A century ago this year, the October Revolution in Russia would herald the establishment of the Soviet Union and the rise of communism as a global movement. However, the Bolsheviks’ power play resulted in years of warfare, civil and otherwise, with the remnants of the White Russian provisional government, their supporters amongst the Allied powers and rampaging local warlords across the vastness of imperial Russia.
Many have forgotten that more than thirteen thousand American soldiers battled the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, and over four hundred would lay down their lives on frozen Arctic and Siberian battlefields, in an ill-conceived attempt to tilt the outcome of that conflict.
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The Polar Bear Expedition
The Allied powers had dispatched considerable arms through the arctic ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk to assist the Russian Army in its hapless conflict with Imperial Germany. Now that Lenin was withdrawing Russia from World War I, the European powers wished to ensure the weapons and munitions didn’t fall into the hands of the Red Army . . . and if they might instead help the White Russians defeat the Communists, that would be just fine as far as they were concerned.
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Paris and London cajoled President Woodrow Wilson into contributing a brigade-sized force to a multinational mission. The American consul in Arkhangelsk warned that any intervention would inevitably escalate, and that the White Russians were unlikely to prevail. Instead, Wilson ended up dispatching two separate expeditions.
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The American North Russia Expeditionary Force (ANREF) comprised five thousand soldiers of the 339th Regiment drafted from Michigan, reinforced by engineers and support troops of the Eighty-Fifth Infantry Division. Diverted from service on the Western Front, the troops were issued Russian Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 bolt-action rifles, as ammunition for the type would be in more plentiful supply.
In theory, the Americans were only supposed to confiscate war material—not to take sides in the civil war. However, Red Army troops had already looted a good part of the Allied weapons cache in Arkhangelsk when an advance party of British troops and fifty sailors from the cruiser USS Olympia chased them away in August 1918.
The doughboys that followed in September were placed under British command, and launched on a six-week offensive that pushed back Red Army troops towards the River Dvina and the Vologda railhead. But U.S. troops were soon defending a series of strongpoints strung along the railway lines running to Murmansk and connecting Arkhangelsk to Vologda. Maintaining thousand-mile long supply lines was a formidable challenge accomplished by train, steamboats, reindeer-drawn sleds and horse-drawn carriages.
Though the British contributed only a modest number of troops, they had sent higher-ranking officers, whose aristocratic airs the doughboys resented. The U.S. troops got along better with the French and especially Canadian artillerymen. Civilians and White Russian allies were perceived as changing sides unexpectedly.
However, morale plunged in November 1918 as World War I officially came to an end with the armistice with Germany—while the troops from Michigan had to go on fighting Russians for reasons unclear to them. Then the infamous General Winter stepped in, bringing temperatures that could fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Machine-gun coolant froze. Doughboys lost limbs to frostbite, while the wounded died of exposure on the battlefield. Members of I Company mutinied, their misery stoked by enemy leaflets. American soldiers began a writing letters and petitions to the White House, begging to be sent home.
The Red Army pounced. On November 11, 2,500 Bolsheviks, backed by gunboats and led by a “giant of a man” named Melochofski, assaulted a company of three hundred U.S. infantry in the village of Tulgas, two hundred miles south of Arkhangelsk, overrunning their hospital. In a three-day battle, Lewis machine guns and Canadian artillery pinned down the attackers in the southern half of the town; then American infantry led by Lt. John Cudahy launched a desperate surprise counterattack through the woods, causing the Reds to retreat.
But things did not go so well on January 1919, when three thousand Bolsheviks swarmed a thousand White Russians and an American infantry company of two hundred near Shenkursk. The former fled and abandoned their three-inch field guns, but Canadian artillerymen again stepped in to provide covering fire, though their commanding officer was mortally wounded. The Allies troops then retreated at night via an old logging trail.
Two months later, soldiers from E and H Company waded through hip-deep snow to assault the village of Bolshie Ozerki. The combined Allied force of two thousand eventually compelled seven thousand Red Army troops to disengage. But the cause of the White Russians was clearly crumbling.
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.