- Historic Sites
Where Ignorant Armies Clashed By Night
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
In the summer of 1918, with Russia removed from World War I as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, the United States sent troops into Russia at two points. It did so only after the greatest soul-searching on the part of President Wilson, who had said that “the treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations … will be the acid test of their good will …” Two factors influenced the decision. In the Far East, Japan had made a move to occupy Siberia, apparently threatening America’s “open door” policy for China. In North Russia, English and French leaders had hopes of reviving the eastern front against Germany. In addition, large stores of Allied war supplies had been left at the port of Archangel. The expedition to North Russia resulted in fierce combat between American and Soviet soldiers and throws significant light on the forty years of difficult relations between the United States and the Soviet Union that were to follow.
On the morning of January 19, 1919, in the Russian village of Nijni Gora, an American army lieutenant named Mead awoke to the thump of heavy artillery shells bursting unpleasantly close to the log house in which he and part ol his platoon had spent the night. The temperature was 45 degrees below /ero. Over the surrounding expanse of deep snow a wan, subarctic dawn had begun to diffuse a glimmering light, which would reflect uncertainly for a scant few hours before total darkness fell again. The village sat on the crest of a hill: through his field glasses Mead looked out across the frozen Vaga River to the open plain along the opposite bank, and to a dense fir forest in the distance. From the forest, wading slowly through the three-foot depth of powder snow, long skirmish lines of Soviet soldiers could be seen advancing under cover of the intense artillery barrage. Since these troops were still out of range of rifle or machine-gun fire, Mead had a few minutes in which to consider his position.
He was in command of 46 American soldiers ot Company A, 339th Infantry Regiment, who had been ordered to hold Nijni Gora as the farthest outpost of the Allied expedition to North Russia. The village was approximately 200 miles south of the city of Archangel, where they had entered Russia four and a half months earlier, and about 500 miles from Petrograd, to the southwest, and Moscow, to the south. The expedition was under British leadership: Mead’s orders came ultimately from Major General Edmund Ironside, in Archangel, who commanded a mélange of some 15,000 soldiers, including Americans, British, Canadians, French, White Russians, and a few Poles, Serbs, and Italians. These troops were widely spread out over Archangel Province with little regard to maintaining their integrity as national units. About twenty miles north on the Vaga River was the city of Shenkursk, the second largest in Archangel Province, and the Allied forces’ main advance base. Mead knew that it his position at Nijni Gora were taken by the enemy, Shenkursk would be threatened, so that the defense of the little village could have far-reaching importance for the late of the whole expedition.
In the forgotten 1918–19 campaign U.S. troops battled the Red Army through Russia’s bitterest snows
The Lieutenant had sonic reason tor misgivings about the fighting morale of his men as he watched the Bolshevik soldiers coming steadily through the snow toward the log houses in which the Americans had established themselves. The platoon had fought well in October as they made their way up the Vaga River to their present position, but this front had been relatively quiet since then, producing only occasional skirmishes with a few Soviet soldiers during the daily patrols. Not many months before, nearly all of these Americans had been peaceful civilians on farms and in factories in Michigan and Wisconsin. The cold of the North Russian winter had been far more severe than any of them had ever experienced, and the gloomy arctic December and January, when the sun never fully lighted the somber Russian forests and frozen swamps, had depressed their spirits. They were irritated by the British officers who commanded them above the company level, and dissatisfied with the British rations of hardtack, tea, bully beef, and a dismal canned mixture purporting to be meat and vegetables. There had been much influenza, and medical facilities were inadequate and erratic. The men were out of touch with their comrades in the rest of the regiment, and they heard nothing at all from their American senior officer at Archangel. They knew that the port of Archangel was completely frozen in by the ice of the White Sea and would remain so until May; and across the hundreds of miles of snow fields from Murmansk came only a thin drift of supplies and mail (much delayed) from home. They were aware that the opposing Soviet forces outnumbered them heavily: rumors made it ten to one. Worst of all, they knew that on November 11, 1918, the war for which they had willingly been drafted had come to a victorious end; and they were extraordinarily puz/led to know what they were doing in North Russia, and why they were doing it. Their state of baflled doubt and suspicion had not been relieved by the bundles of Bolshevik propaganda leaflets, written in good, colloquial American, that they frequently had found !vine on the icv trails as they went out on patrol.
The heavy barrage from the enemy guns continued for a solid hour, and no effective reply was possible because the light Canadian fieldpieces supporting the Americans were unable to reach the Communist artillery emplacements concealed far back in the forest across the river. As soon as the Soviet foot soldiers came within rifle range, however, Mead’s men opened up a persuasive fire that seemed to slow the attack considerably. But the American position in Nijni Gora had not been well chosen, in view of the immediately surrounding terrain. A series of ravines and clefts, now filled with great snowdrifts, nearly encompassed the village hill. When, at the end of the hour, the artillery barrage suddenly lifted, the Americans were astonished to see well over a hundred Soviet troops, camouflaged in white uniforms, who had crept into these drifts during the night and who now leaped forward to the attack with automatic weapons, rifles, and fixed bayonets.
Machine guns manned by American and White Russian soldiers poured lead into the attacking party; the Soviet automatic rifles replied with equally heavy fire. Some of the White Russian troops supporting the Americans became panicky and deserted their guns. One of Mead’s noncommissioned officers, seeing an abandoned machine gun, ran over to man it alone; he continued to fire after a Soviet bullet passed through his jaw. He was to die later that day of a second wound. Already Mead’s casualties were numerous, and he saw that his platoon would be unable to hold the position against the relentlessly advancing Bolsheviks, despite the slaughter being inflicted by the American weapons.
Fighting from house to house, sometimes in snow up to their waists, the beleaguered soldiers slowly withdrew. To reach the main position of the Shenkursk forward defenses, Mead’s men had to get down a wide, open hill, badly exposed to the enemy’s flanking fire, and run up a road to another village half a mile away. The hill was deep with unpacked snow, and, floundering desperately down through the drifts, the Americans were picked oft by Soviet rifle and machine-gun fire with appalling ease. The temperature was still 45 below zero, and to be badly wounded meant almost instantaneous freezing of the wounded part, followed shortly by death from shock and exposure. Of the 47 Americans who had occupied Nijni Cora, only seven (including Lieutenant Mead) reached the shelter of the main American outpost, in the village of Netsvetiafskaya, unwounded. More than half of the others were killed outright or died in the deep snow from wounds; a few wounded were picked up and brought in by a small rescue party sent out from the main force.
Although repeated waves of Communist mtantry attack against Netsvetiafskaya were repulsed during the next three days, the long-range Soviet guns gradually demolished the town. The lone and exceedingly busy American medical officer, Lieutenant Ralph Powers, was one of five men killed when a big shell exploded just outside the room where he was operating. On the night of January 22, with the town’s remaining buildings ablaze from incendiary shells, the Allied troops gratefully obeyed orders from Shenkursk to retreat to the outskirts of that city. They arrived, exhausted, on the evening of January 24, after a painfully slow retreat down the line of snowbound river villages, constantly under Bolshevik artillery fire. But their rest in Shenkursk was to be short. The city itself was now almost completely surrounded by Soviet troops, and British headquarters ordered immediate abandonment of the base, regardless of the mountains of supplies that had been stored there. Thus it was that in the early morning hours of January 25, a column of some 2,000 persons (including many civilians anxious to avoid the Bolshevik occupation of Shenkursk) set out on a little-used trail through the forest and with fantastic luck managed to escape northward from the closing enemy encirclement without being detected. The march, however, was one never to be forgotten: the temperature hovered between thirty and forty degrees below zero, and in the pitch-darkness the heavily laden soldiers continually stumbled and fell in the ruts, holes, and slides made in the icy trail by those who had gone ahead. The American infantrymen had been issued Shackleton boots, an invention of the famous British Antarctic explorer; and although these were very warm, they had leather soles so smooth and slippery that some of the men discarded them and went in their stocking feet, insuring many frozen toes before the retreat was over the next day.
The retreat from Shenkursk came just at the halfway mark in the nine-month history of American participation in the Allied intervention in North Russia. It is doubtful that, of all the difficult decisions made by President Woodrow Wilson during the years of World War I, any was more agonizing than the decision to permit that participation. Less than four months after the Russian Revolution of November, 1917, Lenin and Trotsky, under pressure from a multitude of grievous problems, had eliminated the eastern front against Germany by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. From the point of view of the Allies, this was a disaster. Germany was clearly building up for a gigantic spring offensive on the western front, and the prospect of unleashed German divisions from the Russian front, moving west to bolster that offensive, caused profound anxiety among the Allies.
The German offensive, which began promptly on March 21, 1918, was bad enough to vindicate the gloom of the most pessimistic prophets. Back on the Potomac, Wilson anxiously pondered the problem that agitated the Allied leaders in France: how to divert enough German strength to relieve this terrible pressure in the west. Winston Churchill, then Britain’s minister of munitions, offered a ready formula: “Above all things reconstitute the fighting front in the East. … We must not take ‘No’ for an answer either from America or from Japan.” But to Wilson the problem looked by no means that clear-cut. Reconstituting the eastern front unquestionably meant some kind of intervention in Russia; and the sixth of his famous fourteen points for an effective peace had demanded, unequivocally, “the evacuation of all Russian territory” by foreign forces. Early in July he was still undecided, and wrote that he had been “sweating blood” over the problem. Gradually, he had been pushed toward agreeing to intervention in North Russia, but his inclination to resist was such that a veritable minuet of vacillation had ensued. Finally, however, on being informed that General Foch approved of the diversion of some American troops to North Russia, that both the British and French governments desperately desired intervention in force, and that some elements in Russia were not opposed, Wilson approved American participation. The date was July 17, 1918. But the nearly schizoid state of the President’s mind with respect to the venture in North Russia was shown with startling clarity in an aide-mémoire of the same date, setting forth America’s official view of the enterprise. “Military intervention there,” Wilson wrote, “would add to the present sad confusion in Russia rather than cure it … Whether from Vladivostok or from Murmansk and Archangel, the only legitimate object for which American or Allied troops can be employed … is to guard military stores which may subsequently be needed by Russian forces and to render such aid as may be acceptable to the Russians in the organization of their own self-defense.”
It soon became clear that Wilson’s fine distinction between military intervention and guarding military stores was utterly lost upon the British, who were put in command of the projected expedition by the Allied Supreme War Council. There was a widespread conviction among British leaders that the Bolshevik regime in Russia represented a vicious theory of government, alien to the interests of the West and threatening to world security. In consequence, the goal of reviving the eastern front easily became mixed with the idea of opposition to the Bolshevik regime, even to the extent of armed conflict.
This attitude was clearly reflected in the aggressive strategy conceived by the British command to introduce the intervention at Archangel. Since the city was fully in the grasp of the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1918, the British had prearranged an antiBolshevik coup d’état , to be co-ordinated with the approach of Allied warships to the city, on August 1. The uprising was efficiently planned and executed, and with British naval guns and seaplanes bombarding the outer harbor defenses, the Communists took off for points south, leaving the city in the hands of an anti-Bolshevik government which had prior British approval. Thus, from the outset, the Allied intervention at Archangel involved violent action against the Soviet government; and by the time the main American contingent arrived a month later, the belligerent pattern of the whole forthcoming year had already been irrevocably fixed. Wilson’s pacific view of the expedition was totally ignored.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.