RIVER PUSH FOR KOTLAS
RIVER PUSH FOR KOTLAS
First Battalion Hurries Up The River--We Take Chamova--The Lay Of The River Land--Battling For Seltso--Retire To Yakovlevskoe--That Most Wonderful Smoke--Incidents Of The March--Sudden Shift To Shenkursk Area--The Battalion Splits--Again At Seltso--Bolos Attack--Edvyinson A Hero.
That dismal, gloomy day--September 6, 1915--the first battalion, under Lt.-Col. James Corbley, spent on board transport, watching the third battalion disembark and getting on board the freight cars that were to carry them down to the Railroad Front. Each man on board was aching to set foot on dry land once more and would gladly have marched to any front in order to avoid the dull monotony aboard ship, with nothing of interest to view but the gleaming spires of the cathedrals or the cold, gray northern sky, but there is an end to all such trials, and late that evening we received word that our battalion was to embark on several river barges to proceed up the Dvina River.
The following day all hands turned to bright and early and from early dawn until late that afternoon every man that was able to stand, and some that were not, were busily engaged in making up packs, issuing ammunition and loading up the barges. By six o'clock that evening they had marched on board the barges--some of the men in the first stages of "flu" had to be assisted on board with their packs. These barges, as we afterward learned, were a good example of the Russian idea of sanitation and cleanliness. They had been previously used for hauling coal, cattle, produce, flax, and a thousand-and-one other things, and in their years of usage had accumulated an unbelievable amount of filth and dirt. In addition to all this, they were leaky, and the lower holds, where hundreds of men had to sleep that week, were cold, dismal and damp. Small wonder that our little force was daily decreased by sickness and death. After five days of this slow, monotonous means of travel, we finally arrived at the town of Beresnik, which afterward became the base for the river column troops.
The following day "A" Company, 339th Infantry, under Capt. Otto Odjard, took over the defense of the village in order to relieve a detachment of Royal Scots who were occupying the town. All that day we saw and heard the dull roar of the artillery further up the river, where the Royal Scots, accompanied by a gunboat, were attempting to drive the enemy before them. Meeting with considerable opposition in the vicinity of Chamova, a village about fifty versts from Beresnik, a rush call was sent in for American reinforcements.
The first battalion of the 339th Infantry left Beresnik about September 15th under command of Major Corbley, and started up the Dvina. The first incident worthy of record occurred at Chamova. As advance company we arrived about 1:00 a. m. at Chamova, which was garrisoned by a small force of Scots. We put out our outposts in the brush which surrounded the town, and shortly afterward, about 5:00 a. m., we were alarmed by the sound of musketry near the river bank. We deployed and advanced to what seemed to be a small party from a gunboat. They had killed two Scots who had mistaken them for a supply boat from Beresnik and gone to meet them empty-handed. The Bolo had regained his boat after a little firing between him and the second platoon which was at the upper end of the village. We were trying to locate oars for the clumsy Russian barzhaks on the bank, intending to cross to the island where the gunboat was moored and do a little navy work, when the British monitor hove into sight around a bend about three miles down stream, and opened fire on the gunboat. The first shot was a little long, the second a little short, and the third was a clean hit amid ship which set the gunboat on fire. John Bolo in the meantime took a hasty departure by way of the island. We were immensely disappointed by the advent of the monitor, as the gunboat would have been very handy in navigating the Russian roads.
This Monitor, by the way, was much feared by the Russians, but was very temperamental, and if it was sadly needed, as it was later at Toulgas when we were badly outranged, it reposed calmly at Beresnik. When the Monitor first made its advent on the Dvina she steamed into Beresnik, and her commander inquired loftily, "Where are the bloody Bolsheviks, and which is the way to Kotlas?" Upon being informed she steamed boldly up the Dvina on the road to Kotlas, found the Bolo, who promptly slapped a shell into their internal workings, killing several men and putting the Monitor temporarily hors de combat. After that the Monitor was very prudent and displayed no especial longing to visit Kotlas.
In order to better comprehend the situation and terrain of the river forces, a few words regarding the two rivers and their surroundings will not be without interest. This region is composed of vast tundras or marshes and the balance of the entire province is covered with almost impenetrable forests of pine and evergreen of different varieties. The tundras or marshes are very treacherous, for the traveler marching along on what appears to be a rough strip of solid ground, suddenly may feel the same give way and he is precipitated into a bath of ice cold muddy water. Great areas of these tundras are nothing more than a thickly woven matting of grasses and weeds overgrowing creeks or ponds and many a lonely traveler has been known to disappear in one of these marshes never to be seen again.
This condition is especially typical of the Dvina River. The Dvina is a much larger river than the Vaga and compares favorably to the lower Mississippi in our own country. It meanders and spreads about over the surrounding country by a thousand different routes, inasmuch as there are practically no banks and nothing to hold it within its course. The Vaga, on the other hand, is a narrower and swifter river and much more attractive and interesting. It has very few islands and is lined on either side by comparatively steep bluffs, varying from fifty to one hundred feet in height. The villages which line the banks are larger and comparatively more prosperous, but regarding the villages more will be said later.
We continued our march up the Dvina, about two days behind the fleeing Bolo, hoping that he would decide to make a stand. This he did at Seltso. On the morning of September 19th, through mud and water, at times waist deep and too precarious for hauling artillery, the advance began on Seltso. At 1:00 p. m. the advance party, "D" Company, under Captain Coleman, reached Yakovlevskaya, a village just north of Seltso and separated from it by a mile of wide open marsh which is crossed by a meandering arm of the nearby Dvina. A single road and bridge lead across to Seltso. "D" Company gallantly deployed and wading the swamp approached within one thousand five hundred yards of the enemy, who suddenly opened up with machine guns, rifles, and Russian pom pom. This latter gun is a rapid fire artillery piece, firing a clip of five shells weighing about one pound apiece, in rapid succession. We later discovered that they, as well as most of the flimsy rifles, were made by several of the prominent gun manufacturers of the United States.
"D" Company found further advance impossible without support and dug in. "C" Company under Capt. Fitz Simmons hurried up and took position in a tongue of woods at the right of "D" and were joined after dark by "B" Company. None of the officers in command of this movement knew anything of the geography nor much of anything else regarding this position, so the men were compelled to dig in as best they could in the mud and water to await orders from Colonel Corbley, who had not come up. At eleven o'clock that night a drizzling rain set in, and huddled and crouched together in this vile morass, unprotected by even an overcoat, without rations, tired and exhausted from the day's march and fighting, the battalion bivouacked. All night the enemy kept searching the woods and marshes with his artillery, but with little effect. During the night we learned that the Bolo had a land battery of three-inch guns and five gunboats in the river at their flank with six and nine-inch guns aboard rafts. This was none too pleasing a situation for an infantry attack with no artillery preparation, coupled with the miserable condition of the troops.
As daylight approached the shelling became more and more violent. The Bolo was sending over everything at his command and it was decided to continue the attack lest we be exterminated by the enemy artillery. At daybreak Lt. Dressing of "B" Company took out a reconnaissance patrol to feel out the enemy lines of defense, but owing to the nature of the ground he had little success. His patrol ran into a Bolo outpost and was scattered by machine gun fire. It was here that Corporal Shroeder was lost, no trace ever being found of his body or equipment.
About noon two platoons of Company "B" went out to occupy a certain objective. This they found was a well constructed trench system filled with Bolos, and flanked by machine gun positions. In the ensuing action we had three men killed and eight men wounded, including Lt. A. M. Smith, who received a severe wound in the side, but continued handling his platoon effectively, showing exceptional fortitude. The battle continued during the afternoon all along the line. "C" and "D" were supporting "B" with as much fire as possible. But troops could not stay where they were under the enemy fire, and Col. Corbley, who had at last arrived, ordered a frontal attack to come off after a preparatory barrage by our Russian artillery which had at last toiled up to a position.
Here fortune favored the Americans. The Russian artillery officer placed a beautiful barrage upon the village and the enemy gunboats, which continued from 4:45 to 5:00 p.m. At 5:00 o'clock, the zero hour, the infantry made the attack and in less than an hour's time they had gained the village.
The Bolsheviks had been preparing to evacuate anyway, as the persistence of our attack and effectiveness of our rifle fire had nearly broken their morale. Americans with white, strained faces, in contrast with their muck-daubed uniforms, shook hands prayerfully as they discussed how a determined defense could have murdered them all in making that frontal attack across a swamp in face of well-set machine gun positions.
However, the Americans were scarcely better off when they had taken Seltso, for their artillery now could not get up to them. So the enemy gunboats could shell Seltso at will. Hence it appeared wise to retire for a few days to Yakovlevskaya. In the early hours of the morning following the battle the Americans retired from Seltso. They were exceedingly hungry, dog-tired, sore in spirit, but they had undergone their baptism of fire.
After a few days spent in Yakovlevskoe we set out again, and advanced as far as a village called Pouchuga. Here we expected another encounter with the Bolo, but he had just left when we arrived. We were fallen out temporarily on a muddy Russian hillside in the middle of the afternoon, the rain was falling steadily, we had been marching for a week through the muddiest mud that ever was, the rations were hard tack and bully, and tobacco had been out for several weeks. A more miserable looking and feeling outfit can scarce be imagined. A bedraggled looking convoy of Russian carts under Lt. Warner came up, and he informed us that he could let us have one package of cigarettes per man. We accepted his offer without any reluctance, and passed them out. To paraphrase Gunga Din, says Capt. Boyd:
"They were British and they stunk as anyone who smoked British issue cigarettes with forty-two medals can tell you, but of all the smokes I've (I should say 'smunk' to continue the paraphrase) I'm gratefulest to those from Lt. Warner. You could see man after man light his cigarette, take a long draw, and relax in unadulterated enjoyment. Ten minutes later they were a different outfit, and nowhere as wet, cold, tired or hungry. Lucy Page Gaston and the Anti-Cigarette League please note."
After a long day's march we finally arrived in a "suburb" of Pouchuga about 7:00 p.m. with orders to place our outposts and remain there that night. By nine o'clock this was done, and the rest of the company was scattered in billets all over the village, being so tired that they flopped in the first place where there was floor space to spread a blanket. Then came an order to march to the main village and join Major Corbley. At least a dozen of the men could not get their shoes on by reason of their feet being swollen, but we finally set out on a pitch black night through the thick mud. We staggered on, every man falling full length in the mud innumerable times, and finally reached our destination. Captain Boyd writes:
"I shall never forget poor Wilson on that march, cheery and good-spirited in spite of everything. His loss later at Toulgas was a personal one as well as the loss of a good soldier.
"I also remember Babcock on that march--Babcock, who was one of our best machine gunners, never complaining and always dependable. We were ploughing along through the mud when from my place at the head of the column I heard a splash. I went back to investigate and there was Babcock floundering in a ditch with sides too slippery to crawl up. The column was marching stolidly past, each man with but one thought, to pull his foot out of the mud and put it in a little farther on. We finally got Babcock up to terra firma, he explained that it had looked like good walking, nice and smooth, and he had gone down to try it. I cautioned him that he should never try to take a bath while in military formation, and he seemed to think the advice was sound."
Now the battalion was needed over on the Vaga river front, the story of whose advance there is told in another chapter. By barge the Americans went down the Dvina to its junction with the Vaga and then proceeded up that river as far as Shenkursk. To the doughboys this upper Vaga area seemed a veritable land of milk and honey when compared with the miserable upper Dvina area. Fresh meat and eggs were obtainable. There were even women there who wore hats and stockings, in place of boots and shawls. We had comfortable billets. But it was too good to be true. In less than a week the Bolo's renewed activities on the upper Dvina made it necessary for one company of the first battalion to go again to that area. Colonel Corbley saw "B" Company depart on the tug "Retvizan" and so far as field activities were concerned it was to be part of the British forces on the Dvina from October till April rather than part of the first battalion force. The company commander was to be drafted as "left bank" commander of a mixed force and hold Toulgas those long, long months. The only help he remembers from Colonel Corbley or Colonel Stewart in the field operations was a single visit from each, the one to examine his company fund book, the other to visit the troops on the line in obedience to orders from Washington and General Ironside. Of this visit Captain Boyd writes:
"When Col. Stewart made his trip to Toulgas his advent was marked principally by his losing one of his mittens, which were the ordinary issue variety. He searched everywhere, and half insinuated that Capt. Dean, my adjutant, a British officer, had taken it. I could see Dean getting hot under the collar. Then he told me that my orderly must have taken it. I knew Adamson was more honest than either myself or the colonel, and that made me hot. Then he finally found the mitten where he had dropped it, on the porch, and everything was serene again.
"Col. Stewart went with me up to one of the forward blockhouses, which at that time was manned by the Scots. After the stock questions of 'where are you from' and 'what did you do in civil life' he launched into a dissertation on the disadvantages of serving in an allied command. The Scot looked at him in surprise and said, 'Why, sir, we've been very glad to serve with the Americans, sir, and especially under Lt. Dennis. There's an officer any man would be proud to serve under.' That ended the discussion."
After this slight digression from the narrative, we may take up the thread of the story of this push for Kotlas. Royal Scots and Russians had been left in quiet possession of the upper Dvina near Seltso after the struggle already related. But hard pressed again, they were waiting the arrival of the company of Americans, who arrived one morning about 6:00 a. m. a few miles below our old friend, the village of Yakovlevskoe. We marched to the village, reported to the British officer in command at Seltso, and received the order, "Come over here as quick as you possibly can." The situation there was as follows: The Bolos had come back down the river in force with gunboats and artillery, and were making it exceedingly uncomfortable for the small British garrisons at Seltso and Borok across the river. We marched around the town, through swamps at times almost waist deep, and attacked the Bolo trenches from the flank at dusk. We were successful, driving them back, and capturing a good bit of supplies, including machine guns and a pom pom. The Bolos lost two officers and twenty-seven men killed, while we had two men slightly wounded, both of whom were later able to rejoin the company.
"We expected a counter attack from the Bolo, as our force was much smaller than his, and spent the first part of the night making trenches. An excavation deeper than eighteen inches would have water in the bottom. We were very cold, as it was October in Russia, and every man wet to the skin, with no blankets or overcoats. About midnight the British sent up two jugs of rum, which was immediately issued, contrary to military regulations. It made about two swallows per man, but was a lifesaver. At least a dozen men told me that they could not sleep before that because they were so cold, but that this started their circulation enough so they were able to sleep later.
In the morning we advanced to Lipovit and attacked there, but ran into a jam, had both flanks turned by a much larger force, and were very fortunate to get out with only one casualty. Corporal Downs lost his eye, and showed extreme grit in the hard march back through the swamp, never complaining. I saw, after returning to the States, an interview with Col. Josselyn, at that time in command of the Dvina force, in which he mentioned Downs, and commended him very highly."
The ensuing week we spent in Seltso, the Bolos occupying trenches around the upper part of our defenses. They had gunboats and naval guns on rafts, and made it quite uncomfortable for us with their shelling, although the only American casualties were in the detachment of 310th Engineers. Our victory was short lived, however, for in a few days our river monitor was forced to return to Archangel on account of the rapidly receding river, which gave the enemy the opportunity of moving up their 9.2 inch naval guns, with double the range of our land batteries, making our further occupation of Seltso impossible.
On the afternoon of October 14, the second and third platoons of Company "B" were occupying the blockhouses when the Bolos made an attack, which was easily repelled. As we were under artillery fire with no means of replying, the British commander decided to evacuate that night. It was impossible to get supplies out owing to the lack of transportation facilities. That part of Company "B" in the village left at midnight, followed by the force in the blockhouses at 3:00 a. m. After a very hard march we reached Toulgas and established a position there.
Our position at Toulgas in the beginning was very unfavorable, being a long narrow string of villages along the Dvina which was bordered with thick underbrush extending a few hundred yards to the woods. We had a string of machine gun posts scattered through the brush, and when our line of defense was occupied there was less than two platoons left as a reserve. With us at this time we had Company "A" of the 2nd Tenth Royal Scots (British) under Captain Shute, and a section of Canadian artillery.
The Bolos followed us here and after several days shelling, to which because of being outranged we were unable to reply, they attacked late in the afternoon of October 23rd. Our outposts held, and we immediately counter attacked. The enemy was repulsed in disorder, losing some machine guns, and having about one hundred casualties, while we came out Scot free.
It was during the shelling incidental to this that Edvinson, the Viking, did his stunt. He was in a machine gun emplacement which was hit by a small H. E. shell. The others were considerably shaken up, and pulled back, reporting Edvinson killed, that he had gone up in the air one way, and the Lewis gun the other. We established the post a little farther back and went out at dusk to get Edvinson's body. Much was the surprise of the party when he hailed them with, "Well, I think she's all right." He had collected himself, retrieved the Lewis gun, taken it apart and cleaned it and stuck to his post. The shelling and sniping here had been quite heavy. His action was recognized by the British, who awarded him a Military Medal, just as they did Corporal Morrow who was instrumental in reoccupying and holding an important post which had been driven in early in the engagement. Corporal Dreskey and Private Lintula also distinguished themselves at this point.
Here we may leave "B" Company and the Scots and Russians making a fortress of Toulgas on the left bank of the Dvina. The Reds were busy defending Plesetskaya from a converging attack and not till snow clouds gathered in the northern skies were they to gather up a heavy force to attack Toulgas. We will now turn to the story of the first battalion penetrating with bayonets far up the Vaga River.*****
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