A Noble Cause? Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War 1917-1920

By Theodore Cox-Dodgson

Arguably one of the most significant, yet often forgotten, events of the twentieth century was the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. However, it is also a misunderstood event. Although there was ideological hostility to the Bolshevik coup in November 1917, the initial aim of Allied intervention was not to depose the Bolsheviks. Instead, prior to November 1918, it was a strategic extension of the war against the Central Powers. Come the Armistice, a desire to fulfil commitments made during the war, and recognition of war weariness on the part of the Allies, created confusion. Contrary motives, both in Allied purpose, and within the ‘White’ movement itself, gave further hesitation to intervention. Speaking of this subject in its entirety in a limited space of time is complicated, as there were many Allies (the French, the British, the Americans and the Czechs, amongst others); there were many actors within each country pursuing different policies. This article predominantly intends to give a brief overview of the motives of the Allies for intervening before the Armistice, and the motivations for the intervention afterwards. Discussions of the withdrawal are limited; however, in the hesitations prior to intervention of the American President Woodrow Wilson and the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, we can see the reasons why the intervention was unable to be sustained.

One brief account of the intervention, one which would find sympathy in both Western and Bolshevik circles, is given by Andrew Roberts. In History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, Roberts gives the following account about the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War:

‘The honourable efforts of the English-speaking peoples to try and strangle Bolshevism in its cradle are often forgotten, but 7500 Americans, 4000 Canadians and 1600 Britons served as ground troops in 1918-1919 campaigns to intervene in the Russian civil war on the side of the Tsarist white opposition, attempting to crush Lenin’s revolution before it was able to infect Mankind. They failed, of course, but it was a most noble cause.’[1]

Roberts’ account plays into much conventional wisdom about Allied intervention, both in his presentation of ideological Allied motives and his false claim that the opposition was ‘Tsarist’ (as Richard Pipes points out, none of the White Armies had restoration of tsarism as their chief objective).[2] Roberts, for all his fierce anti-communism, buys into a large amount of Soviet propaganda about the motives of the intervention. To the limited extent that the Allies were intent on ousting Lenin, their efforts allowed Lenin to present the White movement as unpatriotic and allowed for a ‘rally around the flag effect’.

When the Bolsheviks took power in November 1917, the Allies held the hope that the Bolsheviks would continue the war. Of course, the Bolsheviks had been agitating since 1914 for peace, and one of their first acts was to attempt this, yet for the Allies it looked as though their overtures would be turned down by the Germans and the two powers would continue fighting. In hindsight, this was unrealistic, however this mistaken assumption, as well as some skilful deception by Leon Trotsky, tricked the Allies into thinking that the Bolsheviks would maintain an Eastern Front for some significant time. [3]

However, one must acknowledge that the Allied concern about the Bolshevik regime was not purely geostrategic.  There was ideological hostility, and several actions by the Bolsheviks and Allies generated further tension between them in what could be argued was a prelude to the Cold War. The Bolsheviks leaked the Sykes-Picot agreement and incited rebellion against the British authorities in Egypt and India.[4] This was to be expected given their anti-imperialist worldview, but this no doubt damaged relations between the British and the new regime. Indeed, as early as December 1917 the British extended economic assistance to the Cossacks and other ‘White’ opponents of the Bolsheviks.[5] Nonetheless, these actions were trivial, playing a part in what John Bradley has labelled a ‘diplomatic war’, undertaken by the Allies and the Bolsheviks between November 1917 and the signing of Brest-Litovsk.[6] This involved clandestine negotiations attempts by the Allies to get the Bolsheviks to continue the war, using recognition of rival ‘governments’ such as those of Kornilov as leverage. However, the Bolsheviks were still nominally a British, French and American ally between November 1917 and March 1918 and therefore limited thoughts of intervention existed before March 1918.

The events of March 1918 forced changed this policy. On 3rd March 1918, the Bolsheviks and the Germans signed the treaty of Brest Litovsk, ending the conflict on the Eastern Front and allowing the Germans to transfer men west. Other stipulations of the Treaty included the massive de facto control Germany enjoyed over the old Russian Empire, including twenty six per cent her population, thirty two per cent of her crops and seventy five per cent of her coal fields. The Allied blockade was undermined by this new wealth of resources under German control.[7] The end of the Eastern Front also allowed for the catastrophic Ludendorff Offensive on 22nd March, an offensive in which the Germans, within a two week period, reversed nearly four years of Allied progress towards the German border, and Paris was within reach of German artillery fire.[8] It was considered imperative for Allied strategy that an Eastern front be re-opened so as to relieve the Allies on the Western front, and continue the blockade of Germany. Bolshevik permission was desired, and the Bolsheviks, even after Brest-Litovsk, appeared to be open to the idea of Allied troops in Russia if they would not be used to destroy their nascent regime.[9] Thus, intervention in Russia, rather than being the start of a new war against a new enemy, was always considered to be a strategic extension of the war against Germany.

It should be noted that there was much suspicion among the Allies and the White Russian forces regarding the Bolsheviks being ‘German puppets’. The Germans had ferried Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd, paying him in large amounts of gold in the process, with the acknowledged hope that he would cause as much disruption as possible. The ‘July days’ conveniently took place at the same time as the failed ‘Kerensky Offensive’ and the Bolshevik revolution itself was rumoured to be led by German officers, an impression reinforced by Brest-Litovsk and subsequent reports of armed German Prisoners of War being released from Bolshevik prisoner of war camps.[10] These suspicions resulted in a breakdown in relations and played a large role in the Allied decision to intervene prior to November 1918.

George Kennan suggests that ‘there was no single factor that played a more significant role [in Allied-US relations] … than the unique armed force known subsequently as the Czechoslovak Legion’.[11] Since 1914, a variety of Czech and Slovak nationalists had been fighting in the Russian Empire’s army in the hope of attaining independence from the Austrian Empire. By 1918 the Czech Legion had a strength of 40,000 troops. Such troops were needed urgently by the Allies to make use of in either France, or on a newly created Eastern front.

In December 1917, the Czechs were recognised as an Allied fighting force under French Command, and the earliest plan was to move the Czechs to France via Vladivostok. The Bolsheviks assented to this movement, but there was much confusion on the long journey East, with troops becoming dispersed, some being obstructed by local Bolshevik forces, which the Czechs suspected was done by German pressure. The flashpoint for conflict was on the 14th May at Chelyabinsk, when a Hungarian Prisoner of War being returned home under the terms of Brest-Litovsk threw an iron at a Czech soldier. This promptly escalated into a conflict between not only the Prisoners of War and the Czechs, but the local Soviet authorities. In response, the Czechs lynched the culprit and seized the town. This roused Moscow into action, and on the 25th May, Trotsky ordered the local Soviets to disarm the Czech legion. This bought the Czechs into direct confrontation with the Bolsheviks.[12] Although for some time the Czechs retained the hope of gaining the whole of the Trans-Siberian railway to be able extricate themselves from Russia, they eventually joined with the White Army and spent the next three years fighting the Bolsheviks. In a June 1918 speech, Lenin accused the Czechs of being tools of Anglo-French hostility to the Bolshevik revolution.[13] To a certain extent this was true, but the Czechs, most being democrats or socialists, would have little sympathy with the aristocratic, conservative White opposition, and had rejected several of their overtures prior to May 1918. It was rather disorganisation and communication that had brought the powerful Czech Legion into conflict with the Bolsheviks.

The events of May and June 1918 roused the Allies into action. Even the previously reluctant Wilson agreed to send troops to Vladivostok alongside the Japanese to assist the Czechs. However, Wilson emphasised that the aim of the intervention was to ensure the smooth withdrawal of the Czechs out of Russia, rather than to interfere in what Wilson considered to be an internal matter for the Russians.[14] This was reflective of American policy in Russia in general, and any direct confrontations that the US may have had with the Russians was accidental. Wilson was similarly strategy-focused when it came to intervention in Murmansk, with the aim to merely guard the 600,000 tonnes of military material and military supplies provided to pre-Bolshevik Russia from German encroachment.[15] The blockade of the Baltic and northern ports was also designed to prevent prisoners of war being returned to Germany and Austria to fight the Allies on the west.

Thus, in November 1918 it is evident that the agreed aims of Allied intervention were to safeguard and extricate the Czechs, prevent the Central Powers from seizing the Allied weapons before they  reached their destination  in Murmansk and possibly to reopen the Eastern Front. There was little interest in regime change but, in the name of strategy, several commitments were made between the Allies and White forces, such as those between the White General in the South, Anton Denikin and Alexander Kolchak, that the Allies felt honour bound to maintain. What followed was years of confusion, in which the Allies never launched an intervention sufficient enough to overthrow the Bolshevik regime, but one that empowered it by making Lenin seem like the patriot against foreign controlled White opposition. Thus, Allied intervention allowed the Bolsheviks, who had arguably signed one of the most humiliating peace deals in the history of mankind, to present themselves as patriotic Russians!

After the Armistice, the confusion continued. With Germany defeated, the aims of the intervention were redundant and it was time to end four years of war. However, some, such as French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill, saw Bolshevism as an existential world threat that needed to either be contained or overthrown. Such discussions took place in the context of the Spartacist uprising in January 1919 and the establishment of the Hungarian Socialist Republic in March 1919. Although there was no doubt an ideological element, it is also possible that the French desire for regime change was based on a desire to recoup some of the lost loans to Russia that the Bolsheviks had repudiated.[16] Although Clemenceau was keen for Allied intervention, the Anglo-American leaders were receptive to growing domestic voices, the Senate isolationists in the USA and the emerging Labour party in the UK. These domestic actors limited the extent of the intervention in the post-Armistice period from the very start. Wilson, learning in part from his disastrous experience in Mexico and in-keeping the sixth of his fourteen points, refused to countenance any direct confrontation with the Bolsheviks. Wilson withdrew his troops from Murmansk as soon as the ice had cleared in spring 1919, and kept his troops in Siberia until the last of the Czechs left Vladivostok in 1920. Indeed, when one considers the Allied intervention in 1919, it predominantly relates to the British and the French. However, before this is discussed, some accounts of Allied decision-making are necessary.

On 12th January 1919 at the Allied council, Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George began discussions on Russia. The Allies began by refusing to recognise any of the numerous delegations in Paris claiming to represent Russia. This meant that discussions of the Russian situation were largely made without Russian voices. On 22nd January 1919 Marshall Foch proposed an international army of Allies, White Russians, and Eastern Europeans to liberate the Russians from Bolshevism. Lloyd George and Wilson opposed this proposal because of the unfeasibility of such an operation. Another possible option was an economic blockade, a policy Lloyd George rejected on humanitarian grounds, and a third was negotiation between the warring parties. This so-called ‘Prinkipo proposal’ was radioed to the various parties on 22nd January, however the White Armies of Denikin and Kolchak rejected the overtures, and there is strong evidence that the French scuppered the negotiations. The failure of negotiations led to intervention, albeit not on the scale proposed by Marshal Foch.[17]

For all his scepticism, Lloyd George left planning of intervention to Churchill. Lloyd George conceded to Churchill that the UK had a moral commitment not renege on commitments made to various White actors, and that it was imperative to avoid intervention at an excessive cost. This led to an Allied policy of heavy support to the Denikin government.[18] This was in some senses problematic. National interests also played a key role in the conflict. The White leaders, notably Denikin and Kolchak, wanted a unified Russian Empire under military or democratic leadership. This conflicted with other anti-Bolsheviks, such as Ukrainian nationalists, who desired independence. It was in the British interest for Russia to be dismembered so she would no longer pose the threat of being the great rival of the Middle East that she had been in the nineteenth century. These divisions over nationality ended up dominating Allied energies instead of attempts to support the White Armies fighting the Bolsheviks. When it was clear that Ukraine was no longer secure from Bolshevik advances, the French left, and were followed shortly after by the British. Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War ended not in a bang, but in a whimper.

Allied intervention ended between 1919 and 1920, before it had really even begun, and although the Japanese remained in the Far East until the 1920s, Bolshevik strength forced them to retreat. The intervention was partly linked to White success, with Kolchak and Denikin experiencing defeats in the latter half of 1919 forcing further retreats on the part of the Allies. This factor, alongside a weariness of war among the societies of the Allied nations meant that the intervention was, perhaps deservedly, considered an ignoble afterthought to the Great War, rather than the opening days of the existential conflict of the twentieth century. The significance of Allied intervention rippled through the decades which followed the end of the Civil War. By half-heartedly intervening, the Allies could prove Lenin’s presuppositions about global class conflict to be true, consolidating the power of his regime, rather than weakening it as they had hoped to.

[1] Andrew Roberts, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 (London, 2006) p. 132.

[2] Richard Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime 1919-1924 (London, 1994) p. 8.

[3] John Bradley, Allied Intervention in Russia (London, 1968), p. 20.

[4] Ibid., p. 9.

[5] Ibid., p. 11.

[6] Ibid., p. 9.

[7] Winston Churchill, The Great War (London, 1927), Vol III, p. 1327.

[8] Hew Strachan, The First World War, (London, 2006), p. 289.

[9] Bradley, Allied Intervention, p.35; see also Leon Trotsky, ‘Soviet Note, March 5 1918, in George Kennan (ed.) Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-1941 (New Jersey, 1960) p. 123.

[10] Bradley, Allied Intervention, pp. 48-51.

[11] George Kennan, Soviet-American Relations 1917-1920: Volume II, The Decision to intervene (London, 1958), p. 136.

[12] Bradley, Allied Intervention, pp. 90-91.

[13] Ibid, p. 65.

[14] Ibid, pp. 107-108.

[15] Churchill, The Great War, p.1330; Kennan, Decision to intervene, pp. 482-485.

[16] George Stewart, The White Armies of Russia, (New York, 1933).

[17] George Brinkley, The Volunteer Army, and Allied Intervention in South Russia 1917-1921 (Indiana, 1966), pp. 103-107.

[18] Ibid., pp. 108-112.


One thought on “A Noble Cause? Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War 1917-1920

  1. Interesting review. A lively account of the earliest days of the intervention is given by Somerset Maugham in his book Ashenden: or the British agent. The book is based on his own experiences and therefore particularly interesting. Inn the last section, Ashenden is sent to Imperial Russia during the 1917 revolution, as an “agent of influence”, to do what he can to keep Russia in the war against Germany, traveling from Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg.


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