1918 — Archangel, North Russia
Clement Anthony Grobbel of Center Line, Michigan, was a member of the US Army "Polar Bears" who were sent to North Russia in the closing weeks of World War I.
Clem was 22 years old when the U.S. entered World War I. He was soon drafted into the Army and on 27 JUN 1918, he arrived at Camp Custer, near Battle Creek, MI. There he began training with Rifle Company I of the 339th Infantry Regiment of the National Army. The 339th became known as "Detroit's Own Regiment", since three-quarters of the enlisted men and officers were from the Detroit area (upon their return to the U.S. in 1919, the 339th and their attached units took to calling themselves the "Polar Bears"). On 14 JUL 1918, the 339th broke camp and boarded trains for New York City, from which they sailed for England on 22 JUL 1918.
In England, the 4,284 officers and enlisted men of the 339th Infantry, plus the 1,200 men of the 1st Battalion of the 310th Engineers, the 337th Ambulance Co. and the 337th Field Hospital of the U.S. Army's 85th Division were organized as the American North Russia Expeditionary Force (ANREF). After a month of training with British weapons, the ANREF boarded transport ships and on 22 AUG 1918, they sailed for Archangel, Russia, which they reached on 4 SEP 1918.
President Wilson had authorized sending US troops to Russia for the express purpose of preventing war material from falling into Bolshevik or German hands. However, immediately upon their arrival, the ANREF was placed under British command and spread out along five different fronts surrounding Archangel. Their orders were to replace the existing French and British troops of the Allied Expeditionary Forces who were engaging the Bolsheviks (Communists), Companies I, K, L and M of the 339th Infantry were assigned to the Vologda Railroad Front, including the HQ at Verst 455 and the front line at Verst 445. The Vologda Railroad Front was about 100 miles to the south of Archangel, near the village of Obozerskaya.
The conditions were miserable for the troops, the marshy terrain was flooded with standing water, and the first heavy snows came on 15 OCT 1918. On the afternoon of 4 NOV 1918, Company I found themselves under attack and outnumbered 6 to 1 by Bolshevik forces. Company I, along with an attached unit of French Artillery, successfully repulsed the attack. During the heavy fighting, one member of Co. I was killed and two others were wounded, one severely. Fourteen Bolsheviks were taken prisoner and the known enemy dead numbered thirty-four, with an estimated 100 to 150 wounded. During the attack, Cpl. Grobbel moved his Lewis machine gun from its emplacement up onto the exposed railway embankment so he could more effectlvely direct his fire. In recognition of the role he played in repulsing the attack, Clem was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.
On 11 NOV 1918, the World War in Europe ended with the Armistice, while in Russia, the fighting continued. By Nov. 18th, when the last of the 339th finally received their British-issued winter uniforms, temperatures were consistently below zero degrees Fahrenheit.
That winter was very difficult for the poorly equipped members of the ANREF. Their British commanders seldom ventured out into the field, thus they did not understand how inadequate their rations, weapons and winter gear were. There were regular engagements with the Boshevik Army, but what resulted was basically a stalemate. Despite being ill-equipped and outnumbered, the 339th was able to inflict more casualties than they received in battle. However the bitter cold and sickness were also formidable enemies and 76 of their members succumbed to illness or accidents, in addition to the 134 who were either killed or missing as a result of hostilities.
By April of 1919, US Army General W.P. Richardson had arrived in Archangel and immediately began to visit the ANREF units out in the field, where he observed first-hand their deplorable situation. His report set in motion the removal of the ANREF, which began in June when they were replaced by British volunteers who continued the holding action until the British leadership gave up and totally withdrew from Russia in October of 1919. The main elements of the 339th arrived back in Detroit late in the evening of July 3, 1919 and were treated to a warm homecoming on the following day, complete with a parade and picnic on Belle Isle. The photo on this page of Clem in uniform was taken on July 4, 1919 after the parade on Belle Isle.
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