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Review

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

By Benjamin Isitt

November 4, 2013

Review By Chris Leach

 

While the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean War unfolds with little or no fanfare, it is appropriate to consider an even more forgotten Canadian military adventure: the Canadian Siberian Expedition to the Russian port city of Vladivostok in 1918-19 as part of the Allied counter-revolutionary intervention during the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent Civil War. In From Victoria to Vladivostok, Benjamin Isitt considers the significance of this expedition – an expedition that consisted of over four thousand soldiers from across Canada, that has won no place in the national memory, and that barely registers in the historical record. Uncomfortably straddling the histories of the Great War and the histories of the Bolshevik Revolution, intervention finds little room in either, whether they address military and strategic matters or consider the impact of those events on domestic politics and society. By addressing this gap in the historiography, Isitt has provided an invaluable addition to Canadian military history and to the history of the intervention while, at the same time, exploring the expedition’s role in the broader political discourse of class, socialism, and French-English relations in this country at the end of the Great War. 

Using a diverse range of sources from both sides of the Pacific, Isitt unravels the complex interplay of war, revolution, diplomacy, domestic politics, and even the influenza epidemic. In doing so he convincingly reveals the importance of the expedition, which he characterizes as a military “fiasco” (169), albeit one that had significant domestic repercussions. Here, it seemed to the political left, was an explicit manifestation of the conservative capitalist Canadian government pursuing an aggressive, commercially self-serving but ultimately subservient foreign policy at the end of an already exhausting war. At the request of the British and in concert with several other allied states, the government sought to defeat a young Bolshevik regime whose rhetoric, it feared, increasingly resonated with the ever more radical labour movement – notably in British Columbia, the departure point for the expedition – and with those in the rest of the company who opposed conscription. 

Isitt offers engaging narratives of government ambitions and fears, military misadventures symptomatic of a poorly coordinated and unwelcome multinational expedition, and growing public opposition. Defeating Bolshevism ran parallel with efforts to defeat social and political opposition at home as trade unions grew and found common cause with disgruntled conscripts. Incidents of labour unrest, police violence, and repressive government policies proliferated across the country but particularly in British Columbia. Finally, prior to leaving for Vladivostok, on 21 December 1918 the predominantly French-Canadian soldiers from the ill-fated 259th Battalion mutinied in Victoria. The Armistice of November 1918 exacerbated the feelings of these men – men who were opposed to conscription and who were suffering loss and illness due to the Spanish flu – that the Siberian Expedition was an act of folly, an ill-conceived demonstration of government opposition to the left wherever it threatened. This folly became increasingly apparent as the expedition forces mouldered in Vladivostok and Prime Minister Borden’s determination to support Britain’s interventionist policy finally succumbed to ministerial, military, and public criticism. By April 1919, the soldiers started coming home, having lost twenty-one of their ranks to disease, accident, and suicide. 

From Victoria to Vladivostok is an excellent piece of scholarship. This work puts into a broad context – both foreign and domestic – the neglected narrative of the Canadian Siberian Expedition. Supported by its impressive bibliography, comprehensive index, clearly presented appendices, and relevant maps, this is a sophisticated work of interwoven narratives and analysis by Benjamin Isitt. 

From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1917-1919
By Benjamin Isitt
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010. 352 pp. $29.95 paper