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Remembering the 1918 American Invasion of Russia

I am a former Vietnam-era AF air navigator with degrees in History and Economics. Areas of interest include aviation and military history.

Pertuska or Nesting Dolls are Common Image Associated with Russia

Pertuska or Nesting Dolls are Common Image Associated with Russia

Tensions Between the United States & Russia are Nothing New

Tensions between the United States and Russia have been increasing recently especially since the end of the 2016 Presidential campaign as a result of Russia being accused of trying to influence the election with ads on Facebook and other social media posts.

While relations at this time between our two nations are strained, the situation is not as bad as it was during the Cold War (roughly 1945 to 1990) when both sides had hundreds of missiles armed with nuclear warheads aimed at each other.

The lowest point occurred a hundred years ago in the summer of 1918 when 15,000 American troops joined a British-French-led allied force that invaded Russia that summer. This, however, was a minor side event that was overshadowed by the fighting in Western Europe with the result that the Allied action in Russia received little press at the time and little attention in history books since then.

How World War I Led to the Fall of the Russian Monarchy & Invasion of Russia by its Former Allies

In the late summer of 1918, about a year after the United States had entered the fighting in Europe in World War I, it joined Britain, France, and the other Allied Powers in an invasion of Russia.

Four years earlier, at the start of World War I in August of 1914, Russia had been an ally of Britain, France, and other nations fighting against Germany and its allies (known as the Central Powers). When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917 Russia was still in the Allied camp causing Germany to divide its forces between fighting Russian troops on its eastern flank and Britain, France, and their allies on its western flank.

The story below describes how Russia went from being a part of the Allied nations in the war against Germany to being invaded by the same Allied forces in the final months of World War I in 1918.

Russia and World War I

Russia was the first nation to declare war on Austria-Hungary following that nation’s declaration of war against Serbia in the summer of 1914. While the Russian Czar (or Tsar) Nicholas II expected a short war with a quick win for Russia and the expansion of the Russian Empire into lands held by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Tsar Nicholas was surprised when Germany, which also shared a border with the Russian Empire and which had a secret treaty with Austria-Hungary promising to come to that country’s aid in the event of war, immediately declared war on the Russian Empire.

Russia was not prepared to fight the more powerful Germany and the history of Russia in World War I is mostly of defeats and retreats along with an economy strained to its limits by the war. In addition to war weariness, the Russian people were becoming increasingly dissatisfied by 300 years of autocratic rule by the Romanov Dynasty of which Tsar Nicholas II was the most recent ruler.

Despite frequent victories on the battlefield and the capture of territory as Russian troops retreated, Germany was never able to take the war to Russia proper.

Instead, the fighting on the Eastern Front took place territory controlled and ruled by Russia as part of the Russian Empire. At the time of the start of World War I, Russian controlled territory extended westward to include the lands that make up present-day Poland, Ukraine, and other surrounding countries.

Lenin's Rise

The war added to the people’s existing frustrations with the monarchy. Things came to a head-on February 23, 1917, when riots broke out in the Russian capital, Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) between the people, police, and military. These riots continued in the capital and some other major cities for nine days until March 3rd when Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and the 300-year-old Romanov monarchy replaced by a provisional parliamentary government.

Despite the fact that the riots were largely the result of frustration and hardships being endured by the people, the Provisional government elected to honor Russia’s commitment to its allies in the west and continued fighting the war.

Dissatisfaction with the war continued, and this provided Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks with the opportunity on October 25 and 26, 1917 to stage their putsch and take control of the provisional government. Once in power, Lenin and his Communists began peace negotiations with Germany which, on March 3, 1918, resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which ended Russia’s participation in World War I.

So How Did the United States Get Involved in Russia?

Even though the Russian forces were losing the war on the Eastern Front, they performed a strategically useful service by forcing Germany and its allies to divide their resources and efforts between the fighting in the west and in the east.

The loss of the Russian Army on the war’s Eastern Front was partially offset by the entry of the United States into the War on the side of the Allies. One of the many, albeit minor, reasons U.S. President Wilson had for opposing U.S. entry into the war was that he felt the war should be fought to expand democracy and didn’t like the idea of having an absolute monarchy as a major ally.

The replacing of the Russian monarchy with a democratic government gave Wilson one less reason to oppose joining the Allies in the war, and a few weeks later on April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany. Ironically the overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government by Vladimir Lenin and his communist Bolsheviks later in 1917 made Wilson’s decision to have the United States join the Allied invasion a little easier.

President Wilson was an idealist and, he and the nation were slowly getting sucked into the war, one of Wilson’s lesser reasons for not wanting to enter the war was the fact that the Allied powers included the Russian Empire with its autocratic monarchy. The removal of the monarchy and its replacement by a more democratic government removed this minor objection to the U.S. entry into the war on the side of the Allies.

The entry of the United States into the war was a big help to the Allied side as it provided additional troops and resources in the fight against the Central Powers. At the time of the U.S. entry into the fray, the war was becoming a stalemate with both sides becoming increasingly exhausted in terms of manpower and resources.

1967 Commemorative Plate Celebrating the Former USSR's Progress Since the October 1917 Communist Takeover of Russia

1967 Commemorative Plate Celebrating the Former USSR's Progress Since the October 1917 Communist Takeover of Russia

Following America's April 6, 1917 Declaration She Began Immediately Shipping War Material to Russia

While it took some time for the U.S. to draft, train and transport American troops to the Western Front in Europe with most starting to arrive in the later part of 1917, the U.S. was able to start shipping food, weapons, and other war material to the Allies, including Russia rather quickly.

Of immediate concern was providing war material to the new Russian Provisional Government to help them continue to fight and force Germany to continue to fight a two-front war.

Unfortunately, the situation in Russia was rapidly deteriorating. The transportation system was broken, anti-war fever rising and the Empire became fragmented as many areas were being taken over by rival forces outside the control of the government in Petrograd.

Britain, France, and the U.S. shipped tons of military equipment (including 110,000 rifles alone) to Russia for the war effort. However, due to the distances involved and collapsing of the transportation system the Russians were unable to move the material to where it was needed resulting in all of it sitting in warehouses in the ports of Murmansk on the Barents Sea and Arkhangelsk (Archangel) on the White Sea both in northwest Russia and the Siberian port of Vladivostok in the east.

Vladimir Lenin & His Bolsheviks Take Control of Petrograd & Overthrow the Provisional Government

As 1917 progressed Russian troops continued to be pushed back by the Germans, the transportation infrastructure within the Russian Empire continued to collapse and the Provisional Government found it increasingly difficult to rule the nation whose political institutions and economy were collapsing.

The October 25, 1917 takeover of the Russian capital and government by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks was a major blow to the allied efforts to shore up the Eastern Front. The final blow came with the March 3, 1918 signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which resulted in Russia pulling out of the war causing the collapse of the Eastern Front.

Vladimir traveled secretly from exile in Switzerland to the Russian Capital of Petrograd where he led the Putsch that led to Communist Control of Russia

Vladimir traveled secretly from exile in Switzerland to the Russian Capital of Petrograd where he led the Putsch that led to Communist Control of Russia

Civil War Breaks Out in Russia Following Lenin's Violent Takeover of the Government

Following Lenin’s takeover of the Government in Petrograd, civil war broke out in Russia. While this was primarily between the Reds who supported Lenin and the Communist cause and the Whites a grab bag of groups from monarchists to non-communist Menshevik and other social democratic socialists each with different agendas and goals.

While Lenin’s Bolsheviks were in control of Petrograd and other areas the Red side included many who were independent of the Bolsheviks and had their own agendas. In between were the so-called Green Armies which were groups of mostly non-ideological armed peasants fighting to defend their lands against the other groups.

The Allies, including the United States and President Wilson, did not want a communist-ruled Russia and planned, after securing control of the material they had previously shipped to Russia, to provide it to the White forces against the Reds and to hopefully reopen the Eastern Front against Germany.

An added concern was that Germany, having recently invaded Russia’s neighbor Finland, would continue eastward and capture the material stored in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk.

British & French Persuade Allies to Join in an Invasion of Russia to Protect the War Material

Some in the British and French governments had suggested, without success, that the Allies send a force to Russia to help the Provisional maintain order and help move the Russian forces on the Eastern Front the material they had been sending to Russia.

By the spring of 1918, following the withdrawal of Russia from the war Britain and France decided that action was needed to prevent the war material stored in warehouses in Russia from falling into the hands of either the Germans or the Red forces fighting the Whites.

The British and French convinced their allies, including the United States and Japan, to join them in an expedition to invade Russia and secure their war material sitting in warehouses in Vladivostok, Murmansk, and Arkhangelsk (Archangel) in order to put the material to use in their campaigns against Germany on the Western Front or route it to the Russian White Army fighting the Reds in the Civil War.

Helping the Czech Legion Escape From Russia

A secondary Allied objective was to help arrange transport of the 40,000 members of the Czechoslovak Legion from the Russian Far East to Europe to aid the Allies. The Czechoslovak Legion was one of many such legions that the Czech revolutionary leader, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, helped to organize to fight against the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I in an effort to free the areas within the Empire where the Czech and Slovak peoples resided.

The most famous Czech Legion, the one discussed most frequently in history and literature was the Czech Legion that went to Russia early in World War I and served valiantly as a unit in the Tsar’s army fighting against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

As the war progressed, the Legion’s numbers were increased by Czechs and Slovaks who had been conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army and later taken prisoner by Russian troops. In the prison camps, many of these men changed sides, effectively deserting the Austro-Hungarian Army and volunteering to join the Czech Legion and fight with the Russians against Austria-Hungary and Germany.

The goal of the Czech Legion was the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the war and the hope that in the treaty ending the war the homeland of the Czechs and neighboring Slovaks would be carved out as an independent nation. And, the combined homeland of the Czechs and Slovaks did emerge as the new and independent nation of Czechoslovakia in the treaty after the war.

However, in the summer of 1918, the Czech Legion found itself in Siberia far from their homeland in Europe. When the troops in the American Expeditionary Force Siberia (AEF Siberia) began arriving in Vladivostok on Russia’s far eastern coast they found, in addition to an Allied force consisting of 70,000 Japanese troops along with much smaller numbers of Chinese, British, French, Canadian and Romanian troops, the nearly 50,000 man Czech Legion.

American Forces Arriving in Vladivostok Faced Confusing Mixture of Warring Groups

In late 1918 Siberia and other parts of Russia’s eastern region were a region alive with numerous fighting factions. The Russian capital and government in Petrograd were firmly in the hands of Vladimir Lenin and his communist Bolsheviks. However, while effectively in control of Petrograd and some surrounding areas, the power of the Bolsheviks was limited, especially in the Russian Far East.

The country beyond Petrograd was a fragmented collection of areas controlled by a mixture of ideological forces.

There were areas controlled by the Whites that supported the aristocracy and restoration of the monarchy.

Other areas, often called Soviets, (councils which took the form of workers councils, political organizations, or local government councils, were mostly political or ideological and tended to be on the left ranging from Mensheviks and other social democratic ideologies to radical militant left and communist ideology) which often functioned as the government of the local area.

Some were aligned with Lenin’s government in Petrograd while others tended to be neutral or independent of the government in Petrograd. In the ongoing civil war, some sided with the forces of the central government against the Whites while others fought against both the Whites and other Soviets.

The American troops in the Russian Far East encountered the same chaotic mixture of quarreling ideological factions as in the west along with the addition of local warlords (usually former Russian military officers) who joined the fray while building their own little fiefdoms and lining their pockets with the spoils of war.

Also in the mixture was the Czech Legion which found itself both trying to fight their way across Russia to their homeland in Europe as well as being in shifting alliances with various groups that spanned the political spectrum from Whites to warlords to Reds (socialists/communists).

The entry of American and other foreign forces added another element to this chaotic mixture.

Two Groups of American Soldiers Sent to Russia in Summer of 1918

In the summer of 1918 the U.S. Army’s 85th Division, composed mostly of men from Michigan and Wisconsin completed training at Ft. Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan, and embarked for England expecting to join the Allies fighting in France.

While most of them did go to France 5,000 of these troops in the 339th Infantry and some support units ended up departing England for Arkhangelsk (Archangel), a port city in the far northwestern part of Russia.

This force sent to Arkhangelsk (and a support unit sent months later to the NW Russian port city of Murmansk) was known as the American Expeditionary Force, North Russia as well as by the force’s nickname which was Polar Bear Expedition.

At about the same time, a second group known as the American Expeditionary Force—10,000 troops under the command of Major General William S. Graves—began landing in the Siberian port city of Vladivostok beginning in mid-July 1918.

These troops consisted of the U.S. Army’s 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments which had been stationed in the U.S.-controlled Philippines, along with volunteers from infantry regiments in the U.S. Army’s 8th Division which General Graves had previously commanded in the United States.

Death Toll of American Forces in Russia

The primary mission of both the AEF North Russia and AEF Siberia was to secure the war material sent to the liberal Provisional Russian Government following the 1917 February Revolution to help the Russian Army in its fight against Germany on the Eastern Front of World War I.

However, instead of simply removing the material from warehouses in the three ports where it had been delivered and taking it to France where it could be used by the Allied troops fighting on the Western Front, a decision was made to move the material to the White Forces in an attempt to help them retake control of the nation from Lenin and his Bolsheviks and rejoin the war on the side of the Allies.

Of course, trying to move the material to White forces brought the American and other Allied forces into contact with Bolshevik and other Red forces who didn’t want to see their White opponents resupplied in addition to wanting the material for their own use.

Casualty figures vary but, depending on which U.S. Army or other government report is used, the casualty count for U.S. military personnel is as follows:

  • For the AEF North Russia or Polar Bear Expedition 246 deaths with 109 killed in battle and the remainder due to disease, freezing to death, accidents, etc.
  • Figures from other sources vary but are close to the 246 number (this is out of a force of 5,000 troops). In the AEF Siberia campaign in the Russian Far East, the death toll for military personnel in that theater was 189. Again this included death from all causes.

U.S. Government Choose to Forget About MIAs Left Behind

Part of the reason the numbers of killed tend to vary is that a number of soldiers were listed as Missing in Action (MIA). Since they were not listed as Killed in Action (KIA) they were not added to the death count, but the U.S. government did not officially list them as dead but tended to assume they were dead and seek proof of death or if they were prisoners (POWs).

As it did in the later Korean and Vietnam wars, both communist nations like Russia at the time of the Russian military expeditions, which ended in stalemates with our opponents preferring to hold these men, some dead and some alive in prison camps, as diplomatic bargaining chips.

In the decades that followed some men and some bodies were returned while others languished in the Soviet Gulag. A few were discovered to have spent their lives in the Gulag while others were freed but not allowed to leave the then Soviet Union.

For various reasons, not all of the remains of those listed as having died, either killed fighting or died of disease and other causes and buried in Russia during the operation were returned to the U.S. for re-burial. In Russia today there are cemeteries holding the remains of American and other Allied troops.

Finally, in addition to the troops who died in the operation in Russia, there were also civilians, American and Allied, who died, as a result of disease, accidents, or military attacks.

These included the YMCA, Red Cross, and others associated with social service organizations providing social, medical, and spiritual services to the troops as well as some other civilians providing technical and other support to the military.

Miniature box with classic picture of a Russian Village in winter

Miniature box with classic picture of a Russian Village in winter

What Happened to the War Material?

As to the fate of the supplies of war material, the salvage of which was the main stated justification for the Allied intervention in Russia in 1918, it was lost.

Russia is a huge nation geographically and at that time had few rail lines, good roads, railroad rolling stock, trucks, or fuel. This made moving the material difficult. The harsh winter conditions in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk added to the difficulties.

As a result, very little was delivered to White forces, and much of it eventually ended up in the hands of various Red forces or, especially in Siberia, in the hands of warlords as well.

The Czech Legion Finally Leaves Russia

Despite their best efforts, the Czech Legion did not succeed in fighting its way westward through Russia to Western Europe in time to join the Allies in the final months of World War I. Instead, they were forced eastward to Siberia where they fought along with the Allies who were trying, unsuccessfully, to stabilize the area.

When the Allies began pulling out of Siberia in 1920, the Czech Legion negotiated a truce with the Bolsheviks who were gaining the upper hand in the conflict in that area and were able to arrange evacuation by sea from Vladivostok.

Some 60,000 troops of the Czech Legion along with about 7,000 civilians (including wives & children of the Czechs as well as assorted others desiring to evacuate) left Vladivostok on ships carrying them back to Europe with some sailing via the Indian Ocean and others via the Panama Canal.

A Mostly Forgotten Part of World War I

The U.S. and other Allied forces spent nearly two years on what was an ill-conceived and confusing two years trying to support a failed effort to defeat a communist foe in a nation mired in a civil war.

While the mission ended in failure, the action and failure were overshadowed at home by the much larger war in Western Europe which ended in victory for the Allies. Today, the 1918 Allied intervention in Russia is mostly forgotten.

Russian Pertuska Doll

Russian Pertuska Doll

© 2018 Chuck Nugent