ON THE FAMOUS KODISH FRONT IN THE FALL
ON THE FAMOUS KODISH FRONT IN THE FALL
"K" Company Hurries To Save Force "B"--Importance Of Kodish Front--Hazelden's Force Destroyed--First Fight At Seletskoe--Both Sides Burn Bridges--Desperate Fighting At Emtsa River--Capture Of Kodish--Digging In--We Lose Village After Days Of Hard Fighting--Trenches And Blockhouses.
Nowhere did the Yanks in North Russia find the fighting fiercer than did those who were battling their way toward Plesetskaya on the famous Kodish front. Woven into their story is that of the most picturesque American fighter and doughtiest soldier of the many dauntless officers and men who struggled and bled in that strange campaign. This man was Captain Michael Donoghue, commanding officer of "K" Company, 339th Infantry. He afterward was promoted in the field to rank of major and his old outfit of Detroit boys proudly remember that "K" stands for Kodish where they and their commander earned the plaudits of the regiment.
It will be remembered that the third battalion was hurried from troopship to troop train and steamed south as fast as the rickety Russki locomotives of the 1880 type could wobble, and it will be remembered that Captain Donoghue, the senior captain of that battalion, was chosen to go with half of his "K" Company to the relief of a mixed force of American sailors and British Royal Scots and French infantry who had been surrounded, it was rumored, and were in imminent danger of annihilation.
With his little force of one hundred and twenty men, including a medical officer with eight enlisted medical men, transporting his rations and extra munitions on the dumpy little Russki droskie, the American officer led out of Obozerskaya at three o'clock in the afternoon, bivouacked for the night somewhere on the trail in a cold drizzle, and reached Volshenitsa, the juncture of the trails from Seletskoe and Emtsa, about noon of the 8th of September.
Four versts beyond Volshenitsa the column passed the scene of the battle between the Bolos and "B" Force. Gear and carts scattered around and two or three fresh graves told that this was serious business. A diary of an American sailor and the memoranda of a British officer, broken off suddenly on the 30th of August, that were picked up told of the adventures of the handful of men we were going to hunt. More explanations of the genesis of this Kodish front is now in order.
Consideration of the map will show that Kodish was of great strategic Importance. Truth to tell it was of more importance than our High Command at first estimated. The Bolshevik strategists were always aware of its value and never permitted themselves to be neglectful of it. Trotsky knew that the strategy and tactics of the winter campaign would make good use of the Kodish road. Indeed it was seen in the fall by General Poole that a Red column from Plesetskaya up the Kodish road was a wedge between the railroad forces and the river forces, always imperiling the Vaga and Dvina forces with being cut off if the Reds came strong enough.
The first movement on Kodish by the Allied troops had been made by "B" force under the command of Col. Hazelden of the British army. With about two hundred men composed of French soldiers, a few English soldiers, American sailors from the Olympic, and some local Russian volunteers, he had pushed up the Dvina and Vaga to Seletskoe and operating from there had sent a party of French even as far as Emtsa River, a few miles north of Kodish.
But before he could attack Kodish, Hazelden was ordered to strike across the forest area and attack the Reds in the rear near Obozerskaya where the Bolshevik rear guard with its excellent artillery strategist was stubbornly holding the Allied Force "A." Passing through Seletskoe he left the Russian volunteers to oppose the Reds in Kodish, and guard his rear. But these uncertain troops fled upon approach of the Bolos and about the first of September Col. Hazelden instead of being in a position to demoralize the Reds on the railroad by a swift blow from behind, found himself in desperate defense, both front and rear, and beleagured in the woods and swamps some twenty-seven versts east of Obozerskaya.
He managed to get a message through to Sisskoe just before the Reds closed in on him from behind. About a hundred English marines, a section of machine gunners, a platoon of Royal Scots, and some Russian artillery, all enroute to Archangel from their chase of the Reds up the Dvina, were ordered off their barges at Sisskoe, were christened "D" Force, and, under the command of Captain Scott, British officer, were given the task of preventing the Reds from Kodish from cutting off the river communications.
This force was also to help Col. Hazelden out. But as we have seen, his force had been destroyed, and Americans hurriedly sent out. At Volshenitsa Captain Donoghue received a message by aeroplane from Col. Guard at Obozerskaya that "D" Force was held up at Tiogra by the Reds. After patrolling the forest five days and finding the trail to Emtsa impassable during the wet season, "K" Company received both the welcome reinforcements of Lieut. Gardner and the twenty men who had been left at Lewis gun School at Bakaritza, and orders to proceed on to Seletskoe.
The Red Guards hearing of the American successes on the railway and hearing of the approach of this force from the railroad in their rear went back to Kodish, and on the morning of September 16th "K" Company became a full-fledged member of "D" Force to be better known the world over in the bitterest part of this campaign as the Kodish Force.
Here the doughboys got their baptism of fire when they took over under fire the outposts of the village of Seletskoe. For the Bolos who had retreated the week before had told the inhabitants they would be back and they were making their threat, or promise, as you will have it, good. For two days and nights the Americans beat off the attacks, principally through the good work of Sgt. Michael Kinney, the gallant soldier who fell at Kodish on New Year's Day. Aided by the accurate fire of the French machine gun section, the "K" men inflicted such heavy penalties that the Reds quit in panic, assassinated their commander and skurried south thirty miles. However, this victory was not exploited by the Allied force. It seems that the commander of the force had sent out a Russian patrol on the east bank of the Emtsa River which brought back information that a heavy force of the enemy was operating in the rear of "D" force.
Accordingly Captain Scott ordered a retreat from Seletskoe to Tiogra, taking up a position on the north bank of the Emtsa River after burning the bridge to prevent pursuit by the Reds who it was afterwards found were fleeing in the opposite direction, after having burned another bridge on the Emtsa further to the south to prevent the Americans from pursuing them.
An interesting story was often repeated about this funny episode which was due to the credence given by the British officer to the report of the highly imaginative Russian patrol.
An English corporal on one of the outposts of Seletskoe was not informed by Captain Scott of the retreat during the night. Next morning he went forward and discovered that the Reds had burned their bridge. But when he went to report that fact he found the village of Seletskoe evacuated by his own forces, natives also having fled with everything of value from the samovar to the cow. A few hours later the old corporal appeared on the other bridgeless bank of the Emtsa across from the "K" men who were digging in and said in a puzzled way, "I saiy, old chap, wots the bloody gaime?"
Of course as soon as an improvised pontoon could be rigged up "K" Company and the rest of the happily informed force were in pursuit again of the Reds. The bridge was constructed by a detachment of the 310th American Engineers, who had come up with Col. Henderson, of the famous "Black Watch," the new commander.
The French machine gunners by this time were badly needed on the railroad force. In their place came a company of the Russian Officers' Training Corps.
On September 23rd Seletskoe was again occupied and the Yanks began improving its defenses, taking much satisfaction in the arrival from Archangel of Lieut. Ballard's American machine gun platoon. Within two days also their ranks were greatly strengthened by the arrival of Lieut. Chappel from Issaka Gorka with the other two platoons of "K" company closely followed by Captain Cherry with "L" Company from the Railroad force.
General Finlayson, whose job it was to take Plesetskaya, now sought to shove the Kodish force ahead rapidly so as to trap the Reds on the railroad between the two forces. Accordingly the next morning, September 26th, "K" Company and two platoons of "L" and the machine gun section moved south toward Kodish to achieve the mission that had been assigned to Col. Hazelden. The Bolshevik was found the next morning strongly entrenched on the other side of the river Emtsa near the burned bridge and after severe losses suffered in the gaining of a foothold on the north side of the river by crossing on a raft, the Americans had to dig in. In fact they lay for over a week in the swamp hanging tenaciously to their position but unable to advance. Men's feet swelled in their wet boots till the shoes burst. But still they hung on under the example of their game old captain, At this time Lieut. Chappel was victim of a Bolo machine gun while trying to lead a raiding squad up to its capture. Six others were killed and twenty-four were wounded. Droskies needed for transportation of supplies and ammunition had to be used to take back the wounded and sick from exposure to Seletskoe. No "K" or "L" or "M. G." man who was there will ever forget those days.
It was obvious that the Kodish force must be augmented. English marines and a section of Canadian artillery came up. Headquarters was established in the four-house village of Mejnovsky, eight miles back. Steady sniping and patrol action was carried on actively by both forces. Col. Henderson's further attempt to throw a force across the river by means of a raft was frustrated by the Reds. October 7th Lieut.-Col. Gavin came up to assume command.
This energetic and keen British officer soon worked out plans for effecting an advance. Using the American engineers, he soon had a ferry in use three versts--about two miles--below Mejnovsky.
And on October the 12th "K" and "L" Companies crossed on that ferry and marched up the left bank of the Emtsa till within one thousand yards of the flank of the strong Bolo position, and bivouacked in the swamp for the night. In the morning Captain Cherry took his company and two platoons of "K" and struck south to pass by the flank and fall upon Kodish in rear of the enemy who was holding the position in great force at the river.
The remainder of "K" Company moved upon the right of the enemy front line at the river crossing. At the time Donoghue struck, a frontal demonstration was made upon the Reds by the English marines and American machine guns firing across the river and by the Canadian artillery shelling the woods where the Red reserves were thought to be. The plan failed because of the inability of Captain Cherry to reach his objective, on account of the bottomless swamps that he encountered. Captain Donoghue gained a foot-hold and then was forced to dig in and during the afternoon repulsed two counter attacks of the Bolos, having paid for the capture of the two Bolo machine guns by severe losses.
During the night under cover of these two platoons, "L" and the English marines crossed the river, where the Reds had held them so many days. And during the following day the right of the Bolo position was turned by a movement through the woods.
But at four o'clock in the afternoon the enemy's second, position, a mile north of the village, developed surprising strength. In fact, the Reds counterattacked just at dark and once more the doughboys lay down, on their arms, in the rain-flooded swamp, where the dark, frosty morning would find them stiff and ugly customers for the Reds to tackle. In fact they did rise up and smite the Bolshevik so swiftly that he fled from his works and left Kodish in such a hurry that he gave no forwarding address for his mail. Captain Donoghue set up his headquarters in Kodish and sent detachments out to follow the Reds and to threaten the Red Shred Makhrenga and Taresevo forces. During this fight, or rather after it, the Canadians taught our boys their first lesson in looting the persons of the dead. Our men had been rather respectful and gentle with the Bolo dead who were quite numerous on the Emtsa River battlefield. Can you call a tangle of woods a field? But the Canadians, veterans of four years fighting, immediately went through the pockets of the dead for roubles and knives and so forth and even took the boots off the dead, as they were pretty fair boots.
The officer who reports this says he has often heard of dead men's boots but had to go to war to actually see them worn.
In passing let it be stated that many a footsore doughboy helped himself to a dry pair of boots from a dead Red Guard or in winter to a pair of valenkas, or warm felt boots. One of "Captain Mike's" nervy sergeants protested against being sent back to Seletskoe to get him a new pair of shoes, for he hated the ill-fitting British army shoe, as all Americans did, and prevailed upon Donoghue to let him wait a few days till after a battle when he sure enough helped himself to a fine pair of boots.
One thing the American never did take from the dead Bolo was his Russian tobacco, for it was worse even than the British issue tobacco. A good story is told on one of Donoghue's lieutenants. During the excitement of burning the bridge over the Emtsa at Tiogra, time when the two forces fled from one another, the officer, greatly fatigued, sat down on the bridge during the preparations by the men. He was missed later on the march and the man whom the captain sent back to find the lieutenant arrived just in time to keep what little hair the popular bald-headed little officer had from being singed off by the leaping flames. Lieut. Ryan does not like to be kidded about it.
The morning of the seventeenth of October saw the American forces again on the advance. Good news had come of the successes on the railroad.
The Kodish force was in the strategic position now to force the Reds to give up Emtsa and Plesetskaya. But Trotsky's northern army commander evidently well understood that situation, for he gave strict attention to this Kodish force of Americans and at the fifteenth verst pole on the main road his Red Guards held the Americans all day. Again the next day he made Donoghue's Yanks strive all day. Just at night successful flanking movements caused the enemy to evacuate his formidable position. It was here that Sgt. Cromberger, one of Ballard's machine gun men, distinguished himself by going single-handed into the Bolo lines to reconnoiter.
The converging advances upon Plesetskaya by the three columns, up the Onega Valley, on the railroad and on the Kodish-Plesetskaya-Petrograd highway now seemed about to succeed. Hard fighting by all three columns had broken the Bolshevik's confidence somewhat.
Of course at this time of writing it can be seen better than it could then. He did not make a stand at Avda. He was found by our patrols way back at Kochmas, only a few miles from the railroad. Meanwhile the Russian Officers' Training Corps which was armed with forty Lewis guns and acted rather independently, together with the Royal Scot platoon and a large number of "partisans," anti-Bolshevik volunteers of the area, effected the capture of Shred Makhrenga, Taresevo and other villages, which added to the threat of the Kodish force on Plesetskaya.
Plesetskaya at that moment was indeed of immense value to the Reds. It was the railroad base of their four columns that were holding up the left front of their Northern Army. But they were discouraged. Our patrols and spies sent into Plesetskaya vicinity reported and stories of deserters and wounded men all indicated that the Reds were getting ready to evacuate Plesetskaya. A determined smash of the three Allied columns would have won the coveted position. But the Kodish force now received the same strange order from far-off Archangel that was received on the other fronts:
"To hold on and dig in." No further advances were to be made. Thinking of their eleven comrades killed in this advance and of the thirty-one wounded and of the many sick from exposure, the Americans on the Kodish force as well as the English marines and Scots who also had lost severely, were loath to stop with so easy a victory in sight.
Of course General Ironside's main idea was right, but its application at that time and place seemed to work hardship on the Kodish force. And the sequel proves it. To add to their discomfort, the very size of this force which had struggled so valiantly this little distance, was now reduced by the withdrawal of the English marines and of "L" Company, and by the ordering of the Canadian artillery guns to the Dvina front. The remaining force with Captain Donoghue totalled one hundred and eighty men, which seemed very small to them, in view of the fact that a mere reconnoitering patrol from the Bolos now returning to activity always showed anywhere from seventy-five to one hundred rifles and a machine gun or two. However, they made the best of their remaining days in October to fortify the Kodish-Avda front sector of the road. The Yanks were to be prepared for the worst. And they got it. Let us take a look at the position held by these Americans. It is typical of the positions in which many of the far-flung detachments found themselves.
At the seventeenth verst pole was a four-man outpost. At the sixteenth verst pole Lieut. Ballard had two of his machine guns, a Lewis gun crew and some forty-six men from "K" Company. Four versts behind him on the densely wooded road Lieut. Gardner with forty men and a Vickers gun was occupying the old Bolo dugouts. One verst further back in the big clearing was Kodish village, a place which by all the rules of field strategy was absolutely untenable. Here with four Vickers guns were the remainder of "K" Company along with the sick and the lame and the halt, scarce forty men really able to do active duty, but obliged to stay on to support their comrades. The nearest friendly troops, including their artillery, were back at Seletskoe, thirty versts away. On October 29th the Reds returned to Avda. The noise from that village and reports brought by patrols indicated that this enemy who erstwhile was on the run, and whom our high command now held lightly, was determined to regain Kodish. And while striking heavily at their enemy on the railroad as we have seen, the Red Guards now fell upon this single company of Americans strung out along the Kodish-Avda road.
In the afternoon of November 1st the enemy drove in our cossack post of "K" men at verst seventeen, began shelling us with his artillery and for several days kept raiding Ballard heavier and heavier. Meanwhile Captain Donoghue sent out from Kodish every available man to strengthen the line. Night and day the men labored to erect additional defenses, with scarcely time to close an eye in sleep, patrolling all the trails on their flanks. On the fourth of November, the day the Reds were massed in such numbers on the railroad, they succeeded in forcing Ballard from his trenches at the sixteenth verst pole. He fell back to the new defenses at the fifteenth verst. It is related by his men that he passed between Bolo forces who lined the road but permitted the Americans to escape.
Lieut. Gardner was now reinforced at the twelfth verst pole, for a patrol had lost a man somewhere on the river flank and it was thought that the enemy was preparing to pass by the flank and bag this body of American fighters by taking the newly constructed bridge on the Emtsa in the rear of Donoghue's small force. This bridge was their "only way home."
Their worst fears came true. On the morning of the fifth of November these Yanks way out at front of Kodish, holding the enemy off desperately from the frontal attack, and endeavoring vainly to frustrate the flank attacks of their enemy in greatly superior numbers, suddenly heard great bursts of machine gun fire way towards the rear in the vicinity of Kodish. Instantly they knew that Reds had worked down the river by the flank from Avda or even from Emtsa on the railroad and were attacking in force three miles to their rear. That made the situation desperate. But the Yanks who had in the beginning of the campaign been looked down upon by the Red Capped British High Command because of their greenness, now showed their fineness of fighting stuff by fighting on with undiminished vigor and effectiveness. Nowhere did they give way. Day and night they were on the alert. Attacks from the front, sly raids from the woods on each side of the road, heart chilling assaults upon the cluster of houses in Kodish way in their rear, and steady progress of the Red Guards toward the bridge on the Emtsa, their only way out of the bag in which the worn and depleted company was being trapped, brought the prolonged struggle to a crisis in the middle of the afternoon of the eighth of November.
It came as follows: Colonel Hazelden, survivor of the disaster earlier in the fall, as already related, had returned to command the Kodish-Shred Makhrenga fronts, when Col. Gavin was sent to command the railroad front where Colonel Sutherland had fizzled.
This gallant officer was on his way to the perilous front to see Ballard. Just as he passed Gardner at the twelfth verst pole, he found himself and the two detachments of Americans at last completely cut off by a whole battalion of Red Guards fresh from the south of Russia, sent up by Trotsky to brace his Northern Army. For half an hour there raged a fight as intense as was the bitter reality of the emergency to the forty Americans with Gardner in those dugouts. By almost miraculous luck in directing their fire through the screen of trees that shielded the Reds from view, Sgt. Cromberger's Vickers gun and Cpl. Wilkie's Lewis gun inflicted terrible losses upon this fresh battalion just getting into action against the Americanskis. It was massed preparatory to the final dispositions of its commander to overwhelm the Americans. But with the hail of bullets tearing through their heavy ranks, the Bolos were unable long to stand it, and at last broke from control, yelling and screaming, to suffer still more from the well-handled guns when they left their cover and ran for the woods. And so the little force was saved. But so loud and prolonged were the yells of the frightened and wounded Reds that Captain Donoghue, a verst in the rear at his field headquarters, he related afterwards, paced the floor of the log shack in an agony of certainty that his brave men were all gone. He had been sure that the howling of the scattered pack had been the fervent yells of a last bayonet charge wiping out the Yankees.
The Reds could not get themselves together for another attack at this point before dark but did drive Ballard back verst after verst that afternoon. It was a grim handful of "M. G." and "K" men who looked at their own losses and counted the huge enemy losses of that desperate day and wondered how many such days would whittle them off to the point of annihilation. Col. Hazelden had gone back to headquarters. Captain Donoghue now acted with his usual decisiveness.
The Americanskis had slipped out of the bag before the Red string was tied. And in the morning of the 9th of November the good old Vickers guns and Lewis guns were peeking from their old concealed strongholds on the American side of the Emtsa. Artillery support was reported on the way to argue with the Bolo artillery. A platoon of "L" Company which had come up during the last of the fighting, together with a platoon of replacement men from the old Division in France, who had just come across the trail from the railroad, now took over the active defense of the bridge.
Both sides began digging in. American Engineers came up to build block houses. And the fagged warriors of machine gun and "K" infantry men now retired a short distance to the rear to make themselves as comfortable as possible in the woods, and try to forget their recent harrowing experiences and the sight of the seven bleeding stretchers that were part of the cost of trying to hold a place that was a veritable death trap. Here it was that Major Nichols on a look-see from the railroad detachments found them. He had been sent across by the French colonel commanding Vologda force, under which this Kodish force had recently been brought. He was the first American field officer that had come to inspect this hard-battered outfit. And his report on their miserable plight had no little influence in bringing them relief.
Shortly afterward "K" Company was relieved by "E" Company which had come down from Archangel guard duty, and "K" Company went to reserve position in Seletskoe and later marched across the trail to Obozerskaya, took troop train to Archangel for a much needed and highly deserved two weeks' change of scenery and rest, arriving one evening in November in an early winter's snow storm at Smolny Quay where the "M" Company men captured them and their luggage and carried them off to a big feed, first one they had had in Russia. Lieut. Ballard's heroic machine gun platoon a few days later was also relieved, by Lieut. O'Callaghan's platoon. So ended the fall campaign on the famous Kodish front.*****
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