The Catholic Magazine of Tasmania Oct. 1919 pp 12-13
In last month’s issue of the Catholic Magazine, through the courtesy of His Grace the Archbishop, we printed a very interesting letter written by the Rev. Bernard Page to his parents. This month we print another letter:—
Archangel, 5/6/19—I wrote to you last from Murmansk. I told you of our departure from Newcastle amid violent popular enthusiasm and screeching of hooters and horns from tugs and steamers all the way down the Tyne, of our most perfect voyage, varied by alarms, sometimes real, sometimes faked, on account of mines; of sports on board, of perfect weather, of mill-pond like sea, of games of quoits in broad daylight at a quarter-of-an-hour after midnight, of our arrival at Murmansk, of smells and unpleasantness of that town of log huts, of the hostility of the Murmanskies, of our being allowed on shore only if armed with a revolver and in pairs. I told you also of taking a boat and starting on a duck-shooting expedition at 8.30 p.m. with the sun still shining.
We had to wait in Murmansk harbour for five days. The ice in the White Sea was still reported impassable, though softening rapidly. On Saturday, May 24th, we left Murmansk at about 6 a.m., and we were not sorry to leave. Our convoy consisted now of two naval ice-breakers and four transports carrying Grogan’s Brigade. [N.B. the change in our official address. We are called “Grogan’s Brigade” after Brig. General Grogan, V.C., C.M.G., D.S.O., who commands us.]
At 1.30 a.m. on Sunday, May 25th, we ran into ice for the first time. Here we found two more ice-breakers waiting for us. We now arranged ourselves so that each transport had an ice-breaker in front. We halted (or lay to, or whatever is the naval expression), until 9 am. At that hour I said Mass for the Catholics and then I breakfasted, so we were about an hour or so into the ice before I went out to see it. It was a most wonderful sight. As far as one could see in every direction was nothing but ice, anything up to 10 or 12 feet thick covered with snow two or three feet thick. But it was not smooth. It looked like a huge white very roughly ploughed field. But the shades of white and grey and green and blue were exquisite.
Ice-breakers simply ploughed through, smashing a passage for the ships. But huge blocks used to fill up the passage again. It was interesting to look down at the bows and see great masses of ice some 20 feet square by 10 feet thick sliced in two as a piece of cheese by a grocer’s knife.
It was bitterly cold all day, but a nice, dry, easy to bear sort of cold. All day long we had boxing, tugs of war, and other sports for men and officers.
There were several ice-fields with perfectly clear water in between. The first field was the worst. It was some 40 miles through. After an hour or so of clear water one would see another field coming along like a huge raft.
We reached the Barrier outside Archangel at about 10 a.m. on Monday, May 26th. From there, up the river to the town, was long and slow. All along the bank for miles and miles were timber yards and timber. The Ruskies here were quite friendly and enthusiastic. In the ship yards on the Tyne workpeople left their work and ran to the water edge to wave us “good-bye.” Here they did the same to cheer us “welcome.” In the late afternoon we drew up alongside the wharf at Archangel, but no one was allowed on shore. First impressions of the town were a little wrong. It seemed to me quite a pretty place. Houses looked imposing, though all were built of wood. The thing that struck me most was the great number of churches, all built exactly alike. All had five minarets, the most imposing ones being painted gold. The outside had large pictures painted on the walls.
On Tuesday, May 27th, the Brigade landed. There was a grand triumphal entry into the town. I marched with my Battalion. The whole Brigade assembled near the chief church of the town. Here a large floral arch had been erected, and there was a guard of honour of Russian levies, and the streets were lined with troops of all kinds, huge crowds had collected, and the town was beflagged and decorated to a great extent. At the landing stage, where the G.O.C. Brigade Gen. Grogan, V.C. landed, he was received by the guard of honour and conducted up to the square outside the Cathedral, where he was given bread and salt, the highest form of Russian greeting. Here speeches were made by the Russian Governor General, General Miller and by General Grogan. Then the Brigade marched past. The salute was taken by General Miller (Gov. Gen.), General — (G.O.C. Russians), General Grogan (G.O.C. Brigade). It was most impressive, and the people were tremendously enthusiastic as we marched past. It seemed to me that the Brigade was extraordinarily smart and soldierly. We got tremendous ovations from the crowd, though l have not the faintest idea what they said.
After the review, we marched back to our boat for lunch and men’s dinner, and then went ashore to huts. Here we were very crowded and uncomfortable. I was in a room with five other officers. But one room held nine, and another fourteen subalterns.
Next day I spent buying and carting huge stores from the wholesale department of the N.A.C.B. because (1) I had been duly nominated P.M.C. of the Officers Mess and (2) asked to look after the Battalion Canteen.
On Thursday, May 29th, the officers of the Brigade were invited to a Conversazione at the Duma or town hall. We were received by what I take it was the Mayor and Town Council, one of whom wore an enormous gold chain and gold soup-plate who shook us warmly by the hand, and we passed into the Council Chambers. There were assembled some 200 officers of our Brigade, and many Russian, English, French, American and Italian Generals and Admirals. Conspicuous amongst them was the Bishop(Pope, I think he is called) with his long hair and flowing beard. When all were assembled, the Mayor made a speech of welcome, which was translated, sentence by sentence, by a Russian officer standing at his side; then a very excellent orchestra struck up “God Save the King,” and we all stood rigidly at attention. But they played it through three times, and we were nearly stiffened like Indian fakirs’ arms at the end of it. Then we sat down to a very excellent supply of very luscious cakes, with tea, coffee, and chocolate, during which the orchestra played beautifully, but the music was rather savage.
On Friday, I inspected thoroughly the town. Such roads you never saw, all holes and rocks. Along the sides were raised foot-walks of planks. The town appears to arrange itself only for those parts of the years when the whole town is under snow and ice. The houses were entirely of wood, mostly the walls were of tree trunks very cunningly put together. Many in the better parts of the town seemed very nice inside, but in the poorer part, which was the largest, they smelt abominably.
On Sunday, June 1st, a great ceremony took place in the square outside the Cathedral. In Archangel one sees many Russian soldiers in British uniform, except for badges. These are the S.B.L. (Slavo-British Legion). They are Russian levies trained and officered by the English, and turned into quite good soldiers. On this day their colours were consecrated by the priests of the Cathedral in most gorgeous vestments and presented to the Legion. Then they trooped their colours and marched past. As they passed the saluting base, each platoon chanted some sort of weird greeting to the General. It was very quaint. Then the whole of our Brigade marched past also. Of the big ceremony I saw little. I was with my Battalion and my position was in the rear. All these elaborate parades have an object. It is to let the Bolsheviks know that a big force of smart men has landed against them, and (to use a soldier’s expression) to put the wind up them a bit.
On Monday, June 2nd, as much of our Brigade as we could get transport for, was embarked for the front to relieve troops who have been at it for some eight months without rest. The remainder of the Brigade follows in a day or so.
We embarked on barges towed by tugs. We are packed like sardines, and there is no room to walk about. The river Dwina is very strong, and we do not do more than about 6 or 7 miles per hour. It is very pretty along the banks; but as this is our fourth day, it is beginning to get a little tedious. However, we are due to reach our destination this evening. Each day we pull into land for a couple of hours, and the men are taken for a route march to stretch their legs.
So now between this letter and those I sent from Newcastle and Murmansk you know all my news since I last saw you. I will wind up now in case there is a chance of getting this off as soon as we land.