Canadian soldiers march at Rithet's Wharf to board SS Protesilaus before embarking to Siberia. Photograph from British Columbia Archives, I-78248, HP018921.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 10, 2010
The troops marched from the exhibition grounds to the Victoria docks, a six-kilometre parade during which they rested briefly at a downtown intersection.
The command to resume marching was disobeyed.
What happened next was hushed up by order of the Dominion censor, becoming a suppressed incident in a mostly ignored chapter of Canada’s military history.
It was Dec. 21, 1918, a cold morning in the port city. The Armistice halting the carnage of what was then known as the Great War had been signed only five weeks earlier. Europe was in tumult as dynasties collapsed. The streets were filled with talk of revolution, even as far away as Vancouver Island.
The soldiers billeted at Willows Camp in Oak Bay were mostly conscripts from Eastern Canada. They were to be sent overseas to fight not the Hun, but the Bolsheviki.
Civil war raged in Russia. Canada joined the Allied nations in a fight to replace the Red soviets with a government more favourable to Western interests.
The story of 4,200 Canadian soldiers sailing from British Columbia to the Russian Far East is told in From Victoria to Vladivostok (UBC Press), a fascinating account by the historian Benjamin Isitt. Earlier this week, the University of Victoria launched an extensive, trilingual online archive about the Canadian Expeditionary Force (Siberia).
War offers savagery and heroism, carnage and healing, valour and horror. It also offers waste and stupidity and endless, mindless, pointless drudgery. The latter was the fate of the Siberian Expedition.
Some of the men saw more action on the streets of Victoria than on the plains of Russia.
On that chill morning, a handful of soldiers — farmers, labourers and lumberjacks from Quebec — urged their comrades to disobey orders.
A chaotic scene unfolded at the intersection of Fort and Quadra streets.
Alfred Laplante, 23, a mechanic from Richelieu, shouted defiantly in English a command to “Turn back. Turn back.”
Onil Boisvert, 22, a farmer from Drummondville, repeatedly insisted, “On y vas pas,” according to testimony presented at his later court martial. An officer fired a pistol at his feet.
Arthur Roy, a 23-year-old saw-maker, had been overheard earlier on a streetcar saying Canada “had no right to fight against the Bolsheviki.”
Officers ordered obedient soldiers to whip some of the dissenters with belts. Others were marched to the docks at bayonet point.
The mutiny was quickly suppressed, a dozen accused ringleaders shackled together in the hold of SS Teesta for the long journey across the Pacific.
Labour and socialist groups agitated against the intervention in revolutionary Russia, finding support among soldiers not eager to go to war. (In an editorial, the Globe acknowledged a large majority of the expedition’s soldiers “went unwillingly,” agreeing with them that the fight was one in which Canada “had no real interest.”) The Willows Camp became a place of rumour and intrigue, as radical newspapers circulated among the soldiers. Those of Russian ethnicity were especially suspect.
With another sailing imminent, a handful of officers disrupted a raucous “Hands Off Russia” rally at a downtown theatre attended by hundreds of soldiers. One of the speakers was James Hawthornthwaite, a Labour member of the Legislature. The departure of SS Protesilaus was delayed until after a lavish Christmas dinner and boozy dance was held for the soldiers.
The Canadians in Vladivostok saw little action. Among the mutineers, Mr. Roy got the harshest sentence — three years of penal servitude (later commuted to two years). Mr. Laplante got two years hard labour.
At an event at the University of Victoria library on Monday, the great distance from that era to today was bridged by the presence of four relatives of men who marched through the streets of Victoria to battle the Bolsheviki.
Diana McKay, 77, of Ladysmith, the daughter of Eric Elkington, of the 16th Field Ambulance, donated to the archives her father’s letters and photograph album. “He’d be thrilled, my dad,” she said. “I’m impressed that anyone could read his writing.”
The book by Mr. Isitt (pronounced EYE-sit), a 32-year-old assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, is likely to be controversial among military historians, since he approaches the subject from a labour history perspective. The notes and bibliography run 89 pages.
Born in Winnipeg and raised in Victoria, Mr. Isitt became a familiar figure here at Camp Campbell, a protest by activists who set up a tent city on the lawns of the Legislature in opposition to the policies of Premier Gordon Campbell. Mr. Isitt twice ran for mayor of the city, garnering 43.6 per cent of the vote five years ago in a surprisingly strong challenge to re-elected incumbent Alan Lowe.
In researching the book, which began as a history term paper and later a masters thesis, Mr. Isitt made a pilgrimage to the Churkin Naval Cemetery at Vladivostok. Among the 14 Canadians buried there are Lt. Alfred Thring, of Saskatoon, Sask., a shell-shocked veteran of the Western Front who committed suicide, and Pte. Edwin Stephenson, who had enlisted with the Canadian Army Medical Corps the day after his ordination as an Anglican minister before dying in far-off Russia of smallpox at age 33.
As a military adventure, it was a bust. The soldiers who sailed from British Columbia as part of the Siberian Expedition never left the Russian coast and never reached Siberia.
The online archive can be accessed at siberianexpedition.ca . It includes maps, photographs and lesson plans for middle, secondary and post-secondary teachers. The archive is published in English, French and Russian.