In mid October 1918, 99 years ago, American soldiers of the 85th Infantry Division were in the far north of Russia, near Kodish, settling in after a joint attack alongside British and Canadian forces to drive off Bolshevik ‘Red’ forces that had been holding the town. These soldiers were part of the Allied military intervention in the Russian Civil War. Today, one of the few reminders of these soldiers, the “Polar Bears”, the battles they fought and those that died is the Polar Bear Monument, located in the White Chapel Memorial Cemetery in Troy, Michigan.
Lead up to the Intervention
In the first days of March 1917, shortages of black bread, one of the few remaining food staples still available to workers in Petrograd (the Russian capital) led to protests and marches. These protests quickly led to riots that were ordered to be put down with force by military and police units in the city, howver some of these units, sympathetic, either refused to follow orders to stand against them or actually joined their numbers. (Foreign Relations 1918 I, 7) With substantial numbers of soldiers in the capital nearing revolt, gun battles between workers and police units raging through the streets, and the Duma (parliament) refusing orders to adjourn, the Tsar, Nicholas II was pressured into abdicating the throne, in addition to voiding his sons claim. The Tsars brother, Grand Duke Michael, made overtures to the Duma to form a constitutional monarchy, but the Duma quickly dismissed him. A new, democratic government was proclaimed in the form of provisional Government. This government was quickly recognized by a sympathetic United States, who began to support them in earnest, becoming the first world government to recognize them. (Foreign Relations 1918 I, 12) The May declaration by the Russian government that the promise to continue the war against Germany alongside the allies was received poorly by radical socialist elements, or Bolsheviks. Lead by Lenin, the Bolsheviks began to organize workers militias that became to be known as the “Red Guard”. (Foreign Relations 1918 I 38-42) In June the Bolsheviks seemingly had been suppressed following demonstrations were cracked down on and leaders arrested, though a weak provisional government with socialistic sympathies and a continuing, unpopular war meant that the Bolsheviks simply needed to try again. (Foreign Relations 1918 I, 160-164) By October these cracks began to reach critical mass;. elections that saw Trotsky elected to head the Petrograd Soviet (council) for workers and small gains elsewhere seemed only to have strengthened the resolve of Bolsheviks to revolt. In November, the Bolsheviks overthrew the central Provisional government in Petrograd in a quickly executed coup, though many political and military leaders did not recognize this, beginning the Russian Civil War between the Bolshevik “Red” forces and the opposing “White” forces consisting of more moderate socialist factions as well as monarchists and liberals. (Foreign Relations 1918 I, 224-240) The next several months was chaos, with multiple factions still struggling – by September 1918 the “Red Terror” had started, and many American diplomats had to flee to safer ground, particularly in the North. (Foreign Relations 1918 I, 657-681)
The Polar Bears Arrive
Allied leaders, desperate to maintain pressure on the Western front to prevent Germany from throwing their full might against the already exhausted Western Front, sent weapons and other material by sea to ports in Russia, such as Archangel, Murmansk and Vladivostok. Archangel and Murmansk were both on the northern coast of Russia, an area that was beginning to be threatened by advancing Finnish/German forces. The Germans additionally, having been operating U-boat raids in the region, had threatened trade and supplies, with the fear of U-boat stations being built in the region considered a real and dangerous possibility. (Foreign Relations 1918 II, 474) The United States sent its first warship to Murmansk at the same time, the cruiser Olympia, which arrived on May 24th, while an order to dispatch a military detachment being issued on the 3rd of June. (Foreign Relations 1918 II, 474, 484) The overall focus however, was at Archangel- against the strong protests of the American consul in the city, who opposed the United States sending forces to this critical port due to long term concerns. These concerns were ultimately discarded, as the order to send a military expedition came through. The first American soldiers arrived on the 4th of September, almost one month exactly after the city had been seized by Allied forces. (Foreign Relations 1918 II, 506) The British in particular had been urgently requesting American aid, so these forces were a welcome arrial and quickly became involved with the Allied efforts. (Foreign Relations 1918 II, 507, 519 ) These American soldiers had been told they had been sent to Russia 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.” (Strakhovsky, Intervention, 94) The American soldiers made full use of these stores, being issued Russian Mosin-Nagant rifles due to the large amounts of the ammunition it used sitting in the warehouses, waiting . They would put this to good use in the many engagements, both offensive and defensive they would see in the coming months. (Barnes/Rhodes) Even as the American soldiers landed, the United States government was still vague on their exact objective; the US declared that they were not at war with the Bolsheviks and refused requests by the French to send additional troops, stating that “so far as our cooperation is concerned, that all military effort in northern Russia be given up except the guarding of the ports themselves”. (Foreign Relations 1918 II, 546) This break with the other Allies not even three weeks after the Polar Bears began their first landing in Archangel shows how tenuous the coalition truly was.
Experiences in Northern Russia
Conditions in Archangel and Northern Russia as a whole were grim as the months dragged on, with the tail end of 1918 being primarily a defensive war on the part of the Allies during a rough, snowy winter that was mostly quiet, with small offensive operations on the part of the Allies largely failing. (Strakhovsky, Intervention, 135, Foreign Relations 1919, 604) Bolshevik forces took this opportunity to organize a large offensive aimed at taking Archangel in January 1919, with the Red forces becoming more organized and better equipped. (Foreign Relations 1919, 604) The poor state of the Allied forces was remarked on by the British commander, General Poole: “The military situation of American and Allied troops in northern Russia is considered by most officers to be very unsatisfactory. Our American troops are widely scattered over the entire front from Indus through [Onega along] the railroad, Vaga and Dvina river[s] to Pinega, occupying more than a dozen positions. Owing to this extension there is seldom more than one company serving at one position and frequently the companies are broken up and the platoons separated. Communications are slow and difficult, many being separated by several days’ travel. The enemy greatly outnumbers us both in men and artillery; his morale, numbers and efficiency have increased (see Embassy’s 736, January 9, 6 p.m.). We are more and more put upon the defensive, subjected to more and more frequent attacks and bombardment suffering many casualties. We have no reserves. Our men are often called upon to remain on duty for long periods without relief. There has been much criticism of the commanding officers, almost always British, and in some cases this has been amply justified. Owing to the increasing strength and morale of the enemy and his apparent intention to start a vigorous offensive later on, I am of the opinion that there is considerable danger that we shall be compelled to evacuate most of our advanced positions with grave possibilities of heavy losses both [in] men and supplies. Successful operations westward from Perm would of course tend to relieve the situation here, also possible events in the Petrograd region.” (Foreign Relations 1919, 606)
In March, the low morale and frustration among the Allies came to a head with multiple troop mutinies coinciding with renewed Bolshevik offensives. A French battalion refused orders to relieve an American force defending Archangel, newly arrived British infantry company similarly would not move. (Foreign Relations 1919, 620) The Americans were not immune to this wave of revolt, even after a promise of immediate withdrawal from Archangel, with soldiers of the 339th similarly refused orders to return to the front, with the new British commander, General Ironside requesting their immediate evacuation from the theater. (Foreign Relations 1919, 618-623) The Americans, however almost one hundred American soldiers dying to Influenza, which had not spared even the most remote parts of northern Russia. In June 1919, the last American soldiers finally departed Archangel for home, with one cruiser, the Des Moines. (Foreign Relations 1919, 646, 659)
In 1930, a monument, fittingly of a Polar Bear, sculpted by Leon Hermant was erected in the White Chapel Memorial Cemetery on May 30th, 4 days after Memorial Day. Only a year earlier had many of the bodies of fallen Polar Bears been recovered from Russia, another expediton to Russia undertaken by former members. The Monument is made out of marble, with the plinth made out of black granite in the form of a fortress. The bear is shown standing protectively over a fallen cross with helmet on it, representing those who fell in Russia. 83 of the Polar Bears died in combat, another 27 dying later of wounds suffered. 12 were captured as prisoners of war, while 29 soldiers went missing in action. An additional 71 died due to disease, with a final 14 dying from other causes like accidents. (Detroits Own Polar Bear Memorial Association) Every year on Memorial Day the Polar Bear Memorial Association has a Memorial Service at the monument.
- “Polar Bear Monument, Troy, MI.” Troy : Polar Bear Monument, Troy, MI (Sculpture, 100 Cities – 100 Memorials, Michigan) – World War I Centennial, The World War One Centennial Commission, 27 June 2014, www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/educate/places/8:polar-bear-monument.html.
Strakhousky, Leonid I. Intervention at Archangel: the Story of Allied Intervention and Russian Counter Revolution in North Russia (1818-1920). University Press, 1944.
“‘Polar Bear’ Engagements in North Russia, 1918-1919.” “Detroit’s Own” Polar Bear Memorial Association – Engagements, 18 Feb. 2011, pbma.grobbel.org/polarbearengagements.htm.
- Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918. Vol. 1, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1930.
- Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918. Vol. 2, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932.
- Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918. Vol. 3, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932.
- Foreign Relations of the United States, 1919, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942.
Barnes, Alexander F, and Cassandra J Rhodes. “The Polar Bear Expedition: The U.S. Intervention in Northern Russia, 1918–1919.” Army Sustainment, 2012, www.almc.army.mil/alog/issues/MarApril12/Polar_Bear.html.
https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/polaread/ , the full University of Michigan records of the Expedition