WINTER DEFENSE OF TOULGAS
WINTER DEFENSE OF TOULGAS
General Ironside Makes Expedition Aim Defensive--Bolsheviki Help Give It Character--Toulgas--Surprise Attack Nov. 11th By Reds--Canadian Artillery Escapes Capture--We Win Back Our Positions--"Lady Olga" Saves Wounded Men--Heroic Wallace--Cudahy And Derham Carry Upper Toulgas By Assault--Foukes--A Jubilant Bonfire--Many Prisoners--Ivan Puzzled By Our War--Bolo Attack In January Fails--Dresing Nearly Takes Prisoner--Winter Patrolling--Corporal Prince's Patrol Ambushed--We Hold Toulgas.
General Ironside had now taken over command of the expedition and changed its character more to accord with the stated purpose of it. We were on the defensive. The Bolshevik whose frantic rear-guard actions during the fall campaign had often been given up, even when he was really having the best of it, merely because he always interpreted the persistence of American attack or stubbornness of defense to mean superior force. He had learned that the North Russian Expeditionary Force was really a pitifully small force, and that there was so much fussing at home in England and France and America about the justice and the methods of the expedition, that no large reinforcements need be expected. So the Bolsheviks on Armistice Day, November 11, began their counter offensive movement which was to merge with their heavy winter campaign. So the battle of November 11th is included in the narrative of the winter defense of Toulgas.
Toulgas was the duplicate of thousands of similar villages throughout this province. It consisted of a group of low, dirty log houses huddled together on a hill, sloping down to a broad plain, where was located another group of houses, known as Upper Toulgas. A small stream flowed between the two villages and nearly a mile to the rear was another group of buildings which was used for a hospital and where first aid was given to the wounded before evacuating them to Bereznik, forty or fifty miles down the river.
The forces engaged in the defense of this position consisted of several batteries of Canadian artillery, posted midway between the hospital and the main village. In addition to this "B" Company, American troops, and another company of Royal Scots were scattered in and about these positions. From the upper village back to the hospital stretched a good three miles, which of course meant that the troops in this position, numbering not more than five hundred were considerably scattered and separated. This detailed description of our position here is set forth so specifically in order that the reader may appreciate the attack which occurred during the early part of November.
On the morning of November 11th, while some of the men were still engaged in eating their breakfasts and while the positions were only about half manned, suddenly from the forests surrounding the upper village, the enemy emerged in attack formation. Lieut. Dennis engaged them for a short time and withdrew to our main line of defense. All hands were immediately mustered into position to repel this advancing wave of infantry. In the meantime the Bolo attacked with about five hundred men from our rear, having made a three day march through what had been reported as impassable swamp. He occupied our rearmost village, which was undefended, and attacked our hospital. This forward attack was merely a ruse to divert the attention of our troops in that direction, while the enemy directed his main assault at our rear and undefended positions for the purpose of gaining our artillery. Hundreds of the enemy appeared as if by magic from the forests, swarmed in upon the hospital village and immediately took possession. Immediately the hospital village was in their hands, the Bolo then commenced a desperate advance upon our guns.
At the moment that this advance began, there were some sixty Canadian artillery men and one Company "B" sergeant with seven men and a Lewis gun. Due to the heroism and coolness of this handful of men, who at once opened fire with their Lewis guns, forcing the advancing infantry to pause momentarily. This brief halt gave the Canadians a chance to reverse their gun positions, swing them around and open up with muzzle bursts upon the first wave of the assault, scarcely fifty yards away. It was but a moment until the hurricane of shrapnel was bursting among solid masses of advancing infantry, and under such murderous fire, the best disciplined troops and the most foolhardly could not long withstand. Certain it was that the advancing Bolo could not continue his advance. The Bolos were on our front, our right flank and our rear, we were entirely cut off from communication, and there were no reinforcements available. About 4:00 p. m. we launched a small counter attack under Lt. Dennis, which rolled up a line of snipers which had given us considerable annoyance. We then shelled the rear villages occupied by the Bolos, and they decamped. Meanwhile the Royal Scots, who had been formed for the counter attack, went forward also under the cover of the artillery, and the Bolo, or at least those few remaining, were driven back into the forests.
The enemy losses during this attack were enormous. His estimated dead and wounded were approximately four hundred, but it will never be known as to how many of them later died in the surrounding forests from wounds and exposure. This engagement was not [only] disastrous from the loss of men, but was even more disastrous from the fact that some of the leading Bolshevik leaders on this front were killed during this engagement. One of the leading commanders was an extremely powerful giant of a man, named Melochofski, who first led his troops into the village hospital in the rear of the gun positions. He strode into the hospital, wearing a huge black fur hat, which accentuated his extraordinary height, and singled out all the wounded American and English troops for immediate execution, and this would undoubtedly have been their fate, had it not been for the interference of a most remarkable woman, who was christened by the soldiers "Lady Olga."
This woman, a striking and intelligent appearing person, had formerly been a member of the famous Battalion of Death, and afterwards informed one of our interpreters that she had joined the Soviets out of pure love of adventure, wholly indifferent to the cause for which she exposed her life. She had fallen in love with Melochofski and had accompanied him with his troops through the trackless woods, sharing the lot of the common soldiers and enduring hardships that would have shaken the most vigorous man. With all her hardihood, however, there was still a touch of the eternal feminine, and when Melochofski issued orders for the slaughter of the invalided soldiers, she rushed forward and in no uncertain tones demanded that the order be countermanded and threatened to shoot the first Bolo who entered the hospital. She herself remained in the hospital while Melochofski with the balance of his troops went forward with the attack and where he himself was so mortally wounded that he lived only a few minutes after reaching her side. She eventually was sent to the hospital at the base and nursed there. Capt. Boyd states that he saw a letter which she wrote, unsolicited, to her former comrades, telling them that they should not believe the lies which their commissars told them, and that the Allies were fighting for the good of Russia.
At daybreak the following day, five gun boats appeared around the bend of the river, just out of range of our three inch artillery, and all day long their ten long ranged guns pounded away at our positions, crashing great explosives upon our blockhouse, which guarded the bridge connecting the upper and middle village, while in the forests surrounding this position the Bolo infantry were lying in wait awaiting for a direct hit upon this strong point in order that they could rush the bridge and overwhelm us. Time after time exploding shells threw huge mounds of earth and debris into the loop holes of this blockhouse and all but demolished it.
Here Sergeant Wallace performed a particularly brave act. The blockhouse of which he was in command was near a large straw pile. A shell hit near the straw and threw it in front of the loop holes. Wallace went out under machine gun fire from close range, about seventy-five yards, and under heavy shelling, and removed the straw. The same thing happened a little later, and this time he was severely wounded. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal by the British. Private Bell was in this blockhouse when it was hit and all the occupants killed or badly wounded. Bell was badly gashed in the face, but stuck with his Lewis gun until dark when he could be relieved, being the only one in the shattered blockhouse which held the bridge across the small stream separating us from the Bolos.
For three days the gun boats pounded away and all night long there was the rattle and crack of the machine guns. No one slept. The little garrison was fast becoming exhausted. Men were hollow-eyed from weariness and so utterly tired that they were indifferent to the shrieking shells and all else. At this point of the siege, it was decided that our only salvation was a counter attack. In the forests near the upper village were a number of log huts, which the natives had used for charcoal kilns, but which had been converted by the enemy into observation posts and storehouses for machine guns and ammunition. His troops were lying in and about the woods surrounding these buildings. We decided to surprise this detachment in the woods, capture it if possible and make a great demonstration of an attack so as to give the enemy in the upper village the impression that we were receiving reinforcements and still fresh and ready for fighting. This maneuver succeeded far beyond our wildest expectations.
Company "B," under command of Lt. John Cudahy, and one platoon of Company "D" under Lt. Derham, made the counter attack on the Bolo trenches. Just before dawn that morning the Americans filed through the forests and crept upon the enemy's observation posts before they were aware of any movement on our part. We then proceeded without any warning upon their main position. Taken as they were, completely by surprise, it was but a moment before they were in full rout, running panic-stricken in all directions, thinking that a regiment or division had followed upon them. We immediately set fire to these huts containing their ammunition, cartridges, etc., and the subsequent explosion that followed probably gave the enemy the impression that a terrific attack was pending. As we emerged from the woods and commenced the attack upon upper Toulgas we were fully expecting stiff resistance, for we knew that many of these houses concealed enemy guns. Our plans had succeeded so well, however, that no supporting fire from the upper village came and the snipers in the forward part of the village seeing themselves abandoned, threw their guns and came rushing forward shouting "tovarish, tovarish," meaning the same as the German "kamerad." As a matter of fact, in this motley crew of prisoners were a number of Germans and Austrians, who could scarcely speak a word of German and who were probably more than thankful to be taken prisoners and thus be relieved from active warfare.
During this maneuver one of their bravest and ablest commanders, by the name of Foukes, was killed, which was an irreparable loss to the enemy. Foukes was without question one of the most competent and aggressive of the Bolo leaders. He was a very powerful man physically and had long years of service as a private in the old Russian Army, and was without question a most able leader of men. During this four days' attack and counter attack he had led his men by a circuitous route through the forests, wading in swamps waist deep, carrying machine guns and rations. The nights were of course miserably cold and considerable snow had fallen, but Foukes would risk no fire of any kind for fear of discovery. It was not due to any lack of ability or strategy on his part that this well planned attack failed of accomplishment. On his body we found a dramatic message, written on the second day of the battle after the assault on the guns had failed. He was with the rear forces at that time and dispatched or had intended to dispatch the following to the command in charge of the forward forces:
"We are in the two lowest villages--one steamer coming up river--perhaps reinforcements. Attack more vigorously--Melochofski and Murafski are killed. If you do not attack, I cannot hold on and retreat is impossible. (Signed) FOUKES."
Out of our force of about six hundred Scots and Americans we had about a hundred casualties, the Scots suffering worse than we. Our casualties were mostly sustained in the blockhouses, from the shelling. It was here that we lost Corporal Sabada and Sergeant Marriott, both of whom were fine soldiers and their loss was very keenly felt. Sabada's dying words were instructions to his squad to hold their position in the rear of their blockhouse which had been destroyed.
It was reported that Trotsky, the idol of the Red crowd, was present at the battle of Toulgas, but if he was there, he had little influence in checking the riotous retreat of his followers when they thought themselves flanked from the woods. They fled in wild disorder from the upper village of Toulgas and for days thereafter in villages far to our rear, various members of this force straggled in, half crazed by starvation and exposure and more than willing to abandon the Soviet cause. For weeks the enemy left the Americans severely alone. Toulgas was held.
But it was decided to burn Upper Toulgas, which was a constant menace to our security, as we had no men to occupy it with sufficient numbers to make a defense and the small outposts there were tempting morsels for the enemy to devour. Many were reluctant to stay there, and it was nervous work on the black nights when the wind, dismal and weird, moaned through the encompassing forest, every shadow a crouching Bolshevik. Often the order came through to the main village to "stand to," because some fidgety sentinel in Upper Toulgas had seen battalions, conjured by the black night. So it was determined to burn the upper village and a guard was thrown around it, for we feared word would be passed and the Bolos would try to prevent us from accomplishing our purpose. The inhabitants were given three hours to vacate. It was a pitiful sight to see them turned out of the dwellings where most of them had spent their whole simple, not unhappy lives, their meagre possessions scattered awry upon the ground.
The first snow floated down from a dark foreboding sky, dread announcer of a cruel Arctic winter. Soon the houses were roaring flames. The women sat upon hand-fashioned crates wherein were all their most prized household goods, and abandoned themselves to a paroxysm of weeping despair, while the children shrieked stridently, victim of all the realistic horrors that only childhood can conjure. Most of the men looked on in silence, uncomprehending resignation on their faces, mute, pathetic figures. Poor moujiks! They didn't understand, but they took all uncomplainingly. Nitchevoo, fate had decreed that they should suffer this burden, and so they accepted it without question.
But when we thought of the brave chaps whose lives had been taken from those flaming homes, for our casualties had been very heavy, nearly one hundred men killed and wounded, we stifled our compassion and looked on the blazing scene as a jubilant bonfire. All night long the burning village was red against the black sky, and in the morning where had stood Upper Toulgas was now a smoking, dirty smudge upon the plain.
We took many prisoners in this second fight of Toulgas. It was a trick of the Bolos to sham death until a searching party, bent on examining the bodies for information, would approach them, when suddenly they would spring to life and deliver themselves up. These said that only by this method could they escape the tyranny of the Bolsheviki. They declared that never had they any sympathy with the Soviet cause. They didn't understand it. They had been forced into the Red Army at the point of a gun, and were kept in it by the same persuasive argument. Others said they had joined the Bolshevik military forces to escape starvation.
There was only one of the thirty prisoners who admitted being an ardent follower of the cause, and a believer in the Soviet articles of political doctrine, and this was an admission that took a great deal of courage, for it was instilled universally in the Bolos that we showed no mercy, and if they fell into the hands of the cruel Angliskis and Americanskis there was nothing but a hideous death for them.
Of course our High Command had tried to feed our troops the same kind of propaganda. Lenine, himself, said that of every one hundred Bolsheviks fifty were knaves, forty were fools, and probably one in the hundred a sincere believer. Once a Bolshevik commander who gave himself up to us said that the great majority of officers in the Soviet forces had been conscripted from the Imperial Army and were kept in order by threats to massacre their families if they showed the slightest tendency towards desertion. The same officer told me the Bolshevik party was hopelessly in the minority, that its adherents numbered only about three and a half in every hundred Russians, that it had gained ascendancy and held power only because Lenine and Trotsky inaugurated their revolution by seizing every machine gun in Russia and steadfastly holding on to them. He said that every respectable person looked upon the Bolsheviks as a gang of cutthroats and ruffians, but all were bullied into passive submission.
We heard him wonderingly. We tried to fancy America ever being brow-beaten and cowed by an insignificant minority, her commercial life prostrated, her industries ravished, and we gave the speculation up as an unworthy reflection upon our country. But this was Russia, Russia who inspired the world by her courage and fortitude in the great war, and while it was at its most critical stage, fresh with the memories of millions slain on Gallician fields, concluded the shameful treaty of Brest Litovsk, betraying everything for which those millions had died. Russia, following the visionary Kerensky from disorder to chaos, and eventually wallowing in the mire of Bolshevism. Yes, one can expect anything in Russia.
They were a hardboiled looking lot, those Bolo prisoners. They wore no regulation uniform, but were clad in much the same attire as an ordinary moujik--knee leather boots and high hats of gray and black curled fur. No one could distinguish them from a distance, and every peasant could be Bolshevik. Who knew? In fact, we had reason to believe that many of them were Bolshevik in sympathy. The Bolos had an uncanny knowledge of our strength and the state of our defenses, and although no one except soldiers were allowed beyond the village we knew that despite the closest vigilance there was working unceasingly a system of enemy espionage with which we could never hope to cope.
Some of the prisoners were mere boys seventeen and eighteen years old. Others men of advanced years. Nearly all of them were hopelessly ignorant, likely material for a fiery tongued orator and plausible propagandist. They thought the Americans were supporting the British in an invasion of Russia to suppress all democratic government, and to return a Romanoff to the throne.
That was the story that was given out to the moujiks, and, of course, they firmly believed it, and after all why should they not, judging by appearances? We quote here from an American officer who fought at Toulgas:
"If we had not come to restore the Tsar, why had we come, invading Russia, and burning Russian homes? We spoke conciliatingly of 'friendly intervention,' of bringing peace and order to this distracted country, to the poor moujik, when what he saw were his villages a torn battle ground of two contending armies, while the one had forced itself upon him, requisitioned his shaggy pony, burned the roof over his head, and did whatever military necessity dictated. It was small concern to Ivan whether the Allies or the Bolsheviks won this strange war. He did not know what it was all about, and in that he was like the rest of us. But he asked only to be left alone, in peace to lead his simple life, gathering his scanty crops in the hot brief months of summer and dreaming away the long dreary winter on top of his great oven-like stove, an unworrying fatalistic disciple of the philosophy of nitchevoo."
After the fierce battle to hold Toulgas, the only contact with the enemy was by patrols. "D" Company came up from Chamova and relieved "B" Company for a month. Work was constantly expended upon the winter defenses. The detachment of 310th Engineers was to our men an invaluable aid. And when "B" went up to Toulgas again late in January, they found the fortifications in fine shape. But meanwhile rumors were coming in persistently of an impending attack.
The Bolo made his long expected night attack January 29, in conjunction with his drive on the Vaga, and was easily repulsed. Another similar attack was made a little later in February, which met with a similar result. It was reported to us that the Bolo soldiers held a meeting in which they declared that it was impossible to take Toulgas, and that they would shoot any officer who ordered another attack there.
It was during one of the fracases that Lt. Dressing captured his prisoner. With a sergeant he was inspecting the wire, shortly after the Bolo had been driven back, and came upon a Bolo who threw up his hands. Dressing drew his revolver, and the sergeant brought his rifle down to a threatening position, the Bolo became frightened and seized the bayonet. Dressing wishing to take the prisoner alive grabbed his revolver by the barrel and aimed a mighty swing. Unfortunately he forgot that the British revolver is fastened to a lanyard, and that the lanyard was around his shoulder. As a result his swing was stopped in midair, nearly breaking his arm, the Bolo dropped the bayonet and took it on the run, getting away safely, leaving Dressing with nothing to bring in but a report.
March 1st we met with a disaster, one of our patrols being ambushed, and a platoon sent out to recover the wounded meeting a largely superior force, which was finally dispersed by artillery. We lost eight killed and more wounded. Sergeant Bowman, one of the finest men it has been my privilege to know, was killed in this action and his death was a blow personally to every man in the company.
Corporal Prince was in command of the first patrol, which was ambushed. In trying to assist the point, who was wounded, Prince was hit. When we finally reached the place of this encounter the snow showed that Prince had crawled about forty yards after he was wounded and fired his rifle several times. He had been taken prisoner.
From this time on the fighting in the Upper Dvina was limited to the mere patrol activities. There to be sure was always a strain on the men. Remembering their comrades who had been ambushed before, it took the sturdiest brand of courage for small parties to go out day and night on the hard packed trails, to pass like deer along a marked runway with hunter ready with cocked rifle. The odds were hopelessly against them. The vigilance of their patrols, however, may account for the fact that even after his great success on the Vaga, the commander of Bolshevik Northern Army did not send his forces against the formidably guarded Toulgas.
One day we were ordered by British headquarters to patrol many miles across the river where it had been reported small parties of Bolos were raiding a village. We had seventeen sleighs drawn by little shaggy ponies, which we left standing in their harnesses and attached to the sleighs while we slept among the trees beside a great roaring blaze that our Russian drivers piled high with big logs the whole night through; and the next morning, in the phantom gloom we were off again, gliding noiselessly through the forest, charged with the unutterable stillness of infinite ethereal space; but, as the shadows paled, there was unfolded a fairyland of enchanted wonders that I shall always remember. Invisible hands of artistry had draped the countless pines with garlands and wreaths of white with filmy aigrettes and huge, ponderous globes and festoons woven by the frost in an exquisite and fantastic handiwork; and when the sun came out, as it did for a few moments, every ornament on those decorated Christmas trees glittered and twinkled with the magic of ten thousand candles. It was enchanted toyland spread before us and we were held spell bound by a profusion of airy wonders that unfolded without end as we threaded our way through the forest flanked by the straight, towering trunks.
After a few miles the ponies could go no further through the high drifts, so we left them and made our way on snowshoes a long distance to a group of log houses the reported rendezvous of the Bolsheviks, but there were no Bolos there, nor any signs of recent occupancy, so we burned the huts and very wearily dragged our snow shoes the long way back to the ponies. They were wet with sweat when we left them belly deep in the snow; but there they were, waiting with an attitude of patient resignation truly Russian and they made the journey homeward with more speed and in higher spirits than when they came. There is only one thing tougher than the Russian pony and that is his driver, for the worthies who conducted us on this lengthy journey walked most of the way through the snow and in the intense cold, eating a little black bread, washed down with hot tea, and sleeping not at all.
[Illustration: Hundreds of men standing in front of a towering white building.] WAGNER Something Like a Selective Draft
[Illustration: Several soldiers under a log shelter, tending an artillery piece.] WAGNER Canadian Artillery, Kurgomin
[Illustration: Small tower of logs in a snow covered forest.] U. S. OFFICIAL Watch-Tower, Verst 455
[Illustration: Three soldiers on sentry duty.] U. S. OFFICIAL Toulgas Outpost
[Illustration: Wounded (dead?) soldier propped against a wall.] U. S. OFFICIAL One of a Bolo Patrol
[Illustration: Soldiers marching through a snow covered forest.] U. S. OFFICIAL Patrolling
Those long weeks of patrol and sentry duty were wearing on the men. Sentinels were continually seeing things at night that were not. Once we were hurried out into the cold darkness by the report of a great multitude of muttering voices approaching from the forest, but not a shot answered our challenge and the next morning there in the snow were the fresh tracks of timber wolves--a pack had come to the end of the woods--no wonder the Detroit fruit salesman on guard thought the Bolos were upon us.
But not long afterwards the Bolos did come and more cunningly and stealthily than the wolf pack, for in the black night they crept up and were engaged in the act of cutting the barbed wire between the blockhouses, when a sentinel felt--there was no sound--something suspicious, and sped a series of machine gun bullets in the direction he suspected. There was a fight lasting for hours, and in the morning many dead Bolos were lying in the deep snow beyond the wire defenses. They wore white smocks which, at any distance, in the dim daylight, blended distinctly with the snow and at night were perfectly invisible. We were grateful to the sentinel with the intuitive sense of impending danger. Some soldiers have this intuition. It is beyond explanation but it exists. You have only to ask a soldier who has been in battle combat to verify the truth of this assertion.
Still we decided not to rely entirely upon this remarkable faculty of intuition, some man might be on watch not so gifted; and so we tramped down a path inside the wire encompassing the center village. During the long periods between the light we kept up an ever vigilant patrol.
The Bolos came again at a time when the night was blackest, but they could not surprise us, and they lost a great many men, trying to wade through waist deep snow, across barbed wire, with machine guns working from behind blockhouses two hundred yards apart. It took courage to run up against such obstacles and still keep going on. When we opened fire there was always a great deal of yelling from the Bolos--commands from the officers to go forward, so our interpreters said, protests from the devils, even as they protested, many were hit; but it is to be noted that the officers stayed in the background of the picture. There was no Soviet leader who said "follow me" through the floundering snow against those death scattering machine guns--it did not take a great deal of intelligence to see what the chances were.
So weeks passed and we held on, wondering what the end would be. We did not fear that we should lose Toulgas. With barbed wire and our surrounding blockhouses we were confident that we could withstand a regiment trying to advance over that long field of snow; but the danger lay along our tenuous line of communication.
The plight of the Yankee soldier in North Russia fighting the Bolsheviki in the winter of 1918-19 was often made the subject of newspaper cartoon. Below is reproduced one of Thomas' cartoons from The Detroit News, which shows the doughboy sitting in a Toulgas trench--or a Kodish, or Shred Makrenga, or Pinega, or Chekuevo, or Railroad trench. Of course this dire position was at one of those places and at one of those times before the resourceful Yanks had had time to consolidate their gains or fortify their newly accepted position in rear of their former position. In a few hours--or few days at most, the American soldier would have dug in securely and made himself rudely comfortable. That rude comfort would last till some British officer decided to "put on a bit of a show," or till the Reds in overwhelming numbers or with tremendous artillery pounding or both combined, compelled the Yanks to fight themselves into a new position and go through the Arctic rigors of trench work again in zero weather for a few days. The cartoonist knows the unconquerable spirit of humor with which the American meets his desperate situations; for he puts into the soldier's mouth words that show that although he may have more of a job than he bargained for, he can joke with his buddie about it. As reserve officers of that remarkable North Russian expeditionary force the writers take off their hats in respect to the citizen soldiers who campaigned with us under conditions that were, truth to say, usually better but sometimes much worse than the trench situation pictured by the cartoon below. With grit and gumption and good humor those citizen soldiers "endured hardness as good soldiers."
[Illustration: Cartoon; two soldiers in a trench surrounded by snow, with shells exploding all around. One is reading a newspaper with the headline "Peace Conference News: After War Labor Problem". He remarks to the other soldier "Well, Bill, we certainly got a job after the war."]
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