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Michael Kihntopf Articles
The Northwest Army
The Great Retreat
Krasnaya Gorka
The Kerensky Offensive

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The Little Army That Couldn't
The Little Army That Couldn't
by Michael Kihntopf

The Russian counter-revolutionary Northwest Army had accomplished the impossible in just seven days. In a lightning campaign that had started near the Estonian and Russian frontier, the army had pushed aside the Seventh Red Army covering 133 kilometers to reach Pulkovo Heights and look down into the suburbs of the Bolshevik bastion of Petrograd. Its leaders felt sure that the capture of that city would sound a death knell for Vladimir Lenin's radical socialist government that was also being threatened on the approaches to Moscow by another counter revolutionary or White army under the direction of Anton Denikin. Like the little engine in the children's story, the Northwest Army had climbed the hill and was ready to coast down the other side; however, the engineer had failed to notice that the track had been removed.

The Northwest Army had its origins in the death throes of the Great War. German Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, ably assisted by General Max Hoffmann, chief of staff for the Eastern Front, had brought about the birth of the army in October 1918 in the occupied city of Pskov. They had theorized that Lenin's Bolshevik government had a very questionable grasp on power and that a civil war was in the near future. To stake their place in the outcome of the civil war, the German General Staff authorized the organization of nearly 2500 prisoners of war and former tsarist officers who had sought shelter from the Bolshevik secret police in German occupied territory into a unit it designated as the Northern Corps.[1] The corps' mission was to seize Petrograd and other important northern cities, and establish a government which would be sympathetic to the Reich.[2] The armistice on November 11, 1918, brought the plan to a premature end. Under the terms of the armistice, German forces were to withdraw from all occupied lands within 30 days. German soldiers in the east began leaving their positions without waiting for orders. The Northern Corps was left behind to fend for itself. Hastily, some of the officers organized the others into a make shift force that attempted to hold parts of Russia around Pskov. They hoped to do this even though most were without coats or boots. Zealous Red Army cadres soon confronted them and the corps began to pull back along the Pskov – Walka railroad hoping to gather more soldiers from the Baltic provinces. It came as a great surprise to them to find that the former provinces of Estonia, Livonia, and Courland had declared their independence from Russia. Although opposed to the Bolshevik government, the new republics were weary about helping Russians who still marched under the tsarist standard. This attitude changed on November 22, when Lenin directed the Red Seventh and Fifteenth Armies to reoccupy the Baltic provinces and destroy the new republics.

Konstantin Pats, the Estonian prime minister as well as war minister, had formed a fledgling army of two 300 man companies.[3] These soldiers were devoutly nationalistic. They held Narva against the Seventh Army for five days despite being outnumbered and badly supplied. On November 29 a landing by a small contingent of Red Marines behind their lines caused them to withdraw rather than face envelopment. The hard pressed companies fell back on the capital at Tallinn offering strong rear guard actions.

Theatre of Operations

To the south, the Northern Corps managed to bring the Bolshevik Latvian Riflemen to a standstill at Walka. It was at that location that the officers began to question the goals of the organization.[4] One portion of the corps wanted to move south across the Baltic republics and Poland to link up with other White forces operating in the Ukraine. Another portion wanted to move north across Finland and join the Russians who were rallying around the British forces landing at Murmansk. Both groups moved off in their chosen directions. The southern group proceeded only as far as Latvia where their leaders saw a common cause with the German Freikorps and Latvian army that was resisting the Red Fifteenth Army. The northern group entrained for Tallinn but had their journey cut short when they ran into the retreating Estonians to whom they added their rifles. The influx of trained men into the Estonians' ranks along with the early winter weather brought the fighting to a halt near the capital. The Bolsheviks regrouped their units and brought in replacements and supplies in preparation for taking the Estonian capital. The Estonians received help from unexpected sources.

The Finns were the first to come to the aid of the Estonians. General Gustav Mannerheim saw a threat to his nation's security should the Bolsheviks reclaim the Baltic coast provinces. He sent 500 well armed and trained Finns to bolster Tallinn's defenses along with supplies of weapons and ammunition. The availability of these stores and allies encouraged Pats to implement conscription over the area that he still controlled; however, it was not necessary. Over 40,000 citizens volunteered to join the army of which 12,000 had to be turned away because of a lack of weapons.[5]

The other source of help came from the British government who had seen an advantage in having the Baltic coast free of Bolsheviks. It had sent a flotilla of one battle cruiser and six destroyers into the Baltic to assess the intentions of the Bolsheviks. The flotilla's commander, Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, had orders to show the Union Jack in the area and assist forces who were opposed to the Russians with equipment, training, and naval support. Not only did Sinclair supply additional small arms to the Estonians, he had three of his ships sail along the coast until they had reached the Red Army's rear echelons. There they opened fire destroying both communication and supply lines to Russia which left the forward elements isolated from support. The admiral reported his actions to London along with an assessment regarding the remnants of the Northern Corps. The addendum to the report interested the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The corps represented a strong counter-revolutionary presence close to the most influential Bolshevik center, Petrograd.

Neither Sinclair nor Lloyd George needed to be so optimistic about the Northern Corps' abilities or capabilities. Their lack of supplies was just one problem among many which included a need of leadership. As with other White movements, the Corps was filled with corruption and disorganization. Its ranks contained 36 former generals who vied daily for positions of power suitable to their grade. The army was a virtual chicken coop of bickering. Amid the squabbling two generals came to the forefront for different reasons. The first was General Aleksandr Rodzianko, late of the Imperial Guards. Claiming superiority over the other generals because of his association with the Guards, Rodzianko was accepted by the majority to lead the Corps. The second to rise to the top was a product of the revolution, Major General Stanislav Bulak-Balakovitch who styled himself as the Ataman of Peasants and Partisan Legions. He had begun his military career in 1915 as a private gaining an officership as a reward for organizing Polish guerilla units in German occupied territory. When the revolution came, he had thrown his support to the Bolsheviks only to desert with 1000 men, four machine guns, and 120 horses and join the Northern Corps at Pskov where he promoted himself from captain to major general. Bulak-Balakovitch became the corps' co-field commander.

Rodzianko asked for British aid in resupplying the Northern Corps. Sinclair sent the request on to London but limited his support to the Estonians because the corps' origins were from a German plan which made the group suspect. Without a sponsor, Rodzianko attached his men to the Estonians. On 4 January 1919, the Estonians felt embolden enough to reclaim their country. The offensive was heralded by a bombardment from the British ships. The shells fell on a demoralized and isolated remnant of the Seventh Army who easily gave way. After 16 days the Estonians were back in Narva and Dorpat. A week later Walka fell to them. Rodzianko saw an opportunity in the Estonians' successes. The Northern Corps, with Estonian aid, began its own offensive to liberate a portion of Russia in March.

Rodzianko's plan called for a two pronged drive. He would lead the northern prong and take Iamburg while Bulak-Balakovitch leading the southern prong would retake Pskov. Both objectives were reached and the Northern Corps prongs linked themselves to claim a 90 kilometer salient in Bolshevik territory. The result of the campaign garnered 20 cannons, 200 machine guns, and three armored trains.[6] British representatives were impressed and told London that the Northern Corps had their trust.

While awaiting British support, Rodzianko began to organize the liberated territory. His first order of business was to impose conscription on the 500,000 inhabitants of the area. Through this act and coercion of Red Army prisoners and defectors taken in the drives, nearly 5000 bayonets were added to the corps. Rodzianko claimed an overall strength of 25,000 but British observers placed the corps numbers at just under 7000. The corps, considering its claimed numbers, declared itself the Northwest Army. Administration of the area was turned over to former Russian parliament or Duma members who had been with the corps since its initial retreat. Rodzianko was then free to concern himself with military matters; however, Bulak-Balakovitch took on a less beneficial role. Around Pskov, he extorted the Jewish population threatening a pogrom unless he received money. His chief of staff engaged himself in a counterfeiting scheme. But Bulak-Balakovitch's most disreputable act was in concentrated efforts to lure Bolshevik soldiers into desertion. Those who took the bait of food and money found that their welcome was not open arms but a rope. They were hanged immediately.

In late March support finally arrived from the British and other white forces in Russia. The British mission to the Baltic coast republics commanded by Brigadier General Frank G. March began distributing uniforms, weapons and ammunition to the Northwest Army. Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, the supreme commander of Russian counter revolutionary forces, gave his approval to Rodzianko and ordered General of the Infantry Nikolai Iudenich, who had escaped to Finland in 1918, to take over the administrative command of the army.

Iudenich and his staff

Although Rodzianko resented Iudenich, calling him "a decrepit old man",[7] he accepted his authority since Rodzianko still commanded in the field. Bulak-Balakovitch and his staff left one step ahead of courts-martial.

Iudenich set to work immediately in reorganizing the army at British expense. His first act was to submit a list of needed supplies to outfit 50,000 soldiers.[8] The list included all types of weapons including tanks, armored cars, and airplanes. London agreed to send the supplies incrementally. He then turned to securing financial aid from British, Swedish and Finnish bankers. Through these efforts he managed to fill the army's war coffers with £227,000.[9]

On 3 August the Bolsheviks launched a counterattack by taking Iamburg and pushing the Whites back toward the Estonian frontier. Iudenich called a hasty meeting of his field commanders to determine how they should deal with the attack. Rodzianko wanted to consolidate around Pskov while Iudenich wanted a counterattack at Iamburg with the intention of securing a bridgehead on the Luge River for a continued advance against Petrograd. The hesitation in deciding on the objective led to the Red Army capturing Pskov on 22 August. The Northwest Army was hemmed up against the Estonian border. The times called for drastic action and Iudenich was up to the task but in his actions he betrayed the view of the Whites toward the Finnish and Baltic republics.

Iudenich first contacted the Finns and proposed that they add their army to his for a combined attack on Petrograd. Mannerheim agreed if Iudenich would support Finnish independence from Russia. When Iudenich and Kolchak agreed to this condition, Mannerheim upped the ante and asked for assurances from the British and French governments that they would aid Finland against a Russian attack if the Petrograd offensive failed. Neither of the Allied governments was willing to make such a commitment. Mannerheim withdrew support. Iudenich then approached the Estonians with the same request and they responded as the Finns had. This time neither Iudenich nor Kolchak would agree to an Estonian independence but they were willing to consider negotiations once the Bolshevik government was overthrown. Pats agreed to assist but only if his army remained separate and under Estonian control. Reluctantly, Iudenich agreed.

Iudenich's plan was a far cry from his operations during the Great War as chief of staff for the Caucasus region. In that capacity he had commanded the capture of Erzerum and Trabzon from Turkish forces with expert precision. For the capture of Petrograd he was relying on an army of 25,000 divided into six columns. Column A's objective was to capture Iamburg and mask or secure Orienbaum. Column B was to move on Wolosovo along the Gatchina railway while column C would cut the Luga – Gatchina railway north of Luga and take Gatchina from the south. Column D would advance east to Luga and column E's purpose was to cut the Pskov – Luga railway. Column F was to protect the right flank of E and D. Each of the columns consisted of a division but none of them had the numeric strength that Iudenich had been used to. Instead of the 20,000 soldiers of a Great War division, most of his divisions numbered between 3000 and 6000 men. Each of the divisions was supported by three batteries of field artillery.[10] The Estonians agreed to supply two divisions. The 1st Estonians was to move along the coast supported by British naval guns in an attempt to take the fortress at Krasnaya Gorka. The 2nd Estonians would assault Pskov. Like the offensive against Erzerum, taking Petrograd required lightning speed. In that operation, Iudenich had calculated that Turkish reinforcements couldn't arrive to save the fortress any sooner than two months after his forces had attacked. Iudenich reasoned that Petrograd was defended by local forces. The city garrison amounted to 4200 men with 35 machine guns and two field pieces. They could rely on an additional 2000 men with 10 guns from the Petrograd Officer Cadet battalion in the Peter and Paul fortress. This gave the Northwest Army a near four to one advantage. Reinforcements would have to come from either the Murmansk – Archangel or the Ukrainian fronts, a full two weeks distance by rail. Iudenich needed to capture the city and raise the defenses before the reinforcements could arrive.

The offensive began on 11 October all along the front. Iamburg fell on the first day with the assistance of an Estonian armored train and six British supplied and manned tanks. Although Russian soldiers were to take over the tanks after training, the British commander noted that they had a limited capacity of understanding the tanks' workings. The British soldiers took over the tanks' operations rather than allow them to be wrecked before going into action. They need not have been so concerned. Column B reported capturing 1500 while column C cut the Gatchina – Luga railway. Column D captured Luga on 13 October after combining with column E. The 1st Estonians were barely making headway against Krasnaya Gorka which was inflicting numerous casualties with its 12 inch and 6 inch guns. By 16 October Gatchina was taken away from the Bashkir Division and the following day Krasnoe Selo was reached. The 2nd Estonians crossed the Velekaya River between Ostrov and Pskov but the cities remained in the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Petrograd and its environs

On 18 October, Column B secured Tsarskoe Selo and column C was astride the Gatchina – Tosna railway. Advance cadres were within five kilometers of Petrograd's suburbs. The Northwest Army was about to achieve their goal and deal a blow to the Bolsheviks by capturing the cradle of their revolution.

News of Iudenich's drive on Petrograd reached Moscow on October 14 and Lenin wanted to order a withdrawal from the city. He was sure that it would fall. Leon Trotsky, his war minister, saw things differently and insisted on a defense. Lenin balked at his idea but Trotsky was persuasive and said that he would go to organize the defenses. Lenin agreed and told him "mobilize another 20,000 or so Petrograd workers plus 10,000 bourgies, set up a machine gun behind them, shoot several hundred, and assure a real mass assault on Iudenich".[11]

Trotsky arrived by train on October 17 to find the city's defenses in chaos. The city's party chief was near collapse and the Seventh Army's chief of staff, who was in charge of the city's defenses, had defected to the Whites carrying the entrenchment plans with him. Trotsky lost no time in taking the reins of power. He doubled the food rations of those who were willing to defend the city. His train was renowned as a cornucopia that held not only vast stores of food but also weapons, horses, and automobiles.[12] Additionally, his entourage was highly trained and capable of training others. Then he toured, on horseback, the city's defenses.

Trotsky inspiring the Red Army

The sight of the war minister and the encouraging speeches he offered greatly improved the morale of the defenders. To bolster the defenses, he ordered 11,000 sailors from Kronstadt to the trench lines and had the battleship Sevastopol, with its 12 inch guns, brought into the Neva River where it was anchored. In the factories, the workers converted confiscated autos into armored cars. The Whites, from their positions on Pulkovo Heights, watched the frantic activities in the city judging them to be fits of panic.

The nearness of the city gave Iudenich's officers a sense of triumph as well as a chauvinistic attitude toward the Red defenders. Among themselves, they predicted that they would be promenading down Nevsky Prospekt within hours and they argued about which of them would be the first into the city. The rivalry gave way to errors. Rodzianko had ordered the 3rd Division to cut the Petrograd to Moscow railway at Tosno and hold that station against any elements that might come. The division's commander ignored the order and positioned his division to attack the city . The result was that the Latvian Riflemen were able to get into the city along with other.

The counteroffensive opened on 21 October at Pavlovsk to the thundering of the battleship Sevastopol's guns four days before Iudenich's expectations. The first units slammed into the lines and began pushing them back. Rodzianko ordered the British tanks to break up the attacks but the behemoths began breaking down instead. The British crews complained that the Russians treated the tanks like horses expecting them to charge ahead after feeding or refueling without regard to the horrendous wear and tear the machines were subject to because of their weight.[14] The Red soldiers initially panicked at the sight of the tanks but their officers steadied them and moved around the monsters when they noticed there was no infantry support. Reinforcing sailors consolidated the advances and continued the unrelenting push. Three armored trains on the Peterhoff – Petrograd rail line added even more fire power to the assault. To the south, the Red Fifteenth Army had massed at Pskov. Their movement was northwest in an effort to catch the main drive in the rear and cut off retreat to the Estonian border. Those White elements and the Estonian 2nd that had attempted to take Pskov were easily routed. The Northwest Army's little engine was beginning to roll back down the hill.

Along the coast, the 1st Estonians had failed to take Krasnaya Gorka and were beginning to withdraw. The British flotilla could no longer give artillery support because the water was icing up forcing them to withdraw back to Tallinn. This left the White's left flank in the air. Coupled with the Red attack in the south, Iudenich recognized that his force was nearing encirclement. On 25 October all elements began a headlong retreat. Two days later the army was back at Iamburg and holding Luga in the south. Red Army pressure continued. Gatchina was evacuated on 3 November and finally Iamburg on 15 November. With the capture of this last town, the Bolsheviks suspended activities. The Northwest Army was reduced to about 14,000 bayonets. Iudenich appealed to the Finnish government for aid and was turned down. He asked for more Estonian help but they too turned him down. These refusals were based on negotiations that had been going on between the Baltic republics and Lenin's government. While the offensive had raged Bolshevik negotiators had approached the governments with an offer. In exchange for political recognition as independent nations, Lenin's government had asked that the republics stop any support of Iudenich and any other White movements in the area. Lenin was offering them what the White movement was not willing to give or had grudgingly given up, their independence. The republics accepted. Under the agreement, the Northwest Army could withdraw into Estonia but Pats' army would disarm them. Column's D, E and F had already agreed to this while the northern columns still held out. These were disarmed in mid December after the Red Army had repelled a weak counterattack and spotted fever had decimated the ranks. British support was also withdrawn since the Whites were no longer a viable force. The little engine had arrived back at its start, no money, no sponsorship, and no future.

For a few months, Iudenich was held under house arrest pending a resolution to a repayment of the funds he had raised. The army's equipment was sold to cover costs. Iudenich left Estonia aboard a British ship blaming his failure on the lack of support by the English and French governments. In reality, his failure stemmed from the White movement's denial of political recognition toward the independence movements that had arisen along the Baltic coast.
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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2008 Mike Kihntopf.

Written by Michael Kihntopf. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Michael Kihntopf at:

About the author:
Michael P. Kihntopf is a 23 year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. His last position was as Chief, War Planning-Contingency Operations Division, Personnel Directorate, Strategic Air Command. During that tour he was directly involved in the planning and execution of the personnel portions of DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM. His assignments included being a Contingency and War Planning Officer for the Military Airlift Command from 1983-1986, in which he served on the battle staff for the Grenada and Panama invasions. He is currently a world history teacher in the San Antonio, Texas area. His specialization is World War I's Eastern Front. He is the author of Victory in the East, the Rise and Fall of the Imperial German Army and Handcuffed to a Corpse, German Intervention in the Balkans, 1914-1917. Both are available through White Mane Publishers, Shippensburg, PA.

Published online: 06/27/2008.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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