Where Ignorant Armies Clashed By Night


Wilson, in fact, had already cast the die for American withdrawal from North Russia. The United States troops in Archangel were accordingly informed, late in February, that they would be withdrawn “at the earliest possible moment that weather conditions in the spring will permit,” although it was not made quite clear that this was to be the beginning of the end of the entire intervention. Having undertaken to lead the White Russians against the Bolsheviks, the Allies were now about to leave them holding a bag of very dubious tenability. General Ironside had anticipated such a situation, for he had devoted much time and energy to training a White Russian army that might, with luck, be capable of moving alone against the Bolsheviks with some hope of success. By the end of March nearly 15,000 Russian troops had been outfitted and partially trained in Archangel; and whatever his private misgivings may have been, Ironside maintained, for the sake of the White Russian leaders, an air of bluff confidence. But as the spring advanced, and the thick ice of North Russia began its slow April thaw, rumors of the coming American withdrawal spread through Archangel, bringing a steady disintegration of anti-Bolshevik morale. Near the end of April occurred the first of many serious mutinies of White Russian troops, some 300 going over to the Bolsheviks after murdering seven of their officers.

In May, a brand new British relief army, splendidly equipped, arrived in Archangel; and in June the relieved Americans, having suffered from all causes more than 2,000 casualties, departed on the ships that had brought the British. The fact that the 10,000 British newcomers were there merely to cover the total evacuation of Allied personnel was concealed from the population of Archangel, and even the White Russian leaders were left in some doubt on the matter. The truth was that Wilson’s principle of nonbelligerent intervention had finally succeeded, by default as it were, and nonbelligerent intervention meant no intervention at all. The Allies were on their way out.

By September 27 the last of the British troops had embarked for England. For a little while the White Russian battalions had better success against the Bolsheviks than anyone had expected, but it was only a question of time. Short of food, ammunition, and money, and plagued by a barrage of Bolshevik propaganda that encouraged desertions and mutinies, the Whites moved slowly but surely toward defeat. With the Red Army almost knocking at the gates, the prominent citizens of Archangel indulged, ostrich-style, in a last paroxysm of the gaiety that had consumed much of their time during the preceding year: they held a gala theatrical, followed by a dance for the benefit of wounded soldiers, on February 15, 1920. Six days later the 154th Red Infantry marched into Archangel. The fight against Bolshevism in North Russia was over.

Ironside tells how he encountered, one evening in August, 1919, a long convoy of Russian carts on an Archangel street, headed for the wharves. On each cart was a wooden box about six feet long. He was told that the boxes contained the bodies of American soldiers: they had been dug up from the cemetery in Archangel and now, the last of their regiment to leave, were about to begin their long, quiet voyage back to the United States. Those who died in the snows of Nijni Gora were left behind, until, in 1930, their bodies were disinterred and they, too, came home. Still, in scattered, unmarked graves beneath the snow lie a few permanent envoys, poignant reminders of the tragic first chapter in the relationship of the two greatest powers of the twentieth century.