Mar 24

The Russian Intervention of 1918-1919

Thursday, March 24, 2016 12:01 AM

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Though the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps have had a long history of interventions in other countries, none perhaps has made such a long-lasting impact on world history as that which followed the Russian Revolution in 1917. In the following excerpts from his 1969 Proceedings article “Our Russian War of 1918-1919,” Rear Admiral Kemp Tolley (1908-2000) discusses the causes and events of the war that “soured U. S.-Soviet relations for almost a generation” and beyond.


Fighting and dying in the swamps and forests were Russian patriots, both Red and White, Americans, French, British, Serbians, Italians and Finns. There were many threads of blue on the generally khaki background; U. S. sailormen in unlikely places, doing unlikely things. And very soon, the American sailors and soldiers were asking each other: “Why are we here? The war in Europe is over. The Armistice is signed. Why are we here?

This vest pocket war, largely unknown or misunderstood even to this day in the United States, was comic in some instances, but tragic in its pointless casualties. It soured U. S.-Soviet relations for almost a generation, and, in the Soviet Union, is still by no means forgotten or forgiven.

How had it come to pass?

The port of Vladivostok during the American Intervention in Russia, ca. 1918-1919. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

The port of Vladivostok during the American Intervention in Russia, ca. 1918-1919. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

By the spring of 1917, insuperable supply problems and shortages, general discontent, execrable leadership, and deep and widespread suspicions of treachery in high places had brought about the abdication of the Tsar and the collapse of the Imperial Russian government. . . . . With the November 1917 political triumph of the Bolsheviki, followed in a few months by their peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, the Russian war in the East clearly had been brought to a close.

 To Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations, and Admiral William S. Sims, commanding U. S. naval forces in Europe, the disappearance of the Russian military presence was the first scene of a nightmare script involving the transfer of some German divisions from the Eastern to the Western Front to take part in the great Hun offensive planned for the summer of 1918.

On 3 March 1918, the Germans forced the fledgling and nearly powerless Bolshevist government to accept the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This recognized the independence of the Baltic States, Belorussia and, most importantly, that great breadbasket, the Ukraine. It also promised Germany vital raw materials that had theretofore been cut off by the Allied blockade.

To ensure the delivery of these raw materials, German troops not only immediately occupied these “independent” countries, but also spilled over into the oil, coal, and grain-rich Caucasus and Don Basin.

Deeply alarmed at this encroachment on areas outside those covered by the Treaty, the Bolshevist leaders at once sought out the Moscow representatives of the “dirty Imperialists” (Anglo-French department) for conversations on joint action against the Germans. . . .Thus, the early March 1918 landing of a small British force at Murmansk was welcomed by the brilliant, bewhiskered Bolshevist War Commissar Leon Trotsky, as a preliminary step in Allied help in protecting Petrograd and the railway to Murmansk against the Germans and White Finns. . . .

On 23 June, additional British forces landed at Murmansk, to a mixed reaction by the local Soviet, wavering between loyalty to Mother Moscow and the side on which their bread was buttered. At least there was no equivocation on the part of Lenin, Trotsky and Co. “The English landing,” they thundered, “cannot be considered other than an act against the Republic . . . for overthrowing the Workers’ and Peasants’ power!”

They continued in a vein that made quite clear that joint Allied-Bolshevist action was out the window.

Meanwhile, Admiral Sims, foreseeing the shape of things to come (the clarity of his vision no doubt enhanced by British suggestion) told the Chief of Naval Operations on 8 April that, “A force of considerable strength may be needed at any time. The Russians of all classes should be impressed with the unity of the Allies.” He added that the Russian feeling for the United States was somewhat more friendly than for Great Britain, so that some difficulties might be avoided if a U. S. man-of-war were present.

On 24 May, as a result of this appeal, the 6,000-ton cruiser Olympia nosed into the long, mile-wide estuary of the Kola River that led to Murmansk. As one might expect of an elderly lady, her lines and speed no longer had the dash of that day a generation earlier when she had carried Dewey into Manila Bay. Iron-sighted 8-inch turret guns had been replaced by ten new 5-inchers. She carried 28 officers and 400 men, many of whom, including her commanding officer, Captain Bion B. Bierer, would soon be scattered over most of Northwest Russia, facing the muzzles of guns which so short a time before had ranged on the Allied side.

. . . .

Ensign D. M. Hicks, U. S. N. R. F., and part of his 50-man landing force from the USS Olympia (C-6) put ashore at Archangel on 3 August 1918 as part of the A.E.F. during the Intervention. His exploits in command of a railroad train in combat with Bolshevik forces are recounted in detail in Admiral Tolley's article. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

Ensign D. M. Hicks, U. S. N. R. F. (at center, with shined black shoes) and part of his 50-man landing force from the USS Olympia (C-6) put ashore at Archangel on 3 August 1918 as part of the A.E.F. during the Intervention. His exploits in command of a railroad train in combat with Bolshevik forces are recounted in detail in Admiral Tolley’s article. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

The 8th of June 1918 was for America a momentous day. On the orders of Admiral Kemp, the Olympia put ashore eight officers and 100 men, one-fourth of her complement. It marked the point of no return in our war with Russia and in the eyes of Moscow indelibly lumped the United States together with Britain and France as aggressors against a struggling new Russian Republic then facing a universally hostile world. . . .

If any Allied doubts still persisted concerning Bolshevist views, they were set straight on 22 June by the ebullient War Commissar Trotsky. In an impassioned speech directed toward the Allied intervention in Murmansk, just reinforced by the modest addition ashore of Olympia’s landing force, Trotsky raged, “Between the Germans and the encroachments of armies of the ‘friendly’ Allies we see no difference. . . . Those who twist this statement into an argument that we plan an alliance with the Germans against the ‘Allies’ are either naturally stupid or are being paid to be stupid.”

By 13 July, shortly over a month after the Olympia‘s men had come ashore, affairs at Murmansk had reached a point where the façade of collaboration with the now-cool, now-hot local soviet fell apart; the British proceeded to disarm the local pro-Bolshevist Russians and seize the Russian cruiser Askold from her committee of Red sailors. She would shortly thereafter be manned by 400 British tars, the Imperial Russian ensign at the main and the union jack of Great Britain at the jack staff forward, another of the many anomalies of that strange war. . . .

Marines from the USS Brooklyn (ACR-3) are put ashore as part of the Intervention, ca. 1918. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

Marines from the USS Brooklyn (ACR-3) are put ashore as part of the Intervention, ca. 1918. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

On 24 October 1918, one of the most fortuitous events of the American intervention took place: Rear Admiral Newton A. McCully, Jr., U. S. Navy, arrived in Murmansk and broke his flag in the Olympia as Commander U. S. Naval Forces, Northern Russia. . . . The American troops, the 339th Infantry regiment, arrived as scheduled. They had been recruited in the Wisconsin area not long before, and to their intense wonderment on arrival in Britain after a short training period, had been issued heavy winter clothing, skis, and snow shoes, and their Enfield rifles had been exchanged for the long-barrelled variety turned out for shipment to the Imperial Russian Army. . . .

By October 1918, disenchantment with the course of events was clearly evident in a telegram of instructions from Sims to [Admiral Newton A. McCully, Jr., U. S. Navy]. . . . As to North Russia, U. S. military forces were to be directed solely, “to guarding the ports themselves and as much of the country around as may develop threatening conditions.” (The latter was a masterpiece of ambiguity, in that “threatening conditions” then existed in Russia as far south as the Black Sea and as far east as the Pacific Ocean.) No more American troops would be sent to northern ports. If any Allied authorities pressed our commanders to exceed these limitations, such requests were to be politely but firmly refused. Moreover, the exact nature of these instructions was not to be divulged to non-Americans.

. . . .

By early April 1919, things had taken a serious turn. McCully’s inspection on the fifth of that month revealed that morale, as he put it, “is thoroughly rotten,” Low morale was not confined to Americans alone; Royal Scots and Liverpools on the Dvina front refused to go on patrol. McCully warned that failure to relieve the 339th regiment at the earliest practicable date would result in serious trouble.

The redoubtable Olympia had departed Murmansk on 13 November for the Mediterranean, and would not return. On 13 May 1919, the U. S. cruiser Des Moines having arrived in Murmansk, Admiral McCully broke his flag in her and departed for Archangel, where the old ship lost a good part of her wood and copper sheathing forcing her way through the ice pack at the entrance to the White Sea.

. . . .

By mid-September, the curtain had closed on the Great Adventure; the Des Moines sailed out of Archangel for the last time on the 14th, having closed out the American effort. On 26 September, the British withdrawal was complete and White Russian authorities were left with the near hopeless task of defending themselves against the ever more powerful Red Army.

. . . .

A final intelligence report on our operations points out that throughout the entire campaign it had always been a question more of morale of the forces employed rather than their strength. None of the troops were ever keen about the work they were required to do, and the sentiment was carefully fostered by Bolshevist propaganda. The first signs of disaffection appeared in the French organization as early as October 1918, extending later to Americans, British, and Italians, and finally the Serbs. “To the soldier, the question, ‘Why are we here?’ was never satisfactorily answered,” the report concludes.

As for our senior American participant, Rear Admiral Newton McCully, we can bless our good fortune that he had surmounted the political naïveté that hobbles a great many senior officers in their conduct of operations involving international questions. His views on Russia were founded on six years of rich experience covering two wars in which that farflung land was deeply engaged. They reflect the bitter experience of Napoleon, to be confirmed by one Adolf Hitler: “Russia is too great a country,” wrote McCully, “and has too much national Slav spirit to be ever reconciled to the domination of any other power. There cannot be foreseen any reason for serious conflict of interests in the future between Russia and the United States, but there are possibilities that in time Russia will be a friend, if we can make and keep her so, of whom the United States will be much in need.”