Battle of Shenkursk
The Battle of Shenkursk, in January 1919, was a major battle of the Russian Civil War. Following the Bolshevik loss at the Battle of Tulgas, the Red Army's next offensive action was against the Allied garrison of Shenkursk; located on the Vaga River. Allied forces in Shenkursk and the surrounding villages included men primarily from the United States and the United Kingdom with support from the White Russians. The battle ended with an Allied retreat from Shenkursk ahead of a superior Bolshevik army.
Company A, of the United States Army 339th Infantry made up the bulk of Allied forces protecting the Vaga River. American Captain Otto "Viking" Odjard was in command of about 200 men of the 339th and a remaining 900 British and White Russian troops. Odjard's headquarters was at Shenkursk though the majority of Americans were positioned in the nearby village of Vysokaya Gora. A small force of forty-six Americans, under Lieutenant Harry Mead, was stationed eighteen miles south of Shenkursk at the village of Nizhnyaya Gora which is where the Red Army under General Dimitri Nikolaevich Nadjoznyj struck first. At dawn on January 19, concealed Bolshevik artillery opened up "a terrific bombardment" on the village. After an hour the shelling ceased and approximately 1,000 Bolsheviks assaulted the village with fixed bayonets. Lieutenant Meade knew that his forty-six men had no choice but to retreat as fast as they could or else be massacred. The city streets were covered by enemy machine gun fire so using them meant certain death. Meade later wrote: "To withdraw we were compelled to march straight down the side of this hill, across an open valley some eight-hundred yards or more in the terrible snow, and under the direct fire of the enemy. There was no such thing as cover, for this valley of death was a perfectly open plain, waist deep in snow. To run was impossible, to halt was worse yet and so nothing remained but to plunge and flounder through the snow in mad desperation, with a prayer on our lips to gain the edge of our fortified positions. One by one, man after man fell wounded or dead in the snow, either to die from grievous wounds or terrible exposure."
Only seven men of the forty-six survived and they reached Vysokaya Gora only to be attacked again by the Bolsheviks. For five days the outnumbered Americans held Vysokaya Gora against repeated attacks from an enemy which now numbered over 3,000 men. The fighting took the form of heavy skirmishing and eventually the Russians began employing snipers to harass the American lines instead of launching more bayonet charges against well defended fortifications. The snipers inflicted many additional casualties on the Allied soldiers, as well as shrapnel from repeated artillery bombardments. By January 24, the survivors of Company A retreated to Shenkursk and arrived that afternoon. Some of the Americans were so weary of battle that they fell asleep as soon as they stopped marching. The Red Army was not far behind them though and they surrounded Shenkursk with the apparent intention of attacking the following morning. Captain Odjard then requested instructions from his commanding officer, British General Edmund Ironside in Arkhangelsk, who ordered Odjard to withdraw before being destroyed. There was only one avenue of escape that had not been occupied by the Bolsheviks, an old logging trail that lead north through the forest towards the village of Vystavka. So at midnight on January 24, the garrison evacuated Skenkursk.
About 100 of the most seriously wounded left first. They were fastened to sleds and sent down the road, pulled by horses. Those who could walk made the march on foot. Captain Odjard, who was wounded himself, feared that the Bolsheviks had placed snipers along the trail but there proved to be none and the garrison successfully escaped from Shenkursk without alerting the enemy. At this point the battle was over, the last shots fired were heard some ten miles away by the Allies at 8:00 am on January 25. The fire was from Bolshevik artillery which was shelling Shenkursk, unaware that the Allies had already retreated. When the garrison finally reached Vystavka on January 27, they prepared defenses and withstood several Red Army attacks over the course of the next several weeks. The result of the engagement was important to the overall Bolshevik victory in the war. The Allies having been pushed away to the north, they were unable to launch offensive actions or combine their strength with a large army of White Russians heading west from Siberia. Instead the Allies were obligated to defend Vystavka.
- Boot, pg. 229-231
- Boot, pg. 229
- Boot, pg. 230
- Boot, pg. 231