The Combat Record of the Konarmia

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The 1st Cavalry Army of General Budyonny fought the Whites, Poles, Armenians, Greens, and everyone else in the Russian Civil War.

Founded at the start of the Russian Civil War, the Konarmia was meant to be a mobile striking force for the Red Army. At first, Budyonny’s unit numbered only a few hundred but by the close of 1918 he counted over 3000 men in the saddle. It was used as a fire brigade by Trotsky and the military committee and found itself being shuttled from front to front to shore up faltering units during critical times. As it grew it added armored trains, horse drawn machine guns (referred to as tachanka) mounted on four wheeled carts and pulled by as many as four fast horses, light artillery, and even airplanes. When the Red Army marched into Poland to stop the 1920 invasion of the Ukraine by the newly independent country, the Konarmia joined it. It was at the height of its strength and included 16,700 men organised in four cavalry divisions (the 4th, 6th, 11th and 14th) along with the 3rd Don Cossack Cavalry Brigade of red cossacks. The Konarmia took along with it a dozen aircraft, nearly 300 machineguns, and 48 artillery pieces.

The 1920 Polish campaign would lead to the Konarmia’s decimation. In June, after a week long battle in front of Kiev, the 2000-man cossack brigade under Yakovlev switched sides to fight on the Polish side against the Reds for the rest of the campaign. At the Battle of Komarów on August 30, 1920 Budyonny lost another 4,000 men and was soundly defeated by the excellent Polish lancers of General Juliusz Rommel (himself a former tsarist colonel and a distant relative to German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel) and forced to retreat back to Russia with the rest of the Red Army. This battle is referred to as the last true cavalry on cavalry engagement as both sides used traditional weapons such as lances and sabers alongside modern arms. This however was not the end of the unit. It went on to lend a hand in the final defeat of the White Army in the south under General Wrangle in 1920. The red cavalrymen then fought and defeated the anarchist Ukrainian “Green” rebels, led by Nestor Makhno in brutal gutter warfare. After that they entrained for mountains and the re-conquest of the Caucasus, followed by the defeat of the last of the Whites in Siberia in 1923. With the end of the civil war the Konarmia was broken apart. Both a 2nd and 3rd Cavalry Army were formed during the conflict but largely existed in name only.

Budyonny and Voroshilov lived to serve their new tsar Stalin well. In 1935 they were made Marshals of the Soviet Union with three other men who were to die in the purges of the 1930s. Budyonny and Voroshilov survived to see war again. In 1939 Budyonny was partially responsible for how badly the Soviets were embarrassed by the Finns in the Winter War. The two old Marshals were well out of their depth in the opening battles of World War Two where they directly lost more than 1.5 million men to Hitler’s blitzkrieg in just three months in 1941. They lived to 1973 and 1969 respectively, outliving most of their White Russian adversaries.

Budyonny did however leave a legacy behind. He helped to create a breed of high performance horse that is named after him and is very popular in Europe. The distinctive headgear of the early Soviet Army, the bundenovka, was also named after him although he did not have a hand in its design. During Stalin’s reign hundreds of markers, plaques, marching songs and paintings were dedicated to the red cavalry. The best known of these is a huge monument that remains today of a four-horse tachanka machine gun cart in full charge near Nova Kakhovka in the Ukraine.