Map of Allied operations in Archangel, Russia [Left]. American rifleman, Russian rifle. Defending the critical rail junction at “Verst 466” with the 339th Infantry Regiment, Sept. 24, 1918 [Right].
The AEF – American Expeditionary Force – had decisively defeated the German Army on the Western Front on Nov. 11, 1918. The Great War closed, while a new – more bizarre – chapter opened. Two months prior to the end of the war, President Woodrow Wilson – a politician who ran on a non-intervention policy – moved to send men of the AEF to Russia.
The President must have been troubled by this intervention. The United States felt pressure to join the effort to contain Bolshevism’s spread in Russia and support their allies – Britain and France. Five thousand soldiers of the AEF made up the 339th infantry division. These were men from all temperaments across the state of Michigan. During the late summer of 1918, these Michiganders completed their training in Fort Custer and were prepared to embark on a transport ship to Archangel, Russia.
Several of these men were Alma College students who put their education on hold to fight in the Great War. The Weekly Almanian published a section called “From our Boys in the Service” every edition during the First World War. Letters were printed from students and alumni who were active in the AEF. Private Russel – an Alma College student – wrote to his Mother on Sept. 10, 1918:
Somewhere in Russia:
At least we are somewhere and in Russia at that. I suppose everything is all O. K. at home. I surely hope so. I never felt better in my life. I do not know whether I have gained in pounds or not because all the scales are balanced in Russian.
Russia does not look as old as I had expected. All the streets are either mud or cobblestone. There are a few street cars. The horses are all very small and pull from a yoke in the form of an arch, over their necks. All of the axles are made of wood and are well greased. The Russian dress is surely queer. I saw one fellow who had a purple silk shirt on that I would like to get my hands on. Some of the girls look like Yankees in their dress. The Russian churches have large globe domes, generally gilded. They have lots of huge bells which, when they ring, ring steadily for about forty minutes. One of the churches around here has a large picture in it. Looks like a hand painting but of course it isn’t because the weather would soon destroy it. Another church has pictures of saints all over on one side.
There are plenty of wooden sidewalks around here. The Russian language is surely a tongue-twister. Already we have mastered a few words like good and no good thanks, the names of towns, cigarettes, dog, etc. They make a noise like a rattle snake to stop their horses.
Well I must close, with love to all.
Even one hundred years ago, Russel conveyed the Alma College code of ethics; to foster curiosity abroad and approach his situation from a position of learning. His letter also carries melancholy for his home he had left behind. Moreover, yes – only a Michigander would act as polite as Russel does, despite the perilous circumstances.
For Russel and for the rest of the 339th from Michigan – who more than likely left home for the first time – will have to combat disease, the harsh cold and maintain morale. It would slowly turn into an intervention that none of the men could justify themselves as to what purpose they were serving in Russia.