FACT: America Actually 'Invaded' Russia after World War I
Finally, two Railroad Transport Companies sailed into Murmansk in 1919. Rather than reinforcing the miserable Michiganders, their job was to operate the Arctic railway while the doughboys withdrew to the States. They had suffered 305 wounded and 244 dead—including eighty-one to disease, largely due to an influenza outbreak while transiting at sea. A VFW expedition in 1929 would later repatriate another hundred bodies.
The veterans, dubbing themselves the Polar Bear Expedition, formed a society to preserve the memory of their ordeal. You can read the preserved archives of their experience here.
America’s Siberian Railway Guards
The American Expeditionary Force to Siberia had an even more peculiar objective: helping extract friendly Czech soldiers.
In 1917, the Russian Army raised a forty-thousand-strong Czechoslovak Legion out of Czechs and a smaller number of Slovaks that sought independence for their nations from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the Bolsheviks sought to end hostilities with Germany, the Czechs at first negotiated to have themselves transported by train across Russia to Vladivostok for departure by sea. However, in May 1918 a dispute caused Leon Trotsky to order the legion to surrender while it was scattered across the sixth-thousand-mile-long Trans-Siberian Railway. Rather than turn themselves in, the legion’s men mutinied.
Wilson was sympathetic to the Czechs. Furthermore, there were six hundred thousand tons of war matériel in Vladivostok for the taking, and seventy-two thousand supposedly allied Japanese troops rampaging through the region in a grab for resource-rich Siberian territory. In August 1918, the U.S. president dispatched a second task force of 7,900 troops drawn principally from the Twenty-Seventh and Thirty-One Infantry Regiments and the Eighth Division, under the command of Maj. Gen. William S. Graves. Told to preserve the railroad and remain as neutral as possible, Graves was advised by the secretary of state, “You will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite.”
The Siberian Expedition landed in the east Russian port city of Vladivostok, then in a state of chaos and anarchy. Graves discovered that the doughty Czechs were in little need of rescue, having proceeded to capture most of Siberia from the weak Red Army forces in the area, and even advanced westward to seize the imperial gold reserve in Kazan! Unlike the beleaguered White Russians in the northwest, the Czech offensive seemed to pose a serious threat to the Bolsheviks.
U.S. troops nonetheless set about their mission: securing the Trans-Siberian Railway so that the Czech Legion could make its exit—if it ever chose to do so. Small U.S. garrisons had to be strung out across the length of the railway line, continuously repairing it from sabotage undertaken by local partisans and fighting off hit-and-run raids.
These could get nasty. In June 1919, four hundred guerillas caught a sleeping American encampment at Romanovka by surprise, killing twenty-four American soldiers out of a force of seventy-two. Marauding Cossack warlords proved to be just as much of a hazard. Sponsored by the Japanese, they ravaged local communities in orgies of looting, torture and rape. The Americans were asked to counter their depredations, and the Cossacks retaliated by kidnapping or killing isolated doughboys.
The Russian winter also ravaged the Siberian Expedition. With the cold weather came Bolshevik counterattacks that began rolling the Czech Legion back one city at a time. However, Graves took remaining neutral seriously, and resisted launching offensive operations against the Bolsheviks. When Communist miners went on strike in the Suchan Valley in 1919, he refused to crack down on them—until a local leader threatened attacks on U.S. troops.
The doughboys in Siberia fought fewer major engagements, but were deployed significantly longer. The expedition did not withdraw until early in 1920, having suffered 189 deaths to all causes. While withdrawing, a platoon from M Company of the Twenty-Seventh defeated an attack by an armored train manned by eighty Cossacks at Posolskaya Station. By then, the newborn state of Czechoslovakia had been declared, and more than fifty-nine thousand soldiers of the Czech Legion were ready to forsake Russian conquests to return to a newly independent homeland.
Wilson’s intervention in the Russian Revolution was conceived with vague, limited goals that inevitably crept to encompass impossible ambitions. It was led astray working in cooperation with nominal allies that did not share the same objectives, fighting battles on behalf of local forces that were rapidly foundering. And it required relatively small numbers of American troops to hold vast swathes of inhospitable territory.
The Soviets later cited the U.S. intervention as yet another example of invasion from the West, adding the United States to a list of historical foes such as France, Germany, Sweden and Poland. The fumbling, small-scale expeditions surely amounted to something less than an all-out drive to overthrow the government in Moscow. Yet it provided early evidence that Russia and the United States were doomed to be intimately intertwined in each other’s affairs in the century to come.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: Wikimedia Commons