The Forgotten Expedition of World War I

15 11 2018

In 1918, as the Great War was ending in Europe, British and American forces launched a new joint offensive into Siberian Russia. Beyond the general fear of unrest brought about by Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, what this offensive was to do was, frankly, vague. The Vladivostok forces worked to “assist Czechoslovak military units trying to make their way out of Russia to the Western Front,” yet  the forces in Archangel had even less direction. Both groups of men came to be known as the “Polar Bears,” but the American soldiers at Archangel would become known as the “Polar Bear Expedition.”

The Polar Bear Expedition, or the North Russia Expeditionary Force (NREF), was comprised of men from the 85th Division, primarily Michigan and Wisconsin men, who completed training at Camp Custer in the summer of 1918. The 339th Regiment, along with the 310th  Engineers, the 337th  Field Hospital, and the 337th  Ambulance Company were slated to fight in France but were diverted to Archangel. The resources of the MSU Archives and Historical Collections and the MSU Museum provide a look into several of the Polar Bears’ experiences in Northern Russia.

Archangel Streets

Archangel Streets (courtesy: Michigan State University Museum)

To Russia

The journey from Camp Custer, Michigan, to Archangel, Russia, was not a direct route. The journal of one Polar Bear, Clyde Arnold, of Grand Rapids, shed light on the journey. Initially, the 85th Division was to join the rest of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) along the western front line in Europe. The 339th Regiment, along with some other units, was diverted to Archangel, but not after the men had made half of the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

Clyde Arnold, who enlisted on April 26, 1918, started his training at Camp Custer. From there, he left for Camp Mills on Long Island, New York, on July 15. At Long Island, he made the journey to England, landing in Liverpool on August 3. Once in England the regiment traveled across the English Channel to Le Havre, France. Over the next few days, the men would make their way down to La Vallée near Saint-Genis-Pouilly, France, arriving on August 12. Arnold notes that La Vallée is the “best place, outside USA,” claiming he enjoyed “good times,” there. However, the men of the 339th were eventually recalled across the English Channel to Dundee, Scotland. Arriving in Dundee on September 19,  Arnold with the rest of the “Polar Bear Expedition” embarked on a ten-day voyage to Archangel, Russia.

Arnold’s experience arriving in Russia differed starkly from his arrival in France. As he noted, he was billeted in “Bolshevik” structures. There he experienced “rain, mud. Poor chow, somewhere.” Arnold foreshadowed the experience of the 339th Regiment, assigned under pretenses to holding back a German advance, but in reality assisting in a Russian civil war.

Aggies in Archangel

A Michigan Agricultural College student  R. S. Clark, through a letter home, detailed his experiences in Archangel. Clark, at the time, was the only known M.A.C. serviceman in Russia.

RS Clark 1920 yearbook

R. S. Clark’s senior picture (1920 yearbook)

The key port is located roughly 600 miles north of Moscow on the White Sea. In 1918, it had  about 40,000 inhabitants. Shipping, Clark observed, was essential to the city as there was “practically no agriculture in this vicinity, only marsh hay and small garden fluff.” The city, as a timber center, is constructed of log buildings, but Clark made the distinction that their log cabins are “not the rough cabin our American pioneers built but veritable log castles.” Utilizing hand tools and time, the Russians made hardy structures that mirror their stalwart nature. Their roads were less admirable than their homes, however. Clark noted that “the Russian streets and roads are very, very miserable, not to say absolutely rotten.” Clark rode a bike to and from his post, which imaginably was a feat in and of itself, considering “a motor truck last[ed] about six months.” As a result, the main modes of transportation out of Archangel would have been walking, sleighs, or small ships and barges (and only in warm months). Considering the rather poor conditions of their roads, the infrastructure Clark described was relatively modern: “Archangel has a street car line, electric lights, telephones, wireless, and a railroad.”

Clark’s interaction with the people of Archangel was that of an outsider looking in. With their elaborate uniforms, the Russian men in Archangel were representative of power and authority. Clark joked that “a night watchman in Archangel has an American Admiral beaten a mile so far as uniform goes.” Despite sharp style and well-made housing, Russians, according to Clark, knew little about modern “American” cleanliness:

The well-dressed people, men as well as women, affect strong perfumery. The ragged people wash only once a year and I shall not try to describe the result—it simply has to be experienced to be appreciated. The houses are devoid of ventilation. There is no adequate sewerage system, open sinks are used that smell to high heaven. Refuse of all sorts is dumped in the street.

Russian peasants were experiencing wartime inflation of around 500%. Clark noted that  “it takes a hatful of [rubles] to buy anything.” The NREF constructed its barracks out of “hurrying methods” that the locals reckoned would collapse in comparison to their hardy cabins. On the contrary, the barracks did not collapse and were better than those on the Western Front in that they were “free from vermin.” The fact that the NREF did not have to immediately deal with rats was a blessing as they could and would scamper across a sleeping soldier, and attack the immovable dead in the trenches or no man’s land. Overall, the conditions within Archangel were bearable and were potentially more enjoyable than the rest of the AEF in France.

The Allied effort throughout the fall and into the winter was to move south along the Volga River and then eventually east. While in Bereznik, slightly north of Shenkursk, members of the British Y.M.C.A. worked “with the American Engineers … to carry out the work” of preparing a building to carry out formal association business. Another Michigan Agricultural College student,  310th engineer S. L. Schneider, may have worked with these Y.M.C.A. personnel. Shneider entered service with the 310th Engineers at Camp Custer in Michigan after spending “two years with the class of ’18.” He was decorated by British authorities for “gallantry in action in the campaign about Shenkrusk” in January 1919.

Left Behind

Shenkursk was overrun in January 1919, several months after the Armistice, and the Polar Bears were pushed east by Bolshevik forces. The winter was a tough challenge as the Polar Bears were constantly on the run, even though the Great War was over. Clyde Arnold’s journal details how his situation changed from a relative comfort with poor food to desperation: “Not enough to eat. Tired out. Cold.” On December 27, Arnold wrote “to hell with the U.S. Army.” The men in the expedition continue to press harder and harder for why they were fighting in Russia. The U.S. government had appeared to have forgotten them, yet it was ice-locked ports that prevented the NREF from leaving Russia until June 1919.

Scene From North Russia

Scene From North Russia (courtesy: Michigan State University Museum)

The overarching strategy of the Archangel Polar Bears—linking up with Czechoslovakia Legion in the interior Russia and fostering support for an anti-Bolshevik force—was ultimately scrapped as there was no logistical support in that action. The men in the “Polar Bear Expedition” were essentially forgotten, shivering on the icy frontier along the Volga River.

Currently on display at the Michigan State University Museum, in the exhibition “War and Speech”, is a vitrine of trench art created by Clyde Arnold.

Documents and images for this article were collected courtesy of Michigan State University Museum and Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections. Contextualization for The Polar Bear Expedition was found courtesy of the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library.

Sources include:

M.A.C. Record, Vol. 24, No. 12; December 20, 1919.

M.A.C. Record, Vol. 24, No. 26; April 1919.

“Y.M.C.A. Official Reports circa 1918,” Waldo Family Papers and Waldo Travel Agency Records, 00042, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Clyde Arnold Collection, Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, Michigan.

“American Intervention in Northern Russia,” University of Michigan: Bentley Historical Library,, 15 November, 2017.

Written by Matthew Brazier