Where Ignorant Armies Clashed By Night


Fresh from active combat in France, Ironside had no intention of spending the fall in Archangel sticking colored pins in maps. He promptly began a tour of the various fronts, going first down the railroad to see how the drive for Vologda was prospering. He found it thoroughly bogged down. The French and American forces had succeeded in advancing only about two miles south of the railroad bridge before the intensity of the Bolshevik artillery fire had pounded them to a standstill. At any rate, the fire seemed intense to the Americans; to Ironside, whose last view of the western front, just two weeks before, had been literally from a shell hole, it was not overwhelmingly impressive. But although the Soviet artillery left the General unperturbed, he discovered on this occasion that, despite his wide knowledge of exotic tongues, the American language presented somewhat difficult problems. “Later,” he wrote in his memoirs in 1953, “when I had spoken sharply to another company commander about something his men had done, he held out his hand with the words, ‘General, I’m with you.’ To this day I am not quite certain whether he meant to say that he agreed with me, or merely had heard what I said.”

Ironside’s survey of his troop dispositions convinced him quickly of one thing: Poole had been overconfident, and there was no likelihood of reaching either Vologda or Vyatka before winter set in, if indeed at all. He immediately issued orders to settle down and establish defensive positions, and for the next few weeks most of the Allied soldiers did more building and digging than they did fighting. Addressing himself next to the problem of a new commander for the railway front, General Ironside paid a visit to Colonel George E. Stewart, the ranking American officer of the expedition, who had remained in the city of Archangel while his troops were dispersed in four or five different directions. But despite Ironside’s urging, Stewart refused to take over command of the railway column, explaining that he would be exceeding his instructions if he left Archangel.

Stewart, indeed, must have been a thoroughly puzzled man. Ambassador Francis had wired the State Department upon the arrival of the American troops, virtually demanding that Stewart should be responsible to him, since he was “interpreting U.S. policy” in Russia. Francis then called the Colonel in and asked him what he would do if the Ambassador told him to disobey an order from British headquarters. Stewart replied, as Francis recalled it later, “I would obey you.” The ironic twist in this was that the Ambassador’s idea of the Allied intervention was completely at odds with the official position taken by the United States government, which, supposedly, he was in Archangel to represent. Francis, in fact, despite his annoyance with General Poole, was equally dedicated to the overthrow of the Bolshevik regime, which he frequently described as a “foul monster.”

So unequivocal was the Ambassador’s attitude, and so ambiguous the stance taken in Washington toward the Bolsheviks, that the government record of his communications with the State Department in the fall of 1918 sometimes gives the curious impression of two deaf persons carrying on a vital conversation without their hearing aids. On September 26, just two days before the abortive American drive toward Vologda, on the railroad front, the American secretary of state telegraphed Francis that all American military effort in North Russia was to be confined to guard duty, and that no American co-operation was to be given the effort “to establish lines of operation and defense through from Siberia to Archangel.” By way of reply, as it were, Francis cabled the State Department on October 10: ”… the only way to end this disgrace to civilization is for the Allies to take Petrograd and Moscow by sending sufficient troops therefor to Murmansk and Archangel without delay; 50,000 would serve but 100,000 would be ample.” For this belligerent and possibly farsighted suggestion, the Ambassador got no encouragement from the United States government; but neither, evidently, was he reprimanded.

Meanwhile, at the six far-flung fronts of the Allied intervention, Americans, British, French, and Canadians prepared to cope with an early and most uncompromising winter. Snow fell heavily early in November. The rivers froze over solidly, so that for the troops on the Dvina and Vaga fronts, maintaining supply lines now meant innumerable small shipments in sleds pulled along the rivers by ponies or reindeer. Rumors of peace on the western front circulated among the soldiers: the French infantrymen on the railroad front were muttering about going home. And on November 12 the telegraph wire from Murmansk sparked out the news of the signing of the armistice with Germany, thus bringing abruptly to an end the only cause for intervention in North Russia on which America and the Allies had ever been in full agreement. Two weeks of gay celebration ensued in Archangel, complete with parties, pa- rades, bunting, and Te Deums in the cathedral. There was also much speculation as to how the end of the war might affect the struggle with the Bolsheviks.