Monday, February 18, 2008

11. The Railroad Front


In Russia's Fields


In Russia's fields no poppies grow
There are no crosses row on row
To mark the place where they lie
No larks so gayly singing fly

As in the fields of Flanders.


We are the dead. Not long ago
We fought beside you in the snow
And gave our lives, and here we lie
Though scarcely knowing reason why

Like those who died in Flanders.


At Ust Padenga where we fell
On Railroad, Kodish, shot and shell
We faced, from just as fierce a foe
As those who sleep where poppies grow,

Our comrades brave in Flanders.


In Toulgas woods we scattered sleep,
Chekuevo aid Kitsa's tangles creep
Across our lonely graves. At night
The doleful screech owl's dismal flight

Heart-breaking screams in Russia.


Near Railroad bridge at Four-five-eight,
At Chamova's woods, our bitter fate
We met. We fell before the Reds
Where wolves now howl above our heads

In far off lonely Russia.


In Shegovart's desperate fight,
Vistavka's siege and Seltso's night,
In Bolsheozerk's hemmed-in wood,
In Karpogor, till death we stood

Like they who died in Flanders.


And, Comrades, as you gather far away
In God's own land on some bright day
And think of us who died and rest,
Just tell our folks we did our best

In far off fields of Russia.
--Anonymous

When we last saw my great-grandfather, William Bryan Robbins, who served in Company I of the 339th Infantry of the Polar Bear Division in the American North Russian Expeditionary Forces, he was recovering from influenza in or near the port city of Archangel (Arkhangelsk), North Russia. He was then sent to the railroad front at Obozerskaya.

Bryan wasn't the only one recovering from the flu. As he and his comrades from Company I and those from Company L detrained from the railroad cars at Obozerskaya Station, they formed columns of two. The men were shaky and weak from illness, poor food at sea, and probably from fear. Most had not encountered warfare, and just outside the village they could see that the communists had recently blown up a bridge. Major Charles Young, a stickler for regulation and known for caring a bit too much for his own personal safety, called a meeting of officers. A French officer ran up and pointed out the obvious...that the destroyed bridge and shell holes nearby were evidence of a recent attack. Young gave orders for the troops to disperse to the nearby woods to gain cover.

The geography of this area can best be described as a huge river delta of 250,000 square miles, punctuated by small forests and stands of scrub pines. When the men hid in the trees at Obozerskaya, they were up to their waists in swamp water. Later, meeting up with their French guides, who were drying out their clothing over fires, the Americans began to copy them, but were commanded to stop by the major, who strictly ordered that there would be no fires under combat conditions. This was only the beginning of terrible physical and psychological strain the ANREF soldiers would endure over the next few months, battle being only one of many factors.

Small encampments of log blockhouses were made along the length of the Railroad Front, an area of about 125 square miles encompassing both sides of a 17-mile stretch of railroad which eventually led to Moscow, some 900 miles to the south. These encampments were named after the nearest "milepost"; in Russia at that time, distances were not measured in miles, but in versta, the singular being verst. A verst was equal to about 3,500 feet, just a bit more than a kilometer. Bryan's enlistment record indicates that he was involved in "battles, engagements, skirmishes, or expeditions" at Verst 466 on 10 September and 16 September 1918, as well as one at Verst 445 from 31 March through 12 April 1919. Photos of some of the blockhouses and winter scenes can be viewed at this site, and there are some videos clips and previews available at YouTube here.

What was interesting to me as I researched this was the international aspect of this expedition. There were French, British and Royal Scots, Italian, Canadian, and Serb troops spread across the province. Among the American troops were numerous Polish immigrants who barely spoke English as well. Many had probably immigrated to the United States to avoid war and poor economic conditions in the first place and somehow found themselves back in Eastern Europe, in life-and-death struggles of survival, once again. Although these were the American North Russian Expeditionary Forces, the British had first say in all things. British lieutenants would pull major's pips from their pockets and give orders to American and French captains, who had no choice but to comply.

With terrible living conditions (poor food, clothing, lodging, and medical supplies), one of the worst winters on record, unbearable political stress and a weak chain-of-command, it was a wonder that the men didn't break sooner. Added to all that, of course, was the danger not only of the enemy--the Bolshevik--but also terrorist attacks from civilians with communist sympathies. Stay tuned for the next episode, "Part 12: Mutiny!"

Other posts in this series:
1. A Polar Bear in North Russia
2. The Family of Angelo and Lula Robbins
3. Bryan and Marie - A WWI Romance
4. Bryan Gets Drafted
5. Basic Training at Camp Custer
6. Getting "Over There"
7. Bryan and King George V
8. To Russia, with Influenza
9. A Letter from Mother - 25 Sep 1918
10. A Letter from Father - 7 Oct 1918
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