PEASANTRY OF THE ARCHANGEL PROVINCE
H COMPANY PUSHES UP THE ONEGA VALLEY
Two Platoons Of "H" Company By Steamer To Onega--Occupation Of Chekuevo--Bolsheviki Give Battle--Big Order To Little Force--Kaska Too Strongly Defended--Doughboys' Attack Fails--Cossacks Spread False Report--Successful Advance Up Valley--Digging In For Winter.
Meanwhile "H" Company was pushing up the Onega Valley. Stories had leaked out in Archangel of engagements up the Dvina and up the railroad where American soldiers had tasted first sweets of victory, and "H" men now piled excitedly into a steamer at Archangel on the 15th of September and after a 24-hour ride down the Dvina, across the Dvina Bay up an arm of the White Sea called Onega Bay and into the mouth of the Onega River, landed without any opposition and took possession. The enemy had been expelled a few days previously by a small detachment of American sailors from the "Olympia."
The "H" force consisted of two platoons commanded by Lieuts. Phillips and Pellegrom, who reported to an English officer, Col. Clark.
The coming of Americans was none too soon. The British officer had not made much headway in organizing an effective force of the anti-Bolshevik Russians. The Red Guards were massing forces in the upper part of the valley and, German-like, had sent notice of their impending advance to recapture the city of Onega.
On September 18th Lieut. Pellegrom received verbal orders from Col. Clark to move his platoon of fifty-eight men with Lieut. Nugent, M. R. C., and one man at once to Chekuevo, about fifty miles up the river.
Partly by boat and partly by marching the Americans reached the village of Chekuevo and began organizing the defenses, on the 19th. Three days later Lieut. Phillips was hurried up with his platoon to reinforce and take command of the hundred and fifteen Americans and ninety-three Russian volunteers. At dawn on the twenty-fourth the enemy attacked our positions from three sides with a force of three hundred and fifty men and several machine guns.
The engagement lasted for five hours. The main attack coming down the left bank of the Onega River was held by the Americans till after the enemy had driven back the Allies, Russians, on the right bank and placed a machine gun on our flank.
Then the Americans had to give ground on the main position and the Reds placed another machine gun advantageously. Meanwhile smaller parties of the enemy were working in the rear. Finally the enemy machine guns were spotted and put out of action by the superior fire of our Lewis automatics, and the Bolshevik leader, Shiskin, was killed at the gun. This success inspirited the Americans who dashed forward and the Reds broke and fled. A strong American combat patrol followed the retreating Reds for five miles and picked up much clothing, ammunition, rifles, and equipment, and two of his dead, ten of his wounded and one prisoner and two machine guns. Losses on our side consisted of two wounded. Our Russian allies lost two killed and seven wounded.
The action had been carried on in the rain under very trying conditions for the Americans who were in their first fire fight and reflected great credit upon Lieut. Phillips and his handful of doughboys who were outnumbered more than three to one and forced to give battle in a place well known to the enemy but strange to the Americans and severely disadvantageous.
Outside of a few patrol combats and the capture of a few Bolshevik prisoners the remainder of the month of September was uneventful.
The Onega Valley force, like the Railway and Kodish forces, was sparring for an opening and plans were made for a general push on Plesetskaya. On September 30th Lieut. Phillips received an order as follows:
"The enemy on the railway line is being attacked today (the 29th) and some Cossacks are coming to you from Obozerskaya. On their arrival you will move south with them and prevent enemy from retiring across the river in a westerly direction.
"Open the wire to Obozerskaya and ascertain how far down the line our troops have reached and then try to keep abreast of them but do not go too far without orders from the O/CA force (Col. Sutherland at Obozerskaya). I mean by this that you must not run your head against a strong force which may be retiring unless you are sure of holding your ground. There is a strong force at Plesetskaya on the railway and it is possible that they may retire across your front in the direction of the line running from Murmansk to Petrograd. The commandant of Chekuevo must supply you with carts for rations and, as soon as you can, make arrangements for food to be sent to you from the railway. The S. S. service can run up to you with supplies and can keep with you until you reach the rapids, if you go so far. Don't forget that the enemy has a force at Turchesova, south of you. Keep the transports in the middle of your column so that no carts get cut off, and it would be a good thing if you could get transport from village to village.
"Captain Burton, R. M. L. I., will remain in command at Chekuevo." W. J. CLARK, Lieut.-Col.
The Americans knew that this was a big contract, but let us now look at the map and see what the plan really called for. Forty miles of old imperial telegraph and telephone line to the eastward to restore to use between Chekuevo and Obozerskaya. No signal corps men and no telling where the wires needed repair. And sixty miles more or less to the south and eastward on another road to make speed with slow cart transport with orders to intercept an enemy supposed to be preparing to flee westward from the railway. Not forgetting that was to be done in spite of the opposition of a strong force of Red Guards somewhere in the vicinity of Turchesova thirty-five miles up the valley. "A little job, you know," for those one hundred and fifteen Americans, veterans of two weeks in the wilds of North Russia.
The American officer from his reconnaissance patrols and from friendly natives learned that the enemy instead of seeking escape was massing forces for another attack on the Americans.
About seven hundred of the Red Guards were heavily entrenched in and around Kaska and were recruiting forces. In compliance with his orders, Lieut. Phillips moved out the next morning, October 1st, with the eighteen mounted Cossacks, joined in the night from Obozerskaya, and his other anti-Bolshevik Russian volunteer troops. Movement began at 2:30 a. m. with about eight miles to march in the dark and zero hour was set for five o'clock daybreak. Two squads of the Americans and Russian volunteers had been detached by Lieut. Phillips and given to the command of Capt. Burton to make a diversion attack on Wazientia, a village across the river from Kaska. Lieut. Pellegrom was to attack the enemy in flank from the west while Lieut. Phillips and the Cossacks made the frontal assault.
Phillip's platoon was early deserted by the Cossacks and, after advancing along the side of a sandy ridge to within one hundred yards of the enemy, found it necessary to dig in. Lieut. Pellegrom on the flank on account of the nature of the ground brought his men only to within three hundred yards of the enemy lines and was unable to make any communication with his leader. Captain Burton was deserted by the volunteers at first fire and had to retreat with his two squads of Americans. The fire fight raged all the long day. Phillips was unable to extricate his men till darkness but held his position and punished the enemy's counter attacks severely. The enemy commanded the lines with heavy machine guns and the doughboys who volunteered to carry messages from one platoon to the other paid for their bravery with their lives. Believing himself to be greatly outnumbered the American officer withdrew his men at 7:30 p. m. to Chekuevo, with losses of six men killed and three wounded. Enemy losses reported later by deserters were thirty killed and fifty wounded.
Again the opposing sides resorted to delay and sparring for openings. At Chekuevo the Americans strengthened the defenses of that important road junction and kept in contact with the enemy by daily combat patrols up the valley in the direction of Kaska, scene of the encounter. It was during this period that one day the "H" men at Chekuevo were surprised by the appearance of Lieut. Johnson with a squad of "M" Company men who had patrolled the forty miles of Obozerskaya road to Chekuevo looking for signs of the enemy whom a mounted patrol of Cossacks sent from Obozerskaya had declared were in possession of the road and of Chekuevo. They learned from these men that on the railway, too, the enemy had disclosed astonishing strength of numbers and showed as good quality of fighting courage as at Kaska and had administered to the American troops their first defeat. They learned, too, that the French battalion was coming back onto the fighting line with the Americans for a heavy united smash at the enemy.
A new party of some fifteen Cossacks relieved the eighteen Cossacks who returned to Archangel. The force was augmented materially by the coming of a French officer and twenty-five men from Archangel.
The same boat brought out the remainder of "H" Company under command of Capt. Carl Gevers, who set up his headquarters at Onega, October 9th, under the new British O/C Onega Det., Col. ("Tin Eye") Edwards, and sent Lieut. Carlson and his platoon to Karelskoe, a village ten miles to the rear of Chekuevo, to support Phillips.
Success on the railroad front, together with information gathered from patrols led Col. Edwards to believe the enemy was retiring up the valley. An armed reconnaissance by the whole force at Chekuevo moving forward on both sides of the Onega River on October 19th, which was two days after the Americans on the railroad had carried Four Hundred and Forty-five by storm and the Bolo had "got up his wind" and retired to Emtsa. Phillips found that the enemy had indeed retired from Kaska and retreated to Turchesova, some thirty-five miles up the valley.
Phillips occupied all the villages along the river Kachela in force, sending his combat patrols south of Priluk daily to make contact. Winter showed signs of early approach and, in compliance with verbal orders of Col. Edwards at Onega, Phillips withdrew his forces to Chekuevo on October 25th. This seems to have been in accordance with the wise plan of the new British Commanding General to extend no further the dangerously extended lines, but to prepare for active defense just where snow and frost were finding the various widely scattered forces of the expedition. On the way back through Kaska it was learned that two of the "H" men who had been reported missing in the fight at Kaska, but who were in fact killed, had been buried by the villagers. They were disinterred and given a regular military funeral, and graves marked.
Outside of daily patrols and the reliefs of platoons changing about for rest at Onega there was little of excitement during the remainder of October and the month of November. Occasionally there would be a flurry, a "windy time" at British Headquarters in Onega and patrols and occupying detachments sent out to various widely separated villages up the valley. There seems to have been an idea finally that the village of Kyvalanda should be fortified so as to prevent the Red Guards from having access to the valley of the Chulyuga, a tributary of the Onega River, up which in the winter ran a good road to Bolsheozerke where it joined the Chekuevo road to Oborzerskaya. Wire was brought up and the village of Kyvalanda was strongly entrenched, sometimes two platoons being stationed there.
Captain Gevers had to go to hospital for operation. This was a loss to the men. Here old Boreas came down upon this devoted company of doughboys. They got into their winter clothing, gave attention to making themselves as comfortable shelters as possible on their advanced outposts, organized their sleigh transport system that had to take the place of the steamer service on the Onega which was now a frozen barrier to boats but a highway for sleds. They had long winter nights ahead of them with frequent snow storms and many days of severe zero weather. And though they did not suspect it they were to encounter hard fighting during and at the end of the winter.*****
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