The Polar Bear Expedition of 1918 - 1919: Interpreting Masculinity Through the Eyes of a Soldier

By James G. Partain
2016, Vol. 8 No. 10 | pg. 2/3 |

The Chronicler

Veterans of the Polar Bear Expedition were not the only ones to write about the mission after it had concluded. John Cudahy, a man who identifies himself as a “chronicler,” and not as a soldier was one of these men. This can be asserted since Cudahy never mentions his rank or branch of service in the U.S. military. Cudahy’s book also lacks eyewitness accounts of any battles that took place in Russia. Lastly, while the other three primary accounts were published in Michigan where the majority of the American forces came from, Cudahy’s account was published in Chicago. While these factors could suggest that Cudahy was never in Russia to begin with, he is able to talk at length about the soldiers themselves, as well as the ground conditions of the campaign. This implies that he was likely present in Russia even though he was not a combatant himself.

If asked why the Expedition failed to achieve its objectives, Cudahy would likely blame the British for mismanaging the entire campaign. While large numbers of American troops were sent to northern Russia, they were commanded by mostly British officers that had already landed and controlled the area of Archangel.62 This was not helped by the fact that the high ranking American officers that were present, like Colonel George E. Steward, simply handed off their forces to British commanders.63 The other great Allied power in Europe, France, might have been expected to represent part of the commanding force in Russia, although one also must remember that WWI was still being waged during the expedition’s opening months, and France’s best soldiers and Generals were busy defending against the Germans on the western front. President Wilson continued to assert that he was not interested in intervening on the question of Russia or any other nation, believing that such an invasion would be imperialistic.64 While Wilson was eventually pressured into supplying troops to the Allied cause, he stated that the force was not meant to interfere with the current government, but rather to support a “better” democratic government if it surfaced.65

The problems that emerged from what was basically an Anglo-controlled operation ranged from minor grievances to dire complications. Several primary accounts unanimously decry the rations that the British supplied for American forces. British rations in the field were primarily tea, hard tack and “bully beef,” a kind of poor grade beef stew that the American soldiers were not used to.66 More seriously, there were also serious problems in terms of military supplies and logistics. Some of the American sergeants on the ground noted that Allied artillery and machine guns were poorly represented in Russia. The Allies primarily used Vickers; water cooled machine guns that proved to be useless when the water froze in the cold arctic weather. The Allies also had few artillery pieces, with the majority of the best artillery still in France. The few three inch guns they possessed were easily out-ranged by the Soviet six inch guns.67 In terms of rifles, American forces had to make due with poorly made Russian rifles: “we lacked everything but the Russian type of rifle fitted with a bayonet that would not stay on.”68 The rifles were vastly inferior to English and American rifles, noting that they jammed, broke, and were woefully inaccurate.69

Cudahy argues that not only did British logistics cripple the campaign, but that the British were simply inept to begin with. It is worth noting that only Cudahy sets forth a list of reasons of why he felt the expedition did not work, something veterans who wrote of the Expedition did not do. Cudahy identifies the “ignorance of the military commitment,” or a failure to hold outlying objectives. As soon as American troops arrived, they were almost immediately rushed out to pursue retreating Bolshevik forces, even though they had yet to be identified as such for the Americans.70 The author wonders why fortified outposts were abandoned to defend railways or, more importantly, why the British rushed American troops to points further south of Archangel, where they could not be defended.71

Secondary sources confirm this claim, as the British leader Colonel Poole rapidly pushed south early in the expedition despite being instructed not to do so.72 By mid-October, the men Poole had sent south became stalled by the oncoming winter weather and were forced into taking defensive positions. Unfortunately, much of the force had become hopelessly spread out in the rapid advance. However, while both sources claim that Poole was trying to reach the Czech forces on the Trans-Siberian railroad, Cudahy states that he was blindly rushing his forces in to fight the Bolsheviks.73 In either case, the outposts became totally isolated from each other, unable to coordinate efforts together or with central command. Often, it fell to the lower officers on site to take command rather than wait for orders that would never come.74

Cudahy’s other three points can be combined together to create his overall impression of the British operation. Cudahy states that the expedition also failed because there was no moral purpose of the expedition, no support from the native population, and that the enemy was constantly underestimated. His fifth and final reason, inadequate forces, can be attributed to Wilson not wanting to send more American troops, wanting to rally White Russians against the Bolsheviks instead.75 In any case, there was no concrete reason for the expedition to take place. Because of this “lack of moral purpose,” Cudahy asserts the reason for the expedition was British conquest. The author implies that the British invaded north Russia to take it over as another vassal of their empire. This opinion is not entirely without merit, as there were certainly talks among those observing Russia that it could be “the greatest of all markets” for western products.76

The Bolsheviks were viewed as being akin to a peasant army that could easily be quelled, an opinion that ignores the fact the Red Army was better equipped, well organized and more numerous than the would-be invaders.77 Not only did the British seem to think of them as poor soldiers, but they seemed to believe that they were more of a criminal rabble that would fall to authority rather than the arm of a legitimate government. Cudahy ruefully notes that “the ancient Imperialists who were obstinately impervious to the new Russia flaming in revolution against age long abuses and tyrannies” could not understand that “the old order could never be returned.”78

Cudahy further cites how British officers treated the Russians who were either allied White Russians or neutral peasantry. While the operation was professed as being an Allied coalition based in Archangel, all power seemed to rest with the British.79 Whether or not the British were trying to colonize Russia or not, secondary sources seem to confirm that they held the power during the expedition. While technically the area of Archangel was under the control of a Russian coalition government under an old socialist named Nikolai Chaikovsky, Colonel Poole attempted to replace him with a British officer even though he was an allied Russian.80 While this attempted coup failed, the British continued to subtly suppress Russian leaders, such as preventing Chaikovsky from flying the red socialist flag outside his home.81 Cudahy further asserts that Russian soldiers that were allies were treated poorly by British officers, and that they often consisted of starving men or mercenaries.82

In addition to this view of Britain as being a heavy-handed imperialist, Cudahy also seems to regard the Bolshevik government as legitimate, a view not shared by the American or British leadership. Wilson notably refused to recognize the Bolsheviks as a legitimate governing body, stating that, at the time of the expedition, “The Russian people…have no government.”83 Cudahy also displays some alarming admiration of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, referring to Trotsky as “an outstanding military genius” for being able to build an army out of the “Kerensky rabble.”84

At first glance, it seems that Cudahy is a Communist sympathizer, although his admiration comes not from political belief, but ideas of American masculinity. The key to this idea lies in one important passage: Cudahy states that the Allied soldiers referred to the Bolsheviks commonly as “Jerry” out of “a spirit of grotesque comradely and sportsmanship.”85 This point is called into question since not only is there no mention of calling the Bolshevik soldiers “Jerry” among the other sources, referring to them more often as “Bolos.” However, the idea of putting sports and war together was not an unusual notion at the time. As mentioned before, the notion of teamwork as being manly was an American imagining of masculinity that grew out of involvement in the war. To propagate this mentality, the use of sports was used to describe war and praise the value of teamwork. Football was often used during World War I in order to “normalize” the conditions of trench warfare by noting its similarities. The sport demanded utter loyalty to the captain or quarterback, as well as the ability to fearlessly dodge and weave through enemy lines when the command was given.86 The sport also echoes the most basic notion of American manhood was finding a job and doing it well. The overall skill of the team was partially determined by one’s throwing arm or ability to block opponents. Both activities called for teamwork, unity, courage, and aggression in order for either to be carried out.87 Military publications took this comparison one step further by trying to blur the line between war and sports. The newspaper Stars and Stripes’, read by soldiers in the Western front, often opened with baseball related headlines such as “Big League season opens in Two Hemispheres,” or “Huns hit .0000 against Lorraine Hurlers.”88 Cudahy’s assertion of American soldiers fighting “Jerry” might have been an inspiration drawn directly from these sources. Given that Cudahy is a “chronicler,” the possibility that he could have worked in wartime media as a newspaper writer or reporter cannot be discounted.

His reflections on the Bolshevik and British governments might be based on this notion of sport-like teamwork. Before the Bolsheviks, the government was a “rabble.” It did not have any sort of direction or order. In short, it could not function like a team. Only with a strong “captain” like Lenin was the government able to create some semblance of order. Only with Trotsky at the helm were Bolshevik soldiers able to resist the Allies. By contrast, British forces and local Russian peasants are demeaned because they either refuse to be part of the joint effort or prove to be poor captains. Cudahy’s assertion that Poole rushed soldiers off to fight the Bolsheviks implies that he was not thinking of the team, but of his own glory. More importantly, his overextension of the armed forces under his command left them exposed with nothing gained for their benefit. The British refusal to work with native Russians spoke only of Britain’s refusal to put the goal of the group before its own desires. In short, rather than being a team player like the U.S. force, the British Empire had chosen to abuse its power to push its own interests.

Once again, however, it is worth mentioning how British masculinity might have viewed the Expedition. Like Russia, British masculinity at the time was shaped by war and nationalist sentiment. British leaders being afraid of the possible decadence that came from being a world power had made their men weak and even effeminate, much as how Russia saw its men as being physically unfit after their loss to Japan.89 Additionally, there was a growing sentiment that Britain was using “other races” in its empire like Indians as its fighters, causing the men to grow weak from lack of battle.90 Much of this mentality was additionally shaped by the perceived threat posed by Germany after its invasion of Belgium, with Britain urging men to enlist in order to defend their homes. Unlike Russian masculinity, which was shaped almost entirely by the abstract duty to Russia, British masculinity was shaped by the need to defend one’s home and family from the savage Germans.

Much like Costello viewed the Bolsheviks as being overly masculine, the British likewise painted the Germans as outright savages. They were often viewed as being unrestrained raping marauders that delighted in mutilating women and children. By contrast, the British soldiers were depicted as being restrained, brave, and motivated by national interest rather than plunder.91 Part of British masculinity was the reminder that they were not fighters but defenders. Unlike the Germans, they fought in defense of their families, and were restrained in the sense that they did not proceed beyond this ideology.92 In this sense, the British soldiers were still viewed from a version of the traditional agrarian model of manhood. The difference was that they were defending everything they “owned” rather than controlling it. Why this regression occurred in an industrial country is not stated, although one reason might be because of the urgent possibility of invasion by Germany. If Germany invaded, not only would your country fall, but your family would be violated as well.93

In short, British masculinity came to be defined by the need to restrain oneself from unthinking passions and to defend ones family against invaders. By this extent, the British came to view themselves as the proverbial “father,” defending their national family against aggressors. In one propaganda play produced about German-occupied Belgium, one of the main characters, a daughter whose father has left for the war, calls out for Britain’s aid against the Germans. This effectively replaces her absent father with England.94 Perhaps to this end, Britain came to see itself as a sort of “world father,” a nation that would act as savior to the bedeviled world.95 This idea of supremacy might have accounted for the treatment of American soldiers. Given the United States’ former position as a colony of Britain, the English commanders might have viewed American troops as wayward “sons” that they could use for the sake of the “worldly family.”

On a deeper level, the British could have distained of how Americans viewed masculinity. During the end of the 19th century, it became “proper” for a man to get in touch with his “animal instincts” as a way to become more masculine. Basic passions, such as lust and physical assertiveness, were now seen as a way to deal with the eternal struggle that dominated male life.96 It also went hand in hand with the notion that a man could go out into the wilderness and live like an animal in order to rediscover himself. What should be noted about these qualities is that they fly in the face of traditional Victorian sensibilities and later the British idea that a restraining a man’s base emotions was essential to manhood.97 While American men chose to fight with nature, British men opted to be polite and gentlemanly. Perhaps this was one point that influenced the British policy of keeping the British officers in Archangel to socialize with locals while the Americans fought in the snowy wilderness.

The treatment of the Russians might be qualified by the need to maintain the “national house.” The British had already dealt with another foe in the 1850s that had threatened their empire: the rebellion that had occurred in the British colony of India. The rebellion was seen as a violation of not only British honor, but also of British citizens. Numerous British men women and children were reported as being mutilated and killed by rebelling Indian sepoys; Indian soldiers who formerly served British.98 Since British mentality of masculinity was tied together with nationalism and family, this was seen as an indirect violation of British manhood. While this rebellion was shortly quashed, it left the need for Britain to control anyone seen as a subject of the crown. This might explain why they were so quick to stomp out signs of outward socialism in Russia since it could (in their minds) lead to more wanton destruction and violation of British interests. Also, given the demonization that the British had given to both the Germans and the Indians as unchristian unrestrained hordes, it is possible that was passed to Russian peasants and Bolsheviks as well.

The Medic

A possible deviation from ideas of American masculinity on the Polar Bear Expedition comes from Godfrey J. Anderson, a private of the 337th Field Hospital Unit.99 Anderson’s account is more personal than other primary sources, since it contains more of his personal life before the Expedition. Anderson was born in Sparta, Michigan on November 14th, 1895 to two Swedish immigrants.100 He was able to complete high school and graduated Union High School in 1913.101 This put him in sharp contrast to other men who would be drafted into the Expedition. According to Anderson, only 21% of the recruits on the Expedition had completed grammar school, while 38% could not read or write.102 Anderson also played football at Grand Rapids High School as a lineman. In 1912, however, Anderson suffered a season-ending injury when a “fifty-gallon fellow” fell on his leg. While he never played football again, he did recover enough to play baseball in the spring.103 Both this education and physical damage was most likely what put Anderson in the 337th rather than an active fighting unit when he was drafted in 1918.

Since Anderson served with the Field Hospital Unit, his accounts of the Expedition describe the diseases and injuries he treated while there, although he also includes the troop movements and battles he took part in. Unlike the other two sources, Anderson maintains a fairly neutral voice when describing the Bolsheviks. Even though Anderson was required to tend to atrocious battle wounds, he did not seem to think of the Bolsheviks as anything less than an enemy. Tending to a group of soldiers that had been ambushed, Anderson notes that “The Bolsheviks had bashed in [a soldier’s] skull and cut off the lower arm,” an act Anderson compares to scalping.104 (As an aside, this act was remarkable similar to some of the supposed mutilations the Germans committed against civilians. This may have contributed to British notions that the Russians were inhuman for their brutal acts of bodily destruction.) While men like Costello would have decried such brutality, Anderson does not put emotion into his retelling. He even compares it to something he understands and has read about, making seem less strange and more familiar.

He also uses a relatively neutral voice when discussing the British forces, even though he was not immune to their meddling. At one point in the Expedition, his patrol group “managed to locate some large slab of chocolate two inches thick. There had been crates of canned peaches, pears, plums and the like, but the [British] officers had managed to appropriate all these.”105 Given his educational background, Anderson was probably less prone to bias, especially considering that he may have studied both British and Russian history extensively.106

This intellect might reflect the lack of obvious masculine rhetoric in his book. While manly struggles could occur in the context of mental skills, it was far more often reflected in physical contests. In fact, it was believed at the time period that a strong physical body was a reflection of a man’s strong will.107 Since Anderson did not fight directly in any battles, kill any opponents, or possibly suffered from a crippled leg from his football days, one cannot judge his manhood physical means. Additionally, he was comparatively undersized by standards at the time.108 Given this weaken bodily state, Anderson might not have believed in the male body as a reflection of masculinity and therefore might not have shown much interest in physical struggles. If this was what Anderson believed, it was not the norm among the American population. At the time of the Expedition, interest in building and maintaining the human body was high. Ever since the 1850s, a national interest in exercise had been steadily growing, gradually becoming a mania by the 1890s.109 It was closely followed by series of health foods and tips, most notably from J. H. Kellogg the founder of Kellogg cereal.110 The male body was regarded as central to a man’s struggles with the world. It was therefore regarded as a temple to be worshipped.

It fell to Anderson to take care of these temples when they fell. In terms of manliness, it made sense if they happened to perish on the battlefield. After all, if life is a struggle and existence is battle, it would only make sense to fall during a war. Proponents of war felt that it was necessary to keep men from getting soft, so war was seen as “horrible and dull [when you’re at it]. It is only when time has passed do you see that its message was divine.”111 Again, this is an echoed sentiment of Russian and British imaginings of manhood since it was spurred by perceived weakness in men. Yet, the problem that Anderson indirectly puts forth is that not all men die on the battlefield. Before the Expedition even arrived in Archangel, an especially dangerous strain of influenza, nicknamed Spanish flu, had spread on the voyage over. There were no antibiotics aboard any of the ships, and once arrived, the hospitals at Archangel were found to be lacking equipment and amenities like beds.112 The sick were often forced to lie down on the floor without as much as a blanket to keep them warm.113 Anderson remarks, after landing, that “I had just wiped the brow of one struggling patient and went out to get a fresh pail of water and when I came back shortly after[ward], they were carrying him out.”114 Anderson also discusses men who were attacked by “cooties” (lice), exhaustion, and other malaises not generally associated with the glory of the battlefield.115 It is often these descriptions of sickness and death that are the most vivid in his book.

These descriptions stand in sharp contrast to the propagandized versions of war that were published during WWI. Military newspapers like Stars and Stripes’ chose to discuss the glory of battle by comparing it to a football game and besting your opponents for a medal.116 Even when the risk of injury is mentioned, it is described in the context of removing a person’s “stage fright” so they could fight normally.117 The topic of potentially dying of disease or wasting away on the proverbial sidelines is never mentioned. Since Anderson does not espouse or potentially conform to traditional masculinities, this could be seen as a subtle undermining of wartime imaginings of manliness. He chooses to focus on men who are not dying on the battlefield, but those who are wasting away behind allied lines. Anderson, with his descriptions of death by diseases and exhaustion, indirectly challenges the assumption that only glory waited in war.

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