214: Finnish Civil War Pt. 2


With the battle lines drawn the Finnish Civil War heats up, and then swiftly ends.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 214. I would like to remind everybody that we will be having another listener Q&A for episode 231, and currently I now have 9 questions for that episode, but I can always use more. Send those questions into historyofthegreatwar@outlook.com. This is our second and final episode discussing the events of the Finnish Civil War. Near the end of January 1918 the battle lines for the Civil War had been drawn. On one side was the White movement, whose stated intention was to create a Kingdom of Finland that would have a German monarch, probably the German Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse. On the other side was the Red movement, who hoped to create a similarly independent Finland, but one led by a parliamentary democratic government. Both sides would be supported by foreign governments, with Russia supporting the Reds and Germany the Whites. The fighting that would occur in early 1918 would be short in duration, lasting just a few months, but very costly in terms of casualties. Over 30,000 people would die during and after the fighting, with 25,000 of those being executed or dying of disease in prisoner of war camps after the fighting was over. In this episode we will discuss the fighting and the atrocities that would occur and then talk just briefly about the aftermath of the civil war, which may not be what you would expect.

The Red movement would be represented in the fighting by the Red Guards. The Red Guards had actually been created in the spring of 1917, with the initial purpose of acting as a security force for the socialist leaders. The numbers in the guards would grow over the course of the year, reaching 30,000 by the end of 1917. During the fighting 140,000 Finns would serve in the Red Guards, which made them roughly equal in strength to the White forces arrayed agains them, at least numerically. The problem for the Red Forces would always be training and leadership. As with many volunteer groups the Red Guards simply did not have very much military experience either within their ranks or within their leadership. Almost all of the experienced soldiers in Finland, including the Jagers that had been trained in Germany, would join the White armies. This left the Red leaders to work with motivated, but largely inexperienced volunteers. The leaders of the army were also quite inexperienced. The man who would become the leader of the Red Forces in Helsinki, and de facto leader of the Red guards as a whole, was Ali Aalotnen. Aalotnen had been in the Russian army, but had only risen to the rank of lieutenant, which is just a really good example of the general lack of experience at all levels of command in the Red Guard, which would prove to be a serious problem during the fighting. Regardless of their experience in military operations, on the night of January 27th the Red Guards made the first move that would escalate the violence into a true Civil War. On that night they moved to seize control of Helsinki, which had always been their base of operations. They would seize the telegraph and telephone exchanges, the railway stations, and the buildings of government. The leaders from the right wing parties fled the capital or were forced into hiding.

While this action shocked the leaders of the White movement, they were not completely unprepared. During the spring of 1917, even before the Red Guards had been founded, the future White leaders had created the Civil Guards. This was a militia formed to protect the bourgeois leaders on the right from the labor movement, which was becoming more organized and more violent during 1917, the Civil Guards would also be used to crack down on striking workers. By the end of 1917 the Civil Guard would number about 40,000, slightly more than the 30,000 that were in the Red Guards. This was not the only advantage that the White forces would have because while the Red forces would always struggle to find a military leader with both the experience and political notoriety to lead the Red Guard, the Whites would not have a similar problem. They would instead call upon the services of Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim. Mannerheim had joined the Russian Army in 1904 which was in time to serve in the Russo-Japanese war. During that war he would rise to the rank of colonel. When the First World War Started he would command a Brigade of the Cavalry Guards, and would eventually rise up the ranks to take command of a Cavalry Corps in the summer of 1917. After he returned to Finland he would be approached by Finnish leaders who requested that he take command of the military forces that would eventually become the Civil Guards and then the White Army. Mannerheim had some concerns about the growing strength of Germany in the country, but these concerns would not be enough to keep him from accepting the job. He would request assurances that no outside intervention would be requested, assurances that would quickly be broken. I find it hard to believe that Mannerheim did not expect that outcome.

The German influence on the White Army would be felt before the German troops even arrived. It would begin when the Jagers arrived back in the country. These troops had been volunteers that had travelled to Germany to service in the German Army during their fighting against Russia. As tensions grew in Finland during the later months of 1917 the Jagers would prepare to move north and back into Finland to assist the German backed Civil Guard. The hope was that the well trained and equipped Jagers could prove an elite force for the Civil Guard, as well as a unit that could be used to train and inspire others. Not all of the Jagers would make the trip back north though. Given their purpose it was important that only the most reliable members were brought back into Finland. Therefore several hundred of the Jagers would remain in Germany, and would not be allowed back into Finland, due to concerns about their socialist sympathies. The Jagers were an advantage, and the Germans wanted to make sure that the Reds did not receive any of that advantage. Mannerheim was thrilled to learn that he was receiving these troops, calling them an “inestimable asset.” While he was accepting of these Finnish troops, he would be less thrilled about the arrival of German troops later in the fighting. These would be in the form of a German division led by General von der Goltz. Mannerheim would even threatened to resign, although he would be talked out of such actions. The reasoning that Mannerheim would back down was because he was assured that he would be in control of the German division and there were also rumors that the Red Guard were receiving large number of Russian volunteers. If these rumors were true then the Civil Guards would need help or they would be overwhelmed. As we discussed last week the overall assistance by the Russians was quite small, which meant that instead of balancing the scales the arrival of the German troops would decisively shift the balance of power in favor of the Whites. It should be noted that von der Goltz wanted to be in Finland about as much as Mannerheim wanted the German troops involved. His division had been pulled out of the preparations for Operation Michael, the massive German attack in the spring of 1918, and then sent to Finland. Goltz felt that this was quite the demotion, although it would not affect the German division’s performance in Finland.

In early February 1918 both sides would prepare for the fighting to begin. Both sides had roughly the same number of combat effective troops, somewhere around 70,000. They had spent the previous weeks securing their own areas of control, with the Whites in the west and the Reds in the southeast. The Whites had disarmed all of the Russian troops that were spread around the country and the Reds had taken full control of Helsinki by the end of January. The Reds would begin to create all of the political structures that they would need to actually lead the country, this meant local administrations, revolutionary courts, and the police. Due to the moderating influence of the Social Democrats the courts and the police were actually pretty much the same as the Finnish institutions had been before the Civil War began, without any drastic changes in structure or procedures. After these institutions were sorted out the Red leaders looked to go on the offensive. They planned a general attack along almost the entire front. The goal was to push north into White territory before they could fully organize. The whites would meet this offensive with a very conservative defense. They were in fact preparing for their own offensive operations so they wanted to conserve their strength as much as possible for those future attacks. The Red offensive, after it was launched, would quickly bog down and turn into positional warfare, which allowed the Whites to prepare for their own effort.

After absorbing the Red attack the Whites armies were ready to begin their own offensive. Mannerheim was concerned about the experience and abilities of his troops and this caused him to try and create a plan that was as simple as possible. This plan would see the 12,000 men that could be concentrated for the attack split into four groups all of which would be sent toward the city of Tampere. Once they reached the city they would focus on surrounding it, instead of immediately launching into what was sure to be a costly and lengthy attack through the city. The White offensive would begin on March 15th, and over the next five days it would advance a disappointing 20 kilometers, far less than had been hoped. There were many problems that were holding back the White advance, the experience of the troops was one, but maybe the most impactful were the lack of logistical capabilities for the army which made it very difficult to sustain a large advance. Even with these challenges the White advance slowly ground forward toward Tampere. By March 28th not only was the army on the outskirts of the city, they had also been able to consolidate and prepare for an attack on the outer defenses of the city. The artillery preparations for this attack proved to be completely ineffective because the information that the Whites were able to attain had the positions in the wrong place. This meant that the artillery barrage fell on some empty fields and forests instead of on the defenders. Even with this mistake the White troops were still able to push the defenders out of the first defensive positions around the city. On April 1 Mannerheim would send an ultimatum to the defenders in the city, giving them a chance to surrender. If they refused then he would begin an artillery bombardment of the city itself, which had up to this point remained largely untouched. The leaders of the defence up their response up to a vote among the Red commanders, which supposedly resulted in just a single vote majority in favor of continuing the defense. With his ultimatum rejected, the bombardment of Tampere began, and it would eventually grind the city into dust. After a three day bombardment the assaults began on April 3rd. The White attacks would move into the city from the east, with the defenders being slowly pushed back to the west. After three days it was clear that the defense was hopeless and 11,000 Red soldiers would surrender. Only a few hundred red troops would be able to break out of the city and move south. The defeat at Tampere was a catastrophic loss for the Finnish Red Army and it would be a defeat that they would never really recover from, not that they were given the chance because as Tampere was in the final stages of its defeat German troops were landing in the south and advancing on the capital.

After the opening Red Offensive had been launched plans to land German troops in Finland were put into action. It had been decided that the German troops would be landed at Hanko on the southern coast to the west of the capital. The primary objective of the division of troops was to launch an attack directly toward the capital with the secondary goal of moving to the north to cut off the supply lines of the Red forces that were facing Mannerheim. The German troops would reach the Finnish coast on April 3rd, the same day that the fighting started up again in Tampere. The German fleet had two battleships, a cruiser, several smaller ships, and then 10 troop transports. The German forces were landed and then easily took over the city of Hanko, with the red forces having already evacuated the city. Unloading an entire division was not a quick process, and it would take three days before all of their supplies were ashore. It was around this time that the German commander von der Goltz, received word from the Russian warships at Helsinki that they were planning to remain neutral in the coming fighting. All that the Russians requested was that they be allowed to leave after the fighting was over, a strictly self-preservation tactic, since they had no chance of resisting the much stronger German ships. Just 5 days later the first German units would reach the outskirts of the capital, what they found was a deeply divided city, with some citizens taking shots at them from windows and others absolutely delighted to see them. As soon as the main body of German troops arrived they were able to begin pushing through the city defenses. By April 13th it was all over, with the outcome never having been seriously in doubt. Around 7,000 Red troops would surrender to the Germans, and the fall of the capital would be the end of the major fighting with the rest of the Red forces surrendering shortly after.

During the fighting, even though it was short, there were many reported instances of violence outside of the military confrontations. These actions would be referred to, collectively, as the Terrors both Red and White. Obviously these actions have similar names as the Red and White terrors during the Russian Civil War. During the bulk of the military actions the atrocities from both sides took the form that was so common during civil wars, massacres against civilians due to rumors and suspicions about the local populace and their support for the enemy. These atrocities would result in thousands of deaths. After the fighting was over the atrocities would decisively change. During the fighting 80,000 Red soldiers and civilian leaders had surrendered to the White army. They were put into prisoner of war camps, with courts martial setup to try them for treason. Over 5,000 of them would be executed after being found guilty. This was justified by the White leaders claiming that Red Guard members should not be considered soldiers of an enemy army but instead armed rebels within the country. The Whites considered them to be treasonous citizens, not an organized enemy military force. Even those that were not outright executed were subjected to lengthy periods in the prisoner camps, where they would not be provided with enough food or medical supplies. Around 12,000 of them would die in the camps, a number that does not include any of those executed. There would be more deaths within the camps than in the rest of the Civil War.

In the direct aftermath of the Civil War the Finnish government was controlled by the right wing leaders that had led the White movement. Their goal was to continue to expand Finnish territory, with the next step being an invasion of East Karelia. At the same time they planned to create a Finnish monarchy. They would fail at both of these objectives. Instead, in 1919 a new Finnish constitution would be created that made the country a republic, not a monarchy. Some of the far right leaders attempted to delay or prevent the adoption of his constitution, but they were unable to prevent its implementation. One of the major reasons for this failure was that the Western Powers required a democratic government in exchange for official recognition of the country, and during the late 1918 and early 1919 time period where these events were happening the opinions of Britain and France were very important. The first elections under the new constitution would be held in March 1919 and the party that would receive the largest number of votes, and 80 members in the parliament, was the Social Democrats, the party that had led and then lost the Civil War. They were not able to gain a majority, but they were the largest single party by a pretty good margin. It was impossible for the Social Democrats to form their own government, or to join in a coalition to form one, they had just participated and lost a civil war and there were large groups that were strongly against them. however, in a deft political move, they did not really push to be included. Instead they put their support behind a group of centrist parties that would go on to form a minority government. Through this support they were able to gain some very specific concessions from the new government. The results of these concessions would be a large number of social reforms, things that the Social Democrats wanted, which would be implemented in the following years.

After the formulation of the new government the Finnish government would start to be very active in regional foreign affairs. Before the during the Civil War the Finnish right and center parties had been heavily pro-German. However, with the German defeat in the First World War, this alignment was not longer seen as profitable. Discussions would begin with the Western Powers and then the League of Nations, but closer to home the Finns would also become involved in discussions with the other countries that were breaking away from Russia. These are important to our story because those countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will be the topic for our next episodes. These four new countries, later joined by Poland, would meet several times in 1919 and 1920. The Finnish government was always hesitant to enter into any binding agreements, especially those that targeted Russia due to the power that the Social Democrats held within the country, and instead the Finnish delegation would emphasize the importance of the meetings as a communication channel. The conversations would bring the Finns closer to the other countries who were all in a similar situation to their south, and eventually this would lead to the Finns becoming militarily involved. Thank you for listening and I hope you will join me next episode as we begin to dig into the events in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania as they try to break away from Russia and create new independent nations.