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. 1/3 |

In the annals of warfare, what often matters most is the simple question of who won. As a general rule of thumb, the winners are often the ones to have their perceptions and ideology recorded in our collective history, while the other side’s opinions are often disregarded. But what of a war where there are no winners? Such is the case with the so called “Polar Bear Expedition” in 1918 and 1919. Though other military engagements from this period are the subject of historical volumes, discussions about this “small war” in Russia are relatively rare.

While historians argued over the reason for the expedition’s failure, from military problems, political problems, or a lack of a proper objective, what has not been discussed, however, is what the men on the expedition experienced. The human element of the story is left out. More importantly, how did they process their experiences when they returned home? To answer this question, I will examine a number of primary sources written by those present during the expedition. These sources will not only reveal how events on the Expedition were viewed by the men, but also how they viewed other countries and their social identities. In this case, I will discuss the social construct of masculinity, and how it affected retellings of the Polar Bear Expedition.

The Polar Bear Expedition, a joint British-American operation, began in September of 1918 during the waning months of World War I.1 The United States contributed “Michigan’s own” 339th Infantry, 337th Ambulance Corps, 337th Field Hospital, and 310th Engineer’s Battalion for this cause. In total, the U.S sent a combined force of roughly 5,700 men.2 Despite the numbers, most of the arriving Americans had no idea why they had been sent to Russia. The war, after all, was against Germany and Austria, not Russia. Chronicler John Cudahy echoes the confusion most soldiers felt, noting that “we were at war with Germany, but we found no Germans in Russia.”3

Despite this, the official reasons for the Expedition did still have to do with the war. The Expedition’s first objective was to prevent German forces from capturing Archangel, a city in Northern Russia that held a stockpile of military gear the enemy could use. 4 The second objective was to “reform the eastern front” against Germany by any means necessary. Officially, Russia’s new Bolshevik government had dropped out of the war with the Central powers of German and Austria-Hungary after the Brest-Litovsk agreement on March 3rd, 1918. This meant that Central power soldiers stationed in the east could be sent to the western front, putting additional military pressure on France and Britain. Rebuilding the eastern front would ease these new tensions. Third and finally, the expedition was to aid a legion of Czech soldiers who had defected from the Austrian Empire and was currently stuck on the Trans-Siberian railroad. If possible, the expedition was to help them along their way to Vladivostok where they could then get transport to the United States, and then to France to continue fighting.5

Despite these reasons, it is almost unanimously stated by historians that the Expedition had been formed for an ulterior motive, as the official objectives ceased to have any impact relatively early in the campaign. For one, the mentioned stockpile of military supplies in Archangel was the same stockpile that the Bolsheviks had looted before the American forces had even arrived, so defending it became a moot point.6 When World War I ended in November 1918, there was no longer a need to reestablish a front against a defeated enemy. The only valid reason to remain was to aid the Czechs, although even then there was no hurry to move them to the Western Front in France. Essentially, there was no official reason for the expedition to exist.

Perhaps the most urgent reason the operation continued was because of the rise of Bolshevism in Russia. The Bolsheviks (Russian for Majority) were a Socialist political party that had been part of Russia’s Provisional government under Prime Minster Alexander Kerensky. While the Bolsheviks had been part of what was essentially a coalition government, they rose up and overthrew the Provisional government in the “October Revolution” of 1917. Upon taking power, the Bolsheviks quickly cracked down on dissent, closing newspapers that voiced opposition. Despite this, “white Russians,” a blanket term for counterrevolutionaries, conservatives and monarchists, continued to resist by armed struggle against the “red Russian” Bolsheviks.

This new regime worried many Allied nations, particularly because the Bolsheviks wanted nothing to do with the Western powers. The Bolsheviks outright refused to work with Anglo-French industries, open up foreign debts, or anything else that might have led to their power being weakened by “the bandits of Anglo-French imperialism.”7 Additionally, while Kerensky’s government had fought against the Allies’ enemies, the Bolsheviks wanted nothing to do with the war. The new Soviet government had chosen to pull out of the war, leaving France and England to deal with the mass of German and Austrian troops racing back to the Western Front. Among the British, who had gone through “more than four years of strenuous fighting” in the war, there were those who were seeking to “carry out political reforms in a state which was no longer a belligerent ally.”8 In other words, the British felt abandoned, putting up with so much hardship only to have an important ally abruptly leave the war.

Likewise, the United States President from 1913 to 1921, Woodrow Wilson, also seemed to have a negative view of the Bolsheviks. In the Fourteen Points peace plan that Wilson put forth at the end of the war, point number six involved rebuilding Russia’s economy and government from the ground up.9 For Wilson, this meant installing a new government, since the Communist regime at the time was not recognized by the United States as the legitimate government in Russia and not granted diplomacy.10 An officer on the ground later told some of the American troops that they were there “to stop Bolsheviks” and that “the power [in Russia] is in the hands of a few men… who have succeeded in bringing the country to such a state that order is non-existent. Bolshevism has grown upon the uneducated masses to such an extent that Russia is disintegrated and helpless…”11 Given these political realities the Polar Bear Expedition continued in Russia in an attempt to destabilize the new Bolshevik administration.

From the Expedition’s beginning to its end in the summer of 1919, it had not succeeded in its unofficial task of replacing the Bolshevik government with a “proper” Russian one. Ironically, it actually helped to solidify the Bolshevik regime. One author, Max Boot, asserts that the Expedition was just small enough to be repelled while being just large enough to be claimed as an imperialistic attack.12 Boot viewed the Expedition through a military lens, observing the strategic shortcomings of the campaign. For instance, the United States had not sent enough men to cover the territory that was covered in the campaign. It was estimated that less than 10,000 men had been spread over 500 miles.13

Boot further laments that there were times that the Bolshevik government came close to falling due to counterrevolutionary advances, and if the Expedition had hung on for these events, they might have succeeded in their mission to oust the Bolsheviks. Boot cites one instance as the 1919 advance of Admiral Kolchak, a “white Russian” leader, who could have aided the expedition in a two pronged attack on the Russian capital of Moscow.14 This opinion is comparatively new next to the more common in terms of political events. David Foglesong in particular discusses the political outlook of President Wilson and how it affected the Polar Bears. Wilson was keen to avoid anything that might have resembled the overthrowing of a government, an act he viewed as being unthinkable for a democracy.15 This hampered the Expedition since Wilson insisted as making it as small as possible to avoid making it seem like an invasion. Wilson also refused to make an attack on the Bolshevik government an “official” objective, resulting in confusion in men of the Expedition as to what its purpose was. In addition, Wilson was not interested in spending large amounts of public funds on the Expedition, especially when it would yield nothing for the U.S.16 Both this political outlook and weak economic support resulted in the small force that Boot describes.

Other authors describe the overall Allied strategies toward Russia and what effect they had on the Expedition. George A. Brinkley focused on the Allies’s attempt to unite and direct white Russian factions in west and southwest Russia through diplomacy. Cooperating with Russians proved problematic as the Russians were “divided upon military, political and economic lines.”17 Britain and France crossed this problem in present day Ukraine and Odessa, where attempts to unify Russian groups against the Bolsheviks failed. The groups they brought together ranged from “moderate socialists to staunch reactionaries;” basically anyone who was to the right of the Bolsheviks on the political scale.18

Many of them simply separated into smaller groups vying for power. John Silverlight notes that this discord was not limited to the Russian forces but also occurred among the Allies as well. Silverlight notes that Wilson and British command had difficulty deciding what policy to take regarding the Czech soldiers. Wilson wanted to keep the U.S. military presence in Russia small, while British commanders called for more troops to help reach the Czech forces.19 What the authors do not discuss is how the Expedition was divided along social issues as well.

The Soldier

One of the primary accounts comes from Harry J. Costello, an infantryman who served with the 339th. Like the rest of the American soldiers on the Expedition, Costello was a draftee from either Michigan or Wisconsin. Americans who were sent were chosen from these two states because it had a similar climate to northern Russia where they would be deployed. Besides this, Costello goes into little length discussing his personal life before the operation, skipping ahead to when he and his fellow soldiers were deployed from New York to England, and from there, to Archangel.20 Interestingly, Costello chooses to introduce the book with what adversities he and his companions experienced in Russia. Costello notes that he and the men of the Expedition fought a powerful foe and that in retrospect; it is surprising that they were able to hold their ground against them for as long as they did.21Costello does not seem interested in talking about his life before the operation, but rather why the Expedition was important. The book he wrote itself is titled “Why did we go to Russia?” While the answer is difficult to attain, it deals with Costello’s idea of masculinity. He had gone to Russia to prove himself a man.

In order to understand Costello’s answer to the question, one must understand how masculinity was constructed in America at the time. From an agrarian standpoint, manhood would have been anchored in patriarchy. Manhood meant having control over an estate, wealth and family.22 In other words, in order for a man to be a man, he had to be the king of his household. However, when the Industrial Revolution took hold in the United States, these traditional means of asserting authority became challenged. As more and more men began to work in factories, property such as land began to concentrate in a few hands, increasing the rich-poor gap. Because of this, a son might not need to worry about the inheritance he would gain from his father and therefore no longer feel pressured to follow his orders and leadership.23 As a result, the boy might feel free to pursue a different line of work, an act that would not only undermine the father’s authority, but potentially the entire family line. Fathers could no longer make their sons “follow in their footsteps” as they had done before.24 Compounding on this was the man’s loss of independence at work, as he increasingly found himself under the watchful eyes of bosses and supervisors.25

From that point on, a man could not judge himself based on his material wealth or family. The only thing he could now properly judge was himself. The shape of masculinity in the late 19th and early 20th century became his daily struggle to assert himself in the world. His job, which might have emasculated him before due to its lack of freedom, is now a mark of his manhood. The fact he leaves the comforts of his home each day to struggle with heavy labors or difficult problems reassert his sex.26 In the most basic terms possible, the industrial man is not a person who stands alone, but rather a person who finds his place in society and exerts all his energy to do his duty to it.27

From this view, men like Costello should appear superhuman. They had not only braved an overwhelming enemy, but done so while being hampered by cold weather and difficult allies. Costello notes that while the Expedition was an Allied venture, that “allied co-operation became to a great extent, in the fighting areas, only a name.”28 One group in the Expedition Costello was likely referring to was the British forces who were overseeing the operation.

Like most of the other primary sources, Costello’s view of the British is negative. In his case, he processes this view in terms of their military expertise. When American soldiers first arrived in Archangel, the city had become a mess due to Bolshevik looting; “[The Bolsheviks] seized the whole stores of supplies and practically all the movable material wealth of the inhabitants of Archangel.”29 The entire area was full of refugees hoping to escape to England along with mountains of worthless money, including imperial and local Ruble notes.30 Cudahy himself states that the area of Archangel was a “poverty distressed and cheerless destitute region.”31 Suffering from lack of supplies, jobs or money, the city had completely stopped functioning. Only a few shops were still functioning, and even then, they had little to offer to potential customers save for fish and bread.32

Following the invasion of Archangel, however, British officers and other military men of rank turned Archangel into a “ration destroyer,” a pseudo wartime capital that consumed the majority of resources that were supposed to go to the front.33 The officers stationed there seemed more interested in insuring their own comfort than protecting the lives of the infantrymen. Former American sergeants report that the British chose to have whiskey shipped into Archangel rather than medicine which could have aided the troops.34

Costello also adds a brief but memorable mention of what might be described as the simple ineptitude of British officers. One British colonel visiting the railway front displayed ignorance regarding the basic knowledge of military equipment. During the visit, the colonel mistakenly referred to a Vickers gun as a “Lewis gun,” inquired about “what kind of cannon” a basic pistol was, and did not even know how to operate the trigger on said weapon.35 It should be noted that British officers are not portrayed as inept anywhere else in Costello’s book or in any other primary sources. This might state that such incredible displays were isolated occurrences and were the exception rather than the rule. Still, these brief passages help to describe the hardships Americans suffered under their allies. Because of this increased hardship, however, Costello should have been seen as incredibly manly for managing to overcome them.

While Costello notes British ineffectiveness or corruption in the campaign, he seems to place his ire upon the Russians, both allied and enemy forces. When it came to the subject of Russian allies, his main complaint dealt with being unable to work with them at all. Costello ruefully notes, upon arriving in Archangel, that “anyone knowing the Russian character will realize well that all they did was to argue with one another.”36 However, this might have been due to differences in Russian masculinity was understood rather than an inherent need to argue.

While American masculinity was defined by the Industrial Revolution, Russian masculinity was defined by war and Nationalism. After losing the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the Russian government realized that one reason for this loss was due to the poor physical shape of their soldiers.37 To this end, the government began to carry out health reforms focused on Russia’s youth. Along with programs to improve hygiene and physical fitness, military officers began to introduce programs in elementary education designed to shape the children into soldiers.38 These programs included gymnastics, sports, and outright military training. World War I only served to increase the militarization of education. By September of 1915, all schools had to provide some form of military training for the children as well as subsidies the sports programs. By November of the same year, primary and middle education groups were required to run pre-draft training.39

This focus on Nationalism only increased when the Bolsheviks came into power. One Bolshevik propaganda poster said “you’re still not a sportsman? That means you still don’t know how valuable your health is to the Proletarian Republic!”40 While the past Provisional government had placed a connection between war and sport, the Bolsheviks made the two inseparable. The Bolshevik government argued that civilian and military morals differed only in strength of application. For example, while both citizens and soldiers should be required to have a “hard” will to work, soldiers should have a “harder” will in order to fight.41 This meant that all Russian citizens should have been required to be physically fit and mentally able to do whatever task was required of them by their nation.

Not understanding this, Costello does not write kindly about the allied Russian military units that fought alongside the Expedition. This opinion that may have been colored by the fact he had been mistakenly shelled by an allied Russian artillery unit once in the campaign.42 Costello also mentions that the Russians on the front “retarded rather than aided us. A number of desertions and acts of treachery are plainly traceable to these Russians.”43 Acts of rebellion and munity were not uncommon, as secondary sources their occurrences, notably a massive munity of White Russians on their officers on April 25th, 1919. They surrendered to the Bolsheviks shortly after.44 Given the American culture masculinity at the time, such munities would be considered extremely emasculating. In the case of warfare, a man’s “experience is less about virtue than about fear and shame, humiliation and disgrace.”45 It would not only be surrender to the enemy, but also be a surrendering of your struggle.

However, consider what Russian masculinity taught, that a man’s manliness was defined by his service to his country. How then could a counterrevolutionary White Russian consider himself a man? He was not fighting for his country but rather against it. This might add another layer to why so many of them gave up and surrendered to the Bolsheviks. Fighting for their home country again would mean that they would be considered proper men. At the very least, they would not have to deal with the proverbial limbo of trying to be men while fighting against the Russian army.

At the very least, this might explain why the Russian character was “to argue with each other.” As stated before, the White Russians were made up of a wide assortment of political identities with no true unified vision of a Bolshevik free Russia. Perhaps because of this, it would have been possible that submitting to another faction’s vision for the future would have been emasculating. In a sense, it would mean conceding that someone else had a better plan for the shared homeland and was therefore serving it better.

While surrendering to the Bolshevik forces might mean a return to being masculine for the White Russians, American masculinity would describe it as the mark of a sissy. Costello is acutely aware of this fact as he devotes an entire chapter debunking a popular belief that there was a munity of U.S. forces while in Archangel. According to Costello’s telling, Company I of the 339th infantry refused to leave to go to the front on March 30th, 1919. The reason that is cited is the fact that the Russians who had fought with them were not being deployed and were being allowed to remain in Archangel.46 Again, one sees the “team” mentality, the need to work together or not at all. However, upon being impressed upon by the importance of duty by Colonel Steward, the men agreed to go. The Colonel insisted that, while he did not know why the men were in Russia, “there is at least one good reason to fight now.”47 Costello goes on to assert that no man in the company ever disobeyed an order or went AWOL.

The Colonel’s comment points to another tenant of American masculinity, doing daring acts simply because they were daring. The so called “doing of stumps” was seen to be the highest level of a man struggling against the world. In fact, the more pointless the struggle, the manlier it appeared to be. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., an associate Justice of the Supreme Court during the WWI period, describes the pointlessness of such an act as the “kindling and feeding the ideal spark without which life is not worth living.”48 Often, this “doing of stumps” was characterized with trips to the wilderness in the western United States. By surviving out on one’s own for a period of time, it was thought that one could become more masculine through his pointless discomfort and needless conquest of the natural world.49 However, it also called to mind the image of the Wild West, and that enduring it as the pioneers did would make one more manly.50

Costello additionally provides examples of mutinies that occurred in Russia. During the winter of 1918, a British outfit called the Yorks arrived at the town of Radish to aid Allied forces. Finding the conditions disagreeable, they complained to the Americans stationed there, wrote protest letters to the British Premier, and then finally mutinied.51 The author also mentions other mutinies occurring among French troops; many refusing to fight on the grounds that France was not at war with Russia or the Bolsheviks.52 Despite finding his own conditions disagreeable (notably the food and equipment he had been provided) and not being at war with the Bolsheviks, Costello proudly notes that neither he nor his company chose to give up.

In addition to the White Russians, Costello also had to deal with the local Russian peasants, who were startlingly different than either the Bolsheviks or Whites. While the Russian government had made sweeping social changes in cities and other urban centers, the rural parts of Russia remained largely untouched. For example, many rural villages did not take to the government programs to encourage sports and gymnastics, as the locals viewed these programs as bothersome.53 Additionally, when women became allowed to compete in sport circles in the late 1910s, the majority came from cities and urban areas, whereas rural provinces like Riazan reported literally no women participating in the program.54

Given that the government programs were largely ignored by the rural population, coupled with a lack of the industrialization that America had experienced, many of them still might have lived according to the agrarian idea of manhood. This involved total freedom of the man from any institution and total control of his property and family. As a result, Russian (male) peasants might have been used to viewing the world from only their domain, as well as working hard to ensure it remained theirs. Again, this might have meant that it would be a difficult matter to get two Russian rivals to work together, since their manhood might dictate against it. The difference being that it was dictated by material possessions rather than ideological difference. Costello, who had grown up in a society that puts manhood and cooperation together, would no doubt be puzzled by a group of Russians’ inability to get along.

While Costello describes allied Russians as an annoyance or unmanly, his descriptions of the Bolsheviks are extremely negative. He paints a disturbing picture of men who were conscripted into fighting for the Bolsheviks, only to be shot if they attempted to retreat or fail to take objectives.55 Although such vivid accounts are missing from other primary documents, secondary sources prove that similar sentiments existed in the Allied commanders; one pointed out that Bolsheviks rule by “terror alone…a terror unexampled in history.”56 Costello also describes an instance in which a Bolshevik orator came to his company late at night to preach about the virtues of Communism and the evils of their Capitalist masters.57 Despite this, Costello bluntly states that his company was unaffected by the propaganda because of their knowledge of what happened to “Bolo” soldiers who did not succeed in military endeavors. Costello mentions hearing the firing quads behind enemy lines after an attack had been repulsed.58

Costello is rather bullish with his statement regarding Bolshevik propaganda. He states that no one in his company was affected, even though he gives no record of conversing with them on this subject. It almost seems that he does not want to even consider the possibility of one of his friends becoming converted. The possibility was that by American standards of masculinity, the Bolsheviks might have been considered overly masculine. Another part of American masculinity was the ability to work together as a team of men rather than one person, a mentality that grew out of involvement in the war.

The Bolsheviks seemed to use an extreme kind of teamwork in order to carry out their attacks. If a group of Bolsheviks could not succeed in their struggle to take an objective, they were simply shot. Unlike men from the United States, whose struggle back home tended to be more abstract, Bolshevik troops faced the very real struggle of life and death. While this could be viewed as almost beastly by American standards, this act is at least understandable from the Russian side. Part of what the Bolshevik government preached was a need to be ready to sacrifice yourself for your country.59 If the advancing men had failed to do this, they no longer would be considered men but weaklings, women, or even inhuman. It was perfectly possible this last point was used, since women actually joined the Russian military throughout both the Provisional government period and the Bolshevik regime partly as a way to shame “unmanly” men afraid to fight for their country.60 By this standard, it would not be men being executed, but deplorable inhuman worms. In any case, accepting the propaganda would mean (from the American perspective) accepting the words of men who were so masculine that they were savages.

So what awaited Costello when the operation had ended and he had returned home? Does he receive a celebration for him and his Herculean brothers for overcoming discomfort, savage enemies and infuriating difficulties with allies? No, he does not. Despite his struggles, he receives next to nothing when he returns home. He does not even get recognition from the American public for his actions.

Perhaps most frustratingly, the only point the public seems to know about was the supposed mutiny that would have emasculated Costello. It was this lack of recognition that pushed Costello to write his account of the expedition: in his introduction, he makes it known that his reason for writing his account was to educate the American public about the expedition, since the majority was woefully ignorant of the event.61 In fact, the entire book is his assertion of what he and his men did together. As a soldier of this campaign, he should have been considered a man among men, but he receives nothing. The book can be seen as Costello’s cry that he had gone to Russia to fight and survive, and in doing so, prove himself as a man.

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