Allied Invasion of Russia, 1918-20

History never happens in a vacuum.  There are causes, and there are consequences. The seeds of World War I were actually sewn one-hundred years earlier at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), where the ambassadors of European states intended to provide a plan for peace in Europe by settling issues that came from the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  After 1815, these same powers tried to maintain a balance of power—to maintain the peace —but what actually transpired was a complex network of political and military alliances.  Also, after 1815, the Ottoman Empire began its decline, the British withdrew into “splendid isolation,” Prussia emerged to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and France was taught a valuable lesson in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. These confrontations led European powers to formulate secret agreements with one another.  The complex network became even more so.

On 28 June 1914, a Bosnian-Serb-Yugoslav nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.  The network of secret alliances enlarged the crisis from a bilateral issue in the Balkans to one involving most of Europe and, eventually, the United States of America. Within a month of Ferdinand’s death, the “great powers” of Europe were divided into competing coalitions.  The Triple Entente involved France, Russia, and Great Britain and the Triple Alliance was formed around Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.

Ferdinand’s assassination caused Germany and Austria-Hungary to impose demands on Serbia; Russia, itself a Slavic nation, felt obliged to back Serbia.  After Austria-Hungary shelled the Serbian capital at Belgrade, Russia began mobilizing its armies.  Germany and Austria-Hungary followed suit.  France, supporting Russia, mobilized its armed forces in early August.

When the war came, it manifested itself on two fronts.  Germany attacked France in the West, and Russia in the east.  In addition to the countries mentioned above, conflict engaged all of the Balkan states, the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Romania, and Czechoslovakia.  It eventually spilled over into Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent.

Initially, the United States pursued a policy of non-intervention.  President Woodrow Wilson wanted to avoid conflict while trying to broker peace from the sidelines.  Wilson was narrowly reelected in 1916 after campaigning to keep America out of the “Great War.”

In January 1917, Germany pursued two aggressive courses of action: (1) It resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, and (2) Germany approached Mexico with a proposal for a military alliance against the United States.  In exchange for Mexico’s participation, Germany offered to finance Mexico’s war effort and, at such time as Germany defeated the United States, promised to return to Mexico its previously held territories in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.  This communiqué was intercepted by British Intelligence, decoded, and transmitted to the United States government.  The Zimmerman Telegram, along with a number of Mexican intrusions into the United States that were an off-shoot of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) generated popular support for America’s declaration of war against Germany in April 1917.

At the time, the United States was not a formal ally of any European power —it was more on the order of an associate-membership in the Triple Entente.  In 1917, the United States Army was small, but after passage of the Selective Service Act, nearly 3-million men were compelled to serve in the U. S. Army.  By June 1917, the US was sending thousands of soldiers to France every month.  To bolster its field of potential soldiers, the US offered grants of citizenship to Puerto Ricans for voluntary service in the US Army.

At the outbreak of World War I, national societies representing ethnic Czechs and Slovaks residing in Russia petitioned the Russian government to support the independence of their homelands.  To prove their loyalty to the Entente cause, these groups advocated the establishment of a unit of Czech and Slovak volunteers to fight alongside the Russian Army. In time, these volunteers became known as the 1st Division of Czechoslovak Corps.  A second division of four regiments was added in October 1917. Known collectively as the Czechoslovak Legion, it consisted of over 40,000 Czech and Slovak volunteers.

In November 1917, Russian Bolsheviks seized power throughout Russia and soon began peace negotiations with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk.  In the face of the Revolution, Russians wanted to withdraw from the war.  The Chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council began planning for the Czech Legion’s withdrawal from Russia and transfer to France, where it could continue fighting against the Central Powers.  Since most of Russia’s main ports were blockaded, the Legion would travel from Ukraine to the Pacific port of Vladivostok.  There, they would embark on ships that would carry them to Western Europe.

In February 1918, Bolshevik authorities granted permission for the Legion to begin a march of 6,000 miles from Ukraine to Vladivostok.  Before departure, however, the German Army launched a massive assault on the Eastern Front as a means of forcing the new Russian government to accept Germany’s terms for peace.  The Legion successfully fought off every German attempt to prevent their evacuation.

After entering Soviet Russia, the Czech National Council continued to negotiate with the Bolsheviks to iron out the details of the Legion’s evacuation.  An agreement on 25 March forced the Legion to surrender most of their weapons in exchange for unmolested passage to Vladivostok.  Neither side trusted the other: Bolsheviks suspected the Czechs were attempting to join the counter-revolutionaries.  Legion commanders were wary of Czech communists who were attempting to subvert the Legion, and also suspected that the Bolsheviks had made a deal with the Central Powers to keep the Legion penned up in Russia.

By May 1918, the Czech Legion was strung out along the Trans-Siberian Railway —their evacuation taking longer than they expected due to dilapidated railway conditions.  In mid-May, Russia’s Commissar for War, Leon Trotsky, ordered the complete disarmament and arrest of the Czech Legion.  The Legion refused to disarm.

Czechs and Bolsheviks engaged at several locations along the railroad.  By June, both sides were involved in full-scale war.  The Legion had taken control of Vladivostok and declared the city an allied protectorate.  By mid-July, the legionaries had seized control of the railway from Samara to Irkutsk.  By the beginning of September, they had cleared Bolshevik forces from the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  Legionnaires conquered all the large cities of Siberia.

News of the Czechoslovak Legion’s campaign in Siberia during the summer of 1918 was welcomed by Allied statesmen in Great Britain and France, who saw the operation as a means to reconstitute an eastern front against Germany.  U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who had resisted earlier Allied proposals to intervene in Russia, and against the advice of the War Department, finally gave in to foreign pressure to support the legionaries’ evacuation from Siberia. In actuality, there were two groups of American soldiers sent to Russia: The American North Russia Expeditionary Force (Polar Bear Expedition) consisted of 5,000 troops who were sent to Archangel; an additional 8,000 soldiers, organized as the American Expeditionary Force, Siberia, were shipped to Vladivostok from the Philippines and from Camp Fremont, California.

GRAVES W S 001In the summer of 1918, William S. Graves was a highly motivated career Army officer.  He had been promoted to Major General, and he was designated to assume command of the Army’s 8th Infantry Division. The division would soon depart the United States for France; what career officer does not want to command in time of war?

Unfortunately, Graves received a reassignment on 2 August 1918.  Secretary of War Newton Baker informed him of the following: President Wilson had decided that the United States, still at war in Europe, must intervene in another part of the world to protect its investments.  The US had $1-billion worth of American made guns and equipment strewn along a segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk.  Someone would have to protect this equipment from falling into the hands of Germany or the Bolsheviks.  That someone would be General Graves.

Wilson appointed Graves to command the American Expeditionary Force (Siberia).  Graves’ orders, directly from the President, handed to him in the form of an aide-mémoire, included: (1) Facilitate the safe exit of 40,000 members of the Czech Legion [1] from Russia; (2) Guard the $1-billion worth of military equipment stored at Murmansk and Vladivostok; and (3) Help the Russians organize their new government.  Siberia is the coldest and most forbidding part of Russia, and instead of facing off against the German Army, Graves would confront Cossacks, Bolsheviks, and Japanese (who, still gloating over their defeat of the Russians in 1903-04, had their eyes on territorial gains in Siberia).  The Graves Expedition was the first and only time American troops invaded Russian territory.

The international force was formed under Lieutenant General Frederick C. Poole, British Army.  The force main force consisted of British [2], French, and American naval and military organizations. Other participating countries and troops included Italy, Serbia, Poland, and White Russian forces.

In July 1918, the Army’s 339th Infantry Regiment, Colonel George E. Stewart, Commanding, was hastily organized to spearhead the American North Russia Expeditionary Force (also, Polar Bear Expedition).  AEF (Siberia) included the US 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments, elements of the 12th, 13th and 62nd Infantry Regiments. To operate the Trans-Siberian Railway, US Army personnel with railroad experience were assigned to this duty.

Initially in 1918, the Bolsheviks controlled only small pockets in Siberia.  International forces arrived unopposed and were deployed to the interior regions along the path of the Trans-Siberian Railway between Vladivostok and Archangel.  In accordance with a plan formalized by General Poole, Tsarist Captain Georgi Chaplin led a coup d’état against the local Soviet government at Archangel on 2 August 1918.  Allied warships seized portages from the White Sea.  In short order, a Northern Region Government was established by Chaplin and the Russian revolutionary, Nikolai Tchaikovsky.  In spite of outward appearances, General Poole was running the show.  The International force began its advance almost immediately, seizing Onega Bay. On 28 August, the British 6th Royal Marine Light Infantry Battalion was ordered to seize the village of Koikori from Bolsheviks as part of a wider offensive into East Karelia.

The first US troops arrived in Vladivostok between 15-21 August 1918.  They were quickly assigned to guard duty along several segments of the railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk-Ussuriski in northern Russia. General Graves arrived in early September.

For the most part, the Americans stood apart from their Allies in the sense that, while acknowledging their mission to protect American-supplied property, Graves resisted General Poole’s demand for fighting troops to confront Bolshevik elements. He quite often clashed with his British, French, and Japanese counterparts over this issue.

General Graves saw his primary responsibility as making sure the Trans-Siberian railroad stayed operational.  To this end, he brought in a number of railroad experts to manage the railway.  Despite strong pressure applied to Graves to render assistance to Admiral Kolchak, he would not involve himself in the affairs of the Russian revolution and did not contribute any of his men to combat (beyond self-defense).  In fact, General Graves developed a strong dislike of Admiral Kolchak and his “White Russian” government.  Moreover, Graves thought that British, French, and Japanese commanders were pursuing self-serving political ambitions beyond the stated allied goal of protecting supplies that had been paid for by allied taxpayers.  He did embrace the mission to rescue Czechs but stopped short of trying to suppress Bolshevik forces.  Graves suspected that Japan’s involvement had more to do with annexing parts of Eastern Siberia.  He was right.

Operation Polar BearDuty in Russia was difficult, for all kinds of reasons.  US soldiers experienced problems with fuel, ammunition, and food.  Horses were unable to function in the sub-zero Russian climate.  Water-cooled machine guns froze and became worthless. Over a period of 19 months, 474 soldiers died from various causes.

As the Bolsheviks gained in military strength, they began to take a more aggressive stance toward elements of the International expedition.  Graves continued to withhold his men except in cases of self-defense. General Poole’s force (excluding the Americans) began to experience significant losses.  One Royal Marine company refused to fight and were court-martialed.  They were initially given stiff sentences, but the British government lightened or commuted most of them.

In June 1920, the American, British, and remaining allied coalition withdrew from Vladivostok.

The Japanese, however, decided to remain in Siberia thinking that their presence would in some way inhibit the spread of communism so close to the Japanese home islands.  Besides, the Japanese controlled Korea and Manchuria. Eventually, however, the Japanese found themselves in an untenable situation and were forced to sign an agreement with the Bolsheviks in order to be allowed to withdraw peacefully.

The Japanese Army continued to provide military support to the Japanese-backed Provisional Priamur Government (a White Army enclave) based in Vladivostok against the Moscow-backed Far Eastern Republic.  This continued Japanese presence concerned the United States, who had grown ever-suspicious of Japanese motives in Siberia.  Subjected to intense diplomatic pressure by the United Kingdom and United States and facing increased domestic opposition due to the economic and human costs of remaining in Siberia, Japanese Prime Minister Kato Tomosaburo withdrew Japanese forces in October 1922.

Japan’s motives in Siberia were complex and incoherent.  Overtly, Japan sent troops to Siberia for the same reasons as the other countries: to safeguard stockpiled military supplies and rescue the Czech Legion.  However, Japan’s intense hostility to communism and a desire to protect Japan’s northern security, either by creating a buffer state or through outright territorial acquisition, were also factors.  Their patronage of the White Russian Army left Japan in a diminished  position vis-à-vis the government of the Soviet Union, particularly since the Red Army emerged victorious over the White Russian Army.  Moreover, the Intervention had significant internal repercussions which led the Japanese Army and its civilian government to bitter animus and renewed factional strife inside the Army.

Japanese casualties in the Siberian Expedition included 5,000 KIA and expenses in excess of ¥900-million.

Sources:

  1. Humphreys, L. A. The Way of the Heavenly Sword: The Japanese Army in the 1920s.  Stanford University Press, 1996.
  2. Kinvig, C. Churchill’s Crusade: The British Invasion of Russia, 1918-1920.  Continuum Publishing, 2006
  3. Jackson, R. At War with the Bolsheviks.  London, 1972
  4. Wright, D. Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin: British and Commonwealth Military Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-1920. Solihull Press, 2017
  5. Long, J. W. “American Intervention in Russia: The North Russian Expedition, 1918-1919. Diplomatic History, 1962

Acknowledgements:

  1. Major Paul Webb Chapman, USMC (Retired)
  2. Mark Yost, The Wall Street Journal: “The Polar Bear Expedition: Frozen doughboys.”

Endnotes:

[1] The Czechoslovak Legion was a volunteer armed force fighting on the side of the Entente powers during World War I.  Their goal was to win the support of the Allied Powers for the independence of bohemia and Moravia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In Russia, the Legion took part in several battles against Central Powers and Bolshevik forces.

[2] A contingent of United States Marines accompanied the British forces, fighting alongside the 1/10th Royal Scots Regiment at Nijne-Toimski along the Dvina River. The Marines may have been part of the Marine Detachment, USS Olympia, but I am unable to confirm this.  Captain Archie F. Howard, while commanding the Marine Detachment, USS Brooklyn, was assigned to serve in Vladivostok to protect the US Consulate.  His Marines participated with the Czech Legion in patrolling the city, but they did not engage any Bolshevik forces.  This duty was terminated early in 1919.  Major General Howard retired from active service in 1946.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

4 thoughts on “Allied Invasion of Russia, 1918-20”

  1. I was vaguely aware of the, “White Russian / Bolshevik “, conflict as well as some American “Aid” – as it was presented in a cold war documentary – . The intent, seemed to be, to imply that America was intervening on behalf of the White Russians against the Bolsheviks – read, Communism – . No mention was made of the $1 billion in weapons and supplies.
    This puts the whole thing in a different perspective.

    Thank you, Mustang.
    Warren

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was only vaguely aware of the eastern Europeans presence in Russia during the time of the Revolution, and that was through fiction novels. Thanks for researching and writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Each week you present superior lessons of history. Heck, ready one of your columns give more information that nearly every college spends a whole semester. Hard to believe, but true. Mega salutes and attaboys

    Like

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