Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Casualty of a Forgotten War
Our relationship with Russia is "complicated". For the first 140 years or so America thought of Russia as a far distant moderately backwards sort of place. Oh, and thanks for the great deal on Alaska.
With our entry into World War I Russia briefly became our valued ally. Of course in the cold equation of mass slaughter the Western Allies mostly appreciated the Eastern front for the number of casualities that happened on their end versus ours, nobody really liked the Czar and his policies that much.
Including as it turns out, most of the Russian populace who rose up in revolt and tossed the Czar out. It was a complicated situation.
The Western Allies had parked a large amount of military supplies at the northern port of Archangel. We did not want the new Bolsheviks to lay hands on them and start creating Communist mischeif. In fact we really would have preferred to have the loyalist "White" factions defeat the Reds in the Russian Civil War that overlapped the end of World War I.
It is hopelessly complicated - I suggest you just watch Dr. Zhivago - but the United States, Britain, France and Japan all meddled a bit, supporting rebel factions and sending in now surplus war materiel. We even sent combat troops, albeit with limited and ambiguous assignments.
For the US it was mostly a mission to protect the supplies up in frigid Archangel, a soon irrelevant task that morphed into sporadic combat with the ascendent Red Army.
In a quiet cemetery in Mayville Wisconsin I found a rare memorial to this forgotten war.
Carl Herman Berger was born in Oshkosh Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 1917. This was only weeks after President Wilson had declared war on Germany and her allied powers. So instead of a career in education it was off to the military for Carl.
He went through Officer's Training at Fort Sheridan and shipped overseas in July of 1918.
By then Russia had capitulated and was felt to be a tacit ally of the Kaiser.
Berger was assigned to Company E, 339th Infantry, 85th Division. They were sent not to the Western Front but to a lonely far northern place. He fell in battle near Archangel on the last day of 1918, at a time when over the rest of the world all guns had fallen silent.
Before he went overseas he married. Unless there was a serious variation from social norms it is unlikely that Lt. Berger ever met his son, Carl Herman Jr. I wonder what young Carl thought of his father's grave as over the years we went from antagonism towards Russia, to Depression era fascination with Communism, then into the turbulent Stalin era with disgust at his Purges and with his alliance with Hitler, then on to a brief "wartime romance" where every Red Army soldier that fell likely spared an American GI's life. And finally into the post hostlities Cold War.
For the survival of mankind it was good that the war stayed Cold. Actual American casualties at the hands of the Russians remain rarities, to be found only in a handful of peaceful small town cemeteries.