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Finnen in het Russische leger WO 1

 
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Geregistreerd op: 4-11-2006
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BerichtGeplaatst: 02 Jan 2008 15:04    Onderwerp: Finnen in het Russische leger WO 1 Reageer met quote

Bron: http://acta.uta.fi/english/teos.phtml?10827
FORGOTTEN HISTORY: Finnish volunteers in the Russian Army in World War I, 1914-1918

After several centuries under Swedish rule, Finland became part of the Russian Empire in 1809. For most of the 19th century the relations between the Finns and the Russians were good. Thousands of Finnish officers served in the Russian Imperial Army and even the units of the Finnish Army occasionally took part in conflicts where Russia was involved. In those conflicts abroad, where the participation was economically possible, the Finns showed that they were interested in voluntarily defending the interests of the Empire as long as relations between the Finns and the Russians were still on a firm footing. However the so-called Russification process ­ starting officially in 1899 ­ quickly impaired the relationship. One of the consequences was that the Finnish Army was disbanded and therefore the Finns were not under the Military Service Law when World War I broke out in August 1914.

At the beginning of the First World War the Finns ­ to the amazement of the Russian authorities ­ showed no signs of disloyalty. Instead there were obvious signs of loyalty. The Finnish officials did all they could to help the Russian military with their mobilization and the public showed enthusiasm as they cheered the Russian troops leaving for the front. The Finns had their reasons for loyalty, as they were afraid of a German invasion, which might have included the destruction on Finnish soil not only by the enemy, but also through the activity of the retreating Russian troops.

The Finns were also hoping that by showing loyalty during the war, the Russians might restore their full-scale autonomy. Besides, there were not so many alternatives. The Germans and the Austrians, the chief enemies of Russia, were also fighting against Great Britain and France and it was unlikely that the Germans could hold out for long. Clearly the only realistic alternative was to support Russia.

However as the situation was complex ­ especially with the heritage of the continuing Russification process ­ Finnish loyalty was still searching its limits in August and September 1914. Despite the obvious loyalty, nobody from the top of the Finnish society was willing to risk his political carrier by expressing this view officially. It was simply impossible. However, there seemed to be a widespread interest in the war and the atmosphere of loyalty encouraged many Finns to attempt to enlist in the Russian units as early as the beginning of August. However, the Russian units stationed in Finland did not have any instructions regarding the recruitment of Finnish volunteers and they turned them down.

The commander of the 22th Corps stationed in Finland was for military reasons interested in the Finnish volunteers. As they possessed knowledge of the local terrain and the local languages, they might be useful to the Russian troops in repulsing a German invasion of Finland. As the Russians became aware that the Germans had no immediate plans to attack Finland, they changed their plans. It was now decided to attach the Finnish volunteers as part of the field army fighting against the Germans and Austrians in Poland, Galicia etc. Even Czar Nicholas II became interested in getting the Finnish volunteers into his army and gave official approval on 26 August 1914.

The approval of the Emperor was at least partially influenced by the interest shown by the Finns. Besides those Finns ­ mainly from the lower classes of the society ­ who had been trying to enlist directly in the Russian military units, there were also several inquiries from educated youngsters regarding the Russian military schools. The interest shown by the people encouraged V. A. Lavonius, a member of the political group of Young Finns, to even suggest the reorganization of the Finnish Army. His own party rejected the idea and the Young Finns were also keen on keeping the proposal away from the public eye.

Since the Czar had given his approval for the Finns to volunteer for the Russian Imperial Army, the opportunity became an attractive alternative, especially for workers from the lowest urban social groups. But it was also a short-lived option. Most of the common people, joining as private soldiers, volunteered in a period of only one and a half weeks in early September. Starting from mid-September 1914 there were only a small number of recruits joining the Russian Army as private soldiers. The main reason for this was probably the harsh policy of the Russian authorities, which in autumn 1914 slowly destroyed the spirit of loyalty. Later in the war a relatively high share of volunteers were educated Finns who were planning their future career as officers or who wanted to use this position as a springboard to advance in their civilian careers. It was a tempting opportunity to get an officer’s rank after only four-months’ studies.

The overall picture of the volunteers

During the First World War there were around 500 privates, an estimated 130 military school students, five former officers (who were not regarded as reservists, but voluntarily joined the army) and three doctors (serving in the military units) who voluntarily joined the Russian Army. Moreover, there were around 100 men who actually recruited themselves in Helsinki, but who decided to opt out of the military when they were to be transferred to Russia for training in a few days. The Russian military officials did not treat these men as deserters and they could freely return to civilian life. On the whole there were therefore over 700 recruited Finns of whom around 600 actually served in the Russian Army.

The loyalty shown at the beginning of the war was an essential element for hundreds of Finns joining the Russian Army. However, despite the common loyalty regional differences were vast, indicating that the anti-Russian feeling was stronger in some areas. Therefore in the provinces of Vaasa and Turku and Pori there were relatively few volunteers. Naturally most volunteers came from areas where the people were more favourably disposed towards the Russians, or at least maintained a more neutral attitude. Therefore two provinces ­ Häme and Uusimaa ­ provided many more volunteers given their polulations. Of all the volunteers Häme contributed 19.3 per cent and due to the high interest of men in Helsinki, Uusimaa contributed as many as 44.4 per cent.

Whereas the more neutral attitudes towards the Russians made it possible to join the army, the reasons were mostly social. The real supporters of the Russian administration were only a marginal group among those joining the army. The provinces of Häme and Uusimaa were so prominent probably because there were so many uneducated casual workers in industry and construction. Moreover, there was proportionally high share of urban people and the local Russian garrisons also had a positive influence on the subject. Around 60 per cent of the volunteers came from the cities, whereas only over 15 per cent of the entire Finnish population (1914) lived in cities.

The social reasons for enlistment were especially decisive for the lower classes of society. The outbreak of war caused serious unemployment and as casual workers were used to being unemployed in winter even during ordinary times, they found it made economic sense to join the ranks to avoid the hard times. Army would supply them with food and other necessities at the same time as their families would get financial aid from the state. Thus even though the volunteers included a notable share of youngsters excited about the war, there were also more mature people in this group than in the Jäger movement or among those Finns who fought as volunteers in East Karelia or in Estonia after World War I. The share of men over 30 years was 10.6 per cent and the share of married men was also around 10 per cent.

The chief motive of the educated Finnish volunteers ­ former officers, doctors and those who enlisted in the military schools ­ was professional. This also gave them a better opportunity to explain their decision even when it was made after the first enthusiasm of 1914. Almost 90 per cent of all the privates enlisted already in 1914, whereas the share of those starting at the military schools in 1916 was still as high as 20.1 per cent of the total share of the war-time recruits in these schools.

Life in the Russian Army

After the first hesitation the Russian Army incorporated almost all their Finnish volunteers in the field army fighting against the Germans and the Austrians. The frontline against Turkey was held almost entirely by troops from the local population and the Finnish volunteers there were extremely rare exceptions.

Before going to the front the Finns ­ who were untrained civilians, the few exceptions being veterans of the Finnish Army ­ had to go through military training. For this purpose, the enlisted Finns were usually sent by train to St. Petersburg, where the training usually lasted approximately one month. The unluckiest ones were trained for only two or three weeks. In St. Petersburg the Finnish volunteers were also assigned to their military units. There were three kinds of units were they were deployed:

1) The regular regiments with their training battalions in the area of St. Petersburg 2) The regular regiments deployed near St. Petersburg and were supplemented there before transportation to the front 3) The reserve regiments composed entirely of reservists from St. Petersburg

While deciding where they should send the Finnish privates, the Russian military officials took into consideration that their units should maintain their military capacity and therefore the Finns ­ who were almost entirely ignorant of the Russian language and only hastily trained ­ were distributed among various regiments. Most volunteers went to the famous Preobrazhenski Guard Regiment, which received around 100 Finns. On the whole approximately 40 per cent of the privates ended up serving in the units of the Russian Guard. Most of the others served in various infantry regiments.

The deployment of the Finns was done rationally. If a private soldier had a civilian profession which might be useful for the army, this was often taken into consideration. But as many Finns could not speak Russian, they usually ended up serving as regular rifleman. About 90 percent of all volunteers ­ the war-time officers included ­ served in the infantry. Deployment to the navy, artillery or cavalry was possible only for educated Finns with Russian skills from school. However, in some cases even their skills were quite elementary.

It seems obvious that the Russians trusted the Finnish volunteers quite a lot, because the educated ones were allowed to enlist at the Russian coast artillery units and their border troops stationed in Finland even when the Russians had become aware of the pro-German Jäger movement. After the March Revolution in 1917, the Finnish war-time officers were more likely to be transferred to Finland as the Provisional Government preferred a more liberal policy towards national minorities.

The volunteer privates reached the front at the end of October 1914. In the meantime the Germans had launched their attack on Warsaw thus almost every unit ­ including those containing volunteers ­ was sent to Poland. Some of these units took part in the battle of £ódŸ immediately after they had reached the front in mid-November. This battle caused heavy casualties for the volunteers, at least partly due to their short training, which had also been affected by their ignorance of Russian. In total over 160 Finnish volunteers lost their lives in World War I ­ most of them killed in action in their first battles in 1914 and 1915.

The casualties of the Finns were even heavier than the average losses of the Russian Army in World War I. There were several reasons for this. The major part of the Finnish volunteers already went to the front in late 1914, whereas many Russian soldiers were conscripted later in the war. Also, whereas many older Russians served in the rear, the Finns were almost exclusively used in the front-line units. Moreover, as mentioned before, nine volunteers out of ten served in the infantry, which suffered the heaviest casualties in World War I.

The casualties of the Finnish volunteers were proportionally as heavy for instance as those the Scots sustained on the Western Front and only those nationalities ­ for instance Turks ­ who were seriously affected by illnesses, suffered higher losses than the Finns. All in all, approximately every fourth volunteer died in the war. The casualty rate of the private soldiers was over 32 per cent, whereas the officers’ casualties were only 6.5 per cent. The Finnish volunteer officers were not so keen to die for Russia as, for instance, were those Finnish officers already serving in the Russian Army before the First World War.

The main reason for the low casualties among the war-time officers was that their main interest was not to serve the Russian Empire. In general only few volunteers were pro-Russian. On the contrary, it can be proved that many others were keen supporters of the nationalist movement in Finland. This was especially the case with most war-time officers. Besides, many future participants of the Jäger movement first either joined or planned to join the Russian Army; there were at least 34 of them. Finally, eleven of them served in the Russian Army only to desert it later to join the Jäger Battalion in Germany.

There must have been a notable number of wounded among the volunteers, especially during the heavy fighting of 1914 and 1915. A rough estimate says that at least 250 volunteers were wounded. Moreover, from 80 to 90 men became prisoners of war. More than 10 prisoners died before being released from their camps. The first prisoners were released even before World War I ended. This was because Germany became involved in the Civil War in Finland in spring 1918. At the request of the Finnish authorities the Germans began releasing their POWs.

The first volunteers released from Germany were war-time officers, whereas the enlisted men were mostly kept in captivity as the Finnish and German authorities were more interested in sending home those Jägers still left in Germany. Most of the volunteers were then sent back to Russia in late 1918 and early 1919 after the capitulation of Germany. Because the border between Finland and Russia was closed, their repatriation to Finland was mostly delayed until 1921 and 1922.

The atmosphere in Finland

Those volunteers returning home either on leave or released from the army due to illness or wounds, found life in Finland hard. Most of them had no property and as their first act had to apply for free transportation to get home. The authorities were able to find jobs for only the educated volunteers, whereas soldiers with elementary education had to be satisfied with the fortification works ­ if they were healthy enough. Some volunteers had to fall back upon stealing to avoid hunger.

Whereas the volunteers had enlisted during the atmosphere of loyalty, they now came back to Finland where the wind had changed. Though not all the Finns shared the spirit of pro-German Jäger movement, it was clear that loyalty to Russia had come to an end. As this was quite clear to everyone in Finland and even to the Russian Governor-General F. A. Seyn, those Finnish officers joining the army before World War I were still hoping that by recruiting volunteers the Finns could get concessions from Russia when the war was over.

The most notable Finnish officer in the Russian Army, General Gustaf Mannerheim, was on leave in Finland early 1916 and in a private conversation he suggested that the Finns should recruit a unit of volunteers to join the Russian Army. There were also a few other Finnish officers making the same proposal before and after the March Revolution of 1917 as these officers ­ who like Mannerheim had been in Russia for some time ­ were not familiar with the atmosphere in Finland. All these plans failed as they lacked support in Finland.

During the war those volunteers repatriated to Finland to recover from their wounds or diseases, found it difficult to return to the army. They had already faced the hard life of the front lines and the contrast between that and life in peaceful Finland was so great, that the temptation to stay at home was almost irresistible. Even though desertion was a serious problem in the Russian Army, the conditions in Finland seem to have caused the Finnish volunteers to be even keener on deserting than their Russian counterparts.

Already before the March Revolution 30 Finnish volunteers deserted from the Russian Army. Most of them had not returned to their units after leave, but a few even deserted from their training battalions in St. Petersburg. In Finland it was relatively safe to hide and the authorities managed to capture only one third of the deserters. After the March Revolution the Finnish authorities refused to co-operate with the Russian military authorities and from now on the deserters lived semi-publicly.

As the revolution slowly destroyed the order in the Russian Army, even many war-time officers wanted to leave the army. Some of them tried to obtain posts as police chiefs in Finland, but this was not possible until autumn 1917 as the Russian Army refused to give up their officers. Resignation from the army was practically impossible until December 1917, when the demobilization of the army began. This enabled both the war-time officers and the private soldiers to return home. However, the actual return was still hampered by the difficulties in transportation. Officers were especially concerned about their security during the journey.

The Civil War in Finland

Finland proclaimed their independence on 6 December 1917. However, a confusing atmosphere prevailed in Finland and the country was split into two hostile groups, the Whites and the Reds. Both groups already began to create their military organisations in spring and summer of 1917 and the work was intensified later that year. As there were only a few Finns with modern military education ­ the major part of the Jägers were still in Germany ­ the volunteers from the Russian Army should have had an excellent opportunity to be attached to these new military organisations. But it was a complex situation.

The Whites ­ lead by activists who for several years had been planning the liberation of their country ­ were suspicious of the volunteers serving in the army they were planning to fight against. Their distrust became even stronger as the war-time officers set up their own military organisation trying to overthrow the existing organisations of activists as the leaders of the liberation movement. However, the new organisation was short-lived as it lacked the support in the country. As the activists were leading the formation of the White Guards, it was natural that the volunteers of World War I were not much involved in training these new troops. Besides they were hampered by the fact that many of them were still part of the Russian Army at the end of 1917 and in early 1918. The volunteers themselves were apparently not interested in training the local White Guards and became more involved only when the first officer’s vacancies in the regular troops of the Finnish White Government opened up in early 1918.

The Reds ­ led by the leaders of the working class, who hoped for aid from the Russian soldiers stationed in Finland ­ were lacking a functional organisation to make more systematic use of their former volunteers, which they needed even more than the Whites. The Whites had many former officers and even some Jägers to train their troops, but the Reds had only individual soldiers who had served in the Finnish Army at the turn of the 19th century. It is estimated that from 25 to 30 former volunteers took part in training the local Red Guards before the Civil War broke out in January 1918. That was more than the Whites could achieve.

The White Guards were declared government troops in January 1918 and Finland was definitely divided on January 28th when hostilities broke out. Although the Whites controlled the major part of the country, most of the volunteers of the Russian Army were living in the southern regions held by the Reds. Moreover, even those volunteers still on their way home from the battlefields of World War I and living in the northern part of country, had to stay in southern Finland and in some cases found their place in the ranks of the Red Guards.

The lack of co-operation between the war-time officers of the Russian Army and the activists caused some 40 officers to remain in the southern part of Finland or in St. Petersburg when war broke out. Only a few of them managed to cross the front line to the north and most of them had to join the secret White Guards in the Red controlled area. In Helsinki, and especially in Viipuri, they had an important role leading these units, but militarily they were quite insignificant. Only the White Guard of Kirkkonummi, which was led by several war-time officers, played more important role in the war.

As part of educated society, the war-time officers favoured the Whites and only one of them joined the Red Guards. Otherwise most of the enlisted men of World War I living in the south served in the Red Guards and those living in the northern part of the country fought for the Whites. Of course there were also exceptions and in southern Finland especially many volunteers did not join the Red Guards at all or did so only when they had no other choice. On the whole there were around 110 former volunteers fighting for the Whites and almost exactly the same number serving in the Red Guards.

The major impact of the former volunteers of the Russian Army ­ mostly officers ­ for the White cause was at the beginning of the war. During the first days of the war a few of them led the local White Guards of southern Finland northwards, where they were desperately needed to form the front-line against the Reds. These troops enabled the Whites to repel the front-line attacks of the Reds in February and early March 1918. The impact of the former volunteers as leaders of the White troops was considerable, especially in the front lines of Vilppula ­ Ruovesi, Karelia and Sysmä ­ Heinola. However, when the main forces of Jägers arrived from Germany at the end of February and were attached to the army, they also took the leading role as commanders of the White troops. During the last part of the war, starting from the mid-March, the former volunteers held mostly secondary positions. The Germans invading the southern Finland and the Jägers leading the Whites were the definitive winners of the Finnish Civil War.

Throughout the whole Civil War volunteers serving with White Guards had to face an atmosphere of mistrust coming both from their subalterns and their subordinates. In the worst cases the troops refused to serve under the leadership of the former volunteers. The Jägers also made it quite clear that they were unwilling to serve with these “former enemies”. The volunteers were in the best position to accomplish their task, when they were operating near their home area where they were better known ­ and where the mistrust was therefore less ­ or when they were serving under the high-ranking former officers of the Russian Army.

Despite all this, the Whites were able to take more advantage of their volunteers than the Reds did. The whites also managed to attach the former volunteers in their army quite well in keeping with their military training, whereas the Reds failed badly in this.

As the Reds had only one war-time officer fighting for their cause, they were compelled to deal with the former private soldiers. As they were recruited mostly from the lower classes of society, it was not easy for them to achieve the highest command posts in the Red Guards where the leaders usually came from the labour organizations. A few former volunteers managed to become battalion commanders or a front-line leaders, but the main impact was at the level of company commander or platoon leader. However, even these were not very active during the war and in those rare cases where they had command of an operation, the success was minimal. The former privates lacked the training for military leadership and had been waging a different kind of war on the Eastern Front than they faced in Finland.

The major impact of the former volunteers in the Red Guards was that they were able to communicate directly with the Russian military personnel supporting the Reds. This was especially important for front-line leaders, as the Reds were short of people who could speak Russian. Moreover, the former volunteers were able to teach the Reds how to use a machine gun ­ a weapon totally unknown to the otherwise highly respected former soldiers of the Finnish Army.

The forgotten history

In the Civil War the Whites were victorious and therefore in a position to dictate how the history of the war was written in the next two decades. Finnish history saw the Jägers as great heroes of the war, whereas the volunteers of the First World War were either disgraced or more usually simply forgotten. In the same way society and the new Finnish Army supported the Jägers and the former volunteers were mostly forced out of the ranks during the 1920s.

The former volunteers also themselves contributed to their being forgotten. As the winners of the Civil War, the Whites were decidedly hostile towards the Russians and also the new leaders of the labour movement were also reluctant to recall a period of fraternization with the Russians. The former volunteers themselves understood it was better not to look back and kept quiet. Even after World War II it was politically incorrect to recall the former volunteers of the Imperial Russian Army.

Time is a great healer. After 90 years the Finns serving in the Russian Army in World War I no longer give rise to heated debate. Probably they did not deserve such treatment in the first place either. The Finnish activists dismissed them as traitors or at least adventurers. However, only a few Finns serving in the Russian Army had pro-Russian sympathies, whereas many others had only a neutral attitude towards the Russians or were even keen supporters of the Finnish national cause ­ if not of independence, then at least full autonomy. Therefore, although they had no wish to serve the Czar and his empire, they faithfully fulfilled their military oath to him; every fourth of those serving in the Russian Army lost their lives in the First World War.
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