The Archangel-Vologda Railroad : “The Railroad Front”

Posted on Sunday, October 25th, 2020

4-archangel vologda rrThe Archangel-Vologda Railroad connected Archangel with Moscow and Petrograd (St. Petersburg). Its tracks extended south from Archangel about 300 miles to Vologda, a main rail-connecting hub for both Russia’s north-south lines, as well as those going east west. Then the line continued south from Vologda about 200 miles, to end up in Moscow.

When the Americans of the 339th Infantry arrived in Archangel in September 1918, the Bolsheviks had just been driven out of that city, but as they retreated, they had taken massive amounts of equipment, supplies, and food with them. The 339th was immediately tasked with retrieving these stolen materials and crushing the Bolsheviks. Colonel George Stewart, commanding the 339th, dispatched his 3rd Battalion; Companies ‘I,’ ‘K’, ‘L’, and ‘M’ to accomplish this responsibility. Captain Horatio Winslow’s Co. ‘I’ and Cpt. Joel Moore’s Co. ‘M’ led the way, disembarking from their transport ship, to promptly pursue the ‘Bolos’, as the Americans called the Bolsheviks. This deployment was so rapid the doughboys had no time to acclimate themselves to their new situation. One rifleman noted, “The day after we got [to Russia] we were hustled aboard boxcars.”

Companies ‘I’ and ‘M’ were transported south, the men also being informed their haste was necessary in order to save a group of Allies in danger of being wiped out by the Bolos. The Americans got as far as the town of Obozerskaya; here, the Bolsheviks had destroyed a railroad bridge, halting any further train movement. Captain Moore marched his company southwards, pushing to find the enemy. They soon encountered their Russian foes near the railroad location labeled Verst 464 (distances along the Archangel-Vologda Railroad were recorded in ‘Versts’, a length similar to a kilometer). Company ‘M’s riflemen exchanged fire, and in a short fight, as one soldier recorded, “The position was ours without the loss of a man.”

Captain Winslow’s company passed through Moore’s ‘battle-veterans’ and thrust their way further south, only to be met by a “savage counter-attack.” Winslow’s untested soldiers buckled down, and led by such men as Cpl. Robert Day, who personally destroyed, “an enemy machine gun,” routed the Bolsheviks. One American, following the battle, wrote simply, “Bolos wiped out.” Winslow’s men though, suffered casualties; two men, 28-year-old Pvt. Ignacy Kwasniewski, and 37-year-old Pvt. Anthony Soczkoski were killed.

The Americans now realized they had entered into a dangerous situation. The 339th’s Third Battalion would force its way southwards toward Vologda, however each verst closer to that Bolshevik-controlled city became tougher and tougher to acquire. Finally, by early-November, Bolshevik pressure, along with the coming Northern Russian winter, halted the Yank’s advance, and though the Americans had paid dearly in casualties, they got no further than Verst 445. One doughboy remarked, “We was supposed to go up there and [recover] that ammunition. The only way we could get it was to go out and have the Bolsheviks shoot it back at us.”

The American soldiers detailed to the Archangel-Vologda Railroad hunkered down for the winter, built hundreds of defensive positions, conducted countless patrols, and while often living in boxcars, held their positions until summer 1919. Finally though, the veterans, now calling themselves the ‘Polar Bears’, were loaded onto transports and eventually shipped home. One remarked, “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience that I had, but I wouldn’t take a million dollars to go over it again.”

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