Red crucible

The retreat of the Germans after the Armistice left a power vacuum across the Bolshevik Western Front. In the name of 'internationalism', not 'imperialism', the Red Army sent small forces against the Baltic states, Lithuania and Belarus, In the first months of 1919. Regardless of word choice, the new nationalist states considered themselves invaded. Working with the Allies, the Germans and the Poles, the new states fought the Reds to an uneasy halt. Throughout the year, the Bolsheviks watched 'communist' disturbances and revolts rock Central and Eastern Europe

Hungarian Peasants Revolt

and continued to believe the sparks of international revolution would catch alight. Despite such hope, the revolutions in Germany and Hungary collapsed.

The Ukraine proved even more intractable than the Baltic states and Polish-dominated Belarus. In January, the Reds formed the Ukrainian Army Group commanded by Antonov-Ovseenko. By the end of April, most of the Ukraine had been brought under nominal control. But this control proved illusory. Bolshevik policies were heavy-handed and took no note of Ukrainian nationalism. Ataman Grigorlev, after helping the Reds defeat the Allied landings at Odessa and Sevastopol in March and April, next turned on the Reds. Makhno's insurgent army also played havoc with the lines of communication. In the end, Antonov defeated Grigorlev, but not Makhno.

Trotsky Army

More promising was the state of Trotsky's new model army. In February 1919, the Red Army attained a ration strength of 1 million, liy December, lhat army stood at 3 million. In theory, a Red rifle (infantry) division consisted of three brigades of two regiments each and often component cavalry and artillery, A cavalry (literally kon, or 'horse') division contained three brigades of two regiments with component horse artillery. Actual numbers in divisions varied greatly, as it did in the civil war armies of all sides.

T he first commander-in-chief of the lied Army was the tough Latvian loakim Vatsetis, who assumed that position from September 1918 to July 1919. A former colonel and commander of the elite Latvian Division, Vatsetis had been in charge of the Eastern Army Group in 1918 at Kazan, There, he became associated with Trotsky, S. S. Kamenev, also a former tsarist colonel, assumed command of the Eastern Army Group after Vatsetis in September and would replace him once more on 3 July 1919 when he became commander-in-chief himself.

The White attack on Perm and the destruction of the 3rd Army had taken the Reds by surprise. Stalin and the head of the Cheka, Dzerzhinsky, proceeded to Perm in early January to Investigate. The resulting charges Included incompetence, lack of centralized command resulting in conflicting orders and lack of discipline, the 2nd Army's failure to support the 3rd Army and the presence of troops in the ranks hostile to Bolshevism. The Red Army obviously had further to go along the path of regularlzatlon,

Kolchak's offensive in March also took the Reds by surprise. By subtracting troops

Red Crucible

Russia spring-autumn 1919

Barents Sea

White Sea

Numbered Red A - ry units. October positions Budennys avalry




Pskov I





Uralsk lerspn /IM^tilopot.

Arol Sea

I Magnottrritoiy riA^'^l ' Vttoite Northwest ArTny/aptfJ V. Artri^.1 fbrr« Of SOOCV"!/ . -April-May frontline White Arrny positions, tl^t^r* ■ i Armed Forces of South Russia raids «J function of Donbas :ndustrial towns

Tol ¿50 miles



Black Sea



500km from the Southern Front am! drawing on reserves from the interior, however, the F.astern Army Group was able to crest at a ration strength of 361,000 in May, which made a counter-offensive all along the front possible. In conjunction with intense propaganda aimed at Kolchak's levies, Trotsky circulated Order No. 92, forbidding

Red Crucible

M.V Frunze led the (Red) 'Southern Group' against Kolchak from spring 1919 then commanded the Eastern Front in July and August before tackling the Ural and Orenburg Cossacks that autumn. He commanded the Southern Army Group against Wrangel's Whites and the Ukrainians in October 1920 A talented strategist, the prestigious Frunze Military Academy is named after him. (Sovetsky Kudoshnik photo card, Museum of the Revolution)

M.V Frunze led the (Red) 'Southern Group' against Kolchak from spring 1919 then commanded the Eastern Front in July and August before tackling the Ural and Orenburg Cossacks that autumn. He commanded the Southern Army Group against Wrangel's Whites and the Ukrainians in October 1920 A talented strategist, the prestigious Frunze Military Academy is named after him. (Sovetsky Kudoshnik photo card, Museum of the Revolution)

the shooting of White deserters and prisoners of war. A similar order would he given to the Red soldiers on the Southern and Northwestern Fronts later in the year, during the height of the White offensives. The objective was not compassion for the enemy, but the encouragement of desertion. What happened after White deserters went over and were 'debriefed' by the Red security forces in the rear was another matter.

Kolchak's retreat to the Urals provoked a crisis in the Red high command that summer. Trotsky and Vatsetis ordered Kamenev to hold the Ural line and transfer troops back to the Southern Front to face Denikin. Kamenev, backed by Lenin, wanted to cross the Urals and deliver the death blow to Kolchak. Lenin's position won out and the pursuit continued. In the end, however, the Eastern Front proved self-sustaining because of the influx of proletarian reinforcements from the Urals factories, so that troops were able to transfer to the south, indeed, after Kolchak's Tobol Offensive in November, the Red 3rd and 5th Armies had 100,000 to his 55,000, despite the eventual transfer of troops against Denikin.

Lenin moved Stalin to Petrograd in May-June to organize defences in the northwest and appraise the merits of the 7th Army which guarded against the Finns north of the city and the Whites to the west, who had just advanced into Russian territory from their base in Estonia. Contrary to later Soviet mythology, Stalin did perform solid supervisory work and did prepare defences that would be useful later that autumn, but he did not save Petrograd. The Finns were not willing to go to war and the Whites had no intention of advancing on Petrograd at that time. Stalin spent July through to September at Smolensk advising Lenin on the status of the 16th Army on the Polish frontier.

Meanwhile, even as the Reds had had their scare at Petrograd in June, and were wrangling over strategy against Kolchak, they faced a new and more ominous threat from Denikin's AFSR. In January and February, the Reds had pushed their offensive against the Don Cossacks with the 8th, 9th and 10th Armies, while the 11th and 12th Armies of the Caspian-Caucasus Group tried to drive a wedge between them and Deni kin's Volunteer Army with a thrust directed on Rostov. The subsequent annihilation of the 11th and 12th Armies by Denikin's forces was the single greatest battlefield loss sustained by any side during the civil war.

Incensed, Trotsky used the debacle to drive home his strictures demanding more professionalism:

These two armies comprised 150,000 or even 200,000 men. At any rate, they indented for supplies for that number. However, these were not properly organized forces, but guerrilla

Red Crucible

Russia's future dictator JosefVissarionovich Dzhugashvili or 'Stalin' - 'Man of Steel' - on the Southern Front, 1919-20. (Lenfotohudohnik, c. 1930)

detachments, behind which tailed numerous refugees and mere parasites mid plunderers. There was no trace of any proper organization of supply, administration or command. Seif-appointed commanders were unwilling to take orders from anyone, and fought each other.

Red attempts to regain the initiative in March, April and May were also ground to a halt. Arriving at Kharkov in June, Trotsky described the Southern Front as 'experiencing a grave crisis,' and commented that the 13th Army 'is at present in a state of utter collapse'. His diagnosis of the 8th, 9th and 10th Armies was scarcely better. His culprits were the usual 'guerrilla'-style tactics, misleading and even boastful reports given by subordinate commanders to higher leadership that resulted in a false appreciation of conditions at the front, troops who exhibited, in his words, 'panic, treachery and decay' and commanders who were 'idlers, parasites and traitors'. Draconian methods were adopted to restore order.

Perhaps the main problem at this time was simply the 8,000 kilometres of front lines held by the Reds. Possessing the ability to be decisive on any given front if for no other reason than their larger numbers, they still lacked the strength to be superior everywhere. Then again, the Whites on the Southern Front were of superior quality.

Another attempt to wrest the initiative from the Whites was made in August under the direction of the new commander-inchief, Kamenev. The 9th and 10th Armies advanced 230 kilometres down the Volga, almost retaking Tsaritsyn before being stopped by the White Caucasian Army. A secondary thrust between the Don Cossacks and the Volunteer Army also failed and the Cossacks launched a massive raid of their own under Mamontov from mid-August to mid-September.

Mamontov's raid focused full attention on the threat from the south and additionally spurred the Reds to form powerful cavalry forces of their own. Trotsky watched the Cossack incursion unfold behind Red lines while situated in his armoured train on the Moscow-Tula line. Previously, he had always considered the cavalry arm to be 'ultra-reactionary' in spirit and inimical to a workers' and peasants' Red Army. By early September, however, he had radically changed his mind. The printing press aboard his train issued orders, disseminated propaganda and published his official newspaper En Route. In Circular No. 86 on 4 September, he described the critical situation and plan of action to the commanders on the Southern Front:

Mamontov's men must not be allowed to break through to the north, Tula a nil Moscow. They must not be allowed to move southward, into the rear of our Red forces on the Voronezh and Kursk sectors of the front. Their routes to west and east must be cut. They are to be exterminated on the spot, to be annihilated like mad dogs.

That week he penned his appreciation of the role of cavalry while at Ryazhsk station, the junction of the Moscow, Voronezh, Tula and Penza rail lines. In En Route No. 93, 'Proletarians, To Horse!', he called on the soviets at all locations and command echelons to send cavalry forward for amalgamation into larger formations: 'The Red Army's principal misfortune is its shortage of cavalry. Our war is a war of manoeuvre and calls for the maximum mobility.' Demonstrating the extent of his conversion, Trotsky insisted that the 'communist must become a cavalryman'. He ended his famous communique with the admonition: 'The Soviet Republic needs cavalry. Red cavalrymen, forward! To horse, proletarians!'

By the end of September, the Reds had rushed every possible reinforcement, every rifle, to the Southern Front. Stalin arrived as Special Commissar to the Southern Army Group on 3 October, commanded by the politically reliable A. L Fgorov from the 11th Army. Stalin and Trotsky both claimed authorship of the plan that ultimately frustrated Denikln's bid for Moscow, but the credit, in fact, belongs to Kamenev. No genius was needed, only a clear-sighted appreciation of the battlefield and a determined application of the principles of war. The White 1st Corps was dangerously overextended and vulnerable on both its east and west flanks. While the 13th Army pinned the 1st Corps' centre in mid-October, the 14th Army with reinforced shock groups drove in from the west.

Budenny Hat

M.VTukachevsky, one of the most brilliant Red commanders alongside Frunze and Blyukher Despite his background as a former tsarist lieutenant and a minor member of the nobility, the Bolsheviks promoted him into positions of trust. He commanded I st Army against KO MUCH in 1918, 8th Army against the Don Cossacks in spring 1919, then 5th Ai-my against Kolchak rising to lead the Caucasus Army Group in early 1920 and the Western Army Group against Poland, He became a Marshal of the Soviet Union in 1935. (Painting by L. Kotliarov, Sovietsky Kudoshnik art card)

Most importantly in terms of morale, the future path of the civil war and subsequent Soviet history was the thrust from the east. Here, Budenny's cavalry, roughly comparable in numbers with the corps of Mamontov and Shkuro, but superior in terms of infantry support, stove in the White flank from Voronezh to Kastornaia. This was the decisive battle, the turning point of the civil war. Writing from his train on 25 October, in En Route No. 102 Trotsky proclaimed the simple truth; 'the enemy has been dealt a blow from which he will never recover'.

Focused on Denikin, the Reds were not prepared for the timing and speed of Yudenich's advance on Petrograd on 28 September. Alarmed, Lenin and several of the leading Bolsheviks were in favour of abandoning the city. Trotsky, fresh from the Southern Front, arrived in Petrograd with his armoured train and full staff, effecting what would become his finest days since Kazan. Judging by the flurry and tenor of his orders, however, even he was worried.

Demonstrating an almost immediate grasp of conditions at the front, he castigated the 7th Army units for 'a shameful panic' and 'senseless flight' at Gatchina on the 17th, and for regiments exchanging friendly fire then running away on the 18th. Orders to the 7th Army next described the nature of the enemy and his tactics and what Red commanders must do to counter these. In his own words, the enemy 'always keeps just within range, and by using his machine guns and automatic rifles he develops an impressive firepower which conceals the insignificance of his numbers'. He also derided the persistent cries of being

'flanked' or 'encircled' in reports. 'The enemy operates by night, so as to use darkness to conceal the smallness of his numbers and to frighten us.' And: 'The enemy's interest lies in keeping us at firing distance. ... Our interest lies in getting close enough to use the bayonets, when the mere sight of us is bound to overwhelm the enemy's scanty forces.'

Disingenuously, the Bolsheviks had tarred the White Northwestern Army as nothing more than capitalist hirelings. Now they had to deal with reality. Unwittingly, Trotsky's reports had revealed the hollowness of Bolshevik propaganda. Yudenich's men used range and mobility, and fighting in small groups in flank and rear actions at night: In short, the tactics of professionals to lever and hustle a more numerous but less steady foe towards Petrograd.

However, steadiness Trotsky was willing to provide. Order No. 163 stipulated that defeatists were to be 'killed on the spot'. Order No. 165 continued: 'Those who retreat without orders, after being warned, are to be shot on the spot. The battle-police detachments are to bring deserters before the tribunal without delay.' Although an embarrassing and controversial subject to this day, these 'battle-police detachments' represented what White reports identified and described as 'blocking units'. The Red technique of 'blocking' meant that the

Sergei Kirov (bom 'Kostrikov') commanded the Red forces at Astrakhan and kept the city Out of White hands dunng the civil war Later he became a popular mayor of Moscow. His mysterious shooting in 1934 has remained controversial to the present day but he may have been among the first victims of the Great Purges of the 1930s,

Great Purges VictimsBolshevik Poster Published 1919

WSM Ha 3aniHTy neTPorraaa l

Bolshevik poster by A.Apsit extolling the defence of Ftetrograd in 1919. (Sovietsky Kudoshnik 1967)

'battle-police' units machine-gunned friendly forces attempting to retreat before the enemy Under the circumstances, moving forward seemed the safer option.

At the same time, other stiffening techniques and ploys at propaganda were enacted. To the bourgeois enemy he offered the carrot from his train's printing press, in Circular No. 103: 'Come over to our side. Kill commanders who try to stop you. Come to us! You will be received as brothers.' In answer to the six White tanks advancing with Yudenich that had played havoc with Red morale, Trotsky brought forth tanks of his own. En Route No. 99, dated 21 October 1919, proclaimed: 'The first tanks produced In Petiogiad have taken part in the fighting, with undoubted success. The Red troops greeted with delight the appearance of the first armoured caterpillar.' Actually, these 'tanks' were the less fearsome Austin-Kegresse (half-tracked) armoured cars (see Osprey New Vanguard 95: Armoured Units of the Russian Civil War: Red Army).

Most convincing, perhaps, was the high state of preparedness of Petrograd itself. Thousands of Red Guards, including women's units, were raised and deployed throughout the city. Petrograd had been made into a 'dreadful labyrinth' of steel and concrete barricades with barbed-wire entanglements that channelled attackers towards carefully prepared machine-gun nests and along avenues where grenades could be tossed from every window. In En Route No. 98, Trotsky asked a rhetorical question no less relevant to those experiencing urban warfare in the future: 'every building would be for them either a riddle, or a threat, or a mortal danger. From which direction should they expect the shot to come?'

T his particular question would remain unanswered. The combined strength of the 7th and 15th Armies forced the White Northwest Army back to the Estonian border and subsequent Internment. What remained for 1920 was the final liquidation of Kolchak and Denikln.

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