The First Russian-Ukrainian War … of 1919

By Tom Laemlein
Posted in #History
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The First Russian-Ukrainian War … of 1919

April 7th, 2022

8 minute read

The spring of 2022 is not the first time that Russian forces have invaded Ukraine. The tumultuous days in Eastern Europe that followed World War I showed that the November Armistice between Imperial Germany and the Entente/Allied forces only applied to Western Europe. The war would continue in the East, no longer under the umbrella description of “The Great War,” but rather minimized as a series of civil wars or territorial disputes.

Red Army in Ukraine 1917
Equipped with swords, rifles and bayonets, this is what the Bolshevik Red Army looked like in late 1917. Image: Library of Congress

The brutal reality of the 1919-1921 era, seldom mentioned in Western nations, would see the sudden emergence of the Soviet Union and a wide range of border-clash bloodlettings. All the old ethnic hatreds, distrust, and reprisal upon reprisal would be on full display. Modern notions of nationalism, communism, socialism and capitalism were stirred into the angry pot along with all the traditional motivations for war. It was a time for killing.

Setting the Stage

In this struggle for democracy, which the Ukrainian people have been carrying on for 400 years and in which they have never lost their hope and determination, they have a right to count on the assistance of other democratic nations and to expect the people of America and England in particular, not to abandon them. After this long struggle of 400 years’ duration, a time has come when these two powerful democracies of western civilization can and should lend Ukraine a helping hand.

Ukraine on the road to Freedom. A selection of articles, reprints, and communications concerning the Ukrainian people in Europe. 1919

As WWI still raged, German and Austrian troops drove the early communist Bolshevik forces out of Ukraine, capturing Kiev on March 1, 1918. With their backs against the wall, Lenin and his Bolshevik government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, and the traditionally Russian-dominated “borderland” territories of Ukraine and Belarus were turned over to the Central Powers.

Mauser sleds near Dorpat in March 1918
German troops advance to the east during the winter of 1918. Bundled against the cold, the man in the foreground carries the Mauser Gewehr 98. Image: NARA

German/Austrian forces quickly occupied the totality of Ukraine, and with the help of a German-inspired coup, General Pavel Skoropadsky became the “Hetman” (an ancient title for the leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks) in control of Ukrainian territories. When the Central Powers were defeated in November 1918, German troops left Ukraine, and the nation was swept up in the mayhem of the Russian Civil War.

The German withdrawal left a power vacuum, and the Bolsheviks moved quickly to secure the supremely valuable territory in Ukraine, known as Europe’s breadbasket. The military situation was, by any standard, extremely confusing. Ukrainian national forces (the Ukrainian People’s Army, or UHA) and militias battled the communist Red Army, the anti-communist Russian White Army, the fledgling Polish Army in the west, sometimes the Romanians, and quite often the Ukrainians each other. Kiev changed hands nearly a dozen times until the Bolsheviks took control on December 16, 1919.

Building an Army

In the immediate aftermath of World War I, troops that had served in the imperial armies were readily available. So too were many weapons, but they were often a jumbled mass of manufacturers and calibers. With many of the men war weary from their time in the Great War, and the weapons a logistical nightmare, the Ukrainians set out to assemble a national army.

Cossacks fighting in WWI with rifles
The Don and Kuban Cossacks provided experienced cavalry soldiers for the White (anti-Bolshevik) forces fighting in Ukraine. Image: Library of Congress

When the Austrians left western Ukraine, they left behind large stocks of weapons. Consequently, the UHA initially relied on Austrian small arms. The Ukrainian infantrymen carried the Mannlicher M1895 rifle, while officers were armed with the Roth-Steyr Model 1907 semi-auto pistol (8mm Roth-Steyr). The primary machine gun inherited from the Austrians was the water-cooled Schwarzlose M.7.

M1891 Mosin Nagant rifles being carried by soldiers
The M1891 Mosin Nagant rifle (7.62x54mmR) was the primary weapon of both sides. Image: NARA

In early 1919, as the stocks of Austrian ammunition ran out, the UHA abandoned their Austrian weapons and rearmed with readily available Russian small arms. For most Ukrainian units, the basic rifle became the Mosin-Nagant M1891 (7.62x54mmR). To the north, the M1891 had been the primary rifle of the Czar’s army, and it remained so with the Bolsheviks in charge.

Red Army troops with the Russian PM M1910 Maxim machine gun
Red Army troops with the Russian PM M1910 Maxim machine gun. The light armored shield added weight, but also provided protection for the gunner. Image: Library of Congress

To the west, the Poles preferred Mauser and Mannlicher rifles, but many Polish troops carried the Russian Mosin-Nagant as well. Availability quickly became the best capability among the combatants in Eastern Europe, and the Ukrainians suffered a shortage of small arms throughout the fighting. The number of available rifles, rather than the number of men, determined the size of their army.

Browning M1895 in use by soldiers during the Russian civil war
The Colt-Browning M1895 machine gun was an important part of the Russian arsenal. Chambered in 7.62x54mmR, it was used by both sides. Image: Library of Congress

Machine guns were always in short supply, and over the course of the conflict, the Russian Maxim PM1910 gun (7.62x54mmR) became the most common of the heavy MGs. The Maxim was steady and reliable with a cyclic rate of 600 rpm. Fed by 250-round belts, the Maxim was normally found on the wheeled Sokolov mount with the gunner protected by a light armored shield — the gun and mount weighing in at a hefty 138 lbs. The American Colt-Browning M1895 gun was also used in some numbers; the 7.62 variant of the “potato digger” had been used by Russian forces throughout World War I. German MG08s (7.92x57mm) and Austrian Schwarzlose M.7s (multiple calibers) were also in Ukrainian service as ammunition supplies allowed.

Maxim machine gun mounted on a cart, called a Tachanka
The Maxim machine gun was given a measure of mobility when mounted on a cart called “Tachanka”, an adaptation of the Ukrainian term “little wheelbarrow”. Image: NARA

Meanwhile, the fledgling Ukrainian nation began to acquire munitions as best they could, many coming from Czechoslovakia in exchange for crude oil from the Boryslav oil fields. Supplies began to trickle in during early 1919, as trucks, artillery, and a few military aircraft arrived. A few armored trains were built, and these rolling artillery platforms were an important element in the Russian Civil War. Training and coordination were still scant though, particularly for engineers, communications troops, and mechanics.

Soldiers on bicycles chasing Bolsheviks in March 1918
The original German caption describes these troops as “in pursuit of a Bolshevik robber band”. The officer in the foreground carries a Mauser C96 “broomhandle” pistol. Image: NARA

I try to put myself in the shoes of a Ukrainian or Bolshevik or Polish infantryman during the fighting in that era. While I am a good shot, I am a horrible gunsmith. A rifle that does not shoot is little more than a club, and none of the combatant forces in Ukraine had the time or logistical organization to train men in weapons repair. Consequently, it was a lucky brigade to have a strong cadre of armorers — troops with a higher state of combat readiness performed better in the field and tended to maintain their morale and effectiveness.

Germans with captured Russian MGs 1917
German troops review captured Russian PM M1910 Maxim machine guns (7.62x54mmR). The gun in the foreground is seen on the wheeled Sokolov mount. Image: NARA

Morale was a major factor for most of the combatant forces. For the UHA, when it was advancing, their ranks remained full. After a few setbacks, or when the pay and the supplies were running short, the “summertime soldiers” faded away from camp. Across the lines, the Bolshevik commissars were harsh, often cruel, in their discipline. The rank and file of the Red Army was often more afraid of their own officers than they were of their enemies.

Despite the hardships, confusion, logistical problems and overall lack of weapons, the Ukrainians introduced certain battlefield innovations that made the most of what they had. The open plains of the Ukrainian landscape provided the impetus for a new style of warfare that leveraged some antique technology. The UHA’s Colonel Mishkovsky devised tactics for mobile infantry, with the men carried into battle aboard horse-drawn carts and wagons. Maxim machine guns were mounted on small, quick carriages, normally drawn by a pair of horses — the mobile firepower combination was dubbed “Tachanka”. These carriages could still be found in Soviet service during World War II.

Peace treaty meeting with Ukraine in February 1918
The peace treaty in Ukraine is signed, giving Germany control of the country. February 8, 1918. Image: NARA

As the fighting progressed, horse-drawn infantry, machine gun, and artillery units were in use with the UHA. Ground support aircraft became part of the mix as well, sometimes featuring nothing more than the observer throwing grenades from the rear cockpit.

Bolshevik Invasion of 1919

The Soviet invasion of Ukraine began on January 7, 1919, as Bolshevik troops poured across the border from the north. Joseph Stalin was one of the senior communist officers. Soviet forces received aid from communist groups within Ukraine, and Kiev fell to the Bolsheviks on February 5, 1919. The Soviets rolled on and most of the Crimea was in communist hands when Sevastopol fell on April 29th.

Russian troops
Human resources: Both sides had plenty of infantrymen, but in many cases, the poorly trained men were little more than cannon fodder. Image: NARA

But when it began to look like a rout, the ugliness of the communists and their Chekist assassination squads began to make themselves known. As the Bolsheviks outstretched their resources, the Ukrainian people fought back behind the lines while the Ukrainian and White armies advanced against the communist front. By mid-June, the Reds were pushed out of the Crimea. In July, the Ukrainians made peace with Poland in the west. By August, Kiev had been recaptured and most of Ukraine had been liberated.

Casualties during war in Ukraine in 1919
Casualties were high as the battles raged back and forth across Ukraine, but no official records of the military and civilian deaths were kept. Image: Author’s collection

It was almost a happy ending, until it wasn’t. In December 1919, the Bolsheviks were back in control in Kiev. A Ukrainian offensive in May 1920 almost retook the city, but Marshal Semyon Budyonny’s cavalry pushed them back, and then continued to Poland, nearly capturing Warsaw before the Poles drove the Bolshevik horsemen back.

Trotsky delegation at Brest-Litovsk in January 1918
The Trotsky Delegation arrives for the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, January 1918. Image: NARA

When Poland signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union in October 1920, the Red Army was able to turn its full attention to conquering Ukraine. The end the war officially came on November 17, 1921, but that was not to be the end of the killing. Bolshevik reprisals and murders by the Cheka continued for several years. The communist nightmare engulfed Ukraine and lasted until August 1991. Russia would invade Ukraine again in March 2014, when Putin’s forces annexed the Crimea and supported Russian “separatists” in their attacks in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine once again. This time the entire world is watching and learning what Ukrainians have known for more than a century. Let’s hope history is more kind to the Ukrainian people this time around.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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