Monday, March 24, 2008

Prelude - Just Boys

Credit: Hugh D. McPhail papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

The United States entered the Great War in April, 1917. At the time, their Regular Army and National Guard had a combined strength of less than 210,000 men, which was minute compared to the size of the armies already fighting in Europe. A conscription process was quickly established that would eventually bring 2.7 million men into the the military before the end of the war. [source] The first draft registration was held on June 5, 1917 for all men between the ages of 21 and 31. These men were called up for induction into the Army as soon as construction was finished on the new camps that were needed to house and train them.

Camp Custer (near Battle Creek, Michigan) was the cantonment that was built for the 85th Infantry Division. The 85th was nicknamed the "Custer Division" after Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, whose boyhood home was in Monroe, Michigan. The 339th Infantry Regiment of the 85th Division became known as "Detroit's Own" due to the large numbers of men it contained who were from Detroit and numerous other location across the state of Michigan.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

On March 3, 1918, the war on the Eastern Front came officially to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Under the terms of this treaty, which was signed at Brest-Litovsk (now Brest, Belarus), the Bolshevik government of Soviet Russia ceded large amounts of territory, population and natural resources to the Central Powers in exchange for the ending of hostilities.

With no more threat of war on the Eastern Front as of March 1918, the Germans were now free to redeploy their troops to the stalemated Western Front. The elite Czech Legion, which had been fighting the Germans alongside the Russian Czar’s troops, had withdrawn to the interior of Russia along the Trans-Siberian railroad and were being prevented by local Bolsheviks from making their way to the Western Front via Vladivostok in the Far East. The United States had entered the war nine months earlier as an "associated power" on the side of the Allies (also known as the Entente Powers), but were still in the process of sending and training their Army divisions prior to deployment on the Western Front. The Soviets were expanding their control to the outlying provinces of Russia and their Bolshevik Red Army was growing in strength. Huge stockpiles of Allied war material intended for the Eastern Front were still sitting in warehouses in Murmansk and Archangel, waiting for the Bolsheviks, or worse yet the Germans, to get their hands on them.

By the end of March, 1918, the Allies were desperately in need of a strategy to deal with these mounting problems.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War

"If I had been properly supported in 1919," Winston Churchill (right, 1919 photo inscribed to U.S. Army General John J. Pershing) said in 1954, "I think we might have strangled Bolshevism in its cradle, but everybody turned up their hands and said, 'How shocking!'" [source]

On September 19, 1959, during a visit to the United States, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev toured the 20th Century Fox Studios in California and declared, "Your armed intervention in Russia is the most unpleasant event in the entire history of relations between our two countries, for we had never fought against America before that. We remember the grim days when American soldiers went to our soil headed by their generals to help our White Guard combat the new revolution. All the capitalist countries of Europe and America marched on our country to strangle our new revolution. Never have any of our soldiers been on American soil, but your soldiers were on Russian soil. Those are the facts. I beg you to pardon me for such a statement." [sources: 1 | 2]

U.S. President Ronald Reagan was only half right, when during his 1984 State of the Union Address he said, "Tonight, I want to speak to the people of the Soviet Union, to tell them it's true that our governments have had serious differences, but our sons and daughters have never fought each other in war. And if we Americans have our way, they never will."

In 1987, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, wrote in his book "Perestroika" that, "It is true to say that post-revolutionary development underwent difficult stages, largely due to the rude meddling of imperial forces in our internal affairs." [source]

But perhaps the most accurate summary of this military intervention came from British Under Secretary of State Lord Hardinge when he forwarded the relevant files on this operation after it had concluded in 1920. As a footnote in his forwarding letter to Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, he wrote, "So ends a not very creditable enterprise." Upon reading it, Lord Curzon took out his pen and changed it to read, "So ends a highly discreditable enterprise." [source]

Ask several US high school AP World History classes the question "In what years did the US Army fight the Soviet Red Army on Russian soil?" (as I did just this past week while substituting for their absent teacher) and you will get varied answers such as "it has never happened" or "they only fought through proxies". Ask the same question of any Russian citizen over the age of 30 and the chances are good that they will immediately answer "1918 and 1919".

The Cold War may be over but the events of 90 years ago still color the relationships between Russia and the Western nations involved in the intervention.

Bookmark this blog and come back to follow along as we recount those events during the months and weeks they happened 90 years ago.