The Polar Bear Expedition: The Heroes of America’s Forgotten Invasion of Russia, 1918–1919, by James Carl Nelson, William Morrow, New York, 2019, $28.99
There are forgotten conflicts, and then there’s the north Russia intervention, a cruise to the ends of the earth and then 200 miles upriver from that. The Allied expedition, begun as a defensive effort to prevent the considerable stock of Allied supplies sent to Russia from falling into German or Bolshevik hands, soon evolved into quixotic offensives aimed deep into Russia by an infinitesimal force of 4,600 Americans and 2,000 British, French, Canadians, Poles and White Russians. Such a campaign naturally did not go well, but it makes for a story well told in James Carl Nelson’s account of the Americans dispatched on that frigid quest.
Dispatched to Archangel, the 339th U.S. Infantry Regiment largely comprised Michigan recruits, which, in the squinting logic of higher-ups, would make them well-suited for northern climes. They were unprepared for Archangel, let alone for expeditions down the Dvina and Vaga rivers in hopes of linking up with the renegade Czech Legion or perhaps driving on to Moscow. President Woodrow Wilson’s hopes for the expedition were vague, Britain’s were chimerical, and in this void the former won out under the direction of British commander Lt. Gen. Frederick Poole.
Things went surprisingly well until winter set in and Red Army opposition grew firmer, for a time directed by Leon Trotsky himself. The realities of arctic combat were never good: Guns would jam until they could be boiled (always convenient in the midst of combat); snowbound marches ensured soldiers would pour sweat, while any exposed flesh would freeze. The book notes even more Rabelaisian features, including an improvised second-story latrine cut over a barn from which protruded literal stalactites of frozen excrement. Then, of course, there was the 1919 influenza pandemic, which made an awful time far worse.
A series of retreats in the depth of winter featured several implausible escapes against heavy odds amid yet more misery. News of the Armistice injected a sense of futility into Allied forces, prompting actual mutinies among British and French troops, while one American company briefly refused duty. Propagandistic appeals from captured communist opponents—”Why are you fighting us? We are all working men. You American boys are shedding your blood way up here in Russia, and I ask you, for what reason?”—contributed to the general malaise.
Regardless, the brave men of the 339th Infantry performed extraordinarily well in difficult circumstances and disembarked in good order in fall 1919, taking with them eight Russian brides, while leaving behind fallen comrades retrieved as late as 1934. If overlooked, they at least chose their own nickname—”Polar Bears” was the coinage of no historian but the soldiers themselves.