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......From Bangor to Baku

Ulster soldiers fighting for the Royal Navy..... on land in armoured cars.... with the Russian Czar in Asia Minor in 1916

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The First world War is perhaps best renowned for the trench warfare of the western front. However this article tells the remarkable story of the Russian Armoured Car Division and its Ulstermen who fought in the alien landscape of Asia Minor among the political quagmire of the Bolshevik revolution.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

N0.3 Squ. RACD, John Armstrong is back row, far left
No.3 Squadron Russian Armoured Car Division

Peter Stevenson from Carrickfergus began research into the Ulster connection to this amazing story due to his Great Uncle's inclusion in the armoured car division. Peter's Great Uncle, John Armstrong is standing in the back row, far left in the photo above. Click on the picture for more details about him.


Words and photographs courtesy of Peter Stevenson

The exploits of Irishmen in the First World War have been widely documented and not least the sacrifice on the Somme when on a single day the 36th (Ulster) Division sustained 5.500 casualties. The sacrifices of the 36th Division represent only a portion of the losses sustained by the Irish people throughout the War but I highlight these because of the particular background of the 36th Division.

This unit was drawn from the Ulster Volunteer Force which since January 1913 had been organising and preparing itself for a task which few Irishmen are not already aware – an Irish civil war. Many, however, will not have heard of the amazing exploits of a cadre of voluteers whose particular talents were identified and directed towards a specific arm of the British military effort to defeat the Axis Powers.

The Royal Naval Air Service badgeWhile not suffering the specific losses endured by their comrades on the Somme, these men were witness to a period of carnage unrivalled on any other front of The Great War. The nation to which they contracted their skills, recorded military and civilian deaths of 3.7 million. These appalling losses were instrumental in fuelling the downfall of the State and a Revolution whose consequences have continued to influence world events to this day.

The State was of course imperial Russia and I would suggest that there can be no unit in British military history which could parallel the experiences shared by the Irishmen who served in the Russian Armoured Car Division, Royal Naval Air Service, from December 1915 to February 1918.

The story of this Unit has already been comprehensively told in a book titled "The Czar's British Squadron" by Bryan Perrett and Anthony Lord, so it is not my intention to attempt to duplicate this work.

However, in the interests of the Irish involvement which was only briefly addressed in the aforementioned book, I have compiled a listing of the Officers and Ratings of Irish extraction who served with the RACD, together with the decorations awarded to them in the 2 year campaign.

Drawn solely from the official Service Histories of the ratings (these records regrettably have since proved to be incomplete but at least no "new" Irish personnel have as yet been uncovered) it is recorded that of 555 Ratings serving with the Unit, 111 were Irish.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939
Oliver Locker Lampson
Commander Oliver Locker Lampson


Being an Armoured Car Unit, the primary skills which the authorities sought were those of drivers and mechanics and of the 111 Irishmen involved, some 72 offered this particular background. The rest were drawn from diverse occupations and one can now only guess at how these men found their way into this venture.

Prior to its Russian campaign, what became the RACD was, a unit of the Royal Naval Air Service serving in Belgium in support of aircraft reconnaissance. Its nucleus was No 15 Squadron RNAS formed and commanded by Commander Oliver Locker Lampson, Unionist Member of Parliament for Huntingdonshire (East Anglia).

 

In seeking support to raise the equipment and men necessary to create the Squadron, Locker Lampson had turned to his political roots. So it was that the Ulster Volunteer Force came to his aid to make up the shortfall in men and money. The UVF connection cannot be doubted with the appearance of a body of Ulstermen in a unit whose base clearly was rooted in the east of England.

locker lampson news cutting

Not only this, there followed the strange occurrence of an immediate issue of Canadian rifles (whose first sight of Britain may well have occurred at the Co. Antrim harbour of Larne) and the fact that three of the Squadron's armoured cars were christened 'Ulster, 'Londonderry', and 'Mountjoy'.

The new Squadron with its Irishmen in place initially served a period of home defence duties. It was then posted to Flanders, but in July 1915 it was decided to disband as the cars could not function adequately with the pervasive trench systems now establishing themselves on the Western Front.

The news cutting opposite, taken form the Belfast Newsletter, in May 1945, shows Locker Lampson's gung-ho attitute to the enemy.

The outcome of this development, due in no small part to the coaxing and manipulations of Locker Lampson was that a decision was then made to send the Squadron (plus two others to make up a complete Division) to the Eastern Front in support of Britain's Russian ally.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939
A Ford Armoured  Car in  Russia
Ford Armoured Car In Russia

The RACD were sailors on dry land, fighting from armoured cars and trenches. They faced conditions ranging from the acutely freezing temperatures within the Arctic Circle, the extreme heat and dust of the desert terrain of Armenia, to the Flanders like mud of the Danube delta. They fought in Asia Minor, Rumania, Russia, and Austria, against Kurds, Turks, Bulgarians, Germans and Austrians.

They served with Cossacks and Siberian Army Regiments and rubbed shoulders with Poles, Serbs, Czecho Slovaks, Tartars, and many other ethnic groups which at that time were a part of the once vast but by then sadly depleted armed might of Czarist Russia.

However events at home were to rock the unit as Easter 1916 approached, news of the Sinn Fein uprising in Dublin reached Alexandrovsk. The effect on some of the Irish was predictable. The UVF men, no doubt, feared for the security of Ulster and the safety of their families at home if the Dublin insurgents were to capitalise on their absence.

Exactly what subsequently happened in this remote part of Russia remains shrouded in mystery and has not been revealed in official records. From what can be ascertained, some form of mutiny occurred (fuelled by illegally hoarded rum).

It has been suggested that a number of Irishmen demanded repatriation and were refused. Whatever then occurred necessitated the summoning of British Marines from warships lying in the nearby Kola Inlet. There was at least no bloodshed and the 'rising' ended as quickly as it had begun.

We can only look to diary references from some of the survivors of the Unit for Comment on the affair. One English Rating, (PO Martin) referred to their upset as "the Irish business", while another (CPO Bromley) many years later dismissed it as the consequences of a "drunken Irish crowd, fighting and causing trouble". PO Cameron did not in fact record any reference to the event when it occurred and his only diary note on the affair was a subsequent entry on Monday 1 May 1916 which read " 31 men left Alexandrovsk for England today on the SS Umona".

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939
Alexandrovsk
The frozen port of Alexandrovsk

 

By this he in fact was referring to the departure of the ringleaders of the 'mutiny', other malcontents not necessarily associated with the incident and a few medical cases .Drawing solely from the Service Histories on public record, it is surprising and perhaps suggests of a more minor Irish role in the event that only three Irishmen can be clearly identified as having been sent home among the 31 who embarked on 1 May 1916.

The fact that some of the Irish rebelled is not to be doubted nor is the degree of resentment which non participants felt concerning the incident. British combatants of 1916 would have enjoyed a fierce pride in their reputation and it is a measure of this that verbal reference to the incident was extracted from survivors only many years later and with considerable difficulty.

An Irishman holds the unfortunate status of being the first, member of the RACD, to lose his life in Russia. This occurred during the journey south in 1916 when, on 11th June, PO Joseph Donnelly of Alexandra Park Avenue, Belfast, was drowned during general bathing parade, taking place at a railway stop on the River Don at Kisetirinta (near Rostov).

In all, four Irishmen died in service with the unit and eight were wounded in action. Out of the unit as a whole there were 17 deaths and 7 reported `missing in action', later confirmed as Prisoners of War (of whom 3 died in captivity).

Apart from the direct results of engagements with the enemy, the strains created by inhospitable conditions and the pressure of trying to prop up, a disintegrating ally clearly told on the health of some of the men.

The War was still of course continuing, even though Russia was no longer an active participant. Apart from those who were at that stage for one reason or another discharged to civilian life, the majority were recalled and transfered to Army control within the Motor Machine Gun Corps. There followed postings to North Persia in February 1918.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

The Oil fields of Baku, 1918

 

Here my records end, as the relevant service histories are not available. The exploits of the new unit which came to be known as Dunsterforce (its commander being Major General Lionel Dunsterville) are recounted by Dunsterville in his book The Adventures of Dunster force, published in 1920.

Russia again became a factor as the Force entered its borders from Persia and played a vital role in the defence of Baku against the Turks. I can record only in respect of the Irish connection that 50 of the 107 surviving Irishmen were transferred to the Machine Gun Corp.

Acknowledgement finally but not least to Tony Lord. (co writer of "The Czar's British Squadron") for his untiring capacity to provide me with vital information.

 

 

 

RELATED WEBLINKS

John Ireland's site celebrating his father's involvement in the RNAS

 


YOUR RESPONSE

Jamie Smith - March '08
My interest in Dunster Force is purely philatelic as I collect postal history of Persia/Iran. I have a cover with contents in Persian script which has been censored by Dunster Force with lable and cachet during the period 12-13/3/1919. As far as I can ascertain this is most likely one of if not the last date for this lable and cachet. Can anybody place more light on the censoring of mail by this force?

James Grey - Mar '07
I vaquely remember my grandmother informing me that my great grandfather, Alfred Grey fought as an Ulter soldier in Asia, during the peroid of 1916. Unfortunately Alfred and 3 other Ultermen died within 5 days of Oppositional Defiance Disorder.

C.M.Cropper - Feb '07
Many thanks to David Mack. I wrote an article in Feb 06 regarding my grandfather M.D. Archer and he came back straight away with some very interesting information for me to checkout. I am only sorry I have not looked at this web site for many months.
Again Sir, many thanks.

Michael Kidner - Sep '06
The only momento I inherited from my maternal grandfather was a drinks coaster inscribed "To Major G T Sholl DSC from the boys of B Squadron 11.3.1919". Most probably this would have been presented on disbandment at Belton Park Grantham following the return from Baku where he was wounded. The reference to the boys has always me made me think that there was an Irish connection. Thanks for solving this small mystery

Guy Sholl joined Locker Lampson in November 19I5 from the AIF where he was a Cpl having been invalided to London from Gallipoli. He served throughout except for a spell in London in the spring of 1917 when he married my grandmother.

Grandfather died in Australia in March 1931. For sure he had a challenging war.

Rochelle Mortimer Massingham - Jan '07

This article is very interesting, we have an interest here at Cromer museum as a number of local men went with Locker Lampson and served in Mesopotamia -you can find more by typing in Mesopotamia or Bryant for Herbert Bryant on www.noah.norfolk.gov.uk - this site likes simple one word enquries - we have a couple of photographs from this campaign - we would be interested in hearing from descendants of Cromer men who served with Locker Lampson

Drasko K - May '06
Hello, Where I can find something about Irish soldiers at Balcan front in 1916-1918.

Mike Rogers - March '06
I found the feature and associated correspondence very interesting.

My Grandfather, PO Richard Rogers 2785 was a member of the RNAS expedition to Russia and the later 'Dunsterforce'. I have a small collection of medals, personal records, notes, diaries and photos relating to his service and to these units in general.

I commend the National Archive at Kew, RNAS Yeovilton and the Norfolk Record Office as essential sources of information on the history of the RNAS units and personnel.

I would be happy to discuss my research in more detail and would welcome any information in return.

Best wishes.

Angus Hay - April '06
I write and lecture about DUNSTERFORCE in Baku and refer to the involvement of DUNCARS.
I am aways interested in information that relate to DUNCARS and DUNSTERFORCE.

Peter Monks - March '06
Greetings,
For many years I have searched for an ancestor sent to Russia, this week I received a breakthrough. He was Charles William Holmes, service No. F 25217 Rated P.O. Mech. (G) who sailed 1 Feb 1917 and returned 3 Mar 1918, his records obtained from National Archives was hard to read in places (rubber stamps) I noticed that the adjacent record, same day etc was also designated Russia, so I bought this copy also it was one Francis John Edward Walker F 25218 between the two copies the rubber stamps may now be read. These sources and others have added greatly to my Family History knowledge.

David Mack - Feb '06
In response to Colin Cropper regarding his grandfather Petty Officer Mechanic Marcus Davenport Archer -- a resident of 293 Rye lane Peckham London - Civil occupation - driver/ mechanic. Awarded Silver Brest Medal for Zeal with St Stanislas ribbon for hard work. Driver of an Austin vehicle- served with Special Service Squadron A in Rumania and transfered from RNAS to Machine Gun Corps 15 March 1918. The medal is relatively easy to acquire and can usually be purchased from Spink and Sons of London for around £50. Hold out for a good example with a ribbon in nearly new condition as new ribbon is not available.

David Mack
- Feb 06
In response to Gerhard Lang, the name Barron von Skoffyreff does not appear in Tony Lord's "Nomnal Roll of The Royal Naval Air Service Russian Armoured Squadrons".

Colin Cropper - Feb '06
I have come across some interesting information regarding my grandfather, Marcus Davenport Archer. He started with the St Johns Ambulance Corp as a driver in the trenches. According to his army record he was then in the Machine Gun Corp then a probationary Petty Officer in the RNAS Armoured Car division. He saw action in Russia with Locker-lampson and was awarded the Russian Order of St Stanislaus. I have been trying to obtain a replacement or a copy of this medal for our family records as none of our family can ever remember seeing it, I have tried National Archives records and they suggested I contact the Russian Embassy, they have not responded. Can anyone offer any help or assistance.

Gerhard Lang - Jan '06
Does someone know if in this units was enroled a (german) Baron von Skossyreff who served as interpreter, translater and liaison officer?

David Mack - Nov 05
This account is both interesting and informative. I am grateful to Peter Stevenson for investing the time and energy in researching and writing the record of events of the men who officially landed in Russia on Christmas Day 1915. For some considerable time, I have been investigating various aspects of the units history and have collected a number of useful sources of information. In particular, for those readers who would like to search further, the following records in the Public Records Office -Kew. may provide helpful information.

-ADM1 8477- Cable from Russian Armoured Cars Dec 1916.
-ADM 116/1717 Personnel Records.
-ADM137 039.43B -Angle Russian Armoured cars.
-W095 5044- Duncars War Diary.
-ADM1 8492- 15 Armoured Squadron France.
-AIR 147 1564 RNACD Reports.
-ADM1 8433 Operations in support of Belgium.
-ADM1 8530 Winding -up in Russia.
-AIR 1 622 17/122/667 Repoprts July 1917.
-Air1 622 734 reports janusry and July 1916.
-ADM 1 851876 RNACD Transfer to War Office.
-Air1 664 17/122/702 Reports.
-ADM1 8478 RNAS Policy.
-ADM116 1626 Locker Lampson's last report.
-AIR1 668 RNAS Training at Crystal Place London.
- Air1 668 &667&663 Operations of RNAS in Dunkirk.
-ADM1 8477 312 Decorations /Awards.
-AIR 1 682 21/13/222 History of RNAS.
- AIR1 667 17/122/740 Galician Front
-WO 95 4996 ^ LAMB War Diary.

In addition,
-Various accounts in the AIRFIX Magzine by Major Charles Messenger - August 1981. -With the British Armoured cars in Russia by Chief Petty Officer Checkley and lodged in the PRONI. -Many photographs in Department of Photographs- IWM including the Collection by Lt.Turner RNACD - The British Army 1915-20 from Mrs Shaws Collection Album 1 No042 and many others. -Diary of the late Arthur James Foster 1/4 Hampshire Regiment Nov 1916 to Sept 1919.on internet. see Dunsterville search.

Ellen Elder - November '05
Re Robert McCready of Bangor, in the Spectator's Roll of Honour of December 1915, there were two McCreadys listed in Springfield Road, one Robert and the other Bertie. Possibly brothers. They were both listed as Petty Officers, RNAS Armoured Cars.

Also, both John and Willie Armstrong are listed in the North Down Spectator's Roll of Honour for December 1915.

Hugh Vaugh - November '05
May I congratulate you both on an excellent piece of research so well presented. I have for some time been carrying out research into a member of this unit, Johnston, William Henry, F2878. He was one of the men transferred to the MGC, and unfortunately no service papers for his Army service survive. I have photographed ADM 116/1717 (the record of service of the ratings in the unit). If you do not have a copy of this please let me know. I need to check my notes to see what else I know about WH Johnston. As an aside, I found out that two of the ratings lived in the same road in Bangor, Co Down as my great grandparents.

John McCreadie - October '05
I have been fascinated to read all about this campaign especially when I stumbled across it in search of my ancestry since I believe my paternal grandfather hailed from Portaferry. Imagine my surprise to read in the Roll of Honour that one, Robert McCreadie from Bangor had enlisted ar the age of 18yrs. My father's name was Robert , I was called after his father, John and I just wonder whether the young enlisted man MIGHT have been a relation? Just imagine, matelots in armoured vehicles - Unbelievable!!!

Philip Batt - Oct '05
Re Robin McKay's appeal on his Grandfather, Robin Harrison, April 05. On checking the Medal Index Rolls, no Robin Harrison appears, but there is a 11766 Pte R. Harrison, Royal Army Medical Corps (and only one) listed. With this info it should be possible for a researcher to check and see if his military record is available from the Public Records Office in England, although the vast majority of Great War records were destroyed during WW2 when the storage facility was hit by and incendery bomb. His Medal Index Card can be downloaded online for £3-50 and this should give his theater of war. Good Luck.

John Galloway - Oct '05
My maternal grandfather, POM Roland Bellian served with No 1 squadron, in german South west Africa . Should anyone have details of the operations there I would be greatful .

Terry Sell - Oct '05
My father Harry Sell served with Locker Lampson.
What was it all about when commander Locker Lamson went to see the Czar or his close representative? Was it the UK gov and/or the Royal family or Churchill who were trying to get the Czar out?

Ellen Elder - February '05
The squadron's exploits were regularly reported in the North Down Spectator like a Boy's Own adventure serial, and was distinguished by every officer and man being presented with a specially designed waistcoat by Her Highness Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein. The men were also credited with establishing a record on 12 December 1915 of singing God Save the King further north than any British Field force on active service had ever done before. The Archangel Herald was their own official organ, printed and published on board the transport twice weekly, weather permitting. Locker-Lampson, a cousin of Edward Carson, was considered such a thorn in the Kaiser's side that a reward of 20,000 marks was offered for his capture. LL cheekily used the wanted poster to advertise his memoir-cum-journal, condemned by the Kaiser, said to include the story of how he was decorated by three monarchs, and his interview with Rasputin.

Stuart John McLaren - February '05
It was great to read about the Ulster side of Locker-Lampson's Russian Armoured Car Division story. I have been researching the East Anglian side over here in Norfolk for several years. You may be interested to learn that a documentary was indeed made on the subject, by Anglia TV in the early 1970s, entitled 'Sailors of Fortune'. It has interviews with some of the East Anglian veterans, all now sadly long gone.

Another important Ulster member of this squadron is Lt-Commander Sir Walter Dorling Smiles DSO, one of Locker-Lampson's key officers in Russia 1916-18 and 2nd-in-command of Duncars in Dunsterforce in 1918. He was born in 1883 in Portavo, Donaghadee, Co. Down. His grandafther was Samuel Smiles, author of 'Self Help'. He was the Ulster Unionist MP for Co. Down from 1950 until his death. He died in the sinking of the Princess Victoria during the Great Storm of 31 January 1953.

Peter Stevenson - Dec 04
Well done YPAM in putting together this excellent web site article. Difficult to believe its now more than twenty years since I first started to research my great uncle's involvement in Locker Lampson's unit. I would like to take this opportunity to thank a few people who greatly assisted me with my early research. Without them I would have had a lot less background to work on. Firstly Tony Lord, co-author of the definitive book "The Czar's British Squadron" which kick started my research in NI.

Tony has regrettably since died but he was a wonderfully patient mentor. The following were also extremely helpful in giving me background material re their family involvement in the RNACD: Mrs Paddy Connolly (Bangor) re Robert McCreadie, Mr Ivor Cobain (Jordanstown) re Skeffington Graham, Mrs Metcalfe (Portadown) re Joseph Cameron, Mr Arthur Armstrong (Belfast) re Arthur Armstrong Snr Mrs Hackett (Belfast) re W H Johnston, Mr John Deane (Belfast) re Sam Deane, (the only other participant I had the privilege to meet apart from my grand uncle). And not forgetting Keith Beattie in Ballymoney who encouraged me to keep at it and introduced me to Nigel McAlpine in the BBC, lets hope Nigel's work stimulates additional local response and especially can anybody throw any light on how these Ulstermen were recruited for this particular unit??

Des Blackadder - November '04
I have some details of the Ballymena men in the story. I'm compiling a WW1 history.

"Petty Officer E. J. Crawford, son of Mr. J. A. Crawford, Clough, who was with Commander Locker-Sampson MP, Armoured Car Division in Russia and Rumania is at present home on leave. He has made a good recovery from wounds he received in the Rumanian retreat in November last. Petty Officer Crawford was in charge of a machine gun and he received his wound when the car in which he was working was going to the rescue of a Russian car which had got stuck. He had just opened the door to throw out a rope when he was sniped in the arm and immediately afterwards a shell burst close to the car and he received severe injuries on the left shoulder and side. For meritorious work on this front he received the medal of St. George from the Russian Government."
Ballymena Observer, June 1, 1917.

John W D Pinkerton - November '04
My uncle, John Dick Pinkerton, served in the RNAS and would, with a great deal of coaxing, tell you about his part in the ill-fated BEF campaign in Russia. He was even less inclined to talk about his experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II.

He died in 1962. His widow, Sybil, put together a little book entitled "From Ice to Rice" about his experiences in both World Wars. This was based largely upon letters he had written home and diaries he had kept. He was a very slow and deliberate person who in the 1920's obtained a Doctorate of Dentistry from North Western University. He used to say that the only time he ever ran was when he was running away from the Russians!

Keith Beattie - November '04
This is a wonderful story and I think it would make a great full length radio/TV documentary, focusing on the Irishmen and using the wealth of personal letters & documents that are available.

Here at Ballymoney Museum I have a copy of an account of the experiences of local man John D. Pinkerton, compiled by his wife, Sybil Pinkerton, from his letters etc. I also know of exciting material still held by family members of other RNACD servicemen.

Hopefully this website will generate enough feedback and something will be done. In the meantime, well done Peter Stevenson and YPAM for a tremendous web article.

Robin McKay - April 05
My grand father ( Robin Harrison, British medical corp??) saw action with the Dunsterville force in Baku.

I would be interested in any information regarding his involement in this operation

 


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