When the War Didn't End
By Rob Bokkon
The stench of chlorine gas blew away into the wind. The clatter and slap of tank treads, the angry wasp hum of airplanes, the cries of the dying and the wounded all faded under a blanket of dull silence. Where before a pall of smoke had hidden the miles and miles of bloody mud and corpses and barbed wire, all came now into sharp relief as the great guns, at last, stopped their terrible song.
Four years of agony and boredom, heroism and stupidity, sacrifice and madness: all whisked away in the flourish of a pen.
Every WWI aficionado knows the date and the hour. 11AM, Paris time, November 11, 1918. The Armistice, and the end of the Great War.
And such an end: The Kaiser deposed; the German Empire defeated and humiliated. Austria-Hungary in tatters.
France safe and secure. Belgium avenged. Britannia triumphant, thanks to the help of her former colonies: Young America, magnanimous in victory, ready to take her place on the world stage. Of course, there was the little matter of that unpleasant business in Russia, but it would soon sort itself out—for now, the war was over. The world was free from tyranny. Safe for democracy, in the words of President Woodrow Wilson.
This is the legend. This is the myth we have told ourselves and let ourselves hear. This is how we end the story, since stories must have a good solid boom at the end, if only to let us know when to applaud. Much like the memorable date and time of the Armistice, 11AM on 11/11/18, this narrative is tidy. Precise. Simple.
The truth, as always, is not tidy nor precise and it is never simple.
In the words of Dr. Patti Hagler Minter: “Nothing in history is tidy. When you’re given a simple answer to a complex question, look closer. Look at who’s telling you the answer and why they want you to believe it.”
On the global scale, tragic stories abound about how the war didn’t end on November 11, 1918. The many heartbreaking tales of the last few brave soldiers killed in the hours after the Armistice, before word had reached every corner of this far-flung and truly global war. The brutal German campaigns in Africa, where General von Lettow-Vorbeck continued fighting for two weeks after the peace. The French occupation of the Rhineland and the racial unrest caused when German women “betrayed their race” by falling in love with, and marrying, French-Algerian soldiers.
What is less well known is the involvement of American troops fighting the Bolsheviks in the nascent Soviet Union, and the lynching of African-American veterans in the South, often by their own brothers in arms.
These stories are just as much a part of the Great War narrative as the tales of heroism at the Somme, or the resolve of the Belgians, or the grim determination of Britain’s Gurkhas and Sepoys fighting for an empire that afforded them neither citizenship nor rights. It is our duty as historians to tell the truth, inasmuch as we can find that truth from the sources available to us.
THE POLAR BEARS AND THE AEF SIBERIA
Excepting the alliance of WWII, eight decades of hostility existed between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Yet almost all of the fighting occurred in the form of proxy wars: Vietnam, Korea, the Malay States Emergency, and civil wars in South America. Though hundreds of thousands died serving the agendas of the two greatest world powers of the day, only rarely did US and Soviet troops encounter one another, much less experience actual combat.
This hostility did not arise in a vacuum. Over the course of many months in 1918 through 1920 United States troops fought against Russians on Russian soil itself. This was the only time the two powers would ever meet in battle on home territory--and despite the decades-long global implications of this conflict, the story is virtually unknown.
Prior to the fall of the Czar, President Wilson arranged for over a billion dollars (in 1918 figures) of American munitions, rolling railroad stock, and military supplies to be delivered to Russia to aid in the Russian Empire’s war efforts on the faltering Eastern Front. The supplies arrived in Vladivostok not long before the overthrow of Nicholas II in February of 1917. During the initial rule of Kerensky and the Duma, Wilson was content to leave the supplies where they were, but the rise of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and the execution of the Imperial Family in July of 1918 changed the situation entirely, causing panic in the American government. Anti-communist sentiment, already beginning to build in the United States owing to sensationalist media stories of the Russian Revolution and the increase of strike activity among American workers, now reached a fevered pitch.
At the same time, the misadventures of the Czechoslovak Legion (CL) in Russia came to the attention of the Allies. A volunteer force, composed of rebellious subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire who fought for the Allies, the Czechoslovak Legion’s ultimate goal was to earn the liberation of their homelands from the Hapsburgs by war’s end. Over 100,000 strong at its peak, the CL served as a unit of the Imperial Russian Army and racked up a string of victories to its credit, but following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the rise of the Bolsheviks, the Legion’s commanders decided they would be better used on the Western Front. With most of Russia’s ports under blockade, they attempted to travel to Vladivostok where transport ships would carry them to France.
The Bolsheviks, suspicious of a large armed force traveling through what was at that time largely unsecured territory, insisted on the surrender of most of the Legion’s weaponry prior to granting safe passage. The Czechoslovak Legion reluctantly conceded to these terms in what became known as the Pensk Agreement. Despite this promise of safe-conduct, the CL took almost two months to cross Russia on the available railways. Their progress was hindered by the interference of local soviets, which often forced them to re-negotiate the terms of their safe-conduct, and by official interference from Moscow.
The Bolshevik government, having fought the CL multiple times since the October Revolution, maintained a healthy skepticism of the CL’s motives. And the Bolsheviks were right to do so: after their failed evacuation, the Czechoslovak Legion would remain in Russia for months, siding with the pro-Czarist White Russians in fomenting counter-revolutionary terror.
Despite the hardships of governmental interference and dilapidated railways, the CL eventually arrived in Eastern Siberia, with some units reaching their destination by May of 1918. By the time the bulk of their troops arrived, the strategic situation was dire: the Legion wound up strung out over many miles of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, harassed by partisans and Cossacks, and low on supplies. A clash with Magyar POWs at Chelyabinsk station finally caused the People’s Commissar for War, Leon Trotsky, to decide that the government had had enough. He ordered the immediate and total disarmament and arrest of the CL, which responded by entering into hostilities with the Bolsheviks and seizing many miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway in a series of battles that earned the CL the grudging respect of their enemies.
President Wilson, under pressure from the Allies to join in anti-Bolshevik military operations in Russia, finally decided to dispatch the American Expeditionary Force, Siberia, to Vladivostok. Composed of nearly 8,000 men of the 27th and 31st Infantry along with volunteers from many other regiments, the AEF Siberia arrived in Vladivostok in mid-August of 1918, with their commander, General William Graves, arriving in early September.
Contrary to the expectations of the Allies, General Graves believed that his mandate only extended to securing United States military materiel, and aiding the evacuation of the Czechoslovak Legion. Throughout his command, he was pressured by Allied commanders in the region from the British, French and Japanese armed forces to take the fight to the Bolsheviks, but he remained steadfast.
His troops saw combat nonetheless. The AEF Siberia did eventually go into battle in a defensive posture, repelling Red Army, partisan, and Cossack raids on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the supplies at the Vladivostok docks. They also experienced strained relations with their Japanese allies, intent on seizing the resource-rich lands of the region for themselves.
It was the land itself that proved to be the greatest obstacle for the AEF Siberia. Prior to their deployment to Russia, most of the AEF Siberia were stationed at the United States bases in Manila, the Philippines. The transition from a tropical climate to the arctic conditions of Vladivostok proved too much for both soldiers and equipment. Limb amputations due to frostbite were common, the regiment’s water-cooled machine guns froze and became inoperable, and their horses, bred for temperate conditions, proved to be less than useless and died in vast numbers.
The goals of the expedition also proved fruitless: they did little to aid in the evacuation of the Czechoslovak Legion, and the war materiel mostly wound up in the hands of the Red Army anyway after the AEF was evacuated from Vladivostok.
Yet they endured, fighting on until they were at long last brought home in April of 1920, almost a year and a half after the signing of the Armistice. The force lost over 200 men, mostly to frostbite and exposure.
At the exact same time on Russia’s Western coast, the 339th Infantry was arriving at Archangel’sk with much the same mission: secure Allied war materiel. Composed largely of soldiers from Michigan, the 339th had originally been destined for France but was diverted at the last minute as part of the North Russia Intervention, the Allies’ active attempt to subvert the Bolshevik government and bring the White Russians to power.
Placed under command of the British, these soldiers were given a much more active mandate to fight the Bolsheviks. They were used in offensive operations almost from the beginning of their deployment until the front of battle along the Dvina River and Vologda Railroad became hundreds of miles long and a supply nightmare. With the onset of winter, the 339th adopted a defensive posture. They would remain so, suffering as their brothers in arms to the East did from frostbite, partisan attacks, and the Spanish flu, for another six months.
With the signing of the Armistice, the 339th expected that they would soon be sent home. But the White Sea port of Archangel’sk had frozen over for the winter, preventing demobilization, and between that and the grueling nature of their duties, morale began to steadily decline. Letters home complained of privation, lack of food, the cold, and demanded to know just what they were still doing in Russia if the war was over.
In the end, it was the tide of public opinion that ended US intervention in Russia. Family members of the 339th began writing furious letters, to their Congressmen, to President Wilson, and to every newspaper that would publish them, demanding to know why their boys were still fighting when the war was over. Nevertheless, the Wilson government was slow to act, and mutiny began to break out among the 339th. Court-martials were threatened (but never manifested), and in February of 1919 Wilson finally signed orders to retrieve the 339th, who came home after a dramatic rescue involving an icebreaker in April of ’19, a full year earlier than their unfortunate fellows in the East.
During that journey home, the 339th decided to adopt the moniker “Polar Bears”, and were granted permission to add a polar bear patch to their uniforms. They retain that honor to this day, and a memorial to the expedition stands in Troy, Michigan. Largely forgotten by history, the Polar Bears and the AEF Siberia provide an important clue to US-Soviet relations: the narrative usually focuses on the US and Soviet alliance during the Second World War, and adopts a bewildered tone at the Cold War split which followed thereafter. But a thorough analysis of the Great War shows us that Soviet hostility toward the United States was well-founded from long before, and is no mystery.
THE RED SUMMER
The events of the spring, summer, and early fall of 1919 (collectively known as the “Red Summer”) occupy that strange hinterland of our national consciousness where we banish things we would rather not think about. Shameful events in our past are often not well-known, and the Red Summer is manifestly both shameful and virtually unknown.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Wilson government became increasingly alarmed about the possibility of a similar uprising occurring in the United States. The revolutions in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere did nothing to assuage their concerns. Combined with vastly increased strike activity during and after the war, a series of bombing campaigns against prominent social and political leaders committed by anarchists, and near-hysteria in the press, the patriotic political climate surrounding the Armistice soon devolved. Jingoism, racial hatred, and violence became the order of the day.
The nation’s anti-German sentiment transmuted seamlessly into anti-Bolshevik sentiment; the return of hundreds of thousands of soldiers to civilian life placed a great strain on an economy ill-prepared to receive them. This volatile combination led to a scenario almost unimaginable now: the outright lynching of United States servicemen in uniform.
African-American soldiers, already forced to serve under humiliating segregated conditions that relegated most of them to non-combatant duties, returned from the war to find their service actively denigrated. African-American men had responded to W.E.B. Dubois’ call to serve in the segregated military in vast numbers: 380,000 enlisted, and despite their treatment by the United States military, their experience among French civilians was very different.
Treated with unaccustomed respect and dignity in France, many African-American servicemen realized that the racially divided society of the United States was not the only way things could be done. They returned home with a greater sense of purpose and determination to improve conditions for their community.
That purpose met with incredible resistance, especially in the South. On thirteen separate occasions in 1919, African-American soldiers were lynched, in each case because they had the audacity to continue wearing their uniforms. Why this was regarded as such an affront to white people is almost incomprehensible to the modern mind; the words of an editorial entitled “Nip It In the Bud” from a Louisiana newspaper of 1919 are a window into that kind of thinking, and they are chilling:
“This is the right time to show them what will and will not be permitted, and thus save them much trouble in the future.”
What would be permitted was violence. Beyond lynching, anti-African American violence was sparked in multiple cities owing to the use of African-Americans as strikebreakers. Particularly vulnerable to unemployment and ironically attempting to flee violence, many black families left the South for the industrialized North and Midwest. Often unable even to join the unions, their only recourse was to act as scabs in order to gain any employment at all. This provoked rioting in DC, Chicago, and many other cities.
This was not the first time anti-black rioting had occurred in the United States. It was, however, the first time that African-American citizens fought back. In nearly every instance, African-Americans, supplemented by their returned veterans, refused to be dominated by racial violence and stood up for themselves, which often provoked reprisals more drastic than the initial attacks. In one particularly shameful incident in Washington, DC, white servicemen actually joined in with the white supremacists in hunting down and killing African-Americans over a four-day period, owing to a rumor of a black man’s arrest for the rape of a white woman.
And yet, despite these terrible affronts, African-Americans would once again serve with pride and distinction in the next global conflict, enlisting in vast numbers for the Second World War: over 1.2 million served their country in a still-segregated military.
In conclusion, the end of the Great War for the United States cannot be given a date or a time. It continued in actuality for many months after the Armistice and its repercussions were felt throughout American society in a way that our wars do not now affect our daily lives. The lessons of the Great War continue to inform our understanding of an America that has always striven to be a good place, always cast itself as a paradise and an ambassador of peace. When we do not reach these ideals we must ask why. Historians must never shy away from the hard questions of our past, nor embrace the tidy and convenient answers that never tell the whole story.
Rob Bokkon designs ads and wrangles the printing press for a small company in a Kentucky College town. He is a 2nd-generation Hungarian-American, CIS/BI, and believes in the importance of identity politics for all marginalized groups, including LGBT and the working class. He writes, reads voraciously, cooks, drinks Kentucky Bourbon, and is (until proven otherwise), the first person known to have worn a do-rag and a monocle at the same time. He lives in a slowly drying up coal mining community with his wife, teenage son, nonagenarian WWII vet father, and far too many cats.