Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Wolfhounds and Polar Bears: The American Expeditionary Force in Siberia, 1918-1920
reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

Wolfhounds and Polar Bears: The American Expeditionary Force in Siberia, 1918-1920

by Col. John M. House, U.S. Army (Ret.)
The University of Alabama Press, 2016

American Soldiers on the March in Siberia

The North Russian and Siberian Expeditions (1918-1919 and 1918-1920, respectively) may be properly considered to be part of World War I, with the Mexican Punitive Expedition (1916-1917) and the German Army of Occupation (1918-1923) as closely related bookends. All are worthy of study in relation to U.S. involvement in the Great War. Retired U.S. Army colonel John M. House addresses the Siberian Expeditionary Forces in this work. In addition to helping readers understand this little-known and confusing episode in U.S. history, House hopes this study will afford both Americans and Russians a common ground of understanding our past with a hope for a better future. The author provides a general overview of the war as a backdrop to U.S. involvement in Siberia; he goes into much more depth on the specific situation in Russia from 1914 to 1918. House's description of the various factions, including (but not limited to) White Russians, Red Russians, Green Russians, peasants, Czech soldiers, Austro-Hungarian and German prisoners of war, and Japanese, Chinese, and British soldiers, is enough to make one's head swim. In the end, although there were many reasons given for intervention, U.S. diplomats considered the Siberian expedition mainly a humanitarian effort. But from the outset the Allies were hampered by differing goals and an abandonment of the military principle of unity of command. Indeed, even upon the arrival of the first U.S. troops in mid-August 1918, confusion reigned, and no one had a clear idea of what their mission was.

Subsequent chapters helpfully describe the military forces in Siberia and the challenges imposed upon troops and civilians simply because of Siberia's remote, austere, and forbidding climate and terrain. One interesting chapter is devoted to a discussion of the Russian Railway Service Corps; this group of American railroad men was "recruited" especially for their skill in running and maintaining a railroad. They arrived before American military forces and helped greatly to maintain the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Although technically civilians, they wore military uniforms, and most of the men thought they were indeed part of the U.S. Army at the time. It wasn't until the early 1970s that the Corps was awarded retroactive U.S. Army veteran status.

House describes each regiment (the 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments, plus supporting troops) and its activities throughout the deployment, including duty as railroad guards and mine guards. These units fought mostly what might be termed skirmishes and small firefights (although, to one involved in a firefight, it surely isn't "small"); the Americans in the Siberian force fought no pitched battles. The author also intersperses some detail about the North Russian Expeditionary Forces; this force differed in composition, mission, and activity from the Siberian force. The Siberian force had to contend with hostile Bolsheviks in addition to unfriendly and marauding White Russians and Cossacks. The latter two committed horrific atrocities, and the Americans' erstwhile allies, the Japanese, often fomented anti-American propaganda.

The concluding chapter summarizes the entire affair. Indeed, the expedition might be summed up:

The factors motivating the Allies to send troops to Siberia included survival on the Western Front, saving an ally [Russia], protecting previous military and nonmilitary aid, restraining Japanese ambitions, and assisting the Czech Legion. However, the confused situation in Siberia and the lack of clear military goals made success difficult to define. The lack of a coordinated Allied plan and a single Allied commander increased the confusion and complicated the AEF's task. (p. 164).

As usual, the troops on the ground paid the price.

There are nine maps reproduced in the book, but the country-wide maps are so small that they are very difficult to use, other than to get an idea of the vastness of Russia. House includes 18 photographs of pertinent locations and people. There are also three informative appendices, the first of which reproduces the aide memoire given to Major General William S. Graves, commander of the U.S. Siberian force, before his departure for Russia; the other two list the Siberia force's key officers and its personnel strength figures throughout the period. Rounding out the end matter are notes and a thorough bibliography that is an incredibly rich resource for those who are interested in learning more about this unusual and complex episode in American military history.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Siberian intervention or to those interested in the study of the use of military force for ill-defined purposes.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. Thank you for the review, Peter. Sounds very appealing.

    "House's description of the various factions... is enough to make one's head swim." Welcome to the Russian Civil War. :) A fascinating time.

    Map: why, why, why can't we get better maps for WWI books?

  2. I'm late to this review, but I also appreciate your reviewing the book. I've been thinking about looking for it.