“Never have any of our soldiers been on American soil, but your soldiers were on Russian soil. These are the facts.”
When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made that statement during a tour of the United States in 1959, he sent people scurrying to their history books.
Lost to American history, but never forgotten by the Soviets, the Allied incursion into Russia in late 1918 set the tone of future East-West relations throughout the Cold War. Perhaps it was an embarrassment of ineffectualness – if not outright failure – that caused the American Russia expeditionary forces to be largely forgotten by American history. Or, perhaps other theaters of the Great War overshadowed and overwhelmed their actions. But memories of Allied interference in the dawn of the Red revolution fueled the Soviets’ Iron Curtain paranoia.
Two related sets of reasoning sent two separate American Expeditionary forces to opposite sides of Russia. Munitions and other military supplies had been sent to aid the Russians on the Eastern Front. Most of these supplies were stockpiled at port cities to be moved by train. After the Bolshevik revolution, Russia had withdrawn from the war. The Allies sought to keep the munitions from getting to German forces. They also had no desire to see the war supplies fall into Bolshevik hands.
In addition, there existed a hope that with limited Allied support, opposition forces would defeat the Red Army and Bolshevik government. If that happened, Russia might re-enter the war, re-open the Eastern Front, and take pressure off the Western Front in France. They would need the materiel of war. These Allied goals required keeping the Trans-Siberian railway unobstructed by the Bolsheviks.
AEF North Russia - consisting of elements of the 85th Division - took up stakes in Arkhangelsk (Archangel), a port in the White Sea far in the northwest of Russia. They would later dub themselves the “Polar Bears.”
AEF Siberia joined European allied forces at Vladivostok in far eastern Russia. The force was created from various infantry regiments of the U.S. Army. The 27th Infantry’s tenacious tactics would later cause the Bolsheviks to dub them “the Wolfhounds” - a moniker and emblem they still wear today.
Whether Polar Bears or Wolfhounds, the men served wartime duty as surely they would have in France. Initially tasked to guard and defensive duty, the Americans - under British command - were brought into combat against the “Bolos” (often under contention as America officers tried to keep with their original charter.) Trenches, redoubts, broken lines of supply, faulty equipment, machine gun fire, exploding artillery shells, armored train cars - all the chaos of war and none of the comforts of home.
Though their theater of war might have been a smaller scale than Western Europe, the bitter cold and piled snow compounded their misery. Pumping legs through deep snow while carrying heavy guns and equipment caused sweat, exhaustion and freezing simultaneously. Outside of combat hazards, hygiene and health issues plagued the men. Before they had ever reached Russia, the Spanish flu had torn through the ranks. In the Russian winter, lice went dormant in the cold, only to revive and torment the men when they reached warmed barracks. Avoiding enemy gunfire by laying flat on the ground soon led to frozen limbs; numbed fingers failed to properly load rifles. Fur hats and Shackleton boots were standard issue. During one fight, a water-cooled machine gun proved useless as the water froze. Enterprising Americans substituted rum for water (one wonders why not vodka?)
Even as Western Europe dismantled the engines of war starting with Armistice on 11 November 1918, some of the fiercest fighting was still to come for the Russia AEFs. The Polar Bears experienced some of the bitterest combat during the battle of Kodish, which lasted nearly two weeks, 29 December 1918 until 15 January 1919.
Eventually, with the anti-Bolshevik movement sputtering, peace in Western Europe, and an untenable front that had spread too far and wide, the Allied troops’ morale plummeted. Some mutinies were barely avoided. In Arkhangelsk, the harbor had frozen and politics no longer mattered - the men fought for their very survival against a Bolshevik winter offensive.
In America, calls came through Congress to bring the Russia AEFs home. The process of withdrawal began in early spring of 1919. While most doughboys were mustered out from France by September 1919, and the Polar Bears found themselves back in warmer climes by July of 1919, American soldiers stationed in Vladivostok did not return stateside until the spring of 1920.
Next time you imbibe a chilled vodka drink, you might consider raising a toast to the memory of the Polar Bears and the Wolfhounds – brave heroes who performed their duty far from home.
They should not be forgotten.
‘In Search of History: “U.S. Forgotten Wars,”’ History Channel.
Neil G. Cary, ed., Fighting the Bolsheviks (The Russian War Memoir of Private First Class Donald E. Carey, U.S. Army, 1918-1919)
Peter Carlson, “Nikita Khrushchev Goes to Hollywood”, Smithsonian magazine, July 2009
Wikipedia; American Expeditionary Force Siberia
Wikipedia; Polar Bear Expedition