Back in peacetime, when the Great War’s coming was a matter of dire prediction, orthodox geopolitical thinking had assumed that, if the massive effort required to sustain mechanised warfare went on for more than a few weeks, Europe’s empires would crumble under economic and associated social pressures. More than three years of total war in fact passed before the Russian Empire melted down to become something completely and aggressively new, but fear of collapse had never stopped haunting the continent’s governing elites.
Fed by evidence of socio-political fragility in every belligerent empire, even in the richest and most politically stable of them, elite fear translated into something approaching panic in the face of Bolshevism. The German regime was willing to let Russia have its revolution, at least until it had dealt with the existential threat from the west, while Austria-Hungary and Turkey were too far along the road to collapse to do anything but grasp at pickings from the Russian Empire’s carcase – but Allied governments fell over themselves to disrupt and (ideally) destroy what they saw as a harbinger of apocalypse.
There wasn’t all that much the Allies could do. They could cut off some maritime supply lines to Petrograd, and they could use existing supply lines (across Sweden or via the Arctic and Murmansk or Archangelsk) to provide counter-revolutionary forces with funds and equipment, even direct military support. The British could conceivably divert forces from the Middle East into southwestern Russia, though for the moment they were busy with another fight, but otherwise the Central Powers occupied Russia’s European frontiers. That left the back door.
The back door was Vladivostok, Russia’s major port in the Far East and it’s only warm-water port in the region since the loss of Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905. Vladivostok wasn’t entirely ice-free, but could remain open for much of the winter and had become an important supply hub for the Russian war effort, increasingly so with the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway link to the west in 1916, and Russia’s alliance with a Pacific trading power, the United States, in 1917.
The railway and the port were under Bolshevik control by late 1917, when the British, French and US governments began discussing joint action to support counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia. Japan, which had a longstanding strategic interest in its maritime frontier with Russia, was at first left out of the discussions, but in December 1917 obtained an invitation from its ally, Britain, to take part in any action. The only major Allied warship in Vladivostok during the chaotic weeks after the October Revolution, the US Navy light cruiser Brooklyn, had already left by late December. With diplomatic and commercial interests in the port in need of protection amid the street fighting and general anarchy, the British didn’t wait for discussions to reach a conclusion before doing what came naturally and sending a gunboat.
The British Admiralty ordered HMS Sussex, a cruiser stationed in Hong Kong, to Vladivostok. The Japanese government, ever alert to signs of European encroachment in eastern Asia (and to any diplomatic slight), reacted by ordering two old, pre-dreadnought battleships, the Iwami and the Asahi, to get there first. The Iwami won the race, arriving on 12 January, two days before the Suffolk and five days before the Asahi. Having made a show of force, and in Japan’s case made a statement about its right to a dominant role in the future of eastern Asia, the Allied warships then anchored offshore in the hope that their mere presence would encourage both anti-Bolshevik agitation and the restoration of order.
None too surprisingly with hindsight, these somewhat contradictory hopes failed to materialise, and as the situation in Vladivostok became ever more dangerous for foreign nationals, Allied intervention on the ground in Siberia appeared inevitable. Tokyo wasted no time telling Britain and the US that any intervention should carried out by Japanese forces alone, but the proposition was officially turned down in mid-February, ostensibly because Japan’s unpopularity in Russia would drive the population into Bolshevik or even German hands. By that time the Japanese Army was drawing up plans for an invasion of eastern Siberia, with a view to setting up a nominally independent buffer state as protection against future interference in the Pacific by Russia.
A lengthy spell of inter-Allied dithering followed, while Japanese, British, French and US diplomats attempted to work out the details of a joint ground operation in Siberia. Although Tokyo was prepared to accept a joint intervention, and the European Allies considered the region’s future a matter for Japan and the US, progress was stymied because the Wilson administration refused to sanction the use of American ground troops. This was still the case in April, when a company of Japanese marines (hastily followed by a company of British marines) went ashore to police looting and rioting in Vladivostok. The Brooklyn had returned to the port in March, but no US Marines took part.
This was the beginning of something weird and not altogether wonderful. Allied plans would eventually be forced into focus by the plight of some 40,000 Czech troops, trapped in Bolshevik Russia but still at war with Germany after the end of hostilities on the Eastern Front. Rescuing the Czechs became an Allied cause célèbre as they battled their way across Siberia towards evacuation from Vladivostok, and that provided Wilson with a way to change his mind in the name of liberal values.
International intervention would take the form of a multi-national invasion of eastern Siberia during the summer, featuring troops from Japan, the US, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and eventually even China. A long, strange campaign would follow, forming part of the Russian Civil War and extending into the early 1920s – but that’s another chapter of the story, as is the extraordinary tale of the aforementioned Czech Legion.
I’ll be getting back to both when the time feels right, but for now this has been a quick look at why Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace turned Siberia into a war zone, and at how the Allied empires lined up for the purpose. It’s also a quick reminder that Japanese aggression during the Second World War was not some sudden aberration, rather the catastrophic conclusion of a long, ultimately misguided attempt to imitate and match the great global empires of the nineteenth century – empires the First World War was in the process of consigning to history.