Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Why game the Russian Civil War?

The hundredth anniversary of the First World War (WW1) has stimulated considerable interest in both the general public and wargaming communities. Unfortunately from the gaming perspective the war is dominated by the slaughter on the Western front where the full horrors of the industrialisation of military technology overwhelmed the military thinking of all the major powers. An all too familiar pattern of massive artillery bombardment followed by frontal attacks on heavily fortified positions resulted in high casualties with little practical gain. This is not an inspiring subject to wargame. There are some areas of WW1 gaming that are interesting to game; aerial warfare is at its most individualistic, whilst naval warfare revolved around surface fleet actions without the dominating influence of aircraft. For land warfare you can opt for the more obscure theatres such as Mesopotamia or East Africa, and even the battles in the Autumn of 1914 on both West and East fronts are gaming possibilities. But, the main, enduring image is of stagnant trench lines and the muddy, crated strewn battlefields of Verdun and the Somme.

Contrary to the popular view, the armistice of November 1918 did not see the end of warfare in Europe. The bloody and vicious Russian Civil War continued into the early 1920’s. This particularly nasty war does provide a great opportunity for wargaming, and I will try to highlight the reasons why I am especially interested:

- The socio-political impact of the war radically changed both European and world cultures, and shaped and coloured the whole of 20th century history. Great figures such as Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin emerged who would dominate world politics for decades. I would recommend the following books that cover this particularly well: A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes (Pimlico, 1996) and The Russian Civil War by Evan Mawdsley (Birlinn, 1987).

-The war was fought over a vast geographical area too big to allow static fortifications to play a significant role. Fortified trench lines were used on occasion e.g. Wrangel’s defence of the Crimea, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Actions can be undertaken in the wooded, steep Urals, or the open expanse of the Steppe. The war raged in the wintery Arctic and Siberia down to the desert heat of the southern Islamic regions. A good, short overview of the military flow of the war is provided in The Russian Civil War 1918-22 by David Bullock (Osprey, 2008).

-The core of most armies remained the khaki-clad infantryman supported by heavy machineguns, but units carried flags into battle which is an attraction for any wargamer. There were also more exotically dressed units; the Officer and coloured units in the white AFSR army, the Naval and Cheka units in the Bolshevik armies, the Czech Legion, and of course the national dress of the various Cossack hosts.

-Armies still fielded cavalry which conducted sabre-welding charges as well as fulfilling a mounted infantry role. The Caucasian and Cossack armies on the steppe are examples of cavalry heavy forces, and these armies fielded machineguns mounted on carts (tchancka) for mobile close support.

-Due to the vast distances, the rail and river network was strategically vital and this lead to innovations such as armoured trains and gunboats. Also modern military technology was employed in small packets; ex-WW1 tanks were supplied by western powers to the whites, armoured cars (many Russian produced) were commonly found, and aircraft played a minor role.

-The war was fought on many fronts and the armies varied considerably between fronts. This is one of the features that most attracts me to the conflict: The Armed Forces of Southern Russia (AFSR) fielded Officer and Coloured elite regiments. The Caucasian army was centred on its Cossacks. In the Caucasus’s themselves interventions by the Turks or British Empire forces can be gamed. The Czech Legion was at the heart of the early KOMUCH army, and later operated as a semi-independent army. Kolchak’s Siberian army fought from the Urals to Siberia and had many diverse elements. Also in Siberia you could field Americans based around Vladivostok, or Japanese operating from Manchuria. British and American forces supported the Whites in the Russian Arctic. Revolutionary Finland is a totally confused area of operation. The Baltic region offers great diversity of forces; in addition to the Whites, there were Estonians, Latvians and German Freicorps. Poland emerged as a significant force towards the end of the conflict, and various Ukrainian ‘states’ came and went. In the Pripet marshes and in the South-East Ukraine large Anarchist armies fought, while around Odessa there was a failed French intervention. In all theatres Red and White partisans operated. The Bolshevik Red army also changed over time. The early war Red Guards were little more than armed mobs. Trotsky’s reforms changed the army into a more ‘regular’ structure and his creation of the Red Army proper was key to the survival and success of the Bolshevik revolution.
Overall I feel the Russian Civil War offers a wonderful opportunity to the wargamer with great diversity and colour within armies that can fight over equally diverse terrain.

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