WINTER ON THE RAILROAD
WINTER ON THE RAILROAD
We Come Under French Flag--Thanksgiving Day At Verst 455--Exploration And Blockhouse Building--First Occupation Of Bolsheozerki--Airplane Bombs Our Own Front Line Troops--Year's End Push On Plesetskaya Fiasco--Nichols Makes Railroad Sector Impregnable--Bolo Patrol Blows Up Our Big Six--Heavy Drive By Reds At Winter's End--"I" Company Relieves French-Russian Force--Valorous Conduct Of Men Gives Lie To Charges Of Loss Of Morale.
In the narrative telling of the fighting on the Vaga and Dvina, we have already seen that the Red Guards had disillusioned us in regard to the quiet winter campaign we hoped and expected. Now we shall resume the story of the Railroad, or Vologda Force, as it had become known, and tell of the attempted Allied push on Plesetskaya to relieve the pressure on the River Fronts.
After our digging in at Verst 445 in early November, a Company of Liverpools came from Economia to aid the French infantry and American and French machine gunners, supported by French artillery, to hold that winter front. The American units who had fought on the railroad in the fall were all given ten days rest in Archangel. Soon the Americans were once more back on the front. And it started off uneventful. A French officer, Colonel Lucas, had come into command of the Vologda Force. American units were generously supplied with the French Chauchat automatic rifles, and ammunition for them, and with French rifles and tromblons to throw the rifle grenades. Earnest business of learning to use them.
Those who were stationed at field headquarters of the Front Sector of the Vologda Force, which was at Verst 455, will recollect with great pleasure the Thanksgiving Day half-holiday and program arranged by Major Nichols, commanding the American forces. He gave us Miss Ogden, the Y. W. C. A. woman from d. o. U. S. A. to read President Wilson's proclamation. How strange it seemed to us soldiers standing there under arms. And Major Moodie the old veteran of many a British campaign, and friend of Kitchener, the good old story teller praised the boys and prayed with them. Major Nichols and Major Alabernarde spoke cheering and bracing words to the assembled American and French soldiers. It was an occasion that raised fighting morale.
The President's Thanksgiving proclamation was transmitted to the American troops in Russia through the office of the American Embassy. The soldiers listened intently to the words of Mr. De Witt C. Poole, Jr., the American Charge d'Affaires who since the departure of Ambassador Francis, was the American diplomatic representative in European Russia. His message was as follows:
"The military Command has been asked to make this day a holiday for the troops, so far as military requirements permit, and to communicate to them upon an occasion fraught with tradition and historical memories, the hearty greetings of all Americans who are working with them in Northern Russia.
"The American Embassy desires the troops to know that both here and at Washington there is a full understanding of the difficulties of the work which they are being called upon to do and a desire no less ardent than their own that they should realize as soon as possible the blessings of the peace which is foreshadowed by the armistice on the Western Front."
The chief note in the President's proclamation which lingered on the doughboy's ear was as follows:
"Our gallant armies have participated in a triumph which is not marred or stained by any purpose of selfish aggression. In a righteous cause they have won immortal glory and have nobly served their nation in serving mankind."
Work of building blockhouses went rapidly forward under the steady work of the 310th Engineers and the cheerful labor of the infantrymen who found the occupation of swinging axes and hauling logs through the snow to be not unpleasant exercise in the stinging winter weather that was closing down. A commodious building began to go up at 455 for the Y. M. C. A. French-Russian force under a terrific bombardment and barrage of machine to use for winter entertainments for the men stationed in that stronghold.
Exploration of the now more available winter swamp trails went on carefully. The chain of lakes and swamps several miles to the west ran north from Sheleksa concentration camp of the Bolos to Bolsheozerki, parallel to the Railroad line of operations. This Bolsheozerki was an important point on the government road which went from Obozerskaya to Onega. It was thought wise to protect this village as in winter mail would have to be sent out of Archangel by way of Obozerskaya, via Onega, via Kem, via Kola, the open winter port on the Murmansk coast hundreds of miles away to the west and north. And troops might be brought in, too. A look at the map will discover the strategic value of this point Bolsheozerki. American and French troops now began to alternate in the occupation of that cluster of villages.
A sergeant of "M" Company might tell about the neat villages, about the evidences of a higher type than usual of agriculture in the broad clearing, about the fishing nets and wood cutters' tools, and last, but not least about the big schoolhouse and the winsome barishna who taught the primary room.
Nothing more than an occasional patrol or artillery exchange took place on the railroad although there was an occasional flurry when the British intelligence officers found out that the Reds were plotting a raid or a general attack. It was known that they had begun to augment their forces on our front. Sound of their axes had been as constant on the other side of No Man's Land as it had on our side. They were erecting blockhouses for the winter. Occasionally their airplanes exchanged visits with ours, always dropping a present for us. No casualties resulted from their bombs directed at us. Unfortunately one day our bombing plane mistook our front line for the Red front line and dropped two big bombs on our own position and caused one death and one severe wound.
The accident happened just as an American company was being relieved by a French company. And it was a good thing the commander of the company consumed the remainder of the day in getting his excited and enraged men back to Obozerskaya because by that time the men were cooled off and the nervous Royal Air Force had no occasion to use its rifles in self-defense as it had prepared to do. They wisely stayed inside, as in fact did the few other English sergeants and enlisted men at Obozerskaya that ticklish night. The few wild Yanks who roamed the dark, without pass, had all the room and road. There was a particularly good mission at once found for this American company on another front, whether by design or by coincidence. A board of officers whitewashed the Canadian flyers of the Royal Air Force and the incident was closed.
Of course all the accidents did not happen to Americans. During the winter on the Railroad, a sad one happened to a fine British officer. A brooding enlisted man of the American medical corps went insane one dark night and craftily securing a rifle held up the first Englishman he found. He roundly berated the British officer with being the cause of the North Russian War on the Bolsheviki, told the puzzled but patiently listening officer to say a prayer and then suddenly blew off the poor man's head and himself went off his nut completely.
With the beginning of the winter campaign Pletsetskaya's importance to the Red Army began to loom up. Trotsky's forces could be readily supplied from that city and his forces could be swiftly shifted from front to front to attack the widely dispersed forces of the Allied Expedition. It was seen now clearly that the fall offensive should have been pushed through to Plesetskaya by the converging Onega, Railroad and Kodish Forces. And plans were made to retrieve the error by putting on a determined push late in December to take Plesetskaya and reverse the strategic situation so as to favor the Allied Expeditionary Forces.
The Onega Force was to make a strong diversion toward the Bolo extreme left; the Kodish Force was to smash through Kodish to Kochmas assisted by a heavy force of Russians and English operating on and through Gora and Taresevo, and thence to Plesetskaya; the French-trained company of Russian Courier-du-Bois were to go on snow shoes through the snow from Obozerskaya to the rear of Emtsa for a surprise attack; and timed with all these was the drive of the Americans and British Liverpools on the Railroad straight at the Bolo fortifications at Verst 443 and Emtsa. Study of the big map will show that the plan had its merits.
There were one or two things wrong with the plan. One was that it underestimated the increased strength of the Bolshevik forces both in numbers and in morale and discipline. The other was the erroneous estimate of the time required to make the distances in the deep snow. Of course it was not the fault of the plan that the information leaked out and disaffected men deserted the Allied Russian auxiliaries' ranks and tipped off the push to the Bolsheviki.
The story of the New Year's battles by "H" on the one hand and "K" on the other have been told. It remains to relate here the "railroad push" fiasco. The Courier-du-Bois got stuck in the deep snow, exhausted and beaten before they were anywhere near Emtsa. American Machine Gun men at Verst 445 front reported that S. B. A. L. deserters had gone over to the Bolo lines. The Reds on December 29th and 30th became very active with their artillery. Reports came in of the failure of the Russian-British force that was to attack Tarsevo, and of the counter attack of the Reds in the Onega Valley. So the Liverpools and the French company and Winslow's "I" Company and Lt. Donovan's combination company of two platoons of "G" and "M" who were all set for the smash toward Emtsa and Plesetskaya found their orders suddenly countermanded on December 31st and settled down to the routine winter defensive.
In order to facilitate troop movements and to make command more compact, the French Colonel in command of the railroad force arranged that the Americans should man the sectors of defense during the month of February all alone and that the French battalion should occupy in March. This worked out fairly satisfactory. "L" Company and half of "E" Company, after rest at Archangel from their desperate work at Kodish, joined "I" Company and half of "G" Company on the railroad under Major Nichols, where an uneventful but busy month was passed in patrolling, instruction and so forth.
Every sector of the railroad front was made practically impregnable to infantry attack by the energetic work of "A" and "B" Company engineers and the Pioneer platoon of Headquarters Company. And the dugouts which they constructed at Verst 445 proved during the intermittent artillery shelling of January-March to be proof against the biggest H. E. the Bolo threw. Major Nichols sure drove the job of fortification through with thoroughness and secured a very formidable array of all sorts of weapons of defense. A great naval gun that could shoot twenty versts was mounted on an American flat car and taken to his popular field headquarters at Verst 455, where it was the pet of the crew of Russian sailors. And constant instruction and practice with the various weapons of the British, French and Russian types, which were in the hands of the Americans gave them occupation during the many days of tension on this winter front, where they daily expected the same thing to happen that was overpowering their comrades on the River Fronts. And when at the very end of the winter and the break of spring, the Reds did come in great force the defenses were so strong and well manned that they held at every point.
In March the French had a little excitement while the battalion of Americans were at rest in Archangel. A daring Bolshevik patrol in force circumnavigated through the deep snow of the pine woods on skiis and surprised the poilu defenders of their favorite howitzer on the railway track, killing several and capturing the big six-inch trouble maker. They destroyed it by feeding it a German hand grenade and then made their getaway. Successes on other fronts seemed to stimulate the Bolos to try out the defenses on this hitherto very quiet front. They gave the Frenchies lots of trouble with their raiding parties. Whether the fact that the French had local Russian troops with them had anything to do with the renewal of activity is not provable, but it seems probable, judging from the hatred seen expressed between Bolos and anti-Bolsheviks on other fronts that winter.
And before the month of March was gone, Major Nichols was hurried back to the Railroad Front, taking "L" and "E" Companies with him. The French-Russian forces were in trouble. They had lost the strategic Bolsheozerki, story of the severe fighting about which will form a separate chapter. Rumor has it that the Russian troops on the front were demoralized and that the enemy would strike before the Americans could get there to relieve the French-Russian force.
General Ironside himself went to the railroad and the new Bolsheozerki front and saw that quick action only could save the situation. He gave Major Nichols free hand with his battalion and released "E" Company which was on the Bolsheozerki front by sending "M" Company to the desperate spot. Nichols with characteristic decisiveness determined to make the relief before the set time and have his own men meet the attack. It worked at all points. At Verst 445, the very front, "I" Company gallantly went in to relieve the French and Russian under artillery barrage and a heavy machine gun barrage together with a heavy infantry attack on one flank. This company which has been unjustly accused of having mutinied the day before at Archangel, was on this day and three succeeding days subjected to all the fury of attack that the Red Army commander had been mustering up for so many days to crush the French-Russian force. And "I" Company supported by the French artillery, by machine gun and trench mortar men, stood the Reds off with great resolution and inflicted terrible losses. The railroad front line was saved. The flank position gained by the Reds at Bolsheozerki would be of doubtful value to them as long as the railroad sectors held. The stoutness of the American defenses and the stoutness of their morale had both been vindicated in terrific battle action.
And hereafter any veteran of the winter campaign fighting the Bolsheviki, who still meets the false story of alleged mutiny of one of the companies of the 339th Infantry in Archangel, a false story that will not down even after emphatic denial by high army authorities who investigated the reports that slipped out to the world over the British cables, may ignore the charges as distortions which partisans who are pro-Bolshevik are in the habit of giving currency with the vain idea of trying to show that the Bolshevik propaganda convinced the American soldier. They may refer to this valorous battle action of the alleged mutinous company and to shining examples of its morale and valor in the long fall and winter campaign fighting the Bolsheviki. The story of the discontent which gave rise to the false story is told elsewhere.
In this connection the editors wish to add further that in their estimation the morale of this fighting company and of the other American units was remarkably good. And the story of this "I" Company going in to relieve the French-Russian force under a terrific bombardment and barrage of machine guns, the distant roar of which was heard for three days and nights by the writer who was on an adjoining front, has not been told with complete emphasis to the good fighting spirit of Captain Winslow's men. We would like to make it stronger.
The winter drive of the Reds on the Railroad merged into their spring raids and threats. The French soldiers did not return again to the front and the Americans stayed on. Major Nichols began breaking in units of the new Archangel government troops who served alongside the Yanks and were in the spring to relieve the American entirely.*****
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