[White Russian Refugees who fled Odessa aboard the Habsburg]
“To the Chief of the British Commission in Constantinople”.
[Constantinople, February 1920].
Manuscript, 8 pp. quarto, text in black pen followed by numerous original signatures in pencil and indigo crayon, affixed with contemporary pin in upper left corner (Very Good, some slight staining and light smudging to a few signatures but all still legible, old horizonal folds).
“Special Order No. 43 By Major-General H.C. Holman, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., Commanding British Military Mission in South Russia… [conveying the text of a letter by] J.M de Robeck, Vice-Admiral and H.G. Reid, Lieut.-Col., Novorossisk [Novorossiysk], February 24, 1920.”
Contemporary Manuscript Copy of an Original, 1 p. quarto, blue pen on lined paper (Very Good, slightly toned, old vertical folds).
A fascinating mini-archive concerning the evacuation of White Russian refugees from Odessa in February 1920, fleeing the ‘Red Terror’ that threatened to befall them upon the expected Bolshevik capture of the city; the highlight of which is Part I, the original manuscript ‘thank you letter’ addressed to the British nation by refugees who, with British assistance, escaped Odessa aboard the ship ‘Habsburg’, reaching safety in Constantinople; Part II is a contemporary manuscript copy of a British military “General Order” commending the efforts of the British forces in Odessa in assisting the evacuation of refugees from the city.
In the winter of 1919-1920, during the height of the Russian Civil War (1917-22), the Bolshevik forces, represented by the Red Army, were rapidly gaining ground on the czarist forces, represented by the White Russian army. Outside of Siberia and Artic European Russia, the only territories still under White control were enclaves in the western Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucuses (notably the Kuban), so-called “South Russia”.
The conflict was unusually savage, as the both the Red and White forces had a habit of slaughtering enemy soldiers and civilians in cold blood immediately upon conquering cities and towns. A small contingent of British army forces, supported by a detachment of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet, provided technical assistance to the White forces, but their intervention was not enough to turn the tide.
The great port of Odessa, the fourth largest city in the Russian Empire, was by far and away the most important city still in White hands. However, by the beginning of February 1920, it was clear that it would imminently fall to the Reds. Thousands of its leading citizens were certain to become victims of the “Red Terror” should they remain in Odessa once the Bolsheviks entered the city.
From February 3-6, 1920, the British forces in Odessa organised a desperate last-minute evacuation effort, pressing all available vessels into service, in the hope of transporting White Russian officers, their families, as well as civil refugees identified with the czarist cause, to safety in Constantinople (which was then occupied by Britain and her WWI allies). The effort was rushed and clumsy and was not helped by the extreme winter weather. In the end only one-third of the as many as 50,000 people who needed to be evacuated managed to leave Odessa in time.
However, one success story was the voyage of the Hapsburg, a civilian ship pressed into service that managed to evacuate 1,300 refugees on February 6, 1920, safely transporting them to Constantinople.
The circumstances surrounding the Habsburg’s departure from Odessa were dramatic. Captain Harold Owen Reinold, the commander of the Royal Navy detachment in Odessa, recorded details of the Habsburg’s arrival, the boarding of the refugees, and its departure for Constantinople. In a letter to his superior Admiral John de Robeck, he recalled that the Habsburg arrived in Odessa harbour on February 3, escorted by the icebreaker Odessa. On February 5, he wrote that the “Habsburg is rapidly filling up with refugees”. He goes on to note that he has “Received complaints from refugees, going to the Habsburg, who were being plundered of their baggage all the way down”. Accordingly, Reinold “placed a strong guard along the whole route from the customs house to the Transports. These guards checked the looting with a firm hand, and there was no more of it.” Reinold notes that on February 6 at 11 AM, the “Habsburg went to sea with 1300 refugees”. (Source: Reinold to Robeck, February 13, 1920, UK National Archives, ADM 137/1756, as excerpted in Halpern, Mediterranean Fleet, pp. 158-9).
Part I is the original manuscript ‘thank you letter’ written by a group of passengers aboard the Habsburg, addressed to the British nation, by way of His Majesty’ Commission in Constantinople. It was written after the Habsburg had safely arrived in Constantinople, having left Odessa on February 6, 1920. The text of the letter, written in pen, reads:
“The Passengers of the “Hapsburg” driven out of Odessa and thanks to this vessel delivered from barbarism to Civilization bring their sincerest and deepest thanks to the British Nation in person of its representatives in Constantinople and those of the British Mission and Consulate in Odessa, who gave them the possibly to flee in time and so willingly stretched forth a hand of help in our hour of need.
The memory of it will never forsake the unfortunate Russian citizens cast away from their country.
It will be a new link between England and the real sons of Russia.”
This note is followed by the original manuscript signatures (mostly in pencil, but some in indigo crayon) of dozens of the Habsburg passengers, running to seven pages. Most names are Russian, but several suggest varied ethnic origins. An investigation of the names will likely reveal them to be a “Who’s Who” of Odessa’s of high society during the former czarist regime. As the note’s final line suggests, many of the refugees would end up forging new lives in Britain.
Part II is a contemporary manuscript copy of a “Special Order” written by Major-General H.C. Homan, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in South Russia, conveying the text of letter written by Vice-Admiral John de Robeck, the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, and Lieutenant-Colonel H.G. Reid, a senior army officer in the field, dated February 24, 1920, from Novorossiysk, (one of the last major ports in South Russia still in White hands), which commends “the very good services rendered” by the British forces in Odessa during the evacuation of the White refugees. With the successful departure of evacuation ships, such as the Habsburg, in mind, Robeck and Reid opine that “the untiring efforts” of the British forces in Odessa “undoubtably resulted in securing the safety of several thousands of Russians threated with massacre by the approach of the Bolsheviks”.
Fleeing from the ‘Red Terror’ in Odessa
The October 1917 Revolution instigated the Russian Civil War (November 7, 1917 – October 25, 1922), a vicious conflict for control of the former Russian Empire that would leave between 7 and 12 million people dead. While the Bolsheviks, or the ‘Reds’, managed to gain control over ‘core Russia’, the St. Petersburg-Moscow corridor, with relative ease, the monarchists, or ‘White’ forces maintained or gained control over many other regions, such as the vicinity of Archangel (northern European Russia), parts of Siberia, as well as the Southern Ukraine, Crimea and the Kuban. However, while the Whites fought hard, they were far outnumbered by the Red Army, which progressively placed them on the backfoot in all their domains.
The former Czarist regime’s old allies, Britain, France, as well as the United States, were deeply sympathetic to the White Russian cause (as well as terrified of the Communism). Many senior Entente officers had long-standing personal ties to White officers, while, Britain, in particular, had massive commercial investments in Russian ports (including small but vibrant British expatriate communities). While the final throes of the Great War limited the Entente Powers’ ability to assist the White cause early on, the end of the conflict freed some resources, while the Allied occupation of Constantinople (November 13, 1918 – October 4, 1923), gave them a stellar base of operations to aid the Whites in the Black Sea region.
However, the Entente Powers would not become directly involved in the fighting in a meaningful way; they simply could not afford to become embroiled in a conflict that promised to be as costly and brutal as the Great War. Britain and the United States were only able to provide technical and logistical assistance, in addition to providing special forces for small episodic operations. At the end of the day, the White Russians would be left to ‘sink or swim’ on their own devices.
The civil war was alarmingly brutal, even by Russian standards, as both the Red and White forces would regularly slaughter tens of thousands of captured enemy soldiers, as well as civilians, giving rise to the spectre of the ‘White’ and ‘Red Terrors’. Being trapped in a city that had fallen to the enemy was an exceedingly unenviable position, to put it mildly.
Odessa, located on the Black Sea, in the south-western Ukraine, was the Russian Empire’s busiest port and fourth-largest city. A prosperous cosmopolitan place, it was curiously home to both some of the country’s most ardent Communists (Leon Trotsky came of age in Odessa!) as well as a large ultra-White corporate-bourgeoisie class. By the spring of 1919, it was the greatest remaining centre of the White Russian cause, protected by the powerful Army of Southern Russia. Like the other White Russian Black Sea ports, such as Sebastopol and Novorossiysk, it was constantly supplied by the British Mediterranean Squadron, in addition to commercial shipping, from Constantinople. For a time, the city served as a haven for White Russians and foreigners fleeing from the Red Terror further north. Many even believed that the city, so distant from the war’s front lines, was impregnable.
However, in the summer of 1919, White Russian forces horribly botched an attempt to advance upon Moscow. They overextended their lines and were mauled by the Red Army. This was a turning point, as the White side’s position in Southern Russia and the Ukraine began to collapse. Over the succeeding months, the Red Army bulldozed both their Ukrainian nationalist and White Russian opponents, bringing the front lines ever closer to the Black Sea.
In January 1920, the Red Army began to storm down the Dnieper Valley, with town by town falling like bowling pins. The White forces and their British allies should have, in retrospect, seen the writing on the wall and come to the realization that Odessa was doomed. Evacuation preparations should already have been underway; any White officers, czarist officials, businessmen, Western foreigners and their families were assured to victims of the ‘Red Terror’ should they remain in the city once it fell. However, the Whites and British contingent vacillated until the beginning of February, when the fast-moving Red Army was nearing Odessa.
The Red Army’s capture of Ochakiv on February 3, at the mouth of the Dnieper, only 65 km away, finally convinced the White-British side to evacuate Odessa. Their task was not helped by the fact that only a handful of vessels were available to transport as many as 50,000 ‘marked people’ out of the theatre. Moreover, the unusually cold winter had frozen the harbour over, ensuring that each ship needed to be escorted by an icebreaker, an incredibly time-consuming process.
Panic and chaos gripped Odessa, as civil order fell away while many White soldiers abandoned their posts. Looting and brawls broke out all over the city. Under the supervision of a small detachment of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet, commanded by Captain Harold Owen Reinold, several military transports as well as commandeered civilian vessels made it through the ice, often with great difficulty, to dock at Odessa’s quays. However, the process of getting the refugees aboard the vessels was severely hampered by the lack of civil order, as many people were physically unable to traverse the city to get the port. Even if refugees made to the quays they were often attacked by gangs of robbers and deprived of their few possessions. Many people scheduled to board the evacuation vessels panicked and chose to stay home which, in some cases, proved to be a fatal error.
The evacuation continued at a feverish pace until the evening of February 6, when the White Army presence in Odessa completely collapsed. The last of the evacuation vessels left the harbour, escorted by Reinold’s ships, on their way to Constantinople. The following morning, the Red Army, aided by pro-Communist sympathizers already in Odessa, breached the city and by February 8, all of Odessa was in Bolshevik hands.
While the hapless evacuation effort managed to recue approximately 16,000 refugees from Odessa, as many as two-thirds of the people who planned to leave the city were left behind. These unfortunates included 200 White officers (including 3 generals), 3,000 White soldiers, plus an unknown number of civilians linked to the czarist cause. The Red Army exacted brutal justice upon these people. Many were killed outright; some were sent to gulags (where many soon died); while others managed to ‘lay low’ until the dust settled. A group of 12,000 Whites managed to leave the city overland bound for the Romanian border, but most were captured after Romania refused to let them enter the country. While not even rough numbers are available, it is certain that many thousands of Whites died in the immediate wake of the fall of Odessa. For the Bolsheviks the capture of the great port was one of the prime actual and PR achievements of the entire war. Additionally, the Whites had left vast stores of provisions and weapons in Odessa that the Red Army was able to use to continue their conquest of South Russia.
Odessa would suffer greatly from famine in 1921-22 before recovering somewhat after the war, whereupon it transitioned from being a great centre of commerce to the Soviet Union’s premier ‘warm water’ maritime base.
Back to the bigger picture, by the end of February 1920, all White forces had been chased from the Western Ukraine. The Whites then only held on to positions in the northern Caucuses and the Crimea.
In March 1920, Novorossiysk, the White stronghold in the Kuban, was on the verge of falling to the Red Army, under similar circumstances as did Odessa. With the assistance of British forces, 40,000 people were evacuated from Novorossiysk (the Habsburg was again pressed into service, delivering another group of refugees safely to Constantinople!). However, many people associated with the Whites remained upon the fall of the city. In what became known as the ‘Novorossiysk Catastrophe’, the Bolsheviks executed an estimated 33,000 people!
Crimea, the last White stronghold along the Black Sea, would fall in November 1920, before which over 145,000 White refugees fled the peninsula.
The Red Army mopped up the remaining White resistance across the country, leading to the foundation of the Soviet Union in 1922. Almost all the White refugees who manged to fell abroad would never see their homeland again, forging new lives in places such as America, Britain, France and Australia.
References: N / A – Present Documents seemingly unrecorded. Cf. Paul Halpern, The Mediterranean Fleet, 1919-1929 (Routledge, 2016), esp. pp. 158-9.