As events unfolded in Russia during the fall of 1917, the Western Allies became more and more concerned about the fate of their massive munitions and supply depots located at Archangelsk and Murmansk in the sub-Arctic. This reached a climax on March 3rd, 1918 when the Bolsheviks dropped out of the war. The Bolsheviks had been talking about selling or even giving these stocks to the Germans, who had moved troops to Finland against this possibility, but there were also the battles between warlords, Bolsheviks vs. other Communists and all Communists vs. Capitalists. A real civil war was building steam, and it was feared that the depots would be looted by the warring forces. Another consideration was that most of these materials had never been paid for.
There was also the matter of the 50,000 man Czechoslovak Legion, made up of former P.O.W’s, that was supposed to go to the Western Front but was now trapped in Russia, trying not to take sides in the internecine battles. Thus what became known as The North Russian Intervention was conceived.
In June the British assembled a force that included some French, Canadian, Italian and even Romanian personnel, headed up by the newly-formed 6th Battalion Royal Marine Light Infantry, which was a scratch unit composed of men who had heretofore not served in combat. Landings began in March at Murmansk and later at Archangelsk.
The 6/RMLI was immediately engaged in combat with Bolshevik forces and they did not distinguish themselves; one company even mutinied and 93 men had to be removed in irons. Furthermore, the non-hostile Russian forces in the area were unreliable. Eventually it proved impossible to protect Archangelsk and the forces were withdrawn to Murmansk to await reinforcement.
Meanwhile, on July 30th, 1918, Gen. Pershing, by order of President Wilson, had chosen the 339th ‘Detroit’s Own’ Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Field Hospital, and the 337th Ambulance Company, (all from the 85th Division), a complement numbering 143 officers and 4,344 enlisted men, to form the “American Murmansk Expedition”. These units were all composed of draftees, 75% of whom were from Michigan and 10 % from Wisconsin. Apparently these units had been picked because someone at Pershing’s headquarters thought that Michiganders were used to extreme cold.
This expeditionary force was separated from the division in the UK, re-equipped with British and Russian gear and landed in Russia by the Royal Navy starting on September 4th.
Their Mission was “to guard military stores which may subsequently be needed by Russian forces and to render such aid as may be acceptable to the Russians in the organization of their own self-defense.” However, by the time they were on station most of the material at Archangelsk had been pilfered, so immediately their mission ‘creeped’. The British commander ordered them to go south and form a blocking line to contain the Bolsheviks. The Americans fought several dirty little battles and performed well, even though they were hampered by a lack of artillery support until some Canadians arrived with 18 pounders.
Under political pressure at home and with dissatisfaction in the ranks, all of the American forces were withdrawn by June 1919, leaving their positions to the British 45th and 46th Battalions Royal Fusiliers, which were actually made up of de-mobilized Australians attracted by financial incentives. Two of these men, Sjt. Samuel G. Pearse and Cpl. Arthur P. Sullivan, received the Victoria Cross for valor, the last two VC’s awarded in the First World War era.
Total American casualties for the campaign were officially reported in October 1919 as 109 killed in action, 30 missing in action, 35 died of wounds, 81 died from disease (72 of these from Influenza) and 19 died from other causes. When the force was withdrawn, the remains of 112 soldiers were taken, leaving 162 unaccounted for.
The North Russian Intervention was an abject failure, accomplishing no part of its mission; although the Czechoslovak Legion did eventually get out of Russia – they went by way of Siberia with the help of others.
The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) recognized those lost in the North Russian intervention by listing their names on the chapel walls at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery and Memorial, the subject of a future article.
Even before they left Russia, the Americans had taken to calling themselves ‘The Polar Bears’, with an unofficial shoulder patch, and an association with that name was formed in Michigan which still exists. In 1929 five veterans returned to Russia, with support from the association, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the state of Michigan. They located and shipped back the remains of 86 soldiers, 56 of whom were re-buried in a special plot at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan. In the center of the plot is a striking piece of sculpture depicting a polar bear “advancing menacingly and protectively” over the grave of an American soldier. It was carved from a large block of white Georgian marble by the Chicago-based French-born sculptor and architect Leon Hermant (1866-1936) and is mounted on a pedestal of black Swedish granite atop steps made from North Carolina granite. The memorial was dedicated on May 30th, 1930.
In 1934 the Soviet government located and returned eleven more bodies which are also buried at the White Chapel site. Sixty-five bodies have never been recovered.
With a ‘shout-out’ to Dennis Skupinski for his tireless work – from a former Michigander.