LETTING GO THE TAIL-HOLT
LETTING GO THE TAIL-HOLT
Preparing For Spring Defensive--River Situation Ticklish--Must Hold Till Our Gunboats Can Get Up--"F" Company Crosses River On Cracking Ice--Canadian Artillery Well Placed And Effectively Handled Holds Off Red Flotilla--Engineers Help Clear Dvina With Dynamite--Joyful Arrival Of British Gunboat "Glow Worm"--We Retake Ignatavskaya--Amusing Yet Dangerous Fishing Party--British Relief Forces Arrive On Vaga--Toulgas Is Lost And Retaken--British-Russian Drive At Karpogora Fails--Old White Guard Pinega Troops Hold Their City Against Red Drive Again--Kodish And Onega Fronts Quiet--Railroad Front Active But No Heavy Fighting-- General Richardson Helps Us Let Go Tail-Holt.
Many an uncomfortable hour in the winter General Ironside and his staff spent studying over the spring defense against the Reds. It was well known that the snows would melt and ice would loosen on the distant southern river valley heights and as customary the river from Kotlas to Toulgas would be open to the Red gunboats several days before the ice would be released in the lower river stretches, necessary to permit the Allied fleets of gunboats to come in from the Arctic Ocean and go up to help defend the advanced positions on the Dvina and Vaga upper river fronts. It was feared that Red heavy artillery would blow our fortified positions into bits, force our evacuation at a time when there was no such thing as transportation except by the rivers. These would be for a few days in control of the Reds. Thus our Americans and Allies who had so gallantly reddened the snows with their stern defense in the winter might find themselves at the mercy of the Reds.
Every effort was made to improve the shell-proof dugouts. Engineers and doughboys slaved at the toil. Wire was hurried for the double apron defenses on which to catch the mass attacks of the Bolsheviki. Supplies were stored at every point for sixty days so that a siege could be stood. And an Allied fleet was arranged to come as soon as the icebreakers could get them through the choked-up neck of the White Sea. And meanwhile the Canadian artillery was strengthened with the hope that they could oppose the Red fleets and delay them till the river opened to passage of the Allied fleets coming to save the troops.
The battle-worn veterans of "A" and "D" were strengthened by the men of "F" Company who had come into the front lines in March and now were bearing their full share and then some of the winter's end defense against the Red pressure. Cossack allies and Archangel regiments also were added to the Russian quotas that had done service on those fronts in the winter. Russian artillery units also were sent to Toulgas. In every way possible these desperate fronts were prepared to meet the heralded spring drive of the Red Guards.
As the ice and snow daily disappeared more and more Americans began arranging "booby traps" and dummy machine gun posts in the woods. These machine gun posts were prepared by fastening a bucket of water with a small hole punched in the bottom above another bucket which was tied to the trigger of a machine gun or rifle. The amount of water could be regulated so as to cause the gun to fire at regular intervals of from thirty minutes to an hour. Through the woods we strung concealed wires and sticks attached to hand grenades, the slightest touch of which would cause them to explode. Meanwhile in the rear, "B" Company Engineers, who had relieved "A" Company Engineers, were busily engaged in stuffing gun cotton, explosives and inflammable material in every building and shed at Kitsa and Maximovskaya.
On April nineteenth the ice in the Vaga was heaving and cracking. Kitsa, the doomed Kitsa, where the Yanks and Scots and Canadians alternately had held on so many days, expecting any time another overwhelming attack, was at this time being held by "F" Company. But the British officer in command had delayed his order to evacuate till Captain Ramsay was barely able to lead his men across. One more foolhardy day of delay would have lost the British officer a company of much needed troops.
Sharp on the hour of midnight April 19th "F" Company silently withdrew from the front line positions and started across the river, the ice of which was already beginning to move. As they marched through the inky darkness of the woods the dummy guns began discharging which kept the enemy deceived as to our movements.
As the last man crossed the river a rocket went up as a signal to the Engineers that "F" Company and the other infantry units had arrived safely at Ignatavskaya. The following moment the entire surrounding country shook to a series of terrific explosions both at Kitsa and Maximovskaya and then a great red glare emblazoned the sky as the two oil soaked villages burst into flame. The engineers quickly joined the party and from then on until the following morning they continued in a forced march back to prepared positions at Mala-Beresnik and Nizhni Kitsa on opposite sides of the river about eight versts in rear of Kitsa.
The positions here were a godsend after our experience of the past two months in the open and exposed positions further up the river. Here for more than two months hundreds of Russian laborers had been busily engaged in stringing mile after mile of barbed wire about the positions and constructed practically bomb-proof shelters. Furthermore, our artillery commanded a good view of the river, which was all important, for as the ice was now moving out we knew that the enemy gunboats would soon come steaming down river with nothing but land batteries to stop them since the mouth of the Dvina and the White Sea would not be free from ice for several weeks to come, thus making it impossible for our gunboats there to get down to these positions.
And the ice went out of the upper river with a crunching roar. The Reds came on with their water attacks, but with little success. The Canadian artillery was well prepared and so well manned that it beat the Red flotilla badly. Fortunately the Bolo gunners were not as accurate as on former occasions. So losses from this source were comparatively few.
The lower Dvina was unusually rapid in clearing this spring. The 310th Engineers had assisted by use of dynamite. The Red army command had counted on three weeks to press his water attacks. But by May tenth gunboats had gone up the Dvina to help batter Toulgas into submission. And when on May seventeenth Commander Worlsley of Antarctic fame went steaming up the Vaga on board the "Glow Worm," a heavily armed river gunboat, the worries of the Americans in the battle-scarred Vaga column were at an end.
With the gunboats now at their disposal the morale of all ranks was greatly improved and it was thereupon decided to retake the position at Ignatavskaya immediately across the river from Kitsa, which position was held by the enemy, giving him the opportunity of sheltering thousands of his troops there with his artillery on the opposite side of the river to further protect them.
On the morning of May 19th several strong patrols went forward into the woods in the direction of the enemy and quickly succeeded in gaining contact with his outposts. The Bolo must have sensed some activity for at 10:30 a. m. he commenced a violent artillery bombardment. Shortly thereafter his airplanes came flying over our lines and machine-gunned our trenches. The men had long since become so accustomed to this little by-play that they gave it little consideration other than keeping well under cover. Others even gave it less regard, as the following amusing incident indicates:
During the shelling of that morning a great number of enemy shells exploded in the river and these explosions immediately brought large numbers of fish to the surface. The company cook, seeing such a splendid opportunity to replenish the company larder, crawled down to the edge of the river, jumped into a rowboat and soon was occupied in filling his boat with fish, utterly disregardful of the intermittent shelling and sniping. That evening, needless to say, the cook was the most popular man in his company.
At 9:30 p. m. the boats brought down battalion after battalion of fresh Russian troops from Zaboria who were landed near our positions under cover preparatory to the attack on Ignatavskaya. It might be well to mention here that at this time of the year the Arctic sun was practically shining the entire twenty-four hours, only about midnight barely disappearing below the rim of the horizon, making it dark enough in the woods in the dull twilight to advance without observation. At midnight the infantry pushed forward along the road toward the Bolo outpost positions. American infantry also covered the opposite bank of the river.
Our guns on the river in conjunction with the land batteries immediately opened up with a terrific bombardment, shelling the Bolo positions for twenty minutes until the infantry had gained the outposts of the village and a few moments later when the barrage had lifted they entered Ignatavskaya, which had been in the hands of the enemy for more than a month. Our attack took the enemy clearly by surprise, for in the village itself we found great numbers of enemy dead and wounded, who had been caught under our curtain of fire from the artillery, and for the next several days we were busy in bringing in other wounded men and prisoners from the surrounding woods, estimated at more than two hundred alone.
We quickly consolidated the new position with our old ones and patiently sat tight, awaiting the coming of the new British reinforcements, which had by this time landed in Archangel. From this time on our fighting was practically at an end on the Vaga River.
Over on the Dvina during the months of March and April, "B" and "C" Company were still holding forth at Toulgas and Kurgomin far up the river. They were daily employed in patrol and defensive duty. The Bolo had acquired a healthy respect for these positions after his terrible repulses on this front during the winter.
In fact, so strong was this position here that by April we had gradually begun relieving American troops at Toulgas and supplanting them, about five to one, by fresh Russian troops from Archangel, who subsequently fell before the most vicious and deadly of all the enemy weapons--Bolshevik Propaganda.
During the night of April 25 and 26, these Russian troops who had been secretly conniving with the Red spies and agents, suddenly revolted, turned their guns on their own as well as the British officers there, and allowed the enemy lurking in the woods to walk unmolested into the positions that months of shelling and storm attacks had failed to shake. True, some of the Russians, especially the artillery men, remained loyal and by superhuman efforts succeeded in withdrawing with some equipment and guns to Shushuga on the same side of the river. Yorkshire troops and machine gunners were quickly rushed up to bolster up these loyal men and a few days later retribution swift and terrible was visited upon the deserters and their newly made comrades.
Shortly prior to the defection of the troops in Toulgas, and unknown to them, a battery of large six-inch guns had been brought up to the artillery position at Kurgomin on the opposite side of the river, which, with the guns already in position there, made it one of our strongest artillery positions. The enemy was given ample time in which to fully occupy the position at Toulgas, which he at once proceeded to do.
On the 26th day of April our artillery suddenly opened fire on Toulgas and at the same time dropped a curtain barrage on the far side of the village, making retreat practically impossible. During this time thousands of shells of high explosive gas and shrapnel were placed in the village proper with telling effect. Unable to go forward or back, we inflicted enormous losses upon the enemy, and shortly thereafter the loyal Russians, supported by English infantrymen, entered the village, putting the remaining numbers to flight and once again Toulgas was ours.
With the settling of the roads and trails the enemy was able to mass up forces and continue his harrying tactics but could make no impression on the Allied lines. Americans were gradually withdrawn from the front lines and Russians served along with the Liverpools and Yorks, who were now looking every week for the promised volunteers from England who were to relieve not only the Americans but the Liverpools and Yorks and other British troops in North Russia. "F" Company was active in patrolling during the month of May and reported last combat patrol with enemy near Kitsa on May twentieth. This company of Americans had been the last one to get into action in the fall and enjoyed the distinction of being the last one to leave the front, leaving on June 5 for Archangel.
Meanwhile the spring drive of the Red Guards who had massed up near Trufanagora on the Pinega River was menacing Pinega. After the Americans had been withdrawn from that area in March for duty on another front, Pinega forces under command of Colonel Deliktorski were augmented by the previously mentioned "Charlie" Tschaplan, now a Russian colonel with three companies, and supported by another section of Russian artillery. Also an old British veteran of the Mesopotamian campaign, personal friend of General Ironside, was sent out to Leunova to take command of a joint drive at the Bolsheviki. He had with him the well-known Colonel Edwards with his Asiatic troops, the Chinese coolies who had put on the S. B. A. L. uniform, and a valorous company of British troops equipped with skiis and sleds to make the great adventurous forest march across the broad base of the big inverted V so as to cut the Reds off far in their rear near Karpogora.
But that British-Russian adventure resulted disastrously. Two British officers lost their lives and their troops were nearly frozen in the woods and badly cut up by the Reds who had been all set for them with a murderous battery of machine guns. Too late the British-Russian command of the Pinega Valley found that the Americans had been right in their strategy which had not failed to properly estimate the Bolo strength and to properly measure the enormous labor and hardship of the cross-forest snows. Again the enthusiastic and fearless but woefully reckless Russian Colonel and English Colonel threw their men into death traps as they had done previously on other fronts. With success in defense the Reds gained their nerve back and again, as in December, January and February, began a drive on Pinega.
Then the stoutness of the city's White Guard defenses and their morale was put to the test. "K" Company men at Kholmogori waited with anxiety for the decision, for if Pinega fell then, Red troops would press down the river to threaten Kholmogori, which, though safe from winter attack because of the blockhouses built by American Engineers and doughboys, would be at the mercy of the gunboats the Reds were reported to have rigged up with guns sent over from Kotlas. But the Pinega artillery and machine guns and the stout barricades of the Pelegor and Kuligor infantrymen held out, though one of the gallant Russian officers, who had won the admiration of the Americans in the winter by continuing daily on duty with his machine gun company after he had been wounded severely in the arm, now fell among his men.
Later Allied gunboats ascended the Pinega River and that area was once more restored to safety. Spring thaw-up severed the Red communications with Kotlas, which was on the Dvina. The Bolsheviki in the upper Pinega could no longer maintain an offensive operation. Archangel was relieved from the menace on its left.
With the Vaga and Dvina Rivers now so well protected by the naval forces of the Allies, the Bolo drives up the Kodish-Seletskoe road were now no longer of much strategic importance to them. In the latter part of the winter they had hopes of themselves controlling the water. Then they had put on drives at Shred Mekhrenga and at the Kodish front but with severe losses and no gains. Now in the spring the warfare was reduced to combat patrol actions with an occasional raid, most of the aggressive being taken by our Allies, the Cossacks, and Russian Archangel troops.
On the Onega the spring was very quiet after the Reds withdrew their huge force from Bolsheozerki April 19. They withdrew under cover of a feinted attack in force on Volshenitsa, which was on the other flank of the railroad force. With the opening of Archangel harbor the Onega-Oborzerskaya road was no longer of so vital importance to us and the Reds' one savage thrust at it just at the close of winter, as related already, was their last drive. "H" Company had a quiet time during the remaining April and May days. And that company of men deserved the rest.
On the railroad the coming of spring meant the renewal of activities. For us it meant constant combat patrols and daily artillery duels. However, the Bolshevik seemed to be discouraged over his failure at the end of winter. His heralded May Day drive did not materialize. We brought our Russian infantrymen and machine gunners up to the front sectors, gradually displacing Americans until finally on May seventh Major Nichols was relieved at Verst 455--it should have been re-christened Fort Nichols--by Colonel Akutin, whose Russian troops took over the active defense of the front, with the Americans at Obozerskaya in reserve. At this place and at Bolsheozerki, "G", "L", "M", "I", and "E" Companies in the order named at the end of May, together with machine gun company platoons, were relieved by British and Russian troops. American Engineers also withdrew from this front just about the time that the First Battalion and "F" Company were embarking from Beresnik and "K" Company was steaming out of Yemeskoe and Kholmogori for Archangel. Most of the boys of the First Battalion had been up the river for months and had never seen the streets of Archangel.
One of the interesting features of the spring defensive was the arrival of General Wilds P. Richardson from France to take command of all American forces during the remainder of the time we were in North Russia. He arrived on a powerful ice-breaker which cut its way into Archangel on April seventeenth. At that time we were still running trains across the Dvina River on the railroad track laid on the ice, and continued to do so for several days.
General Richardson, veteran of many years of service in Alaska, immediately made his way to the various fronts. At Verst 455 on the railroad he said in part to the soldiers assembled there for his inspection:
"When I was detailed to come to North Russia, General Pershing, Commander-in-Chief of the A. E. F., told me that he desired me to come up to command the troops, help out if I could, and to cheer them up, as he had an idea that you thought you had been overlooked and forgotten, and were not part of the A. E. F. When I arrived here I found a telegram from General Pershing stating briefly all that I could have said, more and, better, and I only want to emphasize to you that which was sent out and published, that your comrades in France have been doing wonderful work just as well as you have up here. Your people are pleased and proud of you. They have not forgotten you, nor has the A. E. F. in France. They want to see you come home as soon as you can, with the right spirit and without any act by company or individual that you will be ashamed of. You are here to do a certain duty, determined by the highest authority in our country and in others of our Allies, and by the best minds in the world in connection with this great war which we have been waging and were drawn into through no fault of our own.
"While the 339th and other detachments that have come with them to perform a share of the work in North Russia seemed far away and at times you perhaps felt lonely and that you were not getting the same consideration, you still were as much a part of the game, as far as forces stand, as any portion of the Western Front.
"Remember, you are Americans in a foreign country taking part in a great game, making history which will be written and talked of for generations, doing your duty as best you can so as to maintain the highest standard that the Army has attained in Europe."
General Pershing's telegram as transmitted to the Americans fighting the Bolsheviki in, North Russia was as follows:
"Inform our troops that all America resounds with praise of the splendid record that the American Expeditionary Forces have made. The reputation of the American soldier for valor and for splendid discipline under the most trying conditions has endeared every member of the Expeditionary Forces not only to his relatives and friends but to all Americans. Their comrades in France have not forgotten that the Americans in Northern Russia are part of the American Expeditionary Forces, and we are proud to transmit to you the generous praise of the American people. I feel sure that every soldier in Northern Russia will join his comrades here in the high resolve of returning to America with unblemished reputations. I wish every soldier in Northern Russia to know that I fully appreciate that his hardships have continued long after those endured by our soldiers in France and that every effort is being made to relieve the conditions in the North at the earliest possible moment."
The Americans had let go the tail holt. The spring defensive had been surprisingly easy after the desperate winter defensive with the persistently heralded threats of Trotsky's Northern Army to punish the invaders with annihilation. In fact, there was a suspicion that the Reds were content to merely harry the Americans, but not to take any more losses going against them, preferring to wait till they had gone and then deal with the Archangel regiments of some twenty-five thousand and the British troops coming out from England. Probably if the truth were known Kolchak and Denikin were in the spring of 1919 taking much of Trotsky's attention. They were getting the grain fields of Russia that the Reds needed, which was of more importance than the possession of the Archangel province.
Then there was the political side of the case. The Peace Conference was struggling with the Russian problem. Lenine and Trotsky could well afford to deal not too violently and crushingly with the Allied troops in the North of Russia while they were with both open and underground diplomacy and propaganda seeking to get recognition of their rule.
Anyway, we found ourselves letting go that tail holt which in the winter had seemed to be all that the Detroit News cartoonist pictured it, "H--- to hang on, and death to let loose." And we did not get many more bad scratches or bites from the Bolo bob-cat.
[Illustration: Cartoon; American soldier holding on to the tail of a large wildcat marked "Russia". An old man in the United States says "Come on home, Yank! What did you grab him for in the first place?" The soldiers observes "It is hell to hang on, but it's death to let loose."] The Hard Job Is To Let Go From Detroit News
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