From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1917-1919
By Benjamin Isitt
UBC Press. 352 pages, $85 hardcover, $29.95 softcover
By Dave Obee
One of the more bizarre episodes in Canada’s First World War adventure came at the very end — and Victoria played a key role. But we knew only a small part of the story back then; thanks to Benjamin Isitt, the full story is finally being told.
Isitt is a history professor at the University of Victoria who places an emphasis on labour, social movements and political change. (You might remember him as a youthful candidate for mayor of Victoria a couple of times — a candidate who came surprisingly close to victory.)
Canada’s Siberian expedition saw 4,200 soldiers shipped from Victoria to Vladivostok in 1918. Their assignment, in the wake of the Russian revolution, was to defeat the Bolsheviks. The reasons for Canada’s involvement were fuzzy, to be sure; one theory was that it would help defeat the Germans, another was that we would benefit from increased trade with Siberia.
The soldiers were not thrilled about the idea. The world was tired after four years of fighting in Europe, and the last thing that was needed was a new war in the middle of nowhere for reasons that seemed dubious at best. (Not that the roots of the First World War made any sense either, just for the record.)
The soldiers mutinied during their march to the wharf in December 1918. Near the intersection of Fort and Quadra streets, they stopped. The colonel fired a shot over their heads, and some of the soldiers were whipped with belts until they decided to continue to the ship. The incident was hushed up, thanks to the censorship imposed by the government.
Once in Siberia, the Canadian troops spent most of their time waiting for something to happen. Canadians were involved in only one military action, with no deaths reported. Still, 21 Canadians died during the Siberian expedition, with most of them falling victim to pneumonia. Two of the fatalities came after they returned to Canada; the men were buried at the William Head quarantine station.
By the spring of 1919, the Canadians were on their way home, with virtually nothing to show for their time away. But for them, finally, the Great War came to an end.
Isitt has been researching Canada’s Siberian Expedition for several years. It hasn’t been easy, because the federal government strictly censored newspaper coverage of what the military was up to. The reports of the day were, by government decree, superficial at best.
One way to measure Isitt’s thorough approach is to check the endnotes. They account for 70 pages, or one-fifth of the book, and list daily newspapers, labour publications, private correspondence, other books and more.
Isitt also visited Russia to gain the kind of knowledge that is only available on the ground. Beyond that, he incorporated military, labour and social history, providing context to the overall story.
The expedition increased tensions in our society, with a politically active labour movement fighting what the government had in store.
The end result is a fascinating account of a forgotten chapter in Canada’s military history. The fact that Victoria played a key role is a bonus. It’s a story that has been waiting to be told for more than 90 years.
But wait, there is more. Isitt also created a website devoted to the expedition; with chapters in English, French and Russian, it is a perfect complement to his book. It also includes an archive of 2,200 photographs and documents from veterans’ families and public collections. The website is at www.siberianexpedition.ca.
The reviewer is the author of Making The News, A Times Colonist Look at 150 Years of History.