HISTORY COLUMN | Remember the Russian Anzacs

It's a year since the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI but there are still many untold stories of the Australian Imperial Force.

More than 100 Australian soldiers supported the White Russian people after WWI ended but, at the start of WWI in 1914, the Russian-Australian alliance was even stronger. The AIF had more than 1000 Russians in its ranks, known as the Russian Anzacs; 1037 Russians enlisted in the 1st AIF, allocated to a range of battalions including the 9th, 10th, 27th, 32nd and 5th Pioneer Battalions. They were born in various parts of the Russian Empire; 80 per cent (804) went overseas and 15 per cent were killed (124).

Russian enlistments were the most numerous non-Anglo/Celtic group in the AIF, ranking immediately after soldiers born in the UK, Ireland and NZ. They were Russians, Estonians, Fins, Slavs, Russian Germans, Latvians, Estonians, Baltic Germans and Lithuanians, ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Poles plus a few ring-ins, obviously on the run.

One Russian Anzac was Alexander Alexandroff. He was born at Vladivostok in 1893 and came to Australia in 1914. He was a cook by trade and signed up for the AIF in August 1916 as a member of the Dubbo Depot Battalion. He trained at the Liverpool Field Training Camp (Holdsworthy) and served as a private on the Somme, France, 1917 to 1918. He suffered a gunshot wound to his left wrist.

Discharged on August 25, 1919 in London he enrolled immediately in the Middlesex Regiment as an interpreter for the North Russian Relief Force. Made an Acting Sergeant, Alexandroff served for 12 months in the Murmansk/Archangel area and was discharged in 1920. Part of the deal for serving with the British in the Relief Force was guaranteed free passage home to Australia.

He was once falsely accused of being a Bolshevik. His response was straight to the point: "I cannot be dishonest to this country that I have been in for nearly 30 years." He died in 1968, at 75.

The underlying reason for the mass enlistment of Russians in Australia for army service was the edict from Russia that all eligible men of the Russian Empire living overseas had to register in the army of that country, or else. The numbers were particularly high in NSW (373 recruits) and SA (135). They had to seek permission from the Imperial Russian Consul, N.A. d'Abaza, for a licence to enlist in the AIF.

Most Russians in Australia were seamen but in times of limited fishing opportunities they came ashore. Some became cane-cutters in Queensland. The Australian Army paid the highest wage of any army in WWI -- an attraction regardless of their birth country's edict.

They fought with distinction alongside Australian-born soldiers. Many changed their Russian names to English names for simplicity among fellow Allied soldiers, who probably had little chance of pronouncing the Russian names -- even harder to write.

Their seaman/cane-cutting backgrounds made them ideal and tough soldiers; 36 of them fought at Gallipoli and 24 died. They were equally heroic on the Western Front by winning nine Military Medals. At the Battle of Pozieres, one section (27 men) of the 9th Battalion were all Russian-born. Many returned to Australia after WWI and married Australians -- socially challenging then. but many reinforced their loyalty to Australia by taking up citizenship.

There are several Australian monuments to the Russian Anzacs, including a tree and a plaque at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. The plaque reads: "In blessed memory of the Imperial Russian Forces who served in World War I and the 1000 Russian citizens who fought in the 1st AIF 1914-1918."

The memory of the Russian Anzacs of WWI is especially commemorated each Anzac Day by the Russian community across Australia.

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