Where Ignorant Armies Clashed By Night

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The retreat from Shenkursk came just at the halfway mark in the nine-month history of American participation in the Allied intervention in North Russia. It is doubtful that, of all the difficult decisions made by President Woodrow Wilson during the years of World War I, any was more agonizing than the decision to permit that participation. Less than four months after the Russian Revolution of November, 1917, Lenin and Trotsky, under pressure from a multitude of grievous problems, had eliminated the eastern front against Germany by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. From the point of view of the Allies, this was a disaster. Germany was clearly building up for a gigantic spring offensive on the western front, and the prospect of unleashed German divisions from the Russian front, moving west to bolster that offensive, caused profound anxiety among the Allies.

The German offensive, which began promptly on March 21, 1918, was bad enough to vindicate the gloom of the most pessimistic prophets. Back on the Potomac, Wilson anxiously pondered the problem that agitated the Allied leaders in France: how to divert enough German strength to relieve this terrible pressure in the west. Winston Churchill, then Britain’s minister of munitions, offered a ready formula: “Above all things reconstitute the fighting front in the East. … We must not take ‘No’ for an answer either from America or from Japan.” But to Wilson the problem looked by no means that clear-cut. Reconstituting the eastern front unquestionably meant some kind of intervention in Russia; and the sixth of his famous fourteen points for an effective peace had demanded, unequivocally, “the evacuation of all Russian territory” by foreign forces. Early in July he was still undecided, and wrote that he had been “sweating blood” over the problem. Gradually, he had been pushed toward agreeing to intervention in North Russia, but his inclination to resist was such that a veritable minuet of vacillation had ensued. Finally, however, on being informed that General Foch approved of the diversion of some American troops to North Russia, that both the British and French governments desperately desired intervention in force, and that some elements in Russia were not opposed, Wilson approved American participation. The date was July 17, 1918. But the nearly schizoid state of the President’s mind with respect to the venture in North Russia was shown with startling clarity in an aide-mémoire of the same date, setting forth America’s official view of the enterprise. “Military intervention there,” Wilson wrote, “would add to the present sad confusion in Russia rather than cure it … Whether from Vladivostok or from Murmansk and Archangel, the only legitimate object for which American or Allied troops can be employed … is to guard military stores which may subsequently be needed by Russian forces and to render such aid as may be acceptable to the Russians in the organization of their own self-defense.”

It soon became clear that Wilson’s fine distinction between military intervention and guarding military stores was utterly lost upon the British, who were put in command of the projected expedition by the Allied Supreme War Council. There was a widespread conviction among British leaders that the Bolshevik regime in Russia represented a vicious theory of government, alien to the interests of the West and threatening to world security. In consequence, the goal of reviving the eastern front easily became mixed with the idea of opposition to the Bolshevik regime, even to the extent of armed conflict.

And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight , Where ignorant armies clash by night. —Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”

This attitude was clearly reflected in the aggressive strategy conceived by the British command to introduce the intervention at Archangel. Since the city was fully in the grasp of the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1918, the British had prearranged an antiBolshevik coup d’état , to be co-ordinated with the approach of Allied warships to the city, on August 1. The uprising was efficiently planned and executed, and with British naval guns and seaplanes bombarding the outer harbor defenses, the Communists took off for points south, leaving the city in the hands of an anti-Bolshevik government which had prior British approval. Thus, from the outset, the Allied intervention at Archangel involved violent action against the Soviet government; and by the time the main American contingent arrived a month later, the belligerent pattern of the whole forthcoming year had already been irrevocably fixed. Wilson’s pacific view of the expedition was totally ignored.