February 26, 1939
Left: Snowshoe patrol from Company B, 339th Infantry, on the Dvina River [led by Lt. John Cudahy, far left].
Right: Men of Company I pass in review at Archangel, Oct. 12, 1918.
(Signal Corps, U.S. Army photos)
Tragedy at Archangel!
The Amazing Story of America's Futile Expedition Into Bolshevik Land
By Guy Murchie, Jr.
Six squat log houses stood out naked in the snowy bleakness of north Russia. They were occupied by fifty American soldiers and formed an outpost [Nijni Gora] of the village of Ust Padenga on the ice-ribbed Vaga River.
In the cold lavender twilight of noon on Jan. 19, 1919, in this vasty sweep there was no sound, no smell, no sight but the endless creeping dunes of snow and the drear wail of the wind as it carved its shifting, grotesque shapes like a scythe in the wheat.
* * * * * * *
The soldiers in the moujik huts twenty years ago this winter [1938-1939] did not know why they had been stationed in this gale-blown wilderness, or even what the war between America and Russia was about. But they were keenly conscious of their danger while remaining in a remote post [Nijni Gora] in the heart of a country full of roving units of the new and rapidly strengthening bolshevik army, which under Gen. Leon Trotzky was sworn to annihilate all "White" [non-communist] sympathizers.
They had several boxes of ammunition, three machine guns, and enough rifles. Their only artillery support, however, was a one-pounder of Russian design and two small field pieces in the hands of the main body of some 200 Americans camped in the village [Visorka Gora] on a bluff to their rear. Their sentries kept apprehensive eyes on the emptiness of snow and scraggly trees to the south and west - watching, watching for the attack that all knew was inevitable from their surrounding aggressive foe.
Suddenly it came! Shells began landing in Ust Padenga. They came slanting over from Red territory across the river, exploding in geysers of snow and chunks of frozen earth.
For one hour the bombardment continued. Then it stopped. Within half a minute swarms of white-clad bolsheviks arose from the concealment of little ravines and hollows near the river. They advanced in an endless succession of long white lines. From across the river more and more of them appeared, advancing steadily over the ice. Against such overwhelming numbers resistance could not hope to survive.
* * * * * * *
The three American machine guns chattered defiantly. The white lines were torn here and there but quickly welded again, kept on.
When the last pannier of ammunition was empty the command was given to "blaze a path through to the rear - and double time!" And now, in the words of a soldier:
"Down the steep hillside the trapped company charged, tumbling and fighting like mad - denied, cornered animals, until they gained a foothold on the road which stretched out bleak and coverless 800 yards to the main village [Visorka Gora].
"Some tried to make a run of it over the bottomless intervening snow, where they struggled piteously like hobbled animals and were killed. But in most part they dashed in frantic relays down the open road, sprinting forward a score of yards, then flattening on the ground and so on, rushing and sprawling and flat, until the fatal course was run, while every rifle from the abandoned village on the height and the flanking forest and across the Vaga spurted death, and machine guns rattled, and bullets lashed the air with the furious cracking of ten thousand whips, or sped fluttering through the snow and went whimpering off into space, or felled men with sledgelike blows, until the doomed way was strewn end to end with the prostrate forms of the fallen ones, and a pitiful few, by some fluke of luck, had gained the sheilding hill. Not ten minutes had been taken in that terrible dash through that valley of death's shadow, and of the forty-seven who began the journey, six reached the goal of the main village [the official casualty list had 6 killed, 17 missing and 17 injured]."
Such were the perils faced by the little-known, seldom remembered American military expedition to Archangel, Russia, in 1918. Most readers will open their eyes to a brand new page in history as they read this story, for this is a tale of an expedition which cost hundreds of American lives and millions of American dollars and yet was so futile and needless that it has been all but lost in a shameful silence.
It was undertaken at the request of foreign governments in an atmosphere of uncertainty, diplomatic intrigue, conflicting reports and general remoteness from reality.
* * * * * * *
The objects of the Archangel expedition as defined in a proclamation issued to the troops by the British general headquarters, which largely promoted the venture, were:
To save the Czecho-Slovaks, several thousand of whom under command of General Gaida were believed to be strung along the Siberian railway from Pensa to Vladivostok.
To prevent the Germans from exploiting the resources of southeastern Russia.
To prevent the northern ports of European Russia from becoming bases for German submarines.
Another official British statement explaining the expedition declared:
"Bolshevism has grown upon the uneducated masses to such an extent that Russia is disintegrated and helpless, and therefore we have come to help her get rid of the disease that is eating her up. We are not here to conquer Russia, but want to help her and see her a great power. When order is restored here we shall clear out, but only when we have attained our object, and that is the restoration of Russia."
An American dispatch from Washington later stated concerning the expedition's purpose:
"The only present object for which American troops will be employed will be to guard military stores which may be subsequently needed by Russian forces, and to render such aid as may be acceptable to the Russians in the organization of their own defense."
But in practice such purpose as America had in Archangel was Britain's purpose, for the United States war department assigned our force of 4,344 enlisted men and 143 officers to the command of Brig. Gen. F.C. Poole, the British ranking officer in Archangel,who already had some French troops under him and was said to be "thoroughly familiar with Russian character and Russian conditions."
Actually Poole seemed to share the British general headquarters' arrogantly imperialistic view that one British soldier was the equal of twenty bolshevik soldiers. He had endorsed the British military plan of invading vast Russia with a total Allied force of only 12,000 men, of marching southward through an unfamiliar, hostile wilderness while spreading fanwise over a 500 mile front with widely separated communication and supply lines growing to several hundred miles in length as the advance continued into the homeland of millions of Russians of uncertain military strength and unknown allegiance.
The advance party of Americans landed in Archangel on Aug. 3, 1918, joining the brigade of British infantry already there and the force of a little more than 1,000 French infantrymen and artillerymen. There were two batteries of Canadian field artillery there by the time the American infantry regiment arrived 4,487 strong on Sept. 4, and a small detachment of Americans and others had been sent to the port of Murmansk, 400 miles to the northwest, there to guard in lonely isolation the Murmansk railroad, which extends southward paralleling the Finland border.
American troops landing in Russia on Sept. 5, 1918, from the British troop ship Somali.
That is what the Allied forces in north Russia consisted of. The Americans in Archangel were all drawn from the 85th division of the national army. Most of them were Wisconsin and Michigan boys who had left civilian life to do their share of any fighting their country asked of them. They had not envisioned an arctic vastness for No Man's Land, with an almost mythical enemy on the other side firing real shells at them from guns much bigger and more numerous than their own - an enemy who had nothing to do with the Germans and against whom no war had been declared. But they were soldiers, and for all their unanswered questions they obeyed orders with a will.
The Archangel adventure started off ominously. Even before the wheezing engines of the troop ships Somali, Tydeus, and Nagoya had come to rest across the harbor from the garish turnip-top domes and gold minarets of Archangel's sky line, death was coming to grips with the doughboys from Milwaukee and Detroit. At sea 500 of them had been stricken with the dreaded Spanish influenza. Eight days out all medical supplies were exhausted and "conditions became so congested in the ships' quarters that the sick, running high fever, were compelled to lie in the hold or on deck exposed to the chill winds."
Even after landing the sick could not be adequately provided for. They lay on pine boards in rickety barracks deserted by the bolsheviks a few months before. "They had insufficient bedding, and for warmth had to keep on their clothing and boots. In this way many died and many more were enfeebled for months, but stuck it out with their companions and went to the front."
The port of Archangel was founded by Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, and most of the time since has been a British trading post for the exchange of furs, flax and lumber. But the sterile asperity of the weather and the barrier of the White Sea, which is frozen for six months of the year, destined Archangel to poverty or dependence on the charity of more fortunate regions.
The dismal, forsaken quality in the air of this old city at the northern hinge of the eastern and western worlds was depressing to the usually cheerful boys from the Great Lakes. They were in a land of exile. Everything seemed alien, forgotten by the rest of the earth, as if they were looking from behind a veil.
* * * * * * *
In the words of one American soldier - who anonymously wrote "Archangel - The American War with Russia," a book that [was actually written by Lt. John Cudahy, and which apparently along with "The American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki" by Capt. Moore, Lt. Mead and Lt. Jahns] is almost the sole available source of material for this story:
"Bearded, sad-faced priests with their black robes glide through the streets like nether spirits and the mysticism of the ancient, mystic east. This is the native atmosphere of Archangel. . . . The glaring electric lights, the incongruous modern buildings, and the noisy tramway that clangs down the street - these do not belong to Archangel. They are a profane encroachment on her ageless, dreaming tranquility. . . . Fundamentally Archangel is a primitive center of primitive beings. Instinctively it is a dirty hole. . . . where noxious stenches greet the nose and modern sanitation is unknown."
Continuing to describe the people who live in the country surrounding Archangel, our nameless chronicler of 1918 says:
"As a whole the inhabitants are moujiks, dwelling in little villages of two or three hundred log huts that in structure and design bear close resemblance to the cabins of our frontier civilization. About the villages the peasants have cleared the forest for a few hundred yards, and in the brief, hot months of the midnight sun they raise meager crops of wheat and flax and potatoes. When winter comes they are continually indoors, gathered around great ovens of fireplaces, and long through the dismal, cold, black days they sit and dream, or merely sit.
"They are unsophisticated folk, incredibly ignorant, but gentle, quiet-mannered, sweet-natured. . . . Cholera visits them with recurrent devastating plagues and takes fearful toll, for they live in the midst of nauseating squalor with total disregard to sanitation and drink from surface wells that in the sudden spring are reservoirs of sewage and all manner of obscene refuse. . . . He asks so little of life, this gentle moujik with his boots and his shabby tunic and his mild bearded face - only to be left alone."
This was the country, then, and these its peasants, into whose bosom a whim of Uncle Sam sent four thousand odd of his young men to play their weird part in helping "make the world safe for democracy." Under the optimistic dauntlessness of General Poole the great majority of his British, French, Canadian, and American soldiers were ordered to advance southward along the railroad and up the rivers as shown on the map on page one [below], leaving a garrison to guard Archangel.
Map of the Allied fronts in North Russia,
from page one of the Chicago Sunday Tribune Graphic Section, Feb. 26, 1939
The principal river expedition traveled hopefully forth in barges towed by tiny tugs and escorted by a small armored British gunboat. The railway expedition was largest and boldly marched southward with thoughts of reaching the strategic Trans-Siberian railroad at Vologda. After one brief victory over the retreating bolsheviks, however, this force was surprised to meet serious opposition on the part of the despicable Reds about 100 miles from Archangel.
Concrete Blockhouse on the Vologda Railway at Verst 581
(310th Engineers photo, from the collection of
Pvt. Casimer Nowak, Co. B, 310th Eng. - courtesy of Roy Nowak)
According to our American chronicler, the bolsheviks
"came back in force and greatly outnumbered the Allies, and there was in the defiant attitude of the Red troops reason to believe that the soviet chieftans had taken stock of the military situation, had verified the preposterous intelligence that the three great powers - Great Britain, France, and the United States - were defiantly bent upon war and seriously intended to invade the great domain of Russia with scarcely two infantry combat regiments!"
* * * * * * *
Poole's "columns" were in reality nothing but patrol expeditions, and as soon as the Reds realized it all disposition to retreat left them and they struck back with such numbers that only the utmost courage and determination on the part of the Allied men saved them from annihilation. And still the unimaginative, unadaptable Poole from his headquarters in quiet Archangel gave orders urging greater agressiveness and saying:
"It must be impressed on all ranks that we are fighting an offensive war and not a defensive one."
And so the American officers under British direction moved their companies forward "to do or die." The terrible and in many cases tragic results on the several isolated fronts in this rash offensive are too numerous to be told, but let it be said that the men from Wisconsin and Michigan acquitted themselves gallantly in the bewildering and discouraging circumstances in which they found themselves. One example from the adventures of the railroad "column" [which occured near Obozerskaya on Sept. 16, 1918] will reveal their caliber:
"One platoon of the Americans [from Company I, 339th Infantry], separated in the woods, was nearly enveloped. It fought until all ammunition was exhausted, and then the officer, Lieut. Gordon Reese, had no thought of submission. After the last cartridge was gone the bayonets still remained, and after the bayonets came doubled fists. At word of command, the platoon fixed bayonets, went forward with a yelling charge, broke down the bolsheviks by their sheer courage and impetuosity, and the endangered men were able to join the main body of their comrades, repulsing the attack."
Bolshevik airplane captured by American Forces during
engagement at Obozerskaya, Russia, Sept. 1918.
[This occured on the evening of Sept. 15, 1918.]
As the fall wore on and the swamp land began to show ice in the dark mornings, and the sun shortened its swing above the southern horizon to only six hours a day, the situation grew increasingly worse for the Allies. As late as January, 1919, William C. Bullitt of the American state department cabled Colonel House at the Paris peace conference:
"The 12,000 Americans, British, and French troops at Archangel are no longer serving any useful purpose. . . . Thay are in considerable danger of destruction by the bolsheviki. . . . The situation at Archangel is most serious for the soldiers, but it is also serious for the governments which seem to have abandoned them. Unless they are saved by prompt action we shall have another Gallipoli."
The lack of artillery was one of the most discouraging factors in the American dilemma. "Time after time," wrote our unknown soldier, "the infantry, after gallant success, was shelled out of position, while our own guns were silent because outranged. The effect on the morale was most disastrous." The unreliability of the [Russian] rifles the Americans had was another serious point. "These weapons had never been targeted by the Americans, and their sighting systems were calculated in Russian paces instead of yards. They had a low velocity and were thoroughly unsatisfactory."
* * * * * * *
Inspection of Company M, 339th Infantry, U.S.Army, at Archangel, Russia, Nov. 20, 1918.
The signing of the armistice [on Nov. 11, 1918] and the ending of the hostilities in France was another disheartening factor, for with this seemingly hopeful news came word that the unrelieved soldiers of north Russia "would continue at their tasks to the end," thus proving that the war in Russia was not related to the World war and giving the soldiers at the advanced posts the feeling that they were not only fighting for no reason but that they had been forgotten by the rest of the world.
"Life became a very stale, flat, drab thing in the vast stretches of cheerless snow reaching far across the river to the murky, brooding skies and the encompassing sheeted forests, so ghostly and so still, where death prowled in the shadows and the sinking realization came home of no supports or reserves along the 200 miles of winding winter road to Archangel.
"Weeks followed weeks, and November goes by, and December, and no word comes from the war department. . . . In the dismal huts of the village soldiers are packed with the crowded moujiks like herded animals, where the atmosphere is dank and pestilent, with an odor like stale fish. . . .
"In December and January there are only a few hours of feeble shadowing light, then tragic blackness blots out the snows and the mournful woods and the skies of melodrama. With night, the tiny windows are shrouded with board coverings, a candle flickers in the low-ceilinged room. . . . Through the long, dark, unwholesome hours the Americans sit and think thoughts more black than the outside night. . . . Black thoughts of their country and the smug, pompous statesmen who with sonorous patriotic phrases sent them to exile."
Sometimes it seemed that bolshevism had tainted their souls. The Reds had certainly tried to accomplish this. They had for months been strewing the forest trails near the Allied posts with thousands of pamphlets, manifestoes, and appeals in the characteristic eloquence of communistic propaganda. Appeals to "Lay down your arms, comrades, and come over to our side, the side of the working people." But the men from America were not seduced by these Red wiles, and they held to their positions through the black winter despite all the assaults of printed word and high explosive. They were heartened by the appointment of a new commanding officer in Poole's stead, the British general W. E. Ironside - "a great tower of a man, the embodiment of soldierly force and resolution. He directly announced that all ideas of a further offensive were abandoned and that all fronts from thenceforward would be content to hold their ground."
And so the brave men played the game of war all winter until the April thaws forced the enemy to withdraw his artillery before it became mired. During that time there were moments on most of the six little isolated fronts when total annihilation seemed almost a certainty. The brilliant General Trotzky himself directed the Reds in some of the battles, spurring his now well equipped and well trained divisions to their most furious attacks.
The Americans, with their British and French comrades in arms, who had been glibly called the equal of twenty times their number of bolsheviks, now really had to make that snobbish, imperialistic assumption come true. That they did so can be no more convincingly proved than by the words of one of the Red prisoners, captured by Americans on the river front near Bereznik:
|"Our losses are terrible. The commissars cannot understand your resistance. We are twenty to one and have many guns. Our commander expected to take Bereznik in three days, but the soldiers will not attack any more over the snow against your awful machine guns."||
Bolshevik prisoners at Bereznik
(310th Engineers photo, from the collection of
Pvt. Casimer Nowak, Co. B, 310th Eng. - courtesy of Roy Nowak)
In May, 1919, at last came word that the "American expeditionary force, north Russia," was to return to America, seven months after the armistice. It did so in June - remorseful that its orders forced it to abandon the other Allied troops, leaving them more exposed than ever to the triumphant bolsheviks - and sailed away with a record of 2,485 casualties on the chief surgeon's report and its soldiers' minds still speculating as to what the war had been about and their hearts thankful at least that their bizarre service to their country was at an end.
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