Where Ignorant Armies Clashed By Night

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In the summer of 1918, with Russia removed from World War I as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, the United States sent troops into Russia at two points. It did so only after the greatest soul-searching on the part of President Wilson, who had said that “the treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations … will be the acid test of their good will …” Two factors influenced the decision. In the Far East, Japan had made a move to occupy Siberia, apparently threatening America’s “open door” policy for China. In North Russia, English and French leaders had hopes of reviving the eastern front against Germany. In addition, large stores of Allied war supplies had been left at the port of Archangel. The expedition to North Russia resulted in fierce combat between American and Soviet soldiers and throws significant light on the forty years of difficult relations between the United States and the Soviet Union that were to follow.

 

On the morning of January 19, 1919, in the Russian village of Nijni Gora, an American army lieutenant named Mead awoke to the thump of heavy artillery shells bursting unpleasantly close to the log house in which he and part ol his platoon had spent the night. The temperature was 45 degrees below /ero. Over the surrounding expanse of deep snow a wan, subarctic dawn had begun to diffuse a glimmering light, which would reflect uncertainly for a scant few hours before total darkness fell again. The village sat on the crest of a hill: through his field glasses Mead looked out across the frozen Vaga River to the open plain along the opposite bank, and to a dense fir forest in the distance. From the forest, wading slowly through the three-foot depth of powder snow, long skirmish lines of Soviet soldiers could be seen advancing under cover of the intense artillery barrage. Since these troops were still out of range of rifle or machine-gun fire, Mead had a few minutes in which to consider his position.

He was in command of 46 American soldiers ot Company A, 339th Infantry Regiment, who had been ordered to hold Nijni Gora as the farthest outpost of the Allied expedition to North Russia. The village was approximately 200 miles south of the city of Archangel, where they had entered Russia four and a half months earlier, and about 500 miles from Petrograd, to the southwest, and Moscow, to the south. The expedition was under British leadership: Mead’s orders came ultimately from Major General Edmund Ironside, in Archangel, who commanded a mélange of some 15,000 soldiers, including Americans, British, Canadians, French, White Russians, and a few Poles, Serbs, and Italians. These troops were widely spread out over Archangel Province with little regard to maintaining their integrity as national units. About twenty miles north on the Vaga River was the city of Shenkursk, the second largest in Archangel Province, and the Allied forces’ main advance base. Mead knew that it his position at Nijni Gora were taken by the enemy, Shenkursk would be threatened, so that the defense of the little village could have far-reaching importance for the late of the whole expedition.

 
In the forgotten 1918–19 campaign U.S. troops battled the Red Army through Russia’s bitterest snows

The Lieutenant had sonic reason tor misgivings about the fighting morale of his men as he watched the Bolshevik soldiers coming steadily through the snow toward the log houses in which the Americans had established themselves. The platoon had fought well in October as they made their way up the Vaga River to their present position, but this front had been relatively quiet since then, producing only occasional skirmishes with a few Soviet soldiers during the daily patrols. Not many months before, nearly all of these Americans had been peaceful civilians on farms and in factories in Michigan and Wisconsin. The cold of the North Russian winter had been far more severe than any of them had ever experienced, and the gloomy arctic December and January, when the sun never fully lighted the somber Russian forests and frozen swamps, had depressed their spirits. They were irritated by the British officers who commanded them above the company level, and dissatisfied with the British rations of hardtack, tea, bully beef, and a dismal canned mixture purporting to be meat and vegetables. There had been much influenza, and medical facilities were inadequate and erratic. The men were out of touch with their comrades in the rest of the regiment, and they heard nothing at all from their American senior officer at Archangel. They knew that the port of Archangel was completely frozen in by the ice of the White Sea and would remain so until May; and across the hundreds of miles of snow fields from Murmansk came only a thin drift of supplies and mail (much delayed) from home. They were aware that the opposing Soviet forces outnumbered them heavily: rumors made it ten to one. Worst of all, they knew that on November 11, 1918, the war for which they had willingly been drafted had come to a victorious end; and they were extraordinarily puz/led to know what they were doing in North Russia, and why they were doing it. Their state of baflled doubt and suspicion had not been relieved by the bundles of Bolshevik propaganda leaflets, written in good, colloquial American, that they frequently had found !vine on the icv trails as they went out on patrol.