Contributed by John M. House
World War I was in its final months, though no one knew that was the case. One of the Allies was caught in the death throes of a civil war. American Doughboys were fighting alongside French and British soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front. America’s families were learning the pain of loss and worry over loved ones far away. The Great War was ending its fourth year. The date was 6 August 1918.
|Major General William S. Graves in Vladivostok, Siberia|
A late evening meeting at a train station in the Midwest marked the start of a remarkable adventure that few Americans today know anything about. The details seem almost to come from a spy novel in which two men meet quietly in an out-of-the-way location to launch thousands of young men on an invasion of a foreign nation halfway around the world. The situation is murky. The threat is unclear. Intelligence is limited. Strong willed military and civilian leaders from the United States and its allies have argued for and against the invasion. Insufficient numbers of American or Allied soldiers are available for occupying the entire country.
Imagine the thoughts rolling through the mind of Major General William S. Graves, an 1889 graduate of the United States Military Academy and commander of the U.S. Army’s 8th Division headquartered at Camp Fremont, California. He arrives at the Kansas City, Missouri, train station at 10:00 p.m. after a two-day train ride from his duty station. The secretary of war Newton Baker has summoned him for a meeting. Time is short. Rather than meet at the Baltimore Hotel as planned the two men discuss a fateful decision at the train station. Baker tells Graves he will lead the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that is deploying to Siberia. Baker also says, “If in the future you want to cuss anybody for sending you to Siberia, I am the man.” Graves receives a sealed envelope with a seven-page letter titled “Aide Memoire” dated 17 July 1918. This document provides an outline of American policy in Russia. Baker’s last instructions to Graves were, “Watch your step; you will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite. God bless you and good-bye.” Such words would make anyone wonder just what they had been told to do. Graves would discover just how much dynamite was in those eggs in the months ahead. The American soldiers with him would also discover the truth in Secretary Baker’s warning.
Earlier in 1918, Major General Graves had been the executive assistant to the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Peyton C. March, who handpicked him for the Siberia assignment with the personal approval of the secretary of war. One of Graves’s assistants was Captain Robert L. Eichelberger, who would later rise to be a general officer himself. When Graves learned that he was to take command of a division to deploy overseas, he had Eichelberger select a division for the two of them to join.
Therefore, Graves and Eichelberger found themselves reassigned to the 8th Division at Camp Fremont, near Palo Alto, California, in July 1918. Graves expected the division to deploy to Europe in late August. During their trip to California, Graves told Eichelberger that the government was considering sending soldiers to Siberia with him as the commander. Nonetheless, General March had assured Graves that he would go to Europe and not Siberia. Eichelberger would stay with Graves and accompany him to Siberia serving as chief of staff and intelligence officer at different times during the deployment as the AEF Siberia experienced the typical rotation in personnel rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Major Sidney Graves, the general’s son, also would deploy to Siberia. Obviously, General Graves’s plans to command in Europe changed. While Graves did not show his staff the complete “Aide Memoire” at one time, the document served as their guide to American policy throughout their stay in Siberia.
|General Graves and the Command Staff, AEF Siberia|
General Graves’s new mission would take him thousands of miles away to a land where few Americans had been and even fewer wanted to visit. He would have to balance the demands of allies and American officials with the needs of his soldiers and the human suffering of the people who lived in the region. Orders and morality would sometimes conflict. Throughout this mission, the instructions in the “Aide Memoire” would serve as a guide. Graves worked hard to achieve this balance so he could follow his orders and protect the innocent civilians in Siberia. The soldiers of the 27th Infantry Regiment Wolfhounds and the 31st Infantry Regiment Polar Bears provided the muscle when he needed it whether in combat or humanitarian support. Their sacrifices are not well known, but they are worth remembering.
The War Department leadership considered Major General Graves an outstanding officer, which led to his selection for this independent command in Siberia. Unfortunately, his service there wrecked his career. Graves later wrote about apparent communications by individuals in the State Department that he was a weak commander and ill suited for the missions he had. His lack of large-unit command was mentioned as an issue regarding his selection to lead the AEF Siberia. Negative reports from Russian newspapers were finding their way into the American press and reports within the government. Many of these reports accused the AEF soldiers of actually being Bolsheviks. Graves felt that this was mainly due to his decision not to support Kolchak in his efforts to establish a government.
This concern over Bolshevik influence apparently became so severe that the American government began monitoring the actions of the AEF veterans. General Graves reported that about sixty AEF veterans and family members gathered for a dinner in November 1921 at the Commodore Hotel in New York. When an unknown man joined the group, a member of the committee who had organized the dinner inquired as to who he was. This new arrival showed a Department of Justice badge and informed the person questioning his presence that he was there under official orders and that no one should bother him. An inquiry to the hotel assistant manager after the dinner confirmed that the Department of Justice agent had shown the hotel personnel his badge and that they had no choice but to seat him as demanded. Graves was convinced that someone in the government dispatched this agent to observe and report on the actions and comments of the AEF Siberia veterans. After the Siberian intervention, Graves would command the 1st Division and the Panama Canal Zone. He provided testimony about the depravity of Semenov before the Senate in 1922. Yet, even with this successful career, he would remain politically suspect until his death in 1940.
Extracted from Wolfhounds and Polar Bears: The American Expeditionary Force in Siberia, 1918 – 1920 by Colonel (USA Retired) John M. House