Battle for the Caucasus: Britain versus Russia, 1918-20 (Part Five)

As early as the end of January 1919 Lloyd George indicated to the Allied Supreme Council that, despite the influx of troops over the previous mouths, he saw the British occupation of the Caucasus as a temporary phenomenon. On 6 March the Inter-Departmental Conference on Middle Eastern Affairs under Lord Curzon, to which the Cabinet had delegated authority on such mattes, agreed that preparations should be made for a withdrawal of British forces (CAB 23/9, 6.3.1919). 

The British and Denikin

It was decided, as an alternative to British occupation, to use Denikin’s forces as a shield over the Caucasus. British arms and military equipment would be supplied in abundance to Denikin on the understanding that Denikin’s Volunteer army would fight the Bolsheviks and not turn their attention to the Caucasus states Britain had established to its rear.

Britain bore virtually the entire financial cost of the Russian Civil War on the White side.

The Chancellor of Exchequer and Treasury, Austen Chamberlain, was demanding the “severest economy” from government and military and the requisite savings could “only be obtained by reductions in men.” 

Another problem Britain faced at this moment was the situation in Ireland. The Irish people had overwhelmingly voted for independence in the first UK democratic General Election of 1918 and established a parliament to institute the mandate it had won. When Britain ignored the result and attempted to repress the Irish democracy Britain by military force it was faced with insurrection on its own doorstep.

Sir Henry Wilson, Churchill’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff, a strong anti-Bolshevik, was also a hardline Unionist opponent of Sinn Fein. As more and more British troops were required for the “storm centres” of Ireland, India and Egypt and to enforce a treaty on Turkey Wilson began to become less supportive of occupying the Caucasus with valuable military forces required immediately elsewhere (Major-General Callwell, Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, His Life and Diaries, Vol. II, p.182).

On 21 March the Foreign Secretary, Balfour, secured the agreement of the Italians to step into Britain’s shoes in the Caucasus and replace the withdrawing British forces. However, the Italian government of Orlando and Sonnino fell soon after the agreement and was replaced by a new one led by Francesco Nitti, who cancelled the despatch of Italian forces.

A frustrated Balfour then sought the replacement of British forces with American troops – using the Armenians as bait – but the U.S. was unwilling to have the problem palmed off on it and engage in such a responsibility at that moment.

The British evacuation of the Caucasus coincided with other withdrawals from North Russia and the Baltic Republics. But it also coincided with the period (September-October) when the White forces were achieving their greatest successes against the Bolsheviks, when victory seemed possible. 

The decision to withdraw British forces from the Caucasus and instead fund Denikin’s forces against the Bolsheviks had the effect of facilitating Churchill’s policy of war on the Soviets, despite the Prime Minister’s reluctance to embrace it. Churchill believed that the Bolsheviks could be defeated by increasing supplies to the White Armies and supporting them with British volunteers and military advisers. He used the British Cabinet’s vague policy to support anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia by authorising massive material aid to Kolchak and Denikin, for a situation of the “utmost military urgency” (John M. Thompson, Russia, Bolshevism, and the Versailles Peace, pp. 122-3).

As long as the Prime Minister pursued an obscure policy with regard to Russia his War Minister was able to pursue a private war on the Bolsheviks, within limits. In mid-1919, without consulting the Cabinet, Churchill instructed the Imperial General Staff to increase the amount of supplies to Denikin’s Army to be sufficient to fully equip 250,000 men. The supplies included 25,000 poison gas shells. Churchill described mustard gas as the “ideal weapon against our beastly enemy”.

In the Summer of 1919, after the reversal of Kolchak’s fortunes in Siberia, Lloyd George concluded that because he had failed to muster enough popular support to defeat the Bolsheviks it would be wise to concentrate efforts in supporting Denikin, who at least seemed to command support in Southern Russia. Churchill argued that Kolchak was still worth supporting, if only to draw Soviet forces away from Denikin’s advance.

Churchill convinced Lloyd George that it was cheaper to supply Denekin with surplus British Great War matériel than to transport it to England and store it. The amount supplied by Britain to Denekin’s forces was enormous. It included full British Army kit for 500,000 men, 1,200 field guns with 2 million rounds of ammunition, 6,000 machine guns, 200,000 rifles with 500 million rounds of ammunition, 600 lorries and motorcars, 300 motorcycles, 70 tanks, 6 armoured cars, and 200 aircraft, field hospitals and signal and engineering equipment. This was sufficient to fully equip an army of 250,000 men and more than Denikin was ever able to use, as the combat strength of his army was only ever around 150,000 men. In all at least 100 million pounds was spent on Denikin’s army, according to Churchill’s figures (Information can be found in 3 White Papers, Statement of Expenditure on Naval and Military Operations in Russia, Cmd 307, 11.11.1918-31.7.1919; Cmd 395, to 31.10.19, Expenditure on ; Cmd 772 revised. Also FO 371/5448, Major General Sir H.C. Holman’s Final Report of the British Military Mission, South Russia, April 1920)

The British Military Mission, which organised the training of Denikin’s forces was about 2,000 strong. Training the White army in the use of the new British weapons was an essential part of the aid from London.

Although it was stated that only British advisers were present in the Caucasus and it was denied that British forces were participating in the Russian Civil War, they did indeed take place in front-line operations, because much of the new British weaponry, like tanks and warplanes, could not be operated effectively by the Russians. British anti-Bolshevik “volunteers” were recruited from demobilised men and 47 Squadron RAF, partly manned with volunteer Aces from the Great War, bombed Russian towns and villages. There was even a plan for the RAF to bomb Moscow, although Churchill cancelled it at the last minute.

In the Spring Denikin split his army in two, sending the major part to defend the Donbass against a Red offensive, aimed at exterminating the Cossacks. The smaller part, under Denekin’s best commander, Peter Wrangel, was sent against Tsaritsyn. This decision led to a falling out between Denikin and Wrangel, who believed all effort should be concentrated in the East to link up with Kolchak’s front. However, by that time Kolchak’s forces were in retreat.

On July 1 Denikin, a cautious military commander, issued his Moscow Directive, an all-or-nothing, ambitious broad front, three-pronged assault on the Bolshevik capital. Denikin was pushed into this great gamble by the understanding that British assistance was temporary and time was running out. It involved Wrangel marching North toward Saratov and Penza toward Moscow with the Caucasus army on the East flank. The Don army would march straight up the Don valley in the centre. The Volunteer army was to advance from Kharkov, via Kursk, Orel and Tula on the West flank. (Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, pp.85-6)

Britain and White Russia

When Denikin’s forces seemed to be on the cusp of victory against the Bolsheviks in the Autumn of 1919 there was a debate about what now confronted Britain in the event of a White victory. In a debate about what  “the ultimate aim” of British policy toward Russia should be Lloyd George was recorded as asking the Cabinet whether it

“would be in the interests of the British Empire to aim for a united Russia under any government, whether it was Bolshevist or anti-Bolshevist, or of any other tendencies, however good it might be. It would be inevitable that such a government would have a natural inclination to creep forward and, as Lord Beaconsfield had pointed out in connection with the situation in the past, such a government would… result in a peril not only to the British Empire but to the peace of the world… The future of the British Empire might depend on how the Russian situation developed, and he personally did not view with equanimity the thought of a powerful united Russia of 130,000,000 inhabitants.” (CAB 23/15, WC 624A, 11.9.1919)

The Prime Minister suggested the setting up of an independent Ukraine, a Don Cossack state and Turkestan to limit Russia in the future. 

Churchill spoke against the Prime Minister in favour of the “Great Russia” position and against any independence for the Caucasus states, if it placed Britain into conflict with Denikin. He believed that Britain had to remain on good terms with Russia, when it re-emerged after the Bolshevik interlude (FO 371/3961, 5.10.1919). At a previous Eastern Committee meeting he had suggested that one day Britain would “depend upon a restored Russia as a balance against Germany” (FO General/216, 6.3.1919).

What concerned Churchill most was that with Denikin advancing successfully on Moscow an attempt might be made to cut off his supplies in order to curb his power. In no circumstances should the interests of the Caucasus states be placed on the same level as the defeat of Bolshevik by Denikin (FO 371/3961, 5.10.19). The War Office refused to challenge Denikin when he moved forces into Dagestan in June 1919.

Whilst supporting a full-blooded war on Bolshevism Churchill was ultimately in favour of withdrawal from the Caucasus. He, like Balfour, was indifferent to the fate of the peoples there. If Britain was to put scarce resources into anything, Churchill believed it should be into defeating the Bolsheviks and overthrowing them at source. If he had succeeded the Caucasus would have undoubtedly remained part of the Russian Empire.

The Caucasus states saw Denikin’s forces as a more immediate threat to them than the Bolsheviks. Denikin, pursuing the policy of “Holy and Undivided Russia” did not recognise the sovereignty of these states and was particularly hostile to the Georgian Menshevik-dominated government in Tiflis, which the Whites viewed as being not very different from the Bolsheviks. Already there developed clashes between White and Georgian forces in early 1919.

Britain could not recognise an independent Georgia for fear of alienating Denikin, who it now depended upon as the major element in the war on the Bolsheviks.

When the British General Briggs met Denikin for the first time he gave the White General an ultimatum on behalf of the British Government to cease hostilities with the Georgians and turn his attention to the Bolsheviks or military aid to him would be reconsidered by London. Denikin replied:

“I am a Russian and I will help Russians and Armenians against these savage Georgians, who are acting like Bolsheviks… I will not listen to the orders of an alien government, but I have issued orders, and they will be carried out to kick these Barbarians over the frontier. If HM Government will withdraw her assistance we will carry it out on our own resources.” (WO 95/4958, 20/2/1919)

General Denikin regarded the Armenians as his allies in the traditional Tsarist relationship which employed them as justification for a Russian presence in the Caucasus. He regarded the Georgians and Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, as enemies to be crushed.

Denikin then asked Briggs what were the British and French “zones of influence” he had heard about and what were the British actually doing in the Caucasus, since no one had actually invited them there?

Despite the tough talking Denikin, however, was forced to continue to toe the British line, as they were maintaining his army through His Majesty’s Treasury.

Churchill’s private war seemed to be paying dividends in October and all talk of peace had dried up. Lloyd George made no public statements on Russia from April until November 1919.

Denikin’s great offensive in the late Summer of 1919 began with a series of victories. Kiev, Kursk and Voronezh all fell to the White volunteers. A British tank battalion, which was particularly effective on the rolling grass plains, and two squadrons of the RAF played important roles in the victories. The RAF destroyed the Bolshevik Volga flotilla. 

On 7 September, the British Cabinet, taking the lead of the Prime Minister, decided to terminate aid to Denikin. Churchill was instructed to deliver one “final packet” of aid to Denikin to the value of 15 million pounds. Churchill was instructed to inform Denikin of the fact that this was the final shipment and that the British Military Mission would be withdrawn from South Russia in the spring of 1920. All aid would cease on 31 March 1920. The Cabinet’s instructions were clear and left Churchill with no more room for manoeuvre (CAB 23/12, 7.10.1919).

The Bolsheviks were on the defensive along the whole of the Southern Front, and had to concentrate most of the Red Army against Denikin’s advance. In mid-October 1919, at the high point of the Whites’ fortunes, Denikin was only 300km from Moscow and controlled a large part of Russia, containing 40 million people. Yudenich, with supporting British forces from the RAF and Royal Navy, also began an advance on Petrograd reaching its outskirts, before being stopped by the numerically superior Red Army.

A week later Churchill declared to the Cabinet that the Bolsheviks would soon be beaten, in a final attempt to stiffen their resolve to overthrow Lenin. (Churchill’s Memorandum ‘Situation in Russia’, CAB 24/90, NA, 15.10.1919)

So when Denikin marched into the Ukraine it was “now or never” and this was the climax of the Russian Civil War.

One of the things that disabled the Whites and deny them support was the  inability of the command to control their military and civilian personnel in territories they occupied. Indiscipline was rife, looting, corruption and score-settling was all pervasive. 

The advancing Whites committed a large number of anti-Jewish pogroms in the territory they captured, particularly in the Ukraine. They saw the Bolsheviks as a Jewish conspiracy and this view was widely shared by British officers and observers among them. There is no evidence that Denikin himself was Anti-Semitic but he just could not control his forces.

After reading  reports of the massacres of Jews, the British Prime Minister, concerned at public opinion, asked Churchill to make enquiries about their treatment by “his friends”. Churchill explained to Lloyd George, citing British Military Mission reports, that the anti-Jewish violence was simply local vengeance because “the Jews had certainly played a leading part in Bolshevik atrocities” (Michael J. Cohen, Churchill and the Jews, pp.55-7)

Actually the Bolshevik Jews were the least Jewish element within the Jewish community, often going to great lengths to disguise their Jewishness. They had largely broken with their community long ago when they became Communists.

When Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist friend of Lloyd George, complained to the government about the pogroms Eyre Crowe at the Foreign Office wrote in a Memorandum: “It is to be remembered that what may appear to Mr. Weizmann to be outrages against the Jews in the eyes of the Ukrainians be retaliation against the horrors committed by the Bolsheviks who are all organised and directed by the Jews.” (FO 608/196, 1.8.1919)

The Jewish community of the Ukraine were caught between a host of anti-semitic forces. Not only did they suffer the anti-Bolshevik Whites and Cossacks but Ukrainian partisans, who fought Russians of all persuasions and, who were ferociously Anti-Semitic, wiping out entire Jewish communities when they got the chance (see Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, pp.99-114, for details of the Whites and Anti-Semitism).

Bolshevik Resurgence

The Bolsheviks, however, recovered from the White offensive and turned it back. There were a number of reasons for the resurgence.

In November 1918 the British had imposed a blockade on Soviet Russia to go with the one the Royal Navy was tightening on Germany, after the Armistice. This starvation blockade killed at a rate of over 100,000 civilians each month in both countries until Germany signed the Peace Treaty and Russia proved unbeatable.

The British Blockade, by land and sea, forced the Bolsheviks into a war economy – War Communism – and autarky, just when Lenin had it in mind to make compromises with International Capitalism, to boost the Russian economy.

The Bolsheviks had an aversion to building a standing army of largely peasants, or wasting the proletariat in such a force, and originally relied on a 35,000 strong brigades of Latvian Rifles to establish power – disperse the Constituent Assembly, putting down a Left SR Rising and defending the Volga from the Czechs.

The Red Army in February/March 1918 was largely a paper construct. It was assembled by Trotsky behind the German shield of Brest-Litovsk, during mid-1918 as a necessary force against Entente intervention. It was led mostly by ex-Tsarist officers.

Of course, one of the terms of the treaty had been that the Bolsheviks should have no standing army. However, the Germans, having seen off Russia and having urgent business on the Western Front, were inclined to turn a blind eye to anything their Bolshevik  instruments were doing. It was small beer in the context of things. The Bolsheviks, presumably, could be dealt with when affairs were closed to the West.

When Lenin saw the Allies winning the War in October 1918 he ordered a general conscription aimed at building a new army of 3 million by the Spring of 1919, when it might be needed. By late 1919 it had reached that target against a combined opposition of 250,000 (Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War, p. 181).

The continued Allied presence in Russia after the Armistices justified the building of this army. When it became apparent to Russians that they were to be harshly punished by the Allies for unilaterally concluding the War with the Germans tens of thousands of ex-Tsarist officers flocked to it during the Winter of 1918/19.

The German withdrawal at the Armistices, particularly from the Ukraine and Georgia removed the buffer between the Western Imperialists. Admiral Kolchak was appointed “Supreme Ruler” of an “All-Russian Provisional Government” in Omsk with the approval of the British presence there and Russia and the Civil War began in earnest.

Before the Bolshevik takeover in Russia there had been some discussion within Lenin’s circle about whether a Civil War was a necessary feature of successful revolution. Lenin agreed with Marx that the Paris Communards were defeated because they “did not want to start a civil war”. Bukharin and Trotsky agreed with Lenin on this point (see Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, p. 6).

Of course, what the Bolsheviks meant by “Civil War” was actually class war. However, the British provided the Bolsheviks with something much better than a pure Civil War, where class forces lined up against one another. They provided for the support of the most unpopular classes in Russia by half-hearted foreign intervention. Nothing could have been more welcome to the Bolsheviks in assisting them with building a popular base and establishing functional military forces for a new Russian State than such a scenario.

The Red Army, unlike its White Guard opponents had

“a single, unified command taking orders from a tightly knit political oligarchy… The White armies were fragmented and separated by large distances. They not only had no common strategy, but most of the time could not even communicate with other to coordinate operations… To make matters worse, the White armies were made up of an agglomeration of diverse components, each with its own command and interests: this held true of the most numerous contingent of the Southern Army, the Cossacks, who obeyed the commands of the White generals only if and when it suited them.” (Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, p.10)

The Cossacks were not really Russian patriots but were disturbed by the alteration in class relations that Bolshevik rule implied. They were antagonised by Lenin’s Land Decree because in their midst lived nearly 2 million peasants, many who were landless and poorer than the Cossacks, who had been radicalised and could now take land. They made up the bulk of Denikin’s fighting forces but were often addressed as svoloch/scum by their Russian commanders. (Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War, p. 181)

White offensives, uncoordinated, occurred at different times, in different places, resulting in the Bolsheviks not feeling maximum pressure at one decisive time and enabling the Red Army to transfer forces to the crucial areas as needs must. This was the great advantage of the holding of the centre, where forces could be more easily transferred along shortened lines of communication.

In his World Crisis, Churchill wrote the following of Moscow, the Bolsheviks and their White enemies:

“The ancient capital… lay at the centre of a web of railroads… and in the midst of a spider! Vain hope to crush the spider by the advance of lines of encircling flies.” (World Crisis, Aftermath, p.234)

Lenin had moved the capital from Petrograd in March 1918 because its vulnerability to attack from the West. Despite being the governing force of a fragmenting society the Bolsheviks had some strategic advantages. They held the heartland of Russia, a gigantic area, with the great bulk of the Russian population at their disposal (4/5 to 1 in the Bolshevik favour). They controlled the great Russian railway network which radiated out from Moscow across the country to Petrograd, Archangel, the Don, Urals and Western Siberia. They had the arsenals of the old Tsarist armies as well as almost all the munitions  factories.

Whilst the Bolsheviks were solid with an ethnically homogenous population at their back, their opponents on the other hand, were a hotch-potch of political tendencies, occupying only the wide periphery of the Empire with its assortment of peoples, many of whom feared the Whites every bit as much as the Bolsheviks. The establishment of the Omsk dictatorship had the effect of frightening many of the Menshevik and Social Revolutionaries, who had attempted to maintain distance between the Bolsheviks and Whites, into reluctantly going over to the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks did not collapse under Denikin’s offensive in the Fall of 1919 and popular resistance to the White Volunteer Army actually stiffened. Russians in the areas Denikin’s army liberated from the Bolsheviks showed a marked reluctance to support the Whites. The Red Army was the military arm of a civilian government whereas the White Armies had to improvise government as they conquered and controlled. The alternative to Soviet rule was a situation veering between dictatorial military rule and anarchy/score settling in the White administered territories.

At this time the Soviets were also at war with the Polish army of Marshal  Pilsudski and were doing badly in the field against them. Poland was “the Red bridge” from Russia to Germany and Europe, on which Lenin hoped to carry the Proletarian Revolution. Marshal Pilsudski’s aim, on the other hand, was to see Russia, of whatever colour, out of Poland. He decided in late 1919, when Denikin was in the ascendency, that it was “a lesser evil to help Soviet Russia defeat Denikin” and he adopted a policy of disengagement with the Soviet Army. Denikin had refused to recognise Poland’s Eastern frontiers and Pilsudski concluded that it was better to let Denikin go down to the Bolsheviks and deal with the Red Army later.

During Denikin’s offensive Pilsudski secretly informed Lenin, in October, that he was doing this on purpose, allowing Trotsky to transfer over 40,000 men to the Southern front. In all the Bolsheviks were able to move 270,000 troops to reinforce their Southern lines (Richard Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, pp.89-91 and p.122). 

In November 1919 the Red Army captured Kursk and the Whites went into a headlong and disorderly retreat.


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