How an American sergeant’s journey through frigid North Russia inspired a work of historical fiction
By Andrea Barrett
December 10, 2014
Around the turn of this century, while beginning to write a novel set in a tuberculosis sanatorium nearly a century earlier, I read a lot about the experience of soldiers and medical personnel who served in the Great War. Nothing exotic, mostly memoirs, poems, and fiction written during and after the conflict by those at the front or left behind at home, and then some of the general histories that followed—but somewhere I stumbled across a mention of the Allied Intervention in Russia, a campaign involving American soldiers during 1919. After the Armistice, that is. After what I’d always thought was the end of the war. That American soldiers had been in and around both Archangel and Vladivostok was news to me, and I had to look at a map to confirm my vague sense that those places were on opposite sides of Russia, 4,000 miles apart. I registered the oddity, and then forgot it.
Six or seven years later, as I began thinking of a new work, I realized I wasn’t finished with Eudora MacEachern, a character who’d stepped offstage at the end of that earlier novel, but whom I wanted to follow further. Because Eudora had been trained as a nurse’s aide and also had experience working with early X-ray equipment, I imagined placing her in Flanders or France, among the volunteer medics or ambulance drivers I’d read about or perhaps in a hospital setting. Almost immediately, though, that seemed wrong.
The Great War comes to us now not only through all the classic accounts written near the time, and all the paintings, monuments, movies, and novels depicting it, but also through the critical studies of how those layers of representation have affected our perceptions. Yet every situation I imagined for Eudora seemed to risk what Geoff Dyer warns against in The Missing of the Somme:
The problem with many recent novels about the war is that they almost inevitably bear the imprint of the material from which they are derived, can never conceal the research on which they depend for their historical and imaginative accuracy. Their authenticity is mediated; they feel like secondary texts. In 1959 Charles Carrington complained that certain passages in Leon Wolff’s In Flanders Fields read like ‘a pastiche of the popular war books which everyone was reading twenty-five years ago.’ Thirty five years on, Wolff’s evocative historical study of the Flanders campaign is likely to be a major source book for anyone wishing to fictionalize the war. We have, in other words, entered the stage of second-order pastiche: pastiche of pastiche.
Trying to avoid those dense layers of representation, commentary on the representation, and re-representation (not seeing then that this layering might offer something helpful rather than harmful), I remembered that little glimpse I’d had of American soldiers in Russia.
When I’m sniffing around new territory, I often choose rather randomly one general book and then follow its bibliography and notes to other, more specialized works and to the primary source material. In 2006, in the midst of another undeclared war (a coincidence that, I can see now, probably sensitized me to this material), I picked up Robert L. Willett’s Russian Sideshow: America’s Undeclared War, 1918–1920. Although I got bogged down in the dense details of campaigns, troop movements, and local politics, I grasped that two separate American units had been sent to Russia in 1918: the American Expeditionary Force North Russia (also called the Polar Bear Expedition) and the American Expeditionary Force Siberia.
The North Russian force, much less documented than the Siberian force, seemed especially, interestingly chaotic. Roughly 5,000 American soldiers, mostly from Wisconsin and Michigan and trained for only a few months, had been sent to Archangel, a port on the White Sea far north of Moscow, to join French and British troops in an Allied intervention under British command. The goals were vague and apparently contradictory, as outlined in a pamphlet handed out by British General Headquarters in the early days of the campaign:
1. To form a military barrier inside which the Russians could reorganize themselves to drive out the German invader.
2. To assist the Russians to reorganize their army by instruction, supervision and example on more reasonable principles than the old regime autocratic discipline.
3. To reorganize the food supplies, making up the deficiencies from Allied countries. To obtain for export the surplus supplies of goods, such as flax, timber, etc. To fill store ships bringing food, “thus maintaining the economical shipping policy.”
The Bolshevik government is entirely in the hands of the Germans, who have backed this party against all others in Russia owing to the simplicity of maintaining anarchy in a totally disorganized country. Therefore, we are definitely opposed to the Bolshevik-cum-German party. In regard to other parties, we express no criticism and will accept them as we find them, provided they are for Russia, and therefore “out for the Boche.” Briefly, we do not meddle in internal affairs. It must be realized that we are not invaders, but guests, and that we have not any intention of attempting to occupy any Russian territory.
I tried to imagine being 19 or 20 years old, barely trained and so far from home, reading this before stumbling through frozen forest and deep snow, to end up fighting Bolshevik revolutionaries. The intervention’s small scale made my task more manageable: 5,000 American troops, rather than hundreds of thousands; engagements involving scores or handfuls of men but still exhibiting the features—mud, rain, misery, mutinies, logistical catastrophes, inadequate supplies, failed communications, commanders in conflict—of the larger war.
Though I found some of the details in Russian Sideshow tedious, the anecdotes about individuals kept me going. One in particular caught my eye:
One garrison of eight men was sent to the town of Gabach, where they could patrol in either direction to keep wires repaired and communications open. Pvt. John Toornman was one of the men in Gabach. According to him, they never had it so good. …
Sgt. Edward Young had been wounded at Karpogora in December, and his wounds had not healed properly. In mid-March Young and Sgt. Michael Macalla were detailed to go to Archangel. The two arrived in Gabach on March 16, 1919, and were billeted in the same house as Toornman. Sometime during the night, Young used his service revolver to end his life. Toornman’s memoirs indicate the cause of death was ruled accidental, but the official records showed the death was suicide. It was decided that Macalla would continue on to Archangel, still many miles away, taking Young’s body with him. He left on his sleigh, alone, in subzero Russian weather. Young’s body was frozen stiff in no time; to screen the body from view, it was wrapped in two of Toornman’s blankets. …
Macalla’s first night was spent with villagers, who sensed his cargo and offered little in the way of hospitality. His second night was worse, with the villagers refusing to give the pony and sled any shelter; it stood outside for all to see with its blanket-shrouded corpse. The villagers were greatly relieved when he left the next day. The third night he was allowed shelter, but only in the village dead house, where a deceased villager’s body awaited burial; Macalla slept between the two cadavers. His last night was the worst. He became lost in a snowstorm and found a little shelter under a large tree. But he was befuddled by fatigue, cold, and the continual presence of his dead friend. Finally, he unwrapped Young’s body and used the blankets for his own protection, mumbling apologies to the late Sergeant Young as he did so. “I guess I was a little out of my head at this point,” he remarked. He finished his journey with great relief and delivered the body to the medical personnel at Archangel.
Two references were cited for that passage. The one I found first—a battered 1964 paperback called The Ignorant Armies—didn’t seem promising. A white medallion, centered in the black cover and maybe meant to represent a jagged shell-hole, framed a cartoonish sketch of two soldiers clashing rifles. One wore a tall fur hat and the other a doughboy’s round helmet. Above the blaring yellow title was a lurid description—“revealed at last—the savage undeclared war of 1918–1919 between American Doughboys and the Red Army.” The worn sale sticker, perhaps from a Woolworth’s—“NOW ONLY 19 cents”—suggested that this copy hadn’t been cherished even when new. Here too were long descriptions of troop movements and battles and diplomatic cables, but the narrative style was livelier and the tone of certain passages, including the one cited in Russian Sideshow as a source for the story of the body on the sleigh, was intriguing:
Sergeant Edward Young, of Company G, had been wounded in the fall, and the wound had not healed properly. He remained on duty, but as the winter waned he became
morose and strange. When, early in March, Company G was ordered from Pinega back to Archangel, Young and Sergeant Michael Macalla went ahead in charge of an advance party. While they were stopped for the night in a little village called Gabach, poor Young ended his troubles by shooting himself through the head with a revolver. This gave rise to a nightmarish experience for his friend Sergeant Macalla.
He decided to proceed the many miles to Archangel, taking Young’s body with him in a pony sleigh, while the rest of the group came along on foot. The weather was subzero, and the corpse was frozen solid; no effort was made to put it in any sort of coffin. It was simply wrapped in a couple of army blankets and bundled into the sled beside Macalla. While he naturally was in a somber mood for the journey, it never occurred to Macalla that there was anything particularly weird about it until the second day. He had spent the night with a peasant family, sheltering the sleigh and pony in the stable, and had been warmly received. When he awoke in the morning, however, the hospitality had vanished. Some curious villager had unwrapped the bundle on the sleigh enough to see what it was, and Macalla now found himself regarded with staring horror.
After brief descriptions of Macalla’s experiences on the second and third nights, the fourth night is recounted in more detail:
The culmination of the melancholy journey came when Macalla got lost in a snowstorm and spent the next night in the almost negligible shelter of a clump of trees. The cold was intense, and he was sure he would freeze to death until he remembered the two blankets wrapped around Young’s body. “I guess I was a little out of my head by that time,” Macalla remembers. “I talked to Young as if he were alive, and told him I had to take his blankets; that they couldn’t do him any good anyhow. So through that long night I sat huddled on the sleigh next to him and dozed off now and then. In the morning I thought my feet were frozen, but I finally got the blood circulating and once more we pushed on.” At last, not in very good shape, he reached the outskirts of Archangel and was relieved of his lugubrious charge.
Feeling, but not consciously registering, the “melancholy” and the shift from what in Russian Sideshow is usually “Young’s body” to what in The Ignorant Armies is a “corpse,” then a “bundle,” and finally a “lugubrious charge,” I penciled the words This story at the top of the page and circled them, recognizing something crucial to my own imagination. I think I noticed that here the main actor was Macalla (“He decided” to transport the body, for instance, rather than Russian Sideshow’s “It was decided”), and that Toornman, there at the time of the shooting, wasn’t mentioned. I know I wondered where the writer of The Ignorant Armies had found Macalla’s quote (very similar—but not identical—to that given by the writer of Russian Sideshow), and those facts. The author’s preface offered a curious demurral:
While this is not intended as an academic work, and such paraphernalia as appendices and exact references are missing, I have made a continuous effort to be accurate. … Readers curious about the evidence for a factual statement will usually find a clue to its source in the notes, arranged by chapters, following the text.
The clue for this particular anecdote read, “The story of Sergeant Macalla’s journey with the body of his comrade is based on an article by Theodore Delavigne in the Detroit Free Press, November 17, 1929; Mr. Macalla has checked its accuracy.”
It took me a while to find that article, but in the meantime the second source mentioned in Russian Sideshow surfaced: Quartered in Hell, printed by a very small press in 1982 and containing reminiscences from some of the soldiers who fought in North Russia. Some of the individual accounts were invaluable, especially this, from Private John Toornman:
For a while my squad was sent to the village of Gabatch for several months. The Bolos were coming a long way through the woods and cutting our phone lines from Archangel to the Front. Our job was to fix the line when cut, and we sent a patrol out every day. … In the village of Gabatch my squad of eight was alone for a good many weeks. …
One day two sergeants from our company stopped overnight in our place, and one was shot during the night in our house. Sgt. Edward Young, a regular Army man, was shot. I helped the other sergeant, Sgt. Macalla, carry Young to the sleigh, then cover him with two blankets. Young had more blankets, but they had blood on them. Later, we washed them the best we could and when we left Gabatch for good, we gave them to the woman who had been very good to us, washing and patching our clothes.
When Macalla left with Young, I stayed inside. The woman and oldest daughter had been watching us from the other end of the room. The minute the sleigh was outside the door with the body, both started waving their brooms and rags toward the walls, the ceiling, the floor, then toward the open door as if they were shooing flies away. Then they cleaned the blood off the walls in the corner where Young had slept. I asked them why they were doing this. The best I could make out is that they were getting the bad spirit or ghost out of the house.
Sgt. Young’s death was ruled accidental. If it had been ruled a suicide, Young’s relations would have gotten no pension. I thought it queer that the Captain or no other officer ever asked us any questions concerning what happened to Sgt. Young the night he was shot.
Those brooms! Those blankets! I’d worked for months, perhaps a year already, before finding them. The blankets in the later accounts (which I’d read earlier) had been haunting me: Whose were they? How had they come to be on the body? What happened to them? In this account, Toornman finally told me, and the brooms, which no one else had mentioned, gave me a different sense of Macalla’s journey and shaped the character I’d come to call Constantine Boyd. So too did Toornman’s different perspective and emphasis. For him, the unfortunate man was “Young” even after the shooting, only once “the body” and never a “corpse”—Young, still a person, even if dead. And where The Ignorant Armies stated bluntly that Young had shot himself, and Russian Sideshow presented two possibilities without rendering judgment, Toornman’s account, with his curiously repetitive, delicately passive tone—“one was shot during the night in our house. Sgt. Edward Young, a regular Army man, was shot”—evaded naming the act for an obvious reason.
By then I had some sense of what I wanted to do, and who my characters were: a young nurse’s aide involved in a campaign unfamiliar to most of us, in a place where, as far as I know, no one like her was stationed. And an ambulance driver, Constantine Boyd, moving not through the trenches and battles so often represented, but in woods few knew about, doing a task—caring for the wounded in arctic conditions, packing them into pony-drawn wooden sleighs for transport back to a city from a front that was no front—rarely reported.
I saw a drawing of one of those sleighs when Theodore Delavigne’s 1929 article from The Detroit Free Press finally showed up: white horse, fur-wrapped soldier, shrouded body traveling through snow. The article, subtitled “Polar Bear Veteran Tells of Another Home-Coming of a Dead Soldier at Archangel,” turned out to center on the retrieval, by a committee of five Michigan men, of 80 dead Michigan soldiers whose bodies had been left behind. Macalla had been one of the committee members. His interview, which recounted in great detail his travels with the frozen corpse, was clearly the source of the facts and much of the language in the accounts given in both Russian Sideshow and The Ignorant Armies. Now I could see that most of what I knew about the incident had been filtered through two writers working by way of a third—the reporter, Delavigne—who was transmitting the experiences of a fourth, Macalla himself, recollected for public consumption 10 years after the event. Even the quote the two later writers had taken from the interview wasn’t precise (Macalla actually says, “I guess I was a little out of my head, too, for I talked to Young as if he were alive, and told him I was going to take his blankets because I had to have them and they couldn’t do him any good anyway”). And I could see that Toornman’s additional perspective was even more useful than I’d first understood.
Inspired by that, I worked through numerous primary sources cited by both books, including documents and photos digitized by the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library. In one photo album I found Print Number 161707, dated March 16, 1919, and titled “American soldiers coasting down the slide or gorka constructed on one of the down town streets of Archangel by American Engineers. An icy runway leads out into the river a distance of a quarter of a mile.” From that, later confirmed by a soldier mentioning the “great high Gorka,” would come, almost in a flash, the story’s final scene and my understanding not just of the relationship of the two chief characters but the tone of the whole story, my sense of what it might have felt like, being there then.
In those digitized archives I also found Captain Joel R. Moore’s “ ‘M’ Company: 339th Infantry in North Russia” (1920), an unpaged, unedited gathering of reminiscences, letters, photos, and quotes. Reproduced there was a letter Moore wrote to a dead soldier’s father:
My Dear Sir:
This is the saddest letter which I have had to write since I brought my company into Northern Russia. Your son, Floyd A. Sickles, was instantly killed at Verst 445 on December 6th, 1918, by the explosion of a 112 lb. bomb, which dropped from an aeroplane. We buried him in the shell crater made by the bomb, and when the frozen clods of earth were laid tenderly over his remains there was not an officer or man in the company who did not feel that he was putting a good and true brave friend into his final resting place.
Your son was a universal favorite in the company. He always had a good word for everybody, and everybody had a good word for him. He was our company barber. Officers and men found it a pleasure to employ him. At the time he was killed he was acting as corporal of his squad. No doubt, if he had continued with the company he would have risen in the ranks.
You will receive, through the proper military channels, notice of his death, and also the personal property which I collected. I am sorry that I could not find it all. The terrific explosion totally destroyed his pack and haversack. His razor was in several pieces. His comb is gone. The stone which I am returning to you I am told he prized very highly because his father had given it to him. I thought also that you would like his shaving brush and mug …
Brush, mug, razor, stone: like the blankets, like the brooms: his comb is gone. The details are what move us. Again I noted, This story, and when it came time for me to give Constantine Boyd an experience that wounded him gravely in body and soul, it was this upon which I drew. In my story, Boyd is driven to seek Eudora’s help by a wound in his thigh that won’t heal, the result of a bit of bone blown into him from the exploded body of a friend. Private Sickles’s bone.
In the story I eventually called “Archangel” and published in 2008, Eudora MacEachern, working as an assistant to a surgeon at a hospital in Archangel, one night finds outside the gates an exhausted and frostbitten soldier, crouched over the reins of a pony sleigh carrying the body of another soldier. Eudora’s experience in Archangel, as one of a very few women among a vast crowd of soldiers from many countries, unfolds in counterpoint to what she hears from Constantine Boyd and others about how that body came to be on the sleigh and how Boyd, wounded himself, came to be carrying it to the hospital.
After I finished writing the story, I went on to other things, forgetting much of that long, peculiar research path until one evening not long ago, when I was having dinner in Athens, Ohio, with a group of writers. The poet Mark Halliday had bounded over to join us, but before he sat down, he leaned over and said, with great enthusiasm, “Tell me you used my father’s book when you were writing ‘Archangel!’ Say you did even if you didn’t, because that would be so great …”
For a few seconds, I gaped at him witlessly. Then the image of a tattered, 50-year-old mass-market paperback flashed once more across my mind’s eye. The title’s huge yellow letters had rendered almost invisible the author’s name, in much smaller type of a dull tan, tucked into the lower left corner: E. M. Halliday.
“The Ignorant Armies! ” I said. “Your father wrote that?”
“He did,” Mark said happily. “You know it!”
“I do,” I said. “Of course I used it, it was very important to me.”
Afterward, for days and then weeks—that exhilarating moment of recognition kept coming back to me. In my office I found the paperback, which for seven years had existed as a cherished but inert object, often handled and used but not really seen. Now it bloomed as shockingly as an allium, green stem suddenly sporting an enormous globe: alive as the person who wrote it had once been. All my life, books have felt alive; some more so than people, or rather, some people. Alive—this has to do with me, I know, and not the books—in a way that some people aren’t. Alive as teachers, alive as minds, alive as imaginative triggers. Now The Ignorant Armies felt exactly this way.
And now, curious about its history, I quickly found a copy of the 1960 hardcover preceding the paperback—which, despite its identical text, was much larger and heavier and seemed, with its pleasant typeface and creamy paper, to be an entirely different sort of book. Complementing its handsome, dignified cover, the opposite of the paperback, was an equally handsome jacket photograph of the writer, whose face I’d never seen before, and 22 photographs, of which one, of a soldier with some ponies and sleighs, would have been a great help had I seen it earlier. Not long after that, I found a third version, a hardcover republication from 2000. This had gained a cheesy cover illustration, lost its photographs, and had a new title, When Hell Froze Over: The Secret War Between the U.S. and Russia at the Top of the World! The introduction noted the dissolution of the Soviet empire and expanded on what in the paperback had been just a brief mention of Khrushchev:
What was Nikita Khrushchev talking about, puzzled Americans asked, when during a visit to America in 1959 he said: “We remember the grim days when American soldiers went to our soil, headed by their generals, to help the White Guard … strangle the new revolution. … Never have any of our soldiers been on American soil, but your soldiers were on Russian soil. These are the facts.”
This book is an attempt to give a clear account and explanation of those facts.
That statement, in conjunction with the many newspaper articles marking the centenary of the beginning of the Great War, finally made me notice the Cold War context in which Halliday had been writing, and reminded me that—of course!—each version of the account of the traveling corpse had been colored by the time in which it was written.
For a sculptor, a painter, a weaver, a potter, the dialogue between one’s materials and what one makes from them is easy to see: discover a new material, or a new way to use a familiar one, and new things can be made, sometimes leading to the discovery of more new material, leading to more creation. New brush, new paint, new glaze, new dye, new landscape, new faces: new art. For a writer, material comes in the form of character, incident, anecdote—something we hear or glimpse or remember or read, the little seed Henry James called the donnée—which, disguised by its resemblance to the matter of our daily lives, can be harder to recognize. Now I wondered whether the confirming, contradicting, differently weighted accounts written at times stretching from the 1920s through 2003 were what had helped me see the material as material. The primary sources I eventually found, the voices of the soldiers themselves, gave me nouns, the things—broom, blanket, sleigh, slide—that fired my imagination. But my view was also shaped, whether or not I was aware of it, by the later narrative histories, which I’d encountered first. Those gave me the qualifiers, adjectives signaling how other writers had evaluated those nouns, along with the covert judgments embedded in the choice of what elements to emphasize or omit.
I’m not pointing here toward the obvious element of factual discrepancies between accounts of a certain incident: evaluating and selecting among those, weaving them into a coherent whole, is a task working historians perform every day. If, while writing this, I’d used for my examples strikingly different accounts of some incident, making more evident how meaning bends depending on who has what agenda, who among the eyewitnesses might be concealing something, or actively lying, I’d be pointing toward something familiar about how history gets written. But because I’m interested in writing historical fiction, a very different form with a superficial resemblance to history, I chose accounts written over the course of almost 80 years by people at different distances from the events: four narratives about the traveling corpse—Toornman’s, Delavigne’s, Halliday’s, Willett’s—notable not for large differences of fact but for the small, subtle, character-shaping, emotion-defining differences that resonate with the fiction writer’s imagination.
For a fiction writer, the crucial question is, “Whose story is it?” Is the story about the man who shot himself, or the friend who carried his body on a sleigh through the frozen woods, or the man who witnessed both actions? Is it about a single person traveling alone, a squad of soldiers, a member of that squad? (Only Toornman gives a sense that Young’s suicide and the decision to send his body back to Archangel involved a group, not just the person who drove the sled; he writes, “my squad of eight,” “we,” “us,” “the eight of us.” Yet the squad is mentioned only briefly in Russian Sideshow and has disappeared entirely from The Ignorant Armies.) The small differences suggest not which facts to use, or even which to emphasize—again, the historian’s questions—but which perspective to adopt.
That’s what we can feel unconsciously, intuitively, when tunneling through a mass of material: whose point of view, whose feelings registering the event will prove most fruitful for the story? Or at least that’s what it feels like to me. At one level, I’m searching for an intriguing set of events or a shapely narrative movement. But at another, what I’m intuitively feeling my way toward is the right perspective. To whom did those events most matter? Who, caught up in or witnessing an action, can most interestingly respond and react? Who can most tellingly report?
How I answer those questions has to do, I suspect, not simply with the events, or even the demands of the growing story, but with my inner life and internal demands: who I am, what I need, what torments me, what feeds me. Among the people associated with that little house in Gabach (or Gabatch: even the spelling depends on whom you read)—Young, who killed himself; Macalla, who decided to carry his corpse on a sleigh to the distant city; Toornman, who may have known exactly what happened but declined to write it down; the unnamed other men in his squad; the women brushing the evil spirits from the house; the other villagers—who will seize the writer’s imagination and feed into the creation of a story?
What seized me, as I was writing “Archangel,” led to the creation not only of Boyd, a character embodying some soldiers’ experiences, but also of Eudora, a character already alive in my imagination, who might serve as witness and interpreter for the reader. The story became that of one dead man pulled through the snow by a second man who also carried in his leg a bit of a third, now traveling in a different way to a woman touched by all of them. Another writer up to her elbows in the same material would have felt different imperatives, resulting in an utterly different story: which is one of the reasons historical fiction is so different from history.
Andrea Barrett is the author of Archangel (a finalist for the Story Prize), Servants of the Map (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Ship Fever (winner of the National Book Award), and other books. She teaches at Williams College and lives in northwestern Massachusetts.