1918 - 1919

Siberian Expedition

Canadian Centre for the Great War

A long way from home: Canadians in Siberia, 1918-1919

On 12 August 1918, just as the Allies were launching their Hundred Days Campaign at Amiens, Canada’s Privy Council passed legislation approving the formation of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (C.S.E.F.). As fighting ceased on the Western Front, a total of 4,210 Canadians would begin their mobilization to Vladivostok, Russia.

Born out of a larger Allied campaign to counter a rising Bolshevik insurgency[1], the C.S.E.F.’s role was intended to support the Russian government’s White Army[2] against Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary Red Army.

Motivation for allied intervention in Siberia was two-fold. Short-term circumstances saw interests in re-opening the Eastern Front, which had been closed after the Bolsheviks negotiated a settlement in the spring of 1918, and guarding stockpiled war supplies from the Germans. While long-term interests were motivated by a potentially lucrative market where there was sure do develop an enormous trade following the war.

War-weary citizens and soldiers did not hold the idea of a Siberian Expedition in high regard. With the signing of the Armistice came the loss of justification for Canadian presence in Siberia. Moreover, the government’s decision to use men conscripted under the Military Service Act of 1917 only further intensified public opinion.

While mobilization was underway, French Canadian soldiers[3], led by Onil Boisvert, mutinied in the streets of Victoria, shouting “On y vas pas à Siberie!”. The mutinies were quickly put down and their leaders punished by spending the entire three-week voyage to Vladivostok chained up in the ship’s brig.

Despite much of the fighting taking place further “up country”, Canadian troops were not permitted to move inland or take part in any military operations. Few Canadians left Vladivostok except for small authorized parties to serve as guards on trains carrying ammunition and supplies to Russian anti-Bolshevik forces.

Lieutenant Horace Hume VanWart volunteered for the Siberian expedition and sailed to Vladivostok on 26 December 1918 with the 259th Battalion Canadian Rifles. VanWart’s military career, while unverified and debated, is outlined on the photo and is quite impressive: “British Military Mission to Siberia and attached to the Staff of Admiral Kolchak.”

By Spring 1919, domestic unrest in Canada, partisan guerrilla warfare, and disunity among the Allied nations convinced Canada to abandon their mission. On 20 February, 1919, the decision was made to disband the troops still awaiting transport in Canada and to begin the demobilization of troops in Siberia in April.

While Canadian soldiers were not involved in a combative role, the Siberian Expedition claimed the lives of 19 men through disease, accident, and the elements. After much deliberation, it was agreed that no bodies would be repatriated. Instead, a monument was erected on 1 June 1919 in the Cherkov Naval Cemetery, Vladivostok to commemorate the 19 men by name.

By June 1919, public opinion of the Expedition only worsened. It was widely believed that Canadians had no business interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. Despite the controversy surrounding it at the time, the disastrous and failed campaign ultimately faded from Canadian public memory.

A contemporary view from the Naval Cemetery in Vladivostok.

Canadian Centre for the Great War
Credits: Story

Text and research by Lindsay Fraser-Noel and Avery Kieschke.
All photographs from the Canadian Centre for the Great War collection, unless otherwise stated.

Sources Consulted
Isitt, Benjamin. From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1918-1919. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2010.
Isitt, Benjamin. “Mutiny from Victoria to Vladivostok, December 1918.” Canadian Historical Review, 87(2), 2009: 223-264.
Morton, D. & Granatstein, J. L. Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War, 1914-1919. Toronto, Canada: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989.
Skuce, J. E. CSEF Canadian Soldiers in Siberia, 1918-1919. Ottawa, Canada: Mutual Press, 1990.
Winegard, Lt Timothy C. “The Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force, 1918-1919, and the Complications of Coalition Warfare.” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 20(2), 2007: 283-328.

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