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With the "Die-Hards" in Siberia by John Ward
Shop by age - boys months years years Shop by age - girls months years years. Explore Seasonal sale Gift guide View the whole range. Charity gifts Bestsellers All charity gifts. Shop help Help Contact the shop team Delivery information Returns policy Privacy and cookies Terms and conditions of sale Find a local shop. At daybreak fire would have been opened from such cover as could be obtained, and while our eight machine-gunners barraged the post, the infantry would have advanced rapidly on the south front at the same time as the Cossacks charged in from the rear. The result would have been as certain as anything in war could be, and, as since then I have met the Bolsheviks in open fight, I am convinced that this small effort might have had decisive political and military influence in Eastern Siberia.
But the "politicals" in uniform are not always noted for daring, and in this case were very timid indeed, and our position grew worse from day to day. I made the best dispositions possible in view of my cautious instructions, and soon every man, British, Czech and Cossack, was imbued with a determination to baulk the enemy's eastward ambitions at all costs.
The numbers I had brought to their assistance were nothing compared to the influence of the sight of the poor, frayed and dirty Union Jack that floated from my Headquarters, and the songs of the Tommies round the mosquito fires in the bivouac at night. These two factors together changed the whole atmosphere surrounding the valiant, ill-fed and ill-equipped Czech soldiers. The day following the night I had fixed for the destruction of the enemy outpost two companies of enemy infantry and three guns marched out of Shmakovka as a reinforcement to the debatable position.
I watched through my binoculars their slow movement along the dusty road. I judged what the enemy's intentions were, and knew also that I was powerless to prevent them. He quickly placed his guns in position, and the following day sent a few trial shots at Kalmakoff's position at Olhanka; after getting the range he ceased fire. About 11 P. At I disregarded the imperative instructions I had received from "Vlady" not to move, and advanced my detachment by a midnight march to occupy a position where I could protect the bridges and cover the retreat of our friends.
Had I failed to perform this simple soldierly duty we should have placed ourselves in a ridiculous position in the eyes of our Russian and Czech comrades. But though I acted against orders, I think in the circumstances I was fully justified in doing so. The Czech company retired safely behind the river at Khamerovka, and Kalmakoff's Cossacks took up a new position at Runovka, where he could still hang on to the skirts of the enemy and keep constant observation upon his movements.
I retired to a bivouac of branches and marsh grass behind "Lookout Hill," where for a fortnight I carried on constant warfare against infected waters and millions of mosquitoes, without transport, tents, nets, or any of the ordinary equipment required by such an expedition. I admit that my ignorance of the conditions which might be expected to prevail in Siberia was colossal, but so also was that of those whose duty it was to have made themselves acquainted with the situation.
At Hong-Kong I had suggested that we might find tents useful, but the proposal was turned down, either because there was none or because they were considered quite unnecessary. I asked timidly whether I should require mosquito nets, and well remember the scorn with which the Chief of Staff greeted my question.
In the tropics their size prevents them from doing much damage, except as malaria carriers. In Siberia they take the shape of big, ugly winged spiders, which will suck your blood through a thick blanket as easily as if you had nothing on. They have a knack of fixing themselves in one's hair below the cap and raising swollen ridges round one's head until it is painful to wear any headgear at all.
In my case my wrists were puffed out level with my hands. After sleeping, one woke unable to open one's eyes. The absence of any protection wore out the patience and nerves of the men, and the searching Bolshevik shells were accepted as a welcome diversion. No blame was attached to my chiefs; I was fully equipped as a B1 Garrison battalion, and as such I was dispatched to Vladivostok. I was sent there to perform a certain duty, but on arrival was at once called upon to perform another of quite a different character.
I had to carry out the duties of a first-line service battalion with the personnel and equipment of second grade garrison troops. Whether those with whom the order originated in London were aware of the nature of the duty I was expected to perform I do not know; but it is obviously dangerous to send British troops of any category to an actual scene of operations and expect them to stand idle, uninterested spectators of the struggles of their friends.
They should either be kept away or sent ready for all emergencies. The outflanking movement by the enemy which I had anticipated from the day I first took over the command, and which I had made my plans to counteract, was now in full swing, but so far no damage to our main position had been effected. General Detriks visited the front and informed me that the Allied Council had chosen Major Pichon, of the French detachment which was timed to arrive next day, to take over the command of this front. After a personal inspection he expressed himself as satisfied with my dispositions and suggested that I should still retain the command, and that he would see that the decision relating to Major Pichon's appointment was reconsidered in view of the changed conditions he now found.
But I could see that a revision of the Allied Council's resolution might affect French amour propre , and place both Council and commander in an anomalous position. I therefore requested General Detriks to take no steps to alter the resolution of the Allied Council, and stated that I would gladly serve under Major Pichon or any other commander elected by the Council.
British prestige, I added, was too well established for such trifles to be considered when the only reason for our presence was to help our Czech and Russian friends. He, however, pointed out that it was impossible to allow a British colonel to serve under a French major, and that my command must be considered quite an independent one. Major Pichon arrived on August 18, , and I formally handed over the command. He asked me to consider myself as jointly responsible for the operations on that front, and said that we would from time to time consult together as to any action that might be necessary.
I found him both polite and considerate and most anxious to meet the wishes of the several parts of his command; in fact, he was a gentleman whom it was a pleasure to meet and work with. His battalion-commander, Major Malley, was equally urbane, and together I think we made a very happy combination. The great outstanding personality of this front was Captain Stephan, the commander of the 8th Czech Battalion.
Originally a brewer of Prague, he had been compelled on the outbreak of war to join the Austrian Army. He had done his duty as a soldier of that effete Monarchy, been captured by the Russians, and while a prisoner of war had been liberated by the Revolution; he was one of the men who had organised their fellow exiles and offered their services to France and the Allied cause, believing that in the success of England's arms was to be found the liberation of their beloved Bohemia.
I asked him why he had offered his services to France, and his answer and his compatriots' answer was always the same: "It is to great England we always look to as our saviour, but the German armies are in France, and to meet our enemies on the field of battle was, and always will be, the first ambition of every Czech soldier, for if England says we are a nation, we know we shall be. I must say I felt flattered by the almost childlike confidence which Pole, Czech and Russian had in the name and honour of England.
We were undoubtedly the only nation represented on this front and in Siberia generally against whom not one word of suspicion was directed. I naturally expected that the prestige of France, in view of her pre-war alliance with Russia, would be very great, but from the closest observation of all ranks of Russian society I think it would be impossible to say which was most suspected in the Russian mind, France, America or Japan.
The presence, however, of French soldiers, and the politeness of the French officers, may do much to generate a warmer feeling in Russia towards France. The presence of the soldiers of the Rising Sun, and the manners and general attitude of her officers towards the Siberian population, will, if persisted in, certainly result in changing fear to universal hate.
On the afternoon of his arrival an important movement of enemy forces on our right front caused Major Pichon to ride through my bivouac, when he was formally introduced to the officers and men under my command. Later he informed me that he did not consider the movement sufficiently important to make any change in our dispositions necessary. Towards dusk Captain Stephan, accompanied by his adjutant, rode up and reported an important movement of enemy forces towards Runovka, our solitary remaining position on the opposite side of the river, which formed the natural defence and limit of our right flank.
Again I was asked to move forward to render such assistance as might be necessary in case our right were forced to retire across the river. We marched forward in the darkness with the flash of the Bolshevik guns lighting up the way, but as their attention was entirely directed to our outpost at Runovka, we were as safe as if we had been in Hyde Park.
The Czechs have a fatal preference for woods as a site for defensive works, and they selected a wood on the left flank of the road for my position. I rejected their plan, and chose a position about two hundred yards in front of the wood at a point where the roads cross, and a fold in the ground, aided by the tall marsh grass, almost entirely hid us from the observation-post of the enemy. Millions of mosquitoes, against which we had no protection whatever, attacked us as we began to entrench, but officers and men all worked with a will, and by dawn we had almost completed what was probably the best system of field-works so far constructed on this front.
How we wished we might see the enemy advance over the river and attempt to deploy within range of our rifles! He had by vigorous artillery fire driven our remaining Czech company across the river, and so had become complete master of the other side. It was here that a second chance came to deal effectively with this attempt to outflank our entire position. A sudden dash across the bend of the river in the north-eastern corner at Khamerovka on to the unprotected line of enemy communications would have resulted in a complete frustration of the enemy plans, with a fair prospect of his decisive defeat.
With the Die-Hards in Siberia
I even suggested this, but had to confess that I had moved forward twice, contrary to my imperative orders, and that unless I chose to run the risk of court-martial, if not dismissal, I could not join in the attack, though I would come to the rescue. This was too ambiguous for the other leaders, and the opportunity was allowed to pass. 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. The unequal duel continued intermittently until 2 A. This meant that our whole defensive positions were completely turned, and the next enemy move would place him near our lines of communication. 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. 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 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.
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.
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. About 9. 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 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. 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. 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.
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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. 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. For two days no movement was observable in the enemy lines, and it began to look as though he would or could not take full advantage of his extremely favourable position. I had waged an unequal contest with millions of mosquitoes while trying to sleep in a field telephone hut made of rough branches and marsh grass.
The Czech soldier who acted as operator had helped me as much as possible, but at last in desperation I got up and walked about until the wonderful colouring in the East heralded another glorious Siberian summer day. The bluey-purple pall had given place to a beautiful orange-tinted yellow such as I had never seen before. The sentry prodded a sleeping Tommy who had a huge black frog sitting on the highest point of his damp, dewy blanket, and a bugle glistening by his side.
With the "Die-Hards" in Siberia by H. O. Lock (ebook)
The Czech operator gave a sharp ejaculation, like "Dar! He then calmly hung up the speaking-tube on the tree that supported our home and began to explain to my interpreter, Lieutenant Bolsaar, the message just received. It was that Major Pichon wished to see me at his headquarters at once in reference to the serious position of Antonovka. I mounted my horse, "Nero," which was a beautiful present from Captain Pomerensiv on handing over his command, and soon arrived at Kraevesk and heard the full story of the surprise at Antonovka.
From Major Pichon I gathered that Ataman Kalmakoff with his Cossacks had taken up a position on the high ground in the village of Antonovka, keeping touch with the French on his left, and a company of the 5th Battalion of Czechs on his right, who guarded the road to Svagena, and that though he posted sentries in the usual way during the night, the enemy in large numbers crept between them, and when the alarm was given and Kalmakoff mounted his horse he found some thirty of his men already wounded or dead and his machine guns in enemy hands.
Most of his troops were in a cul-de-sac, and had to charge a high fence and by the sheer weight of their horses break a way out. Kalmakoff with a few Cossacks tried to retake the guns with a superb charge, but though he got through himself he lost more men, amongst whom was a splendid fellow, his second in command, named Berwkoff, who was greatly loved by us all. A Magyar soldier seeing Kalmakoff with his Ataman banner borne by his side, took a point-blank shot at his head, but he forgot the high trajectory of the old Russian rifle, and the bullet merely grazed the top of the Cossack leader's head and sent his papaha into the mud.
His banner-bearer could not see his leader's cap so left, and jumped off his horse to rescue it. Raising the cap from the ground, he found himself challenged with the bayonet by the same Magyar soldier. He had no time to draw, but with a mighty sweep, sword in scabbard, he felled the Magyar to the ground; he had no time to dispatch him, and was barely able to get away. The Czech company was retiring slowly towards Svagena, and the Cossacks, while keeping in touch with the enemy, were retiring towards the railway on our rear. This was a very startling situation, and required immediate action if we were not to be caught in a trap.
We there and then drew up the orders necessary to secure that the retreat should be both methodical and orderly. The Czechs were to retire first, past my lines, and entrain at Kraevesk, followed by the English and the French, who were to bring up the rear, which was to be covered by the English armoured train, assisted by the machine-gun section of the Middlesex Regiment under Lieutenant King. So the evacuation of our splendid position regretfully began. It should be remembered that directly it was decided by the Paris Council that a diversion through Russia was the surest way of relieving pressure on the French front, the English apparently decided to be first in.
Though Japan was unquestionably in the most favourable position to send help quickly, she was known to have German commitments of such a character as precluded her from taking the lead in what was, at that time, more an anti-Teutonic than pro-Russian expedition. Her Press was, and had been all through the war, violently pro-German, and however much the Tokio Cabinet might wish to remain true to the Anglo-Japanese Treaty, it was forced to make a seeming obeisance to popular feeling in Japan.
If it had been only an English expedition, Japan's hand would not have been forced; but the American cables began to describe the rapid organisation by the U. Several months earlier Japanese suspicions had been aroused by the dispatch to Siberia of an alleged civilian railway engineering force to help Russia reorganise her railways, and the immense benefit that this force had admittedly conferred on the Far Eastern populations was acknowledged on all sides.
But the very success of American enterprise in this beneficent direction had created in the minds of the Japanese a doubt as to the wisdom of allowing free play to American penetration. Japan consequently hurried forward her preparations, and a few days after I had taken over the Ussurie command her 12th Division, under the command of General Oie, landed at Vladivostok.
He at once established his headquarters at Nikolsk, and his Chief of Staff, General Kanaka, took up his position behind our lines at Svagena, using us as a screen for the deployment of his command, which had already begun. Major Pichon informed me that he had telephoned the Japanese general at Nikolsk describing the new situation on our front, and asking him to move up sufficient forces from Svagena to protect our right. I went to my wagon to get breakfast. A little later Major Pichon informed me that the Japanese commander had asked us to suspend our retirement as he was moving up from Svagena a battery of artillery and one battalion of infantry, who would re-establish the position at Antonovka on our right rear, from which we need not fear any further danger.
In consequence of this message I ordered my men to re-occupy their old positions, and by 9. Having got back into our old position, we inquired the direction of the Japanese advance that we might, if necessary, co-operate with their movement, and to our utter consternation were informed that the Japanese had not started, had no intention of doing so, and that we must take what steps were necessary for our own safety, but if we retired at all we were to fall back behind their lines and, we suppose, take no further part in the operations. The first promise of help and its countermanding had placed us in an extremely dangerous situation.
We had left our positions once, and nothing but the lack of vigilance on the part of the enemy had enabled us to reoccupy them without fighting. Our movements must have been seen, and though he had not understood them till too late to take full advantage the first time, that he would allow us to get away so easily again seemed to us to be very unlikely. In fact, it appeared as though we had been sacrificed to give a clear field for some manoeuvre or purpose which we could not understand.
Our conference was a very urgent one, and for a time Major Pichon thought it best to hang on to our positions and trust to someone making an effort for our relief. Had British or American troops been collecting in our rear, we would not have hesitated a moment to remain, for we should have been certain of immediate help.
We knew that a battalion of Czech infantry had been moved up from Svagena towards Antonovka to threaten the enemy's outflanking columns, and that this battalion had made it a dangerous proceeding for the enemy to close in on our rear. Hence we decided to withdraw certain units to Svagena, and for the remainder to retire to a position at Dukoveskoie and make a new line from the railway through that village, thus linking up with the Czech troops who had marched to our assistance; they would thus become the extreme right of our new line.
This movement would enable the Japanese 12th Division at Svagena to continue their deployment behind our screen, and if the enemy continued his outflanking tactics would involve the Japanese in the fighting whether they willed it or not. The retirement was carried out as arranged in perfect order, with the loss of very little material and not more than a dozen men taken prisoners. The French were the last to entrain. The whole movement was covered by the two armoured trains under the command of Captain Bath, R.
Before retiring the bluejackets blew up the bridge on our front and otherwise destroyed the line in a very workmanlike manner. If we had been supported, the retirement would have been quite unnecessary; it was the result of lack of confidence in our Allies after the first let-down. The new line was held as follows: On the left of the railway one company of Czech infantry; the two British armoured trains occupied the railway, and a Middlesex machine-gun battery of four maxims occupied the right, while the wooded slope leading to Dukoveskoie was held by the French, and a battalion of Japanese infantry extended beyond the village.
The right of the village was very sparsely held by a reduced battalion of the 5th Czech Regiment and Kalmakoff's Cossacks. The whole force was under the personal command of Major Pichon. The enemy quickly repaired the bridges and the line, and within forty-eight hours his armoured trains were observed moving cautiously into Kraevesk, my old headquarters.
Simultaneously his patrols advanced from Antonovka and came into touch with Kalmakoff's scouts on the right, and three days from our retirement his advanced elements were testing our line from end to end. On the morning of August 22 the Japanese 12th Division began to move up from Svagena to Dukoveskoie and deploy immediately behind the new line. As is usual in all Japanese tactics, they pushed their right out far beyond the enemy positions, and early in the evening began to envelop his left with their usual wide turning movement.
Their right was supported by two heavy batteries, and from the centre, near Dukoveskoie church, their units, now acting as a reserve, were in position before sunset. Large bodies of Japanese troops were in bivouac immediately behind the centre of the village near their headquarters ready to deploy in either direction. On the evening of August 22 orders were received to push forward the observation post of our armoured trains to a spot indicated, which proved to be six hundred yards ahead of our positions and near enough to be easily raided from the enemy lines.
Lieutenant T. King, my machine-gun officer, was at the same time ordered to move forward two maxims, with a reduced company of Czech infantry in support to protect this advanced post. The night was enlivened by constant skirmishes between British and Terrorist patrols until about 8. The movements of the enemy were observable only from the main look-out, from which orders were already on the way gradually to withdraw the party to a position nearer the lines.
Before the order could be delivered the enemy attacked. Lieutenant King proceeded to withdraw the guns alternately, working the foremost gun himself, but defective ammunition frustrated his effort. He gallantly tried to restart the gun, but the enemy were now upon him, and he had no alternative but to retire without the gun.
The small Naval party in the advanced look-out were practically surrounded, but under Petty Officer Moffat, who was in charge, they managed to get out, with the enemy on their heels. This party was saved by a marine named Mitchel, who, seeing Petty Officer Moffat in difficulties, turned on his knee and faced his pursuers. Their fire was erratic, but his was cool and accurate, and after three or four rounds the Magyars kept their heads well down in the long marsh grass, which permitted the party to escape.
The result of this skirmish, however, allowed the enemy armoured train to advance to a point dangerously near our defensive works, which, with a little more enterprise and determination, he might easily have enfiladed. But though the enemy train had mounted a 6-inch gun our pounder Navals were too smartly handled to allow any liberties to be taken. This was the situation on the morning that the Japanese 12th Division began to deploy behind the new Allied line at Dukoveskoie.
About 3 P. Antonivitch Frank, of the Russian Army, to accompany me towards the front line, as I had heard rumours of large concentrations of the enemy, who, elated with this small initial success, seemed determined to dispute our possession of the village of Dukoveskoie. I arrived in time to witness a duel between one of our armoured trains and a rather spirited fellow of the same sort on the other side.
The Bolshevik shells would persist in dropping to the right of our train on a road on which Colonel Frank and I were sitting our horses, so we decided to dismount and send the animals out of range, while we boarded the train and enjoyed the contest. One of our pounders went groggy and obliged us to retire slightly, but we dared not go back far, as the Terrorist train had all the appearance of following, and would soon have made short work of our infantry, which were occupying very indifferent trenches near the railway, Captain Bath saw the danger and steamed forward, firing rapidly; shells burst all round his target, and so bewildered his opponent that he soon turned tail and retired to safety.
I applied to the Japanese commander, General Oie, through Major Pichon that our trains, directly it was dark, might be allowed to return to Svagena to shunt the injured gun to the rear train. About 7 P. These reports grew rapidly in volume, and now became mixed up with the bass "pop-pop" of machine guns. The rolling sound of conflict spread from the centre along the whole right front. Till now it had been exclusively a small-arm fight. At this point the Bolshevik artillery began to chime in, followed by the Japanese and Czech batteries.
The lovely Siberian summer night became one huge booming, flashing inferno, terrible but intensely attractive. The silent tree-clad mountains to right and left vibrated with the music of battle, while shell and shrapnel screeched like frightened ghouls over the valley below, where white and yellow men were proving that there is no colour bar to bravery. This din lasted about two hours, and then died away almost as rapidly as it began. Our trains which had remained to take a hand in the business if necessary steamed slowly back to Svagena, and I turned into my wagon for the night.
After the usual battle with the mosquitoes, I fell asleep, but it seemed as though I had only slept a few minutes, when a banging at the door announced a visitor, who turned out to be a Staff captain from the Japanese Headquarters with an urgent message for the Commander of the Reserves at Svagena, who with great ceremony handed me the following order of the day:.
The Allied troops will attack the enemy, inflicting upon them an annihilating disaster, to-morrow, August The Japanese troops will attack the enemy, starting the present line, at 3 o'clock, the 24th, morning. The reserve British, French, Kalmakoff's forces, and a few Japanese companies will be under the command of Japanese. Colonel Inagaki will arrive at the north-western side of Dukoveskoie at 2 o'clock to-morrow morning.
I Looked at my watch, and called the Japanese officer's attention to the fact that the time was 1. Although he could speak perfect English, he held out his hand and with a profound bow pretended not to understand the point of my observation. It was in point of time simply impossible to arouse the British, Czech, Cossack and Japanese detachments and march four miles in the middle of the night in fifteen minutes; but I had lived long enough in the East to know that the Oriental never sets a European impossible tasks without a good reason from his own point of view.
I dispatched orderlies to each detachment with definite instructions to be ready to move at once. The Japanese refused to move or even get out of their tents. The Czechs were enjoying a much-needed rest, and refused to budge, while Kalmakoff's Cossacks remained asleep beside their horses. Ataman Kalmakoff was at Vladivostok, and his second in command was dismissed on his return for refusing to obey my orders, as the Ataman was most anxious that his men should be always in the fighting line wherever it might be.
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Captain Clark, M. To make doubly sure there was no mistake, I called personally upon the Japanese officer, who point-blank refused either to arouse or move his men in accordance with his own Headquarters' order. I am bound to admit that from that moment I had a suspicion that the order of General Oie was so much Japanese camouflage, and that it was not intended that we should take any part in the immediate operations. I also determined to frustrate this attempt to exclude the Allies from participation, and gave the order to my own men to move.
Our road for about two miles lay alongside the railway, after which the soddened nature of the ground and the danger of losing direction in the darkness forced me to take to the railway. About a mile and a half along the track brought us to our armoured trains, where we were to pick up our Machine-Gun Section, which was to act with us if necessary, or remain as a reserve or rallying-point in case of need.
Except for the sentries, the train crews were asleep, and almost within rifle range of our place of assembly. I halted my men and roused Captain Bath to inquire if he had received instructions as to his part in the coming battle. He informed me that he had received a telephone message from General Oie through Major Pichon which he could not understand and had asked for it to be repeated. He thereupon produced the message, which was to the effect that a battle would commence at 3 A.
On the production of the actual message I began to understand why the order of battle had been given to me too late for me to be at the rendezvous with Colonel Inagaki, and the refusal of the units of my command to march with me. These instructions to Captain Bath from the Japanese Headquarters explained the riddle.
I gave Captain Bath instructions to move forward in my support in case of need and to watch the proceedings generally, to render aid to any Allied detachment which might be in difficulties, and otherwise to obey General Oie's orders. This duty he performed with complete satisfaction to the commanders of the French and Czech detachments.
Having arranged my rear, the men of the 25th were ordered to move forward in file on each side of the railway track to the point selected for our rendezvous. The time was now 3. A scout came back to report the presence of cavalry on the left, but in the early morning haze we could not make out whether it was friendly or enemy. I moved my troops to the opposite side of the railway embankment and prepared to receive their charge.
I then dispatched my liaison officer, Colonel Frank, forward to discover their strength and character. He quickly returned with the information that the cavalry was Japanese, moving into position on our extreme left. I re-formed my men and advanced towards my position as ordered, ninety minutes behind time. I halted and examined the ground, but saw nothing of Colonel Inagaki or any of the detachments on the spot selected for our assembly. Standing on the line, I saw the foremost enemy armoured train about four hundred yards ahead, and their outpost giving the alarm.
No shot had so far been fired, but I gave the order to load. At this stage an incident happened which put an end to the hitherto silent advance of the attacking army. In the act of loading a rifle went off accidentally. The soldier to whom it belonged was standing just behind me, and I ordered Captain Browne to examine and report. In doing so the rifle again went off; it saved the man from punishment, but it began the battle. There was a puff of white smoke, and an instant later a 5-inch shell burst over our heads.
The men opened out into the corn and scrub, and I dismounted while the advance continued. Taking my servant's rifle, I led the way. The enemy must have anticipated our rendezvous, for the place was ploughed with shells from end to end. The first pitched just under the centre of a peasant's cottage, and in a moment cottage and peasant were no more. The heavy purple pall hung on the ground, and had we been on the spot selected, this description would have been written by other hands than mine.
By the increasing light and the aid of my glasses I was able to make out the entire scheme of the advance, which was a continuous line from one mile on the left of the railway, extending to about ten miles on our right. A space of about one hundred yards on each side of the line was unoccupied—for the reason, as I afterwards learnt, that it was considered too exposed and dangerous for the purpose of an advance. Unable to find anyone to direct my movements, on my own initiative I decided to fill this vacant space, so making the line continuous, and move forward with the Japanese to the attack.
Disposing my men in the shelter of the scrub on either side of the railway, I directed their movements from the centre of the track. There was an ugly moment when a maxim situated in a cornfield began to fire point-blank at a range of one hundred yards, but a Czech outpost entrenched quite near made it so hot for the gunner that after firing about rounds he scooted, leaving a well-placed gun and 5, rounds, all belted, behind.
We now advanced over the Czech and French trenches, for these forces, like our armoured trains, had been ordered to take no part in the advance. It was while near these trenches that a grey-coated Magyar, four hundred yards away, took deliberate standing aim at myself. It was a most difficult shot, and I felt quite safe, but though the Magyar missed me, he killed a Czech soldier five yards to the left, the bullet entering the centre of his forehead just over the nose.
About sixty shots answered his, and he sank across the rails. When we reached him he lay, with many others, quite dead. Captain Clark picked up his rifle and bandolier, and used it with good effect upon the retreating enemy. There is no doubt that if we had failed to get into position under the cover of darkness we should have had the greatest difficulty in making any headway along the railway except with very heavy casualties.
As I have stated previously, the end car of the enemy armoured train had a 6-inch gun, but it was mounted so high that the whole platform could be swept with rifle-fire. The reason for the high mounting was to enable two machine guns to be worked along the track from the bed of the car under the heavy gun. If our advance had been observed the enemy would easily have smashed it, but we got within yards before they knew we were there. By concentrating all our fire on the end of the car we swept the platform clear, perforated the body underneath with a hail of bullets so that nothing could live, and put every gun which could be brought to bear along the track out of action.
By this means the apparently most dangerous point of our advancing line became the safest, and we accomplished our purpose without a single casualty. Five enemy armoured trains were on the line disputing every inch of the way, but their shrapnel was either too high or exploded so far behind the front line that, though it made havoc amongst the laggards, it had but little effect upon those who kept well to the front.
The battle was now joined at all points and reaching the decisive moment. In the centre by skilful manoeuvring, a Japanese 5-inch battery had taken up a position actually in front of the general infantry advance. Such daring deserved to succeed, and in this case it did so beyond all expectations. The point selected was a thin group of trees, which gave a view of the railway from the left, across the plain to Kraevesk, and enabled the leading enemy trains to be shelled almost from the flank. The infantry, while still going methodically forward, were receiving far too much attention to feel comfortable, and Japanese soldiers were putting tufts of grass and leaves in front of their caps to hide the red band, which made an excellent target for riflemen and machine-gunners.
Occasionally one would rub a handful of mud around the tell-tale band; experience soon taught the Japanese soldiers the dangers of a little colour. It was just ding-dong open fighting, wonderfully spectacular in character. Then a shell burst plunk under the line behind the two foremost enemy trains, which made retreat for them impossible. Desperate efforts were made to repair the line, but well-directed rifle and light machine-gun fire made this impracticable.
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Another well-placed shell dropped just under the gunners' quarters on the front train, and instantly the car was enveloped in flames. In turn the fire spread to the gun-carriage, which had become untenable from rifle-fire. This proved a complete catastrophe for the enemy, who from positions on our extreme left and centre had a full view of the slaughter around the doomed trains.
Their nerves were completely shattered, their fire became spasmodic and erratic, and then among the trees on a hill to the left appeared a white flag. That flag was too late. The Japanese cavalry shot out in file as a straight extension of our left. Having come parallel with the farthest group of resistance, they right turned, and instantly swept up the slope in a beautiful line and forward over all resistance, white flag and all. They took no prisoners. My men were only "B one-ers," and the pace was beginning to tell; still they were leading, owing to the fact that our advance was along the railway and the usual tracks at the side, while the Japanese had to contend with the marshes and woods farther away.
I therefore ordered a rally, and advanced only with such troops as could be reasonably expected to keep the line. With this party we advanced within fifty yards of part of the burning train, amid a shower of debris from the exploding shells stored in its magazine. The second train looked quite deserted, and therefore, beyond examining the ammunition cart of a 5-inch gun left derelict on the road and counting ten rounds of unfired ammunition, we passed without molestation up the railway embankment on the way to Kraevesk.
We had passed the trains and left them about two hundred yards in our rear when we were startled by rapid rifle-fire behind us. On looking round, we were astonished to see spiteful jets of rifle-fire issuing from both sides of the uninjured train directed against thick bunches of Japanese troops who were passing along the track over which we had just advanced.
Even the Eastern temperament has limits to its serenity. For a moment the Japs were completely off their guard, but they soon recovered, and dropping flat in the grass, they opened a brisk fusillade. The Magyars were protected by the plated sides of their wagons, and were making sad havoc amongst the soldiers of the Rising Sun. Taking in the situation at a glance, a Japanese officer gave the order to charge. Every man instantly bounded forward, and, like a disturbed nest of ants, they swarmed all over the train, stabbing, clubbing and bayoneting every Bolshevik they could get at, tossing their dead enemies out of the carriages off their bayonets with the same motion as if they were shovelling coal.
Then they posted a sentry on the highest part of each train, and the gun in the road, and called them their "trophies of war. Many explanations were given at the time, none of which seemed to be quite satisfactory, so the mystery remains. It was here that a polite request was made that the British detachment should not keep so far ahead of the other troops, but I was anxious to keep well ahead for an important reason. The Bolsheviks had ravaged and tortured both young and old, rich and poor, male and female throughout the country till their very name stank in the nostrils of the common people.
Their blood lust had been so great that when they had no Russian peasant to torture they fell back on the poor unfortunate Czech soldiers who had fallen into their hands as prisoners of war. Many authentic cases of this kind are so revolting in character that it is better to keep them in the dark rather than advertise how fiendishly cruel men can be to one another. I knew that the Czechs had threatened to retaliate. The incident of the white flag previously recorded may have had something to do with the same sentiment, though I can scarcely think it had.
I decided, however, that the more humane rules of war should apply so far as I was concerned, and I soon had a chance of making a demonstration of my views before the whole army. A fugitive Bolshevik soldier had escaped from the Japanese cavalry, and started to make his way across our left front in an attempt to join the retreating Bolshevik trains.
Exhausted by the heavy going of the marsh, he had dropped for cover and rest. The Japanese line was fast approaching the spot where he had taken shelter, so he raised himself from the grass and began to run. I levelled my servant's rifle, but misjudged the distance, and he took no notice. I took aim at a point over his head, and he dropped in the grass so suddenly that Colonel Frank thought I had killed him. As we approached the spot his black hair showed up above the green, and I took aim again, but did not fire. I informed Colonel Frank I wanted the man, if he would surrender, to be an example of how a prisoner of war should be treated.
Colonel Frank shouted to the man to surrender. The man shouted back that the Japanese killed all prisoners. He was then informed that I was an English officer, and if he would surrender I guaranteed his life unless he had committed some greater crime than merely fighting as a Bolshevik soldier. He made no further parley, but almost ran to me as for protection. I was standing on the embankment, in full view for miles, and it was easy for the whole incident to be seen. I took his rifle, with fixed bayonet, and bandolier and fifty rounds from him.
His papers showed him to be a demobilised Russian soldier. I placed him under a guard of two men with orders to see him safely to the rear. Time after time demands were made to his guards to allow the murder of the prisoner. But those two British bayonets made his life as safe as though he had been in Trafalgar Square. I could tell by the atmosphere which the incident created that our Allies thought this regular conduct wholly out of place on a battlefield, but it fulfilled its purpose, and surrenders were accepted during the further operations.
Our progress was now very rapid, and except for a few bursts of shrapnel which continued to fly harmlessly over the front ranks and injure such as were far behind, we approached our old station, Kraevesk, easily. As to the method from the military point of view of approaching this place, the less said about it the better. A single company of British troops would have held up the whole show and inflicted losses on the attackers out of all proportion to the object gained.
The stuffing, however, was completely knocked out of the Bolshevik army, and the advance took more the form of beaters driving big game. Having previously reconnoitred the whole ground, I again chose the railway for my party. The Japanese swarmed up through the wooded slope on the right. I chose the railway because I knew the shallow cutting had a slight curve which would give a safe line of approach to the station, situated about three hundred yards behind this low-lying hill. The Japs advanced through the wood in masses, huge bunches of men without regular formation. On rounding the curve, I saw an enemy armoured train about four hundred yards distant.
A Bolshevik officer walked leisurely out of our old headquarters and put one foot on the step of the engine, looking straight at myself standing on the line. I drew a bead on him with Lance-Corporal's Moorman's rifle. I do not believe I hit him, but I was near enough to make him skip quickly into the engine shelter. A flash from the leading gun, and a 2-inch shell passed so close to my head that I fell into the four-foot way, and felt the top of my skull to find out if it was still there. This shell exploded about one hundred yards behind me and mortally wounded two Japanese and injured several others.
The machine guns on the train now swept the wood, where the Japs were advancing, with such effect that for a few moments there was a regular stampede back over the brow of the hill. My party had taken cover in the scrub on the left, and I crawled on hands and knees in their direction.
I found a deep dyke at the foot of the cutting covered with high weeds, and into this I rolled. Gradually raising my head over the thistles, I potted rapidly at the gunner, and my party did the same. The Japs by this time had recovered from their first shock, and began to open fire on the train, which steamed slowly back to the far end of the station, when it came to a standstill and pumped shrapnel along our front. We had got far ahead of our artillery, so it became a contest of rifle versus armoured train.