Commissar Trotsky’s Military Tactics

From The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 145-148:

Between May and June [1918], the Czechs swept eastwards, capturing Novo-Nikolaevsk, Penza, Syzran, Tomsk, Omsk, Samara and finally Vladivostok. Meanwhile, Russia’s former allies sent expeditionary forces, whose primary aim was to keep Russia in the war. The British landed troops at Archangel and Murmansk, as well as at Vladivostok; the French sent men to Odessa, the Americans to Vladivostok. The Allies also supplied the White armies with weapons and other supplies. The Japanese seized the opportunity to march across the Amur River from Manchuria. Meanwhile, the cities that were supposed to be the headquarters of the Revolution emptied as factories closed and supplies of food and fuel dried up. When Denikin called on all the White forces to converge on Moscow in July 1918, it seemed more than likely that the Bolshevik regime would be overthrown.

On August 6, 1918, White forces in combination with the renegade Czech Legion captured Kazan. The Bolshevik 5th Army was haemorrhaging deserters. Ufa had fallen; so too had Simbirsk, Lenin’s own birthplace. Another step back along the Volga would bring the forces of counter-revolution to the gates of Nizhny-Novgorod, opening the road to Moscow. Having resigned his post as Commissar for Foreign Affairs in favour of Military Affairs, Trotsky now had the daunting task of stiffening the Red Army’s resolve. He was, as we have seen, by training a journalist not a general. Yet the goatee-bearded intellectual with his pince-nez had seen enough of war in the Balkans and on the Western Front to know that without discipline an army was doomed. It was Trotsky who insisted on the need for conscription, realizing that volunteers would not suffice. It was Trotsky who brought in the former Tsarist NCOs and officers – many of them hitherto languishing in jail – whose experience was to be vital in taking on the Whites.

Trotsky had two advantages. Firstly, the Bolsheviks controlled the central railway hubs, from which he could deploy forces at speed. Indeed, it was from his own specially designed armoured railway carriage that he himself directed operations, travelling some 100,000 miles in the course of the war. Secondly, though the Bolsheviks lacked experience of war, they did have experience of terrorism; like the Serbian nationalists, they too had employed assassination as a tactic in the pre-war years. It was to terror, in the name of martial law, that Trotsky now turned.

When he arrived at Kazan, the first thing he did was to uncouple the engine from his train; a signal to his troops that he had no intention of retreating. He then brought twenty-seven deserters to nearby Syvashsk, on the banks of the Volga, and had them shot. The only way to ensure that Red Army recruits did not desert or run away, Trotsky had concluded, was to mount machine-guns in their rear and shoot any who failed to advance against the enemy. This was the choice he offered: possible death in the front or certain death in the rear. ‘We must put an end once and for all’, he sneered with a characteristically caustic turn of phrase, ‘to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.’ Units that refused to fight were to be decimated. It was a turning point in the Russian civil war – and an ominous sign of how the Bolsheviks would behave if they won it. In the bitter fighting for the bridge over the Volga at Kazan, Trotsky’s tactics made that outcome significantly more likely. The bridge was saved, and on September 10 the city itself was retaken. Two days later Simbirsk also fell to the Reds. The White advance faltered as they found themselves challenged not only by a rapidly growing Red Army, but also by recalcitrant Ukrainians and Chechens to their rear. The Czechs were weary of fighting; the Legion disintegrated as it was driven back to Samara and then beyond the Urals…. By the end of November Denikin had lost Voronezh and Kastornoe.

The end of the war on the Western Front was well timed for the Bolsheviks. It undermined the legitimacy of the foreign powers’ intervention, especially as they now had left-wing outbreaks of their own to deal with. Only the Japanese showed any inclination to maintain an armed presence on Russian soil, and they were content to stake out new territorial claims in the Far East and leave the rest of Russia to its fate.

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Filed under Britain, Czechia, France, Japan, Slovakia, U.S., USSR, war

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