The King of Karelia

Nick Baron reads the memoirs of an independently-minded Ulsterman involved in the British intervention in North Russia, 1918-19.

‘Will you volunteer for service out of uniform, and in any part of the globe to which you may be sent?’ This question was put to me in a small back room of an empty house in Waterloo Place one spring morning in 1918. Coming as it did after six months’ inactive but harassing command of a reserve battalion at home the enquiry appeared to be the answer to my numerous prayers to the War Office. ‘You may have twenty-four hours to decide,’ said this gentleman.

Lieutenant-Colonel Philip James Woods needed no time to make up his mind. He agreed immediately. At this, as he wrote twenty years later,

We were led into another and, if possible, smaller room where we were warned of much peril by land and sea, including the possibilities of assassination and imprisonment; but upon our remaining at least outwardly unmoved our last will and testament was made out for us and we were told to report at the Tower of London to be vetted, vaccinated and generally prepared for the sacrifice.

Woods was eager to rejoin active service. He had spent ten months in dejection, having been sent home from France and deprived of his battalion command the previous autumn. In many ways he was a natural military leader, but he was also a tactless, pugnacious and unyielding character who earned himself as many bitter enemies as loyal admirers.

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