TRAGEDY IN ARCHANGEL: THE KILLING OF J.A. WATSON

Gloria Siggins

When browsing in Kilkerran Cemetery, Angus Martin came across what he called ‘a nugget of history’ among the seven inscriptions on the family stone of one John McDougall, clothier, of Campbeltown.

The stone had been raised in 1871 to commemorate McDougall’s wife, Barbara McIsaac. The names of their two sons, John and Alexander, follow; both had died young and within a few years of each other. McDougall himself was laid to rest in 1912 and was thus spared the sorrow, seven years later, of the untimely death of his grandson, John Allan Watson, killed in January 1919 ‘while on active service in North Russia’. The last name is of McDougall’s only daughter, Helen, wife of Robert Wilson Watson and mother of John Allan.

Reading this in ‘By Hill and Shore’ (Kintyre Magazine, Number 50) my curiosity was aroused. Here was a young man with family roots in Campbeltown who had been a casualty of a half-forgotten appendage of the Great War, the Archangel Expedition of 1918/19, an episode that gets comparatively little attention in histories of the period and was, for me, completely new research territory. I decided to look into the story behind this rare inscription - John Watson’s Campbeltown connections, his life and the circumstances of his death in North Russia, that bleakest of theatres of World War I.

I assumed, of course, that John, who at the time of his death was serving with the Mountain Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery, had fallen in action supporting the White Russians in their efforts to stem the Bolshevik advance; but it was not quite like that - he had, in fact, been murdered. There was no doubt who had killed him, and that it had been no accident, but the motive - if there had been one in the troubled mind of his killer - was obscure. A strange, sad story has emerged, mainly from John’s file in the Public Record Office.

To return to Campbeltown. Some time in the 1880s, Helen McDougall met and married a young Excise Officer, Robert Wilson Watson, from Killyleagh, County Down, who, according to the 1881 Census, was boarding with two other officers at 46 High Street, Dalintober, on his first ‘overseas’ posting. After their marriage, the couple moved away to the east of Scotland and their son was born in 1888 at Broughty Ferry and named John Allan after Helen’s brother who had died three years earlier, aged 19.

By the time John was school age, the family was living in Paisley, where he attended the John Neilson Institution and then Skerry’s College, Glasgow. It is possible that he followed his father into Customs & Excise and on joining the Army Reserve in late 1915 his occupation is given as ‘Clerk’. From the Reserve, John was called up into the Glasgow Yeomanry and shortly afterwards transferred to the 2nd Battalion Scottish Rifles and sent to France in December 1916. Before leaving, John had put in for a commission, his first choice being a cavalry regiment, but probably because of an aptitude for figurework he was considered particularly suitable for gunnery, and after less than three months at the front he was recalled to join the Royal Artillery Cadet School at St John’s Wood Barracks, London. The rest of 1917 was spent training in the UK.

John was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery in February 1918 and in July sailed for Murmansk with the mixed force of British, American and French troops destined ultimately for Archangel to safeguard the large quantities of military stores stockpiled there and to help the White Russians clear the Dvina and Vaga valleys of Bolsheviks. Things went well at first, these objectives being accomplished and a degree of stability achieved. Many Russians came over to the Allies.

When the Expedition had embarked, the war in Europe - now in its fourth year - was intensifying with no end in sight. Successive enemy offensives threatened to retake all ground previously lost and casualties were heavier than ever. The situation became at one point so grave that an evacuation of British troops from the Continent was contemplated. Then in August the tide began quite suddenly to turn for the Allies and within a few weeks the Germans were retreating in disarray. In November fighting ceased on the Western Front.

Europe rejoiced, but in North Russia the Armistice had an adverse effect. The Bolsheviks now had more troops available at their command and were able to reoccupy the lands they had lost and Archangel became an Allied enclave it was pointless to try to hold. Morale declined among the troops, who were enduring appalling conditions, and disaffection was rife in the long dark winter of 1918. The scene was set for tragedy.

In the deepening gloom of the afternoon of 31 January, 1919, Pte First Class Frank O’Callaghan, a 22-year-old soldier serving with the Medical Detachment, 339th US Infantry, carried some boards into the Headquarters Infirmary at Smolny Barracks, where he was helping to build bunks. To the surprise of the other men he then picked up his hat, coat and toilet articles and announced he was going out to ‘hit the air’.

Outside the building, two soldiers of HQ Signals were working at the entrance to a dugout and saw O’Callaghan ‘monkeying’ with a rifle; they got the impression he was unloading it and took no further notice. 2nd Lt John Watson had been talking to one of the men and was still standing nearby as work was resumed in the dugout. The men knelt to splice a wire, their heads below ground level: seconds later a shot rang out.

Considering how close and therefore loud the shot must have been, it is surprising that the men were to tell the Enquiry they disregarded it, being in a hurry to finish work and go off duty! Only when they heard moaning did they come out of the dugout to find John Watson bleeding profusely from a shot through the chest wall. O’Callaghan was standing some 15 to 20 yards away and asking some one to arrest him; he said more, but no one caught his words. John was carried into the Infirmary and within 10 minutes had died from damage to his liver.

An Enquiry into the shooting was set up immediately and an examination made of O’Callaghan’s state of mind. The report of this reveals a history of mental illness on the male side of his family, and the men with whom O’Callaghan worked had noticed he had recently become sullen, overly quick to take offence and frequently complained of victimisation.

The contents of the file, from which this account of the murder and subsequent Enquiry is compiled, contain no official opinion as to why John Watson should have been the target of such an attack. Was there bad blood between the two men arising from some earlier incident which had left a score to settle rankling in O’Callaghan’s mind? If so, this could explain his sudden and unexpected exit from the Infirmary, taking his belongings, with the purposefulness of a mind made up. Or did John inadvertently seal his own fate by, quite properly, challenging the suspicious handling of a rifle, thus triggering a violent reaction to being ‘picked on’ - as O’Callaghan would have interpreted it - by a British officer?

There is, however, another theory which fits well the time and place in history of the event. When the doctor asked O’Callaghan why he had shot Lt. Watson, the enigmatic reply was: ‘I did it for democracy.’ These words may hold the key. It is conceivable that as he sank into paranoia O’Callaghan identified with the Bolsheviks’ avowed destruction of the officer class as a hated instrument of oppression and, beset with real or imagined grievances, he was aiming at the uniform and the authority it represented rather than the individual wearing it. Having ‘made his statement’, as we would say now, he calmly asked to be arrested.

We can only speculate. O’Callaghan was diagnosed as suffering from dementia praecox and held at Smolny Barracks while arrangements were made to repatriate him to a hospital for the insane. His victim was interred in Obozerskaya Burial Ground.

There are unsatisfactory aspects of the Enquiry as pieced together from the file. The testimony of the soldiers seems casual and vague; did no one actually witness the shooting? There does not appear to have been British representation at the proceedings; two of the names on the list of those present may or may not have been British - their regiments are not stated - and although there is some correspondence querying the whereabouts of a full report, it is concluded that there hadn’t been one, ‘due to the non-availability of British personnel in an area under French command’.

Archangel was defended until August 1919 and, having handed over their equipment and stores to the White Russians, the last Allied troops left a month later. The Archangel Adventure was over after less than 18 months.

This account of the murder of John Watson is perforce sketchy. Records of the Archangel period are notoriously fragmentary, but it is hoped that further research may fill in some gaps, tie loose ends and do justice to the memory of the grandson of John McDougall of Campbeltown who, on 31 January 1919, was tragically in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And there is a poignant final twist to the story. Some years after the end of the war, the graves of British casualties came under the care of the Imperial War Graves Commission and an official Archangel Allied Cemetery was established. In the meantime, however, vandalism, neglect and the indifference of the new Bolshevik regime had taken their toll and the location of many graves, including John’s, had been lost. Today, there is a headstone in the cemetery dedicated to his memory and inscribed with the text used in these circumstances - but he doesn’t lie beneath it.

Gloria Siggins has lived in Carradale since 1983 and is the contact in the West of Scotland and the Isles for the War Research Society which runs battlefield pilgrimage tours worldwide. Her telephone number is 01583431203. Ed.

No 52 Autumn 2002


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Page 2: A History of the Gilchrists...............continued

Page 3: McEwings and McPhails of Kintyre and Ontario

Page 4: Tragedy in Archangel: The Killing of J.A. Watson

Page 5: The Campbeltown Book

Page 6: A MacNeilage Family of Campbeltown

Page 7: By Hill and Shore - Angus Martin

Page 8: 'Arichonan - A Highland Clearance Recorded' - A new book by Heather McFarlane

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