A Forgotten War “Hero”?

I’ve recently finished reading Allied Intervention in Russia 1918-1919 by John Swettenham, an account of how the “allies” tried to kill-off the Bolshevik revolution before anyone could find out if it might possibly be a good idea. The book was published in 1967, and Mr Swettenham was very obviously no lefty. It would be interesting to see how a left-wing historian would tell this story – such as Hobsbawm, say, or Newsinger.

Nevertheless, Mr Swettenham did make a short passing reference to an incident that particularly caught my eye, an incident involving the Scottish World War 1 hero Brigadier-General George William St George Grogan VC, CB, CMG, DSO & Bar. Now the thing that immediately piqued my curiosity was the fact that I’d never heard of General Grogan. Whilst I do not pretend to be an expert on the “heroes” of the “Great” War, I have studied the subject a little bit, and was surprised to read about such a high-ranking person from that time, a VC to boot, that I’d never heard of. So I did a little digging.

There isn’t very much on the internet about General Grogan. The Wikipedia entry is only about 150 words or so, most of which is given over to the incident which led to his VC. However, there is quite a bit more about the man on the website of the Worcestershire Regiment, with which he was obviously closely connected:

Here we learn that he was the eldest son of a high-ranking career soldier, in whose footsteps he immediately trod as soon as he left school. In other words, he was military aristocracy. The whole article reads like a fairly typical war hero-type story. But the bit that’s particularly relevant to this article is the period relating to General Grogan’s activities in 1919. About this the regimental website tells us: “After the Armistice he was selected for service in north Russia, assuming command of the 1st Brigade of the Relief Force which went out under Lord Rawlinson to accomplish the evacuation of the Archangel and Murmansk fronts.”

One sentence – but note that bit about the reason for him going to Russia.

Back to Mr Swettenham, who has a fascinating little piece of gossip to tell, which seems to have been forgotten in the otherwise quite comprehensive official regimental record. Grogan arrived in Archangel on May 26th 1919. According to Mr Swettenham,

On the 20th June, Grogan launched a limited offensive using one battalion of Hampshires in conjunction with [White] Russian troops [against the Reds]… The Russian attack was a success and the whole offensive would have been more so if the Hampshires had participated. The reason for their not doing so lies with the C.O. and becomes clear from a letter written by him later (after he had been relieved of his command and sent back to England) and published in the London Daily Express.

‘I volunteered for service with the North Russian Relief Force in the sincere belief that relief was urgently needed in order to make possible the withdrawal of low category troops, in the last stages of exhaustion, due to the fierce fighting amid the rigours of an Arctic winter…

Immediately on arrival… I received the impression that the policy of the authorities was not what it was stated to be…troops… which we were told had been sent out purely for defensive purposes were being used for offensive purposes on a large scale and far into the interior…’

For that reason, he held back his battalion.1

Well… Highly respected World War 1 battalion commander, a VC, “relieved of his command” because the policy of the authorities “was not what it was stated to be”?

Mr Swettenham tells us why the good general might have had this impression. Three months before Grogan arrived in Russia,

Churchill [then Minister of War], fully cognizant of the threat posed by Communism for the future, left the [Paris] Peace Conference determined to do alone whatever could be done to crush the Soviets while a little time still remained. On March 3, 1919, he deliberately painted the picture in North Russia blacker than it really was, sounding a warning that it might be necessary to send reinforcements to that theatre to ensure the safe withdrawal of the tired troops. Newspapers took up the call, silencing for the present public agitation to ‘bring the boys back home’. A call then went out from the War Office for volunteers, and the response was tremendous. Eight thousand men were accepted to be formed into two brigades equipped with the latest equipment.2

But Swettenham points out the British officer commanding the North Russian theatre, General Ironside, had “had no qualms” about the planned withdrawal of British troops:

[Ironside’s] lines were much the same as when winter had started and White Russian strength was growing. ‘With a superior flotilla on the [Dvina] river I did not believe that anything could stop us from getting out.’ There seemed little doubt that the new force was to be put into North Russia as soon as ice conditions would permit for a last throw against the Bolsheviks.2

So what we seem to have here is the story of a fine career soldier, decorated for his personal bravery with the highest award a British soldier can receive, sent home in disgrace for refusing to obey a dishonourable order that would not only needlessly endanger the lives of his own troops, but also needlessly take the lives of others to whom the field of battle had already been conceded. It was possibly the finest and bravest act of General Grogan’s career – and it’s all but entirely airbrushed out of history.

No wonder I’d never heard of him.

  1. Allied Intervention in Russia 1918-1919, by John Swettenham p.224. []
  2. Ibid., p. 233. [] []

John is a writer and political activist based in England. He can be contacted through his website. His main contribution comprises three free-to-use works-in-progress: The People’s Constitution, The School of Kindness, and EnMo Economics . Read other articles by John.