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Book Reviews

Churchill’s Crusade: The British Invasion of Russia 1918-1920

by Clifford Kinvig

London and New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2006
373 pages, $17.48 (paperback)
ISBN 978-1-852-85477-5

Reviewed by Ian C.D. Moffat

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Book CoverIt is often difficult to write a history of an event that has passed from common knowledge, but that is complex and multi-faceted. The Allied Intervention into Russia at the end of the First World War and during the 1919 peace negotiations is such an event that deserves more attention than it has received. Major-General Clifford Kinvig, a senior lecturer at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy and Director of Army Education, has made a credible effort to bring this event to the attention of modern students of warfare. He concentrates on the British efforts in four areas where major White Russian armies tried to destroy the Bolsheviks. His main argument presents the intervention as primarily the folly of one man, Winston Churchill. Around this theme, Kinvig presents the events in each area, interspersing the strategic picture with tactical vignettes that illustrate the problems faced by individuals on the ground when trying to fulfil directions from political masters and headquarters far removed from the actual battlefield.

Through primary sources that included letters of the individuals involved, official dispatches, and books written by the participants of the intervention, Kinvig paints the picture of a young, driven politician bent upon destroying Bolshevism at its birth through military intervention. The author shows Churchill’s determination despite opposition from Prime Minister David Lloyd George and other more experienced ministers in the British Cabinet. Around this central theme, Kinvig weaves descriptions of hard-fought battles on the varied Russian fronts, and of petty political intrigue within the British cabinet, the British War and Foreign Offices, and the diverse White Russian commands trying to overcome the Communist onslaught. He notes that the subject is given short shrift in many of the Churcillian biographies and studies of the famous British prime minister, although he fails to mention the detailed study given by Sir Martin Gilbert’s fourth volume of his opus on Churchill’s life.

Kinvig gives a good overview of the intervention, and the length of the book precludes a detailed study of all the intrigues and reasons for many of the failures in the various operations undertaken by the anti-Bolsheviks during this part of the Russian civil war. He is also cautious in his use of dates, which sometimes makes it difficult to recognize the simultaneity of events, but it allows the narrative to flow easily. Kinvig has chosen to present the view of only one of the participants in this Allied intervention – in this case the British view. By so doing, he falls into the trap of many American and British historians of omitting, except for necessary facts, the inputs of the other players involved in the intervention. This was a complex Allied military operation involving four major powers – Britain, France, Japan, and the United States – as well as myriad minor nations. Political intrigue occurred at the highest levels, with US President Woodrow Wilson, Prime Minister Lloyd George, French President Georges Clemençeau, and the Japanese military making major decisions that affected the operations in Russia. Kinvig does not give due credit to the international strategic problems that affected the intervention. Much of the resistance to military intervention came from US President Wilson and this part of the diplomatic in-fighting is mostly absent from Kinvig’s book. However, he does give due credit to the Canadian participants, who, as part of the British forces, were involved in both the North Russia intervention and the Siberian operation, but he neglects to identify Major-General James H. Elmsley as one of the Imperial commanders in Russia at the time of the Armistice. Nonetheless, Kinvig is in good company here, as Martin Gilbert makes the same omission in his multi-volume biography of Churchill.

Kinvig’s descriptions of tactical operations give a ‘Boys’ Own Adventure’ feel to the operation. In many cases, his descriptions of the situation use the language that ‘upper-crust’ officers at the time used when writing home to convey excitement but avoid the dark details of battle. The author quotes one Royal Navy officer with regard to the mines encountered in the Dvina River: “They have all sorts of mines, small ones with horns, large sea mines with horns, and small ones with whiskers (these are awful because they will go off if you look at the blighters almost.” Thus, he gives the feel of the situation without dwelling upon detail that would take away from the larger picture of the strategic failure of the intervention.

His book gives a good insight into the character of Churchill during this period, and his attempts to ignore or avoid the will of Lloyd George and other British Cabinet members with respect to Russian policy. This work would have been enhanced if Kinvig had included more of Lloyd George’s attitude to intervention – he was much against it – as a foil to Churchill’s enthusiasm for the operation. Nonetheless, the author has produced a credible effort to show the single-mindedness of Churchill for a cause that had few backers and no resources, due to the war weariness of the British population at the time. This book is a good addition to a long-forgotten but important historical operation at the end of the First World War that deserves more attention. It will appeal to those interested in all aspects of the Great War and its aftermath, as well as to those people who enjoy learning all there is to know about Sir Winston Churchill. It is a good addition to the history of Allied intervention in Russia’s civil war after the Bolshevik Revolution.

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Commander Ian Moffat has been a naval officer and an operational sailor for over 35 years. He is currently a PhD candidate in War Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada on the Canadians in Siberia experience.

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