Prologue Magazine

Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks

The U.S. Army in Russia, 1918–1920

Winter 2002, Vol. 34, No. 4

By Gibson Bell Smith


US Soldiers in Vladivostok, 1918 American troops parade in Vladivostok, August 1918. (NWDNS-165-WW-558C(4))

William S. Graves was pleased as summer 1918 began. He had just been promoted to major general and assigned command of the U.S. Army's Eighth Division, which would soon go to France to fight the Germans in the Great War. On August 2, however, Graves got a specially coded message at Camp Fremont in California, ordering him to a meeting in Kansas City.

The next evening, he was met at the Kansas City train station by Secretary of War Newton Baker, who informed Graves that his career was taking a new turn.

President Woodrow Wilson had decided that the United States, still at war in Europe, must intervene in another part of the world to protect its investments. It had nearly a billion dollars' worth of American guns and equipment strewn along a segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk.

Wilson had approved the dispatch of eight thousand men to Siberia— that cold, forbidding part of Russia— and he had chosen Graves as their commander. There, Graves would engage not in the kind of structured combat he had expected in Europe but in a wily contest of nerves, with Cossacks, Bolshevik guerrilla forces, and even Japanese army troops looking to bring Siberia into Japan's sphere of influence. At the same time, the American North Russian Expeditionary Force arrived in Archangel.

It would be the first, and only, time American troops were on Russian soil.

Graves and his men would face off against not German military leaders schooled in combat much the way he had been at West Point, but with the likes of Grigori Semenoff, a Cossack leader, or ataman, of a surly band of marauders whose sole joy in life was to rape, plunder, and steal among the local populations of the Trans-Baikal region of Siberia. On the Trans-Baikal Railway, one of the major links of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Cossacks routinely commandeered railway cars and locomotives.

Wilson's decision and Graves's unexpected adventure were coming at a time when much of the world was in turmoil.

The World War was still raging in Europe and would not end until the Armistice in November 1918. Civil war was still under way in Russia even though the Bolsheviks had ousted Alexander Kerensky in November 1917, a few months after the Mensheviks had deposed the tsar that spring. There did not appear to the Allies to be a legitimate government with whom they could do business. The Allies viewed the Czech Legion and even some White Russian and Cossack forces as levers to winning the war against Germany and Austria by creating diversions in western Russia at Archangel and in eastern Siberia. They hoped this activity would cause the Central Powers to divert forces from the Western Front back to Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the Red Army in Russia was still fighting for its life on at least four fronts.

When Baker met Graves in Kansas City, he handed him an envelope that contained the aide memoire, the reasons for sending American soldiers to innermost Russia:

  • To facilitate the safe exit of the forty-thousand-man Czech Legion from Russia. The Legion had helped clear the Trans-Siberian Railway of Bolsheviks in the spring of 1918 and were the main fighting force in Siberia sympathetic to the Allied cause. (The Bolsheviks had made a separate peace with Germany and therefore could not be trusted.)
  • To guard the nearly one billion dollars' worth of American military equipment stored at Vladivostok and Murmansk.
  • To help the Russians organize their new government.

"This contains the policy of the United States in Russia which you are to follow," Baker said as he handed over the envelope. "Watch your step; you will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite. God bless you and good-bye."

Reasons for Intervention

President Woodrow Wilson's motivation for sending troops to Siberia stemmed from the same desires that drove him to try to impose the Paris Peace Treaty on Europe: the promotion of democracy and self-determination. But first and foremost, he wanted to protect the billion-dollar investment of American guns and equipment along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Vast quantities of supplies had been sent when America believed that Russia was capable of fighting and winning against the Central Powers in the spring of 1917.

The Menshevik Revolution, which overthrew the tsar in February and March 1917, raised Wilson's hopes for democratizing Russia and implanting capitalism there. Under Alexander Kerensky's regime, the first wave of American technicians arrived to revamp and run the vast Trans-Siberian Railway. The European allies, in concert with Kerensky, agreed to establish the American-run Russian Railway Service. Beginning in November 1917, the United States provided Russia with three hundred locomotives and more than ten thousand railway cars. Bad weather and an unfavorable political climate delayed the final entry of the Russian Railway Service Corps until March 1918, when they entered Siberia from the Manchurian city of Harbin.

In addition to the supplies and the presence of Americans attempting to fix and develop Russia's railway service, Wilson also considered the Czech Legion. The Legion had been formed early in 1918 from Czech and Slovak prisoners of war in Russia, sympathetic Russian Slavs, and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army. Beginning in March 1918, forty thousand soldiers fought with the Legion for the Allied cause. When the Bolsheviks pulled out of the war, they agreed to let the Czech Legion leave Russia. President Wilson wanted the world to know that the United States supported the safe return of the Czech Legion to its newly formed homeland.

In March 1918, the Legion moved steadily eastward along the Trans-Siberian Railway. When the Bolsheviks tried to disarm the Czechoslovaks, the soldiers of the Legion hid their weapons, and relations between the two groups frayed.

In May 1918 the Red Guard arrested several Czechoslovaks after a confrontation between legionaries and German prisoners of war at Chelyabinsk Station. A Czech had been killed, and his comrades retaliated by lynching a prisoner. The legionaries forcibly released the prisoners and took over the town. In a valiant effort to fight their way back to their homeland, the Czech Legion smashed its way both east and west, toppling just about every Soviet government in the far eastern part of Russia and Siberia.

This dramatic turn of events brought the fate of the Czech Legion to the attention of Wilson and ultimately led to the American intervention in Siberia.1 In June 1918, Wilson received a number of diplomatic visits directly related to the Allied demand for intervention in Russia. Both the French and British military missions to Russia sent representatives to persuade him to send American troops to Siberia. The War Department had been studying the issue for some time, but they were hardly as sanguine as the French and British wished. The Europeans sought at least thirty thousand American troops in Siberia to go in alongside some sixty thousand Japanese. The Allies stressed the need to deprive the Germans of access to the billions of dollars' worth of assets that lay strewn about the Siberian landscape. The bulk of the effort was to persuade the Czechs to remain in Siberia as a serious counterweight to the Germans. The Allies hoped that by keeping pressure on the Red Army, they could prevent an alliance between the Bolsheviks and the Central Powers, which they feared might allow Germany and Austria to shift valuable men and material to the Western Front.

Finally on July 6, 1918, Wilson decided to intervene in Siberia. The mandate for eight thousand American troops and seventy thousand Japanese troops gave the rationale of protecting the supplies and communications (the Trans-Siberian Railway) and aiding the Czech Legion in its quest to return home.2

The Japanese had landed the first contingents of more than seventy thousand soldiers in June and July and consolidated their control of the Chinese Eastern Railway and much of northern Manchuria near Semenoff's headquarters in Chita. Japanese designs on Manchuria and Siberian economic resources required that no stable government be permitted to develop. To keep the region unsettled, the Japanese could gain leverage in the area by fomenting trouble via Cossack bandits. From the outset, the Japanese cultivated Semenoff and likeminded Cossacks, and lavish gifts and money found their way to Chita and to strongholds of other atamans in eastern Siberia.

Although General Graves did not arrive in Siberia until September 4, 1918, some American troops had arrived as early as August 15, 1918, and quickly took up guard duty along segments of the railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk in the north.

Gregori Semenoff

Ataman Gregori Semenoff had made a name for himself during World War I while serving in Poland; he received numerous decorations for valor from the tsarist regime. In the nineteenth century, armies of the Russian tsar had driven the Cossacks out of their homelands in the Crimea and steppes of Central Asia. Cut adrift, Cossack bands pledged unbending loyalty to strong figures like Grigori Semenoff.

Upon the overthrow of the tsar, Alexander Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government, still felt that he needed Semenoff's military skills and transferred him to the Trans-Baikal region in central Siberia. Soon afterward, the Bolshevik revolution swept eastward out of European Russia into Siberia and followed the towns along the Trans-Siberian railroad all the way to Vladivostok. Only one month after the capture of Vladivostok and all of Siberia by Bolshevik forces, Semenoff narrowly escaped capture by the Red Army. He quickly turned to organizing his "Special Manchurian Detachment" to recapture the Trans-Baikal region from the Bolsheviks.

One of Semenoff's foremost admirers was an American intelligence officer, Maj. David P. Barrows, who was on loan in Manchuria and Siberia from the U.S. Army intelligence office in the Philippines. In April of 1918, Barrows accompanied Semenoff on his campaign against Red Army units operating in and around Manchuli, Manchuria. In an attachment to his report on the successful Semenoff campaign, Barrows summarized his opinion of Semenoff, in part:

While always cool, he undoubtedly has a passionate disposition and capable of intense anger and fixed resentment. He had three and one half years of fighting in Europe and many stories are told in his camp as to his prowess. So far as I can judge, he is completely independent of the influence of those around him and other Russian leaders with whom he has relations. His personality easily dominates. His feelings toward the Bolsheviki and the prisoners who have joined their ranks is very strong. He detests their undoing of Russia. . . . He is devoting his life to their destruction and after that to the resumption of the warfare against the Central Powers. He is capable of great severity toward his enemies and toward the disobedient in his own ranks.3

While Barrows thus treated Semenoff as something of a potential savior for Siberia and the whole Russian nation, other Americans in April 1918 did not view Semenoff with such optimism. James G. Bailey, secretary to the American embassy at Petrograd, disagreed with Barrows that Semenoff had the impartial, energetic leadership qualities to rally Russians against the Central Powers. Bailey felt that Semenoff, backed by the French, the British, and probably the Japanese, was doing more to mobilize the Red Armies in defense of the motherland than a tsarist or Menshevik army could.4

Only a few months later, General Graves and his staff were to join the chorus of opposition to Semenoff.

Semenoff's successful technique consisted of using the element of surprise to overwhelm consistently larger Red forces, rapidly disarming opposition forces, and placing all prisoners in locked box cars to be shipped into the heart of Siberia and certain death. Despite the infusion of many new Mongolian, Japanese, Chinese, and White Russian volunteers into his detachment, Semenoff remained largely stymied in his efforts to free his beloved Chita and the surrounding Trans-Baikal from Bolshevik control. Ironically, it was the Czech Legion that was pivotal in wresting the area from Red Army control in August 1918. Semenoff and others quickly took advantage of the political vacuum left behind.5

The Czechs had spent six months and nine thousand casualties to try to secure their safe exit from Russia by seizing almost the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Now that they had delivered the promised route to the west along the Trans-Siberian, the promised Allied help was not forthcoming, and they became disillusioned.6

Czech Legion on train in Siberia In 1918, the Czech Legion moved eastward along the Trans-Siberian Railway in armored cars, fighting their way to Vladvostok, from where they hoped to sail for home. (111-SC-75877)

Semenoff had also been busy playing off the Allies against each other. In 1917, Kerensky's government had dispatched Semenoff to raise an all-Cossack Army to fight Germany on the eastern front. When Russian money dried up in 1918, Semenoff turned to the British and Japanese to bankroll his raids and support his extravagant lifestyle. His special Manchurian detachment consisted of 556 officers, civil officials, Mongols, and Chinese. At first, he extracted ten thousand pounds sterling a month from the British, but they quickly grew tired of him as Semenoff would not submit to the British efforts to train and organize his motley force. Semenoff had much more success in meeting Japanese needs as he declared that his goals were nonpolitical and that his main concern was "restoring order" in eastern Siberia, a goal that would play into Japanese hands.7 He greatly aided Japan's goal in the area, which was to keep Siberians politically destabilized and disunited.8

When General Graves arrived in Vladivostok on September 3, 1918, he turned his attention to guarding the military stores in Vladivostok and in depots along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The first meeting between Graves and Semenoff took place in late September in Vladivostok. Although the tone of the meeting was civil, Graves claimed that the ataman was not only in the pay of the Japanese but that he could not have lasted a week in Siberia without the "protection of the Japanese."9 In October, Graves went to visit the Twenty-seventh Infantry, which was guarding the major railway station of Habarovsk. While there, he met the other main Cossack ataman, Ivan Kalmikoff. The main difference between Kalmikoff and Semenoff was that the former chose to kill, maim and rape his victims directly. Semenoff used subordinates to do his dirty work.10

By the time of Graves's arrival in Vladivostok, Semenoff's connections with the Japanese had ripened into a firm but unstated alliance. Nonetheless, Semenoff tried to obtain better artillery pieces and airplanes from the Americans. Graves, who viewed his mission as upholding American neutrality regarding the various factions in Siberia, refused. But he had to acknowledge that Semenoff was a major force to be reckoned with because he controlled the strategic rail link along the Trans-Baikal Railway from Lake Baikal City to Chita.11

The end of World War I in Europe in November 1918 would have a profound effect on conditions in Siberia, but it brought no immediate change for Graves's AEF Siberia. The American forces would stay put because President Wilson wanted to wait until after the Paris peace conference before deciding which of several Russian governments to recognize and whether to withdraw the AEF Siberia from Vladivostok.12

Meanwhile, Semenoff dispatched an agent to Washington to see if he could arrange political asylum and immigration to the United States for his boss. Upon learning of the visit, General Graves had a real chuckle. Graves noted that the requirements for legal immigration to the United States stated that an individual seeking asylum need be mentally sound, morally clean, and physically fit. "If Semenoff was 'morally clean' then I never saw a human being who was not morally clean," wrote Graves.13

Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks, Part 2

Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks, Part 3

Gibson Bell Smith is an archivist specializing in modern military records, Textual Archives Services Division, National Archives and Records Administration. He has been with the National Archives since 1971 and has written several articles on diplomatic history and a book on U.S. Marine Commandant Gen. Thomas Holcomb.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.