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Devons still fighting in Russia months after war ends

A special service is being held at Witheridge Parish Church in Devon at 2pm on Friday, June 28 to commemorate the centenary of the official end of the Great War. Here, in the run-up to the event, I look at how Devon's soldiers were still engaged in fighting in North Russia many months after the end of the Great War.

As peace was celebrated across Britain in the summer of 1919, few of the hundreds of thousand revellers in Devon were aware that some of their soldiers were still fighting for their country – in a remote area of North Russia.

Two hundred volunteers from the Devonshire Regiment had arrived there in May that year to help strengthen an Allied Expeditionary Force that had been despatched to the trouble-torn region after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Several lost their lives in a clash with Bolshevik forces in June 1919, the day before the Great War finally ended with the signing of the peace treaty in Versailles. A number were killed or wounded in a street battle in Ust-Vaga, Arkhangelsk Oblast three months later.

The Devons, led by Major Arthur Frederick Stafford Northcote, had joined the 1st Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry when they sailed from Southampton on the troopship HMT Czar on May 12, 1919.

They arrived in Murmansk six days later and, after a slow passage through broken ice, landed at Archangel – a city lying on both banks of the Northern Dvina River near its exit into the White Sea – early on May 26.

‘Many of the men had seen service in Egypt and Malta. They went to the “frozen north” expecting the rigours of the Arctic. Judge their astonishment to find the sun as hot there as at any place they had ever known,’ The Western Times reported.

On June 27, a group of Devons were among a raiding party looking to oust Bolshevik soldiers from the town of Kitsa. Picking their way through dense forests, they suffered their first casualties as they came under sniper and machine gun fire.

When they encountered an ‘enormous barbed-wire entanglement’, 2nd Lt Norman Labrey Hughes and Sgt Peter Herbert, who had previously served in the 1st Devons, were both killed as they tried to cut their way through it.

To avoid further losses in the face of the formidable barricade – the wire had been supplied by the British to Russian troops in the early days of the Great War – the Devons and other members of the raiding party withdrew to their base at Ust-Vaga.

The Devons came under attack when a 250-strong Bolshevik force attacked their base in the early hours of September 1. A ‘sudden outburst of firing’ and a hand grenade explosion were the first warning of the assault.

Explosive devices were thrown through a window in which one platoon were sleeping and ‘inflicted several casualties’. Major Northcote got his men ‘out in the open as quickly as possible and they fought like devils’, The Western Times reported.

Many of the raiders began to ‘lose heart’ after two hours of fighting. A dozen Bolsheviks were found dead outside outhouses, others were killed while firing from blockhouses and wood stacks, and dozens of wounded attackers were taken prisoner.

Five officers and men, were honoured for their heroism that day. Major Northcote, who served in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in the Great War, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

Two weeks later, the Devons were heading home. Shortly after leaving Ust-Vaga, their base there was occupied by the Bolsheviks. They departed for nearby Beresnik and arrived in Liverpool on October 4, 1919, almost 11 months after the end of the Great War.

Fifteen days after the Armistice of 1918, 401 officers and men of the 10th Devons crossed the River Danube to march to Bucharest to represent the British Army at a ceremony marking the official arrival of the King and Queen of Romania in the capital.

‘To reach Bucharest was not easy. To cross the Danube was difficult,’ C T Atkinson remarked in The Devonshire Regiment 1914-1918. ‘Few barges were available, embarking and landing facilities were bad, the transport wagons and mules gave much trouble, especially as it was already dark when the battalion reached the Romanian shore, and wagons had to be manhandled over a pontoon barely wide enough for their wheels.’

The battalion marched the last 40 miles to Bucharest in two days over ‘very indifferent roads’ and in atrocious weather. On the day of the ceremony, December 1, 1918, they lined the route by which the King and Queen entered the city and then joined the procession through the city as huge crowds turned out to see the return of their royalty.

After being based in Dobrudja, on the Romania-Bulgarian border, they moved to Varna in Bulgaria in April 1919. The battalion crossed the Black Sea to Batum in Georgia on May 5 and on arriving there had transferred to their forces all officers and men of the 4th Rifle Brigade not eligible for demobilisation. When the 10th moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in September, the remaining officers and men were absorbed into the 10th Hampshires.

The 5th Devons became part of the Army of Occupation on the Rhine, leaving Monplaisir in France five days after the Armistice and reaching Schwerfen in Germany two days before Christmas in 1918. All men from the 1st Devons not eligible for demobilisation joined the 5th on the Rhine. Some 150 men of the 2nd Devons joined the 2/8th Worcesters in Germany and nearly 250 officers and men of the 9th Devons joined the 5th Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in the Army of Occupation on March 1, 1919.

Five officers and 103 men of the 16th Devons joined the 2/4th Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in March 1919 as they became part of the Army of Occupation in Egypt. The 4th Devons provided three platoons for the 4th Dorsets, the 6th and 2/6th Devons had a total of 360 officers and men transferred to Salonika, and six officers and more than 100 men of the 8th Devons joined the Army of Occupation.

Note

Four officers and men of the Devonshire Regiments are remembered on the Archangel Memorial in North Russia: 2nd Lt Norman Labrey Hughes, the Son of Albert and Mary Louisa Hughes, of Hill Crest, Newton Abbot, Devon, who was 19 when he died on June 27, 1919; Lt Tristram James Pine-Coffin, 3rd Devons, attached to the British Army’s Intelligence Corps, who was 33 when he died on September 23, 1919 while assisting in the withdrawal of British troops from Murmansk in North Russia. He was the son of John and Matilda Pine-Coffin, of Portledge, Fairy Cross, Bideford; Sgt Peter Herbert, who was 20 when he died on June 27, 1919; and Pte Ernest James Gough, of the 16th Devons, who was 19 when he died on June 27, 1919.



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AFairchild

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I attended the service in Witheridge today.  It was a moving commemoration.  The singing of the local school children was particularly poignant.  Well done to Paul Roberts for this cumulation of his work researching his family's contribution to World War One  and recorded in his book "History Maker".  The church was full and the congregation were in good voice and applauded the moving contribution of the children.  Paul's summary of the role of the Devonhire Regiment  was a fine tribute to those men who served and whose descendants were present to remember their service with pride.  

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Thank you so much. The service was indeed a unique event. It was truly wonderful to see the church packed. The singing was magnificent. And it was a great honour to have the Bishop of Crediton, the Rt Rev Jackie Searle giving the address and blessing. Among those attending were the Deputy Lieutenant of Devon, Mark Parkhouse, and Lt-Colonel Bill Sharpe MBE and Lt-Col Geoff Nicholls, chairman and secretary of the Devon and Dorset Regimental Association. There were two Standard bearers – Des Mills, of Exeter, of the Devon and Dorset Regimental Association, who served in the Devonshire Regiment in 1949-1950, and Colin Horn, of Tiverton Royal British Legion. Children from Witheridge Church of England Academy were at the heart of the event, performing so brilliantly an a capella version of In Flanders Fields. I would like to pay tribute to the Vicar, Adrian Wells, who worked tirelessly on planning and staging the event. Paul Roberts

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