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Book Cover - From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1917-1919

From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1917-1918

by Benjamin Isitt

Vancouver, Toronto: UBC Press, 2010, (hc)
352 pages, $85.00

Vancouver, Toronto: UBC Press, 2011, (pb)
299 pages, $29.95

ISBN: 9780774818018 (hc)
9780774818025 (pb)

Reviewed by Ian C.D. Moffat

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There is a large untapped subject area waiting to be investigated by contemporary historians in the field of social and military history in Canada. The connection of the social mores of the time and the effects on the members of Canada’s professional and citizen military has only been scratched on the surface, and little has been done in the era of the Great War. A new book, From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1917-19, by Benjamin Isitt, an historian specializing in labour and social movements in Canada, adds a new dimension to this intriguing field of study  Isitt has introduced an argument in his book that radical labour activity had a direct influence upon Canada’s participation in and withdrawal from the little-known Siberian expedition against Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918-1919. Herein, he has taken a first step in investigating this neglected area of historical study – the social connections of the working class and the ordinary soldier/sailor/airman during war.  His work is a welcome start to this field, and it is an in-depth expansion of his paper "Mutiny from Victoria to Vladivostok 1918,"published in The Canadian Historical Review Volume 87 No 2 (June 2006).  His book, published in 2010, has delved into various archives and primary sources dealing with Canada’s involvement in the Allied Intervention in Russia after the Great War, but it concentrates mostly upon Canadian social and labour history as it affected the Siberian portion of the Canadian involvement in this Russian adventure. Yet, overall, it is a very biased study that supports the labour and socialist side of the issue, and it fails to take into account other factors, such as high level political pressure from allies, and the decision-making process of the Canadian and other Allied governments in making policy. His main argument contends that radical labour activity, especially that which occurred on Canada’s west coast, caused a small mutiny by Quebecois conscriptees preparing to embark for Russia, and that this, in turn, was the reason Canadian troops conducted no operational activity in Siberia and withdrew early. Around this theme, Isitt presents various radical labour events, mainly in British Columbia, and socialist pressure by labour leaders placed on soldiers assembling in Victoria before being sent to Siberia.This is interspersed with narratives of the events occurring in Russia that showed the evolution of the revolution towards the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian government. Isitt uses the events in Russia and in Canada as evidence of  the solidarity of radical Canadian labour with the Russian revolution, and, therefore, the rationale for radical influence on the political decisions in Ottawa.

Although Isitt’s writing is clean and very readable, the book is disjointed and repetitive. In addition, it is riddled with rudimentary errors, such as the inaccurate-identifying of Winston Churchill as Lord of the Admiralty (the actual position is First Lord of the Admiralty), when he was actually the Secretary of War in charge of the army.  In addition, Isitt gives Churchill a knighthood long before he actually attained that status.  He also implies that Canada took an independent decision not to recognize the Bolshevik Government at the time of the revolution, when Canada had no power to do so, being then part of the British Empire, and, at the time, foreign policy being the sole purview of the Westminster Government in London. These errors of historical fact could have been avoided by virtue of basic research and knowledge with respect to the Great War era and Canada’s place in the British Empire.

This book is a paean to old-school class warfare, pitting working class labour against the monolithic establishment. Isitt does highlight the tentative connection between militant labour on Canada’s west coast and the dissatisfaction of the Canadian conscript troops preparing to embark for Vladivostok in late 1918. However, his observations that solidarity of Canadian radical labour with the Russian revolutionaries was evidence of pending revolution in Canada is ‘stretching the facts,’ and it places too much reliance upon the reading of Canadian radical labour press. More balance with official reports and mainline media stories would have demonstrated a more in-depth analysis, as well as more evidence for his theory, if such evidence exists. Isitt appears to have selected only some of Borden’s correspondence of the time to support his argument, and has relied more upon radical labour newspapers for his hypothesis. 

In this reviewer’s opinion, Isitt places too much emphasis upon economic self-interest on Canada’s part for its participation in the expedition, when that was only one of the arguments Borden used to sell it to his Cabinet. Participation stemmed primarily from Borden’s belief that Canada had a duty to support Britain when asked to do so, and Lloyd George had appealed to Canada in August 1918 for military aid for Siberia to help re-establish the Eastern Front. Isitt then asserts that Canadian labour unrest and agitation promoting the return of Canadian troops’ from Siberia, while certainly a factor and a worry of the Canadian Cabinet, was instrumental in their repatriation. These arguments are not backed up with any official documentation.  In fact, radical labour agitation was a minor factor, when it was Sir Robert Borden’s pressure on the British government that was instrumental in the withdrawal of Canadians from Siberia. Borden’s disillusionment with the intervention stemmed from the absence of an official agreed-upon Allied Russian policy. These facts are easily found in Borden’s papers, and in various monographs dealing with Canada’s role in the Great War. Yet, none of this is addressed by Isitt. Rather, he paints a picture of socialist pressure and labour solidarity as the reason for the Canadian withdrawal from Vladivostok.

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, Isitt’s work is a good addition to the literature on this long-forgotten subject.  His description of the mutiny and the effect of the radical labour rallies on the ordinary soldiers assembling in Victoria for deployment provides a new dimension to a little-known event in Canadian Great War historiography.  While hardly the definitive word on Canada’s Siberian foray, Isitt’s book opens the debate for modern historians, and it is an important contribution to the discussion. For that reason, this book should be read by anyone interested in Canadian participation in the Allied intervention in Russia at the end of the First World War, as well as for an introduction to the study of social pressures on ordinary soldiers in time of war.

Commander (ret’d) Ian Moffat, CD, a  naval officer and an operational sailor for over 35 years, is currently working on his PhD thesis in War Studies at the  Royal Military College of Canada on the Canadians in Siberia experience.