Where Ignorant Armies Clashed By Night

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The heavy barrage from the enemy guns continued for a solid hour, and no effective reply was possible because the light Canadian fieldpieces supporting the Americans were unable to reach the Communist artillery emplacements concealed far back in the forest across the river. As soon as the Soviet foot soldiers came within rifle range, however, Mead’s men opened up a persuasive fire that seemed to slow the attack considerably. But the American position in Nijni Gora had not been well chosen, in view of the immediately surrounding terrain. A series of ravines and clefts, now filled with great snowdrifts, nearly encompassed the village hill. When, at the end of the hour, the artillery barrage suddenly lifted, the Americans were astonished to see well over a hundred Soviet troops, camouflaged in white uniforms, who had crept into these drifts during the night and who now leaped forward to the attack with automatic weapons, rifles, and fixed bayonets.

Machine guns manned by American and White Russian soldiers poured lead into the attacking party; the Soviet automatic rifles replied with equally heavy fire. Some of the White Russian troops supporting the Americans became panicky and deserted their guns. One of Mead’s noncommissioned officers, seeing an abandoned machine gun, ran over to man it alone; he continued to fire after a Soviet bullet passed through his jaw. He was to die later that day of a second wound. Already Mead’s casualties were numerous, and he saw that his platoon would be unable to hold the position against the relentlessly advancing Bolsheviks, despite the slaughter being inflicted by the American weapons.

Fighting from house to house, sometimes in snow up to their waists, the beleaguered soldiers slowly withdrew. To reach the main position of the Shenkursk forward defenses, Mead’s men had to get down a wide, open hill, badly exposed to the enemy’s flanking fire, and run up a road to another village half a mile away. The hill was deep with unpacked snow, and, floundering desperately down through the drifts, the Americans were picked oft by Soviet rifle and machine-gun fire with appalling ease. The temperature was still 45 below zero, and to be badly wounded meant almost instantaneous freezing of the wounded part, followed shortly by death from shock and exposure. Of the 47 Americans who had occupied Nijni Cora, only seven (including Lieutenant Mead) reached the shelter of the main American outpost, in the village of Netsvetiafskaya, unwounded. More than half of the others were killed outright or died in the deep snow from wounds; a few wounded were picked up and brought in by a small rescue party sent out from the main force.

 
 
 

Although repeated waves of Communist mtantry attack against Netsvetiafskaya were repulsed during the next three days, the long-range Soviet guns gradually demolished the town. The lone and exceedingly busy American medical officer, Lieutenant Ralph Powers, was one of five men killed when a big shell exploded just outside the room where he was operating. On the night of January 22, with the town’s remaining buildings ablaze from incendiary shells, the Allied troops gratefully obeyed orders from Shenkursk to retreat to the outskirts of that city. They arrived, exhausted, on the evening of January 24, after a painfully slow retreat down the line of snowbound river villages, constantly under Bolshevik artillery fire. But their rest in Shenkursk was to be short. The city itself was now almost completely surrounded by Soviet troops, and British headquarters ordered immediate abandonment of the base, regardless of the mountains of supplies that had been stored there. Thus it was that in the early morning hours of January 25, a column of some 2,000 persons (including many civilians anxious to avoid the Bolshevik occupation of Shenkursk) set out on a little-used trail through the forest and with fantastic luck managed to escape northward from the closing enemy encirclement without being detected. The march, however, was one never to be forgotten: the temperature hovered between thirty and forty degrees below zero, and in the pitch-darkness the heavily laden soldiers continually stumbled and fell in the ruts, holes, and slides made in the icy trail by those who had gone ahead. The American infantrymen had been issued Shackleton boots, an invention of the famous British Antarctic explorer; and although these were very warm, they had leather soles so smooth and slippery that some of the men discarded them and went in their stocking feet, insuring many frozen toes before the retreat was over the next day.