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Newmarket Local History Society

How Newmarket became embroiled in the Russian Revolution (page 8)


Russian Officers releasing tear gas during training manoeuvres on Newmarket Heath, 1919

THE BACKGROUND

By the year 1917 Russia was in a state of ferment. The war with Germany had been dragging on since 1914 with hugh losses of conscripted soldiers. At home ordinary people were suffering severe shortages of food and coal leading to a wave of strikes. Despite his efforts to suppress the strikers the autocratic ruler, Czar Nicholas II, was losing the support of the army and in March 1917 he abdicated. He and his family were held prisoners by the burgeoning Bolsheviks.
A Provisional Government was set up under Alexander Kerensky in an attempt to placate the proletariat, but his more liberal concessions were not enough.
During the October Revolution (November in the Gregorian calendar), the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the workers Soviets, overthrew the Provisional Government in St Petersburg. The Bolsheviks appointed themselves as leaders of various government ministries and seized control of the countryside, establishing the Cheka to quash dissent. To end the war, the Bolshevik leadership signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918.
The revolution was opposed by most of the aristocrats, as well as many military officers and middle class Russians.
In July 1918 the ruling Czar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks, who feared that the family would continue to be a rallying flag for a counter-revolution.
Some serious pockets of resistance remained until 1920, with 'White' Russians still loyal to the deposed ruling class government.
Most western countries, including Britain, backed the old order, fearing the rise of a militant working class movement threatening established governments.

Civil war erupted between the "Red" (Bolshevik), and "White" (anti-Bolshevik) factions, which was to continue for several years, with the Bolsheviks ultimately victorious. In this way the Revolution paved the way for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). While many notable historical events occurred in Moscow and St Petersburg, there was also a broad-based movement in cities throughout the state, among national minorities throughout the empire, and in the rural areas, where peasants took over and redistributed land.

The British government opposed the revolution and was sympathetic towards the established government. Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were all first cousins of King George V, our King however put duty to his country ahead of any family loyalties. He abandoned his cousin and family to their fate, wisely refusing to become drawn in to another country's civil war.

Our government's support for White Russia came in two main ways:
Firstly military assistance was sent to help the pockets of resistance in the ports of Archangel and Murmansk (see contemporary press reports below).

Secondly we agreed to train 1,200 Russian Offcers who had been released from captivity by Germany following the truce. It was intended that these officers, after training, would be returned to Russia to help the counter-revolution.

It was decided that Newmarket would be the training place and it is understood that the officers were billeted in the former army camp at Brickfields Stud.
Some of the bitter enmity between White and Red Russians spilled over into the Newmarket Camp. Nor were all members of David Lloyd-George's coalition government in favour of this action, seeing it as taking sides in another country's affairs.
The following exchanges took place in the House of Commons between The Secretary of State for War and Air, Winston Churchill and certain members of parliament.

TRAINING OF RUSSIAN OFFICERS (NEWMARKET CAMP)

HC Deb 13 August 1919 vol 119 cc1296-71296

Mr. CHARLES EDWARDS
asked how many Russian officers are being trained at the Newmarket camp; whether there are any other camps for similar purposes in this country; the weekly cost of such camps; and whether a certain number of these officers and their wives have been arrested; and, if so, what is the charge?

Mr. CHURCHILL
There are 1,200 Russian officers being trained at Newmarket, but not all simultaneously, and at present there are 565 in the camp. No-other similar camps exist in the country. The weekly cost of the camp (including the camp staff) is approximately 4 5s. per officer inclusive of their pay at 2 10s. per week with rations. Ten Russians, including one woman, have been arrested on a charge of conspiracy in Bolshevik interests and interfering with the discipline and orderly conduct of the camp. The charge was preferred by other-Russians in the camp and is being carefully investigated.

Mr. C. EDWARDS
Has any authorisation been given to the right hon. Gentleman to use British money for the training of Russian officers to fight against their own people?

Mr. CHURCHILL
Certainly; the Cabinet authorised this expenditure in the ordinary course, subject, of course, to a Vote of Parliament, and we are training these officers in order that they may be able to take charge of Russian troops in those areas over which we have responsibility, and thus enable us to leave those areas.

Captain W. BENN
Is the British taxpayer asked to pay the cost of training a Russian Army to be used against the Russian Government?

Mr. CHURCHILL
The British taxpayer is training these officers who have been released from prison camps in Germany, where they have suffered a great deal and restoring them so that they may go to take over the command of Russian troops who are fighting in areas where our troops are at present involved, and from which we intend to withdraw our troops.

Captain BENN
Has an Estimate for this service in detail been laid before this House, and when?

Mr. CHURCHILL
No, Sir; but I think it is covered in the General Vote. If my hon. and gallant Friend has any doubt as to what the opinion of the House would be were such an Estimate put specifically before them, he will, perhaps, take some opportunity of challenging it.

Colonel WEDGWOOD
Would the right hon. Gentleman care to consider the opinion of the country on this matter?

Mr. CHURCHILL
The Government is as good a judge of the opinion of the country as the hon.and gallant Member.

Colonel WEDGWOOD
rose -
Mr. SPEAKER We have not time for these personal altercations.

....and in the Commons November 4th. 1919

Sir CHARLES EDWARDS asked the Secretary of State for War what had been done with those Russian officers who were imprisoned at Newmarket for insubordination; whether these men and their wives were still in prison

Mr WINSTON CHURCHILL
"All the Russian officers lately training at Newmarket have been sent back to Russia or will be dispatched thither by the first available ship. None is pressed to join the anti-Bolshevik armies."


Two Russian Offcers are buried in the cemetery at Exning.
Nicholas de Meder's Death Certificate states: Male aged 21, Lieutenant in Russian Army.
Cause of Death. "Not being of sound mind did shoot himself with a revolver at the Russian Officers Camp, Exning on 24th January 1920".
The other officer, Lieutenant Eugene Petrov, is simply recorded as 'died'.

It was a difficult time for these men, who were very much aware of their homeland being torn apart by civil war and their families caught up in the strife. It seems that the officers were treated as honoured guests by the British establishment who saw them as our allies in the British oposition to the Bolsheviks. On the other hand, however, all was not brotherly comradeship in the Newmarket Camp as the report (see above) from the New York Times confirms. Newmarket had unwittingly become the remote battleground for some of the bitter recriminations being fought out in Russia.
By 1920 the game was up for the White Russians and most of those Officers who had received training at Newmarket had returned home to face a very uncertain future.

The memorials in Exning Cemetery. Left: Lt. De Meder's stone. Right: Lt. Petrov's stone was erected privately and is enscribed in Cyrillic script.

Acknowledgement.

Much of the original research for this article was carried out by NLHS member Tony Pringle who has painstakingly uncovered obscure and long forgotten historical facts.

After the article was published online we had some interesting correspondence with a Russian lady Evgenia Chernozatonskya, this can now be read on the accompanying webpage select here