James Carl Nelson. The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America’s Forgotten Invasion of Russia, 1918-1919. New York: William Morrow, 2019. viii + 309 pp. Ill. $28.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-06-285277-9.
Reviewed by Jon Ault (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-War (June, 2022)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
For most of the past century, the United States has had a stormy relationship with Russia, especially during the Soviet era. Laying much of the foundation for the mutual distrust and hostility that characterized the Cold War was the United States’ fateful decision to participate in the Allied military intervention in the civil war that convulsed Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. With the passage of time, the first chapter of this fraught history largely faded from American, though not from Russian, memory. James Carl Nelson, an acclaimed historian of the American military experience in the First World War, redresses this amnesia with a gripping account of the odyssey of a United States Army unit sent to North Russia in the late summer of 1918, originally to protect stores of war matériel from falling into German hands but eventually to combat Red Army units of increasing number and prowess. Although he mentions the other major Allied invasion front that occurred in Siberia, Nelson’s main focus is on the campaign in northern Russia.
Drawing on a wealth of primary sources, Nelson vividly chronicles the harrowing experiences of the 339th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, whose personnel hailed mainly from Michigan. After providing a quick overview of the Russian exit from World War I, which enabled Germany to concentrate its final military efforts on the western front, and the subsequent Allied hope of replacing the Bolshevik regime with one that would resume the Russian war effort against the Central Powers, Nelson introduces us to several individuals from the 339th Regiment, all of whom had joined the army in 1917 and initially expected to fight the Germans in France. They came from a wide variety of occupations and educational levels. Notably, their numbers included immigrants from eastern Europe, particularly Russia and Poland, whose language skills would prove vital in the coming months.
The reader accompanies these troops as they undergo basic training in the United States and then sail across the Atlantic Ocean, arriving in England in early August 1918. Meanwhile, since the spring of 1918, after Russia sued for peace with Germany, the British had been pressuring President Woodrow Wilson to contribute American troops to an expeditionary force originally intended to prevent Allied war matériel warehoused at the northern Russian port of Archangel from falling into German hands. Initially opposed to participating in such an intervention, since it violated the Fourteen Points he had promulgated the previous January, and since his chief military advisors in Washington condemned the idea as “nonsense from the beginning” (p. 9), Wilson soon reconsidered. A contingent of Czech soldiers, who had switched allegiance from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Russia in the fight against the Central Powers, was willing to join the Allied military effort on the western front but required assistance in leaving Russia, particularly when conflict erupted between them and the Bolsheviks’ Red Army. In addition, the American ambassador to Russia at the time, David Francis, vehemently opposed the Bolsheviks and predicted an easy extinguishment of their revolution. According to Nelson, Francis cabled his recommendation to the president and sent via conventional (i.e., slower) mail the prescient warnings of the American vice consul in Archangel, Felix Cole, who advised that Russia would swallow up invading armies (as it had before and as it would again), and that invasion would poison future Russian-American relations. With the decision for intervention made, the soldiers of the 339th, anxiously anticipating “whatever perils and ordeals might await them on the scarred and storied battlefields of France” (p. 25), soon began receiving hints that their military destiny lay elsewhere. Having hailed from a northern area of the United States (and therefore presumably better inured to cold climates), they received a briefing from Ernest Shackleton, a veteran of three expeditions to Antarctica (and survivor of the third) on Arctic conditions. Also, despite being trained with Lee-Enfield rifles and Browning machine guns, they were issued Mosin-Nagant rifles and water-cooled Vickers machine guns, which, though ill-suited for combat in wintry conditions, were nevertheless matched for the ammunition stored in Archangel (pp. 29-30).
Arriving at the port city of Archangel in northern Russia in September 1918, the American troops immediately found themselves facing Bolshevik forces in combat, rather than merely guarding military supplies. Nelson places the blame for this change in objective squarely on the British command, to which the American and other Allied contingents were subservient: “Americans had been swept up by circumstances, usurped by the British military command with the tacit approval of both the American ambassador, David Francis, and their own commander, Colonel George Stewart” (p. 45). Nelson provides a detailed narrative, rich with quotes from the participants, of the unit’s many combat experiences over the next several months. As 1918 came to a close, conditions deteriorated rapidly. Brutal winter weather brought temperatures well below freezing. The troops’ morale plummeted, as well, as word filtered in that Germany had surrendered on November 11. Afterward, many soldiers and officers began questioning the continued military presence in Russia, and brief but sharp mutinies erupted in some Allied units. As their position grew increasingly untenable, extrication also proved difficult. Allied commanders worried about the effects that abandonment would wreak upon the White (i.e., anti-Bolshevik) Russian forces; as an American officer later recalled, “If the Whites collapsed, we should have to fight hard to save our own skins and those of the friendly Russians” (p. 248). Not until June 1919 did the surviving Allied soldiers begin the long journey home. A decade later, in 1929, several surviving members of the 339th returned to Russia to retrieve the remains of their fallen comrades, four years before the United States established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Not all came home; some remain buried in Russian soil to this day.
Nelson discerns several reasons for the failure of the Allied incursion, which echo previous abortive foreign interventions in the American military experience and foreshadow subsequent ones. The various far-flung armed contingents lacked cohesion, frequently advancing in different directions and answering to different commanders. Worse problems included overestimation of Russian opposition to the Bolsheviks and reliance on Russian soldiers of dubious quality and loyalty. Finally, the Allied forces faced Red Army units of increasing number and proficiency.
With this book, Nelson continues painting his informative portrait of the United States’ military involvements in the global cataclysms of the 1910s. At a time of renewed tensions between the United States and Russia, this study is an important reminder of a root cause of the animosity and distrust.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Jon Ault. Review of Nelson, James Carl, The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America’s Forgotten Invasion of Russia, 1918-1919.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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