Clem Grobbel, July 4, 1919, Belle Isle Park, Detroit, MI

"It's like hunting rabbits,
only on a bigger scale"

The Correspondence of
Cpl. Clement A. Grobbel,
Co. I, 339th Infantry,
85th Division, U.S. Army

June 1918 through June 1919

Clement Anthony Grobbel (1895-1977), of Warren Township, Michigan, was a member of the US Army "Polar Bears" who fought in World War I against the Bolsheviks in North Russia from September 1918 until June 1919.

The photo of Clem Grobbel at left was taken at Belle Isle Park in Detroit on 4 JUL 1919, which was his first full day back in Michigan since leaving Camp Custer for Europe on 14 July 1918.

INTRODUCTION

Clem was 22 years old when the U.S. entered World War I. He was soon drafted into the Army and on 27 JUN 1918, he arrived at Camp Custer, near Battle Creek, MI. There he began training with Rifle Company I of the 339th Infantry Regiment of the National Army. The 339th became known as "Detroit's Own Regiment", since three-quarters of the enlisted men and officers were from the Detroit area (upon their return to the U.S. in 1919, the 339th and their attached units took to calling themselves the "Polar Bears"). On 14 JUL 1918, the 339th broke camp and boarded trains for New York City, from which they sailed for England on 22 JUL 1918.

In England, the 4,284 officers and enlisted men of the 339th Infantry, plus the 1,200 men of the 1st Battalion of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Ambulance Co. and the 337th Field Hospital of the U.S. Army's 85th Division were organized as the American North Russia Expeditionary Force (ANREF). After a month of training with British weapons, the ANREF boarded transport ships and on 22 AUG 1918, they sailed for Archangel, Russia, which they reached on 4 SEP 1918.

Immediately upon arrival, the ANREF was placed under British command and spread out along five different fronts surrounding Archangel. Their orders were to replace the existing French and British troops of the Allied Expeditionary Forces who were engaging the Bolsheviks (Communists), however there was never a clearly defined objective. Companies I, K, L and M of the 339th Infantry were assigned to the Vologda Railroad Front, including the HQ at Verst 455 and the front line at Verst 445. The Vologda Railroad Front was about 100 miles to the south of Archangel, near the village of Obozerskaya.

The conditions were miserable for the troops, the marshy terrain was flooded with standing water, and the first heavy snows came on 15 OCT 1918. On the afternoon of 4 NOV 1918, Company I found themselves under attack and outnumbered 6 to 1 by Bolshevik forces. Company I, along with an attached unit of French Artillery, successfully repulsed the attack (read the "Report of Engagement"). During the heavy fighting, one member of Co. I was killed and two others were wounded, one severely. Fourteen Bolsheviks were taken prisoner and the known enemy dead numbered thirty-four, with an estimated 100 to 150 wounded.

On 11 NOV 1918, the World War in Europe ended with the Armistice, while in Russia, the fighting continued. By Nov. 18th, when the last of the 339th finally received their British-issued winter uniforms, temperatures were consistently below zero degrees Fahrenheit.

That winter was very difficult for the poorly equipped members of the ANREF. Their British commanders seldom ventured out into the field, thus they did not understand how inadequate their rations, weapons and winter gear were. There were regular engagements with the Bolo's as they were called, but what resulted was basically a stalemate. Despite being ill-equipped and outnumbered, the 339th was able to inflict more casualties than they received in battle. However the bitter cold and sickness were also formidable enemies and 76 of their members succumbed to illness or accidents, in addition to the 134 who were either killed or missing as a result of hostilities (for a detailed breakdown, see "339th Permanent Losses").

By April of 1919, an American General named W.P. Richardson had arrived to visit the ANREF units out in the field and he observed first-hand their deplorable situation. His report set in motion the removal of the ANREF, which began in June when they were replaced by British volunteers who continued the holding action until the British leadership gave up and totally withdrew from Russia in October of 1919. The main elements of the 339th arrived back in Detroit late in the evening of July 3, 1919 and were treated to a warm homecoming on the following day, complete with a parade and picnic on Belle Isle.

Clem was never one to reminisce about his war-time experiences as a "Polar Bear", so the written record and the medals awarded for his actions on 4 NOV 1919 will have to speak for him. On March 4, 1920, the United States Secretary of War issued General Orders No. 14, Section IX, which awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (medal no.1800) to:

"Clement A. Grobbel (Army serial no. 2051645) corporal, Company I, 339th Infantry, 85th Division. For extraordinary heroism in action near Emtsa, Russia, November 4, 1918. When attacked by a largely superior force, in order to deliver a more effective fire, Corpl. Grobbel voluntarily left his trench and took up a position on top of the railroad bank. Although exposed to heavy machine gun fire, he held his position and fired his Lewis gun until the enemy was repulsed. The conduct of this noncomissioned officer was an important factor in the successful defense of the position. Residence at enlistment: R.F.D. No. 2, Warren, Mich."

Because he was fighting alongside French Artillerymen on 4 NOV 1919, he was also awarded the French "Croix de Guerre" medal by the French government. This medal was presented to him on 17 FEB 1919 by General William Edmund Ironside, the British military commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in North Russia, along with a certificate dated January 30, 1919.

The Distinguished Service Cross is our nation's second highest military award for valor, ranking just below the Medal of Honor. Out of the 5,500 U.S. Soldiers who fought in Russia during WWI, only 23 were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Clem was discharged from the Army at Camp Custer on 17 JULY 1919 and given the sum of $314.35, which included a $60.00 bonus. His discharge papers indicated that he was "a millwright with an excellent character".

Sources:
a)"Detroit's Own Polar Bears - the American North Russian Expeditionary Forces 1918-1919", S.J. & J.R. Bozich, Polar Bear Publishing, Frankenmuth, MI
b) "When Hell Froze Over" (originally published as "The Ignorant Armies"), E. M. Halliday, ibooks, inc. - Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York, NY, 1958, 2000.
c) "Michigan in the World War"
d) National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD: RG 120, 85th Division Records, 290/1/27/3 Boxes 2 and 3; Microfilm M924, Roll 2, section 23-33.2 "Report of Operations".
e) Grobbel Family records

Alvera (Grobbel) Ruhlman and Clem Grobbel (1919)
Alvera (Grobbel) Ruhlman and
Clem Grobbel (1919)


The (2) Post Cards and (11) Letters transcribed on the following pages cover the period of June 1918 through June 1919, starting with his basic training at Camp Custer (near Battle Creek, Michigan) and ending with his stop-over at Camp Pontanezen (near Brest, France) during the return voyage home.

The original Letters have been donated by Clem's children and are currently on display at the Michigan's Own Military and Space Museum, 1250 Weiss St., Frankenmuth, MI 48734, (989) 652-8005.

The original Post Cards are in the Grobbel Family History collection that I maintain. I have transcribed the 13 original documents and added footnotes to help explain references and identify people. I also corrected spelling errors and added a few words (in parentheses) for clarification. My grandfather had a pretty good way with words and I have taken the liberty to highlight some of my favorite passages that are either of historical/family significance or just plain humorous.

Michael V. Grobbel
Shelby Township, Michigan, U.S.A.

Contact

   

Link to the Veterans History Project

Link to The Great War Society

Link to the Legacy Project


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RETURN to the "Detroit's Own" Polar Bear Memorial Association web site

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READ the WWII War Letters written by three of Clem's sons

RETURN to the MISC.GROBBEL.ORG start page


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