The American invasion of Russia in WWI - A GI's Journal

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American blockhouse.

U.S. troops were sent to Siberia and to Archangel in northern Russia at the end of WWI in a British plan to crush the Russian Revolution and restore the czar. The invasion unified the populace greatly and poisoned relationships with Russia ever after. Following is the journal of one GI.

Upon landing at Archangel on October 1, 1918, we were shooed into a camp called Smolney Barracks about three miles south of Archangel where we made our home until the latter part of January. Here we did guard duty, rehabilitation and convoy duty.

On January 30, we left by horse and sled convoy, 30 strong, for the various combat fronts. One of the places we landed at was a dirty little village called Emetskoe. Got there, thank the good Lord, just after the battle. But will never forget the trip - about 30 degrees below zero and miles and miles thru woods and up frozen rivers - night and day with what rests the brass deemed sufficient. There was plenty of grumbling along the way, but somehow we made it. Here we had, among other duties too numerous to mention, the delightful job of burying 76 dead Bolsheviks that had gone “west” during the earlier encounter. After this foray, we were constantly active but also fortunate to be returning to convoy duty.

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The harbor at Archangel

On March 9, 1919, we were again called to arms. This one developed into real action, to relieve Company A on the Volga River Front. This was the first time I was really under fire at a place called Vistavka. We were in this vicinity for 20 days. Then we were relieved and transferred to the Dvina River Front where we stayed until relieved by the British who then took over in early June. After we left it was but a short time until they (the British) were pushed out into the White Sea and North Russia came under the hammer and sickle.

This is kind of a shallow outline of what we really did. It 's impossible to be accurate or anywhere near complete in detail but it reports a short segment of our expedition.

One of the worst enemies we had, if not the worst, was the weather. 20 degrees below zero was very ordinary but at times it would range from beautiful winter weather to 50 and 60 degrees below. We could do nothing outside at those temperatures, but, neither could the Bolsheviki so then we marked time. I saw ice five feet thick on the flowing Dvina River and watched it pile up, stop and shift and then go tumbling on again for another sequence. Two days and the river was free.

Another little job we had to do several times was to prepare some villages we were to retreat from for destruction. We would place flammable stuff at vantage points so the buildings would be in shape to quickly burn. We had to physically wreck everything also. This vandalism was breath taking, seemingly out of order, but necessary. That's what the Lieutenant said anyway, so we went at this mischief with vigor.

Archangel was a city, as I remember, of about seventy thousand and quite modern in some ways and the largest northern one. During winter the harbor was completely frozen over and the only entrance was by ice breakers from Murmansk where there was a Gulf Stream of some sort. We were utterly dependent on this system for mail, supplies, etc.

Archangel had Street cars, theaters, restaurants, immense bath houses and churches. These dwellings were provincial to a point, not like ours, so many constructed of logs. There were no front doors.

The religion there was the Greek Orthodox and the Subornia Cathedral was a masterpiece replete with the characteristic onion topped turrets embellished with gold overlay. They were ornate inside and bearded priests attired with gorgeous robes did their services to standing congregations. The church was always dominant and prevalent over all else, even in every small village and shrines dotted every available space. The priests were always the first to scamper when the Bolos threatened and it was a wise move on their part, as religion wasn't one of the first requirements of the hoard - as is even today. We used to roam thru these deserted structures with thoughts far away from war.

The peasantry in the rural areas was apparently very backward - almost pitiful. Their clothing was evidently warm enough but non-descript to say the least. The houses were comfortable but lacked order. Barns were continuous with the living quarters and sanitary conditions in the summer developed almost to the terrible stage. Cholera was plentiful so we had to undergo the shots which “backfired” to the “Nth degree ”. They had a bad habit of actually keeping some of their livestock in their living quarters. I was billeted for a period in one where there was a small pig and several chickens all on the loose. Couple that up with a snoring grandfather and a squalling baby suspended from a small bending sapling which substituted for a rocker and you get a picture of “Nocturnal Russian Suburbia”. I'll have to admit that this ado wasn't exactly conducive to pleasant dreams, but, was very compatible to free wheeling insomnia. Then there was the huge masonry stove in the corner. It was wood burning and served both for heat and for baking. They were really quite a combination. The ovens were wood burning also. The coals were raked out at the appropriate time, then the women folk would do their baking. Huge long black loaves of bread and other morsels known only to them. But, they tasted good, husks, dirt, etc. This heat would be retained for hours. They were the most ingenious contraptions we saw there. Incidentally, the best bed in the house was on top of one of these.

This location was in the area of the Midnight Sun. During profound winter, the sun came limping up at about 10 a. m. and it was night again at 3p.m. The skies were usually clear and the starlight on the snow gave a soft, frigid light that was pleasing to the senses. On mornings when in the 40 to 60 degree range, the mist would be suspended and would shimmer with a pinkish cast. The Aurora Borealis was also bright, beautiful and noisy. This show of splendor and the striking sunsets during the Midnight Sun period were beautiful beyond description. Then as summer approached, the sun would rise early and set late, varying each day until we had twenty-four hours of sunshine. Enough to cast a good shadow at midnight.

Getting on to my departure, we boarded a huge raft at Seltso, the village we wound up in and floated down the Dvina River back to Archangel. After numerous inspections and Blah, Blah, we packed our gear and boarded another British ship, the “Menominee ”. A dirty old creaking one stacker accompanied by a cargo of mules aboard. We stopped at Murmansk and dumped the fortunate jackasses. Our quarters aboard this floating barn were so poor that we actually took over the mules previous quarters and squared our shoulder for the cruise. We put out into the Arctic Ocean again on June 18, 1919. The sea was full of huge chunks of ice thru which the boat would shudder and crawl and the weather was abominable. Muscular waves rocked the old tub like the proverbial “cork on a rough sea ”. So many of the boys were sick but that experience was about the only thing I missed and could offer thanks for. Poor food, cold and stormy seas were the order of the day. But, the weather let up gradually and 8 days later on, June 26. 1919, we disembarked at Brest, France and again came under the wing of Uncle Sam for the first time since we departed for Russia on September 20, 1918 - 8 months, 17 days in Russia under British rule and dominance - “nuff said!” (uttered disgustingly). On June 30th we boarded the U.S.S. President Grant and set sail, Boston bound. Arrived in Boston July 12, 1919 and was discharged at Camp Custer on July 19. Then back in the fold - a healthier, wiser and happier youngster - at 26.

No one knows exactly just why we were sent to Russia. It was some commitment made to merry old England. We 're sure now that we could have easily been annihilated at almost anytime, being so far in the interior, all of two hundred miles. All that saved us was the fact that the newly formed Bolsheviki Government had enough troubles without taking on the United States. They would let us advance just about so far and then kick us back. We didn't mind the retreat at all, but, we didn't particularly like their method of procedure. A little too much lead.

As a final note, I would like to quote the ending words of the book, “History Of The American Expedition Fighting The Bolsheviki ”, written by Captain Joel R. Moore, Company A, 339th Infantry and one of us.

“That night scene with the lowering sun near midnight gleaming gold upon the forest shaded stretches of the Dvina River and casting it's mellow melancholy light upon the wrecked churches of a village, is an ineffaceable picture of North Russia. For this is our Russia - a church, a little cluster of log houses, encompassed by unending forests of moaning spruce and pine; low, brooding, sorrowful skies; and over all oppressive stillness, sad, profound, mysterious, yet strangely lovable to our memory.

“Near the shell gashed and mutilated church are two rows of unadorned wooden crosses - simple memorials of a soldier's burying ground come vividly back into the scene the winter funerals in that yard of our buddies, brave men who, loving life, had been laid away there, having died soldier-like for a cause they had only dimly understood. And the crosses now rise up, mute, eloquent testimony to the cost of this strange, inexplicable war of North Russia.

“We cast off from the dirty quay and steamed out to sea. On the deck was many a reminiscent one who looked back bare headed on the paling shores, in his heart a tribute to those who, in the battlefield's burial spot or in the little Russian churchyards stayed behind while we departed homeward bound”

It's been a long time (56 years - only just yesterday), but there is something about these last lines that always puts me in a different dimension. So many thoughts, enough to bring a tear.

So.. . . Attention! Right Hand Salute! One! Two! Dismissed! Yes SIR!

Paul H. Totten - October 1975