HOLDING THE ONEGA VALLEY
HOLDING THE ONEGA VALLEY
December Fighting--Drawn Struggle Near Turchesova--Fighting Near Khala In February--Corporal Collins And Men Are Ambushed Near Bolsheozerki--"H" Company In Two Savage Battles--Lieuts. Collins And Phillips Both Mortally Wounded.
The enemy, who was massing up forces in the upper Pinega valley and, as we have seen, caused British G. H. Q. to send one company of Americans hurrying up the valley for a 150-mile march Christmas week, was also fixing up a surprise for the G. H. Q. on the other end of the great line of defense. That same Christmas week "H" Company found itself again up against greatly superior forces who, as they boasted, were commencing their winter campaign to drive the invaders of Russia to the depths of the White Sea.
On December 20th one squad of "H" men were in a patrol fight with the enemy which drove the Reds from the village of Kleshevo. On the following day Lt. Ketcham with twenty Americans and a platoon of R. A. N. B., Russian Allied Naval Brigade, proceeded south for reconnaissance in force and engaged a strong enemy patrol in Priluk, driving the Reds out, killing one, wounding one, and taking one prisoner. On December 22nd Lt. Carlson's platoon occupied Kleshevo and Lt. Ketcham's platoon occupied the village on the opposite side of the river. The next day at a village near Priluk Lt. Carlson's men on patrol encountered a Bolo combat patrol and inflicted severe losses and took five prisoners.
Christmas Day and several other days were occupied with these patrol combats by the two opposing forces, each of which thought the other had gone into winter quarters.
In conformity with the general advance planned on all fronts by the British Command to beat the enemy to the attack and to reach a position which would nullify the enemy's tremendous advantage of position with his base at Plesetskaya, the British Officer in command of the Onega Valley Detachment, planned an attack on Turchesova. Lt. E. R. Collins with the second fourth platoons left Pogashitche at 4:00 a. m. December 29, proceeding up the Schmokee River in an attempt to get around Turchesova and strike the enemy in the flank. It was found, however, that the woods on this side were impassable and so the force left the river by a winter trail for Pertema, proceeding thence to Goglova, to reinforce the Polish company of Allies who had captured that village on the same morning.
This was wise. The next morning the enemy counter-attacked Goglova in great force, but, fortunately, was repulsed without any casualties on our side. He had, however, a threatening position in the village of Zelyese, about a mile to the left flank and rear of our position and was discovered to be preparing to renew the battle the next day. Lt. Collins was obliged to divide his force just as again and again the American officers all along that great Russian winter front again and again were compelled to divide in the face of greatly superior and encircling forces.
Taking Lt. Ketcham's platoon early the next morning, he boldly struck at the enemy force in his rear and after an hour's fighting the "H" men had possession of the village. But the enemy was at once reinforced from Turchesova and delivered a counter-attack that the "H" men repulsed with severe losses. Our wounded in the action were two; none killed. Horseshoes again. The enemy dead and wounded were over fifty. The enemy continued firing at long range next day, New Years of 1919, and wounded one "H."
Indications pointed toward an inclination of the enemy to evacuate Turchesova. Therefore, a message received by Lt. Collins at 5:00 p. m., January 1, from British O. C. Onega Det., ordering a withdrawal within two hours to Kleshevo, came as a surprise to the American soldiers. In this hasty retreat much confusion arose among the excited Russian drivers of sleighs. Some horses and drivers were injured; much ammunition, equipment, and supplies were lost.
The enemy did not follow and for the remainder of January and up to February 9th the "H" Company men performed the routine duties of patrol and garrison duties in the Onega Valley in the vicinity of Kleshevo without any engagement with the enemy who seemed content to rest in quarters and keep out of the way of the Americans and Allies.
On February 10th Lt. Ketcham with a combat patrol drove the enemy from Khala whom he encountered with a pair of machine guns on patrol. He defeated the Reds without any casualties, inflicting a loss on the enemy of one killed and two wounded.
For more than a month the sector of defense was quiet except for an occasional rise of the "wind." Active patrols were kept out. Captain Ballensinger assumed command of the company and moved his headquarters from Onega to Chekuevo. As the mail from and to Archangel from the outside world as well as supplies and reinforcements of men were now obliged to use the road from Obozerskaya to Bolsheozerki to Chekuevo to Onega to Kem and so on to Kola and return, it became part of the duty of "H" Company to patrol the road from Chekuevo to Obozerskaya; taking two days coming and two days going with night stops at Chinova or Bolsheozerki.
The last of these patrols left Chekuevo on Sunday, March 16, fell into the hands of the advance patrols of the Bolo General who had executed a long flank march, annihilated the Franco-Russian force at Bolsheozerki, and occupied the area with a great force of infantry, mounted men, skii troops, and both light and heavy artillery, as related elsewhere in connection with the story of the defense of the railroad.
The next day Lt. Collins with thirty men and a Lewis gun started toward Bolsheozerki to discover the situation with orders to report at Chinova to Col. Lucas, the French officer in command of the Vologda Force. Travelling all night, he reached Col. Lucas in the morning and the latter determined to push on under escort of the Americans and attempt to reach Bolsheozerki and Oborzerskaya, being at that time ignorant of the real strength of the force of Reds that had interrupted the communications.
About noon, March 18th, the detachment in escort formation left Chinova and proceeded without signs of enemy till within four versts of Bolsheozerki, where they were met by sudden burst of a battery of machine guns. Luckily the range was wrong. The horses bolted upsetting the sleighs and throwing Col. Lucas into the neck-deep snow. The Americans returned the fire and slowly retired with the loss of but one man killed. Crawling in the snow for a great distance gave many of them severe frost bites, one of the most acute sufferers being the French Col. Lucas. The detachment returned to Chinova to report by telephone to Chekuevo and to organize a defensive position in case the enemy should advance toward Chekuevo. The enemy did not pursue. He was crafty. That would have indicated his great strength.
By order of Col. Lawrie, British O. C. Onega Det., Lt. Phillips was sent with about forty "H" Company men to reinforce Lt. Collins. It was the British Colonel's idea that only a large raiding party of Bolos were at Bolsheozerki for the purpose of raiding the supply trains of food that were coming from Archangel to Chekuevo. Phillips reached Chinova before daybreak of the twentieth. Lt. Collins was joined at the little village of Chinova by three companies of Yorks, enroute from Murmansk to Obozerskaya, a U. S. Medical corps officer, Lt. Springer, and four men joined the force and an attack was ordered on Bolsheozerki by these seventy Americans and three hundred Yorks. They did not know that they were going up against ten times their number.
At 2:00 a. m. the movement started and at nine in the morning the American advance guard drew fire from the enemy. Deploying as planned on the left of the road the "H" men moved forward in line of battle. One company of Yorks moved off to the right to attack from the woods and one on the left of the Americans. One York company was in reserve. After advancing over five hundred yards in face of the enemy machine gun fire, the Americans were exhausted by the deep snow and held on to a line within one hundred yards of the enemy. The Yorks on the right and left advanced just as gallantly and were also held back by the deep snow and the severity of the enemy machine gun fire.
The fight continued for five hours. Lovable old Lt. Collins fell mortally wounded by a Bolo bullet while cheering his men on the desperate line of battle. At last Lt. Phillips was obliged to report his ammunition exhausted and appealed for reinforcements and ammunition. Major Monday passed on the appeal to Col. Lawrie who gave up the attack and ordered the forces to withdraw under cover of darkness, which they all did in good order. Losses had not been as heavy as the fury of the fight promised. One American enlisted man was killed and Lt. Collins died of hemorrhage on the way to Chekuevo. Eight American enlisted men were severely wounded. The Yorks lost two officers and two enlisted men killed, and ten enlisted men wounded. Many of the American and British soldiers were frostbitten.
During the next week the enemy, we learned later, greatly augmented his forces and strengthened his defenses of Bolsheozerki with German wire, machine guns, and artillery. He was evidently bent on exploiting his patrol action success and aimed to cut the railroad at Obozerskaya and later deal with the Onega detachment at leisure. Our troops made use of the lull in the activities to make thorough patrols to discover enemy positions and to send all wounded and sick to Onega for safety, bringing up every available man for the next drive to knock the Bolo out of Bolsheozerki. This was under the command of Lt.-Col. Morrison (British army).
Meanwhile the Bolo General had launched a vicious drive at the Americans and Russians who stood between him and his railway objective, encircling them with three regiments, and on April 2, after two days of continuous assault was threatening to overpower them. In this extremity Col. Lawrie answered the appeal of the British officer commanding at Obozerskaya by ordering another attack on the west by his forces. Captain Ballensinger reports in substance as follows:
In compliance with orders he detailed April 1, one N. C. O. and ten privates to man two Stokes mortars, also one N. C. O. and seven privates for a Vickers gun. Both these details reported to a Russian trench mortar officer and remained under his command during the engagement. The balance of the available men at the advance base Usolia was divided into two platoons, the first under Lt. Phillips and the other under the First Sergeant. These platoons under Capt. Ballensinger's command, as part of the reserve, joined the column on the road at the appointed time.
They arrived at their position on the road about four versts from Bolsheozerki about 1:00 a. m. April 2. Zero hour was set at daybreak, 3:00 a. m. The first firing began about thirty minutes later, "A" Company of the Yorks drawing fire from the northern or right flank of the enemy. They reported afterward that the Bolos had tied dogs in the woods whose barking had given the alarm. That company advanced in the face of strong machine gun fire and Capt. Bailey, a British officer went to his death gallantly leading his men in a rush at the guns on a ridge. But floundering in the snow, with their second officer wounded, they were repulsed and forced to retire.
At 5:00 a. m. Lt. Pellegrom, having hurried out from Archangel, reported for duty and was put in command of a platoon.
At 6:00 a. m. "A" Company Yorks was in desperate straits and by verbal order of Col. Lund one platoon of Americans was sent to support their retirement. Lt. Phillips soon found himself hotly engaged.
The original plan had been to send the Polish Company in to attack the southern villages or the extreme left of the Bolo line, but owing to their lateness of arrival they were not able to go in there and were held for a frontal attack, supported by the American trench mortars. They were met by a severe machine gun fire and after twenty minutes of hot fire and heavy losses retired from action.
Meanwhile "C" Company Yorks which had been sent around to attack on the north of Bolsheozerki got lost in the woods in the dark, trying to follow an old trail made by a Russian officer and a few men who had come around the north end of the Bolsheozerki area a few days previously with messages from Obozerskaya. The company did not get into action and had to return. Thus the attack had failed, and the force found itself on a desperate defensive.
The "A" Yorks, who had suffered severely, retired from action immediately after the first counter-attack of the Bolo had been repulsed. Then the whole defense of this messed-up attacking force fell upon the American platoon and a dozen Yorks with a doughty British officer. Phillips, through the superb control of his men, kept them all in line and his Lewis guns going with great effectiveness and gave ground slowly and grudgingly, in spite of casualties and great severity of cold.
When Phillips fell with the wound which was later to prove fatal, Pellegrom came up with his platoon to relieve the exhausted platoon, and "C" Company Yorks arrived on the line from their futile flank march just in time to join the Americans at 9:00 a. m. in checking the redoubled counterattack of the hordes of Bolos.
Meanwhile the Polish troops refused to go back into the fighting line to help stem the Bolo attack. Peremptory order brought two of their Colt automatics up to the line where for forty-five minutes they engaged the enemy, but again retired to the rear and assisted only by firing their machine gun over the heads of the Americans and British battling for their very lives all that afternoon in the long thin line of American O. D. and British Khaki.
The Bolo was held in check and at dusk the Americans and British and Poles withdrew in good order.
This ill-fated attack had met with a savage repulse but no doubt it had a great effect upon the Bolshevik General at Bolsheozerki. On his right he had himself met bloody disaster from a company of Americans who had fought his attacking battalions to a standstill for sixty hours and here on his left flank was another Company of Americans who had twice attacked him and seemed never to stay defeated. April sun was likely to soften his winter road to mush very soon and then these Americans and their allies would have him at their mercy.
The losses of the enemy were not known but later accounts from prisoners and from natives of the village, who were there, placed them very high. In this last attack "H" lost one officer, who died of wounds later, also one man killed, one mortally wounded and seven others wounded. The British lost one officer killed, one wounded, two privates killed, two missing and ten wounded. The Polish Company lost five killed, eight missing and ten wounded.
Of the gallant Phillips who fell at Bolsheozerki we are pleased to include the following from his company commander:
"But when he went forward something made me look him over again, and the look I saw on his face and especially in his eyes, I shall never forget.
"I have never seen a look like it before or since. It was by no means the look of a man being afraid (I have seen those looks) nor was it a look of 'I don't care what happens.' It was a look that made me watch him all the way out. It made me hunt him up with my glasses, while I was watching the enemy. The latter was pressing us awfully hard that day, and when I observed our troops slowly giving ground, I went out in person to see if the look on Phillip's face had something to do with it. But I soon changed my mind. He was all along the line encouraging his men to hold on, he helped to put new Lewis guns in position. In short, he was everywhere without apparent thought of the bullets flying all around him. He pulled back wounded men to be carried back behind the lines. I know that his men would have held every bit of ground, had the British who were holding the flanks not fallen way back behind them.
"When the fateful bullet struck him, it knocked him down as if a ton of brick had fallen on him. He said to me, 'My God, I got it. Captain, don't bother with me, I am done for, just look after the boys'."
Let us here relate the story of his plucky fight for life after a Bolo bullet tore through his breast.
Borne tenderly in the arms of his own men to a sleigh which was gently drawn to Chanova and thence to Chekuevo, he rallied from his great loss of blood. Apparently his chances for recovery were good. He sat up in bed, ate with relish and exchanged greetings with his devoted "H" company men who to a man would gladly have changed places with him--what a fine comradeship there was between citizen-officer and citizen-soldier. Contrary to expectations Phillips was soon moved from Chekuevo to Onega for safety and for better care. But very soon after reaching Onega hemmorhage began again. Then followed weeks of struggle for life. Everything possible was done for him with the means at hand. Although the hospital afforded no X-ray to discern the location of the fatal arterial lesion through which his life was secretly spurting away, the post mortem revealed the fact that the Bolshevik rifle bullet had severed a tiny artery in his lung.
Care-worn American medical men wept in despair. Wireless messages throbbed disheartening reports on his condition to anxious regimental comrades on other fronts and at Archangel. At last the heroic struggle ended. On the tenth of May Phillips bled to death of his wound.
The valiant company had done its best in the fall and winter fighting. The company retired to Chekuevo and Onega, doing guard duty and patrols during the spring. The only event of note was the midnight game of baseball between the medics and doughboys. The medics could not hit the pills as hard as the doughboys. They left Onega June 5th, by steamboat for Economia Island and left Russia June 15th.*****
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