Doukhobors and WWI

Several follow-ups to a recent story about Doukhobors and the First World War.

Greg Nesteroff

Uncommon Knowledge

Several follow-ups to a recent story about Doukhobors and the First World War.

The Doukhobors received a military exemption before they emigrated to Canada from Russia in 1899. Nevertheless, at least 60 volunteered and two more were conscripted for service between 1914 and 1917.

Only two were from BC. However, cemetery buff Pat Goulden points out that another, Koozma Diakoff  (d. 1949), is buried at Boulder Creek, outside Salmo. Unusual for a Doukhobor cemetery, his gravemarker mentions his military service, naming him as a private with the 188th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.

Diakoff may have lied about his age when he enlisted at Kamsack, Saskatchewan in 1915. The papers he signed said he was born in 1877, which would have made him 38 at the time. His gravemarker, however, says he was born in 1864 while his death registration says he was born in 1870. If either of the latter two is correct, he would have been beyond the upper age limit of 45.

Meanwhile, Jon Kalmakoff, who compiled the list of Doukhobor soldiers for his Doukhobor Genealogy Website ( notes that much more can be said on the subject.

For starters, without exception, all those who volunteered were independent Doukhobors. “These Doukhobors were more integrated than their community brethren, in the sense of having accepted naturalization, public education, private ownership, and other tenets of Canadian citizenship,” Kalmakoff says. “This fostered a stronger attachment to, and sympathy towards, their adopted country that enabled some to cast aside their religious and philosophical objections to military service.”

Some may have been swept up in patriotic fervour, others by peer pressure, and still others may have enlisted for economic reasons. Twenty-seven Doukhobor enlistees were landless farm workers and labourers, who may have joined the armed forces out of desperation. Twenty-two arrived in Canada between 1909 and 1914. Their pacifist convictions were weaker, Kalmakoff notes, than those who arrived in 1899.

Two men — Michael Holoboff of Canora, Saskatchewan and Demetri Kolesnikoff of Thrums —  were inexplicably conscripted in 1917, despite listing themselves as Doukhobors on their attestation forms.

“In all likelihood, some Doukhobors who enlisted were conflicted with guilt and remorse for having abandoned their pacifist principles,” Kalmakoff says, pointing to examples of men who misspelled or distorted their names when they signed up.

At least two men deserted before their units left for overseas: Alex Antifaev of Arran, Saskatchewan, and Peter Gritchin of Kamsack, Saskatchewan were both arrested, sent to clearing depots, and discharged. Samuel Karaloff of Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan was charged with being “illegally absent” from his training unit, tried, and discharged.

Three others were court martialled while overseas: John Zmaeff of Swan River, Manitoba for “disobeying lawful orders from a superior officer” and “acting to the prejudice of good order and military discipline” in 1917; Fred Sherstabetaff of Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan for “leading and taking part in a mutiny or refusing to report soldiers planning to mutiny” and “striking or threatening a superior officer” in 1919; and Thrums resident John Nevacshonoff for being absent without leave in 1918. (Nevacshonoff told his family he and other Russian-Canadian soldiers refused to kill Russian troops and were dishonourably discharged.)

Kalmakoff also discovered two Doukhobor enlistees — John Holokoff of Veregin, Saskatchewan, and William Strelioff of Kamsack — appear to have convinced military officials they were Austrian nationals and were therefore discharged as “enemy aliens.”

Eight men were discharged as “medically unfit” after being injured, falling ill, or suffering shell shock — including Koozma Diakoff, who was buried outside of Salmo.

Alex Antifaev died of his wounds soon after his discharge. William Gloeboff of Kamsack of the 8th Battalion (Manitoba Regiment) of the Canadian Infantry died on September 1, 1918 of wounds suffered on the Drocourt-Queant line. Gloeboff, who was 22, is buried at Ligny-Saint-Flochel British cemetery west of Arras, France.

Further information on these men should come to light as Library and Archives Canada continues to digitize military service records.


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