Where Ignorant Armies Clashed By Night

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Two hundred miles away, on the Dvina River at the village of Toulgas, there was no need for speculation. On November 7, the first anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Allied troops had observed a great increase in Soviet patrol activities, and it soon became evident that a major attack was about to begin. The armistice brought no change: in fact, it was on November ii that the all-out attack started. A temporary thaw had enabled the Communists to bring big gunboats down the icy river from Kotlas. Even Ironside was impressed by the density of the bombardment on the Allied positions: he estimated that 4,000 heavy shells fell on Toulgas within three days. Unhappily, the British and Americans were now experiencing a foretaste of what was to characterize the fighting later around Shenkursk; the Soviet guns far outranged the Canadian field artillery, and there was nothing to do but hang on under the barrage.

One of the most interesting accounts of the battle of Toulgas was written by a young man who in later years was to be Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambassador to Poland. Lieutenant John Cudahy, of the ssgth Infantry, published Archangel: the American War with Russia in 1924, anonymously—perhaps because his view of the part played by his country in North Russia was exceedingly bitter. The book paints a vivid picture of the effect of the Soviet bombardment on the American troops and of the terrific infantry combat that followed, intermittently, for three days and nights. It ended on November 14, when Cudahy himself led a predawn counterattack that not only took the Bolsheviks by surprise but luckily coincided with a sudden drop in temperature that sent the Soviet gunboats back up the river for fear of being frozen in. As a curious footnote to what evidently was his most overwhelming experience in the campaign, Cudahy later named his first-born child Toulgas.

The fighting on the railway front in September, at Toulgas in November, and at Nijni Gora in January was fairly typical of the Allied expedition to North Russia as far as the Americans were concerned. Battles occurred at frequent intervals, on one front or another, throughout the long winter: and this was a jolt to the British commanders, who had assumed that in the rugged arctic weather the Bolsheviks would practically suspend combat operations. In this assumption they overlooked the fact that the swampy forests of North Russia are far more negotiable when frozen solid by sub-zero cold and covered with snow than they are in the spring, summer, or fall—given skis, that is, and the skill to use them. The Bolsheviks had several companies of ski troops; the Allies had none.

Even in those sectors where the least fighting occurred, the six-month winter was hard for the Americans to take. “In the dismal huts of the village,” Cudahy wrote, “soldiers are packed with the crowded moujik families like herded animals, where the atmosphere is dank and pestilent with an odor like stale fish. Filth is on the floor and vermin creep from the cracks and crevices of the log walls.” Yet despite their distaste for Russian domestic life, many of the Americans developed a close sympathy for their peasant hosts. Even at forty below zero, it appears, love conquers some if not all: eight of them took Russian brides back to America when spring finally came. What seems to have impressed the American soldiers more than anything else about the North Russian “moujiks” was their incredible patience in the face of adversity, and their almost total apathy toward whatever mysterious issues existed between the Allies and the Bolsheviks. There were numerous opportunities for the display of these characteristics. On several occasions, for example, British strategy demanded the ejection of whole village populations, whose homes were then burned to prevent their becoming cover for Bolshevik troops.

While Allied soldiers in Archangel waited out the long winter and fought in death struggles with the Soviet forces, the representatives of the Allied governments met in Paris to arrange the peace and to settle, if they could, the future of Russia. In February, 1919, Wilson told the peace conference that in his opinion Allied troops were “doing no sort of good in Russia,” and should be withdrawn as soon as possible. Churchill, who was attending the Paris meetings specifically with a view to doing something positive about Russia, replied that this “would be equivalent to pulling out the linch-pin from the whole machine. There would be no further armed resistance to the Bolsheviks in Russia, and an interminable vista of violence and misery was all that remained for the whole of Russia.” The next day, Wilson having sailed for the United States, Churchill proposed that a detailed study be made “to estimate the forces the Allies disposed of for the purpose of waging war against the Bolsheviks.” This shocked Wilson, and he sent a wireless message from shipboard expressing strong disapproval of any further involvement in “the Russian chaos.” Thus Churchill saw that his vision of the Allies overthrowing the Communist regime in Russia while it was still in its infancy was about to move finally from the realm of hope into that of regret for a great opportunity lost, for without solid American support no such scheme could be carried out.