OUR HISTORY | Russian winter war in 1919 saw Diggers win Victoria Crosses

The end of World War I saw a massive undertaking by the winners and losers with the repatriation of soldiers, re-settlement of millions of displaced civilians, reconstruction of whole villages and towns in France and Belgium, providing food, water, hospital and medical care to millions.

It's a little-known fact that even though an Armistice had been signed on November 11, 1918 the "war" continued in other parts of Europe for much of 1919.

In March 1918, an Allied expeditionary force landed at Murmansk to support the weakening Russian front against Germany. The force was reinforced in August at Arkhangelsk (Archangel) by more landings to support the White Russians and they were pitted against the Russian Bolsheviks.

Post the Armistice and the Russian winter, the North Russia relief force was raised in the United Kingdom and it included 110 Australian volunteers. They arrived in North Russia in June, 1919 and all British forces were evacuated by September, 1919.

The Australian volunteers were all ex-AIF soldiers who'd enlisted from all parts of Australia but NSW supplied more than 50 of the 110. They came from a range of Sydney suburbs and towns in NSW; a high proportion of them were trained at Holdsworthy Amy Camp.

These volunteers had been de-mobbed from the AIF and fought under British command in North Russia. They were men who wanted to extend their stay in Europe, had no immediate reason to head back to Australia, the chance to earn extra money appealed or they had arrived too late for World War I and had no opportunity to fire a shot in anger at the enemy.

These men were typical Australian soldiers in that they fought with a no-holds-barred attitude and no challenge was too much for them despite greater numbers. This attitude was exemplified by the winning of two Victoria Crosses, 14 Military Medals, six Distinguished Conduct Medals and a Distinguished Service Order.

The VC winners were Sergeant Samuel George Pearse and Corporal Arthur Percy Sullivan.

Pearse was born in Wales and came to Australia as a youngster. He joined the AIF, was allocated to the 2nd Machine Gun Company, served briefly on the Gallipoli Peninsula then went to the Western Front winning a Military Medal there.

The VC was earned attacking a Russian blockhouse under heavy machine gun fire; he killed the five occupants with a bomb but was later shot down. He's buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the city of Archangel.

Sullivan was born in South Australia and was in the AIF 45th Battalion Reinforcements. He enlisted in April, 1918 and missed the European conflict so volunteered for the North Russia Relief Force.

On August 10, 1919 in an action against the Bolsheviks an officer and three men fell into a deep swamp. Under heavy fire Sullivan rescued all four of his fellow soldiers.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1937, he attended the coronation of King George VI. Unfortunately, he fell on a London street on the way back to his hotel and died of a head injury.

Overall, 10 Australians were killed or died of disease in that Russian campaign; 40 were wounded.

This story OUR HISTORY | Russian winter war in 1919 saw Diggers win Victoria Crosses first appeared on Liverpool City Champion.

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