The White Russian Armies 1917-1923

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1894

The Russian Civil War pitted communist Red armies against counter-revolutionary White armies in a six year long armed struggle. This is a look at those White forces.

With the fall of the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky to the Bolshevik ‘Red Army’ in November 1917, a number of anti-Bolshevik forces assembled all over Russia to take part in the Russian Civil War. These forces were in the South (the Ukraine) the sub arctic North (the White Sea area), the Baltic (Estonia, Latvia, etc) and in Siberia.

The White Russian forces would typically be formed from a remnant of the former Tsarist Army that had been kept intact by a combination of circumstance and charismatic leaders. These were typically formed from a core of professional officers and non-commissioned officers who had only known a military life and were personally dedicated to their respective generals. For instance, the Southern Army was formed from a small regiment-sized force that had been led away from the Rumanian front. The Northwest Army started from bands of freed Russian Army prisoners of war held and organized by the Germans. In the Pacific and Siberia the core of the armies came from new units that were being organised to fight in World War One. Then there were ethnic groups such as Polish and Czech troops drawn from both the Tsarist army and from the millions of Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war held by the Tsar. These troops invariably cast their lot with the Whites, seeing nothing to gain from the Reds.

At first, these White Armies were filled with professional soldiers with a very high ratio of officers and senior enlisted men. Colonel MG Drozdovsky’s force in the Ukraine had in 1918 two officers for every enlisted man. Each man fought as a soldier regardless of rank. These units fought with great professionalism and élan, often beating Red detachments many times their size. Later in the Civil War these White organizations found themselves losing irreplaceable men in combat and to disease. Generals Alekseev, Kornilov, Ivanov, Markov, May-Maevsky, and Kappel all died at the head of their troops as did colorful regimental officers such as Drozdovsky and others. (Hate was so bad of these men that in at least two cases – that of Kappel and Kornilov – even their graves were violated when found by the Reds) With no volunteer replacements to be found the Whites found themselves in 1919-1920 drafting reluctant peasant conscripts and pressing captured Reds into their ranks to replenish losses. The practice of switching sides when captured was wide spread in the conflict. Most Russians were not politically active and it mattered little to them which army they fought for. The basic fact was that many conscripts remained with the colors simply because they were being fed in a time of famine. This led to decreased unit quality. In the end many division and corps-sized units were led by men out of their depth who had only commanded battalions and companies in the World War One Tsarist Army.

Logistics were also a nail in the coffin of the White cause. Almost no military factories remained in the areas occupied by the Whites. Resupply came from donated stocks of military stores from the Western allies who were largely getting rid of surplus left over from the war with Germany. This led to oddball stocks of incompatible equipment, great surplus of unasked-for gear, and shortages of vital components. One post-war Russian study details that no less than 26 different rifles existed within a certain White unit, and almost all took a different cartridge. Pilferage of stocks held in almost lawless rear areas also meant that a pitiful supply ended up with the average White soldier in the trenches.

The Russian Civil War was not so much won by the Reds as lost by the Whites. As the Whites grew weaker and the quality of their units suffered the Reds grew stronger and their unit quality increased. It doesn’t take von Clauswitz to understand why the outcome of the war on a long enough time line was almost predetermined.

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