The Tide Is Turning – Russian Civil War Fall 1919 I THE GREAT WAR 1919

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want to tell you that the GreatWar – Team is producing the ultimate documentary about
the Battle of Berlin in World War 2. You can find out more on or
check the first comment in the comment section below. And now, on to the show. It’s October 1919, and in Russia, the civil
war ravaging the country has reached a breaking point. The White forces in the East are on the run,
while those in the south are closer to Moscow than ever before – but the tide is about
to turn. Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to the
Great War. By the fall of 1919, the Russian Civil War
had been devastating the country for nearly two years. The counter-revolutionary Whites had been
beaten in the East and were fleeing the advancing Reds, while in the south, the White armies
were advancing in one last desperate attempt to defeat the Bolsheviks. The Allies, who up until now had supported
the Whites, had all but given up on the intervention in the north and south – only in the Far
East did they remain, and would play little role in deciding the war’s outcome. For today’s episode, we’ll start in the
east, where White Admiral Kolchak’s armies had suffered a string of devastating defeats
made worse by terrible morale, desertion, and poor logistics. A last-ditch White counter-offensive in September
managed to win back some ground, but these gains were soon lost. The Reds counter-attacked Kolchak’s optimistically
named Moscow Army Group in October, and by November 4th were on the Ishim river, just
250 kilometres from the White capital of Omsk. Untrained White conscripts were sent to the
front to stem the tide, but many deserted en route. Kolchak explained the problem this way: “The
essence of the problem was this: the enemy was able to reinforce his ranks with new forces
more quickly than we could. How can this have happened? Our units which were formed from [conscripts],
from Bolshevik minded elements, crossed over to the red side; this experience bred distrust
[…]. We sent reinforcements, but detachment commanders refused to dilute their units with
these reinforcements.” The Red Army had about 100,000 men and 300
guns ready for the advance on Omsk. To oppose them, the Whites mustered just 55,000
troops, more than half of whom were completely unreliable. Bolshevik forces raced ahead, and the disintegrating
White Army offered little organized resistance, partly due to confusion at the top. General Dietrikhs insisted the city could
not be held, but General Sakharov argued it could still be saved. Kolchak wavered, and eventually sacked Dietrikhs
in favour of Sakharov, but it was too late. White units that had already been withdrawn
further East simply refused to return to defend the capital. After covering the last 100 kilometres in
a single day, the Red Army surprised the White garrison in Omsk and took the city on November
14th. 30,000 White soldiers surrendered, largely
without a fight, in what has been called the greatest example of White ineptitude. Many White officers simply fled before the
Reds even arrived. One British observer remarked: “[The streets]
were so thickly littered with epaulettes as to suggest the idea of fallen leaves in autumn.” White General Budberg agreed: “Often the
instability and even cowardice of the officers are the reason the soldiers quit the battlefield
and flee in panic.”Now, his diary was published later in the Soviet Union, but other accounts
confirm this view. At this point, what remained of Kolchak’s
armies completely melted away, and the White government all but ceased to function. General Sakharov was relieved of his command
December 9th, but it made little difference. The garrison at Tomsk mutinied as the Reds
approached, and another 30,000 Whites were taken prisoner when the city fell December
20th. So Kolchak’s armies had been beaten in the
field. For the remaining Whites in the east, the
question was: what now? A panicked scramble to escape further east
soon began, which became known as the Great Siberian Ice March. The few trains soon filled up, and thousands
of White officers, administrators, their families, and other refugees attempted the 2000km journey
across the frigid taiga on foot. In the depth of the Siberian winter, thousands
perished from typhus and exposure on the march to the distant city of Chita, east of Lake
Baikal. But even in Chita, there was no real refuge
for them. The city was controlled by Cossack warlord
Ataman Semenov, and he declared it his capital in December. Nominally on the White side, Semenov was in
fact a brutal warlord who followed his own self-interest, and ruled with an iron fist. He had ample support from the Japanese, who
backed him even though the other Allies refused to do so. General Budberg wrote later of his despair:
“The poison of the Ataman regime and the lure of lawlessness have penetrated everywhere
too deeply and we are unable to put an end to this evil. It will in all likelihood consume us, but
it will itself parish in the stench it has produced.” The remaining elements of Kolchak’s regime
were beset by infighting, even as their cause fell to pieces around them. Many generals refused to serve alongside Semenov,
and the arguing amongst them caused others to save their own skins and leave the country. There were also bitter arguments between prominent
civilians and military men about what had gone wrong and what to do now. One of Kolchak’s ministers, Sergei Tretyakov,
summed up the hopelessness of the situation: “The bloody dictatorship of Lenin and Trotsky
will not get us a step closer to what we understand as truly Democratic methods of government. Our culture is a frail vessel on the raging
ocean. We, the representatives of the intelligentsia,
ignoring the elements descending upon us, are fighting each other on board the ship. The ocean will swallow the ship and us together
with it.”. To add fuel to the fire, because of Kolchak’s
weakness, local uprisings broke out across the region. Some of these were revolutionary in character,
while others were simply groups of bandits intent on profit – but usually neither of
these types of groups coordinated their efforts with the Bolsheviks. In fact, local partisans who had resisted
the Whites often turned on the Red Army as soon as it marched into town. With the remains of the White movement adrift
and the countryside in revolt, it wasn’t only the peasants who turned against their
former masters. What chance Kolchak may have had to create
a new White government further east was an open question, since a strange alliance had
sprung up between disgruntled White generals and Socialist Revolutionary politicians. The Socialist Revolutionary Party, or SRs,
was a democratic left wing party which had actually won a plurality in the elections
of 1917, but had then been suppressed, first by the Reds, then afterwards by the Whites. Kolchak had even exiled some of its members
to China, and allowed others to be executed. The party split, and some joined the Bolsheviks
while others took refuge in White-held areas and bided their time. They hoped there could be a so called third
way for Russia, other than Red and White. Now that Kolchak was on the run, they decided
the time for a coup in tandem with the suddenly friendly White generals was ripe. Only in 1919. In Vladivostok, the SRs teamed up with General
Gajda, who informed the British on November 7 that he would seize power as soon as Omsk
fell. Gajda was certainly no stranger to switching
sides. He started the war as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian
army, then ended up in the Czech Legion, then commanded one of Kolchak’s armies, and now
joined with the SRs to lead a coup against his former commander. But it was a doomed enterprise. The SRs declared a Provisional People’s
Government of Siberia on November 17th, but there were powerful forces arrayed against
them. White General ROzanov and the nominally White
Ataman warlord KalmykOv, with support from the Japanese, surrounded Gajda’s troops
and the SRs and massacred 300 as they surrendered. Soon after, the Whites executed 500 more prisoners,
throwing the leaders into the harbour and shooting them like fish in a barrel – but
Gajda escaped alive. A similar revolt in Irkutsk met a similar
fate just a few weeks later. There, SRs and Mensheviks, another left wing
party suppressed by the Reds, tried to create another Siberian government which they called
the Political Center. Their program was: a separate democratic state
in the east, the end of Allied intervention, and a peace treaty with the Bolsheviks. But with Kolchak approaching from the west
and the Red Army closing on the city from the north, their leaders were arrested December
23rd. When the Whites fled the city a week later,
the remaining SRs tried to take power with the help of White deserters. Instead, Ataman Semenovs men had the leaders
drowned in the icy waters of Lake Baikal. So the alliance of convenience between the
Social Revolutionaries and rebel generals had failed, and disorder prevailed. But there was another force in the region
that was about to make its presence felt. The Czechoslovak Legion had played a key role
earlier in the Civil War, but following Kolchak’s seizure of power, they had taken a secondary
role guarding the Trans-Siberian railway in 1919. The Czechs had not helped the SRs in Irkutsk,
since at this point they had other priorities. The Legion had been in war-torn Russia for
years, and were desperate to get out. They were disenchanted with the Whites, as
they made clear in November: “Under the protection of Czechoslovak bayonets, the local
Russian military authorities permit themselves activities that horrify the entire civilised
world. The burning of villages, the beating of peaceful
Russian citizens by the hundreds, [and] the shooting without trial of representatives
of democracy on the mere suspicion of political unreliability have become habitual developments.” The Czechoslovak National Council in Irkutsk
announced they could no longer be accomplices to such crimes and wanted to go home. Their control of the railway was the card
they now played to get home. Czechoslovak troops accompanied Kolchak’s
train as it made its way from Omsk to Irkutsk, but they deliberately slowed it to buy time. On January 4th, he stepped down as leader
of the White movement in favour of Denikin, and the train ran up Allied colours for safety. But despite the French and British flags,
his fate was in the Legion’s hands. They decided to trade him and the gold on
the train to the remaining Political Center leaders in Irkutsk in exchange for free passage
east. The deal was struck, and Kolchak became a
prisoner. When the Bolsheviks took the city soon after,
he was executed by a Cheka firing squad. So, the White collapse in the east was virtually
complete, leaving only local rebels, nominally White warlords and the Japanese in control
east of Lake Baikal. Now let’s turn our attention to the northwest,
where Petrograd was under attack. In October 1919, General Yudenich’s Northwest
army occupied a sliver of Russian territory just west of Estonia, tantalizingly close
to Petrograd. In a rare instance of White coordination,
he launched an ambitious attack towards the former capital at the same time Denikin’s
forces advanced in south Russia. He had about 18,000 men, 44 guns, plus a few
tanks and aircraft under his command, to go along with limited support from Estonian troops
and the Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea. But the Northwest army faced some serious
challenges: its men were mostly unreliable Red prisoners or deserters, the Estonians
didn’t trust it because Yudenich wanted to re-establish the Russian empire, and the
Allies didn’t trust it because it had originally been set up with German support in 1918. His force was in such a poor state that it
seemed there was nothing to lose by going all out for Petrograd. The offensive began October 10 and started
well. The Reds were likely caught off guard, having
transferred troops to the south just weeks before, and the Whites made quick progress. By October 21st they had reached the palace
towns of Pavlovsk and Tsarskoe Selo. From there, they could see the Golden Dome
of St Isaac’s cathedral just 30 km away in central Petrograd. But all was not well. Many White troops deserted during the advance,
and White officers displayed poor discipline, ignoring orders so they could to race pell-mell
to Petrograd. Their flanks were left open, and they failed
to cut the rail line to Moscow. All the same, the Bolsheviks were concerned. Reinforcements were rushed north from the
southern front, and Trotsky arrived in his special train on October 17th. He is often credited with re-energizing emphasize
Lenin’s role. In Trotsky’s memoirs, he certainly did take
credit for the victory, and said that Lenin was prepared to give up Petrograd if necessary. Lenin did make the following suggestion for
the defence of the city: “Mobilize another 20,000 or so Petrograd workers plus about
10,000 ‘bourgies,’ set up machine guns behind them, shoot several hundred, and assure
a real mass assault on Yudenich.” In any case such extremes were not needed,
as 40,000 Red troops with 450 guns was more than enough to halt the ragged White army
and drive it back, despite many desertions on the Bolshevik side as well. The Northwest army was pushed back across
the border into Estonia, where most of its men were disarmed and interned. So the attack on Petrograd was a failure – but
that was not a surprise given the weakness of the Northwest army. What it did achieve was to draw off valuable
Red reinforcements from the southern front, where the decisive action was taking place. By the middle of October, the White offensive
in south Russia had reached Oryol and Voronezh, just a couple hundred kilometres from Moscow. The Bolsheviks were so concerned at this point
that they actually declared martial law in the Moscow region and put an emergency revolutionary
committee in charge. 120,00 residents were conscripted for preparing
defensive works, and the Bolshevik government prepared to escape east of the Urals. They even printed fake passports for the Central
Committee just in case. But things were not as bad for the Reds as
they seemed. The Whites were overstretched and suffered
from many of the same problems of desertion and disorganization as those in the east. The new white recruits were also of poor quality
compared to older elite units that were now severely weakened – many were Red deserters,
and training was haphazard. The British mission remarked: “As infantry,
the [old units] would have been hard to beat anywhere, while it would have been hard for
any other infantry not to beat the [new ones].” The Red Army, on the other hand, had grown
in strength – to nearly 3 million men at the end of the year. Most of the 2 million losses they would suffer
in 1919 were from desertion, and nearly two thirds of those returned to the colours in
the second half of the year.The Bolsheviks still faced serious challenges from economic
chaos and peasant revolts behind their lines, but they were now stronger than their main
enemy. On the southern front, the 150,000 to 200,000
Reds outnumbered the 100,000 Whites, and had far larger reserves.) Secret talks with Poland also allowed troops
to be shifted south from the quiet western front. Now the Red counterattack was supposed to
go like this: the main attack would come from the east, along the Volga, and push towards
the Sea of Azov, cutting off nearly all the White armies with one blow. Lenin endorsed the idea on October 4, but
the Bolsheviks panicked and changed the plan when Oryol fell 10 days later. Troops were transferred from the Volga to
the Moscow front, and the main counter attack was expected to be delayed. But the Reds did attack, just not as planned. A Strike force with Latvian and Estonian units
in the van had been carefully prepared on the left flank of the advancing Whites, and
it struck them hard. The Whites were pushed back, and Oryol fell
October 20. Days later, a Red Cavalry army under Semyon
Budyonny smashed the Don Army and recaptured Voronezh. He kept up the westward pressure and on November
17 took Kursk despite a winter storm, threatening to cut off the White spearhead and split the
Don and Volunteer armies. To avoid encirclement, the Whites began to
pull back. Both Trotsky and Stalin later claimed to be
the masterminds of this unplanned victory, but these claims were made later and are questionable,
even though Stalin was the southern army group commissar since October 3. In fact, Red success was due in part to improvisation. Budyonny wasn’t even supposed to be anywhere
near the area where he attacked. He had disobeyed orders to move east and instead
turned west, which put his army at exactly the right place to hit the vulnerable White
flank and rear. At first, the White retreat was more or less
controlled, but once Kharkhiv fell on December 11, discipline broke down and the retreat
became a 500 km rout. Kiev was given up December 17, and the White
armies did not stop until they had crossed the Don and taken refuge in the Crimea in
early January. But the Whites did not go quietly. As the army retreated through Ukraine, numerous
pogroms were committed against the Jewish population. The violence was often motivated by material
gain, but anti-Semitic sentiment and propaganda played a role as well. Thousands were killed, and officers either
turned a blind eye or encouraged the violence. General Mamontov told his men: “Arm yourself
and rise against the common enemy of our Russian land, against the Jewish Bolshevik communists.” Denikin protested in October, but it was too
little too late. Of course the advancing Red Army was not free
of anti-Semitism either, and certainly looted as well. One Commissar reported the crimes he’d seen:
“Breaking open chests, pulling out women’s underwear, money, watches, dishes, [and the
like]. There have been cases of rape and torture
[…] Peasants ask what’s the difference? The whites pillaged, now it’s the Reds?!” It was clear now that the Whites were beaten,
and the Reds definitively had the upper hand. The question the Whites asked themselves then,
and historians have asked since, is why. There has been a lot of discussion, then and
now, about why the Whites lost. General Vrangel criticized Denikin’s military
strategy in his memoirs: “Striving for space, we endlessly stretched ourselves into a spiders
web, and wanting to hold on to everything and to be everywhere strong we were everywhere
weak.” The British mission agreed, and told Denikin
in February: “The procedure hitherto adopted would have led to complete shipwreck if you
had reached Moscow, because you would have left behind you an occupied area which would
not have been consolidated.” Denikin, of course, saw it differently: “We
lengthened the front by hundreds of versts and we became from this not weaker, but stronger.” At the time, some saw reasons other than faulty
strategy behind the White defeat. Denikin also blamed the Poles for not attacking
in the West, and some officers blamed Makhno for causing several units to be transferred
south at a critical moment. Others blamed the Jews, as British journalist
John Hodgson recorded: “[The] White army laid practically all the blame for their country’s
trouble on the Hebrew. Many held that the whole cataclysm had been
engineered by some great and mysterious Society of international Jews.”) Some historians have given Denikin some credit
for realizing that he could not wait until the Bolsheviks became even stronger, and the
best chance the Whites had was to strike for Moscow as soon as possible.Others have called
his Moscow Directive quote “a disastrous mistake [which] cost the Whites the Civil
War”, so the debate continues. He has been roundly criticized on several
other counts: he could not control his armies, he quarrelled with the Cossacks over autonomy,
and he was not able to build sustainable institutions to administer and govern the territory he
controlled. On the other hand, Red control of their territory
was also weak in some places, so there is no consensus on that point either. As far as the White failure to win over the
peasants is concerned, there is much agreement. Denikin recognized his political failure,
as he wrote later: “Our liberation of vast regions was supposed to bring about a popular
upsurge […] Would the People come over to us or would they, as in the past, remain inert
and passive between two waves, between two mortally opposed camps? For a series of complicated reasons – some
independent, some dependent on us – life gave an answer that was at first indecisive, and
then negative.” A popular saying in the White army about the
peasants reinforced the fact that the Whites had not won enough hearts and minds: they
met us with flowers, now they are seeing us off with machine guns”. Peasant and worker fears that White victory
meant the land and factory owners would return had simply not been overcome. As a White spy reported on the mood of the
workers in Red Petrograd: “The worker elements, at least a large section of them, are still
Bolshevik inclined. Like some other democratic elements, they
see the regime, although bad, as their own […] Psychologically, they identify the present
with equality and Soviet power and the Whites with the old regime and its scorn for the
masses.” So by the end of 1919, the Red Army was triumphant
in the east, northwest and south. Its main enemy, the counter-revolutionary
White movement, had been smashed and now had no real hope of overthrowing the revolution. All the same, the Bolshevik grip on the country
was tenuous, as the peasants seethed under the yoke of food requisitioning and the Red
Terror. And there were still external enemies as well,
and the Polish front which had been so quiet that year would not stay that way for long. As usual, you can find all our sources for
this episode in the video description. If you want to support our channel, you can
support us on Patreon or buy our merchandise – the links are in the video description
below as well. I’m Jesse Alexander and this is The Great
War 1919, a production of Real Time History and the only YouTube history channel that
could conquer the internet with an army of untrained conscripts – if we wanted to.

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