"Bloody Battle on Peace Day"

On November 11, 1918, World War I officially ended, but for American troops in the Russian town of Toulgas, the war was just beginning.

By Vincent Cortright
"Military History Magazine", Oct. 1998

Stampeding over the bridge so that its timbers shook, American Sergeant Silver Keshick Parrish and the rest of his platoon made it across just in time. They shed field packs and personal possessions as they ran to take cover in a crude log blockhouse, in front of a small town nestled deep in the Russian wilderness.

Three British Vickers machine guns were emplaced in the blockhouse. Although they were commanded by a sergeant and seven men from another platoon, Parrish took charge of one gun. He squinted through the 1-by-3-foot firing slit at the bridge. Earlier, he had marveled at how the Russian carpenters had constructed the bridge without using a single nail. Now, Parrish could only think about the horde of Russian infantrymen he expected to come storming across at any second.

Snipers fired from across the bridge, killing the other sergeant when he stepped outside the blockhouse for a moment. The men wanted to bring his body inside, but they did not dare go out into the open. Then the snipers concentrated on the firing slit, knocking chips off a brick fireplace directly behind it. Undeterred, Parrish carefully squeezed off bursts on the Vickers, its tripod stand set in a box of sand to keep it from creeping over the log floor. A few minutes later, most of the snipers were dead.

But it was early in the morning, and the Russians were far from giving up. After a lull, at least 30 soldiers suddenly charged the bridge with bayonets fixed. Parrish and the other Vickers gunners responded with a long blast of fire; none of the Russians made it across.

At 11 a.m., the screech of incoming artillery rounds heralded another attack. Parrish stared at the other troops in the blockhouse as shells landed ever closer to the building, which had a roof that was only two logs thick. There was nowhere to run.

Parrish and his comrades did not know it, but on that day as they faced death--November 11, 1918--the war they were supposed to be fighting officially ended. At 11 a.m. in France, wild celebrations broke out in Allied countries when the news came that an armistice had been signed to end World War I. Even if the American soldiers then in Russia had known of those developments, the news would hardly have mattered. For them the war had barely begun.

The reasons for the American military presence in Russia can be traced back to the November 1917 revolution, which brought Vladimir Ilych Lenin, Leon Trotsky and their Bolshevik (Communist) government to power. A great part of the Bolsheviks' wide appeal lay in their intention to take Russia out of the war against Germany. In March 1918, they did just that, signing a separate peace treaty that freed 40 German divisions from the Eastern Front in Russia for service on the Western Front in France.

The three most powerful Allied powers at the time--France, England and the United States--were horrified. It was bad enough that the German reinforcements were coming, but they also feared that the major ports in northwest Russia--Murmansk and Archangel--would quickly be seized by Germany. If that happened, the Germans could lay their hands on millions of dollars in war supplies, sent mainly from the United States while Russia was still in the war, which were stored on the docks and in the warehouses of Archangel.

To forestall that, a British-led Allied naval force occupied Murmansk in May 1918, followed by Archangel in August. Lenin and Trotsky were alarmed at what they saw as an invasion from the capitalist Western powers to restore their political enemies to power, but they could not prevent it. The small Bolshevik forces at the ports retreated before the sailors landed from the Allied ships. At the same time, after much wrangling, Britain persuaded U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to divert an American regiment bound for the Western Front to Archangel, to reinforce the sailors there and help guard the supplies.

The first time that the men of the U.S. Army's 339th Infantry Regiment realized they were not going to France was when their British Enfield rifles were taken away while they were training in England, and Mosin-Nagant rifles were substituted for them, ostensibly to ensure compatibility with Russian ammunition. The doughboys were appalled at how flimsy and inaccurate their new weapons were. After a short course of instruction, on August 27, 1918, the troops were packed aboard transports bound north toward the Arctic Circle.

The soldiers of the 339th were mainly from Detroit, Mich., and one can well imagine their sense of wonder when they first laid eyes on the great onion-shaped domes of Archangel's Russian Orthodox cathedral on September 4. But there was little time for sightseeing. Three days later, the 1st Battalion of the 339th, under Colonel James Corbley, embarked on filthy wooden barges formerly used to carry cattle and coal and started up the meandering Dvina River, which empties into the White Sea near Archangel.

That was the start of the trouble on the river front. British Maj. Gen. Frederick C. Poole, commander of the Allied North Russia Expeditionary Force, had decided (with the U.S. ambassador to Russia, David Francis, a willing accomplice) to engage in what would be referred to today as mission creep. When he first entered Archangel in August, Poole had discovered to his dismay that the Bolsheviks had already stolen (or, as they said, "expropriated") most of the war materiel. And to take away those supplies they had also expropriated the best riverboats and other transports from their civilian owners--hence only dirty barges remained for the 1st Battalion. Poole decided that he would aid the White Russian and other anti-Bolshevik forces who were fighting a civil war against the Red Army--and who had promised to put Russia back into the war against Germany if they won. He used the theft of the Allied supplies as a pretext for his strike against the Bolsheviks, claiming that if the American troops were supposed to guard the supplies, they would first have to reclaim them--even if that meant going all the way to Moscow to do so.

About 400 miles south on the Dvina River from Archangel was Kotlas, an important railway terminal. Poole designated Kotlas a major objective and sent the 339th's 1st Battalion to join some British troops already fighting their way toward it. His one worry was that the rapidly approaching winter would freeze the river and stop all water traffic.

As they chugged up the river into the heart of Russia, the men of the 1st Battalion knew very little about grand strategy. Their first combat would be at a hamlet on the Dvina about 200 miles upriver, named Seltso, where the retreating Bolsheviks had decided to make a stand. Leaving the barges downriver--and grateful to get off of them--the American troops trudged the last few miles to Seltso along the muddy bank, carrying full packs on their backs. Because their artillery support, comprised of several field guns manned by White Russians, moved much more slowly, one company from the battalion was sent forward in the hope of taking the hamlet before the Soviets had time to fortify it. On the morning of September 19, D Company had begun to wade across an open marsh about 1,500 yards from Seltso when the Soviets in well-prepared trenches opened fire with machine guns and cannons.

The Americans managed to scramble to cover before any of them were hit, but the encounter ended all hope of taking Seltso quickly. For the rest of the day, the troops stayed low and waited for their field guns, while the Soviets lobbed 6-inch shells at them from river gunboats improvised from the craft they had taken from Archangel.

The White Russian gunners had more trouble moving through the mud than expected, so the Americans had to spend a cold, miserable night in swampy woods outside Seltso. Without overcoats and prohibited from lighting fires, the shivering men huddled together to keep warm. The Bolsheviks added to their misery by sending over an occasional shell to keep them sleepless.

At noon the next day, an outflanking attempt by B Company under Captain Robert Boyd ran afoul a hidden machine-gun nest, resulting in three men killed and eight wounded. The Americans were learning the hard way what had been known on the Western Front since 1914--that trench warfare was murder on the infantry.

Finally, the field guns came up, and in the late afternoon of September 20 they were used to lay a heavy and accurate barrage on both the hamlet and the gunboats. By coincidence, the Bolsheviks decided to withdraw from Seltso just as the 1st Battalion made an all-out frontal attack. After slogging through the knee-deep marsh as fast as they could, the Americans let out victory cheers when they took the trenches. They soon realized, however, that if the Soviets had stuck to their guns a little longer, the battalion could have been massacred in the open.

Shortly afterward, the British brought up their own gunboat--a river monitor--to control the Dvina, and with Seltso in the hands of White Russian and Royal Scottish troops from Poole's force, the 1st Battalion was pulled out to a resort town for other duties. In early October, however, the Reds counterattacked at Seltso, prompting a call for reinforcements. Boyd's B Company was detached from the battalion and sent back on a relatively speedy tugboat to the disputed hamlet. The American troops did not fancy the prospect of returning to Seltso, but what irritated them the most was the requirement that they submit to direct control by British officers.

The Bolsheviks had dug trenches (very soggy ones, since the water table was 18 inches deep) on the southern outskirts of Seltso. On the afternoon of October 10, three of B Company's platoons engaged the trenches at their front, while the fourth platoon worked its way through the woods to try a flank attack. This time the assault was managed better. Forming a skirmish line with men at six-pace intervals, the platoon charged out of the woods screaming. The Reds panicked and ran, losing about 30 men compared to two wounded Americans.

Gaining confidence, Boyd decided on the following morning to attack the small town of Lipovit a few miles farther south. The Americans were advancing unimpeded through woods when they suddenly came under rifle fire from both sides. About 1,000 Bolsheviks had allowed Boyd's column to walk deep into the jaws of a trap before snapping it shut. Two platoons managed to take cover in a nearby ravine and retreat to safety, but the other two platoons, including Boyd, were cut off and had to run and hide in thick undergrowth along the Dvina. For several tense minutes, the Americans watched as the enemy troops swarmed through the woods looking for them. Then, without bothering to search next to the river, the Bolsheviks withdrew, allowing Boyd and his men to rejoin the company with just one man wounded.

Chastened by that close call, B Company withdrew to Seltso while the Bolsheviks quietly reoccupied the trenches on the southern outskirts of the town. An uneasy standoff continued until the captain of the British monitor, concerned that ice might form on the Dvina, steamed back 40 miles and left the garrison unprotected from the river flank. The Soviet gunboat captains, on the other hand, knew better how to gauge the weather, and they swiftly moved in to recommence the bombardment, out of range of the American field guns in Seltso.

By then, there was little point in the Allied troops staying to take that abuse, since the drive for Kotlas had been postponed indefinitely. At midnight on October 14, B Company and the rest of the Allied troops retreated 10 miles to the little town of Toulgas (or Tulgas).

The drive on Kotlas had been postponed because in late October command of the Allied North Russia Expeditionary Force passed from Poole to his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. William Edmund Ironside, who was given a temporary promotion to major general. Wishing to steer the expedition back toward its original mission, Ironside placed top priority on holding Archangel and the Allied supplies that remained there. He therefore approved a plan to garrison a number of widely separated outposts in the area surrounding the port.

One of those outposts was Toulgas, which consisted of a narrow strip of 200 log houses on a muddy slope, with the Dvina on one side and an immense wooded swamp on the other. The Allied garrison, about 600 men, was composed of B Company; a platoon of D Company; one company from the 2nd Battalion, 10th Royal Scots; and 57 Canadians of the 67th Battery, 16th Brigade Canadian Field Artillery, in charge of two 18-pounder (3.3-inch) field guns.

The troops busily set about fortifying the town by digging trenches, stringing barbed wire and building log blockhouses. Toulgas was naturally divided into three parts, with the southern end, closest to the approaching main Bolshevik force of 2,000 men, separated from the middle part of town by a deep stream spanned by an 80-foot-long wooden bridge. The northern end of town was separated from the middle by a ravine, where the Canadians emplaced their 18-pounders pointing south. The Allies considered the north end the safest part and put their hospital there.

As far as weaponry was concerned, the Americans had long since learned that their Mosin-Nagant rifles were nearly worthless--fortunately for them, the Bolsheviks were using the same rifles. Instead, the Allied troops depended on Vickers and Lewis machine guns sited at various points around the town. The Lewis gun was particularly valued for its ruggedness under adverse conditions, and that was amply demonstrated on October 23, when Soviet gunboats came down the Dvina and started shelling Toulgas.

Private Joseph Edvinson of B Company was part of a crew at a machine-gun post when a shell hit. The rest of the crewmen then went back to report Edvinson's death. "He had gone up in the air one way, and the Lewis gun the other," wrote Boyd. "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."

Shelling continued over the next several days, with the 18-pounders being unable to effectively engage the Bolshevik gunboats, whose weapons outranged them. Brief but sharp firefights also broke out when Red infantry patrols tested the town's defenses. To strengthen the garrison, Lieutenant John Cudahy and 40 men of the 337th Infantry arrived from France at the end of October to provide reinforcements. Cudahy was so shocked by the dismal living conditions of the Americans in Toulgas that he bought extra food for them with his own money on the black market. The lieutenant must have wondered what he had gotten himself into.

The Germans on the Western Front had not been able to defeat the Allies, even with the divisions they had transferred from the East. In fact, the Germans had been rolled back and were at the point of collapse. The situation in Russia was a different story. Everyone in Toulgas knew that a major attack was coming soon. Although there were many "Bolo" (the Americans' slang for Bolshevik) sympathizers among the townsfolk, most of them genuinely liked the Americans and warned that the attack would come sometime near the anniversary of the 1917 revolution.

At 8 a.m. on November 11, 1918, Bolshevik troops stormed out of the woods at the south end of Toulgas, and B Company's second platoon stampeded over the wooden bridge to take up defensive positions on the other side. Everything ran according to plan; the Allies never wanted to hold the south end, intending to fall back and wait for the Bolos to try to cross the bridge. Then Sergeant Parrish did his deadly work with the Vickers machine gun in the log blockhouse facing the bridge.

Back in the ravine, the Canadians were about to add to the defensive fire with their field guns when one of the men happened to look to his side. Utterly flabbergasted, he saw a horde of Bolsheviks preparing to charge from the west right up the ravine.

All along, the Allied officers had assumed that the swampy western flank of Toulgas was impassable for a large force. But the Bolsheviks proved them wrong. For three days before the attack, 500 Red troops had worked their way undetected to a position near the ravine, where they waited until the diversionary attack was launched at the south end of town.

The surprise strike almost certainly would have worked had it not been for a B Company squad with a Lewis gun that happened to be in the ravine near the 18-pounders at that time. The squad poured out such a fusillade that the Bolsheviks thought they were facing a much larger force. The Soviet troops then pulled back and moved around to attempt another attack from the north end of town.

That gave the gunners just enough time to shift position and turn one 18-pounder 180 degrees toward the north. Expert as well as brave, the Canadians fused their shrapnel shells to burst right after leaving the muzzle, like old-fashioned grapeshot. The Reds never got within 50 yards before being cut down by murderous blasts of fire; about 100 were killed outright. The Americans and Canadians had started to congratulate each other after stopping the last attack when they suddenly had a chilling thought: The Bolsheviks had also taken over the undefended hospital in the north end of town, and the Allies had already learned that the Bolsheviks treated wounded prisoners with pistol shots.

For the rest of the morning and afternoon, five Bolshevik gunboats continued to stay just out of the range of the 18-pounders and drop shells all around the blockhouse and ravine, hoping to hit a weak spot. They did not succeed, and the day ended with the Allies wondering what the Reds' next move would be.

Early morning on November 12, the Bolsheviks' plan was revealed plain as the day. The gunboats concentrated fire on the bridge blockhouse. Hour after hour, Allied soldiers watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as shells struck all around the blockhouse without scoring a direct hit. Finally at noon, one did, completely demolishing the structure. On cue, Bolshevik soldiers began to move across the bridge. Then the barrel jacket of a Lewis gun poked out from the heap of broken and smoldering logs of what had once been the blockhouse.

The direct hit had killed or seriously wounded everyone inside and had knocked out the Vickers, but Private Charles Bell of B Company also had a Lewis gun. Despite a severe facial wound, Bell stuck to his post as Edvinson had done and kept the Soviets from crossing the bridge, while the Americans outside hurriedly set up another of their Lewises in a trench to form a cross-fire. The Bolsheviks tried again and again to cross the bridge during the rest of the afternoon, but at every attempt machine-gun fire created an impregnable barrier.

Not content merely to watch, the Royal Scots made a swift attack on the north end of town during the afternoon, dislodging the Bolsheviks and recapturing the hospital. What they then discovered would probably be dismissed as fiction if it were not so well-documented.

When the Bolsheviks took the hospital without resistance on the morning of the 11th, their commander, true to form, had immediately ordered that all the Allied patients be shot. A high-pitched voice then interrupted, declaring that the first man who pulled a trigger would be shot himself. All eyes turned to see a beautiful woman step forward wearing the standard male Red Army uniform. She turned out to be a fellow officer--and the commander's lover. The Bolshevik commander grudgingly rescinded his order and then led his men in an attack on the 18-pounders in the ravine. Shortly afterward, he was mortally wounded and was brought back to the hospital to die in the presence of "Lady Olga," as the Allies called the woman officer. She stayed to help tend the wounded soldiers of both sides, even after the Scots had taken back the hospital.

In spite of that good fortune at the hospital, the situation in Toulgas worsened on the morning of November 13. Infantry attacks against the bridge and ravine had proved fruitless for the Bolsheviks, so they again switched tactics. They started an almost continuous area bombardment of Toulgas, endangering soldiers and civilians alike. On average, a heavy shell hit the town every 15 seconds throughout the day. When the Allied soldiers looked at some of the shell fragments, they saw to their disgust and dismay that the shells had been manufactured in the United States--a portion of the supplies sent to Archangel that they had been assigned to guard.

As darkness closed in, the situation turned critical. Ammunition was low, and since the one telegraph line to the rear had been cut, neither supplies nor reinforcements were on the way. The temperature had plunged as well, bringing on the first heavy snowfall of winter.

One advantage, at least for the Americans, was that no communications meant no outside British control. Captain Boyd of B Company was in charge of the garrison as ranking Allied officer. Deciding to use his powers to the fullest, Boyd proposed a daring gamble to break the siege.

Boyd had been impressed by the way young Lieutenant Cudahy kept a cool head under fire. Since he had to stay in town as commander, Boyd put Cudahy in charge of B Company with orders to do what the Reds had failed to do on the 11th--mount a surprise flank attack from the western swamp.

In the faint light just before dawn on November 14, the American company carefully moved past Allied sentries into the wooded swamp. Although the Bolsheviks had surrounded Toulgas, Allied sharpshooters had taken care of many of the Bolshevik pickets on the perimeter the previous afternoon, so it was easy enough to get through their lines. Cudahy's specific objective was a group of huts near the south end that was being used as a supply depot. But more than a simple raid was intended. Boyd hoped that a sharp attack would convince the enemy that large reinforcements had arrived and that it would be wise to pull back.

The thick layer of slush under several inches of powdery snow made the going agonizingly slow, as Cudahy led his men in a wide arc and then formed them into a skirmish line at the edge of a meadow. Across the meadow were the huts, along with some Bolsheviks milling about preparing breakfast. With his force still undetected, the lieutenant gave the order to open fire.

By a lucky chance the Red detachment's commissar, or political officer, was killed by one of the first American bullets. When the Bolshevik soldiers witnessed this, and then saw the Americans charge out of the woods, they panicked and began running in wild disorder back toward their larger force overlooking the bridge.

Cudahy was deciding how best to follow up on this success when one of the B Company men peered into a hut and found it was crammed with rifle ammunition. Seeing an opportunity, Cudahy told the men to clear the area around the hut. Then he gave the order to set it on fire.

Like a shooting gallery gone mad, the uproar of the exploding rifle rounds filled the air for miles. When the Bolshevik commander near the bridge heard the commotion, he assumed that a rescue force had broken through from the rear and was trying to trap his force. Consequently, he ordered his men to pull back from the south end of town.

By another lucky chance, the captains of the gunboats had decided at about the same time that the increased cold posed too great a danger of ice forming on the river, and they withdrew their vessels up the Dvina toward Seltso. With their superiority in artillery gone, the Bolshevik ground troops felt they, too, had no choice but to begin a general withdrawal.

The siege of Toulgas was over. It had cost the Allies 28 killed and 70 wounded. A conservative estimate put the Bolshevik dead at 500. When the men of the garrison finally heard the news of the armistice days after the rest of the world, they thought that their prayers had been answered and that their own withdrawal orders were forthcoming. But the Allies were too heavily engaged in the continuing Russian civil war to withdraw so soon. Also, thick ice had formed in the sea around Archangel just as it did on the Dvina and prevented the use of transports, even those with powerful icebreaker bows.

During the rest of 1918 and the first two months of 1919, the Allied garrison had several more sharp encounters, though the Bolsheviks never made as great an effort to take Toulgas while the Americans were there. Bolshevik prisoners later told their captors that the Soviet enlisted men had threatened to shoot their officers if another siege was ordered. The Americans were pleased with their reputation of toughness, but they were positively ecstatic when word came in the spring that they were set to leave Russia. On June 3, 1919, B Company and the rest of the 339th boarded transports at Archangel and steamed away.

The veterans of the 339th did not feel that they had done much good for Russia. They called themselves "The Polar Bears" at reunions in the years afterward and worked to keep alive the memory of their remarkable exploits. One man did so in a very personal way. When Cudahy's wife gave birth to a daughter, he made "Toulgas" her middle name.