A Confusing War: Allied Expeditionary Corps vs. Red Army in Russia

This strange conflict between the Allied Expeditionary Corps and the Soviet Union occurred shortly before the end of World War I.

Jun 26, 2022By Andrzej Nowak, MA History
village shenkursk wilderness russia
US soldier looking at the village Shenkursk, courtesy National Archives, via Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty


Just before the end of World War I, Western powers faced the Soviet Union for the first and only time on Russian soil. The Allied Expeditionary Corps fought the Red Army in a wild, frigid, inhospitable area. Despite this, they were able to achieve a relative advantage in the fight against the Red Army. However, the Allies lost due to internal conflicts, vacillation, and convergence of objectives. Angry that fighting was continuing even though peace was being celebrated in home countries, the Entente soldiers retreated from a much weaker opponent. This is an example of a bizarre war in which it is not the hostile troops who are the main enemy. The Entente lost due to the complexity of their internal policy, morale, indecisiveness, and the lack of a clear plan and purpose.


Paper Russian Bear: The Lead-up to the Allied Expeditionary Corps Expedition in Russia

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The first contingent of British troops relieving the Americans, via National Archives, photo no. 62510


When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, the Allies, who were called the Entente at this time, even with the United States, were still unable to win the Great War, given that the Germans were actually fighting alone on three or four fronts. From the Allied perspective, the loss of the broadest front between the Central Powers and Russia would have been the salvation of the Second Reich.


Moreover, throughout the war, the Entente powers were already shipping large quantities of supplies, war materials, and ammunition through the ports of northern Russia, Arkhangelsk and Murmansk. Due to the chaos and logistical weakness of the Tsar regime in the winter of 1917, about a million tons of these materials were still held there, unused. Unfortunately, Murmansk was very close to being supported by the Germans on the Finnish border. Therefore, Entente logically feared it was possible that both warehouses and ports would fall into German hands, thus further supporting the already strengthened opponent.


The German Menace: How to Prevent the Turning Tide? 

usa troops russia 1919
US soldiers lining up for inspection 1919, courtesy National Archives, photo no. 62492, via  Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty


Discussions began on how to countermeasure these disastrous events and encourage Lenin’s government to continue the war. At that point, it was also not known how the Civil War in Russia would develop. Ideas varied from encouraging the Bolshevik government to continue the war by sending military supplies and material aid to overthrowing the communists. There were such different approaches to the problem that no clear decision was made. The situation was changing so diametrically and rapidly, so the Allies, assuming that it was impossible to work out far-reaching plans in late winter 1917, decided to act first and think later.

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The Capture of Murmansk: A Confusing Situation 

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Expeditionary Forces at Smolny Docks, Archangel, via National Archives


The local communist government delivered the pretext to act in Murmansk. Local Bolsheviks asked Allied countries for protection. In the form of 150 British and US Marines, the first units arrived in March 1918, creating a rather ironic situation. Germany and Bolshevik Russia had signed a peace treaty the day before and had ended all hostilities. Despite this, in the overall confusion, uncertainty, and ambiguity, new Entente troops kept arriving at the ports of Murmansk, taking control of the city and its surroundings. Paradoxically, the fears of the Murmansk communist authorities were not exaggerated. In May 1918, the Finns, in fact, began a series of skirmishes on the border with Russia, endangering Murmansk itself.


The beginning of the war in the north of Russia was opened by Red and Entente Army troops fighting side by side. This situation is perhaps the greatest symbol of this strange conflict. Together they managed to drive out the Finns from the Russian side of the border until early July 1918. Even stranger, at practically the same moment, both Allies decided on open warfare against the Communists, and the Red Army realized that Murmansk had been seized rather than protected by the Entente. The Red Army sent a corps to secure the city. Entente sent troops to repeal. Shots were fired.


Polar Bear Expedition: The First American Soldiers in History to Fight Against the USSR

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French soldiers at a machine-gun nest, Courtesy National Archives, via Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty


Events escalated rapidly. Between late July and August 1918, British diplomats, with the help of local anti-Bolsheviks, staged a plot to take the other northern port city, Arkhangelsk. The city was taken by a landing force of Franco-British-American troops, supported by artillery fire from the British warships, which took control over the bay and the entire White Sea.


In early September 1918, about 5,000 American infantry arrived together with advanced equipment, engineers, a field hospital, and ambulances. History called them the Polar Bear Expedition. The Allied Expeditionary Corps, with US troops, worked under British command. Murmansk and Arkhangelsk were to be divided into two areas. The first port numbered about 13,000 men, whose main task was to entrench themselves along the Murmansk railroad and repair the tracks. Meanwhile, the Arkhangelsk area numbered 11,000 troops, mostly British and American Polar Bears, and about 1,500 French and 500 Canadians manning field artillery. This front was also equipped with British RE8 aircraft used for reconnaissance and bombing.


The War For the Sparks of Civilization

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The first plate of a panorama of the Dwina River Front, via National Archives, photo no. 62504


This northern region of Russia was devoid of practically any infrastructure, apart from the rivers and their branches, Onega and the Northern Dvina, and railroads, Murmansk-Petrograd and Archangel-Vologda. This created a very particular form of combat. Warfare took place practically only along those communication routes, those sparks of civilization in the middle of the desolate wilderness of northern Russia. Trains and river warships became moving fortresses, with the help of which the enemy lines were pushed through.


Staff operational plans for what to do next were unclear. This stemmed from the political situation. Of course, there was still no agreement among the Entente countries on the mission’s objectives. General orders vaguely directed an offensive south and east toward the positions of other White Army generals. This, however, was more stalling than a clear tactical plan. The Allied commanders on the field, Ironside and Maynard, ordered at the end of October to dig in and wait out both the political debate and the winter.


Peculiar Allies: The Russian Northern White Army

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US Troops marching in Khabarovsk, courtesy National Archives, photo no. 50379, via Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty


The White Army, or White Guard, were the anti-Bolshevik military forces fighting in the civil war against the communists. The so-called Northern White Army, under Evgeny Miller, is as confusing as the entire conflict itself. However few in numbers, Russian White officers made up for it with noble-birth hubris and nationalistic, xenophobic attitudes. They could not find common ground with their Allied equivalent and, even worse, with the local drafted Russians. Mutual accusations, quarrels, and distrust were the norm.


Therefore, Entente officers had to frequently command the drafted soldiers. Russians were forcibly conscripted, meaning that many were not interested in the outcome of the war and simply wanted to live, to survive. Thus, even for conscripts, their combat value was very bad. Any military experience in warfare came from the fact that before being drafted to the White Army, they were Red Army prisoners of war taken by Allies. It is assumed that such prisoner-soldiers may have numbered up to half of the total!


All of these factors led to mass desertions among the drafted soldiers, sometimes involving the murder of foreign officers in command. News about spilling supposed Ally blood greatly cemented the mutual distrust between the Whites and the Entente. Such transgressions also reinforced the sense of futility in continuing to fight, risking one’s life to help people who openly and aggressively rejected that help.


The Great War Did Not End All Wars After All

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Allied expedition to North Russia 1918 – 1919, by Allen F. Chew, in Leavenworth papers n. 5, Fighting the Russians in winter: three case studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 1981, via the National Library of Australia


The Allied plan for war was to entrench along transportation routes and in local villages and create fortified positions, outposts, blockhouses, and bunkers. The wild forests, marshes, and plains between the positions were only to be patrolled. Preparations were disrupted by November 11, Armistice Day. The war had ended… at least in theory.


World War I was over for most of the world, but not for the Allied Expeditionary Corps. A bitter reminder of this fact was a massive offensive conducted by Red Army on the same day. Assault was directed along the Northern Dvina River. The Red 6th Independent Army was supervised by Aleksandr Samoilo and Lev Trotsky himself. Entente soldiers, anxious to return home and celebrate the end of this senseless bloodshed with friends, families, and the rest of the western world, were barraged by an avalanche of about 14,000 Red Army soldiers, not counting auxiliary formations.


Bismarck’s Prophecy & the Decision to Retreat From Murmansk & Arkhangelsk

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Bloch-House on Dvina River Front, Russia, via National Archives


Chancellor of the Second German Reich, Otto von Bismarck, once said that: “[…] the frozen plains of Eastern Europe are not worth the bones of a single grenadier.” Those were wise words, both in the 19th century and in 1919. Attempting to take over a wild and desolate Russia, while strategically possible, will always be, to the public opinion, a senseless waste of time, soldiers’ lives, and money.


For both public civilians and soldiers, discontent combined with their low morale, mutinies, petitions, complaints, and sometimes even threats against the officers of the Allied Expeditionary Corps, all of which exerted enormous pressure on the Allied governments. In the political realm, no agreement had been made on the common purpose of intervention. The French were afraid of the growth of British influence. Italians were dissatisfied with the outcome of World War I. Americans were fearful of the effect this vague, strange conflict would have on the view of the voters. Moreover, it was becoming clear to all participants that successfully tipping the balance of victory in their favor would require a much greater commitment not only militarily but economically and politically.


As a result of all of the above factors, the decision to retreat the Allied Expeditionary Corps from Russia was determined in the spring of 1919. Northern Russia and the White Army were left by the Italians, French, and Americans between May and September. The British and Serbs were the last to leave the battlefield by October.


An Undecided War: Warfare Between the Allied Expeditionary Corps & the Red Army 

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US soldiers’ graves in Russia 1919, courtesy National Archives, via Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty


It is confusing that, to this very day, no one has ever explained why Allied soldiers shed their blood in Russia. The mindlessness is enhanced by the fact that Entente soldiers, in fact, who fought at the start of this expedition, should shoulder on against the Red Army. It is also a confounding situation that Allies, both Entente members and White Russians, treated each other as potential enemies. In the end, it remains incredibly confusing that this war actually took place at all.

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By Andrzej NowakMA HistoryAndrzej believes that there is such a thing as objective truth. There is only one truth, but getting to that truth is one of the most difficult tasks in the world. He became painfully convinced of this while exploring history during his education at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Nevertheless, in his pursuit of history, he tries to fight for this truth, or at least its substitute.