When he left Michigan in July 1918, Private Alfred Schuck thought he was going to fight the Germans in France. Six months later, he found himself in northern Russia, staking out an Orthodox church across a frozen plain. Inside the church were not Germans or other U.S. enemies from World War I, but the Bolsheviks of the Red Army.
The story of how Schuck and 5,000 US soldiers (mostly Michiganders) ended up embroiled in the Russian Civil War at the end of WWI is one of the lesser-known chapters of American military history. Even two presidents—Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984—wrongly declared that the U.S. and Russia never fought one another. Yet they did, and that strange war fought at -40 degrees Fahrenheit in the subarctic region of Arkhangelsk impacted relationships between the two countries for decades.
After the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks of Vladimir Lenin came to power in Russia, and the country plunged into a civil war between the communists (“Reds”) and nationalists (“Whites”). Amidst an unsustainable domestic crisis, in March 1918 Lenin signed a peace treaty with Germany and the Central Powers (including the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires) and pulled Russia out of WWI. For the Allies, Moscow’s withdrawal was a potentially fatal blow: the Central Powers no longer had to worry about the Russian front and could converge their effort on an offensive towards Paris. Desperate, in the summer of 1918, the U.K., France, and other Allies sent troops into northern Russia and Siberia to influence the outcome of the Russian civil war and recreate the Eastern Front.
‘Polar Bears’ outfitted by Shackleton
At his home in Cicero, Illinois, Private Schuck knew nothing of these plans, nor did the rest of the 339th Regiment, 85th Division, trained at Camp Custer in Michigan. The orders were to go to England and from there to France. It was only on July 17, 1918, when the regiment was embarking a transatlantic convoy in New York, that President Woodrow Wilson reluctantly (“sweating blood,” as he wrote to his closest advisor) yielded to French and British pressure and officially decided to intervene in Russia. “The Allies had tried to convince Wilson to intervene against the Bolsheviks for months,” says Carl Richard, professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “When the German shells started falling on Paris, he finally agreed.”
When the troops arrived in England, they were issued heavy winter clothes and finally discovered they were going to Russia. The famous explorer Ernest Shackleton—who had survived the sinking of Endurance in the Antarctic two years earlier—was assigned to training the 339th, who would eventually become known as the “Polar Bears.”
Shackleton also designed special boots which later became infamous among the soldiers. “The Shackleton boots worked very well in the compact snow of Antarctica, but performed very poorly in the Northern Russia quagmires,” explains Mike Grobbel, president of the Polar Bear Memorial Association and grandson of Corporal Clement Grobbel, a Polar Bear decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. “Many soldiers ended up throwing them away and buying local footwear.”
Fur mittens and ‘fragrant cigarettes’
On September 5, 1918, the Bears landed on Russian soil at the White Sea port of Arkhangelsk after a cruise plagued by the Spanish flu that killed dozens on board. At the same time, around 8,000 more U.S. troops were sent to support the Whites in Siberia. Arkhangelsk was in British hands at the time, and the 339th Regiment was put under orders of the occupying force to start an offensive against the Bolsheviks, driving the Reds some 200 miles south of the city.
The Allied front reached its maximum extension near the village of Ust Padenga, 450 miles from Moscow. It is here that on January 7, 1919, Private Schuck was photographed at the most advanced outpost ever established by U.S. troops in Russia, facing an Orthodox church in the horizon. Three weeks before, the parish priest had been captured by the Red Army and killed by locals loyal to the Soviets. According to a newspaper of the time, the priest was beheaded, disemboweled, and his body stuffed with straw and frozen.
From the bell tower, Bolshevik troops fired at the Americans with a machine gun. Eleven days after the picture was taken, the platoon led by Lieutenant Harry Mead took over the outpost from Schuck. The next day, on January 19, Mead and his men became the protagonists of the most tragic American defeat during the Russia campaign. His granddaughter, Priscilla Mead, has preserved Harry’s letters and diaries in which he recalls the story.
With temperatures around -45 degrees, the Red Army attacked with 1,300 men. “At 05.30 am I was awakened by artillery fire,” writes Mead. “I ran out to see what was up and was greeted by a burst of shrapnel right over my headquarters.” Of the 47 “doughboys” defending the outpost, 25 died, and 15 were wounded. Mead’s hair, he said, started turning white after that day.
The life condition of the Allied troops must have looked desirable to the Russians observing from the church's bell tower on the other side of the front. In his memoir, Red Army soldier Alexander Bykov lists the luxuries of his American counterparts. “The Americans (…) erected strong dugouts, blockhouses, and trench communications. It was considered an impregnable fortress for the illiterate Red Army soldiers and their commanders,” writes Bykov sarcastically. “(They, ed.) were dressed in overcoats (…) fur mittens with ribbons up to the elbows; each soldier had five woolen blankets (…) chocolate bars in the pockets of their khaki jackets, and smugly smoked fragrant cigarettes.”
Neither forgotten nor forgiven
Around these early months of 1919, the “privileged” American soldiers started wondering what they were still doing in Russia. WWI had ended on November 11 of the previous year, and there was no longer any need to re-establish an eastern front. “Initially, the Allies were much more concerned about the Germans than the Bolsheviks,” explains Richard. “But after the armistice, the reason to stay in Russia became overthrowing the Soviets.”
Following the armistice, President Wilson didn’t communicate much to Congress and much less to the American people about why U.S. soldiers were still in Russia. The Great War was over, and there was only desire to move on. When it finally became clear that trying to influence the destiny of the Russian civil war was futile, American troops withdrew from Arkhangelsk on June 15, 1919. A decade later, a recovery mission by the Veterans of Foreign Wars collected the remains of 86 U.S. troops left behind on Russian soil; 27 Polar Bears remain unaccounted for to this day.
In his 1975 book The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley explains why conditions in the U.S. were ideal for a collective repression of the Russia intervention that lasts to this day. In 1919, almost no news of the expedition reached the American public. “So little of all this appeared in print,” writes Knightley, “that not only was the newspaper reader at the time kept in ignorance of the role his countrymen were playing in the intervention, but a student today can find little reference to it in his country’s history books.” Knightley reported that in 1943 the Columbia Encyclopedia stated that “American forces did not participate in the fighting between the Allies and the Bolsheviks.”
No wonder that when the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev mentioned the Allied invasion during a luncheon held at the 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles in 1959, few knew what he was referring to. “Your armed intervention in Russia was the most unpleasant thing that ever occurred in the relations between our two countries,” said Khrushchev.
In 1969, Rear Admiral Kemp Tolley reminded the American public that “this vest pocket war, largely unknown or misunderstood even to this day in the United States (…) soured U.S.-Soviet relations for almost a generation, and, in the Soviet Union, is still by no means forgotten or forgiven.”
On the contrary, the Allied invasion played a big part in Russian historiography and propaganda during the Cold War. Even at its end, the Western-friendly Mikhail Gorbachev couldn’t resist criticizing the Allied intervention.
A century-old prophecy?
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the memory of that strange conflict started fading even in Russia. Hope for a rapprochement with the West probably played a role in downplaying the Allied campaign—just as the steady decline of the relationship between Moscow and Washington over the last 15 years is now playing a role in reviving that chapter of history.
“The propaganda effect disappeared along with the Soviet ideology,” explains Alexey Sukhanovsky, author of The Bayonet Decides, which looks at the Allied intervention from the Russian perspective. “Today, with the aggravation of relations between Russia and the West, the events of 1918 are assessed as a prophecy of 105 years ago.” Sukhanovsky says that during Soviet times, a textbook circulated in the Arkhangelsk region featured a separate and detailed chapter on the intervention of 1918-1919. That text has now been revived in the local school curriculum.
If the story has simply been forgotten in the U.S., it seems that in Russia the resurgence of its memory follows the political zeitgeist of different eras. It would be wrong to say that the expedition of the Polar Bears was the root of all evil in the U.S.-Russia relationship. But, as historian Richard concludes, “It was obviously a bad start.”