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In 1917 the U.S. entered the First World War on the side of the French, the British and others against the Germans. Another major power fighting the Germans had been the Russians.

But then came the Russian Revolution of October 1917, and Russia effectively dropped out of the war. So how was it that American troops were sent to Siberia to fight the Russians in 1918?

To answer that question, we need to take a look at some Russian history. When World War I broke out in 1914, the first country that Germany officially declared war on was Russia, on August 1. Declaration of war with France came on August 3, and to complete the picture, the British declared war on Germany on August 4.

The die was now cast for an attritional and brutal conflict that raged across western and eastern Europe and other theaters around the world for four long years. But in Russia, domestic political events were to have a dramatic effect on that country’s role in the war.

By 1917 discontent among the Russian people and the military was at crisis level. Amid civil unrest, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in February 1917 to be succeeded by a provisional government. This government continued Russian involvement in the war. But then in October 1917 came the Bolshevik revolution led by Vladimir Lenin.

Russia’s new communist leaders were now anxious to end the war. The Germans agreed to an end to fighting on the Eastern Front. At first, the Russians, with their negotiating team led by Leon Trotsky, tried to soften the harsh terms offered by the Germans. The Germans responded by continuing military action against the Russians.

This renewed German military action forced the communists to agree the peace treaty, which punished them severely. Under the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918, Russia lost large swathes of territory, including Finland, Ukraine and Poland. Anti-communist Russians were furious at this capitulation, and civil war now broke out in Russia.

The Russian Civil War was a battle between the “Reds” – the communists – and the “Whites” – basically the anti-communists. And what is notable is that the Whites received military support and supplies from Russia’s former allies such as Britain, France and ultimately the U.S.

In fact the U.S., despite having joined the First World War on the side of the Allies in April 1917, was less than enthusiastic about getting embroiled in the Russian Civil War. Although the U.S. Department of War counseled against the move, President Woodrow Wilson went against their advice and committed to sending American troops to the conflict in July 1918.

Wilson’s reasons for deciding to get involved in the Russian Civil War included the desire to help some 40,000 Czechoslovakian troops, loyal to the Allies, to escape from the clutches of the communists. They were trying to make good their escape to Vladivostok along the route of the Trans-Siberian railroad.

Vladivostok is a port city on the Pacific, and the Allies hoped the Czechoslovakians could sail from there to join in the continuing fight against the Germans on the Western Front. And as well as the concerns about Vladivostok, there were also worries about the situation across Siberia eastwards. It was poorly defended by the Russians, and there was concern that the Japanese might try to exploit the situation.

The American president also wanted to deny the communists access to a rich hoard of supplies that were stuck in Vladivostok as well as in the ports of Archangel and Murmansk. These supplies, which included such useful items as at least 110,000 rifles, had been given to the Russians when they were still fighting on the Allied side. This military material had never been distributed thanks to the collapse of the pre-communist Russian government.

In fact, two separate forces were sent to Russia in August 1918 – the American Expeditionary Force, Siberia and American Expeditionary Force, North Russia. Almost inevitably, the second of those two forces came to be nicknamed the “Polar Bear Expedition.” Let’s start by looking at what happened to the Siberian force.

The first of the Siberian force arrived at their destination on August 15, 1918. Eventually, this unit was to number almost 8,000 soldiers under the command of Major General William S. Graves. Graves had been ordered not to get involved in Russian politics. But not taking sides resulted in him being at loggerheads with everyone, friend and foe alike.

Graves concentrated on that part of his mission that focused on protecting the Trans-Siberian Railway. Pressure was exerted on him to join forces with the White Russian Admiral Kolchak in his battles with the Reds. Graves, it’s been said, had a very low opinion of Kolchak and refused to support him. Indeed, Kolchak was regarded by the communists as nothing more than a puppet of the West. Eventually, the Reds captured and executed him.

Largely because of Graves’ refusal to become involved in the conflict between the Whites and the Reds, the troops under his command saw no action to speak of. However, they still had to endure plenty of suffering. Problems abounded from their horses being rendered useless by the freezing Russian temperatures to logistical headaches involving the supply of everything from fuel to food.

Despite the fact that they were involved in virtually no fighting, the U.S. Siberian force lost 189 men during its 19-month deployment in Siberia. But by the time they left in 1920, the soldiers did achieve one of their main objectives. The 40,000 Czechoslovakians that had been trapped in Russia were able to make good their escape via Vladivostok.

The American Expeditionary Force, North Russia, or the Polar Bear Expedition as it was known, had a rather different experience to the U.S Siberian force. It arrived on the other side of Russia from Vladivostok at the port city of Archangel on September 4, 1918. The force was some 5,000 strong.

Some British officers had arrived in Archangel before the Americans and discovered that the supplies that were to be protected had already been moved by the Bolsheviks. When the Americans arrived, they were ordered to the attack the communists to support the Czechoslovak troops whom the Allies wanted to rescue.

Now these American soldiers found themselves fighting the Russian communists. Yet they had originally been recruited to fight against the Germans in western Europe. And that war, as of November 1918, was now over. Some of the soldiers began to wonder what they were doing in Russia. This had a consequent effect on their morale. On top of that friends and family at home started asking questions of U.S. politicians.

In the end, the Polar Bear force lost some 110 men in the fighting against the communists. The Polar Bears, most of whom were from Michigan, got home by the summer of 1919. So far in the history of the U.S., the two forces sent to Russia in 1918 are the only American troops that have ever been deployed in that country. Which is quite startling given the decades of hostility that have prevailed between the two nations through the Cold War and beyond.

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