American soldiers fought in Russia from 1918 to 1920 in two separate operations, both mishandled and too late to be useful, at opposite ends of that great country – near Archangelsk in Europe and near Vladivostok in Asia. In both regions, the Americans fought in harsh Arctic conditions against the Red Army, founded in January 1918 by Leon Trotsky. “They never had a clear mission,” said retired U.S. Army Col. James Hitsud, who studied the little-known misadventure.
“They never had a clear mission.”
The American expeditions to Russia began while other Americans were still fighting in the trenches of Western Europe in what would become known as World War I – a war from which Russia withdrew.
The Bolsheviks, who would bring eight decades of communism to Russia, seized Moscow and St. Petersburg in the winter of 1917-1918, but that did not deter the United States from intervening. U.S. leaders said the “Polar Bear Expedition” to Archangelsk, 600 miles north of Moscow, would prevent Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany from opening a new front. About 5,000 soldiers of the 85th Division from Camp Custer, Mich., were placed under British command when they arrived in Archangelsk in September 1918.
Not a single German was to be found anywhere, but the U.S. soldiers began to sustain casualties in winter battles with Red Army troops.
When World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918, there were celebrations and victory parades among the western allies. But in Russia, demoralized U.S. troops continued to fight the Bolsheviks. In 1919, one group of U.S. soldiers attempted a short-lived mutiny, while another presented an anti-war petition to officers.
At the other end of Russia, the American Expeditionary Force Siberia was made up of 10,000 troops from the 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments, transferred from the Philippines, and the 8th Infantry Division from Camp Fremont, Calif. They remained under U.S. leadership, commanded by Maj. Gen. William Graves (West Point, 1889).
The Russian misadventure was undertaken with no clear vision of what the Army was supposed to accomplish. An Army fact book published decades later in 1949 quoted the official justification:
“The purposes of the expedition were threefold: To help the Czecho-Slovaks (who had been held as prisoners of war in Russia and were then in Siberia, liberated and partially organized); to steady any efforts at self-government or self-defense in which the Russians themselves might be willing to accept assistance; and to guard military stores which might subsequently be needed by any Russian forces.”
The first reference was to 40,000 Czech troops who’d been stranded in Russia when that country dropped out of World War I. The second purpose sounds almost incomprehensible today, but refers to helping “White Russian” anti-Bolsheviks in mounting a futile resistance to the Russian Revolution.
Graves tried to restrain his troops. He clashed repeatedly with commanders of accompanying British, French, and Japanese contingents. His obituary by the Association of Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy reads, “His administration of a distasteful duty won him the respect of the Russian people who felt that the restraint imposed on other commanders by Gen. Graves…assisted in checking Allied intentions to dismember their country.”
The soldiers’ experience was miserable. Problems with fuel, ammunition, supplies, and food were rife. Horses accustomed to temperate climates were unable to function in sub-zero Russia. Water-cooled machine guns froze and became useless. The foe was an experienced Red Army that understood the climate and terrain.
Troops near Archangelsk were withdrawn in early 1919, but those in Siberia struggled for another year.
The number of casualties in the Russian expedition remains in dispute. It appears that the Army lost approximately 150 soldiers killed in action, 50 who died of wounds, 150 felled by disease, and 50 lost to accidental causes. Six committed suicide. Some believe that missing soldiers were left behind in Russia, alive. In 1929, a War Department commission went to Archangelsk to recover bodies of American soldiers buried there and bring them home.
Soon after the U.S. troops were withdrawn from Russia, President Warren G. Harding called the expedition a mistake and, using a time-honored device, blamed the previous administration.