from ‘the Sphere’ November 14, 1918
'From Kieff to Vladivostok'

a First Hand Narrative of a Journey through Siberia

a typical wood-burning locomotive on the Trans-Siberian Express

 

These notes and snapshots are given by one of the soldiers of the Belgian Armoured Motor Car Corps who fought with the Russian armies, and who recently, after the Russian peace, returned to France across Siberia and America, thus travelling all round the world.

 

Belgian soldiers lining up for a roll-call

 

In February civil war was raging in Kieff. The Belgian Armoured Motor Car Corps was in the capital of the Ukraine, awaiting a favourable opportunity to leave Russia, when Mouravieff with his Bolshevist troops came to bombard the town. The problem of leaving Russia in the midst of anarchy and chaos was difficult for a group of 303 men, all armed. We had already obtained passports from Krylenko, the Russian lieutenant who was generalissimo of the Bolshevist Army, and who in this instance showed us great courtesy, but we had to get railway carriages, and the most difficult task of all was to gather enough provisions for a few months, as in the prevailing conditions of the country there was no hope of getting any food during the journey.

We destroyed our armoured cars, and on February 20 we left Kieff in the direction of Moscow. The Austro-German troops were everywhere pouring into Russia, and three days later Kieff was taken. We had succeeded in forming a special train out of railway carriages of all kinds and classes, which we repaired ourselves. In the goods vans were two kitchens and a field bakery. For the lighting of the whole train we used an engine from one of our former supply cars. Thus fitted up, our train, with its freight of soldiers in a uniform practically unknown in Russia, always caused a great sensation wherever it went.

After leaving Moscow we reached Vologda, the junction station of the Trans-Siberian with the Archangel line. Archangel Harbour was frozen at this time of the year; on the other hand, in order to reach Kola on the Murmansk coast, we should have had to go back towards Petrograd, and the German advance was likely to bar the way. We decided to move eastwards across Siberia. We had left Kieff on February 20; we reached Vladivostok on April 20 after a journey of two months.

Amidst the winter snow we crossed the Ural Mountains and halted at Ekaterinburg, a name which will be associated with the murder of the late Tsar Nicholas II. Then we entered Siberia. Thanks to the passports given by Krylenko, we did not encounter many difficulties in Russia. We were usually stared at and sometimes scowled at, because we were foreigners, and we had also to keep a watchful guard over our food stores, which would have been looted by the starving soldiers.

At Omsk we experienced our first great difficulty — the town Soviet refused to let us go forward on our journey. It was at that time rumoured that the Japanese had landed at Vladivostok and were preparing to advance into Siberia. There was growing in Manchuria a counter-revolutionary movement, the troops of which were under Semenoff and were given the name of the White Guard. The Soviet of Omsk feared that we were going to join that party, and in this instance our papers were of little use, because the Siberian Bolshevists would not recognise Krylenko's authority. They told us to give up our rifles; this order was met with a definite refusal. After two days we arrived at the following solution: We were to be allowed to continue our journey on condition that we gave our word of honour that we would not join the enemy party, and not give up our rifles till we were back in Belgium. Each of us had to sign the paper stipulating those conditions, and when the Soviet had it safely in their hands we had permission to go.

From Omsk we went slowly to Irkutsk; we expected to find there the greatest difficulties, but the Soviet of Omsk had advised the Soviet of Irkutsk by telegraph, and everything went smoothly. Then we went through the magnificent country of the Lake Baikal. At the station of Baikal a rather curious incident occurred. On a siding was a railway carriage where some officers deported by the Bolshevist Government of Russia were kept prisoners; two of these managed to escape as our train started, and, crawling under some railway vans that were in the station, succeeded in joining us; Belgian soldiers managed to hide them so well that although the Bolshevists searched everywhere they failed to find them, and so the officers succeeded in escaping to Manchuria.

Something worthy of notice is the marvellous state in which the whole Trans-Siberian line is kept in spite of the anarchy in the country. All along the line guards are at their post; it was curious to watch them raising their flag at our passage — and then standing between the rails respectfully presenting the flag to the vanishing train.

We stopped beyond Lake Baikal in a small town which had held a big camp of Austrian prisoners; many of them had been there from 1914, and it was reported that a great number had died since of exposure.

We arrived at Chita, the great mining centra (chiefly for gold) of Siberia. There again the Soviet stopped us, and for the second time an attempt was made to disarm us. In such a state of anarchy is Siberia that our permission to travel received at Omsk and Irkutsk was no more available in Chita than Krylenko's papers had been in the former towns; the Soviet of Chita did not recognise any authority but their own. We should have been kept there indefinitely had it not been for some Siberian Cossacks who had known us in Galicia during Broussilof's offensive and who took sides with us. The representatives of the Soviet, evil-looking men, came to search our train for machine-guns they could not find, and finally, after two days, we were allowed to depart.

A short distance beyond Chita, the Trans-Siberian branches in two; the line following the Amur river does not leave Russian territory, the other goes more southward through Manchuria. We had already gone some way on this line when we received a telegraphic message from Chita with orders from the Soviet to go back and follow ths line of the Amur river. During the night an engine arrived with a railway carriage bringing the members of the Soviet, together with a detachment of armed men. We firmly refused to go back, as we were about fifty miles only from the Manchurian frontier. They argued that a bridge was destroyed, but in vain, and later we found that the bridge was intact.

We started once again. At the last Siberian station we were stopped for the last time ; on the other side of the frontier were the troops of Semenoff, and there had been more than one engagement between them and the Bolshevists — these were not likely to want our railway stock to fall into enemy hands. It was agreed with the Soviet of Chita that one of our officers with one of our interpreters should go on a railway engine surmounted with a white flag to "Manchuria," the frontier station.

 

 

We waited three days, and during that time we made better acquaintance with the place. It was hardly a village, but near the railway there were a number of big unfinished barracks which seemed to have been deserted for a long time. The Bolshevist troops camping in the station were composed of some hundreds of men, badly equipped-- some were Red Guards in civilian dress. While we were there a train came in bringing artillery material — two field-guns with a few munitions, accompanied by drunken soldiers. We also saw a Red Cross railway carriage occupied by Russian nurses and two German attendants. German prisoners went about freely and affected not to take any notice of us. On the third day shouts followed by cheerings were suddenly heard, and soon there appeared a long train with a white flag floating on the engine. One could read the inscription in Russian — "East Chinese Railways" — on the carriages, inside which, revolver in hand, stood Chinese soldiers. The luggage was quickly conveyed from one train to the other, while the Bolshevists witnessed the transport without a word. We left during the night, and in the morning we woke in the station of "Manchuria," the frontier town.

It was about seven o'clock. The first thing I noticed was a Russian officer with a rifle on his shoulder doing sentry work like an ordinary soldier. The Semenoff army was composed chiefly of officers who left Russia to escape being massacred. In Manchuria we encountered many of them; they were readily distinguishable by the epaulettes they were forbidden to wear under penalty of death by the Bolshevists. At that time the station presented a scene of extraordinary animation; as a frontier station it was an important centre both for Semenoff's troops and the Chinese army. The Chinese soldiers are well equipped and well clothed in a grey uniform; they wear a cap trimmed with fur at the back in order to cover the neck. They were in great numbers, and included among them was a detachment of cavalry mounted on small Siberian horses with long hair. From "Manchuria" to Harbin all the stations were guarded by them. The Chinese soldier seems well disciplined. It appears, however, that recently 500 Bolshevists were able to occupy the "Manchuria" station, while the Chinese, who were in superior numbers, did not offer any resistance.

 

 

We lived three weeks in Harbin, awaiting the instructions of the Belgian Minister in Peking. Harbin, to which the Siberian question has given a great importance lately, is a curious and interesting town. Leaving the station one finds a square crowded with rickshaws drawn by quarrelling natives eager for customers ; there are a good number of cabs in a dilapidated condition, drawn by small Siberian horses and driven by Russian "Isvotchiks." The whole scene is far from inviting.

Harbin was then the general headquarters of General Semenoff, whom I had the opportunity of meeting occasionally. Much has been said about his personality; I shall only add that he is quite a young man of an eager and passionate nature, and does not scorn enjoyment; that, in fact, was the characteristic of most of the Russian officers who had escaped from the Bolshevist nightmare. I also encountered some Russian civilians, a number of whom belonged to the Civil Service, and had lived a long time in Harbin. There was already a question of Japanese intervention in Siberia. From diverse opinions I gathered that the intellectual portion of the Russian population has much sympathy with the Chinese. Chiefly for this reason it appears to be necessary that Japanese intervention should be actively supported by the Allies. At that moment there were already in Harbin a great number of American engineers, who had the task of reorganising the section of the Trans-Siberian that lies in Manchurian territory.

 

a street in Vladivostok

 

We finally left Harbin after three weeks; as we were going to re-enter Siberian territory, we were once again arrested by the Bolshevists, but the difficulties were soon overcome, and we arrived at Vladivostok in the night of the 20th to the 21st April. In the darkness of the harbour we could vaguely see the huge shadows of the warships; their searchlights soon began to play on us. As the first flush of dawn broke into the radiance of a beautiful spring day we could distinguish each of them.

On April 24 we embarked on an American transport returning from the Philippines, and on the following day at noon we left Vladivostok; the Japanese played the "Brabanšonne" and the American hymn, while, from all the warships loud and hearty cheers bade us God-speed on our homeward journey.

 

Belgian soldiers lining up on the quay in Vladivostok

 

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