- Historic Sites
Yanks In Siberia
SENT ON A HOPELESSLY VAGUE ASSIGNMENT BY WOODROW WILSON, AMERICAN SOLDIERS FOUND THEMSELVES IN THE MIDDLE OF A FEROCIOUS SQUABBLE AMONG BOLSHEVIKS, COSSACKS, CZECHS, JAPANESE, AND OTHERS
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
Wilson completed his plans on August 2, having concluded an agreement with Japan that each country would send seven thousand troops; he ignored the objection of the army chief of staff, General Peyton C. March, that the expedition was a strategic blunder that would provide Japan with a respectable cover for seizing the Russian Far East. The State Department, however, with its strong anti-Bolshevik bias, came down on the side of intervention even after intelligence reports indicated that the Japanese were sending not seven thousand but seventy-two thousand troops into Siberia.
To lead the Siberian Expeditionary Force in operations none could foresee, under circumstances in which the commander’s own judgment would have to be relied upon more than any guidance from Washington, the army wisely chose one of its more intelligent and capable general officers. The Siberian Follies of 1919 could have been disastrous directed by a less cool and calculating man than Major General William Sidney Graves. Scholarlylooking, bespectacled, kindly, and considerate (as his staff described him), anything but a martinet, General Graves had a saving sense of humor and a strong sense of humanity. He was a curiously American military type that in a later war would be represented by Omar Bradley.
His career, which included the best military education this country could supply, had not been spectacular. Born during the last year of the Civil War, in Mount Calm, Texas, he was the son of a Baptist minister who had become a Confederate colonel. He had taught school before obtaining a West Point appointment. In the forgotten battle of Caloocan (December 31, 1900) during the Philippine insurrection he had been cited for gallantry in action. For many years after that he was secretary of the general staff. Recently he had been assigned to the command of the 8th Division at Camp Fremont, California.
On the morning of August 2, 1919, Graves was ordered to “take the first and fastest train out of San Francisco” and meet Secretary of War Newton D. Baker in Kansas City. At ten o’clock that night—the style of the United States military establishment was much less pretentious during those prePentagon days—he and Baker conferred briefly while seated on crates in the Kansas City railroad station.
The Secretary of War handed Graves a sealed envelope containing two sheets of paper headed “AideMémoire,” saying, “This contains the policy of the United States in Russia which you are to follow. Watch your step; you will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite,” and then hurried to catch a train back to Washington.
About all that Graves could make of the Presidential directive was that he was to go to Siberia and stay out of trouble. The necessity of helping the Czech legion was emphasized, but he wasn’t supposed to “add to the present sad confusion in Russia.” He was to concern himself with “safeguarding the rear of the Czecho-Slovaks,” but they had no “rear” in the military sense and were simply strung out along the Trans-Siberian. He was further bewildered by a State Department dispatch warning that “Japan’s policy would be to keep the various Russian forces apart and oppose any strong Russian central authority” but offering no advice on how that was to be prevented.
And the War Department, on its part, rose to new heights of ineptness in assigning the components of his expedition. A patchwork brigade of units that had been chasing Filipino guerillas through the tropical jungle was organized in the Philippines and sent to shiver through the sub-zero winters on the Siberian tundra. Those unfortunates in tropical-weight khaki included the 27th and 3ist infantry regiments, a company of telegraphers from the Signal Corps, an ambulance company, and a field hospital. The Philippine regiments were so undermanned they had to be fleshed out with five thousand men from Graves’s division in California.
Graves and his headquarters staff landed at Vladivostok on September 1 —”pitchforked,” as he put it, “into the melee.” It was a formerly prosperous European-style city with Victorian architecture and trolley lines, now swarming with adventurers, spies, ex-czarist government officials in their double-breasted frock coats with brass buttons, and thousands of refugees. The cafés and cabarets were thronged with the “scourings of the Far East,” and the only saint on the scene was a prostitute named Dizzy Marie who specialized in getting sailors back on their ships.
On the day of Graves’s arrival the eastern and western echelons of the Czech legion linked up at Chita on the Trans-Siberian, and the primary stated objective of the S.E.F. appeared to be obviated. Graves’s force could have turned around and sailed back to Manila, but Washington felt that other good works might be undertaken— the railroads kept running and the Siberian economy revived.