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Positions Near Ust Padenga In January--Bolo Patrols--Overwhelming Assault By Bolos January Nineteenth--Through Valley Of Death--Canadian Artillery And Machine Gun Fire Punishes Enemy Frightfully When He Takes Ust Padenga--Death Of Powers--Enemy Artillery Makes American Position Untenable--Escaping From Trap--Retreating With Constant Rear-Guard Actions--We Lose Our Last Gun--"A" Company Has Miraculous Escape But Suffers Heavy Losses.

Outside of routine patrolling, outpost duties and intermittent shelling and sniping, the early part of the month of January, 1919, was comparatively quiet on the Ust Padenga front. The troops now engaged in the defense of this sector were Company "A," 339th Infantry, a platoon of "A" Company, 310th Engineers, Canadian Artillery, English Signal Detachment and several companies of Russians and Cossacks.

It will be recalled that the main positions of our troops was in Netsvetiafskaya, on a high bluff overlooking Ust Padenga and Nijni Gora--the former about a thousand yards to our left front on the bank of the Vaga, and the latter about a mile to our right front located on another hill entirely surrounded by a deep ravine and valleys. In other words our troops were in a V-shaped position with Netsvetiafskaya as the base of the V, Ust Padenga as the left fork, and Nijni Gora as the right fork of same. The Cossack troops refused to occupy the position of Nijni Gora, claiming that it was too dangerous a position and almost impossible to withdraw from in case they were hard pressed. Consequently, orders were issued from British headquarters at Shenkursk, ordering an American platoon to occupy Nijni Gora and the Cossacks to occupy Ust Padenga.

On the afternoon of January 18, the fourth platoon of Company "A," with forty-six men under command of Lieut. Mead, relieved the second platoon and took over the defense of Nijni Gora. The weather at this time was fearfully cold, the thermometer standing about forty-five degrees below zero. Rumors after rumors were constantly coming in to our intelligence section that the enemy was preparing to make a desperate drive on our positions at this front. His patrols were getting bolder and bolder. A few nights before, one of the members of such a patrol had been shot down within a few feet of Pvt. George Moses, one of our sentinels, who, single handed, stood his post and held off the patrol until assistance arrived. We had orders to hold this front at all cost. By the use of field glasses we could see considerable activity in the villages in front of us and on our flanks, and during the night the inky blackness was constantly being illuminated by flares and rockets from many different points. It is the writer's opinion that these flares were used for the purpose of guiding and directing the movements of the troops that on the following day annihilated the platoon in Nijni Gora.

On the morning of that fatal nineteenth day of January, just at dawn the enemy's artillery, which had been silent now for several weeks, opened up a terrific bombardment on our position in Nijni Gora. This artillery was concealed in the dense forest on the opposite bank of the Vaga far beyond the range of our own artillery. Far in the distance at ranges of a thousand to fifteen hundred yards, we could see long skirmish lines of the enemy clad in ordinary dark uniforms. Whenever they got within range we would open fire with rifles and machine guns which succeeded in repelling any concerted movement from this direction. At this time there were twenty-two men in the forward position in command of Lt. Mead and about twenty-two men in command of the platoon sergeant in the rear position, After about an hour's violent shelling the barrage suddenly lifted, Instantly, from the deep snow and ravines entirely surrounding us, in perfect attack formation, arose hundreds of the enemy clad in white uniforms, and the attack was on.

Time after time well directed bursts of machine gun fire momentarily held up group on group of the attacking party, but others were steadily and surely pressing forward, their automatic rifles and muskets pouring a veritable hail of bullets into the thin line of the village defenders. Our men fought desperately against overwhelming odds. Corporal Victor Stier, seeing a Russian machine gun abandoned by the panic-stricken Russians in charge of same, rushed forward and manning this gun single-handed opened up a terrific fire on the advancing line. While performing this heroic task he was shot through the jaw by an enemy bullet. Still clinging to his gun he refused to leave it until ordered to the rear by his commanding officer. On his way back through the village he picked up the rifle of a dead comrade and joined his comrades in the rear of the village determined to stick to the end. It was while in this position that he was again hit by a bullet which later proved fatal--his death occurring that night. He was an example of the same heroic devotion to duty that marked each member of this gallant company throughout the expedition. Being thus completely surrounded, the enemy now advancing with fixed bayonets, and many of our brave comrades lying dead in the snow, there was nothing left for those of us in the forward position to do but to cut our way through to the rear position in order to rejoin our comrades there. The enemy had just gained the street of the village as we began our fatal withdrawal--fighting from house to house in snow up to our waists, each new dash leaving more of our comrades lying in the cold and snow, never to be seen again. How the miserable few did succeed in eventually rejoining their comrades no one will ever know. We held on to the crest of the hill for a few moments to give our artillery opportunity to open up on the village and thus cover our withdrawal. Again another misfortune arose to add more to the danger and peril of our withdrawal. A few days previously our gallant and effective Canadian artillery had been relieved by a unit of Russian artillery and during the early shelling this fateful morning, the Russian artillerymen deserted their guns--something that no Canadian ever would have done in such a situation. By the time the Russians were forced back to their guns at the point of a pistol in the hands of Captain Odjard, our little remaining band had been compelled to give way in the face of the terrific fire from the forests on our flanks and the oncoming advance of the newly formed enemy line. To withdraw we were compelled to march straight down the side of this hill, across an open valley some eight hundred yards or more in the terrible snow, and under the direct fire of the enemy. There was no such thing as cover, for this valley of death was a perfectly open plain, waist deep with snow. To run was impossible, to halt was worse yet and so nothing remained but to plunge and flounder through the snow in mad desperation, with a prayer on our lips to gain the edge of our fortified positions. One by one, man after man fell wounded or dead in the snow, either to die from the grievous wounds or terrible exposure. The thermometer still stood about forty-five degrees below zero and some of the wounded were so terribly frozen that their death was as much due to such exposure as enemy bullets. Of this entire platoon of forty-seven men, seven finally succeeded in gaining the shelter of the main position uninjured. During the day a voluntary rescue party under command of Lieut. McPhail, "Sgt." Rapp, and others of Company "A" with Morley Judd of the Ambulance Corps, went out into the snow under continuous fire and brought in some of the wounded and dead, but there were twelve or more brave men left behind in that fatal village whose fate was never known and still remains unknown to the present day, though long since reported by the United States War Department as killed in action. Many others were picked up dead in that valley of death later in the day and others died on their way back to hospitals. These brave lads made the supreme sacrifice, fighting bravely to the last against hopeless odds. Through prisoners later captured by us, we learned that the attacking party that morning numbered about nine hundred picked troops--so the reader will readily appreciate what chance our small force had.

All that day and far into the night the enemy's guns continued hammering away at our positions. Under cover of darkness the Russians and Cossacks in the village of Ust Padenga withdrew to our lines--a move which the enemy least suspected. The following days were just a repetition of this day's action. The enemy shelled and shelled our position and then sent forward wave after wave of infantry. The Canadian Artillery under command of Lieut. Douglas Winslow rejoined us and, running their guns out in the open sight, simply poured muzzle burst of shrapnel into the enemy ranks, thus breaking up attack after attack. Two days later after a violent artillery preparation, the enemy, still believing our Russian comrades located in the village of Ust Padenga, started an open attack upon this deserted position over part of the same ground where so many of our brave comrades had lost their lives on the nineteenth. They advanced in open order squarely in the face of our artillery, machine gun, and rifle fire, but by the time they had gained this useless and undefended village, hundreds of their number lay wounded and dying in the snow. The carnage and slaughter this day in the enemy's ranks was terrific, resulting from a most stupid military blunder, but it atoned slightly for our losses previous thereto. The valley below us was dotted with pile after pile of enemy dead, the carnage here being almost equal to the terrific fighting later at Vistavka. When he discovered his mistake and useless sacrifice of men, and seeing it was hopeless to drive our troops from this position by his infantry, the enemy then resorted to more violent use of his artillery. Shells were raining into our position now by the thousands, but our artillery could not respond as it was completely outranged. By the process of attrition our little body of men was growing smaller day by day, when to cap the climax late that day a stray shell plunged into our little hospital just as the medical officer, Ralph C. Powers, who had been heroically working with the dead and dying for days without relief and who refused to quit his post, was about to perform an operation on one of our mortally wounded comrades. This shell went through the walls of the building and through the operating room, passing outside where it exploded and flared back into the room. Four men were killed outright, including Sgt. Yates K. Rodgers and Corp. Milton Gottschalk, two of the staunchest and most heroic men of Company "A." Lieutenant Powers was mortally wounded and later died in the hospital at Shenkursk, where he and many of his brave comrades now lie buried in the shadow of a great cathedral.

This was the beginning of the end for us in this position. The enemy was slowly but surely closing in on Shenkursk as evidenced by the following notation, made by one of our intelligence officers in Shenkursk, set forth verbatim:

"January 22, Canadian artillery and platoon of infantry left of Nikolofskia at 6:30 a.m., spent the day there establishing helio communication between church towers, here and there. All quiet there. At 10:00 a. m. one of the mounted Cossack troopers came madly galloping from Sergisfskia saying that the Bolos were approaching from there and that he had been fired upon. He was terrified to death; other arrivals verify this report. The defenses are not all manned and a patrol sent in that direction. They are sure out there in force right enough. The clans are rapidly gathering for the big drive for the prize, Shenkursk. Later--Orders from British Headquarters for troops at Ust Padenga to withdraw tonight. 10:00 p. m.--There is a red glare in the sky in the direction of Ust Padenga and the flames of burning buildings are plain to be seen. There is ---- a popping down there and the roar of artillery is clearly heard."

That night, January 22nd, we withdrew from this shell-torn and flaming village, leaving behind one of our guns which the exhausted horses could not move. We did not abandon this position a moment too soon, for just as we had finished preparations for withdrawal an incendiary shell struck one of the main buildings of the village, and instantly the surrounding country was as bright as day. All that night, tired, exhausted and half-starved, we plodded along the frozen trails of the pitch black forest. The following morning we halted for the day at Shelosha, but late that day we received word to again withdraw to Spasskoe, a village about six versts from Shenkursk. Again we marched all night long, floundering through the snow and cold, reaching Spasskoe early that morning. On our march that night it was only by means of a bold and dangerous stroke that we succeeded in reaching Spasskoe. The enemy had already gotten between us and our objective and in fact was occupying villages on both sides of the Vaga River, through one or the other of which we were compelled to pass. We finally decided that under the cover of darkness and in the confusion and many movements then on foot, we could possibly march straight up the river right between the villages, and those on one side would mistake us for others on the opposite bank. Our plan worked to perfection and we got through safely with only one shot being fired by some suspicious enemy sentry, but which did us no harm, and we continued silently on our way.

For days now we had been fighting and marching, scarcely pausing for food and then only to force down a ration of frozen bully beef or piece of hard tack, and we expected here at least to gain a short breathing spell, but such was not fate's decree. About 4:00 a.m. we finally "turned in," but within a couple of hours we were again busily occupied in surveying our positions and making our plans. About 7:30 a. m. Lieut. Mead and Capt. Ollie Mowatt, in command of the artillery, climbed into a church tower for observation, when to our surprise we could plainly see a long line of artillery moving along the Shenkursk road, and the surrounding villages alive with troops forming for the attack. Scarcely had we gotten our outposts into position when a shell crashed squarely over the village, and again the battle was on. All that day the battle raged, the artillery was now shelling Shenkursk as well as our own position. The plains in front of us were swarming with artillery and cavalry, while overhead hummed a lone airplane which had travelled about a hundred and twenty-five miles to aid us in our hopeless encounter, but all in vain.

At 1:30 p. m. an enemy shell burst squarely on our single piece of artillery, putting it completely out of action, killing several men, seriously wounding Capt. Otto Odjard, as well as Capt. Mowatt, who later died from his wounds. While talking by telephone to our headquarters at Shenkursk, just as we were being notified to withdraw, a shell burst near headquarters, demolishing our telephone connections. Again assembling our men we once more took up our weary retreat, arriving that evening in Shenkursk, where, worn and completely exhausted, we flung ourselves on floors and every available place to rest for the coming siege, about to begin.


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