So granddad is in Novorossisk along with ‘the wreckage of a whole nation funnelled down to the sea’ (Williamson, p.281). As we said last week the British had decided to take control of the evacuation after the chaos of earlier evacuations at Taganrog and other cities. This involved registering all the families of the White officers that Holman had pledged to save and whom he was ‘working day and night’ to do so. There will be a short post on Holman coming up later this week.
In the two weeks leading up to the final departure dates of March 26th 1920, the town was heaving with a mind-boggling estimate of 500,000 unregistered refugees, according to Laurie Kopisto in his dissertation (Kopisto, p.168), some of whom had travelled a thousand miles to escape. Among these civilians there were the soldiers too;the British of course and also the fleeing Whites as well as the Cossacks with their horses, the Don and the Kuban, whose territory this was. Major Noel Williamson, whose memoir Farewell to the Don vividly describes these weeks on Novorossisk and which I will be dipping into quite a bit, writes…
Troops were throwing away their shoulder straps and officers tearing off their epaulettes because the Reds… liked to indulge in the pleasant practice of nailing them to their wearer’s shoulders when captured… while others shot themselves in despair.
They were right to be afraid. My granddad notes in his account that after the last of the MIssion sailed…
There were four hundred Russian officers left behind & these were all cut-up by the Bolshies.
Suicide would not be uncommon during these weeks. White soldiers, would kill their families and themselves on the shores of the Black Sea as the last transports disappeared over the horizon. I found an account online and Google translated it from Russian. I have not verified its source but it is descriptive…
Many of the remaining Novorossiysk officers of the Armed Forces of Southern Russia have committed suicide, not wanting to be captured, and many of those …captured – were executed…I remember [a] Captain [of] Drozdowski Regiment , standing not far from me, with his wife and two children, three and five years. Crossed himself and kissed them, he shoots each of them in the ear, baptizing his wife in tears saying goodbye to her; and, behold, shot, she falls, and the last bullet in itself [for himself] ...
British soldiers were far from unaffected by the terrible situation. As we mentioned in another post, many would carry the means to do away with themselves in the form of cyanide pills, for fear of capture by the Bolsheviks. A Lieutenant Colonel Bingham OBE of the 69th Punjabis and attached to the British Military Mission, and in charge of transport in Novorossisk, suicided with his service revolver in on March 18th, the day after the Bolsheviks entered Ekaterinodar ninety miles away. He was anguished by orders at having to turn away refugees that were not related any military personnel, rightly fearing many would be murdered by the Bolsheviks. Despite his orders, before his death he would manage to save a number of civilian families. Drinking heavily with the RAF on the 17th, it was clear that this soldier who had seen action during the Boxer rebellion in China, as General Holman had, and who had survived Gallipoli, was overwhelmed by the situation (Wright, p.423). He was 42. He is buried at Novorossisk and remembered on the Haidar Pasha monument at Constantinople.
The British tried their best to keep order. Novorossisk was under the command of a Russian military governor and the commander of the fort but as they were at loggerheads they were less than useless (Williamson, p.278). The city could have been protected, possibly indefinitely, according to a Lieutenant Colonel Hakewell-Smith, as it was surrounded by the mountains and the sea and there was only one road and one railway into the town and that through a narrow ravine but there were no White troops available to post anywhere (Kopisto, p.168) as many had fled already. Of any remaining units, Denikin was reluctant to sacrifice them as he was planning to regroup in the Crimea. If they should ever get there. The British Mission at this point numbered around 1458-the most men it would have in South Russia-with 356 of those being officers (Kinvig, p.99) and they had their hands full keeping order, trying to save the families of the Russian soldiers and breaking down the mountain of supplies. The Royal Scots Fusiliers guarding the docks would be swarmed by the desperate horde of refugees-who they threw back at bayonet point-at least once
Most civilian ships had left by the final two weeks but The British and French Navies had warships in the harbour. During the evacuation, the British battleship Emperor of India and the French cruiser Waldeck Rousseau opened fire on Budenny’s forces waiting outside the port, Budenny being the leader of the Bolshevik cavalry. When granddad had finally embarked on the SS Hannover, the last ship out, he would comment on the destroyers…
One of our warships named the “Emperor of India” & some of our destroyers which were in the harbour shelled the hills all round Novorossisk where the Bolshies were & then they blew up the town.
In an attempt to calm the situation and boost morale General Bridges-whom General Milne, recently brought in by Churchill to organise the area in view of Generals Holman’s emotional connection to the people of Russia (more on that in the week) had placed in charge of the evacuation -decided to have a parade of all available soldiers and marines including a band and some pipers (Kopisto, p.169). In a city where thousands of people were found dead on the streets each morning, where people were selling everything they had to try to get out, a city under attack by the Greens and the Reds and echoing with rifle fire and naval shot hurled from the British destroyers in the harbour at the road where Budenny’s cavalry would at any time approach, the concussion of the guns, according to Williamson..
…beating against the ears and rattling windows in the houses..
…the parade must have been surreal. It would also be the last celebratory show many would see for a long time or ever again for that matter.
So much for short posts. General Holman is next. Then we’ll look at some prose about the evacuation, the RAF and the supplies on the dock, the Cossacks and their horses and the civilians. Not necessarily in that order…Further Reading & References
Hughes, J., K., (2005),The Unwanted:Great War Letters from the Field, Alberta:University of Alberta.
Kinvig, C., (2006), Churchill’s Crusade:The British Invasion of Russia, London:Bloomsbury Publishing.
Kopisto, L., (2011), The British Intervention in South Russia:1918-1920, Helsinki. Helsinki University.
Williamson, H.N.H., (1971), Farewell to the Don, ed. Harris, J., New York:The John Day Company.