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.