Donoghue Brings Valuable Reinforcements--Bolshevik Orator On Emtsa Bridge--Conditions Detrimental To Morale--Preparations For Attack On Kodish--Savage Fighting Blade To Blade--Bolsheviks Would Not Give Way--Desperately Bitter Struggle--We Hold Kodish At Awful Cost--Under Constant And Severe Barrage--Half-Burned Shell-Gashed Houses Mark Scene Of Struggle--We Retire From Kodish--Again We Capture Kodish But Can Not Advance--Death Of Ballard--Counter Attack Of Reds Is Barely Stemmed--Both Sides See Futility Of Fighting For Kodish--"K" Means Kodish Where Heroic Blood Of Two Continents Stained Snows Richly.
We left "K" Company and Ballard's platoon of machine gun men, heroes of the fall fighting at Kodish, resting in Archangel. We have seen that the early winter was devoted to building defenses against the Reds who showed a disposition to mass up forces for an attack. "K" Company had come back to the force in December and with "L" Company gone to reserve in Seletskoe. Captain Donoghue had become "Major Mike" for all time and Lt. Jahns commanded the old company. Donoghue had taken back to the Kodish Force valuable reinforcements in the shape of Smith's and Tessin's trench mortar sections of "Hq" Company.
It had been in the early weeks of winter during the time that Captain Heil with "E" Company and the first platoon machine gunners were holding the Emtsa bridge line, that the Bolsheviki almost daily tried out their post-armistice propaganda. The Bolo commander sent his pamphlets in great profusion; he raised a great bulletin board where the American troops and the Canadian artillery forward observers could read from their side of the river his messages in good old I. W. W. style and content; he sent an orator to stand on the bridge at midnight and harangue the Americans by the light of the Aurora Borealis.
He even went so far as to bring out to the bridge two prisoners whom the Bolos had had for many weeks. One was a Royal Scot lad, the other was Pvt. George Albers of "I" Company who had been taken prisoner one day on the railroad front. These two prisoners were permitted to stand near enough their comrades to tell them they were well treated.
Captain Heil was just about to complete negotiations for the exchange of prisoners one day when a patrol from another Allied force raided the Bolos in the rear and interrupted the close of the deal. The Bolos were occupied with their arms. And shortly afterward Donoghue heard of the negotiations and the wily propaganda of the Reds and put a stop to it. On another page is told the story of similar artifices resorted to by the Reds on the Toulgas Front to break into the morale of the American troops.
It was well that the American officer adopted firm measures.
To be sure the great rank and file of American soldiers like their people back home could not be fooled by propaganda. They could see through Red propaganda as well as they could see through the old German propaganda and British propaganda and American for that matter. Of course not always clearly. But it was wise to avoid the stuff if possible, and to discount it good-humoredly when it did contact with us. The black night and short, hazy days, the monotonous food, the great white, wolf-howling distances, and the endless succession of one d--- hardship after another was quite enough. Add to that the really pathetic letters from home telling of sickness and loneliness of those in the home circle so far away, and the uselessly sobful letters that carried clippings from the partisan papers that grossly exaggerated and distorted stories of the Arctic campaign and also carried suggestions of resistance to the military authorities, and you have a situation that makes us proud at this time of writing that our American men showed a real stamina and morale that needs no apology.
The story of this New Year's Day battle with the Bolos proves the point. For six weeks "E" Company had been on the line. Part of "L" Company had been sent to reinforce Shred Makrenga and the remainder was at Seletskoe and split up into various side detachments. Now they came for the preparations for their part in the united push on Plesetskaya, mentioned before. "K" Company came up fresh from its rest in Archangel keen to knock the Bolo out of Kodish and square the November account. Major Donoghue was to command the attacking forces, which besides "E" and "K" consisted of one section of Canadian artillery, one platoon of the "M. G." Company, one trench mortar section, a medical detachment and a detachment of 310th Engineers who could handle a rifle if necessary with right good will. Each unit caught a gleam of fire from the old Irishman's eye as he looked them over on December 28th and 29th, while "L" Company came up to take over the front so as to relieve the men for their preparations for the shock of the battle.
The enemy was holding Kodish with two thousand seven hundred men, supported by four pieces of artillery and a reserve of seven hundred men. Donoghue had four hundred fifty men. At 6:00 a. m. "E" and "K" Companies were on the east bank of the Emtsa moving toward the right flank of the Bolos and firing red flares at intervals with Very pistol to inform Donoghue of their progress.
Meanwhile the seven Stokes mortars were putting a fifteen-minute barrage of shells, a great 1000-shell burst, on the Bolo trenches, which added to the 20-gun machine and Lewis gun barrage, demoralized the Red front line and gave the two infantry companies fifteen minutes later an easy victory as they swung in and on either side of the road advanced rapidly toward Kodish village. Meanwhile the Canadian artillery pounded the Bolo reserves in Kodish.
[Illustration: Sleigh pulled by reindeer.] U. S. OFFICIAL PHOTO By Reindeer Jitney to Bakaritza
[Illustration: Several people outside three large teepee-like structures.] PRIMM Russian Eskimos at Home, Near Pinega
[Illustration: Three soldiers near a reinforced log cabin, covered with snow.] WAGNER Fortified House, Toulgas
[Illustration: Column of sleds moving through a forest.] U. S. OFFICIAL To Bolskeozerki
[Illustration: Two men in heavy coats standing in the snow,] WAGNER Colonel Morris--at Right
[Illustration: Rough carving of a log, reminiscent of Easter Island stone faces.] RED CROSS Russian Eskimo Idol
[Illustration: Men standing in snow in front of a horse and sleigh.] DOUD Ambulance Men
[Illustration: Soldiers with rifles lying in a trench behind a wooden fence. Several buildings in the background] RED CROSS PHOTO Practising Rifle and Pistol Fire Oil Onega Front
[Illustration: Three soldiers standing front of a log blockhouse.] WAGNER French Machine Gun Men at Kodish
[Illustration: Several soldiers standing around a biplane. Buildings (hangars?) in the background; about a foot of snow on the ground.] U.S. OFFICIAL PHOTO Allied Plane Carrying Bombs
The Reds tried to rally at a ridge of ground a verst in front of Kodish but the dreadful trench mortars again showered them at eight hundred yards with this new kind of hell and they were easily dislodged by the infantry and machine gun fire. At 1:00 p. m. after seven hours hard fighting the Americans were again in possession of Kodish. An interesting side incident of this recapture of Kodish was the defeat of a company of Reds occupying a Kodish flank position at the church on the river two versts away. The Reds disputed but Sergeant Masterson and fifteen men of "E" Company dislodged them. But time was valuable. Donoghue's battle order that day called for his force to take Kodish and its defenses, Avda and its defenses and to occupy Kochmas. Only a matter of twenty miles of deep snow and hard fighting.
So the enemy was attacked again vigorously at one of the old fighting spots of the fall campaign, at Verst 12. As in the previous fighting the Red Guards, realizing the strategic value of this road fought tenaciously for every verst of it. They had been prepared for the loss of Kodish village itself; it was untenable. But they refused to budge from Verst 12. The trench mortars could not reach their dugout line. And the Red machine guns poured a hot fire into the village of Kodish as well as into the two platoons that forced their way a half a verst from the village toward this stubborn stronghold of the Reds.
Darkness fell on the combatants locked in desperate fight. All the American forces were brought up into Kodish for they had expected to get on to Avda as their order directed. Out in front the night was made lurid by flares and shell fire and gun fire where the two devoted platoons of "K" and "E" Companies with two machine guns of the first platoon of "M. G." Company hung on. Lts. Jahns, Shillson and Berger were everywhere among their men and met nothing but looks of resolution from them, for if this little force of less than a hundred men gave way the whole American force would be routed from Kodish. There could be no orderly retreat from the village under such desperate conditions in the face of such numbers. They had to stick on. Half their number were killed and wounded, among whom was the gallant Lt. Berger of "E" Company who had charged across the bridge in the morning in face of machine gun fire. Sergeants Kenney and Grewe of "K" Company gave their lives that night in moving courageously among their men. Frost bites cruelly added to the miseries of those long night hours after the fighting lulled at eleven o'clock.
Morning discovered the force digging in. The odds were all against them. Again they were standing in Kodish where after personal reconnaisance Col. Lucas, their nominal superior officer, commanding Vologda Force, had said no troops should be stationed as it was strategically untenable. But a new British officer had come into command of the Seletskoe detachment, and perhaps that accounts for the foolhardy order that the doughty old Donoghue received; "Hold what you have got and advance no further south; prepare defenses of Kodish." What an irony of fate. His force had been the only one of the various forces that had actually put any jab into the push on Plesetskaya. Now they were to be penalized for their very desperately won success.
The casualties had been costly and had been aggravated by the rapid attacks of the frost upon hands and feet. In temperature way below zero the men lay in the snow on the outskirts and in that lowly village under machine gun fire and shrapnel. They undermined the houses to get warmth and protection in the dugouts thus constructed under them. Barricades they built; and chipped out shallow trenches in the frozen ground. Again the trench mortar came into good use. A platoon of "K" and a platoon of "E" found themselves partly encircled by a strong force of Reds, with a single mortar near them to support. This mortar although clogged repeatedly with snow and ice worked off two hundred fifty shells on the Reds and finally spotted the enemy machine gun positions and silenced them, contributing greatly to the silencing of the enemy fire and to his discouragement.
The firer of this mortar, Pvt. Barone of "Hq" Company, who worked constantly, a standing target for the Bolos, near the end of the fight fell with a bullet in his leg. And so the Americans scrapped on. And they did hold Kodish. Seven were killed and thirty-five wounded, two mortally, in this useless fight. Lt. O'Brien of "E" Company was severely wounded and at this writing is still in hospital. "The memories of these brave fellows," says Lt. Jack Commons, "who went as the price exacted, Lt. Berger of "E" Company, Sgts. Kenney and Grewe and many other steady and courageous and loyal pals through the months of hardship that had preceded, made Kodish a place horrible, detested, and unnerving to the small detachment that held it."
Meanwhile their fellows at the river bank with the engineers were slashing down the trees on the Bolo side clearing the bank to prevent surprise of the Allied position over the seven foot ice that now made the river into a winding roadway. More blockhouses and gun positions were put in. It was only a matter of time till they would have to retreat to the old position on the river.
On January 4th Donoghue sent "E" Company back to occupy and help strengthen the old position at the river, from where they sent detachments forward to help "K" and "M.G." and trench mortar hold the shell-shattered village of Kodish. The enemy confined himself chiefly to artillery shelling, always replied to vigorously by our gallant Canadian section who, though outgunned, sought to draw part of the enemy fire their way to lighten the barrage on their American comrades caught like rats in the exposed village. From their three hills about the doomed village of Kodish the Reds kept up a continuous sharpshooting which fortunately was too long range to be effective. And the enormous losses which the Reds had suffered on their side that bloody New Year's Day made them hesitate to move on the village with infantry to be mowed down by those dreadful Amerikanski fighters, when a few days of steady battering with artillery would perhaps do just as well.
Flesh and blood can stand only so much. Terrible was the strain. No wonder that on the seventh day of this hell a lieutenant with a single platoon holding the village after receiving magnified reports from his patrols of strong Bolo flanking forces, imagined a general attack on Kodish. The French Colonel, V. O. C. O., had said Kodish should not be held. And in the night he set fire to the ill-fated village and retreated to the river. Swift came the command from the fiery old Donoghue: "Back to that village with me, the Reds shall not have it." And his men reoccupied it before dawn. But no one but they can ever know how they suffered. The cold twenty below zero stung them in the village half burned. Their beloved old commander's words stung them. Hateful to them was the certainty that he was grimly carrying out a written order superior indeed to the French Colonel's V. O. but which was not based on a true knowledge of the situation by the far-distant British officer who went over Col. Lucas' head and ordered Kodish held. Could they hold on? They did, with a display of fortitude that became known to the world and which makes every soldier who was in the expedition thrill with honest pride and admiration for them. The Americans held it till they were relieved by a company of veteran fighters, the King's Liverpools, supported by a half company of "Dyer's Battalion" of Russians.
In passing let it be remarked that the English officer, Captain Smerdon, soon succeeded in convincing the British O. C. Seletskoe that Kodish was no place for any body of soldiers to hold. He gallantly held it but only temporarily, for soon he and the Canadians and trench mortar and machine gun men and the Dyer's Battalion men were back under Major Donoghue holding the old Emtsa river line and its two supporting blockhouse lines.
Our badly shattered "E" Company and "K" Company went to reserve in Seletskoe. The former company in the middle of January went to Archangel for a ten day rest, and will be heard of later in the winter on another desperate front. Old "K" Company was glad to just find warm bunks in Seletskoe and regain their old fighting pep that had been exhausted in the New Year's period of protracted fighting under desperate odds. Here let us insert the story of a two-man detachment of those redoubtable trench mortar men who rivaled their comrades' exploits with rifle and bayonet or machine gun. Corp. Andriks and Pvt. Forthe of "Hq" Company trench mortar platoon were loaned for a few days to the British officer at Shred Makrenga to instruct his Russian troops in the use of the Stokes mortars. But the two Yanks in the two months they were on that hard-beset front spent most of their time in actually fighting their guns rather than in teaching the Russians. This is only one of many cases of the sort, where small detachments of American soldiers sent off temporarily on a mission, were kept by the British officers on active duty. They did such sterling service.
Ever hear of the "lost platoon of "D" Company?" Like vagabonds they looked when finally their platoon leader, Lt. Wallace, cut loose from the British officer and reported back to Lieut.-Col. Corbley on the Vaga. But the erratic Reds would not settle down to winter quarters. They had frustrated the great push on Plesetskaya with apparent ease. They had the Allied warriors now ill at ease and nervous.
The trench mortar men and the machine gun men can tell many an interesting story of those January days on the Kodish Front serving there with the mixed command of Canadians and King's Liverpools and Dyer's Battalion of Russians. These latter were an uncertain lot of change-of heart Bolshevik prisoners and deserters and accused spies and so forth, together with Russian youths from the streets of Archangel, who for the uniform with its brass buttons and the near-British rations of food and tobacco had volunteered to "help save Russia." By the rugged old veteran, Dyer, they had been licked into a semblance of fighting trim. This was the force which Major Donoghue had at command when again came the order to take Kodish. This time it was not a great offensive push to jab at the Red Army vitals, but it was a defensive thrust, a desperate operation to divert attention of the Reds from their successful winter operations against the Shred Makrenga front. Two platoons of Couriers du Bois, the well trained Russian White Guards under French tutelage, and those same Royal Marines that had been with him the first time Kodish was taken in the bloody fight in the fall. And Lt. Ballard's gallant platoon of machine gun men came to relieve the first "M. G." platoon and to join the drive. They had an old score to settle with the Bolos, too.
Again the American officer led the attack on Kodish and this time easily took the village, for the Reds were wise enough not to try to hold it. Their first lines beyond the village yielded to his forces after stiff fighting, but the old 12th Verst Pole position held three times against the assaults of the Allied troops.
Meanwhile the courageous "French-Russians" had marched fourteen miles through the woods, encircling the Bolo flank, and fell upon his artillery position, captured the guns and turned them upon the Red reserves at Avda. But the other forces could not budge the Reds from Verst 12 and so the Couriers du Bois, after holding their position against counter attack all the afternoon, blew up the Red field pieces and retreated in the face of a fresh Bolo battalion from Avda.
And during the afternoon the Americans who were engaged in this fight lost an officer whose consummate courage and wonderful cheerfulness had won him the adoration of his men and the respect and love of the officers who worked with him.
Brave, energetic, cheerful old Ballard's death filled the Machine Gun Company and the whole regiment with mingled feelings of sorrow and pride. Over and beyond the call of duty he went to his death while striving to save the fortune of the day that was going against his doughty old leader Donoghue. He did not know that the Liverpool Company had left a hole in the line by finding a trail to the rear after their second gallant but fruitless assault, and he went forward of his own initiative, with a Russian Lewis gun squad to find position where he could plant one of his machine guns to help the S. B. A. L. platoons and Liverpools whom old Donoghue was coming up to lead in another charge on the Bolo position.
Lt. Ballard ran into the exposed hole in the line and pushed forward to a place where his whole squad was ambushed and the Russian Lewis gunner was the only one to get out. He returned with his gun and dropped among the Americanski machine gunners, telling of the death of Ballard and the Russian soldiers at the point of the Bolshevik bayonets. Lt. Commons of "K" Company declares that Ballard met his death at that place by getting into the hole in the line which he supposed was held by English and Russians and by being caught in a cross fire of Bolo Colt machine guns. Whichever way it was, his body was never seen nor recovered. Hope that he might have been taken as a wounded prisoner by the Reds still lived in the hearts of his comrades. And all officers and men of the American forces who came into Detroit the following July vainly wished to believe with the girl who piteously scanned every group that landed, that Ballard might yet be heard from as a prisoner in Russia. No doubt he was killed.
The battle continued. Finally the withdrawal of the Couriers du Bois and the coming through of the Avda Battalion of the Reds, together with Red reinforcements from Kodlozerskaya-Pustin, reduced Donoghue's force to a stern defensive and he retreated at five o'clock in good order to the old lines on the river.
The half-burned and scarred buildings of Kodish mournfully reminded the soldier of the losses that had decimated the ranks of the forces that fought and refought over the village. Into their old strongholds they retired, keeping a sharp lookout for the expected retaliation of the Reds. It came two days later. And it nearly accounted for the entire force, although that was not so remarkable, Lt. Commons, the Major's adjutant, says, because so many even of the shorter engagements on this and other fronts had been equally narrow squeaks for the Americans and their Allies.
The Reds in this fight reached the second line of defense with their flanking forces, and bombarded it with new guns brought up from Plesetskaya. Meanwhile, all along the front they attacked in great force and succeeded in taking one blockhouse, killing the seven gallant Liverpool lads who fought up all their ammunition and defied the Bolo steel to steel. But the remainder of the front held, largely through the effective work of the American trench mortar and the deadly machine gunners shooting for revenge of the death of Ballard, their nervy leader, held fast their strongholds.
At last the Reds found their losses too severe to continue the attack. And they had been constantly worried by the gallant Russian Couriers du Bois, who fearlessly stayed out in the woods and nipped the Bolo forces in flank or rear. And so they withdrew. There was little more fighting on this front. The Reds were content to let well enough alone. Kodish in ruins was theirs. Plesetskaya was safe from threats on that hard fought road.
This was the last fight for the Americans on the Kodish Front. "K" Company had already looked for the last time on the old battle scenes and at the wooden crosses which marked the graves of their heroic dead, and had gone to Archangel to rest, later to duty on the lines of communication at Kholmogori and Yemetskoe. Now the trench mortar platoon and "M. G." platoon went to the railroad front, and Major Donoghue was the last one to leave the famous Kodish Front, where he had won distinction. It was now an entirely British-Russian front and the American officer who had remained voluntarily to lead in the last big fight because of his complete knowledge of the battle area now went to well-earned rest in Archangel.
In closing the story of the Americans on the Kodish Front we turn to the words written us by Lt. John A. Commons:
"Thus the Kodish Front was really home to the men of "K" Company, for most of their stay in the northern land. To "E" and "L" and Machine Gun and Trench Mortar "Hq" platoon it was also, but for a shorter period, their only shelter from the rains of the fall and the bite of the winter. "K", however, meant Kodish. There they had their first fight, there their dead were buried. There they had their last battle. And there their memories long will return, mostly disagreeable to be sure, but still representing very definitely their part, performed with honesty, courage and distinction, in the big work that was given the Yankee doughboys to do 'on the other side.'
"The scraps mentioned here were the tougher part of the actions at the front. In between the line should be read first the cold as it was felt only out in the Arctic woods, away from the villages and their warm houses. Then, too, everything was one ceaseless and endless repetition of patrolling and scouting. Many were the miles covered by these lads from Detroit and other cities and towns of America among the soft snow and the evergreens. Many a time did these small parties have their own little battles way out in the woods. Much has been said here and there of the influence of Bolshevik propaganda upon the American forces. It is true that these soldiers got a lot of it, and it is true that these soldiers read nearly all that they got. But it is true also that there was not a single incident of the whole campaign which could with honesty be attributed to this propaganda. On the Kodish Front it is quite safe to say that there was more of this ludicrous literature--not ludicrous to the Russian peasant, but very much so to the average American--taken in than on any other. Scarce a patrol went out which did not bring back something with which to while away a free hour or so, or with which to start a fire. It was always welcome.
"But it was seriously treated in the same spirit that moved a corporal of Ballard's machine gun platoon who felt strongly the discrepancy between the remarks of the Bolshevik speaker on the bridge to the effect that his fellows were moved by brotherly love for the Yanks and the FACT that nine out of every ten Bolshevik cartridges captured had the bullets clipped. The corporal reciprocated later with a machine gun, not for the love but for the bullets.
"So they stuck and fought, suffering through the bitter months of winter just below the Arctic Circle, where the winter day is in minutes and the night seems a week. And there is not one who is not proud that he was once a "side kicker" and a "buddy" to some of those fine fellows of the various units who unselfishly and gladly gave the last that a man has to give for any cause at all."
Table of Contents