THE CANADIANS in SIBERIA
CAPTAIN W. E. DUNHAM
"LOOK at that, will you?” A Canadian soldier, standing at the rail of the troopship, pointed a finger across the icechoked bay to where a huge galvanized iron warehouse with a rounded roof stood out against the grey sky of the early January morning. It was a peculiarly shaped building, what we learned later to speak of as a “godown.” The outstanding feature about this particular “godown,” however, was the fact that painted across it in huge black letters were the words Canadian Ordnance.
“Look at that, old top. Musta been expecting us!” “I’m too blank cold to talk,” grumbled his companion, getting further back from the rail. “This place is Siberia all right. Whew! I'm frozen clean to the marrow of my bones. Remember that fellow that Service wrote a poem about, that Sam McGee who got froze up? Well, I’m going to be Sam McGee the second.” It was unquestionably cold. It had been a pretty frigid trip across, in fact, right from the time that we came within hailing distance of Japan. The men —we had one thousand Canadian troops on board— were luckily a picked lot and in the very finest of condition. So they had been able to stand the rigors of the trip without real difficulty. The night before, however, when the word got round that we would dock in the morning, a high wind had sprung up as though to confirm the news that we had reached Siberia, the land of snow' and ice. The morning showed a temperature of 27 below and a high wdnd from off
shore that cut like a knife. It was none too comfortable along the rail and even the discovery that Canada had already made her mark on Vladivostok to the extent of having a dock warehouse labelled as our own, failed to create much interest.
For myself I was chiefly interested in the work of the icebreakers.
The harbor of Vladivostok, or “Vlady” as we soon got to calling the place, is kept open the w'hole winter through by these energetic and sturdy little boats.
All day and all night long they weave back and forth across the harbor, cutting swaths through the ice which forms so rapidly in that climate. I understand that they never let the ice get thicker than six inches and they steam through that thickness like a keen knife through cheese. As a result the harbor is churned up and kept in a navigable condition, although our ships steamed in through masses of floating ice. I found that we had been navigating a sea of ice from a distance of forty miles out. Our bows were covered with it.
The New Battalion of Death
\ S we drew in toward the dock, I found myself be*■ side a staff officer who had come out to meet us with the pilot. He, had been in the country some
little time so I seized the opportunity of finding what was doing ashore.
“What’s ahead of us?” I asked. “Any chance of the Bolsheviks sending armed forces to drive us out?” He shook his head. “No,” he declared, “they fight with a new kind of weapon. Their method will concern you fairly closely. You’re on the Y work, aren’t you ?”
“Well,” he said, “you’ll have your hands full, I’m afraid. The Bolsheviks have sent another Battalion of Death to stay our advance, an army of women— only the members of this battalion have blonde hair and rouged cheeks and they’re scattered all along the line from Vlady to Omsk.”
He proceeded to give me the details of what clearly is one of the most diabolical phases of the whole war.
Hordes of the most attractive women of questionablecharacter in European Russia were gathered up and sent out to Siberia. They were promised abundance of money and their instructions were to create havoc among the allied forces. “Which,” my informant proceeded, “they succeeded in doing during the early stages of the Allied occupation. Luckily, we found out what was in the wind early and all the Canadian troops have been kept strictly within bounds.”
I was thunderstruck at this information, but any doubts that I may have had were soon dispelled. The facts given us as soon as we landed showed how serious the menace was. But I shall refer to this again later.
The Siberian Outfit
T^HE men were lined up along the dock after disembarkation. By this time the sun had come out but it made little difference in the temperature, so far as we could tell. It seemed to be light without warmth, a hazy glow that turned the sombre grey of the Siberian sky into a dull yellow and touched the edges of the gloomy buildings with the same almost unhealthy tint. The men had to stamp their leather “kitcheners” most vigorously and even swing their arms to keep warm.
They were wearing the full Siberian kit, which is a most sufficient and superior outfit indeed. “Yukon caps” were worn—cloth tops with a fur band which, when turned down, covered the ears and part of the face, leaving only eyes, nose and mouth visible. This was enough, more than enough for some, however. Most noses appeared too long that day and continual rubbing was required to keep them from freezing.
The cold did not seem to bother the coolie laborers, who swarmed about the landing like ants. They were muffled up in rags and were indescribably dirty. A European, as scantily clothed as these lean Mongolians, would soon have succumbed. Thê coolies did not seem to be even inconvenienced and they went about their task of unloading the cargo with the chatter of a thousand tongues. They worked under Russian supervisors, who kept them on the rush with sharp commands that pierced through the hubbub. A long line of curious little Russian wagons were halted by the roadside, shaggy and rather diminutive horses being hitched to each. The box of the wagon was something like a shallow boat without bow or stern. The coolies piled the freight into these basket-looking affairs, loading them lightly. In this way the freight was taken to the “godowns.”
I found my staff acquaintance at my elbow with another interesting piece of information.
“Look at those poor brutes of horses,” he said, pointing at the patient rows. “All that are a decent size are blind.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“The owners put their eyes out to prevent them being commandeered by the authorities. Used quicklime, I understand.”
It was a fact. The callous cruelty of the men who made their living out of the labor of their faithful four-footed slaves had not stopped at this infamous practice.
The Coolie a Clever Thief
\/IY informant pointed out one other peculiarity of A the docks before we marched on—the scientific stage to which thieving has been carried by the coolies. Dotted along the wharves were inspectors who watched the scurrying coolies with a hawk-like vigilance. “Those fellows don’t seem to have much chance to get away with anything,” he said, “but they’re artists at it. They’ll all have to be searched before they leave the docks and every kind of article will be turned out of their clothes.”
As he spoke there was a crash quite near us. Two coolies had been carrying a case between them and they had, quite conveniently it seemed, dropped it. There’s an art in dropping cases. Let them fall on a certain corner and in a certain way and they break open. The coolies know all about this. The case in question split open neatly and packages of chocolates strewed the dock.
There was a frenzied rush of scurrying feet and four score coolies or more had plunged into the store of chocolate in the batting of an eyelash. The guards could roar and swear and plunge with flailing fists and busy feet into that mass of humanity; but nothing could be done until the last atom of chocolate had disappeared. Then the coolies went back to work.
The serious side of this proficiency on the part of the coolies will be realized when it is pointed out Vladivostok has been accumulating supplies ever since the war started. Munitions of all kinds, and
civil supplies as well, billed for Russia, were sent by the Pacific route when war blocked the European frontiers of Czardom and bottled up the Dardanelles. Vlady became the neck of the Russian bottle and a serious effort was made to pour through it four times as much as its capacity allowed. The Trans-Siberian railway, which connects Vlady with European Russia, is single-tracked road. It could not begin to carry the freight that came in by boat. As a result the goods stocked in Vlady, awaiting shipment by rail, grew and increased and multiplied. Every available bit of space around the harbor front was utilized and huge tarpaulin-covered mounds arose on all sides. It would be difficult indeed to compute the value of the stocks which are still lying around there.
Needless to state it is necessary to keep a very close watch over these supplies or the coolies would soon riddle them.
Marching Through Vlady
' I 'HE Canadian troops swing off through streets that were literally jammed with humanity. We took more interest in the crowds, however, than they took in us. The arrival of more foreign troops meant little to the people of Vlady. The streets were thronged but the crowds were scurrying along about their own business—the Canadians were a mere incident of their kaleidoscopic life. There were Russians and Chinese and Japanese and Czechs. There were United States troops and Jap policemen and German tradesmen. I soon learned that Vlady is at present one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the
world and that every nation under the sun is represented in the street throngs. The strange feature of it was the pi-evalence of uniforms. My first glimpse of the streets was a little bewildering on that account. Nearly everyone seemed to be in a uniform of some kind and some of the combinations were indeed fearful and wonderful!
I saw one big Russian, with yellow hair and peasant face agape, wearing a handsomely corded tunic that had once served an officer in the Czar’s army. The tunic was the only thing military about him. With it he wore blue overalls, rough peasant’s boots and a dirty cloth cap. I saw men with officers’ cloaks over woollen smocks; men with khaki trousers and scarlet tunics; men in the rag tag and bobtail of military accoutrement, incongruously sorted together.
There were two reasons for this as I learned later. When the citizens of Vlady found that Allied armies of occupation were being poured into their city, they concluded that safety for them -would be in some pretention to military status. Every man who could get a uniform, or any part thereof, promptly donned it. Sometimes only military boots were worn or a long military coat, no matter what the color or cut. Military medals glittered on breasts that had never been exposed to the foeman’s steel. The underlying thought seemed to be that a person in any kind of uniform would have a measure of protection and would receive a deference that would facilitate business relations.
Another reason given—and perhaps the main one— was that the people had nothing else to wear. Refugees had flooded across Siberia when the Red Terror began in Russia and many thousands had reached Vlady in almost destitute condition. In order to clothe them, military stores were requisitioned. Perhaps some cf the almost ludicrous nondescripts that we saw on the streets once ruffled it among the aristocrats of Rus sia. Perhaps the man we saw with canvas sacking for shoes and a ragged tunic on his back had once driven in his fine linen and furs along the Nevski Prospekt !
Here indeed does East meet West. The customs, the products, the people themselves of two different worlds converge here, making Vladivostok one of the strangest and most cosmopolitan corners of the earth.
Another thing the men were compelled to observe as they marched through the city was the peculiarity of the cobble stone roadways.
“These Russian blighters,” said an officer to me, “must have looked for the sharp corner of each cobble and put it upward!”
The men stumbled along and grumbled volubly. It was painful going. The wind had blown the streets almost bare of snow and the cobbles were exposed and slippery. I heard soldiers say that they would rather march through the mud of Flanders than over these uneven, flinty pavements.
A Massive City
THE paved roads were fairly typical of the whole '*■ city. The buildings are massive stone or brick structures, some of the architecture very ornamental and to the Canadian eye quite foreign. Other buildings are of modern and familiar design. The very fences are heavy, being built not of boards but of plank; not scantling framework, but beams, six by six inches and larger are used. The diameter of a gate post is not measured by the inch but by the foot. The very locks of the doors and the keys of the locks are massive. Oné would not care to carry a very large bunch of Russian keys in his pocket.
It was a surprise to most of us to learn that a street car system was in operation in Vladivostok, but there it veas, a narrow gauge system with German style and build of cars. The system is municipally owned, and at the time of our arrival was not operating any too regularly.
Military motor cars and trucks rumbled over the cobble roads in great numbers and at terrific speed. It was not necessary to be informed that there was no speed limit. One of the marvels of this city, teeming in interest, was its comparative immunity from accidents in its thoroughfares. How the quaint little drotskies managed to dodge danger was to the onlooker inexplicable. The drotsky is a funny little cai*riage on four small wheels, the front wheels being about eighteen inches in diameter. The driver sits on a high seat and behind him there is a low seat for a passenger. The drotsky is rather well built and some of them have indications of former finery. There is a single pair of shafts by which the drotsky is drawn, and into which a fair sized horse is harnessed with a high bow-like hames fitting over the collar. At the side of the horse a shaggy pony is hitched, one would think, as an after thought. Riding in such an outfit with a grizzled and roughly clad shouting driver is an experience indeed. The drotsky is usually for hire but is fast being replaced by the taxicab.
The Last Stand of the Bolsheviks
/ANE of the buildings we passed was the British Mission, so named because of the present use it was being put to. It was chiefly interesting to us as the scene of the last stand of the Bolsheviks in Vlady. A story is told of their characteristic treachery. When the Czechs had driven the Bolsheviki forces to take refuge in this building a white flag was shown and when a couple of Czech officers went forward to investigate, they were shot dead as they approached. In a frenzy the Czechs attacked and immediately captured the building, out of which eighteen dead Bolsheviks were taken.
There were still some signs of the engagment quite noticeable in the shattered masonry where the bullets of the attackers had struck.
The railway station was another point of interest along the line of march. I visited it often later and always found throngs of refugees in the waiting rooms, both day and night. It was one of the few buildings to which the homeless could go for warmth. A companion remarked to me as we left the building one evening: “I do not know which it is hardest to stand, that atmosphere in there or the cold without.
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Personally I’ll take my chances with the cold.” Within the building the air was almost unbreatheable, a sweaty human stench. Without it was bitterly cold; but I agreed with my friend.
Where the Canucks are Quartered 'T'HE troops were glad indeed when they finally reached their quarters, for the cold had become so intense that not even the exertion of marching had served to keep them warm. The first
sight of our quarters was very cheering—huge stone barracks that had been erected after the Russo-Japanese war. They were roomy, clean and well lighted. What was more important than all, they were splendidly heated. There were huge furnaces in each barracks, reaching clear to the ceiling and capable of heating the buildings in any weather. As the supply of coal was ample, we were always able to keep comfortably warm when inside.
There were groups of these well-built barracks around the city and vicinity with a total accommodation of 120,000.
We found that everything was in splendid order and that every detail in connection with our occupation of the country had been very carefully systematized. The first intimation we had received of this was wrhen we steamed into the harbor and saw the w'ords Canadian Ordnance painted on the “godown.” The promise of a carefully co-ordinated system contained in this was amply borne out at every stage.
What They Have Done nPHE activities of the Siberian Expeditionary force have been very limited. There has, in fact, been very little to do. The Bolshevik forces have been driven nearly four thousand miles back when we arrived and, as far as I know, our forces have seen little or no actual fighting. A unit of artillery was sent up to support the British force at the “front” before Omsk, ^ome Canadians were left in Vlady and attached to General Elmsley’s headquarters staff there. The bulk of our forces, however, were stationed at East Barracks, four miles outside the city, and at Garvastai Barracks, eight miles out, which are situated on the hills surrounding a bay of the same name. It was from this bay that a Japanese fleet of cruisers shelled Vladivostok during the Russo-Japanese war. The hills are very heavily fortified to prevent any such occurrence again in the future.
At second river, about t^n miles from the city, another large Canadian detachment was quartered. Small units are stationed elsewhere along the line between the base at Vlady and the “front” at Omsk, four thousand miles away.
At best the expedition has little more activity than garrison duty. The monotony of the life is, to say the least, irksome and to the e high-spirited Canadian lads after their splendid work in France it is proving very dreary and drab. They recognize that they are being well cared for and their boast is that no force in Siberia can equal the Canadians in point of equipment, organization and personnel ; but that is not enough to keep them up.
“A soldier with nothing to do becomes a devil,” said one of the senior officers, as soon as it became apparent that active service was out of the question. It was recognized that something would have to be done to keep them occupied. Drill and training exercises were ordered to be rigidly maintained. Steps were taken at once also to provide healthy amusements. Hockey rinks were laid out at once. The Y.M.C.A. had sent over a consignment of hockey equipment—enough for an eight-team league. These were supplied gratuitously to the troops and the league was? organized at once. Hockey has been one of the main amusements right through the winter.
The Troops Are Homesick
DUT nothing we could do served in any adequate way to mitigate the homesickness that permeates the force. If the war were still on the troops would accept their monotonous lot as part of the game. But they know that the guns are silent on the Western front, that their comrades are pouring heme across the Atlantic and they long for Canada and civil life again. It is the same in all ranks.
“If I could get back home by reverting to the ranks, I’d do it in a minute,” said an officer to me just before I sailed for Canada.
“If I could get out of here now,” said a husky young private to me, a wistful look in his eyes, “I wouldn’t stay if they offered to make me a colonel !”
They both meant it. The hunger for home is in every heart. The homesickness is quite as prevalent as the seasickness on the voyage out, and that is saying a great deal, for most of the men learned by experience what Irwin Cobb meant when he, in writing of seasickness, said: “You can’t eat your
chicken and keep it too.”
Protection From the Harpies
OF course, this condition makes the menace from the harpies still more intense. This was, we found, the great problem to be solved—to keep our men out of their clutches. I want to allay at once the anxiety that must be felt in Canada on this score. The difficulty has been solved and the men have been protected; but the menace is always there.
Too much praise cannot be given the authorities, military and medical, for the network of restriction and education they have thrown about the troops. The medical men from the first did not give any encouragement to the idea of cure or prevention or treatment of any kind. Their primal warning was “stay in barracks.” The military authorities placed the men in areas far removed from centres where the Bolsheviks were carrying on their diabolical attack. Places known to be frequented by the emissaries were placed out of bounds by most of the Allied armies. One might well ask, why not place the harpies under arrest or drive them out of these centres? Where would they be driven to? It was far from feasible, for their number was legion. The authorities placed a military picket in every known district and the men of our army who disregarded restriction and advice were placed under arrest and severely dealt with. Were it possible to make a comparison in an article of this kind between the methods adopted by General Elmsley and his staff and that of some other troops in Siberia the facts would plainly show how individually our men have been protected.
Realizing the value of the social work of the Y.M.C.A. General Elmsley requested the increase of the establishment to three times its present strength. In doing so, he remarked: “I consider
this increase in establishment necessary owing to the fact that the force is scattered, which makes it most important that a larger number of recreation rooms, canteens, etc., be established. I also consider that, by increasing the opportunities for entertainment, the men will be kept out of-town to a greater extent and this fact will reduce the number of venereal cases. This necessary personnel should be recruited and be dispatched from Canada at the earliest possible date.”
This reference to General Elmsley’s attitude is not given as a boost for the Y.M.C.A. but to show the attitude of the G.O.C. to the welfare of his men and the way in which he assumes responsibility for them.
The Allies Are Needed
L>EOPLE in Canada, I find, are asking what have we got to do with Siberia? Why should our troops be there?
In the first place they are there at the request of Great Britain. They are not necessarily a punitive force but they are to hold Siberia from becoming the bloody ruin that European Russia is to-day. There are huge military stores on the docks and in the “godowns” of Vladivostok. Should these fall into the hands of any particular political faction they would be used to exterminate their opponents, for the first thing the Russian thinks of when opposed is force, brute force. He believes implicitly in the now exploded German philosophy that the end justifies the means. Moreover since the military occupation of Siberia by the Allies, and particularly the arrival of the British including the Canadians, the political factions have not dared to resort to force. They are proceeding in a more peaceful manner to sift their theories and change their leaders until they obtain what they want. They know they want a new form of Government but they are far from one mind as to the form it should take.
The people of Siberia resent the presence of the Allied troops there, despite the fact that the occupation is the only thing that prevents carnage and anarchy. They regarded us as intruders. They probably still do. Some of them, who were opposed to the Bolshevists.
•were anxious that our forces should be -employed to attack the Reds in Russia. Our Allies, the Czecho-Slovaks, had grown impatient with the inactivity and were threatening to fight their way through Russia to their own home land again, just as they fought their way out. The Czechs are splendid fighting men and deserve a great deal of credit. They will withdraw almost certainly from Siberia this spring.
The people of Siberia, as I said before, are striving to get a better form of Government but they do not know yet what form it is to take. They are all Bolshevists in the meaning of the word as it is used here. A Bolshevist, with them, is one who wants a change.
If the Allies should withdraw before a stable Government is established it would mean that that vast land, so long a land of sorrow and suffering, would become a bloody riot from end to end. If they stay until the people have settled upon the most workable method of Government there is no reason why it should not become in the very near f uture a bright and prosperous country, similar in life as it is similar in typography and climate to our own Northwest.
And so, the Canadian Expeditionary Force has the consolation of knowing that its enforced stay in this now dreary and uninteresting country is serving a tremendously valuable purpose.