DEFENSE OF PINEGA
DEFENSE OF PINEGA
Kulikoff And Smelkoff Lead Heavy Force Against Pinega--Reinforcements Hastened Up To Pinega--Reds Win Early Victories Against Small Force Of Defenders--Value Of Pinega Area--Desperate Game Of Bluffing--Captain Akutin Reorganizes White Guards--Russians Fought Well In Many Engagements--Defensive Positions Hold Against Heavy Red Attack--Voluntary Draft Of Russians Of Pinega Area--American Troops "G" And "M" Made Shining Page--Military-Political Relations Eminently Successful.
The flying column of Americans up the Pinega River in late fall we remember retired to Pinega in face of a surprisingly large force. The commander of the Bolshevik Northern Army had determined to make use of the winter roads across the forests to send guns and ammunition and food and supplies to the area in the upper valley of the Pinega. He would jolt the Allies in January with five pieces of artillery, two 75's and three pom poms, brought up from Kotlas where their stores had been taken in the fall retreat before the Allies. One of his prominent commanders, Smelkoff, who had fought on the railroad in the fall, went over to the distant Pinega front to assist a rising young local commander, Kulikoff. These two ambitious soldiers of fortune had both been natives and bad actors of the Pinega Valley, one being a noted horse thief of the old Czar's day.
With food, new uniforms and rifles and common and lots of nice crisp Bolshevik money and with boastful stories of how they had whipped the invading foreigners on other fields in the fall and with invective against the invaders these leaders soon excited quite a large following of fighting men from the numerous villages. With growing power they rounded up unwilling men and drafted them into the Red Army just as they had done so often before in other parts of Russia if we may believe the statements of wounded men and prisoners and deserters. Down the valley with the handful of Americans and Russian White Guards there came an ever increasing tide of anti-Bolshevists looking to Pinega for safety.
The Russian local government of Pinega, though somewhat pinkish, did not want war in the area and appealed to the Archangel state government for military aid to hold the Reds off. Captain Conway reported to Archangel G. H. Q. that the population was very nervous and that with his small force of one hundred men and the three hundred undisciplined volunteer White Guards he was in a tight place. Consequently, it was decided to send a company of Americans to relieve the half company there and at the same time to send an experienced ex-staff officer of the old Russian Army to Pinega with a staff of newly trained Russian officers to serve with the American officer commanding the area and raise and discipline all the local White Guards possible.
Accordingly, Capt. Moore with "M" Company was ordered to relieve the Americans at Pinega, and Capt. Akutin by the Russian general commanding the North Russian Army was ordered to Pinega for the mission already explained. Two pieces of field artillery with newly trained Russian personnel were to go up and supplies and ammunition were to be rushed up the valley.
On December 18th the half company of American troops set off for the march to the city of Pinega. The story of that 207-verst march of Christmas week, when the days were shortest and the weather severe, will be told elsewhere. Before they reached the city, which was desperately threatened, the fears of the defenders of Pinega had been all but realized. The Reds in great strength moved on the flank of the White Guards, surrounded them at Visakagorka and dispersed them into the woods. If they had only known it they might have immediately besieged the city of Pinega. But they respected the American force and proceeded carefully as far as Trufanagora.
On the very day of this disaster to the White Guards the Americans on the road were travelling the last forty-six versts rapidly by sleigh. News of this reinforcing column reached the Reds and no doubt slowed up their advance. They began fortifying the important Trufanagora, which was the point where the old government roads and telegraph lines from Mezen and Karpogora united for the Pinega-Archangel line.
Reference to the war map will show that this Pinega area gave all the advantages of strategy to the Red commander, whose rapid advance down the valley with the approach of winter had taken the Archangel strategists by surprise. His position at Trufanagora not only gave him control of the Mezen road and cut off the meats from Mezen and the sending of flour and medical supplies to Mezen and Petchura, in which area an officer of the Russian Northern Army was opposing the local Red Guards, but it also gave him a position that made of the line of communication to our rear a veritable eighty-mile front.
In our rear on the line of communication were the villages of Leunova, Ostrov and Kuzomen, which were scowlingly pro-Bolshevik. One of the commanders, Kulikoff, the bandit, hailed from Kuzomen. He was in constant touch with this area. When the winter trails were frozen more solidly he would try to lead a column through the forest to cut the line.
Now began a struggle to keep the lower valley from going over to the Bolsheviki while we were fighting the Red Guards above the city. It was a desperate game. We must beat them at bluffing till our Russian forces were raised and we must get the confidence of the local governments.
Half the new American force was sent under Lt. Stoner to occupy the Soyla area on the line of communication, which seemed most in danger of being attacked. The men of this area, and the women and children, too, for that matter, were soon won to the cordial support of the Americans. Treacherous Yural was kept under surveillance and later subsided and fell into line with Pinega, which was considerably more than fifty per cent White, in spite of the fact that her mayor was a former Red.
The rout of the White Guards at Visakagorka had not been as bad as appeared at first. The White Guards had fought up their ammunition and then under the instructions of their fiery Polish leader, Mozalevski, had melted into the forest and reassembled many versts to the rear and gone into the half-fortified village of Peligorskaya. Here the White Guards were taken in hand by their new commander, Capt. Akutin, and reorganized into fighting units, taking name from the villages whence they came. Thus the Trufanagora Company of White Guards rallied about a leader who stimulated them to drill for the fight to regain their own village from the Reds who at that very moment were compelling their Trufanagora women to draw water and bake bread and dig trenches for the triumphant and boastful Red Guards.
This was an intense little civil war. No mercy and no quarter. The Reds inflamed their volunteers and conscripts against the invading Americans and the Whites. The White Guards gritted their teeth at the looting Reds and proudly accepted their new commander's motto: White Guards for the front; Americans for the city and the lines of communication.
And this was good. During the nine weeks of this successful defense of the city the Russian White Guards stood all the casualties, and they were heavy. Not an American soldier was hit. Yankee doughboys supported the artillery and stood in reserves and manned blockhouses but not one was wounded. Three hospitals were filled with the wounded White Guards. American soldiers in platoon strength or less were seen constantly on the move from one threatened spot to another, but always, by fate it seemed, it was the Russian ally who was attacked or took the assaulting line in making our advances on the enemy.
On January 8th and again on January 29th and 30th we tried the enemy's works at Ust Pocha. Both times we took Priluk and Zapocha but were held with great losses before Ust Pocha. At the first attempt Pochezero was taken in a flank attack by the Soyla Lake two-company outguard of Soyla. But this emboldened the Reds to try the winter trail also. On January 24th they nearly took our position.
News of the Red successes at Shenkursk reached the Pinega Valley. We knew the Reds were now about to strike directly at the city. Capt. Akutin's volunteer force, although but one-third the size of the enemy, was ready to beat the Reds to the attack. With two platoons of Americans and seven hundred White Guards the American commander moved against the advancing Reds. Two other platoons of Americans were on the line of communications and one at Soyla Lake ready for counter-attack. Only one platoon remained in Pinega. It was a ticklish situation, for the Red agitators had raised their heads again and an officer had been assassinated in a nearby village. The mayor was boarding in the American guardhouse and stern retaliation had been meted out to the Red spies.
The Reds stopped our force after we had pushed them back into their fortifications and we had to retire to Peligora, where barbed wire, barricades, trenches and fortified log houses had been prepared for this rather expected last stand before the city of Pinega. For weeks it had looked dubious for the city. Enemy artillery would empty the city of inhabitants, although his infantry would find it difficult to penetrate the wire and other fortifications erected by the Americans and Russians under the able direction of a British officer, Lieut. Augustine of a Canadian engineer unit. Think of chopping holes in the ice and frozen ground, pouring in water and freezing posts in for wire supports! Then came the unexpected. After six days of steady fighting which added many occupants to our hospital and heavy losses to the enemy, he suddenly retreated one night, burning the village of Priluk which we had twice used as field base for our attack on him.
From Pinega we looked at the faint smoke column across the forest deep with snow and breathed easier than we had for many anxious weeks. Our pursuing forces came back with forty loads of enemy supplies they left behind in the various villages we had captured from his forces. Why? Was it operations in his rear of our forces from Soyla, or the American platoon that worried his flank near his artillery, or Shaponsnikoff in the Mezen area threatening his flank, or was it a false story of the arrival of the forces of Kolchak at Kotlas in his rear? Americans here at Pinega, like the vastly more desperate and shattered American forces on the Vaga and at Kodish at the same time, had seen their fate impending and then seen the Reds unaccountably withhold the final blow.
The withdrawal of the Reds to their stronghold at Trufanagora in the second week in February disappointed their sympathizers in Pinega and the Red Leunova area, and from that time on the occupation of the Pinega Valley by the Americans was marked by the cordial co-operation of the whole area. During the critical time when the Reds stood almost at the gates of the city, the Pinega government had yielded to the demands of the volunteer troops that all citizens be drafted for military service. This was done even before the Archangel authorities put its decree forth. Every male citizen between ages of eighteen and forty-five was drafted, called for examination and assigned to recruit drill or to service of supply or transportation. There was enthusiastic response of the people.
The square opposite the cathedral resounded daily to the Russki recruit sergeant's commands and American platoons drilling, too, for effect on the Russians, saw the strange new way of turning from line to column and heard with mingled respect and amusement the weird marching song of the Russian soldier. And one day six hundred of those recruits, in obedience to order from Archangel, went off by sleigh to Kholmogora to be outfitted and assigned to units of the new army of the Archangel Republic. Among these recruits was a young man, heir-apparent to the million roubles of the old merchant prince of Pinega, whose mansion was occupied by the Americans for command headquarters and billets for all the American officers engaged in the defense of the city. This young man had tried in the old Russian way to evade the local government official's draft. He had tried again at Capt. Akutin's headquarters to be exempted but that democratic officer, who understood the real meaning of the revolution to the Russian people and who had their confidence, would not forfeit it by favoring the rich man's son. And when he came to American headquarters to argue that he was needed more in the officers' training camp at Archangel than in the ranks of recruits, he was told that revolutionary Russia would surely recognize his merit and give him a chance if he displayed marked ability along military lines, and wished good luck. He drilled in the ranks. And Pinega saw it.
The Americans had finished their mission in Pinega. In place of the three hundred dispirited White Guards was a well trained regiment of local Russian troops which, together with recruits, numbered over two thousand. Under the instruction of Lieut. Wright of "M" Company, who had been trained as an American machine gun officer, the at first half-hearted Russians had developed an eight-gun machine gun unit of fine spirit, which later distinguished itself in action, standing between the city and the Bolsheviks in March when the Americans had left to fight on another front. Also under the instruction of a veteran Russian artillery officer the two field-pieces, Russian 75's, had been manned largely by peasant volunteers who had served in the old Russian artillery units. In addition, a scouting unit had been developed by a former soldier who had been a regimental scout under the old Russian Government. Pinega was quiet and able to defend itself.
Compared with the winter story of wonderful stamina in enduring hardships at Shenkursk and Kodish and the sanguine fighting of those fronts, this defense of Pinega looks tame. Between the lines of the story must be read the things that made this a shining page that shows the marked ability of Americans to secure the co-operation of the Russian local government in service of supply and transportation and billeting and even in taking up arms and assuming the burdens of fighting their own battles.
Those local companies of well-trained troops were not semi-British but truly Russian. They never failed their dobra Amerikanski soldats, whose close order drill on the streets of Pinega was a source of inspiration to the Russian recruits.
Furthermore, let it be said that the faithful representation of American ideals of manhood and square deal and democratic courtesy, here as on other fronts, but here in particular, won the confidence of the at first suspicious and pinkish-white government. Our American soldiers' conduct never brought a complaint to the command headquarters. They secured the affectionate support of the people of the Pinega Valley. Never was any danger of an enemy raiding force surprising the American lieutenant, sergeant or corporal whose detachment was miles and miles from help. The natives would ride a pony miles in the dark to give information to the Americans and be gratified with his thanks and cigarettes.
Freely the Pinega Russians for weeks and weeks provided sleighs and billets and trench-building details and so forth without expecting pay. An arrogant British officer travelling with a pocket full of imprest money could not command the service that was freely offered an American soldier. The doughboy early learned to respect their rude homes and customs. He did not laugh at their oddities but spared their sensitive feelings. He shook hands a dozen times heartily if necessary in saying dasvedania, and left the Russian secure in his own self-respect and fast friend of the American officer or soldier.
For his remarkable success in handling the ticklish political situation in face of overwhelming military disadvantages, and also in rallying and putting morale into the White Guard units of the Pinega area, during those nine desperate weeks, the American officer commanding the Pinega forces, Captain Joel R. Moore, was thanked in person by General Maroushevsky, Russian G. H. Q., who awarded him and several officers and men of "M" and "G" Russian military decorations. And General Ironside sent a personal note, prized almost as highly as an official citation, which the editors beg the indulgence here of presenting merely for the information of the readers:
Archangel, March 18, 1919.
My Dear Moore: I want to thank you for all the hard work you did when in command of the Pinega area. You had many dealings with the Russians, and organized their defense with great care and success.
All the reports I have received from the Russian authorities express the fact that you dealt with them sympathetically under many difficult circumstances.
As you probably found, responsibility at such a distance from headquarters is difficult to bear, even for an experienced soldier, and I think you carried out your duties as Commander with great credit.
I am especially pleased with the manner in which you have looked after your men, which is often forgotten by the non-professional soldier. In such conditions as those prevailing in Russia, unless the greatest care is taken of the men, they lose health and heart and are consequently no good for the job for which they are here. Believe me yours very sincerely, (Signed) EDMOND IRONSIDE, Major-General.
When the Americans left the Pinega sector of defense in March, they carried with them the good wishes of the citizens and the Russian soldiers of that area. The writer travelled alone the full length of the lower Pinega Valley after his troops had passed through, finding everywhere the only word necessary to gain accommodations and service was the simple sentence uttered in broken Russian, Yah Amerikanski Kapitan, Kammandant Pinega. The American soldiers, hastening Archangel-ward so as to be ready for stern service on another hard-beset front, found themselves aided and assisted cheerfully by the Pinega Valley peasants who were grateful for the defense of their area in the desperate winter campaign.
During those ticklish weeks of Bolshevik pressure of greatly superior numbers constantly threatening to besiege Pinega, and of a political propaganda which was hard to offset, the Americans held on optimistically. If they had made a single false step politically or if their White Guards had lost their morale they would have had a more exciting and desperate time than they did have in the defense of Pinega.*****
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