The Near-Forgotten Polar Bear Expedition

In the West the Russian Civil War is not very well known, at least not nearly as much as the preceding Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. While many remember the Bolshevik Revolution as an event that removed the Russian Empire and began the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union, this was not actually the case. There was initially the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) controlled by Vladimir Lenin, defended by the Red Army organized by Leon Trotsky which fought against the White Army, made up of soldiers loyal to Tsar Nicholas II and other anti-Communist volunteers.

To help fight the Bolsheviks, the Allies from World War I sent soldiers in numerous units to intervene, one American unit bearing the title of the American North Russia Expeditionary Force (ANREF), also known by their nickname the Polar Bear Expedition.

The 339th Infantry Regiment was organized in 1918 with the intention of being deployed to France, although President Woodrow Wilson changed its mission and ordered it to be retrained and armed with Russian weaponry and deployed to Northern Russia, specifically the European portion of Russia. The unit landed in the city of Arkhangelsk, Russia located on the White Sea, and was charged with recapturing munitions & supplies provided to the Russian Empire during World War I, which had subsequently been captured by the Bolsheviks and to rescue the Czechoslovak Legion, a unit of Czech and Slovak soldiers that had fought for Russia during WWI, but were not allowed to leave by the Bolsheviks and subsequently fought each other. However, there were thousands of miles between the 339th and the Czechoslovak Legion and thus the two units never met.

Arkhangelsk
Arkhangelsk, shown in red

During its deployment in Northern Russia, the Expedition suffered upwards of 200 casualties, whereas only half of them were due to combat while the rest were a combination of Missing in Action (MIA), and people suffering from Spanish Flu. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks carried out an offensive during the summer which inflicted many casualties. This, combined with war-weariness over the previous World War I (Which at the time had been the most destructive war the world had ever seen), the armistice which ended the war, low morale amongst Expedition personnel and multiple Allied units intervening in Russia with multiple goals, caused President Wilson to order the withdrawal of the ANREF in 1919. During the withdrawal is when the soldiers began referring to themselves as “Polar Bears” and wore an insignia on the left sleeve of their uniforms which depicted a white polar bear.

There was also an American unit serving in Vladivostok, Russia to the east called the American Expeditionary Force Siberia, which was a roughly 8,000 strong unit comprised of the 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments, that was deployed from 1918 to 1920. This unit also used the image of a polar bear on their insignia, although the ANREF deployed to Arkhangelsk was the only unit to use the polar bear in its nickname.

Polar Bear Monument

The Polar Bear Expedition was deployed in Russia from September of 1918 to July of 1919, and despite being made up of American soldiers, it was under the command of British officers. It was roughly 5,000 men strong, and most of the individuals were from Michigan, where the only memorial to the Polar Bear Expedition is located; in Troy, Michigan. Although President Warren G. Harding would later refer to the ANREF as a mistake, and Allied intervention in Russia to stop the Bolsheviks would ultimately fail, the Polar Bear Expedition’s efforts in their brief contribution to a larger conflict should not be forgotten.

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