THE RETREAT FROM SHENKURSK
THE RETREAT FROM SHENKURSK
Shenkursk Surrounded By Bolsheviki--Enemy Artillery Outranged Ours--British General At Beresnik Orders Retreat--Taking Hidden Trail We Escape--Shenkursk Battalion Of Russians Fails Us--Description Of Terrible March--Casting Away Their Shackletons--Resting At Yemska Gora--Making Stand At Shegovari--Night Sees Retreat Resumed--Cossacks Cover Rear--Holding Ill-Selected Vistavka--Toil, Vigilance And Valor Hold Village Many Days--Red Heavy Artillery Blows Vistavka To Splinters In March--Grand Assault Is Beaten Off For Two Days--Lucky Cossacks Smash In And Save Us--Heroic Deeds Performed--Vistavka Is Abandoned.
After five days and nights of ceaseless fighting and marching, it is necessary to say that we were soon sleeping the sleep of utterly exhausted and worn out soldiers, but alas, our rest was soon to be disturbed and we were to take up the weary march once more. Immediately after our arrival within the gates of Shenkursk, the British High Command at once called a council of war to hastily decide what our next step should be. The situation briefly stated was this: Within this position we had a large store of munitions, food, clothing, and other necessaries sufficient to last the garrison, including our Russian Allies, a period of sixty days. On the other hand, every available approach and trail leading into Shenkursk was held by the enemy, who could move about at will inasmuch as they were protected by the trackless forests on all sides, and thus would soon render it impossible for our far distant comrades in Archangel and elsewhere on the lines to bring through any relief or assistance. Furthermore, it was now the dead of the Arctic winter and three to four months must yet elapse before the block ice of the Vaga-Dvina would give way for our river gunboats and supply ships to reach us.
Between our positions and Beresnik, our river base, more than a hundred miles distant, were but two occupied positions, the closest being Shegovari, forty-four miles in rear of us, with but two Russian platoons, and Kitsa, twenty miles further with but one platoon and a few Russian troops. There were hundreds of trails leading through the forests from town to town and it would be but a matter of days or even hours for the enemy to occupy these positions and then strike at Beresnik, thus cutting off not only our forces at Shenkursk but those at Toulgas far down the Dvina as well. Already he had begun destroying the lines of communication behind us.
That afternoon at 3:10 p. m. the last message from Beresnik arrived ordering us to withdraw if possible. While this message was coming over the wire and before our signal men had a chance to acknowledge it, the wires suddenly "went dead," shutting off our last hope of communication with the outside world. We later learned from a prisoner who was captured some days later that a strong raiding party had been dispatched to raid the town of Yemska Gora on the line and to cut the wires. Fortunately for us they started from their bivouac on a wrong trail which brought them to their objective several hours later, during which time the battle of Spasskoe had been fought and we had been forced to retire, all of which information reached Beresnik in time for the general in command there to wire back his order of withdrawal, just as the wires were being cut away.
With this hopeless situation before us, and the certain possibility of a starvation siege eventually forcing us to surrender, the council decided that retreat we must if possible and without further delay. All the principal roads or trails were already in the hands of the enemy. However, there was a single, little used, winter trail leading straight back into the forest in rear of us which, with devious turns and windings, would finally bring us back to the river trail leading to Shegovari, about twenty miles further down the river. Mounted Cossacks were instantly dispatched along this trail and after several hours of hard riding returned with word that, due to the difficulty of travel and heavy snows, the enemy had not yet given serious consideration to this trail, and as a consequence was unoccupied by them.
Without further delay English Headquarters immediately decided upon total evacuation of Shenkursk. Orders were at once issued that all equipment, supplies, rations, horses, and all else should be left just as it stood and each man to take on that perilous march only what he could carry. To attempt the destruction of Shenkursk by burning or other means would at once indicate to the enemy the movement on foot; therefore, all was to be left behind untouched and unharmed. Soon the messengers were rapidly moving to and fro through the streets of the village hastily rousing the slumbering troops, informing them of our latest orders. When we received the order we were too stunned to fully realize and appreciate all the circumstances and significance of it. Countless numbers of us openly cursed the order, for was it not a cowardly act and a breach of trust with our fallen comrades lying beneath the snow in the great cathedral yard who had fought so valiantly and well from Ust Padenga to Shenkursk in order to hold this all important position? However, cooler heads and reason soon prevailed and each quickly responded to the task of equipping himself for the coming march.
Human greed often manifests itself under strange and unexpected circumstances, and this black night of January 23, 1919, proved no exception to the rule. Here and there some comrade would throwaway a prized possession to make more room for necessary food or clothing in his pack or pocket. Some other comrade would instantly grab it up and feverishly struggle to get it tied onto his pack or person, little realizing that long before the next thirty hours had passed he, too, would be gladly and willingly throwing away prize after prize into the snow and darkness of the forest.
At midnight the artillery, preceded by mounted Cossacks, passed through the lane of barbed wire into the forests. The Shenkursk Battalion, which had been mobilized from the surrounding villages, was dispatched along the Kodima trail to keep the enemy from following too closely upon our heels. This latter maneuver was also a test of the loyalty of this battalion for there was a well defined suspicion that a large portion of them were at heart sympathizers of the Bolo cause. Our suspicions were shortly confirmed; very soon after leaving the city they encountered the enemy and after an exchange of a few shots two entire companies went over to the Bolo side, leaving nothing for the others to do but flee for their lives.
Fortune was kind to us that night, however, and by 1:00 a. m. the infantry was under way. Company "A", which had borne the brunt of the fighting so many long, weary days, was again called upon with Company "C" to take up the rear guard, and so we set off into the blackness of the never ending forest. As we marched out of the city hundreds of the natives who had somehow gotten wind of this movement were also scurrying here and there in order to follow the retreating column. Others who were going to remain and face the entrance of the Bolos were equally delighted in hiding and disposing of their valuables and making away with the abandoned rations and supplies.
Hour after hour we floundered and struggled through the snow and bitter cold. The artillery and horses ahead of us had cut the trail into a network of holes, slides and dangerous pitfalls rendering our footing so uncertain and treacherous that the wonder is that we ever succeeded in regaining the river trail alive. Time after time that night one could hear some poor unfortunate with his heavy pack on his back fall with a sickening thud upon the packed trail, in many cases being so stunned and exhausted that it was only by violent shaking and often by striking some of the others in the face that they could be sufficiently aroused and forced to continue the march.
At this time we were all wearing the Shackleton boot, a boot designed by Sir Ernest Shackleton of Antarctic fame, and who was one of the advisory staff in Archangel. This boot, which was warm and comfortable for one remaining stationary as when on sentry duty, was very impracticable and well nigh useless for marching, as the soles were of leather with the smooth side outermost, which added further to the difficulties of that awful night. Some of the men unable to longer continue the march cast away their boots and kept going in their stocking feet; soon others were following the example, with the result that on the following day many were suffering from severely frostbitten feet.
The following morning, just as the dull daylight was beginning to appear through the snow-covered branches overhead, and when we were about fifteen versts well away from Shenkursk, the roar of cannon commenced far behind us. The enemy had not as yet discovered that we had abandoned Shenkursk and he was beginning bright and early the siege of Shenkursk. Though we were well out of range of his guns the boom of the artillery acted as an added incentive to each tired and weary soldier and with anxious eyes searching the impenetrable forests we quickened our step.
At 9:00 a. m. we arrived at Yemska Gora on the main road from Shenkursk, where an hour's halt was made. All the samovars in the village were at once put into commission and soon we were drinking strong draughts of boiling hot tea. Some were successful in getting chunks of black bread which they ravenously devoured. The writer was fortunate in locating an old villager who earlier in the winter had been attached to the company sledge transport and the old fellow brought forth some fishcakes to add to the meagre fare. These cakes were made by boiling or soaking the vile salt herring until it becomes a semi-pasty mass, after which it is mixed with the black bread dough and then baked, resulting in one of the most odoriferous viands ever devised by human hands and which therefore few, if any, of us had summoned up courage enough to consume. On this particular morning, however, it required no courage at all and we devoured the pasty mass as though it were one of the choicest of viands. The entire period of the halt was consumed in eating and getting ready to continue the march.
At 10:00 a. m. we again fell in and the weary march was resumed. The balance of the day was simply a repetition of the previous night with the exception that it was now daylight and the footing was more secure. At five o'clock that afternoon we arrived at Shegovari, where the little garrison of Company "C" and Company "D", under command of Lieut. Derham, was anxiously awaiting us, for after the attack of the preceding day, which is described in the following paragraph, they were fearful of the consequences in case they were compelled to continue holding the position through the night without reinforcements.
Shortly after the drive had begun at Ust Padenga marauding parties of the enemy were reported far in our rear in the vicinity of Shegovari. On the night of January 21st some of the enemy, disguised as peasants, approached one of the sentries on guard at a lonely spot near the village and coldly butchered him with axes; another had been taken prisoner, and with the daily reports of our casualties at Ust Padenga, the little garrison was justly apprehensive. On the morning of January 23rd a band of the enemy numbering some two hundred men emerged from the forest and had gained possession of the town before they were detected. Fortunately the garrison was quickly assembled, and by judicious use of machine guns and grenades quickly succeeded in repelling the attack and retaining possession of the position, which thus kept the road clear for the troops retreating from Shenkursk. Such was the condition here upon our arrival.
Immediately we at once set up our outposts and fortunately got our artillery into position, which was none too soon, for while we were still so engaged our Cossack patrols came galloping in to report that a great body of the enemy was advancing along the main road. Soon the advance patrols of the enemy appeared and our artillery immediately opened upon them. Seeing that we were thus prepared and probably assuming that we were going to make a stand in this position, the enemy retired to await reinforcements. All through the night we could see the flames of rockets and signal lights in surrounding villages showing them the enemy was losing no time in getting ready for an attack. Hour after hour our guns boomed away until daylight again broke to consolidate our various positions.
[Illustration: Three couples dancing, and about 50 soldiers seated around wall. Soldier of left side has crutch and cast on leg. Room is decorated with evergreen boughs and the American flag.] RED CROSS PHOTO Holiday Dance at Convalescent Hospital--Nurses and "Y" Girls
[Illustration: Several people and sleighs in front of church with three steeples.] ROZANSKEY Subornya Cathedral
[Illustration: Several soldiers working on log blockhouse, surrounded by snow-covered forest.] U. S. OFFICIAL PHOTO Building a Blockhouse
Our position here was a very undesirable one from a military standpoint, due to the fact that the enemy could approach from most any direction under cover of the forest and river trails. Our next position was Kitsa, which was situated about twenty miles further down the river toward Beresnik, the single trail to which ran straight through the forests without a single house or dwelling the entire way. This would have been almost impossible to patrol, due to the scarcity of our numbers, consequently, it was decided to continue our retreat to this position.
At 5:00 p. m., under cover of darkness, we began assembling and once more plunged into the never-ending forest in full retreat, leaving Shegovari far behind. We left a small body of mounted Cossacks in the village to cover our retreat, but later that night we discovered a further reason for this delay here. At about eleven that night, as we were silently pushing along through the inky blackness of the forest, suddenly far to the south of us a brilliant flame commenced glowing against the sky, which rapidly increased in volume and intensity. We afterward learned that our Cossack friends had fired the village before departing in order that the enemy could not obtain further stores and supplies which we were compelled to abandon.
At midnight of January 26th the exhausted column arrived in Vistavka, a position about six versts in advance from Kitsa, and we again made ready to defend this new position.
The next day we made a hasty reconnaissance of the place and soon realized that of all the positions we had chosen, as later events conclusively proved, this was the most hopeless of all. Vistavka, itself, stood on a high bluff on the right bank of the Vaga. Immediately in front of us was the forest, to our left was the forest, and on the opposite bank of the river more forest. The river wound in and around at this point and at the larger bends were several villages--one about five versts straight across the river called Yeveevskaya--and another further in a direct line called Ust Suma. About six or seven versts to our rear was Kitsa and Ignatevskaya lying on opposite sides of the river--Kitsa being the only one of all these villages with any kind of prepared defenses at all. However, we at once set to work stringing up barbed wire and trying to dig into the frozen snow and ground, which, however, proved adamant to our shovels and picks. To add further to the difficulty of this task the enemy snipers lying in wait in the woods would pick off our men, so that we finally contented ourselves with snow trenches, and thus began the defense of Vistavka, which lasted for about two months, during which time thousands upon thousands of shells were poured into the little village, and attack after attack was repulsed.
Within two days after our occupation of this place the enemy had gotten his light artillery in place and with his observers posted in the trees of the surrounding forest he soon had our range, and all through the following month of February he continued his intermittent shelling and sniping. Night after night we could hear the ring of axes in the surrounding woods informing us that the Bolo was establishing his defenses, but our numbers were so small that we could not send out patrols enough to prevent this. Our casualties during this period were comparatively light and with various reliefs by the Royal Scots, Kings Liverpools, "C" and "D" Companies, American Infantry, we held this place with success until the month of March.
By constant shelling during the month of February the enemy had practically reduced Vistavka to a mass of ruins. With no stoves or fire and a constant fare of frozen corned beef and hard tack, the morale of the troops was daily getting lower and lower, but still we grimly stuck to our guns.
On the evening of March 3rd the Russian troops holding Yeveevskaya got possession of a supply of English rum, with the result that the entire garrison was soon engaged in a big celebration. The Bolo, quick to take advantage of any opportunity, staged a well-planned attack and within an hour they had possession of the town. Ust Suma had been abandoned almost a month prior to this time, which left Vistavka standing alone with the enemy practically occupying every available position surrounding us. As forward positions we now held Maximovskaya on the left bank and Vistavka on the right.
The following day the enemy artillery, which had now been reinforced by six and nine-inch guns, opened up with renewed violence and for two days this continued, battering away every vestige of shelter remaining to us. On the afternoon of the fifth the barrage suddenly lifted to our artillery about two versts to our rear, and simultaneously therewith the woods and frozen river were swarming with wave after wave of the enemy coming forward to the attack. To the heroic defenders of the little garrison it looked as though at last the end had come, but with grim determination they quickly began pouring their hail of lead into the advancing waves. Attack after attack was repulsed, but nevertheless the enemy had succeeded in completely surrounding us. Once more he had cut away our wires leading to Kitsa and also held possession of the trails leading to that position. For forty-eight hours this awful situation continued--our rations were practically exhausted and our ammunition was running low. Headquarters at Kitsa had given us up for lost and were preparing a new line there to defend. During the night, however, one of our runners succeeded in getting through with word of our dire plight. The following day the Kings Liverpools with other troops marched forth from Kitsa in an endeavor to cut their way through to our relief. The Bolo, however, had the trails and roads too well covered with machine guns and troops and quickly repulsed this attempt.
Late that afternoon those in command at Kitsa decided to make another attempt to bring assistance to our hopeless position and at last ordered a mixed company of Russians and Cossacks to go forward in the attempt. After issuing an overdose of rum to all, the commander made a stirring address, calling upon them to do or die in behalf of their comrades in such great danger. The comrades in question consisted of a platoon of Russian machine gunners who were bravely fighting with the Americans in Vistavka. Eventually they became sufficiently enthusiastic and with a great display of ceremony they left Kitsa. As was to be expected, they at once started on the wrong trail, but as good fortune would have it this afterward proved the turning point of the day. This trail, unknown to them, led into a position in rear of the enemy and before they realized it they walked squarely into view of a battalion of the enemy located in a ravine on one of our flanks, who either did not see them approaching or mistakenly took them for more of their own number advancing. Quickly sensing the situation, our Cossack Allies at once got their machine guns into position and before the Bolos realized it these machine guns were in action, mowing down file after file of their battalion. To counter attack was impossible for they would have to climb the ravine in the face of this hail of lead, and the only other way of escape was in the opposite direction across the river under direct fire from our artillery and machine guns. Suddenly, several of the enemy started running and inside of a minute the remainder of the battalion was fleeing in wild disorder, but it was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, for as they retreated across the river our artillery and machine guns practically annihilated them. Shortly thereafter the Cossacks came marching through our lines where they were welcomed with open arms and again Vistavka was saved. That night fresh supplies and ammunition were brought up and the little garrison was promised speedy relief.
Our total numbers during this attack did not amount to more than four hundred men, including the Cossack machine gunners and Canadian artillery-men. We afterward learned that from four to five thousand of the enemy took part in this attack.
The next day all was quiet and we began to breathe more easily, thinking that perhaps the enemy at last had enough. Our hopes were soon to be rudely shattered, for during this lull the Bolo was busily occupied in bringing up more ammunition and fresh troops, and on the morning of the seventh he again began a terrific artillery preparation. As stated elsewhere on these pages, our guns did not have sufficient range to reach the enemy guns even had we been successful in locating them, so all we could do was to lie shivering in the snow behind logs, snow trenches and barbed wire, hoping against hope that the artillery would not annihilate us.
The artillery bombardment continued for two days, continuing up to noon of March 9th, when the enemy again launched another attack. This time we were better prepared and, having gotten wind of the plan of attack, we again caught a great body of the infantry in a ravine waist deep in snow. We could plainly see and hear the Bolo commissars urging and driving their men forward to the attack, but there is a limit to all endurance and once again one or two men bolted and ran, and it was but a matter of minutes until all were fleeing in wild disorder.
Space does not permit the enumeration of the splendid individual feats of valor performed by such men as Lieuts. McPhail of Company "A", and Burns of the Engineers, with their handful of men--nor the grim tenacity and devotion to duty of Sgts. Yarger, Rapp, Garbinski, Moore and Kenny, the last two of whom gave up their lives during the last days of their attacks. Even the cooks were called upon to do double duty and, led by "Red" Swadener, they would work all night long trying to prepare at least one warm meal for the exhausted men, the next day taking their places in the snow trenches with their rifles on their shoulders fighting bravely to the end. Then, too, there were the countless numbers of such men as Richey, Hutchinson, Kurowski, Retherford, Peyton, Russel, De Amicis, Cheney, and others who laid down their lives in this hopeless cause.
The attack was not alone directed against the position of Vistavka, for on the opposite bank of the river the garrison at Maximovskaya was subjected to an attack of almost equal ferocity. The position there was surrounded by forests and the enemy could advance within several hundred yards without being observed. The defenders here, comprising Companies "F" and "A", bravely held on and inflicted terrific losses upon the enemy.
It was during these terrible days that Lt. Dan Steel of Company "F" executed a daring and important patrol maneuver. This officer, who had long held the staff position of battalion adjutant, feeling that he could render more effective service to his comrades by being at the front, demanded a transfer from his staff position to duty with a line company, which transfer was finally reluctantly given--reluctantly because of the fact that he had virtually been the power behind the throne, or colonel's chair, of the Vaga River column. A few days later found him in the thick of the fighting at Maximovskaya, and when a volunteer was needed for the above mentioned patrol he was the first to respond. The day in question he set forth in the direction of Yeveevskaya with a handful of men. The forests were fairly alive with enemy patrols, but in the face of all these odds he pushed steadily forward and all but reached the outskirts of the village itself where he obtained highly valuable information, mapped the road and trails through the forests, thus enabling the artillery to cover the same during the violent attacks of these first ten days of March.
By five o'clock of that day the attack was finally repulsed and we still held our positions at Vistavka and Maximovskaya--but in Vistavka we were holding a mere shell of what had once been a prosperous and contented little village. The constant shelling coupled with attacks and counter attacks for months over the same ground had razed the village to the ground, leaving nothing but a shell-torn field and a few blackened ruins. It was useless to hold the place longer and consequently that night it was decided to abandon the position here and withdraw to a new line about three versts in advance of Kitsa.
Under cover of darkness on the night of March 9th we abandoned the position at Vistavka, and as stated in the previous chapter, established a new line of defense along a trail and in the forests about three versts in advance of Kitsa. While our position at Vistavka was practically without protection, this position here was even worse. We were bivouacked in the open snow and woods where we could only dig down into the snow and pray that the Bolo artillery observers would be unable to locate us. Our prayers in this respect were answered, for this position was not squarely in the open as Vistavka was, and therefore not under the direct fire of his artillery. The platoons of "F" Company at Maximovskaya were brought up here to join the balance of their company in holding this position, "A" Company being relieved by "D" Company and sent across the river to Ignatovskaya. "F" Company alternated with platoons of the Royal Scots in this position in the woods for the balance of the month, during which there was constant shelling and sniping but with few casualties among our ranks. The latter part of March "F" Company was relieved for a short time, but the first week in April were again sent back to the Kitsa position. By this time the spring thaws were setting in and the snow began disappearing. Our plans now were to hold these positions at Kitsa and Maximovskaya until the river ice began to move out and then burn all behind us and make a speedy getaway, but how to do this and not reveal our plans to the enemy a few hundred yards across No Man's Land was the problem.
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