203: The Russian Civil War Pt. 3


After our discussions of the Communists in the previous episodes it is time to turn our eyes to the anti-Bolshevik forces.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 203. Up until this point we have spent most of our time talking about the Communists, or the Reds, and their place within Civil War Russia. In this episode we are going to discuss two other important events. The first will be the rise of the White movement, from its earliest moments while the war was still ongoing until its almost catastrophic collapse at the gates of Ekaterinodar. During this time the Whites were a growing movement, a very slowly growing movement, and were not yet the threat to the Communists that they would become in 1919. During that year the Whites would be a serious threat, advancing out of Southern Russia to within 240 miles of Moscow, but that was in the future and during the period of late 1917 and early 198 the White movement in Southern Russia was under serious threat of falling apart entirely. The second topic for today will be the Western Intervention in the Civil War. The actions of the Western Nations during the Civil War period would occupy many discussions near the end of the Paris Peace Conference, the conference that would result in an official end of the First World War. Many of these discussions revolved around what the Western Powers could do to halt the spread of Bolshevism. Eventually these discussions would result in military interventions with multiple military expeditions launched by the British, French, Americans, and Japanese. The results of these expeditions would be, being generous, less than inspiring, to the great detriment of the White cause.

The White movement had its roots in 1917, the year of the revolutions. After the February Revolution some within the army, and especially its higher level commanders, started to lay the groundwork for a possible resistance to the new Socialist leaders in Petrograd. Key among these had been General Alekseev, who had been Chief of Staff of the Russian Army, and the person making making of the key decisions after 1915. He would plan for a possible resistance, to be led by former military officers, in the Don Region of southern Russia, near the modern day Ukraine. These early steps were important because it allowed for future White leaders, first Kornilov and then Denikin to arrive at a reasonably acceptable base of operations. It would also provide a known area for officers who wanted to leave the REd controlled areas of the country to flee to. Also present in the Don region were the Cossacks, and there is not a single group or person, not Alekseev, Denikin, Kolchak, or the British, Americans, or French that were more important to the White movement, and more responsible for whatever success it had, than the Cossacks.

To put it another way, in the early years of the Civil War the White cause could not have existed in Southern Russia without the support of the Cossacks. Then later, once the Whites were stronger their armies would have been barely functional without the Cossacks officers and recruits that filled its ranks. There were many groups of Cossacks in Southern Russia, the Don and Kuban Cossacks were the most important to the Whites. The Kuban Cossacks were made up of two older groups of Cossacks that had merged together, and they were mostly farmers. However, they were generally richer than the non-Cossack farmers around them, and they were also generally better educated. This meant that there was a kind of us versus them mentality in the Cossack lands, with the Cossacks themselves being generally more privileged, and the non-Cossacks being treated as a lower class, an arrangement which would cause many problems. Much like with the other more well off people in Russia, the Kuban Cossacks did not like the idea of Bolshevik control. They were able to support the White movement because the Kuban region, being the furthest from the core of Russia, was not seen as a huge threat, at least initially, by the Reds. This was a critical piece of the Kubans early success because at the beginning they were far less organized and unified, a leadership vacuum that the Whites would try to fill.

In the Don region the situation would be much the same, from an economic perspective. But here they would have a series of relatively strong leaders. In early 1918 they would elect an Ataman, which was the title for the leader of the Don Cossacks, this election would be the first since 1723. At that point they would name Ataman Kaledin as the leader of the Don Cossacks. Kaledin and others within the Don cossack leadership would create a truly independent Don government. But this action required bringing in the non-Cossack citizens of the region, a very contentious issue with many Cossacks being strongly against any weakening of Cossack exceptionalism in the new nation. Eventually, due to the support of Kaledin, the measure passed and the non-Cossacks would be allowed inside the government. Kaledin believed that this was absolutely necessary because the Cossacks were actually not a majority in the area. During the 1917 Constituent Assembly elections the Cossacks had received just 45% support int he area, and ruling with a minority is always very challenging. The new Cossack government would be in power briefly after the capture of Rostov, it was at Rostov on December 9th 1917 that one of, if not the, first real battle of the Civil War took place. Initially the Cossacks could not take the city from the Red Guards defending it, but then Alekseev and about 450 men arrived, and they were able to tip the balance. This provided the White leaders with enough support within the Cossacks to allow them a safe haven, although it would be short lived.

While the White cause was dependent on the Cossacks, and the Cossacks would be helped immensely by the leadership and military experience of the White officers, neither side worked with the other perfectly. There were two mostly interrelated problems. The first was that neither side would really admit to the other how dependent they were on each other. Both saw the other side as a means to an end, for the Whites the recapturing of all of Russia, for the Cossacks a path to independence. The second problem was that the White leaders totally misunderstood many of the actions of the Cossack leaders. Actions that they saw as acts of vanity, like the insistence on independent Cossack commands, were actually critical to the Cossack leaders maintaining control and support of their people. As was so often the case for the Whites, this misunderstanding of the political circumstances would lead to disastrous decision after disastrous decision.

In late 1918 there were many decisions to make about who would lead the White Army in Southern Russia, there were primarily two candidates, General Alekseev and General Kornilov. Alekseev had been critical to putting in place the infrastructure and coordinating the movement of officers to the Don region to consolidate the power of the White movement. He also had better connections to leaders outside the country, and within the Cossack areas. However, Kornilov had far more support among the officers that were actually present in the army in late 1917. Kornilov had been the leader of the march on Petrograd in July 1917, which had cemented his position as a leader of the counter-revolutionary army. When Kornilov threatened to leave, and take all of those loyal to him to Siberia, Alekseev was forced to acquiesce. They eventually agreed that Kornilov would lead the army and Alekseev would be the political leader, a relationship that never really worked well. Both men wanted to be the leader, and neither had the support to actually do so.

While the leadership was in flux, there had always been hope among the leaders that their cause would find a wellspring of support among former Russian officers. This did not really materialize though. Only about 75 volunteers were arriving every day in the last week of 1917, a far cry from what was hoped, and by mid-January the army would only contain about 3,000 men. It was becoming apparent that many former officers just wanted peace, instead of jumping into another war. This forced the White leaders to look to other methods of bolstering their forces, specifically conscription, a practice that would grow in scope as the conflict expanded. This meant that as time went by the name of the army, the Volunteer Army, became a greater and greater farce.

As I mentioned earlier one of the first White victories was the taking of Rostov with the help of the Cossacks, this success would soon be undone. Just a few weeks after the city had been taken a stronger Red Army contingent arrived and pushed the combined Cossack and White forces out of the city. At this point General Kornilov would make a fateful decision, with the White forces and the Don Cossacks being overwhelmed by the Red Army, Kornilov believed the only option was to retreat. With the White forces preparing to leave, and his ability to resist the Red army alone quickly evaporating, on February 20th Ataman Kaledin committed suicide.

With the decision to retreat the Volunteer army embarked on what would be called the legendary Kuban Ice March. From late February until early April the White army would move south, pursued by Red forces. They were low on supplies, they did not feel that they could pause for very long at any point in the journey to either consolidate or rest. The number was imperative was to keep moving, to the point where the wounded a sick members of the army were left behind. It was also, of course, winter. While in Southern Russia it was not the Russian winter that many have heard of, it was still quite cold and wet, a very unpleasant environment. They would begin the march with around 4,000 soldiers and 1,000 civilians, by the end of it there would be just a bit over 3,000 soldiers remaining.

The destination for the army was the Kuban, where they hoped to gain the support of the Kuban Cossacks. When they arrived they found that the Reds had already occupied several areas. They hoped that Ekaterinodar, the Cossack capital, was still in friendly hands and so they moved in that direction. At the Korenovskaya railway station, which the Whites assaults in the hopes of capturing supplies, they learned that this was not the case and in fact the capital had been lost to Red forces. Without the ability to assault the capital with just White forces Kornilov was able to meet up with a Cossack leader by the name of Pokrovskii. He led a unit of around 3,000 men, roughly the same number that Kornilov lead. The Cossacks were eager to work together, until they were told that the White leaders expected complete subservience from all of the Cossacks. This almost caused the budding alliance, of the two groups hopelessly outnumbered in enemy territory, to fall apart before it really got settled. Eventually both sides would see how important joining their two armies together actually was and, after the Whites drastically reduced their demands the two would work together to try and retake Ekaterinodar.

With the two groups of soldiers, there were roughly 6,000 troops marching towards Ekaterinodar. This was a very risky move, the Whites would not have the numerical advantage in the attack and if it failed it could mean the end of the White movement. If it was successful though it would provide the Whites with a valuable central base of operation that would greatly assist their efforts. On the first day the attacks were a complete failure, Kornilov decided to pause for a day, let his men rest, and then continue the next day. However, on April 13th, before this could happen the house that he was using as a headquarters was hit by an enemy artillery shell and killed Kornilov. command of the army then fell to General Denikin. Denikin had spoken out against the attacks before they had been launched and the failures on the first day just solidified his opinion that the attacks were poorly conceived and likely to fail. Using his new power as the leader of the white forces, he then called off the attack and the White army once again retreated. A few weeks later the army would be in a position similar to where it had been before the attack had been launched, stuck in the borderlands between the Don and Kuban Cossacks, and they did not have a clear path forward.

Denikin had been born to a family of serfs, but had been given to the army by his family’s lord. He would spend the rest of his life in the army, slowly rising up the ranks, until he found himself in command of all of the White forces in Southern Russia. He would prove to be the best military leader that the White movement would have during the Civil War, but he would also face problems that Kornilov and Alekseev, who would die in October 1918 and been able to mostly ignore. These were almost all political questions. The White movement was one created almost entirely by Russian Army Officers and they would lead the movement throughout the Civil War, and many wanted Denikin to publicly support the return of the monarchy. Denikin would always speak strongly against this, insisting that the fate of Russia should be decided by a fairly elected Constituent Assembly. This was an important stance for him to take, because it allowed him to avoid having to make some definitive statement about what that fate should be, definitive statements, other than the fact that the Reds were bad, were always bound to alienate some piece of the very fragile White coalition. One item, as we discussed last episode, that Denikin would support was the idea of a great, united, undivided Russia. I think this is worth revisiting just for a moment due to what we know about the White situation in late spring 1918. The White leaders would maintain that they only supported a Russia which controlled all of its previously held territory. While at this exact same moment they were wholly dependent on support from the Cossacks, whose primary goal was to break away from Russia and form some sort of independent nation. These views were incompatible, a continuing problem for the Whites. They were forced into the majority non-Russian areas of the Empire, while the Reds held the center, where the majority of the people were Russian.

Back in the Don region, with the Cossack leaders scattered and the Red army in control of their capital, the Communists would setup a new Soviet government for the region. When this Soviet was formed it resorted to violent oppression to try and guarantee some support, and this proved to be a mistake. It may have been possible to create some kind of coalition against the Cossacks, with the non-Cossack urban citizens being a key part of that coalition, but this was not the path that the Soviet chose. Instead the Soviet angered both the urban proletariat and the rural Cossacks, and therefore quickly lost control. A rebellion began, and by May it would take over the region almost entirely, with a new Ataman, Krasnov, at its head. Krasnov would be able to call upon an army of 17,000 men, although they were generally of poor quality in both equipment and training. Crucially Krasnov would have the support of almost all of the Kuban Cossacks, support that Kaledin had not enjoyed, and Krasnov had another crucial ally, Germany.

All of these events that were occurring in early and mid 1918 were happening while the war was still ongoing in the West. In Berlin the Germans decided that the best thing that could happen for their interests in the post-war era, an era that they hoped to create with their Spring 1918 offensive, was a divided Russia. They therefore took actions to try and keep Russia divided, and that meant helping some of the areas stay out of Red control. In April German troops would occupy all of Ukraine, with the primary goal of requisitioning food and shipping it back home, but this occupation had the very useful side effect of being able to support an anti-Red government in the country. They would then also extend their support into the Don region, giving their support in both arms, supplies, and information to Krasnov and his Cossacks. This support would completely reverse the situation in the Don region, and in the other areas of Southern Russia. Before the German troops arrived the Reds had been on the offensive and had almost taken control over the entire area, after the German troops arrived the Reds would be thrown out and into disarray. At the same time the Anti-Red forces in German controlled areas would flourish.

The growth in his relative strength would cause Krasnov to advance into formerly Red territory, and to then continue that advance toward Tsaritsyn. Tsaritsyn was an important railway center on the Volga. When they arrived, after several attacks, they were unable to capture the city. In hindsight the importance of this specific battle is debatable, and even at the time its importance to the Civil War and the Red and White causes was up for debate. Some Communist leaders, like Stalin, would say that it was a critical point in the war, while others, like Trotsky believed that it was really just another battle. Part of this evaluation from the two leaders was due to the role that each played in the fighting, with Stalin far more involved in the area at this time. Stalin would think so highly of the defense of Tsaritsyn that when it came time to rename the city, he would bestow upon Tsaritsyn its far more famous name, Stalingrad.

We now turn our eyes to the relationship between the Allies and Russia. In this context the countries grouped under the time of The Allies are most of the countries that fought against Germany during the war, minus Russia of course. During the Civil War period several of these countries would take actions to influence the civil war occurring in Russia but they were often uncoordinated actions. In many ways these actions, and the decisions that led to them, echoed the fragmentation of the Whites in their various corners of Russia. Before 1917 and 1923 there would be two phases of Allied relations with Russia. During the first phase the Allies would attempt to militarily intervene in the Civil War against the Communists. Even though several countries agreed to do this, the exact form of their intervention varied greatly, being both geographically and chronologically spread out. This would result in several ineffective military expeditions. After the failure of these expeditions the Allies would then move into the second phase of their reactions to the Civil War, during this phase they would accept the Communist government and move forward to recognizing and reforming relations with the new government. The signing of Trade Agreements were often the hallmark of the move towards this second phase.

Before they would begin the reconciliation process, the Allies first had to attempt to intervene. In 1918 this intervention was greatly hindered by a small event you may have heard of called the First World War. While this reduced their ability to intervene, and greatly reduced the number of troops and supplies available for such actions, it also altered the type and goals of the expeditions. During early 1918 the actions of the Allies were focused not just on supporting the anti-Communist forces in Russia, but also with the hope that it would allow the Eastern front to be reopened. As the war began to wind down and then end, the resources and troops did become available, which led to many questions about if they should be committed to an anti-Communist war, and if so when and where. The British, French, Americans, and Japanese were still committed to supporting the White forces, but they divided Russia into their own areas of concern instead of focusing on united action. The French would take Ukraine and Crimea, the British Northern Russia and the Caucasus, and the Americans and Japanese were given Eastern Russia. These areas lined up with each country’s strategic concerns, but it meant that they were geographically separated which meant the resulting disjointed efforts were almost inevitable.

Many of the efforts by the Allies would not achieve their goals, but that did not mean that they did not have an effect. The Communists would seize on the Allied interventions very early on as a way to rally support to their cause. As early as July 1918 Lenin would say “what we are involved in is a systematic, methodical, and evidently long-planned military and financial counterrevolutionary campaign against the Soviet Republic, which all the representatives of Anglo-French imperialism have been preparing for months.” Lenin was not saying anything false in these statements, however over the coming months and years the Communists would constantly use the Allied intervention to their advantage. Even though the interventions did not have any drastic effects on the military situation the Communists could still use them. It provided the Communists with the ability to claim that they, and certainly not the Whites, were fighting for an independent Russia. They could claim that that the Whites were just puppets of the Western Imperialist Capitalists. The ability to claim this, and with Allied military units on Russia soil the ability to claim it truthfully, brought many Russians over to the Communist side in the Civil War. That did not mean that they were all suddenly supporters of Communism, but Russian nationalism was still a strong force within the country, including within Communist controlled areas.

I have already mentioned, several times now, that the Allied interventions were almost entirely ineffective, but I have been pretty light on details. The French would send forces to the Black Sea port of Odessa in December 1918, about a month after the war on the Western Front ended. The White Forces, by this point under the command of General Denikin were very excited to have the French in the area, although they hoped that it was just the vanguard of a much larger force. Eventually a total of 12,000 French, Greek, and other Allied troops would be sent to the city. These troops were not exactly thrilled to be in Russia, with many wanting nothing more than to go home, and this resulted in very low morale, poor discipline, and an almost non-existent will to fight. In the middle of March 1919 these troops would experience their first combat. They would meet the Red Army near the towns of Kherson and Nikolaev. In this first engagement the Allied troops held their own, but their performance was not spectacular. After an inconclusive day of fighting they would retreat back to Odessa, where the French commander would proclaim martial law inside the city. This allowed the French commander, General d’Anseme, who had never had good relations with the White leaders in the city to setup a new government. A few days later a new French command would arrive, General Franchet d’Esperey who we have encountered several times before in our story. He would put in place another new government, and he would also bring with him fresh French troops. By this point Denikin and the Whites were both confused and angry that their leadership was not being acknowledged in the region, but they were very happy to have more French troops in the area. But then on April 2nd it was decided that all of the French troops would be evacuated, and the French military presence would be on ships in less than 48 hours, and then they were gone. The only positive side effect for the Whites was that the French left behind a good portion of their material and supplies.

The French would also send troops to the Crimean port of Sebastopol. Here they experienced the same amount of political problems as in Odessa. The Anti-Bolshevik groups, the socialists, liberals, and members of the Volunteer army could not agree on how to control the area. The government that was in place, led by the army, was seen as far too authoritarian by the Socialists, who were members of the Menshevik and SR parties, and so they threatened to leave. There would also be widespread strikes in the city, in protest of the governments practices. Instead of loosening their grip the army leaders decided to crack down even harder, to try and take more control. This then sent the entire area into a spiral of unrest and violence with the workers being strong enough to resist the government, but not strong enough to overthrow it, and the army led government strong enough to not be overthrown by the government, but not strong enough to fully control the workers. Meanwhile, the French walked into the situation, and then tried to address it, and then kind of just gave up. The French presence in the city would only last until April 1919, and then they would pack up and leave. This evacuation would coincide with the arrival of Red troops, who after negotiations told the French that they would not attack of the French guaranteed that they would leave, and so the French left.

In the Caucasus the British would also attempt to intervene. Here they would work with some of the local governments, like the Menshevik government in Georgia. Unfortunately for the Volunteer Army, the British would guarantee the new Georgian government that the Whites would not invade the country. This guarantee would be tested shortly after it was given, with Denikin moving in to try and squash the rebellion. When news of Denikin’s advance was received by the British they did, nothing, making it lear to everyone in the area that they were actually quite powerless to actually enforce their demands in the region, a problem that would be experienced by the British and French in many areas of the world after the war. Another area that would see the British taking a more active involvement was in northern Russia, specifically the ports of Murmansk and Archangel. They were in sent in, ostensibly to guard the military supplies that had been on their way to the Provisional government when it was overthrown. However, they would then stay in the areas while Russia descended into full on Civil War. The Troops here were not the highest quality, the the expeditionary force being mostly made up of soldiers that were not qualified for duty on the Western front for physical or medical reasons. Low morale was also a problem for these troops. After garrisoning the city for several months the British government decided that the troops should be pulled out in March 1919. It took some time to make the arrangements but all of the British troops would be out of the country by October 12, 1919.

The final set of Allied intervention would be the Americans and Japanese in Siberia, but I am going to hold off on that story for right now due to how far separated all of that action is to the core fighting of the Civil War that we are discussing in this episode. When looking at the whole of the Allied intervention, at least militarily, the results were certainly lackluster. There were many reasons for this, overall war-weariness, the economic downturns after the war, the already high levels of debt within the allied governments, but most of all, there just was not the political support to really go all-in on defeating the Communists. There would be a growing understanding throughout 1919 and 1920 with the Allied governments that they simply did not have the power to successfully intervene in Russia. The British and French could not do so politically given the states of their countries and the Americans just did not really care enough about it. The reasons for this slow slide back away from intervention is best described by Lloyd George, as part of the discussions at the Paris Peace Conference in April 1919. “If we conquered Russia—and we could conquer it—you would be surprised at the military advice which is given us as to the number of men who would be required, and I should like to know where they are to come from. But supposing you had them. Supposing you gathered together an overwhelming army, and you conquered Russia. What manner of government are you going to set up there? You must set up a government which the people want; otherwise it would be an outrage of all the principles for which we have fought in this War. Does anyone know for what government they would ask, and if it is a government we do not like, are we to reconquer Russia in order to get a government we do like?” While this would represent the beginning of the end for Allied military intervention, they would still try to support the White cause with supplies and other, more readily available items that they could provide like weapons. This support would be far more valuable for the Whites than the minuscule military assistance that was provided and the material support certainly extended the Civil War. What the White forced did with that support, and how they applied the manpower that they did have will be our topic for the next two episodes.