- Historic Sites
Where Ignorant Armies Clashed By Night
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
As a matter of fact, the decision to send a large part of the Allied expedition to Archangel rather than to Murmansk, where there was a far greater threat of German activity against the Allies, rested on a military plan that, in the privileged light of history, must be regarded as wishful thinking. Far to the east, in Siberia, a large force of Czechoslovakian soldiers was strung out along the Trans-Siberian railroad, in a state of frustrated suspense. Once a part of the Russian forces fighting the Germans, they had begun to move eastward toward Vladivostok in March, 1918, with the idea of shipping from there to the western front to renew the fight against Germany; but a number of violent clashes between them and the Soviet authorities resulted ultimately in a general uprising of these Czechs against the Bolsheviks in late May. It now seemed to some of the Allied leaders that if a union of forces could be effected between the Czechs and the Allies along the western sector of the Trans-Siberian railroad, the re-establishment of an eastern front against the Germans might happily coincide with a complete overthrow of the Communist government.
The British officer who was originally placed in command of the Archangel expedition, Major General F. C. Poole, was an enthusiastic proponent of this theory. No sooner had he landed in Archangel, on August 2, than he dispatched small units of his meager forces in hot pursuit of the retreating Reds. For this he had, in addition to the justification provided by the British plan of joining with the Czechs, the sanction of indignation. For when the Allied forces landed at Archangel, they discovered that nearly all of the millions of dollars’ worth of Allied war matériel shipped (on credit) to Russia had already been removed far down the Archangel-Vologda railroad by the Bolsheviks.
The peculiar nature of the Allied campaign in North Russia in 1918–19 was largely determined by three things: General Poole’s bristling determination to drive rapidly down to the Trans-Siberian railroad; the relatively small size of the expedition; and the recalcitrant character of the terrain over which the invading forces were obliged to move and fight. Archangel Province was an area considerably larger than Texas, and much colder. Its 330,000 square miles consisted mostly of tundra and thick fir forests interspersed with huge swamps and bogs; wandering through this vast inhospitality, six large rivers flowed northward into the icy waters of the White Sea. Poole’s bold plan of pushing south to the Trans-Siberian railroad in order to join the Czech troops, who were now supposed to be struggling westward, relied chiefly on transportation along the Archangel-Vologda railroad and up the largest and most accommodating of the rivers. The latter was the broad Northern Dvina, flowing northwest to Archangel from the direction of Vy- atka, a good 500 miles away on the Trans-Siberian railroad, where Poole hoped to meet the Czechs.
Although Poole was an experienced ofiicer, and certainly understood the general character of the natural obstacles in North Russia, he badly underestimated the human obstacles. An inveterate optimist, he took the view that the Red Army, which he considered to be more of a rabble than a disciplined force, would fly like quail before the onslaught of Allied arms. He also expected most of the people of North Russia to oppose the Bolsheviks and to rally patriotically to the Allied cause. Both of these expectations proved to be remarkably ill-founded; but Poole’s opening gambit was premised on them, and the rest of the campaign took shape from his impetuous start. Sending one small force down the Archangel-Vologda railroad and another in barges up the Dvina, he found at first that everything went splendidly; the Bolsheviks appeared to be in full retreat along both avenues of escape. But emblematic of the fate of the whole expedition is the fact that it never, in all the months of combat that followed, penetrated any farther toward Vologda and Vyatka than it did in those first, heady weeks in the fall of 1918. Moreover, the two forces, one on the railroad and the other on the river, were necessarily diverging farther and farther apart as they invaded the Russian interior; lack of intercommunication was to typify the entire campaign.
It appears that the first fighting men of the Allied expedition to go into action were, traditionally enough, American marines. Some fifty, detached from the U.S. cruiser Olympia , had come along with Poole’s forces in search of adventure after several months of boredom in Murmansk. Having commandeered a locomotive and two cars and armed themselves with rifles and a couple of machine guns, a group of them raced south along the Archangel-Vologda railroad, occasionally getting off a few pot shots at the Bolshevik rear guard, just ahead and moving just as fast. The young crusaders covered 75 miles down the line before a hotbox stopped them and gave the Reds a chance to burn a bridge against further pursuit. If the marines had begun to imagine a quick and glorious trip to Vologda, or even Moscow, they were now painfully disillusioned: the Bolsheviks turned out to have plenty of guns and ammunition, and no reluctance whatever to use them against American commandos. After a few days of no progress, the marines were reinforced by the French contribution to the expedition: a partial battalion of poilus.