Finnish Civil War: A hellish conflict

Red soldiers executed by White Guard

Red soldiers executed by White Guard

This is Part 2 of a two-part series that started with Finnish Civil War: The Background.

It was a war of child soldiers, terror squads, and prison camps. How could this happen in a country where a strong Social Democrat majority had voted constitutional reforms just 12 years earlier?

It all had to do with events outside its borders. Finland couldn’t escape the convulsions of WWI and the Russian Revolution. True, the Finns had their own problems of class conflict and rapid industrialization, but they’d gone a long way toward working them out in their 1906 reforms. But then the Tsar imposed oppressive controls. That ended with the Tsar’s ouster in 1917, but the chaos in Russia sent Finland’s governance and economy into collapse. Finally, Germany moved in to make Finland part of its empire.

It was a strange civil war. The Finns had no standing army of their own, so there were no professional soldiers. Each side scraped together 80-90,000 fighters, but the Whites had the advantage of trained leadership and an infusion of 13,000 German soldiers partway through.

The conservative-controlled Finnish senate and parliament voted January 1918 to establish a Finnish White Army. They appointed a former general of the Russian Imperial Army as commander. Confusingly, his name sounded more German than Russian: Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim.

This was all in the name of “maintaining order,” of course, but the Red Guards saw this as the final provocation. They already had their own leader, Ali Aaltonen—the first of a string of commanders who one after another failed in the hopeless task of maintaining control over untrained, undisciplined troops. On January 26, they lit a red lantern in the tower of the Helsinki Worker’s Hall, signaling the “Red Order of Revolution.”

Red Guard officers

Red Guard officers

Aid from the Bolsheviks came in the form of weapons more than troops. Although 80,000 soldiers of the former Russian Imperial Army were stationed in Finland, Lenin’s promise of troop support to the Red Finns couldn’t make these men actually fight. Only about 4,000 participated in combat, and those filtered back to Russia after a month or so.

The Reds headquartered themselves in Helsinki, while White Finland established its capital in Vaasa on the west coast. The Red Guards were mainly volunteers, including 2,000 women factory workers. The White Army had at most 15,000 volunteers and conscripted the remainder. The German-trained Jaegers, put in charge of regiments of conscripts, did much to provide leadership.

Neiti Verna Erikson---on the White side.

Neiti Verna Erikson—on the White side. Most women fighters were Reds.

It’s tempting for me to cast the Reds in the more sympathetic light—as the underdogs. They were the revolutionaries with the hopeless cause, facing the wealthy landowners and industrialists and their conscripted soldiers, bolstered midway through the war by trained German troops. It was a war of short duration featuring only three major battles, and the Reds never really had a chance.

But both sides committed evil deeds. Both used child soldiers, and both had terror squads—cavalry units of up to 80 soldiers.

Child soldier in the White Guard, 13 years old.

Child soldier in the White Guard, 13 years old.

These were usually teenagers led by an adult. On top of this, there were many instances of spontaneous, disorganized terror. Red terror acts killed noncombatant landowners, politicians, ministers of the church, and factory owners as well as White Guards outside combat situations. White terror acts killed Red party leaders and politicians as well as many Red Guard prisoners. Both sides, incredibly, targeted civilians of moderate political beliefs: either moderate socialists or members of the Social Democratic party.

The combat

February and March saw skirmishes at strategic points, mainly along the railways and at major junctions. The Reds were on the offensive until early March but achieved no significant gains. The Red terror claimed most of its victims February through April, while the White terror racked up most of its killings in April and May, when the Whites gained the upper hand and executed thousands of Red Guard soldiers. In total, Red terror accounted for about 1,300 deaths and White terror for at least 7,000.

The three major battles took place at Tampere, an important industrial town in the southwest; Helsinki; and Viipuri, in the far southeast on the road to Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The action around Tampere lasted March 16 to April 6 and involved fighting between native Finns, as most of the Russian army participants had abandoned the field by then and the bulk of German troops had not yet arrived.

Tampere after the battle.

Tampere after the battle.

The White Guard advanced from several points of the compass and besieged the town March 25. They entered the urban center and engaged the Reds in fierce combat at the town graveyard, with heavy losses on both sides. The Whites regrouped, laid down a heavy artillery barrage, and advanced through the town street by street, house by house. By the time the Reds surrendered, much of the eastern part of Tampere had been destroyed by bombardment and fire. The number of Red prisoners (12-15,000) far exceeded the number of Red casualties (500-800), a pattern that was to be repeated.

Woman in Tampere searches for lost family members.

Woman in Tampere searches for lost family members.

The Reds retreated gradually to the east. Meanwhile Germany had sent a naval squadron to the Aland Islands, a key point opposite Stockholm already occupied by a German-aligned Swedish expeditionary force. On April 3, the German presence was augmented by the Baltic Sea Division, which landed west of Helsinki at Hanko, and advanced toward the capital city.

Baltic Sea Division disembarks at Hanko.

Baltic Sea Division disembarks at Hanko.

Helsinki was captured by Germans with only minor support from White Guard residents in the town. A force of 3,000 German troops attacked from the northwest April 12, while a naval squadron blocked the harbor and bombarded the town. The Germans advanced street by street and cleared the southern and western parts of the town in just one day despite resistance by up to 9,000 Reds. The next day the German “Wolff” brigade, 3,000 men, joined the battle, and it was a lost cause for the Reds. They raised the flag of surrender by midday. Casualties: 100-200 Germans, 20 White Guard, 300 Reds; 8,000 Red prisoners.

White Guard victory parade in Helsinki.

White Guard victory parade in Helsinki.

After this demoralizing defeat, most of the Red leadership fled across the border to Petrograd, leaving behind embittered troops. The Whites took Viipuri on April 29 in a battle that resulted in 500-800 Red casualties and 12-15,000 Red prisoners. Long caravans of Reds, including women and children, moved toward Petrograd. The final actions of the war occurred in the southeast in early May, and the Reds surrendered May 15. Finland was now under the control of the German Empire—until Germany’s WWI surrender.

White Guards with machine gun.

White Guards with machine gun.

The prison camps

Most of the Red deaths occurred in the prison camps: 11,785, compared to 5,324 killed in combat and 7,207 killed in terror actions. Total Red casualties, including missing and deaths from other causes: 27,426. Total White casualties: 4,821, of which 3,279 occurred in combat and 1,321 in terror actions.

Altogether, the White Army and German troops had imprisoned 75,000 Reds by the end of the war. The Finnish Senate ruled that all must remain incarcerated until a “Tribunal of Treason” could determine each one’s guilt. The tribunal convicted 70,000, although most were released on parole. By the end of 1918 the number of prisoners had been reduced to 6,000, but as late as 1927, 50 prisoners remained. Those last few were finally pardoned.

Helsinki prison camp.

Helsinki prison camp.

Conditions in the camps were appalling. Mortality rates ran as high as 34% in individual camps. Prisoners died from diseases of malnutrition, starvation, and Spanish flu. A grain shortage across the country exacerbated the lack of food. One prisoner described being given a watery “soup” with a shred of cabbage and a bit of fat floating in it. In the evening, the ration was a small piece of bread and a “stinky brown herring.” But soon the bread disappeared, and prisoners resorted to eating plants and worms they found in the yard.

When the war ended, families of the prisoners sent or brought them food packets, but guns were found smuggled in some of the packets, so authorities banned them. In view of the acute food shortage, the ban was lifted after a month and a half, but some camp superintendents still stopped the food packets for several months more.

One prisoner recalled how he received a food packet containing two pounds of sausage. He wolfed it down, but his digestive system couldn’t handle it, and he vomited. Other prisoners picked up chunks of sausage from his vomit and ate them.

The worst in human nature

The war left deep scars for many years in Finland. Worse than the physical and economic damage were the psychic scars caused by the experience of human nature at its worst. Victims of the terror acts, and their families, must have suffered the most, but it is also strange and sad to learn that the perpetrators of the terror—many of them very young—suffered psychological damage themselves. Whether they could be held responsible is an open question.

One incident illustrates the evil that mysteriously takes hold at times. A load of 34 young White prisoners, all students from a certain school, was traveling by train under guard of a dozen Reds, most 20 years old or younger. A 17-year-old guard had worked in a factory owned by the father of one of the prisoners. Saying he’d been treated badly at the factory, he shot the factory owner’s son, took his clothes and valuables, and threw the body off the train. Other guards caught the mood and started shooting. In the end, 23 Whites had died, either shot or bayoneted.

Oh, what human beings can do.

Johannes Petterson, Red Guard.

Johannes Petterson, Red Guard.

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About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in History, Military History, World War I and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Finnish Civil War: A hellish conflict

  1. Pat H says:

    An interesting character in this episode is Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who had been a general in the Imperial Russian Army. He left the Russian army during the early Russian Civil War when it became clear to him he didn’t side with the Reds in that fight, and had no role with the Whites. Here thereafter became Commander in Chief of the Finnish White forces during their civil war, but left shortly thereafter as he didn’t support the close association with Germany. Ultimately, of course, he returned and is the central Finnish figure in World War Two.

  2. Walter Wilson says:

    I am sure my father may have been one of those “child” soldiers for the Whites. He was 14 in 1917 and finally got out of Finland in 1919 at the age of 16. It is a subject NOT discussed anywhere for all my 67 years. Only when my father drank and sang with Tapsa [Tapio Rautavaara] in the kitchen in 1959 did I hear a glimmer of reference to those days. Ironic that I was around 13 years old when I heard little snippets of Information. Pray for Peace of mind.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m very interested to hear of your experience. I have read many times that the civil war left permanent scars on the Finnish people, on both sides. Thanks for your comment.

      • Walter Wilson says:

        I will be back in Finland this coming spring. I am hoping to be better prepared an visit the “real” areas where my father was raised between 1905-6 to 1919 in Seinajoki. My father was born in Northern Michigan [1903] then moved back to Finland in 1905-6 to be raised by grandparents while my grandmother came back to the NW. However, I still remember the “wall of silence” from relatives from my mothers side during last summers [2013] trip. “We are just all Finns now”. HAH! I do not believe it. One side note. My Grand Uncle [grandmothers brother] Arvo Allen always called my dad Urho which means hero in Finnish. They were both in Finland when the civil war was on. Not too sure of what I can add. I was not the direct victim. Only, some how you know your father is in pain inside. Suffering in silence. Like Vietnam veterans who “do NOT want to talk about it”. Hope to collect myself better and communicate more later.

  3. Jenny says:

    It’s amazing that a veil of silence still hangs over a conflict fought nearly a hundred years ago. It would be good if you could somehow find out more about your father’s role in the war, from relatives in Finland—for instance descendants of your grand uncle—but it sounds as though it could be difficult. Perhaps official records could give you some information. On the subject of Finns in northern Michigan, many years ago my brother and sister and I were driving across the U.P. We picked up a hitchhiker and learned that he was of Finnish descent and so was everyone else in the area. This was near Iron Mountain.

    • patholscher says:

      Returned Finns, but to the area that was already occupied by the USSR following the Russian Revolution, is the subject of a pretty good “tweens” novel about their experiences. I can’t recall the name of it, although I read it when my son was reading it. The same author wrote one about a teenaged Finnish soldier in the Winter War.

      An appreciable, if not gigantic number, of Finns and Russians who had immigrated to the US and Canada returned to the homes following the Russian Revolution, often to very much regret it. The Soviet Union sent recruiters to North America to urge the return of people to their homes within Russia, including to the Finnish regions that Russia kept prior to the Winter War.

  4. Jenny says:

    Very interesting. We’ve all heard of recruiters going from, say, the U.S. railroads to Europe to encourage emigration to the States, but I had never heard of the reverse.

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