Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Murmansk | Spring 1918

from "Russian Sideshow: America’s Undeclared War" by Robert L. Willett, 2003, Potomac Books

“Then came a change: in February 1918, Germany reattacked Russia in the Ukraine, although Germany was still in negotiations with the Bolshevik Soviet. In Murmansk there was a concern that the nearby Finnish border would offer Germany a haven from which it could launch a North Russian offensive. The threat of German attack brought some harmony to the three diverse Murmansk groups—the government, rebellious military, and allies—as they recognized the need for British defense and supply. At this time, an American, Lt. Hugh Martin, a passport control officer, was the senior U.S. representative on the scene. A few other Americans were also there: Allen Wardwell of the Red Cross had made his second appearance in the new city, while YMCA official Reverend Jesse Halsey was a more recent arrival.

With this new spirit of cooperation among the three Murmansk groups, the area faced a new concern: a civil war had begun in Finland, and it was feared that Germany would aid the White (anti-Bolshevik) side, possibly invading Murmansk with a combined force. In retrospect, we know that both Germany and Finland had their hands full and gave little thought to any additional fronts. However, anticipation provided fuel for those who saw the possibilities of a German threat. Historian George Kennan wrote, “In March and April there was no serious danger of attack on Murmansk by Finns under German command; but by the time the British and the French had spent some weeks acting as though there were such a danger, they succeeded in conjuring it into real existence.” As tensions heightened, the British sent another cruiser, HMS Cochrane, and the French sent the heavy cruiser Admiral Aube. At last pleas to Wilson finally caught his attention. Rumors flew about, all indicating German-Finnish forces heading toward Murmansk or its railroad.

Eventually, in April 1918, Wilson relented and reluctantly made a step toward intervention by sending the USS Olympia, Admiral Dewey’s old flagship, Capt. Bion B. Bierer commanding. However, Wilson cabled, “to caution him [Bierer] not to be drawn in further than the present action there without first seeking and obtaining instructions from home.” With Bierer’s instructions was the added information that he would be under the command of the British naval commander, Adm. Thomas W. Kemp. Admiral Kemp had telegraphed earlier:

“I beg USS Olympia may have orders to come to Murmansk and that she be put definitely and fully under my orders the same as the French cruiser Admiral Aube. There can be only one Allied head here and I consider this step indispensable for both military and political reasons.”

The decision to have American forces commanded by British officers would lead to a host of problems in coming months.

By mid-April, the USS Olympia was steaming from Charleston, South Caroline, toward Murmansk, stopping several times en route, with Captain Bierer on a collision course with the president’s cautionary advice. With him on the Olypia was the new Allied commander, British major general Frederick C. Poole, who took command of all Allied forces in North Russia on his arrival in Murmansk on May 24, 1918.

With mounting concern over threats of German and Finnish invasion, the Murmansk Soviet telegraphed the Central Soviet on May 18, 1918, “The representatives of the friendly powers, the French, American, and British missions currently at Murmansk, continue to show themselves inalterably well-inclined toward us and prepared to render us assistance, running all the way from food supply to armed aid, inclusive.”

An immediate answer on the same day was an important piece of the Murmansk story. It came from People’s Commissar Leon Trotsky, who warned:

“The Germans are advancing in small detachments. Resistance is possible and obligatory. Abandon nothing to the enemy. Evacuate anything that has any value; if this is impossible, destroy it. You must accept any and all assistance from the Allied missions and use every means to obstruct the advance of the plunderers.”

Threats of invasion by German and Finnish troops worried even Petrograd Soviets, so the telegram opened the door for cooperation between the Murmansk Soviet and the Allies, even if it eventually antagonized the Central Soviets. The wire would also haunt Trotsky in years to come as he fell from favor.

From this point on, the Allies began a gradual buildup. The French already had a Slavic command of a few soldiers in the town of Kola. Admiral Kemp had landed about 130 Marines from his ship HMS Glory on March 6, 1918; they had quietly housed themselves in barracks and awaited developments. These British marines were the first purely military troops to take part in the Allied Intervention.

On June 8, apparently at British request, but with the blessing of U.S. ambassador David Francis, Captain Bierer was ordered to land a shore party to help garrison Murmansk. Captian Bierer sent Lt. H.C. Floyd with eight officers and one hundred men and their equipment to Murmansk. Murmansk was under Soviet control, but already some Allied troops were in the city; the local Soviet anticipated a break with the Central Bolsheviks in Petrograd, so the landing was not contested. The American sailors also keep busy, assisting British and French marines in capturing the Russian cruiser, Askold, and other smaller ships, whose Bolshevik-sympathizing crews had mutinied.

On June 23, a six-hundred-man force under British major general Sir C. Maynard was put ashore with its equipment. Major General Maynard’s writings after the war indicated that the goal of these and subsequent troops was to protect Murmansk and Archangel and the southbound railway, but he also stated, “When ready to take the field, the whole force was to endeavor to join hands with the pro-Ally forces in Siberia, and then to assist in opening up a new front against Germany.” The misinformation and lack of understanding of the situation was evident in this stated goal of the expedition.

As General Maynard’s task force landed, his commander was already in Murmansk. Major General Frederick C. Poole had been an honored guest on the USS Olympia when it sailed into the Russian harbor on May 24. He was the overall commander of the Allied North Russian land forces. Poole was noted for his colonial approach to Russians: he patronized them, scolded them, misunderstood them, looked down on them, and generally made himself heartily disliked by those hapless souls he was preparing to liberate. His first contingent of British soldiers was not impressive; most of them were veterans of the western front who were classified as unfit for active service, yet they were expected to conduct themselves with typical British stoicism in an utterly hostile climate and topography.

Poole and Maynard conferred for hours as the contingent arrived. George Kennan says, “From his initial discussions with Poole, Maynard, as will be seen in his memoirs, derived a wildly distorted picture of the situation, including the impression that 15,000 White Finns, in German service, were already on the march against the Murmansk Railway. Maynard set out on a mission to strengthen his defenses, traveling south on a locomotive with several cars full of troops. His reception by the Russian railway workers and stationmasters as he rode south was decidedly antagonistic, to the point of open rebellion. Later Maynard explained, “Bolshevik Russia was a recognized enemy, and I had a free hand to take such military measures as were possible to combat a Bolshevik-White Finn combination.” South of Murmansk in the town of Kandalaksha, he was confronted by a northbound train filled with Red troops. Maynard’s unfortunate response was to mouth machine guns covering the Bolsheviks and order the Red trains to turn around and return south. He called for reinforcements from the port and visited a nearby Allied base at Kem, where he forcibly disarmed two more Red trains and sent them back south. His high-handed actions opened armed hostilities between Allies and Bolsheviks, the first real signal of the conflicts to come.

Even before Maynard’s railroad journey, the relations between the Murmansk Soviet and Central Soviet in Moscow had soured. Murmansk, concerned with its daily survival, depended almost entirely on Allied supplies. The Central Soviet in Petrograd saw things very differently. Trotsky’s invitation had disappeared: the Petrograd government now issued a decree to the Murmansk government to throw the Allies out. The tone of a June 26, 1918, telegram from Petrograd grew even more critical: “If you still refuse to understand Soviet policy equally hostile to English and Germans, blame it on yourselves.” Murmansk fired right back in the same tone, “It is all very well for you to talk that way, sitting there in Moscow.” Lenin could not tolerate that kind of behavior and promptly called the party members of the port city Soviet traitors and declared them outcasts, subject to execution. “The President of the Murmansk Soviet Yuriev (Yuryev) having gone over to the side of the Anglo-French imperialists and participating in inimical actions directed against the Soviet Republic, is hereby proclaimed and enemy of the people and outlawed.” The telegram was signed by Lenin and Trotsky.

In an action which completely frustrated the Soviets in the capital, the Murmansk Soviet signed an accord with the Allies, British, French, and even American. This agreement pledged the Allies to defend Murmansk and recognize the Murmansk Regional Soviet as the acknowledged government of the area. Captain Bierer of the Olympia signed on behalf of the American government, even though he had no authority to do so. It is interesting to note that this document was executed several days before Wilson’s Aide Memoire, which authorized intervention in Russia. The Murmansk agreement was completely unauthorized by the U.S. government, yet it was finally approved in October 1918. While it was a stroke of luck for the Allies to have the tie-in with a Russian government, even an out-of-favor one, the Allies pledged to protect those individuals who had faced the wrath of their own people by separating themselves from the Central Soviet.

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