Bolsheozerki One-Reel Thriller--Brilliant Strategy Of Trotsky's Northern Army Commander--General Ironside And Major Nichols Take Personal Command Of Critical Situation--Twelve Miles Out In Woods With Five Pieces Of Artillery--"M" Company Relieves "E"--Little Force Beleaguered For Days--Three Invincible Days And Nights--Reds Ambush Several Parties--Enemy Baffled And Punished Dreadfully--American Pluck And Luck Triumph.
Bolsheozerki was a one reel thriller. Kodish had been a repetition of nightmares both for the Reds and the Yanks. Shenkursk had been a five act drama the tragic end of which had been destined when the Americans were ordered to dig in so far forward, isolated from the supporting forces. This last front, Bolsheozerki, sprang suddenly into acute importance in March just at the end of winter and was savagely fought.
The brilliant strategy of the Bolo Northern Army commander, General Kuropatkin, in sending a Bolo general with a great flying wedge between the Onega Force and the Railroad Force was executed with a surprisingly swift flank movement that caught the French napping at the lightly held Bolsheozerki position, March 16-17. Their force was annihilated, a convoy was captured, and the old priest of the area came fleeing to Obozerskaya with news of this enemy drive that would soon, unless checked, capture Obozerskaya, and thus pierce a vital point of the whole Archangel defense. The railroad front sectors would be cut off, Seletskoe would be pinched, and the River Fronts taken in rear if Obozerskaya with its stores, munitions and transportation fell into the hands of the Bolsheviki.
General Ironside hastened to Obozerskaya to take personal command. The French Colonel commanding there had himself been cut off at Chinova on the west side of Bolsheozerki and had failed to fight his way through the next day, March 18th, with an escort of "H" Company men, story of which is related elsewhere. Ironside ordered up three Companies of Yorks and a Polish Company, who had been on the road from Onega to Bolsheozerki to join the Americans at Chinova for a smash at the gathering Reds in Bolsheozerki. Their gallant but futile fight with its hard losses on March 23rd, from the enemy fire and winter frost has been told. Meanwhile General Ironside hurried out an American company from Archangel together with an Archangel Regiment Company and eighty Yorks and some of the French Legion Courier du Bois to make an attack on the Reds at the same time on their other flank. But the Reds had their artillery all set to command the road at Verst 19 and threw the Russian troops into confusion with severe losses. "E" Company of Americans resolutely floundered for hours through the five-foot snow to reach a distant viewpoint of the village of Bolsheozerki where they could hear the furious action between "H" and the Reds on the farther side, but by field telephone, were ordered by Colonel Guard to return to Verst 18 on the road and dig in.
For a few days both sides used the winter sleigh roads for all they were worth in bringing up artillery and supplies and men and wire, and so forth. The Reds had sixty versts to haul their loads but they had the most horses, which they used without mercy. An American soldier who was ambushed and taken prisoner during this fighting says that he never saw before nor since so many dead horses, starved and overdriven, as he saw on the winter trail south from Bolsheozerki. The Reds brought up artillery enough to cover approaches to both their west and east fronts where the Allied forces were menacing them.
Ironside ordered out five pieces of French-Russian artillery, a hazardous but necessary move. These guns were set along the snowpacked broad corduroy highway near Verst 18, twelve miles from Obozerskaya, and four miles from the overwhelming force of Bolsheviks. Day and night the old howitzer, with airplane observation, roared defiance at Bolsheozerki and the Russian 75's barked viciously first at the village positions of the Reds and then at their wood's artillery and infantry positions which the Reds were pushing forward at this devoted Allied force that stood resolutely between them and Obozerskaya.
Fresh companies of Americans and Russians relieved those who were shivering and exhausted in the snow camp at Verst 18. Company "C," 310th Engineers platoon, hastily threw up barricades of logs for the doughboys and before the day of attack, had completed two of the several projected blockhouses. Part of them, who had not been sent back to build the second defense position that now seemed inevitable, were found with the doughboys, rifle in hand, during the desperate days that followed. The company of Yanks who now took over the active defense of this camp, "M" Company, was a resourceful outfit which soon improved its barricades and built brush shelters within which they could conceal their warm fires. By their reputation as fighters and by their optimism they won the spirited support of the green Russian supporting company. And the machine gun crews of Russians who stood with the Americans at the critical front and rear road positions did themselves proud.
Every day made the Verst 18 position less hazardous. The Reds made a mistake in waiting to mass up a huge force, seven thousand--their prisoners and their own newspapers afterward admitted. If they had struck quickly after March 23rd the Allied force would have soon been out of ammunition and been compelled to retire. But during the days devoted to massing up the Red forces and working around through the deep snow to attack the rear of the Verst 18 camp, the Allied force of two hundred Americans and four hundred Allied troops, mostly Russians, were stocked up with food and munitions and artillery shells sufficient to stand against a desperate, continuous onslaught. And they did.
Came then the three days' continuous attack by the enemy in his determined attempt to gain possession of the road so as to be able to move his artillery over it to attack Obozerskaya. His men could travel light through the woods on skiis but to get artillery and the heavy munitions across he must have that one road. He must first dispose of the stubborn force in the road at Verst 18. For this attack, he used three regiments. The 2nd Moscow, whose Commissar we took prisoner the first day; the 90th Saratov whose commanding officer was shot from his white horse the second day; and the 2nd Kasan.
The first day's fight began, on the morning of the last day of March with a surprise attack at the rear, cutting our communications off, ambushing two parties of officers and men, and threatening to capture the two 75's which were guarded by a single platoon of "M" Company and two Russian machine guns. The artillery officer reversed his guns and gave the enemy direct fire, shrapnel set for muzzle burst. Another platoon reinforced the one and a Lewis gun Corporal distinguished himself by engaging the two Bolo machine guns that had been set in the road to the rear. The guns were held.
Meanwhile under cover of this attack at the rear a heavy assault was delivered against the forward blockhouses and barricades. Fortunately the Reds directed their attack at the points held by the Americans rather than at the four flank positions held by the green Archangel troops. The shooting was good that day for the veteran Yanks and they repulsed all attacks at front and rear with terrible losses to the enemy. Night found the Americans shaking hands with themselves for being in a tightly fortified place and carrying plenty more ammunition to every firing point where the enemy was expected to appear again the next day. According to the prisoners taken this was only a preliminary attack to develop our lines of fire. The next day he would envelop the little force in great numbers.
He did. At day-break, 3:30 a. m., April 1st, he threw his weight into three waves of assault on the front line and attacked later in the rear. The stoutly fortified men did not budge but worked every death dealing weapon with great severity. Rifle grenades came into use as the enemy by sheer weight of masses surged within their 200-yard range. The machine guns faltered only once and then a Yankee Corporal, William Russell, Company "M" 339th Infantry, won for himself a posthumous American citation and D. S. C. for his heroic deed in regaining fire control by engaging the enemy machine gun which crawled up to short range in the thick woods with his Lewis gun. The Russian artillery observer distinguished himself by his accuracy in covering the enemy assaulting lines with shrapnel. As on the preceding day every attacking line of the enemy was repulsed. And darkness closed the scene at 9:00 p. m. with the little force still intact but standing to arms all night, front, flanks and rear.
The cold was severe but the Bolsheviki lying on their arms out in the snow where their assaulting lines faltered and dug in, suffered even more and many crawled in to give themselves up rather than freeze. Back to their camp they could not go for they had been promised the usual machine gun reception if they retired from the fight. That probably accounts for their commanding officer's riding up on his white horse to his death. He thought his men had won their objective when fire ceased for an hour in the middle of the day, and he rode almost to our barricade.
This was the fiercest fighting. The all night's vigil did not bring a renewal of the attack till after the Bolo artillery gave the position two thorough rakings which destroyed one of the barricades and drove everyone to shelter behind the pine trees. Then the infantry attack petered out before noon. This was the day that "H" Company and the Yorks again attacked on the other side of Bolsheozerki, with the severe losses mentioned elsewhere. But their attack helped the badly wearied "M" Company who stood bearing the brunt of attack in the Bolo's road to Obozerskaya. Their artillery vigorously shelled the Reds in Bolsheozerki and felt out his advance lines with patrols but were content mainly to stand fast to their works and congratulate themselves that their losses had been so slight after so terrific a struggle. The horse shoes had again been with that outfit of Americans. Three dead, three missing in action, one wounded and three shell shocked. The Yorks and Russians suffered no casualties. The ground was covered with Bolshevik dead.
On the night of April 4th the American Company was relieved by a company of Yorks and an additional company of Russians, and for a few more days the Bolos occupied Bolsheozerki but they had shot their bolt. They made no more attempts to break through to the railroad and take Obozerskaya. Savagely the Red Guards had three times resisted attempts to dislodge them from Bolsheozerki. Just as stubbornly and with terrible deadliness the little force at Verst 18 had held the Reds in Bolsheozerki when they tried to move upon Obozerskaya. And when the April sun began to soften the winter roads into slush he had to feint an attack on Volshenitsa and escape between two days from Bolsheozerki, returning to Shelaxa.
The Americans had never had such shooting. They knew the enemy losses were great from the numbers of bodies found and from statements of prisoners and deserters. Later accounts of our American soldiers who were ambushed and captured, together with statements that appeared in Bolshevik newspapers placed the losses very high. The old Russian general massed up in all over seven thousand men in this spectacular and well-nigh successful thrust. And his losses from killed in action, wounded, missing and frost-bitten were admitted by the Bolshevik reports to be over two thousand.
It was in this fighting that Bolshevik prisoners were taken in almost frozen condition to the American Y. M. C. A. man's tent for a drink of hot chocolate which he was serving to the Americans, Yorks, Russians and all during those tight days. And the genial Frank Olmstead was recognized by the prisoners as a "Y" man who had been in the interior of Russia in the days when Russians were not fighting Americans but Germans.
To the doughboy or medic or engineer who stood there at bay those three invincible days, Bolsheozerki means deep snow, bitter cold, cheerless tents, whiz-bangs, high explosive, shrap, rat-tat-tat interminable, roar and crash, and zipp and pop of explosive bullet, with catch-as-catch-can at eats, arms lugged off with cases of ammunition, constant tension, that all ended up with luck to the plucky.
[Illustration: Sentry in forest outlined by bright light (fire?) in background.] RED CROSS PHOTO Flashlight of a Doughboy Outpost at Verst 455
[Illustration: Group of soldier admiring a sword.] U.S. Official Photo Bolo Commander's Sword Taken in Battle of Bolsheozerki
[Illustration: Five smiling soldiers.] U.S. Official Photo 158853 After Eight Days--Near Bolsheozerki
[Illustration: Several soldiers standing in deep snow.] U.S. Official Photo Wood Pile Strong Point--Verst 445
[Illustration: About 30 rail cars near a small siding.] U.S. Official Photo 161108 Verst 455--"Fort Nichols"
[Illustration: Six soldiers in white coveralls standing in front of log building.] WAGNER Back from Patrol
[Illustration: Explosion in clearing of snow covered forest.] U S. OFFICIAL PHOTO Our Shell Bursts Near Bolo Skirmish Line
[Illustration: Four soldiers standing in front of snow covered log shed.] WAGNER Blockhouse, Shred Makrenga*****
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