Where Ignorant Armies Clashed By Night


After three weeks of sporadic combat, not only had General Poole’s invasion of North Russia lost its momentum but his tiny forces were in serious danger of annihilation. This explains the wireless message received by the American troopships that were slowly making their way through the Arctic Ocean headed for Murmansk, at the end of August: they were now to come directly to Archangel, with all possible speed. The 5,000 American soldiers, whose destiny had been so radically altered by Wilson’s decision to send them to North Russia instead of France, were having their own troubles when Poole’s message reached them. Severe influenza had broken out, and by one of those errors credible only to veterans of the armed forces, someone had totally forgotten to put the usual medical supplies aboard when the Americans had embarked at Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Nevertheless, General Poole’s troops were in such straits by the time the American regiment disembarked at Archangel, on September 5 and 6, that all able men of two battalions were marched off the gangplanks in full field array and sent directly to the fighting fronts before they even had a chance to look over the curious northern city that was to be the expedition’s base of operations for the next nine months. A good many of them were soon to lie buried beneath Russian sod without having seen anything of it but the wharves and the seventeenth-century cathedral.

The river and the railroad remained the two chief fronts throughout the following months; four others were set up to guard against flanking attacks. Thus the Allied campaign in North Russia soon took on the shape of a giant, six-fingered hand, the heel of the palm resting at Archangel and the fingers probing into the interior in a broad, spanning position. Intense activity was soon under way on all fronts: billets were arranged with Russian peasants in various villages; transport and supply units were moved up to support the combat troops; signal platoons laid out field telephone lines where the forests and swamps permitted; on the railway front engineers even cleared a rudimentary landing field for a few creaky British airplanes retired from France.

There was to be very little time for mere preparations, however. The Soviet troops were pressing counterattacks, particularly on the railroad and the Dvina and Vaga river fronts, and most of the green American infantrymen experienced their baptism of fire before they had been two weeks in Russia. From the beginning, although they were by no means routed, they enjoyed little taste of victory. Painfully typical was the experience of the Americans on the railroad front at the end of September, when General Poole decided to launch a determined thrust toward Vologda. Ordered to circle through the swampy forest and attack the Russians on the railroad from the right flank, a company and a half of the Third Battalion got hopelessly lost in a deep marsh and finally had to retrace their stumbling steps to the point of departure without having made contact with the enemy. They were hardly to blame: Colonel Sutherland, in command of the railway front, had neglected to reconnoiter the forest beforehand, relying instead on outdated foresters’ maps. Back on the railroad, with the battle already in heavy progress, the tired and disgusted doughboys rushed forward to support a company of French infantry, which, having captured a bridge, was now under severe counterfire from the Bolsheviks. Sutherland, ensconced in a railroad car several miles to the rear, evidently thought the Soviet troops had retaken the bridge, and ordered his artillery to shell it forthwith. Eight Americans were wounded, two of them mortally, before the mistake was rectified; and according to a soldier from Sutherland’s headquarters, the Colonel telephoned for “another quart of whiskey” before making the correction. True or not, this vivid detail was believed by the Americans, and a strong dislike for the British officer became a burning hatred.

As a matter of fact, Colonel Sutherland was about to be replaced, although the men under him did not have the pleasure of knowing this. Finding a suitable substitute was one of the first problems of Major General Edmund Ironside, who arrived at Archangel on October 1 to take over active command of the Allied expedition while General Poole went to England “on leave.” (Poole himself, it turned out, was actually being replaced and was never to return. He had consistently exasperated the civilian government of Archangel, as well as the last American ambassador to nonCommunist Russia, David R. Francis, whose office now was established in the city; and complaints had been made to London.) Ironside was, to put it mildly, an impressive man. Ambassador Francis, a crusty old gentleman not generally given to rhapsody, was moved to the following encomium of Ironside’s virtues: General Ironsides [sic] is six feet four inches tall without shoes, weighs 270 pounds, and is only thirty-seven years old. He is descended direct from the last Saxon king of England. … He was in command of a division on the French front, when he was ordered to Russia … he landed somewhere in England, spent three days acquainting himself with Russian conditions and left for Archangel; he does everything that way. …

Although this may somewhat have exaggerated General Ironside’s lineage, it actually slighted his distinguished military career, which, incidentally, was to continue with unflagging glory down to recent years, so that his entry in Who’s Who reads like a quick trip along the British path of empire from Victoria to George VI. He was elevated to the peerage in 1941, taking the title of Baron of Archangel and Ironside.