The Military Situation in South Russia 1917

The original justification for British intervention in south Russia was the Anglo-French Agreement of 23 December 1917. When it became obvious that Russia would soon be out of the war against Germany, an agreement was reached between Britain and France. Under this agreement, the Allies were planning to continue an Eastern Front against Germany on Russian territory, with or without the support of the Bolshevik government. France was given responsibility for the area west of the river Don, and Britain was given the Caucasus and the area north and east of the Caspian. In truth, while the First World War continued, there was little that could be done against the German occupation of the Ukraine or Turkey’s attempted occupation of the Caucasus. The Dunsterforce expedition had soon been driven out.

Earlier in 1917, the Kerensky government had asked the leader of the Army, General L. Kornilov, to move loyal Army units to St Petersburg to restore order. But as soon as Kornilov had started to move troops, Kerensky had lost his nerve and had him arrested for planning a military dictatorship. Kornilov was imprisoned, along with General Anton Denikin. They were held by military personnel, however, and were allowed to come and go as they pleased. The new head of the Army was General M. V. Alekseev. With the takeover of the Bolsheviks in the October 1917 Revolution (November in the new calendar), Alekseev fled to south Russia, thinking the Cossack regions in the south would be a centre of resistance to the Bolsheviks. In December 1917, he was joined by Generals Denikin and Kornilov, who had simply walked out of the prison in which they had been kept.

A small number of officers and men began to join Alekseev in the south to take part in the fight against the Bolsheviks. General Alekseev called this group the Volunteer Army. Most of the men joining Alekseev were officers, and some of the early units were made up entirely of officers. After some disagreement, General Kornilov became the military commander and Alekseev the political chief. The Cossack hosts were as war-weary as the rest of Russian society and failed to rise against the Bolsheviks. Also, the numbers joining the Volunteer Army remained small and the promised finance failed to arrive.

During February 1918, Rostov was captured by detachments of the Red Guard sent out from Moscow. At this early stage of the Civil War, many sections of the population supported the Soviet government, not having yet suffered under Bolshevik rule. With the fall of Rostov, Alekseev and Kornilov led the Volunteer Army, now 4,000-strong, into the north Caucasus. To the Volunteers, this period became known as the ‘Ice March’. During this time, massively superior numbers surrounded them on all sides as they marched across the frozen steppes. Kornilov, as the military commander, decided to attack Ekaterinodar, the Kuban Cossack capital, which was now the capital of the Kuban Soviet Republic, in order to give themselves a base for operations. The attack was started on 10 April 1918. During the fighting, Kornilov was killed by artillery fire when his command post in a farmhouse was hit. The command passed to General Denikin, who was forced to call off the attack on Ekaterinodar and retreat towards the Don territory.

Russia had been negotiating with Germany to end the fighting between them, but when these talks broke down during February 1918 the Germans again began to advance into Russia. What was left of the Russian Army melted away in front of the Germans. Large areas of eastern Europe were occupied, including the Ukraine. The Russians returned to the negotiations and signed the Brest-Litovsk peace on 3 March. As part of the settlement, the Germans were given a free hand in the Ukraine. On 8 May, they captured Rostov.

The Don Cossacks soon became tired of Soviet rule. In May 1918, a meeting of the Don Krug elected a new Ataman, General Peter Krasnov. The Red Guards only had a loose hold on the Don territory and were soon driven out. The region to the west of the territory held by the Don Cossacks was now occupied by the Germans, who supplied money and arms to the Cossacks. By the middle of June, the Don Cossacks had an Army of 40,000 operating against the Reds. The Red Army was still in its infancy and had few combat troops available to send to the south, forcing them to rely on local troops.

The city was renamed Stalingrad in 1925 to honor Stalin and his actions.

After they had reoccupied all their own territory, the Don Cossacks turned east to try to capture Tsaritsin [Tsaritsyn]. But, after months of fighting, they failed in their bid to take the city. Tsaritsin was a large, built-up industrial area with a substantial working-class population that had supported the Red takeover. Most of the Don Cossacks were cavalry, and they lacked the heavy forces needed to capture the trench lines around the city. In command in Tsaritsin during the summer of 1918 was Stalin, along with Vorishilov and Budenny in subordinate roles. Stalin clashed with Trotsky over the strategy in the south and over the use of ex-Tsarist officers in command positions and was finally recalled to Moscow.

The Volunteer Army was re-equipped with arms and munitions from Germany, acquired via the Don Cossacks. Volunteer Army policy had originally been to continue the war against Germany, but this does not seem to have stopped them taking German money and arms through the Cossacks. By June 1918, the Volunteer Army had grown to 9,000 and they again tried to capture the north Caucasus area from the Red government forces. On 18 August, they captured Ekaterinodar, the Kuban Cossack capital. Once they had been liberated, the Kuban Cossack leadership joined the Don Cossacks and the Volunteer Army in the fight against the Bolshevik forces.

The original Volunteer Army was an effective and disciplined force capable of defeating Red Army units of much larger numbers. General Denikin continued to advance eastward across the Caucasus, and the Red Army set up their new base at Piatigorsk on the main rail line to Tsaritsin. On 8 October 1918, General Alekseev died, leaving General Denikin as the undisputed leader of the Volunteer Army. The Don Cossacks were faced with the 8th and 9th Red Armies in the north and the 10th Army in Tsaritsin, but they continued to hold out against the increasing pressure. During August, General Peter Wrangel joined the Volunteer Army. Wrangel was forty years old and had been in the Army for seventeen years. He had risen to command a division in the First World War. When he arrived in Ekaterinodar, the Volunteer Army had grown in size to around 38,000 troops. Denikin, who knew Wrangel slightly, offered him command of a division in the Volunteer Army. Wrangel went on to become the most effective of the White generals.

The counter-revolution in the south was still a limited affair but the influx of huge amounts of Allied equipment, money, and men would transform the situation.


The war with Turkey ended in October 1918 and the Armistice with Germany took effect on 11 November. This freed up access to the Black Sea. As part of the settlement, elements from the Allied forces occupied the fortifications along the Bosphorus. In late November, British ships from the Mediterranean fleet entered the Black Sea. This made the supplying of aid to the White forces in south Russia a practical proposition. Military supplies and men began to flow from bases around the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East into the quagmire of the Russian Civil War.

But the first British troops into south Russia were from the 14th Indian Army Division stationed in Iraq and Persia. On 17 November 1918, six days after the end of the First World War, Major General Thompson, who had replaced General Dunsterville, reoccupied Baku as the Turks withdrew. Escorted by the five armed ships under the command of Captain Washington, a convoy of seventeen merchant ships landed 2,000 British troops in the port at Baku. Another British Army force from Salonika occupied the port of Batum on the Black Sea. These two ports were connected by a rail line that ran along the southern line of the Caucasus Mountains, through the city of Tiflis. The supply problems for the British ships on the Caspian were reduced by this rail and sea link to the Mediterranean. The British occupation of the Transcaucasus region was intended to bring stability to the area of the largest oil-fields in the world, as well as to ease supply problems. It was also intended to disarm the area as the Turkish Army withdrew. But the number of British troops remained tiny in the context of the troubles in the region.

Tanks being delivered on the docks

The British cabinet had taken the decision on 14 November to contact General Denikin and to provide him with military equipment and training. Major-General Frederick Poole had been recalled from the British forces in north Russia and it was decided to place him in command of the British Military Mission to General Denikin. The capture of Novorossisk by General Denikin’s Volunteer Army, in late 1918, had given them an outlet to the sea. Taking advantage of this, General Poole arrived in Novorossisk in December 1918. The relations between General Denikin and the Don Cossacks had never been particularly warm, although they had worked together against the Red forces. But General Poole, with promises of enormous amounts of British money and equipment, forced the Don Cossacks under their Ataman General Peter Krasnov to place their forces under the command of General Denikin.

To support the British Army and Navy forces in the area, the RAF began to gather together units to send into south Russia. Number 17 Squadron was stationed in Salonika and had taken part in the Bulgarian campaign. In the middle of September, A Flight had its Armstrong Witworth aircraft replaced by DH9s. Under the command of Captain A. D. Makins, A Flight left Salonika on 31 December for the port of Batum.

Number 221 Squadron was also sent into south Russia. Stationed on Mudros at the end of the war was Major John Oliver Andrews; writing in the 1920s, he recalled the squadron’s journey:

In November 1918, the Dardanelles being opened, a squadron of DH9s was formed to proceed to S. Russia, with the idea of co-operating with the Naval forces on the Caspian Sea, and with the Russian White Armies operation under Denikin in the Caucasus. It was difficult to raise the necessary other rank personnel, due partly to the demoralisation and war weariness caused by the long sojourn in Mudros and Imbros … In December, the unit, 221 Squadron, embarked in the S. S. Riviera, and proceeded via Constantinople and the Black Sea to Batum. The passage was uneventful, except for New Year’s Eve spent at Constantinople with the R. N. R. and a spell of coal trimming and stoking undertaken by the squadron in the Black Sea, as the ship was short handed. It was universally agreed that coal shovelling in a ship’s bunker is a poor way of making a livelihood.

221 Squadron was to be part of 62 Wing, made up of 221 Squadron equipped with DH9s, and (later) DH9As; 266 Squadron equipped with Short 184 floatplanes; and 186 Squadron, to be equipped with Handley Page bombers. In the event, 186 Squadron never arrived.

Also stationed at Mudros at the end of the war was D. B. Knock, an armourer. In his diary, published in the 1930s, he described Major Andrews:

20/12/18 Remnants of Squadron re-formed as 221 Squadron RAF, with Major Andrews as CO. Things brushed up and discipline tightened up. Andrews won’t stand any nonsense. A soldier from head to feet … Have heard of his record in France with somewhere around 40 EA [enemy aircraft] to his credit [if aircraft driven down are included, Andrews’ total was 24 EA]. Didn’t get his DSO and MC for nothing. A pre-war soldier before RFC.2

D. B. Knock also related his experiences on the journey to Batum in his diary. He seems to have agreed with Andrews on the coal shovelling:

28/12/18 Orders to be ready to move early morning. Nobody knows really where, but rumours say Constantinople. Be great to see the city of Mosques. ’Planes, motor transport, ammunition, etc. all ready.

29/12/18 HQ staff and A Flight board HMS “Riviera” (seaplane carrier). At midnight. Sail at 2am. We enter Dardanelles at 8am … Reach Constantinople at 9pm.

31/12/18 Not allowed ashore. Instead we help Navy stokers to coal from a collier moored alongside. Get as black as Hades drill slacks and tunic so black I trade them with a stoker for rum. He can wash them! Leave Bosphorus 8am and out into Black Sea. Wonderful sight that waterway is. 1919 breaks with a blue sea and the sight of HMS “Superb” at 10am making from somewhere, probably Odessa. For Constantinople. [500 British marines had been landed in Sevastopol.]

Another member of 221 Squadron was Lieutenant O. R. Gayford, an observer, who had earlier taken part in the bombing of Constantinople. He also described the journey:

By December 1918 the Squadron was completely equipped with Puma DH9s, [Major Andrews took one Bentley-engined Sopwith Camel with him for his own personal use] and was preparing to go up to the Caspian Sea for work with a naval squadron, which was on those inland waters. We left by Flights at intervals of about a fortnight in seaplane carriers via the Bosphorus to Batum on the Black Sea. Our aircraft were taken with engines installed and with undercarriages on, but wings and empennages dismantled.

By the end of 1918, 221 Squadron had started the move into the Caucasus, but it was to be early 1919 before 266 Squadron, the seaplane squadron, joined them. The British Naval ships on the Caspian were active during December. On 8 December, two British ships, the Zoro-Aster and the Alla Verdi, were at anchor off Chechen Island, north of Baku, when three Bolshevik navy vessels were seen escorting three merchant ships. The Bolsheviks opened fire on the British ships, which left their moorings and chased the Red vessels. Hits were seen on the enemy ships, while three shells hit the Zoro-Aster. The Red vessels escaped, but in their first encounter the British ships had seen off a superior enemy with no losses. On 29 December, four of the British ships bombarded the Bolshevik base at Staro-Terechnaya. The British flotilla was now up to a strength of eight armed ships.

By the end of 1918, contact had been established with General Denikin to find out his military needs, and a small force of British troops had occupied the south Caucasus region.