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

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Fighting the Bolsheviks: The Russian War Memoir of Private First Class Donald E. Carey, U.S. Army, 1918-1919

Edited by Neil Carey
Presidio Press, 1997
Martin Vitz, Reviewer

American Soldiers Back from Patrol in Northern Russia

"When did World War One end and the Russian Civil War begin?" has been a difficult question for historians trying to piece together and understand the foggy rationale for the Allied intervention in Russia in 1918–1920. It was just as difficult and confusing for the soldiers caught up in it at the time—and a whole lot more personal. This chronicle of the lonely experience in the North Russian woods doesn't answer the big question, but it does shed interesting light on the confusion of those who were trying to find and kill the elusive "Bolos."

In this review there isn't space to attempt to sort out the reasons why Great Britain, the U.S., Canada, and other countries sent troops to Murmansk, Archangelsk, Siberia, and South Russia after the Bolshevik coup and the treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

What makes this book especially unusual and fascinating is that it is an enlisted man's story by a very atypical enlisted man for the times. At age 25 Donald Carey was older than most of his fellow soldiers and far better educated. A farm boy who graduated from Olivet College, he taught school for three years before being inducted in May 1918. Most of those in the 339th Infantry Regiment of the 85th Division were young, from urban backgrounds and, often, recent immigrants, including many from Eastern Europe and Russia. Carey was not interested in serving as an officer and shouldering that responsibility, but he was a good Christian and a "good soldier." During his entire period of service he kept notes which, after the war, he expanded into this "War Diary" which is actually a comprehensive memoir as the title indicates. Fortunately, his son Neil took time to edit and publish it with the addition of some contemporary newspaper clippings, notes, and maps to help the reader.

Carey gives a clear, straightforward picture of his journey from Michigan to the "Railroad Front" south of Archangelsk and back home again. Company E's war was typical of the 339th's service along several hundred miles of perimeter. The land was swampy, thickly forested, and had few roads or tracks through the wilderness. Settlements were sparse and tiny, and there were almost no local resources to live off. Even for the mostly Michigan and Wisconsin "Polar Bears," as they were called, the cold was fierce and the winter darkness depressing. This is an extremely readable first-person narrative of the daily activity and bitter fighting, especially at Kodish (or Kadish), where Company E was most heavily engaged. (Note: 23 Americans, out of somewhat over 5600 total, received the Distinguished Service Cross, the United States' second-highest medal for valor in combat, an indication of the extent and ferocity of the fighting). This is a rare book on this rarely covered offshoot of World War I which any student of that conflict should enjoy.

Originally presented in Relevance: Journal of the Great War Society, Spring 1998.

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