The Forgotten Story of the American Troops Who Got Caught Up in the Russian Civil War
Even after the armistice was signed ending World War I, the doughboys clashed with Russian forces 100 years ago
It was 45 degrees below zero, and Lieutenant Harry Mead’s platoon was much too far from home. Just outside the Russian village of Ust Padenga, 500 miles north of Moscow, the American soldiers crouched inside two blockhouses and trenches cut into permafrost. It was before dawn on January 19, 1919.
Through their field glasses, lookouts gazed south into the darkness. Beyond the platoon’s position, flares and rockets flashed, and shadowy figures moved through tiny villages—Bolshevik soldiers from Russia’s Red Army, hoping to push the American invaders 200 miles north, all the way back to the frozen White Sea.
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The first artillery shell flew at the Americans at dawn. Mead, 29, of Detroit, awoke, dressed, and ran to his 47-man platoon’s forward position. Shells fell for an hour, then stopped. Soldiers from the Bolshevik Red Army, clad in winter-white uniforms, rose up from the snow and ravines on three sides. They advanced, firing automatic rifles and muskets at the outnumbered Americans.
“I at once realized that our position was hopeless,” Mead recalled, as quoted in James Carl Nelson’s forthcoming book, The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America’s Forgotten Invasion of Russia. “We were sweeping the enemy line with machine gun and rifle fire. As soon as one wave of the enemy was halted on one flank another was pressing in on us from the other side.”
As the Red Army neared, with bayonets fixed on their guns, Mead and his soldiers retreated. They ran through the village, from house to house, “each new dash leaving more of our comrades lying in the cold and snow, never to be seen again,” Mead said. At last, Mead made it to the next village, filled with American soldiers. Of Mead’s 47-man platoon, 25 died that day, and another 15 were injured.
For the 13,000 American troops serving in remote parts of Russia 100 years ago, the attack on Mead’s men was the worst day in one of the United States’ least-remembered military conflicts. When 1919 dawned, the U.S. forces had been in Russia for months. World War I was not yet over for the 5,000 members of the 339th U.S. Army regiment of the American Expeditionary Force deployed near the port city of Archangel, just below the Arctic Circle, nor for the 8,000 troops from the 27th and 31st regiments, who were stationed in the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok, 4,000 miles to the east.
They had become bit players caught up in the complex international intrigue of the Russian Civil War. Russia had begun World War I as an ally of England and France. But the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, installed a communist government in Moscow and St. Petersburg that pulled Russia out of the conflict and into peace with Germany. By fall 1918, Lenin’s year-old government controlled only a part of central European Russia. Forces calling themselves the White Russians, a loose coalition of liberals, social democrats and loyalists to the assassinated czar, were fighting the Communists from the north, south, east and west.
Two months after the November 11, 1918, armistice that officially ended the war for the rest of Europe, as one million Americans in France were preparing to sail home, the U.S. troops in Russia found that their ill-defined missions had transformed into something even more obscure. Historians still debate why President Woodrow Wilson really sent troops to Russia, but they tend to agree that the two missions, burdened by Wilson’s ambiguous goals, ended in failures that foreshadowed U.S. foreign interventions in the century to come.
When Wilson sent the troops to Russia in July 1918, World War I still looked dire for the Allies. With the Russian Empire no longer engaged in the continental struggle, Germany had moved dozens of divisions to France to try to strike a final blow and end the war, and the spring 1918 German offensive had advanced to within artillery range of Paris.
Desperate to reopen an Eastern Front, Britain and France pressured Wilson to send troops to join Allied expeditions in northern Russia and far eastern Russia, and in July 1918, Wilson agreed to send 13,000 troops. The Allied Powers hoped that the White Russians might rejoin the war if they defeated the Reds.
To justify the small intervention, Wilson issued a carefully worded, diplomatically vague memo. First, the U.S. troops would guard giant Allied arms caches sent to Archangel and Vladivostok before Russia had left the war. Second, they would support the 70,000-man Czechoslovak Legion, former prisoners of war who had joined the Allied cause and were fighting the Bolsheviks in Siberia. Third, though the memo said the U.S. would avoid “intervention in [Russia’s] internal affairs,” it also said the U.S. troops would aid Russians with their own “self-government or self-defense.” That was diplomacy-speak for aiding the White Russians in the civil war.
“This was a movement basically against the Bolshevik forces,” says Doran Cart, senior curator at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. “[But] we couldn’t really go in and say, ‘This is for fighting the Bolsheviks.’ That would seem like we were against our previous ally in the war.”
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