memorial day rememberHAPPY MEMORIAL DAY! As usual, Balladeer’s Blog marks the occasion with a look at a neglected aspect of American military history. Spare some thoughts today for the men who perished in this action.

AMERICAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCES IN RUSSIA – The battles fought by these Americans carried over from the end of World War One into the early stages of the Russian Civil War. The Allied Nations of the First World War were fighting alongside the White (anti-Bolshevik) Russian Forces for a time.

Like any of my fellow World War One geeks I could drone on about it for hours, but I’ll try to keep this brief and on-point. The Red (Communist) Russians had taken Russia out of the war by signing a treaty with Germany. This had left German forces free to reinforce their armies on the Western Front, had jeopardized a large amount of Allied supplies which were already in the Russian port city of Archangel (Arkangelsk in Russian) on the White Sea AND jeopardized the safety of the Czech Legion along the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

memorial day pictureWith the World War still raging, the other Allied Nations prevailed on President Woodrow Wilson to divert some American forces intended for the Western Front to Archangel and beyond, joining a combined army of Brits, Poles and White Russians. The fighting in North Russia dragged on past the end of the global conflict in November of 1918 into June of 1919. The fighting in Eastern Russia dragged on until January of 1920. In other words, if the Americans sent to Russia had instead gone to their original destination of France, their combat operations would have ended on November 11th, rather than continuing for more than a year of further bloodshed and loss of limbs from frostbite. All the more reason to remember the often-neglected troops who served there. 

On July 17th, 1918, American General John J “Black Jack” Pershing ordered 5,000 soldiers drawn from the 339th Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion of the 310th Engineers and assorted other units from the 85th Division to re-train for new battle conditions and head for Archangel. Those Americans became known as the Polar Bear Expedition. Meanwhile, 8,000 American soldiers were sent to Vladivostok, Russia as the American Expeditionary Force in Siberia.

POLAR BEAR EXPEDITION (I’ll cover the Siberian Expedition separately below) – The Americans who went to Archangel served under General George Evans Stewart but were under overall British command. In the interests of brevity I will refer to “American units and their allies”, but know that those allies were Brits, Poles and White Russians.

On September 4th, 1918, Americans arrived at Archangel and were sent along the Dvina River and along the Vologda River as part of the efforts to save the embattled and surrounded Czech Legion. That would supposedly be accomplished by seizing the Trans-Siberian Railway to the south. For the rest of the month and the first half of October they engaged and pushed back (southward) the Red Russian Army.

The increasing length of their own supply lines as they advanced necessitated a halt by late October. With winter rapidly enveloping the region – hey, it’s Northern Russia – the Americans and their allies called off plans to link up with the Czech Legion and settled in to hold the territory they had taken thus far.

On November 11th, of course, the Armistice ending World War One was signed, but the Americans and others in Northern Russia were still battling Red Russians, since the surrender of the Central Powers did not affect Russian armed forces fighting on their own soil. The port of Archangel was now frozen over, as it was every winter, so even if the Americans had been able to immediately return to that city they could not have been evacuated.

Families of the men fighting there began pressuring their Congressional representatives, who in turn began making noise about trying to extricate the American forces in the north of Russia without having them taken captive or having all their equipment and supplies fall into Red Russian hands. The White Russian Army would continue fighting the Reds for years longer, in any event.

When members of “the Polar Bear Expedition” asked their superiors why they were still fighting, they were bluntly told “in order to survive.” Throughout that winter the Red Russian Army kept applying pressure but conditions were not favorable for either side to launch an all-out offensive. The waist-deep snow inhibited marching and charging, let alone traveling by horse or in motorized vehicles.

On February 16th of 1919 President Wilson ordered the War Department to withdraw American forces from northern Russia as soon as possible. They would be replaced by troops from Great Britain and other nations committed to helping the White Russians against the Red Russians in the ongoing Civil War.

The Red Russians continued battering the Americans and their allies throughout the winter, but the Allied victory in the Battle of Bolshi Ozerkie (March 31st to April 2nd) marked the end of the Red attacks. The Russian commanders had forced their men to continue charging the Allied positions for days, despite the way they were mowed down by the hundreds and despite the deaths of countless horses trying to haul military supplies on the snowed-in roads.   

April 17th of 1919 saw General Wilds P Richardson arrive at still-largely frozen Archangel Port on the icebreaker vessel the Canada. He had been sent there by the U.S. to oversee the American withdrawal since he had had cold-weather experience as an explorer in Alaska prior to the war. In late May and early June, the Americans at Archangel were all finally withdrawn from the area. 

AMERICAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE IN SIBERIA – On August 15th of 1918 the 8,000 American troops designated for the AEF-Siberia began arriving in Vladivostok. General William S Graves arrived on September 1st to take command. These forces were composed of the 12th, 13th, 27th, 31st and 62nd Infantry Regiments.  

The initial objectives of this force were to ensure that Allied shipments of supplies reached their intended White Russian recipients and were not hijacked by the always predatory Red Russian Army, and to keep the Trans-Siberian Railway open so that the storied Czech Legion could continue fighting its way across the continent. Once in Vladivostok the Czechs were to be shipped back to the newly-declared nation of Czechoslovakia.

British, French and Japanese military commanders in the area repeatedly tried to drag Graves and his men into their battles with the Red Russian Army but the General felt that his orders made fighting the Bolsheviks second in priority to keeping the railway open for supplies and to ensure that the Czech Legion could be evacuated without a slaughter.

Regarding that first part, American military personnel called the Russian Railway Service Corps staffed and defended the Trans-Siberian Railroad for nearly two years. And all that while containing their involvement so as to conform to President Wilson’s orders not to allow themselves to get drawn into the larger conflict.

Another necessity was for Graves and his troops to try to discourage Japan (which had fought alongside the Allied Nations in World War One, unlike World War Two) from seizing large chunks of Russian territory for themselves since Civil War-torn Russia was stretched too thin militarily to prevent it. Allied agreements had authorized 12,000 Japanese troops in Eastern Russia but Japan had sent SEVENTY-TWO THOUSAND by the time the Americans arrived. That General Graves was also able to avoid plunging us into a war with Japan at that time speaks volumes about the man’s ability to juggle his duties. 

The Americans were spread out from Vladivostok to Nikolsk-Ussuriski while safeguarding the Trans-Siberian Railway, repairing sabotage to the lines while under enemy fire, aiding the embattled Czech Legion and clashing with freelancing Cossacks plus “bandits” who were often really Red Russian guerillas taking advantage of the situation.

On June 25th, 1919 the Red Russians launched an attack on American forces at the Battle of Romanovka. Though the U.S. won a very lopsided victory, the Russian attack had been just part of larger Bolshevik operations to cut off Vladivostok’s access to the Suchan Mines. To retake the vital mines, Graves launched the Suchan Valley Campaign of July and very early August, 1919.

That tri-pronged assault cleaned out Red Russian forces in the valley and reopened access to the mines. U.S. Marine Corps and Navy personnel garrisoned the Suchan area, allowing Graves’ men to return to their other objectives. On August 7th the U.S. also defeated the Reds in the Battle of Novo Litovoskaya.

Americans emerged triumphant in every other clash with Bolsheviks during the war, right up to the final Red Russian attack on us at Posolskeya on January 9th, 1920, in which the outnumbered U.S. forces captured or killed all of the attackers. America and the other nations left Russia (except for the Japanese) per international agreements. The Czech Legion had finally reached Vladivostok after their legendary campaign, and their successful evacuation had begun a few months earlier. 



© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  



Filed under Neglected History


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