23.06.2021 16:59The Affair Of The Russia’s Crimean Guns Downunder: The Question Of Their Repatriation To Russia
The Australian public may be curious about recent reports emanating from the Russian Federation stating that members of Cossack military societies in various locales are parading and doing interviews with local media, whilst carrying the portrait of World War One Australian Prime Minister, William Morris (‘Billy’) Hughes. (1) Demonstrations have also taken place in Crimea, their vibrancy reflective of pride in Russia’s historical achievements, but at a time too when the sovereignty and identity of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation - has been at the centre of considerable international attention.
The truth is that this is a story spanning centuries and countries. Further, it has consequences for the future of relations between Australia and Russia. Quite rightly, Australians want to know what it is all about.
Australians with an interest in military history have known for some time that Australia came into possession through its British imperial past of some odd relics which sat undisturbed in parks and other worthy spots in four of Australia’s States, eight Crimean cannons or Russian naval guns in fact, some of which bore the stamp of the Alexandrovsky Works (a Russian armaments’ works), and the imperial double-headed eagle of the Russian Tsar. They had been moved from one place to another at different times, left occasionally neglected - and they eventually served just as tourist attractions. (2)
When Britain, France and Turkey waged war against the Russian Empire in the ‘Crimean War’ of 1853 -1856, the Russian port city of Sebastopol eventually became a besieged fortress. Historians recount that the Russian commander ordered the sinking of a number of naval vessels in the harbour to create obstructions, but before doing this removed their guns so they could play a role in the city’s defence. When the Sebastopol was finally captured, these naval guns and other cannons were taken by Britain and France as trophies of war.
Yet obviously, that was not the end of their story. Some cannons were sent to Britain where the casabel of a gun was melted down and the metal served to mint the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry. That process continued till 1914, when other metal from Chinese guns taken in the Opium War, was used. There is a debate whether the original gun was in fact ‘Russian’ by manufacture, or a gun captured by Russian forces and emplaced at Sebastopol, but whatever the case, the legend is almost as important as pure fact (3). Every Australian school child, once upon a time – had heard the legend.
During the Crimean War, the Australian colonies had subscribed to a ‘Patriotic Fund’ to support the Empire’s war effort, so Britain as an act of gratitude after the war, presented to them some of the cannons that were captured at Sebastopol. Four of Australia’s five colonies – then received two each.
The fact there were Russian cannons in Australia taken from Crimea was also known to the Russian communities here and in particular to local Russian historians. They were written about from time to time in local Russian magazines and newspapers. People talked about them and pondered what Australians saw in them and how they viewed the Crimean War and indeed even what they thought of Russians. A number of functions were held in the past in Sydney’s Centennial Park where two Russian Crimean cannons sit today, the very park where on January 1 1901, the Federation of the six Australia colonies into a new country was celebrated. Their historical curiosity started this fresh inquiry.
Australia and Russia in the First World War
During the First World War, Australia responded to Britain’s call and provided considerable forces (for a small country) to aid its war effort. As a result, the ‘Australia New Zealand Army Corps’ (ANZAC) comprising Australian and New Zealand troops, was formed in 1914 and fought in the Middle East and at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. The title ‘ANZAC’ has gone down in the history of Australia as a collective title for its troops in that war. As we know, in the Gallipoli campaign, the Australians were fighting to knock Turkey out of the war by advancing to Constantinople and thus too, open the way to the Black Sea, such that Russia, Britain’s hard-pressed ally, could be supplied with ammunition and other crucial war materials.
It is a fact too, that the Russian Empire migrant community in Australia responded also to the call to arms and appreciating the difficulty of assisting the Russian Empire directly, opted to serve in the Australian forces. During the First World War over a thousand Russia-born men enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). They were the largest national group in the AIF after those born in Britain, New Zealand and Canada. Many became highly decorated and one in five was killed. A book published on the ‘Russian ANZACS’ records their achievements. And a website offers much personal detail on the men who volunteered. (4)
As the bloody struggle continued and dragged on and on, it seems not to have escaped the notice of the Australian Government that the war put enormous and deepening pressure upon Russia, its curt judgement - sadly true. So, into the historical drama came the Prime Minister, ‘Billy’ Hughes. So probably from late 1916 and then through to February 1917, it was known that Hughes conceived a plan to raise Russia’s morale by a dramatic gesture: he proposed that the guns of Sebastopol be returned to Russia. A recent short article by local Russian historian, Vladimir Kroupnik, “gleaned from various sources”, had asserted this, but he was not in a position to be more specific as to sources, so there the matter rested. (5)
Some members of the Sydney-based fraternal association, ‘The Australian Cossacks Chapter’ sought to research further to establish the facts. Mr. Simeon Boikov, the head of the association, turned to this task with inspiration and enthusiasm and made enquiries of academics and writers, park authorities where the cannons were located and local Russian migrants. Eventually, his quest led him to the National Archives of Australia (NAA), where he made a search request for information. The NAA succeeded in locating three files grouped together as ‘Crimean Cannons And Question Of Their Return.’ This find turned out to be profound and essentially definitive on a remarkable interlude in Russo-Australian relations.
Arrangements were made for Mr. Boikov to view and make copies of these records. It was an emotional experience for Mr. Boikov. He recorded his thoughts as he approached the Archives building in Canberra: “For the first time in 104 years we will … with god’s help.. …”. As he worked on the files, he saw that there had indeed been a decision made to repatriate the cannons … “(It is a) very noble cause” “in the spirit of reconciliation”. He understood it would be possible .. “to frame the case” - to return the guns. (6)
The significant fact here was that the NAA advised the files had “never before” been publicly accessed. In effect, while some of the facts the files confirmed was floating in the historical ether (which raises the square question as to what other lost records there may be), the original material had never been examined. (7)
Let the documents tell the story
There were three files in the archives. Two covered the negotiations between Australia and Britain over the matter of the guns and the third file concerned older papers involving the Nineteenth Century issues of the Patriotic Fund subscribed to by the colonies for the conduct of the war and the providing of the guns by Britain as a legacy of the war. In this article, we there is no need to address the third file.
Further research may uncover other documents on the matter held in British and Russian archives.
We detail the relevant correspondence:
On January 14 1917, the Prime Minister’s Department directed a letter to the Official Secretary to the Governor General of Australia. It was formally provided to him on January 18.
“Representations have been made that Russia would very highly appreciate return of cannon captured during Crimean War and now held by Commonwealth or State governments throughout Australia. It is thought that this would be regarded as an outward and visible sign of the inward spirit of the entente with Russia which the Australian governments and people value very greatly. Shall be glad to learn if there is any objection to proposed action.”
A draft of this communication in Prime Minister Hughes’s handwriting was also located.
The Governor-General, following the constitutional practise of the time, forwarded the communication to London – to the Secretary of State for the Colonies – on January 19. The cablegram was coded.
A reply was duly received, dated February 7 1917. It read:
“With reference to your telegram 19th January, His Majesty’s Government have no objection in principle to return to Government of Russia cannon in question but owing to deficiency in tonnage it may be difficult or undesirable actually to return guns do your Ministers wish that any communication should be made Government of Russia.”
Copies were given to the Prime Minister the following day.
On February 12 1917, the Prime Minister’s secretary wrote again to the Official Secretary to the Governor General:
“I am directed to request you to invite His Excellency the Governor General to be so good as to despatch a telegram to the Secretary of State for the Colonies: ‘Your telegram 7th February cannon captured during Crimean War, Commonwealth Government does not desire any communication made to Government of Russia but points out question of tonnage via Vladivostock presents no difficulty as Japanese tonnage available to that port.’”
This cable was coded and sent the same day. No further communication from Britain was received.
However, nothing further appears in the files on this matter. Reasonably, before anything further could be done, the March events of 1917 saw the abdication of the Tsar Nicholas II and the formation of the Provisional Government. Australia’s intention to repatriate the cannons was consigned to the ‘impossible basket’ and then quietly forgotten.
How should we judge the historical significance of these documents?
It is reasonable to assume that the idea was discussed by Prime Minister Hughes with others in his War Cabinet, but it would also appear to be very much his idea. The correspondence went over a considerable period in the conduct of the war and the subject clearly meant a lot to the Prime Minister. The documents reflect in the language and legal forms of the time that a repatriation decision was made by Australia. Although Australia asked for Britain’s opinion, the pressure was there for the decision to be affirmed. Britain acceded. There is no reason to assume otherwise that had Russia not entered the revolutionary period from March 1917, the cannons would indeed have been returned.
Importance to Australian history
Billy Hughes is a controversial figure in Australian history. He was an ‘Australian Labor Party’ Prime Minister who reasoned that the war could not be prosecuted without military conscription. Interestingly, Australia’s army was strictly a volunteer one. Hughes’s party split over the matter and his faction joined the more conservative parties in creating a new party, the Nationalist Party, to argue their case. Two referenda were held, in 1916 and 1917, but the proposal was defeated. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the conscription issue, it might be better thought of Hughes that he at least believed that, by making the strongest of signals to the old Empire of its loyalty, Australia could win more concessions in the conduct of its internal affairs.
Indeed, Billy Hughes pushed the Australian national interest at a vital moment. At the Versailles Conference in 1919 – and although it was not constitutionally valid for Australia to be represented outside of the British imperial framework – the new country was given a type of diplomatic recognition and was included in Treaty arrangements for the good governance of the Pacific Ocean area. Hughes’s intervention was certainly a step towards Australian independence in world affairs.
It can rightly be thought that the involvement of the Australian Government in the matter of the Russia’s Crimean cannons, was an earlier expression of the Prime Minister’s desire to steer towards Australian independence in world affairs. The archival documents in question bear that out.
Towards the future: should the Crimean cannons be repatriated to Russia?
It is a trite matter of fact that some Australians who received the Victoria Cross up to 1914 wore an award fashioned from metal taken from a gun in Russian ownership. Some of the country’s heroes are linked to Russia and to a war from a time when ‘Australia’ was still a series of colonies – and not yet a country. Later, those proud ‘Australians’ as they had become, a nation amongst nations, took a moral decision to aid a friendly power at a time of its need. It was freely decided by an Australian war leader to return those Crimean cannons to Russia.
Of course, the Hughes decision was not realised, because of the terrible revolution of 1917 and the Civil War of 1918-1922 which engulfed Russia. And with the Bolshevik takeover of the country and the establishment of the Soviet Union, Australian perceptions of Russia and of Russian people changed from being a past ally to a fearful new enemy. Then Russia and Australia again fought on the same side during the Second World War. And then there was the “Cold War” and the deterioration again of relations between the two countries.
Yes, communism came and went, but before Russo-Australian relations could definitely move towards friendship, another blemish appeared when many opinion makers and politicians encouraged a demonisation of Russia as an ‘authoritarian’ power which supposedly continued to offer a security threat to the country. This negative view of Russia is easily as great a myth as that fostered in the mid Nineteenth Century by some imperial-influencers in Australia that Russia might actually attack their Australian colonies. (8)
Nonetheless, no present-day argument can obviate the legal effect and the moral effect of an Australian Government decision. A search of the Cabinet papers is still to be done, but there is little doubt that the Australian Government attempted a magnanimous act of friendship in 1917.
Mr. Boikov’s discovery of the original archival papers in the Russian guns’ matter brings historicity to the discussion. Can Australia make a lawful decision of state and then simply ignore its effect? Should it do so? And if it did, what would that say of Australian statecraft? Why would the decision of an Australian war leader be cast aside? Yes, states can change their ‘mind’, but usually only when issues of national survival are placed on the scales. That does not operate in this matter. Is the matter more than just a political one, but a moral one?
The present Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison in Cabinet, can make the decision to return the Russian guns. Yet, there is a concern he would not do so. Why? Many patriotic Australians maintain today that Australia may have acquired independence of one empire, but it ultimately fell into the arms of a new world empire which could view any act of friendship towards Russia as a breach in the ranks. This is a harsh truth, but it is the truth. We may rightly ask what would it truly mean to Russo-Australian relations if the decision of the past to have them returned is honoured? What will it take for our political leaders to make this honourable gesture of goodwill? It could come down to the energy of a public campaign for the implementation of the decision of ‘Billy’ Hughes.
Some ideas have been advanced, but what would be the best result?
The ideal thing would be for all of Russia’s Crimean guns throughout Australia to be repatriated. However, this act would leave more than simply a void in the remembrance-architecture of certain public places. It also presents a number of physical problems related to their removal. Naturally, none of the problems are insurmountable. Where there is a will, there is a way”. The discussion could involve:
1. Replace the cannons with high quality replicas made and funded by the Russian Government. Russia (and the former Soviet Union) has some history of doing similar things. Suitable plaques could be mounted as part of a ‘history precinct’ in each city that tells the history to a new generation of Australians
2 Erect a monument to the ANZACS in place of the guns at each location, one that reminds us again of the ANZAC sacrifice and of the Russian volunteers who fought alongside them against a common foe. A tree in Birdwood Avenue, Shrine Reserve, Melbourne, commemorates the ‘Russian ANZACS’ who fought at Gallipoli and at the Battle of the Somme, a small memorial which certainly deserves to be upgraded.
3. Buy the guns back and donate the money to a noble cause such as veterans’ funds.
Whatever the direction our discussion takes us, we know that Russia’s Crimean cannons in Australia are silent as instruments of war, but they remain loud as trumpets for peace and goodwill between Australia and Russia. They have stood too long beneath the Southern Cross – and they eagerly desire to go home!
1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2y7aZ8Samow ; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7_fgtqCYwo
2. Photographs in the possession of the authors;
3. https://www.medalsofvalor.com/p/victoria-cross.html ; https://ratsoftobruktribute.com/images/ARTICLES/History-of-the-Victoria-Cross.pdf
4. Elena Govor, Russian Anzacs in Australian History, Sydney, UNSW Press in association with NAA, 2005 ; https://russiananzacs.net/
The national origins of the volunteers reflected the diversity of the Empire. Ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, Belarusians and Poles, who were then coming to Australia as labourers, cane-cutters and occasionally as political refugees, accounted for about 30 percent of the number.
5. Vladimir Kroupnik, “Australia’s trophies From The Crimean War”, at https://australiarussia.com/tropheysCWENFIN.htm
6. https://youtu.be/YSwZ-D77yL4; https://youtu.be/g7_fgtqCYwo
7. A2 A5954 1017 3671 ; A11803 1917/891213
By Simeon Boikov
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