A little-known piece of World War I history in a “frozen Hades, [the] last place on earth at the top of the world.”
Beginning in September 1918, 5,000 American soldiers spent a miserable year fighting Bolsheviks in the Russian Arctic. In this fast-paced account, journalist and historian Nelson (I Will Hold: The Story of USMC Legend Clifton B. Cates, from Belleau Wood to Victory in the Great War, 2016) delivers a detailed, often gruesome narrative of this century-old campaign. In March 1918, Russia’s revolutionary government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers and withdrew from the war, freeing more than 1 million German soldiers to attack Russia’s former allies—Britain, France, and America—on the Western Front. Outraged, many Allied leaders yearned to reverse matters. Initially opposed to intervention, President Woodrow Wilson eventually agreed with the official explanation that it was required “to guard military stores which may be subsequently needed by Russian forces and to render such aid as may be acceptable to the Russians in the organization of their own self-defense.” As a result, the 339th Infantry Regiment and several ancillary units landed in Archangel in northwest Russia. They served under English command, complaining bitterly of the unpalatable food and inferior cigarettes. Nelson has turned up enough journals, letters, newspaper accounts, and memoirs to give an intimate, blow-by-blow description of a nasty campaign fought under unspeakable conditions against the Red Army, an initially ragtag unit that grew increasingly competent. The author reminds readers that these Americans were citizen soldiers, not professionals, yet they continued to obey orders after the war ended and during the Arctic winter, when temperatures dipped far below zero. More than 200 died. By year’s end, family, congressmen, and a few soldiers were complaining. In February 1919, Wilson directed the war department to plan their withdrawal, and by summer, they were gone.
A vivid, well-researched history of one of America’s many misguided military expeditions.