PENETRATING TO UST PADENGA
PENETRATING TO UST PADENGA
Taking Of Shenkursk On Vaga--"Horse Marines"--Battling At Puia--Bad Position For Troops--Retirement To Ust Padenga--Critical Situation--"C" Company Stands Heavy Losses--Lieutenant Cuff And Men Killed In Hand To Hand Fighting--Bolshevik Patrols--Cossack Forces Weak On Defense.
While the old first battalion was, as we have seen, fighting up to Seltso on the Dvina River, numerous reports were coming in daily that a strong force of the Bolsheviki were operating on the Vaga River. This river is a tributary of the Dvina and empties into it at a village called Ust Vaga, about thirty versts below Beresnik and on which is located the second largest town or city in the province of Archangel. This river was strategically of more value than the upper Dvina, because, as a glance at the map will show, its possession threatened the rear of both the Dvina and the Kodish columns. Accordingly, on the fifteenth day of September, accompanied by a river gunboat, the remaining handful of Company "A", comprising two platoons, under Capt. Odjard and Lieut. Mead, went on board a so-called fast river steamer en route to Shenkursk. On the seventeenth day of September this detachment took possession of Shenkursk without firing a single shot, the Bolsheviki having fled in disorder upon word of our arrival. The citizens of this village turned out en masse to welcome us as their deliverers, and the Slavo-British Allied Legion soon gained a considerable number of new recruits.
Shenkursk is a village about one hundred and twenty-five versts up the Vaga River from its junction with the Dvina River. It is by far one of the most substantial and prosperous in the province of Archangel. It differs very materially from all the surrounding country in that it is located on good sandy soil on a high bluff overlooking the river and is comparatively dry, even in wet weather. It is quite a summer resort town, has a number of well constructed brick buildings, half a dozen or more schools, a seminary, monastery, saw mill, and in many others respects is far above the average Russian village.
Upon their arrival our troops were quartered in an old Cossack garrison, reminiscent of the days of the Czar. We prepared to settle down very comfortably for the winter. Our dream of rest and quiet was rudely shattered, however, for two days later we were notified that the British command for the Vaga River troops was on its way to Shenkursk, and that we were to push further on down the river to stir up the enemy. Without question we were quite willing to leave the enemy rest in peace as long as he did not molest us, but such was not the fortune nor luck of war, and therefore, on September 1st, the small detachment of American troops, reinforced by some thirty or forty S. B. A. L. troops, went steaming up the Vaga River on the good ship "Tolstoy," a decrepit old river steamer on which we had mounted a pom pom and converted it into a "battle cruiser." The troops immediately christened themselves the horse "marines" and the name was quite an appropriate one as later events proved.
About noon that day Capt. Odjard and Lieut. Mead with two platoons arrived opposite a village named Gorka when suddenly without any warning the enemy, concealed in the woods on both sides of the river, opened up a heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Our fragile boat was no protection from this fire. To attempt to run around and withdraw in the shallow stream was next to impossible, so after a hasty consultation the commander grasped the horns of the dilemma by running the boat as close to the shore as possible, where the troops immediately swarmed overboard in water up to their waists, quickly gained the protection of the shore and spreading out in perfect skirmish order, poured a hot fire into the enemy, who was soon on the run. This advance continued for some several days until under the severe marching conditions, lack of food, clothing, etc., a halt was made at Rovdinskaya, a village about ninety versts from Shenkursk, and a few days later more reinforcements arrived under Lieuts. McPhail and Saari.
A number of incidents on this advance clearly indicated that we were operating in hostile and very dangerous country. Our only line of communication with our headquarters was the single local telegraph line, which was constantly being cut by the enemy. At one time a large force of the enemy got in our rear and we were faced with the unpleasant situation of having the enemy completely surrounding us. Capt. Odjard determined upon a bold stroke. Figuring that by continuing the advance and striking a quick blow at the enemy ahead of us, those in the rear would anticipate the possibility of heavy reinforcements bringing up our rear. On October 8th we engaged the enemy at the village of Puiya. We inflicted heavy casualties upon him. He suffered no less than fifty killed and several hundred wounded. As anticipated, the enemy in our rear quickly withdrew and thus cleared the way for our retreat. We retired to Rovdinskaya, which position we held for several weeks. The situation was growing more desperate day by day. Our rations were at the lowest ebb; cold weather had set in and the men were poorly and lightly clad, in addition to which our tobacco ration had long since been completely exhausted, which added much to the general dissatisfaction and lowering of the morale of the troops.
With the approach of the Russian winter a new and dangerous problem presented itself. At the outset of the expedition it had been planned that the troops on the railroad front were to push well down the railroad to or beyond Plesetskaya. The Vaga Column was to go as far as Velsk and there establish a line of communication across to the railroad front. Unfortunately, their well-laid plans fell through and perhaps fortunately so. The forces of the railroad had been checked near Emtsa, far above Plesetskaya. The other troops on the Dvina had by this time retired to Toulgas and as a consequence the smallest force in the expedition, the Vaga Column, was now in the most advanced position of these three fronts, a very dangerous and poorly chosen military position.
To make matters still worse, from the village of Nyandoma on the Vologda railroad, there is a well defined winter trail, running straight across country to the village of Ust Padenga, located on the Vaga River, about half way between Shenkursk and Rovdinskaya. Rumors were constantly coming in that the Bolo was occupying the villages all along this trail in order to launch a big drive on Shenkursk as soon as winter set in. On these frozen, packed trails, troops, artillery, etc., could be moved as easily and readily as by rail.
In order then to withdraw our lines and to add greater safety to the columns, it was finally decided to withdraw from Rovdinskaya to Ust Padenga.
At one o'clock on the morning of October 18th, as we lay shivering and shaking in the cold and dismal marshes, which we chose to call our front line, orders came through for us to hold ourselves in readiness for a quick and rapid retreat the following morning. All that night we had Russian peasants, interpreters, etc., scouring the villages about us for horses and carts to assist in our withdrawal. At 6:00 a. m. that morning the withdrawal began. The god of war, had he witnessed this strange sight that morning, must have recalled a similar sight a hundred years and more prior to that, at Moscow, when the army of the great Napoleon was scattered to the winds by the cavalry and infantry of the Russian hordes. Three hundred and more of the ludicrous two-wheeled Russian carts preceded us with the artillery, floundering, miring, and slipping in the sticky, muddy roads. Following at their rear, came the tired, worn and exhausted troops--unshaven, unkempt and with tattered clothing. They were indeed a pitiful sight. All that day they marched steadily on toward Ust Padenga. To add to the difficulty of the march, a light snow had fallen which made the roads a mere quagmire. Late that night we arrived at the position of Ust Padenga, which was to become our winter quarters and where later so many of our brave men were to lay down their lives in the snow and cold of the Russian forests.
With small delay for rest or recuperation we at once began preparation for the defense of this position. Our main position and the artillery were stationed in a small village called Netsvetyavskaya, situated on a high bluff by the side of which meandered the Vaga River. In front of this bluff flowed the Padenga River, a small tributary of the Vaga, and at our right, all too close for safety, was located the forest. About one thousand yards directly ahead of us was located the village of Ust Padenga proper, which was garrisoned by a company of Russian soldiers. To our right and about seventeen hundred yards ahead of us on another bluff was located the village of Nijni Gora, to be the scene of fierce fighting in the snow.
On the last day of October Company "A", which had been on this front for some forty days without a relief, were relieved by Company "C" and a battery of Canadian Artillery was also brought up to reinforce this position.
All was now rather quiet on this front, but rumors more and more definite were coming in daily that the Bolo was getting ready to launch a big drive on this front. From the location of our troops here, several hundred miles and more from our base on the Dvina and with long drawn out lines of communication, some of the stations forty miles or so apart, it was apparent that if attacked by a large force, we would have to give way. It was also plainly apparent that in case the Vaga River force was driven back to the Dvina it would necessitate the withdrawal of the forces on the Dvina from their strongly fortified position at Toulgas--consequently, we received orders that this position at Ust Padenga must be held at all cost. Such was the critical position of the Americans sent up the river by order of General Poole on a veritable fool's errand. The folly of his so-called "active defense" of Archangel was to be exposed most plainly at Ust Padenga and Shenkursk in winter.
By the middle of November the enemy was becoming more and more active in this vicinity. On the seventeenth day of November a small patrol of Americans and Canadians were ambushed and only one man, a Canadian, escaped. The ambush occurred in the vicinity of Trogimovskaya, a village about eight versts below Ust Padenga, where it was known that the Bolo was concentrating troops.
On the morning of November 29th, acting under orders from British Headquarters, a strong patrol, numbering about one hundred men, was sent out at daybreak, under Lieut. Cuff of "C" Company, to drive the enemy out of this position. The only road or trail leading into this town ran through a dense forest. The snow, of course, was so deep in the forest that it was impossible to proceed by any other route than this roadway or trail. As this patrol was approaching one of the most dense portions of the forest they were suddenly met by an overwhelming attacking party, which had been concealed in the forest. The woods were literally swarming with them and after a sharp fight Lieut. Francis Cuff, one of the bravest and most fearless officers in the expedition, in command of the patrol, succeeded in withdrawing his platoon.
A detachment of the patrol on the edge of the woods skirting the Vaga River was having considerable difficulty extricating itself, however, and without faltering Lieut. Cuff immediately deployed his men and opened fire again upon the enemy. During this engagement, he, with several other daring men, became separated from their fellows and it was at this time that he was severely wounded. He and his men, several of whom were also wounded, although cut off and completely surrounded, fought like demons and sold their lives dearly, as was evidenced by the enemy dead strewn about in the snow near them. The remains of these heroic men were later recovered and removed to Shenkursk, where they were buried almost under the shadows of the cathedral located there.
During this period the thermometer was daily descending lower and lower; snow was falling continually and the days were so short and dark that one could hardly distinguish day from night. These long nights of bitter cold, with death stalking at our sides, was a terrible strain upon the troops. Sentries standing watch in the lonely snow and cold were constantly having feet, hands, and other parts of their anatomy frozen. Their nerves were on edge and they were constantly firing upon white objects that could be seen now and then prowling around in the snow. These objects as we later found were enemy troops clad in white clothing which made it almost impossible to detect them.
About this time an epidemic of "flu" broke out in some of the villages. In view of the Russian custom of keeping the doors and windows of their houses practically sealed during the winter and with their utter disregard for the most simple sanitary precautions, small wonder it was that in a short time the epidemic was raging in practically every village within our lines. The American Red Cross and medical officers of the expedition at once set to work to combat the epidemic as far as the means at their disposal would permit. The Russian peasant, of course, in true fatalist fashion calmly accepted this situation as an inevitable act of Providence, which made the task of the Red Cross workers and others more difficult. The workers, however, devoted themselves to their errand of mercy night and day and gradually the epidemic was checked. This voluntary act of mercy and kindness had a great effect upon the peasantry of the region and doubtless gave them a better and more kindly opinion of the strangers in their midst than all the efforts of our artillery and machine guns ever could have done. And when in the winter horses and sleighs meant life or death to the doughboys, the peasants were true to their American soldier friends.
After the fatal ambush of Lieutenant Cuff's patrol at Ust Padenga, "C" Company, was relieved about the first of December by Company "A." During the remainder of the month there was more or less activity on both sides of the line. About the fifth or sixth of the month, the enemy brought up several batteries of light field artillery in the dense forests and begun an artillery bombardment of our entire line. Fortunately, however, we soon located the position of their guns and our artillery horses were immediately hitched to the guns, and supported by two platoons of "A" Company under Captain Odjard and Lieut. Collar, swung into a position from which they obtained direct fire upon the enemy guns with the result that four guns were shortly thereafter put out of commission.
From this time on, there were continual skirmishes between the outposts and patrols. The Bolo's favorite time for patrolling was at night and during the early hours of the morning when everything was pitch dark. They all wore white smocks over their uniforms and they could easily advance within fifteen or twenty feet of our sentries and outposts without being seen. They were not always so fortunate, however, in this reconnoitering, as a picture on a following page proves which shows one of their scouts clad in the white uniform and cap, who was shot down by one of our sentries when he was less than fifteen feet away from the sentry. Outside of the terrific cold and the natural hardships of the expedition, the month of December was comparatively quiet on the Padenga front.
However, in the neighborhood of Shenkursk there was a growing feeling that a number of the enemy troops were in nearby villages and that the enemy was constantly occupying more and more of them daily. In order to break up this growing movement and to assure the natives of the Shenkursk region that we would brook no such interference or happenings within our lines, on the fifth of December, a strong detachment, consisting of Company "C" under Lieut. Weeks, and Russian infantry, mounted Cossacks, and a pom pom detachment, set out for Kodima about fifty versts north and east of Shenkursk toward the Dvina River.
It was reported that there were about one hundred and fifty or two hundred of the enemy located in this village, who were breaking a trail through from the Dvina River in order that they could send across supporting troops from the Dvina for the attack on Shenkursk. Our detachment, after a day and a half's march, arrived in the vicinity of Kodima and prepared to take the position. At about the moment when the attack was to begin, it was found that the pom poms and the Vickers guns were not working. The thermometer at this time stood at fifty below zero and the intense cold had frozen the oil in the buffers of the pom poms and machine guns, rendering them worse than useless. Fortunately, this was discovered in time to prevent any casualties, for it was later found that there were between five hundred and one thousand of the enemy located in this position and that they were intrenched in prepared positions and well equipped with rifles, machine guns and artillery.
Our forces, of course, were compelled to retreat, but this maneuver naturally gave the enemy greater courage and the following week it was reported that they were advancing from Kodima on Shenkursk. We at once dispatched a large force of infantry, artillery, and mounted Cossacks to delay this advance. This maneuver was also a miserable failure, and it is not difficult to understand the reason for same when one considers that this detachment was composed of Americans, Canadians, and Russians, of every conceivable, type and description, and orders issued to one body might be and usually were entirely misunderstood by the others.
Shortly after this, however, the Cossack Colonel desired to vindicate his troops and a new attack was planned in which the Cossacks, supported by their own artillery, were to launch a drive against the enemy at Kodima. After a big night's pow-wow and a typical Cossack demonstration of swearing eternal allegiance to their leader and boasting of the dire punishment they were going to inflict upon the enemy, they sallied forth from Shenkursk with their banners gaily flying. No word was heard from them until the following evening when just at dusk across the river came, galloping like mad, the first news-bearers of our valiant cohorts. On gaining the shelter of Shenkursk, most of them were completely exhausted and many of their horses dropped dead from over-exertion on the way, while others died in Shenkursk.
Our first informants described at great detail a thrilling engagement in which they had participated and how they had fought until their ammunition became exhausted, when they were forced to retreat. Others described in detail how Prince Aristoff and his Adjutant, Captain Robins, of the British Army, had fought bravely to the last and when about to be taken prisoners, used the last bullets remaining in their pistols to end their lives, thus preventing capture. More and more of the scattered legion were constantly arriving, and each one had such a remarkably different story to tell from that of his predecessor, that by the following morning, we were all inclined to doubt all of the stories.
However, it is true that Colonel Aristoff and Robins failed to return, and we were compelled for the time being to assume that at least part of the stories were true. The Cossacks immediately went into deep mourning for the loss of their valiant leader and affected great grief and sorrow. This, however, did not prevent them from ransacking the Colonel's headquarters and carrying off all his money and jewelry and, in fact, about everything that he owned. Four days later, however, in the midst of all this mourning and demonstrations, we were again treated to a still greater surprise, for that afternoon who should come riding into the village but the Colonel himself along with his adjutant. It can be readily imagined what scrambling and endeavor there was on the part of the sorrowing ones to return undetected to the Colonel's headquarters his stolen property and belongings. For days thereafter, the garrison resounded to the cracking of the Colonel's knout, and this time the wailing and shedding of tears was undoubtedly more real than any that had been shed previously to that time. These various unfortunate affairs, while harmful enough in themselves, did far greater harm than such incidents would ordinarily warrant, in this respect, that they gave the enemy greater and greater confidence all along, meanwhile lowering the morale of our Russian cohorts as well as our own troops.
And here we leave these hardy Yanks, far, far to the south of Archangel. When their story is picked up again in the narrative, it will be found to be one of the most thrilling stories in American military exploits.
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