The Finnish Civil War saw two untrained armies fight each other

The Finnish Civil War was fought between two quickly recruited armies with mostly untrained fighters. In the early stages of the conflict, the core of the two armies was made up of volunteers who joined the troops in ideological fervour.

At the beginning of the war, the White Army consisted mainly of members of the voluntary militia known as the Civil Guard (Suojeluskunta). Many of the front-line soldiers were secondary school students. One of the youngsters to joint the Kajaani guerillas was the 17-year-old Urho Kekkonen, who would later become President of Finland. The main body of the Red Guard was labour movement radicals, many of whom had joined workers’ associations during 1916 and 1917.

At first, the White Army actively recruited soldiers but this practice was heavily criticised and discontinued in February. The Senate in Vaasa began building the troops of the legal government by bringing in universal conscription. According to the Senate’s conscription declaration, issued on 18 February, all men who had turned 21–40 by the end of 1917 were obliged to arrive at a conscription station in their home locality or place of residence. The declaration was based on the 1878 conscription act, which according to the declaration had never been repealed. Prior to this, local conscription had been organised in Ostrobothnia and the Pieksämäki region.

Expedited conscription began in late February and continued into March. For those seconded outside the home municipality, the decree ordered that two marks per diem be paid by the State. Municipalities had the obligation to assist the families of conscripts of limited means. The conscripts were organised into six light infantry, or jäger, regiments. The Civil Guard units were also reorganised as regiments towards the end of the war.

A majority of the population living in the area held by the Whites were known to be supporters of the labour movement. Therefore the conscription boards had to carefully consider the reliability of the conscripts. The conscription boards were, however, reluctant to grant exemptions for fear of failing the conscription targets. At least 3,400 men, approximately 9 per cent of the conscripts, were exempted from service. In addition, approximately a thousand men failed to report to duty.

Red Guard received monthly wages

The recruitment practices of the Red Guard were initially based on wages paid monthly to the fighters. Red Guard soldiers received 450 marks per month, or 15 marks per day. On top of this, they received free provisions and clothes and footwear. Women and those in unarmed service were paid less. In comparison, the voluntary conscripts in the White Army also received 450 marks per month. From this sum, 150 marks were withheld for provisions.

In principle, all Red Guard fighters were supposed to receive equal pay. However, Russian troops recruited by the Reds were paid more. Artillerymen were paid 30 marks and machine gunners 22.50 marks per day. The physicians were promised a salary of 1200–2000 marks per month plus provisions.

The Red Guard wages were competitive in comparison to a skilled labourer’s wages. However, the payroll proved problematic to realise in practice owing to the lack of cash. The Red Guard soldiers were paid in February, but in March, the Finnish People’s Delegation, which was in charge of the Red Guard, was able to pay only a fraction of the wages in cash. Most of the wages were paid with cheques. Towards the later stages of the war, Red Guard soldiers were regularly left without pay.

The employment situation was dire in Finland, which made joining the Red Guard an attractive option. In addition, the Red administration restricted the amount of civilian work, which drove more men to join the Guard. Members of the organised labour movement were also pressured to enlist. The Finnish People’s Delegation also began active recruitment and accepted men who did not belong to any workers’ associations. Towards the end of the war the Red Guard resorted to forced enlistment. On the initiative of Jukka Rahja, a Bolshevik activist, the forced enlistment of Finnish men in St Petersburg led to public outrage, which party leader Otto Ville Kuusinen was subsequently forced to pacify. Once the Finnish People’s Delegation had passed the law on compulsory manpower placement, those who had been classified as enemies of Red Finland were forced to build fortifications and even fight on the front line

The size of the Red Guard was approximately 40,000 troops at the end of February, from which it grew to 76,500 at its highest. The number of Red front-line fighters was slightly under 34,000. According to the payroll, the Red Guard had 1,440 women fighters, but in reality the number of women in the Red Guard was higher, as towards the end of the war there was no time to enter the women who enlisted into the records. The number of White Army troops directly involved in the campaigns was 24,000 in mid-March, increasing to 30,000 by early April. The total strength of the Government army was 45,000 in March and 70,000 at the end of the war.

The Red Guard commanders were elected by the troops

Some of the Red Guard commanders were non-commissioned officers that had received military training in the regular Finnish army. Their training, however, was unsuited to commanding large masses of troops. Some of the commanders were Russians and Finns who had gained military experience in the Russian army. Finns who spoke Russian were also made commanders.

Most of the commanders, however, were ordinary labour activists and workers. Leadership positions were also held by men who had risen through the ranks in the midst of the unrest of the revolution. On the whole, the Red commanders lacked the necessary military training and their ability to lead troops was poor.

Their authority was solely based on their personal characteristics. The Red Guard renounced military ranks and the commanders were elected by the troops. They would also habitually sack their commanders if they were dissatisfied with them and selected a new one.

Those who had served in the old Finnish army also participated in training the Red Guard. The Red military command organised leadership and special training during the war, but their significance remained negligible.

A war fought with mainly Russian arms

Both sides of the Civil War mainly used arms that had belonged to the Imperial Russian Army. From the autumn of 1917 onwards, the Russians were selling their arms both to the Red and the Civil Guard. The Reds attempted to obtain arms from St Petersburg, in which they succeeded. The Red Guard had approximately 25,000 rifles in its use by early February. However, some of the arms never made it to the front line, and were used in duties secondary to the war effort and in guarding duties. Especially at the beginning of the war, this was a major impediment for the Red Guard’s warfare.

The Reds received large arms shipments from St Petersburg by train on 24 January, 27 January and between 12–23 February. The trains were loaded with 35,000 rifles, 80 machine guns and 20 artillery pieces and plenty of ammunition. In addition, a shipment from Tallinn arrived by the beginning of March containing 18,000 rifles and 96 machine guns. The Red Guard had up to 100,000 rifles, 300 machine guns and 250 artillery pieces in its use during the entire Civil War. Compared to its numbers, the Red Guard was sufficiently armed and equipped in March 1918.

The White Army relied on Germany for their armaments. In autumn 1917, the German freight ship Equity brought 6,500 Russian military rifles, 1.85 million cartridges, 30 Russian-made Maxim machine guns, 70,000 machine gun cartridges, and 200 Mauser pistols with 30,000 cartridges. Some of the shipment was unloaded in the islands in front of Vaasa, and the rest was taken to Jakobstad.

Before the Civil War broke out, the Whites had approximately 9,000 rifles at their disposal.  The disarmament of the Russian troops situated in White Finland, which took place at the end of January, gave the White Army additional arms and ammunition, including 8,000 rifles, 34 machine guns, 4 mine-throwers and 37 artillery pieces.

The shortage of arms in the White Army was alleviated in February, when a German shipment of 26,000 rifles, 13 million cartridges, 70 machine guns, 4 field guns and 8 howitzers arrived in Finland.  These were booty won by the Germans from the Russian army. The arms shipments continued throughout the Civil War. During the war, the White Army bought from Germany 87,000 rifles and 35.5 million cartridges, 343 machine guns and 6 million cartridges, and 363 pistols.

Fighting with rifles and machine guns

The Civil War was mainly fought with hand guns and machine guns. The main armament for both sides consisted of various military rifles used by the Russian Army. Finland did not manufacture arms or cartridges for military use under the Russian rule. Instead,  the country produced large quantities of equipment for the Russian Army during WWI, such as steel helmets. A small number of these ended up in use in the 1918 campaigns.

The most commonly used military rifle was the 7.62 mm Russian m/1891 “Mosin-Nagant”. The rifle was familiar to those who had served in the old Finnish army. This is also the bolt-action rifle after which the basic rifle used in the Finnish arm in the Winter War, the m/27, was modelled, although with a shorter barrel than in the original model.  In fact, many of the Civil Guard soldiers who fought in the Winter War used a revamped version of the old Mosin-Nagant, the m/28.

All in all, more than ten different rifle models were used in the Civil War, which was a challenge in terms of ammunition. Especially the Red Guard suffered from a shortage of ammunition from time to time, because of the poorly organised supply.

Machine guns played a major role in the war. In this regard, the campaigns in the Finnish Civil War were no different from those in WWI. A significant number of the casualties of the Civil War were killed by machine gun fire, which spread great terror among the more inexperienced fighters. The most widely used machine gun was the Russian-made Maxim and its many versions. Its rate of fire was 600 rounds per minute. Also Colt, Lewis and Madsen machine guns were used.

In addition, various field guns that had previously belonged to the Russian Army were used, usually with direct laying. The deterrent effect of the artillery was substantial. Light artillery were used alongside machine guns on the armoured railway carriages of the Red Guard. The Red Guard received three or four armoured trains from the Russians, in addition to which the Pasila and Viipuri machine workshops produced at least six trains armoured with steel plates. Heavy coastal artillery was never used in the Civil War.

Railway as the logistical backbone

The railways were the most important form of transport in the Finnish Civil War. The railway network had been expanded in 1910 to facilitate the deployment of Russian troops. The significance of railways was central in mass transportation of troops and securing supplies. The diagonal railway line from Vaasa via Seinäjoki, Haapamäki, Pieksämäki and Joensuu to Sortavala, which was completed just before WWI, was a key route for the White Army. The Red Guard never succeeded in cutting this connection between Ostrobothnia and Karelia.

The Finnish People’s Delegation controlled most of the railway equipment in Finland. They held more than 80 per cent (465/560) of the locomotives, 96 per cent (1,203/1,253) of passenger carriages and 94 per cent (15,722/16,722) of the freight carriages.  However, the Red command was unable to make efficient use of the equipment and the majority of it remained stationary near the front line or at various stations. The trains transported Red Guard and White Army soldiers close to the front line, from where they took positions on foot or by horse.

The fighting concentrated around roads and railway lines, with soldiers settling in the nearby houses. The main fronts ran both sides of the Ostrobothnian, Savonian and Karelian as well as the Pietari–Käkisalmi line. Some 40 rural highways and roads ran across the front line.

Horse-drawn transport was highly important near the front lines and further away from the railway lines. Both sides used horses to secure their supplies and transportations. The Red Guard confiscated horses and forced people living close to the front line to provide transport. During the retreat, the Red Guard had thousands of confiscated horses in their use. Red Guard soldiers who had served or pretended to have served as horsemen were eventually treated more leniently in the aftermath of the war.

The troops mainly moved on foot. Skiing played very little role in the Finnish Civil War. The troops were not properly trained and incapable of guerilla warfare, which in principle would have been highly feasible owing to the fragmented nature of the front line.

Very few motorised vehicle were used. There were fewer than a thousand cars in Finland and the roads were not cleared of snow even under normal circumstances. Most of the cars were held by the Reds, and were used mainly by the senior command. In addition, the Red Guard members drove them just for fun, which depleted the already limited fuel supplies. German troops, which landed in Finland through Hanko, brought trucks with them. However, their were of limited use owing to the poor road conditions in late winter.

The navy played a very small role in the Civil War. The majority of the vessels in the Russian Baltic navy were anchored in Helsinki, but they did not participate in the hostilities. The German landings in Hanko and Loviisa were a major navy operation, but did not involve any fighting. In addition, the retreat of the Finnish People’s Delegation from Vyborg to St Petersburg took place with all possible sea vessels at their disposal. The role of aircraft also remained minor. Their impact was mainly local and, more than anything, they affected the morale on both sides.

The Red Guard stood no chance

The loss of the major industrial city of Tampere in early April 1918 was a bitter defeat for the Red revolutionaries. Large portions of the most capable troops of the Red Guard were destroyed. The Whites were able to take over a large amount of railway equipment, which would prove useful when shifting the focus of the hostilities towards Karelia.

The last major campaign of the Civil War was fought on 24–29 April for the domination of Vyborg, from where the Finnish People’s Delegation had fled earlier.  The White troops massed on the Karelian Isthmus and, commanded by General Löfström, consisted of 18,400 men and 82 artillery pieces. The total number of Red Guard soldiers was 15,000, of whom 7,000 took part in the Vyborg campaign. Manner, the last Commander in Chief of the Red Guard, who was declared a dictator, fled with his closest staff to St Petersburg by sea on 25 April. In practice, the war ended with the taking of Vyborg.

According to Jussi T. Lappalainen, who has researched the warfare of the Red Guard in great detail, the Red Guard were poorly led and organised compared to the White Army and therefore stood practically no chance of winning the war. The Red Finland could not carry out any meaningful intelligence or anticipate the loss of Tampere, which proved a turning point for the entire war. Instead, the White Army had plenty of intelligence on the Finnish People’s Delegation.

The role of the commanders was emphasised in this war, as the troops on both sides were mainly untrained or had only rudimentary military training. In reality, the Red Guard was able to wage war only on a company level. This made any aggressive warfare nearly impossible and turned retreat into chaos.

However, the Red Guard fighters defended their positions often with great perseverance. The German troops that landed in Hanko and Loviisa lost more than 500 soldiers as casualties in the final stages of the war. This was more than five per cent of the Baltic Sea Division troops who participated in the war. Untrained Red Guard soldiers were at their best in defensive action.

“When it comes to physical stamina and endurance, they were for the most part equal in capacity compared to the White Army. The Reds were never short of bravery or commitment. Therefore they deserve to be recognised for the defence efforts in the Tampere campaign. The Reds fought to the very last drop although most of them knew that any hope of breaking through the White blockade had already been lost.”