Captain Oliver Alexander
68th Battery, 16th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery
Wounded in action on 24 Jan 1919 in Spasskoe, North Russia
Died on 27 Jan 1919 in Bereznik, North Russia
Credit: Russell Tubman, 68th Battery, CFA.
Photo from a collection donated to the Library and Archives Canada.
From the chapter titled "The Pill Rollers"
in the book "Quartered in Hell" :
If little love was lost between the U.S. troops and the British officer staff in North Russia, the opposite was true of the relationship between the ANREF and the officers and men of the 16th Canadian Field Artillery Brigade..... A special rapport and a mutual respect arose between the Yanks and their Northern neighbors - the Canadians, for the Yanks' tenacity and ability to fight - the Americans, for the skill and accuracy by which the Canadian gunners handled their cannon......
...... in August 1918, the Supreme Allied Command requested a Field Artillery Brigade be sent to North Russia as part of the Allied contingent. Five hundred volunteers were chosen from a pool of 8500 officers and men of the Reserve Artillery, all hardened veterans of France........
The Brigade left Dundee, Scotland on Sept. 21, 1918 and arrived in Archangel ten days later, where it immediately boarded barges for a..... voyage down the Dvina River..... with only twelve 18-pound field pieces.
As the two batteries [of the 16th CFA] progressed down [the Dvina] river, portions of the 68th Battery were dispatched to sectors. At General Ironside's request...... three officers and 26 men were attached to the railroad front to man an armored train.......... Major Hyde and a number of his men were chosen for this task. Lt. McRae and 21 of his gunners were stationed on the Emtsa River, near Kodish.......
The rest of the Brigade, the 67th Battery and the remaining elements of the 68th Battery, continued down river to the junction of the Vaga and Dvina rivers. Here, the 68th disembarked down the Vaga to Shenkursk while the remaining units of the 67th continued down the Dvina toward Toulgas and Kurgomen, 250 miles southwest of Archangel.......
At Shenkursk, the 68th Battery relieved the White Russian Battery stationed there while it was sent to Ust Vaga for training at the artillery school established by the CFA......
The small Canadian 18-pounders were constantly outranged when challenged by the larger Bolo artillery pieces. A demonstration of their resilience and ability to overcome this adversity surfaced at Kurgomen when the snowbound 67th Battery was shelled at a range of 8000 yards by the Bolos at Topsa. The Canadians' only choices, since they were outranged, were to sit and take a pounding - an impossible option which might last all winter - or to find some means with which to answer the enemy cannon. As was the gunners' inclination, they met the problem head on.
At dawn on Dec. 5th, F Sub Gun was drawn by ponies onto the open plain separating Kurgomen from Topsa, a good 1500 yards in front of the Allied outposts. From there, it was fired over open sights into the enemy position with excellent effect. When a hundred rounds had been unleashed, the gunners hooked their ponies to the cannon and rushed it back to safety. This procedure was repeated until the snow got too deep to move the gun onto the plain. From then on, it was fired from the edge of the woods which bordered the plain. The procedure kept the enemy artillery at bay.........
From the "Quartered in Hell" Chapter titled "Retreat", in the words of Lt. Hugh McPhail, Company A, 339th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army:
We finally got to the town of Spasskoe [around 4:00 AM on Jan. 24, 1919] and there halted. The town was on a small plateau and had not been fortified at all.........
.......[later that morning] the Bolo started to blaze away at anything he could hit. I went up in the church tower with two Canadian machine gunners and in a little village about 300 yards away we could see quite a bunch of the Bolos. So I said to the Lewis machine gunner to blast the Bolo a few rounds. He had no more than pulled the trigger when the Bolo saw us and I believe they hit the big bell in the belfry with several hundred rounds of machine gun ammunition...... One Bolo bullet split and I got nicked in the left cheek......
A Captain Mowat had come out from Shenkursk to aid the Canadian gunners and had placed their remaining three-inch gun right on the brow of the hill facing the Bolo. Ordinarily the artillery is placed in the rear of the battle line and I figured that this gun was surely in the wrong position. Soon I could see the Bolo artillery send a blast at the gun and miss by several hundred yards. The next shell split the distance, the next shell split that distance, but the fourth shell from the Bolo artillery landed right on top of the Canadian gun. Captian Mowat was killed instantly. Captain Odjard got a big piece of the shell casing in the right side of the neck. Cpl. James Chesser had his right arm torn off at the shoulder and I believe a couple of the Canadian artillery men were killed outright. And that was the end of that gun.
However, Godfrey J. Anderson of the 337th Field Hospital Company, remembered the sequence of events on that fateful day somewhat differently and in more detail. For his perspective, please read the "Godfrey J. Anderson Papers" in the Bentley Library's Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections. The events of Jan. 24th are covered on the digitized pages numbered 57 through 61 in his papers.
Mr. Anderson also contributed to "Quartered in Hell". In the Chapter titled "Shenkursk", he wrote:
Company A arrived at Shenkursk [from Spasskoe] at about four in the afternoon of January 24th........
All of the convalescing patients had been conveyed to an upper room in Hospital No. 2 and I, for one, had been assigned to attendance in those quarters...... A young Limey orderly came hurrying by, all excited, and announced that the town was surrounded, and that none of us would get out alive...... [elsewhere] on the second floor, there was a darkened, silent room....... all attendants were urgently needed elsewhere, and the only sounds were of labored breathing. These men were past aid, unconscious and dying. Some were even now rigid in death, but until the living could be cared for, none could be spared to carry them to the morgue. Among those lying here dead was the brave Lt. Powers and that gallant Canadian Captain Mowat.
Charmion Chaplin-Thomas wrote an interesting article titled "Artillery Action in North Russia" that unfortunately is no longer available on the Canadian National Defence Forces website. His article closely echoed Godfrey Anderson's account of that day and added a few dramatic details.
These events are also covered in three books that are still in print:
(1) "The History of The American Expedition Fighting the Bolsheviki", by Capt. Joel R. Moore, Lt. Harry H. Mead and Lt. Lewis E. Jahns [Chapter "Ust Padenga", pg. 139]
(2) "Russian Sideshow, America's Undeclared War, 1918-1920", by Robert L. Willett [Chapter 9, "The Vaga Front", pg. 97].
(3) "A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks: A War Memoir", the war memoir of Godfrey J. Anderson, edited by Gordon L. Olson [Chapter 5, "Retreat from Shenkursk", pp. 122-125]
More information about these books can be found here.
According to the accounts contained in these books, Captain Mowat was wounded on Jan. 24, 1919 [or on Jan. 23, 1919 according to book (2)] and died later of his wounds in Shenkursk, but no death date is given in either book (1) or (2). They also indicate that "Lt. Powers and others" were hastily buried without grave markers very near the Catherdral in Shenkursk, just prior to the mass retreat from Shenkursk that began at 1:00 AM the morning following Capt. Mowat's wounding. Lt Power's body was among those recovered in 1929 and returned to the USA for burial at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, MI.
"Russian Sideshow" also confirms the close-range tactics employed by the Canadian Field Artillery against the Bolos. Lt. Douglas Winslow and his men of the 68th Battery, CFA joined Company A on Jan. 19th in Visorka Gora, which was on a bluff overlooking the enemy-occupied village of Ust Padenga.
According to Willett,
"From the bluff, the Canadians fired grapeshot at point-blank range, decimating the Reds".
It was in Visorka Gora that the medical officer
assigned to Company A, Lt. Ralph Powers, was killed by an
artillery shell which struck his makeshift operating room and
also killed three others. The Bolo forces greatly outnumbered the
Allied troops in Visorka Gora and they were forced to eventually
retreat to Sholosha, Spasskoe and Shenkursk over the next few
According to Canadian War Diaries, Capt. Mowat was actually evacuated from Shenkursk to Bereznik along with the other wounded. He died there at 11:00 PM on 27 Jan 1919 following unsuccessful surgery.
Prior to their evacuation from North Russia, members of his battery disinterred Mowat’s body, placed it in a coffin and had it shipped back to England as part of the battery baggage. There the body was collected by his father, properly preserved by an undertaker, placed in a sealed coffin, and shipped back to his homwtown of Campbelltown, New Brunswick, Canada. Captain Oliver Mowat was buried with military honours in the Campbellton Rural Cemetery. More information about Captain Mowat and his service during World War I can be found on this page (scroll down). Also, Carrie Mowat has more information about her great-uncle's WWI service here and here on her Mowat family web site.
Lieutenant Winslow earned a Military Cross for his actions on January 19th. His citation reads, “For conspicuous gallantry and determination during operations at Ust Padenga in January 1919. When the enemy attacked heavily, this officer, with a few men, took charge of an abandoned gun, and, in face of heavy fire, manned and fired the gun over open sights until the order was given for retirement. He fought the gun throughout the withdrawal to Shenkursk (North Russia).” [source]
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