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.
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 in our online database.