The Red Army 1917-1923


Formed from mutinous soldiers, armed factory workers and peasant conscripts, the Red Army prevailed through force of arms in the six-year-long Russian Civil War.

When the Tsar was overthrown in the February revolution (March 15, 1917), Army Order Number 1 of the new Provisional government established soldier’s soviets (committees) to elect their own officers. These soviets were instructed to send delegates to the capital in St Petersburg and more than 500 units from all over Russia did so. These delegates argued and debated which party to support, and most chose to stay neutral during the October revolution. The Bolshevik military organization was pieced together in October 1917 from their military supporters. These consisted most notably of sailors, a few Guards reserve units, Latvian regiments and the 4th Cavalry Division. The main armed element was the Red Guards, mobilized workers from the St Petersburg factories who numbered upwards of 25,000 men. Within weeks similar units sprang up in every industrialized town across the expanses of Russia.

The organization known as the Red Army (Raboche-Krest’yanskaya Krasnaya Armiya; RKKA, or Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army) was officially founded on February 23, 1918 to incorporate all of these units. It was originally on a volunteer basis and by May 10th it reported almost 300,000 on its rolls. By this time the Reds were facing most of European Russia occupied by Germany and her allies, Britain and her allies were landing in the North and in Siberia where a 50,000-man Czech Legion was in open rebellion, and no less than four counter-revolutionary White armies were being formed all over the country. This led to conscription to boost the strength of the Red Army to 600,000 by the end of 1918.

The Red Army was organised by the Military Committee led by Leon Trotsky and made the controversial step of enrolling 48,000 former Tsarist officers and four times that amount of former tsarist non-commissioned officers (referred to as proletarian officer cadres) as ‘military specialists’ to give the new organization a core of professional knowledge. The officers were paired with hyper-revolutionary people’s commissars who were to make sure that the new officers would remain loyal. While most of the Tsar’s generals went to the White side (Kornilov, Ivanov, Alekseev, etc) and many remained largely neutral, at least a hundred generals -some very high ranking- signed on with the Reds for patriotic reasons. These included the former Minister of War General Polianov, the military strategist General Danilov, and the hero of the Carpathians General Brusilov although they were not given battlefield commands. The disgraced General Rennenkampf, who was largely responcible for the Russian losses at Tannenberg, was even approached and offered a command in the Red Army. He refused the offer and was arrested and later executed on April 1,1918. General Nikoleav, who fought for the Reds voluntarily and was captured by the White Army of General Yudenich in 1919 declared “long live the red army” when Yudenich offered the old gentleman a job.

The Red Armies were split into rather homogeneous numbered units (i.e. 1st Red Army, 12th Red Army, etc) and moved around the country by the Military Committee as needed. These armies were largely interchangeable units numbering from 20-30,000, mostly infantry supported by light artillery. Colorful exceptions of this were the Taman Army, the Lettish Rifles and the Konarmia. These units were led by men such as Budyonny, Chapayev, and Tukhachevsky who had never commanded more than fifty men in the old tsarist army and revolutionaries such as Antonov-Ovseenko and Voroshilov who had almost no military experience. No less than 38 rifle divisions were formed into as many as 14 numbered armies. Mounted horse cavalry was in short supply. Numerous partisan units existed as well.

The Reds had several advantages that the Whites did not. These included the fact that they operated mainly in the center of Old Russia, specifically the old Muscovite regions. This included most of the country’s munitions arsenals and factories, most of the industrialized railroad transport infrastructure, and the largest population base. This meant that for every mile the Whites advanced in 1919, the Reds supply lines grew shorter and stronger while their own did the opposite. This can be seen by the fact that by 1920 the Red Army stood at nearly 3,000,000 men and growing stronger while their enemy’s, operating from regions with a smaller population base, were almost exhausted. The Soviets were able to simply overwhelm their enemies with numbers. As stated for example by Erich Wollenberg: “The statistics of the equipment and commissariat departments of the General Staff of the Soviet Union give a total of 795,645 men and 150,572 horses employed on the western front during the Polish campaign”.

Their enemies could not match that. At no time did the combined White Armies number more than 500,000 men under arms and they were spread out on four different fronts.