The Polar Bear Expedition by Andrea Hoffman

Gauntlets and Cap

Courduroy-lined fur gauntlets and cap brought back from Russia by Captain Ramsay.

While France and Germany served as the battleground for the vast majority of Wisconsin troops during World War I, some soldiers–including Captain Ralph E. Ramsay of Beloit, Wisconsin–found themselves stationed far away from the Western Front.   During the summer of 1918, President Woodrow Wilson acquiesced under pressure from Great Britain and France to assist them in North Russia. Wilson agreed to send a limited amount of troops to the region to help guard stockpiled war supplies from the Bolsheviks. The 339th Infantry Regiment, under which Captain Ramsay served in Co. F, was rerouted to Archangelsk (Archangel) in northern Russia that August.

Bullet-pierced helmet worn by Ramsay when he was shot during battle in Vistafka, Russia.

Helmet

Bullet-pierced helmet worn by Ramsay when he was shot during battle in Vistafka, Russia.

Under British command, the approximately 5,000-strong operation took on many names, including the Northern Russian Expedition, the American North Russia Expeditionary Force (ANREF) and the Polar Bear Expedition. The gear they returned with reflects the harsh environment they were subjected to, such as the muskrat fur gauntlets and cap brought home by Ramsay. The realities that met them in Archangelsk, including supplies that had already been absconded with by Bolshevik forces, difficulty in maintaining an offensive posture over great distances and a quickly advancing winter forced the Allies to instead focus on merely maintaining their position.

Already by June 3, 1919 a request was submitted to make a white polar bear on a blue field the official insignia for the ANREF.

Polar Bear Insignia

Already by June 3, 1919 a request was submitted to make a white polar bear on a blue field the official insignia for the ANREF.

The Bolshevik army took advantage of their precarious situation, going on the offensive over the winter of 1918. The Americans suffered over 200 casualties during the resulting Allied retreat. Ramsay was one of those wounded in March of 1919. He later recounted to the Wisconsin State Journal in 1940:

“According to the records of the War Department I was wounded on March 9, 1919 at Vistafka, Russia. It is true that none of the holes in my uniform did any personal damage, but the hole through my steel helmet was matched with a corresponding scalp wound which fortunately was of no consequence and I was not disabled.”

Even though the Allied Armistice was signed in November, ANREF soldiers remained more or less stranded in Russia. Despite increasing protests both there and at home, soldiers were forced to stay until June of 1919. Still, regardless of the perceived failure of the mission, those men who survived their winter in Archangelsk proudly declared themselves “Polar Bears”. The polar bear was shortly thereafter adopted as the official insignia for the ANREF, and was worn by Ramsay on his coat for the remainder of his service.  See more of the Ralph E. Ramsay collection at http://bit.ly/1tXsmsn