, which directed a flank fire at my position. The shells all plunked into the marsh about four hundred yards short, affording much amusement and causing many caustic Cockney comments. Next came a troop train which gave us great hopes of a real attack developing on our front, but our Naval 12-pounders on the Suffolk's armoured train began to do good practice, and a shot registered on the front enemy engine caused volumes of steam to burst from her sides, and great consternation suddenly appeared amongst the trains' personnel. The Naval gunners did not seem inclined to lose the mark, and so the whole attempt fizzled out, and the trains steamed back to shelter.
The two old Czech field guns, which had been repaired by H.M.S. Suffolk's artificers at Vlady, wheeled into position behind a fold in the ground on our right rear and began a duel with the two enemy batteries at Runovka. This duel was most entertaining. The enemy artillery searched our wood and works, and the line of trees occupied by the French was plentifully sprayed with shrapnel, but they failed to locate our guns, or get anywhere near them, or indeed to cause a single casualty either to man or horse. During the night a peasant gave the guns' position away, and in the early morning exchanges one gun came to grief. <br>The remaining gun changed position, and the duel became still more interesting. By skilful manoeuvring the gun was got much nearer, and at once the range was obtained to a nicety. Every shot was placed so near the mark as to rouse the infantry's obvious excitement to fever heat, and finally a shell was planted right into the enemy observation tower, setting it on fire and burning it to the ground. By placing four shells near to hand, and working like Trojans, the Czech gunners fired four shots so rapidly as to deceive the enemy into the belief that four guns were now opposing them, and after about two hours of this relay work the enemy batteries were beaten to a frazzle, and retired from the unequal contest with two guns out of action. It was simply magnificent as a display of real efficient gunnery. There is no doubt the enemy had intended to make an effort to cross the river at Runovka and that his artillery had been placed with a view to protecting the passage of his troops. The young Czech gunnery lieutenant by his stratagem with one solitary field-piece had made this plan appear impossible to the enemy commander. Never was deception more complete.<br>
Having felt our right flank and found it too strong, the enemy continued his movement towards our right rear. He could only do this with safety by correctly anticipating our strategy. He took our measure to a military fraction. He saw that, though he offered the most tempting bait, we made no effort to move forward to snap it up, and doubtless came to the conclusion that we were chained to our positions by either dearth of numbers or military incapacity. In the last stage of his movement his communications stretched for twenty-three miles along our flank, with three posts of just over one hundred men to protect his supply trains. If the commander of that force is still alive he probably has a poor opinion of the ability of his opponents. We were ready to deal him a death-blow at any moment from the day he occupied Uspenkie until he crossed the river before Antonovka. He and his column were only saved by orders from Vladivostok.
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