Monday, May 21, 2018

The Finnish Army of the Grand Duchy of Finland - An impressive but incomplete force

Between 1809 to 1917 Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, entitled the Grand Duchy of Finland. This time saw Finland transform and grow, and while it wasn’t entirely stable, nor beneficial, it certainly helped improve the Finns into a more independent and proud people.


When Finland was ceded to Russia from Sweden with the Treaty of Fredrikshamn (also called the Treaty of Hamina), the Finnish raised regiments of the Swedish Army (12 infantry regiments, 2 infantry battalions , 2 dragoon regiments and 1 artillery regiment, plus depot and engineer staff) were theoretically adopted by the Russian Empire but a declaration on 27th March 1810 made it an army without soldiers.

The Finnish raised units of the Swedish Army fell into either one of two catergories; a Tenure (or allotted) Regiment or Enlisted Regiment. A Tenure Regiment was one that was a part time force, in which the soldiers, outside of training, were mainly tending to the crofts provided to them by local farmers. An Enlisted Regiment was a full time garrison or semi-continuous force made up of volunteers, these were normally garrisoned in towns and cities rather than supporting themselves upon crofts of the countryside. The original purpose was that the tenure regiments would be brought together and used to support the enlisted army in times of war but the reality was that both units would be used in whatever way the commander they fell under wished.

The famous painting, Porilaisten marssi (March of the men from Pori), by Albert Edelfelt in 1892. It depicts the Finnish raised Pori Regiment as it marches to war in 1808-09. Source: Wikimedia

Despite some people referring to these regiments as a ‘Finnish Army’, they were not independent and appeared in Swedish army lists without separation based upon whether they were from Sweden or Finland. Indeed, the Finnish units had many an officer from Sweden (for example the Finnish Guards Regiment had 80-85% of its Officers cadre from Sweden), not only this but a lot of the resources to keep the Regiments going came from Sweden.

The Finnish Armies of the Grand Duchy of Finland

The history of the Army of the Grand Duchy of Finland can be broken down into three separate periods. These are, 1812 to 1830, 1854 to 1867 and 1881 to 1901.

  • 1812 – 1830

On the 24th June 1812 Napoleon crossed the Niemen river with a force of 449,000 men, starting the Patriotic War of 1812. The first months of the invasion saw Russian forces push back and forced to retreat time and time again, sending panic through the command of the Russian military. It was during this grim period that Count Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, the Minister State Secretary of Finland (the Grand Duchy's highest representative), suggested to Tsar Alexander I that a force of light infantry be raised from Finnish volunteers. The Tsar ordered the formation of 3 light infantry regiments (divided into 6 battalions), each made up of 1,200 men, on the 16th September 1812. These units were mainly to be for the defense of Finland, but could also be deployed to the Baltics or St.Peterburgs in times of need.

These units never saw combat and this is probably a good thing as they received little training. There was only three times a year in which the soldiers fired their rifles and these were limited to only four times per solider at 80 paces. It was decided that these units were a waste of resources and so in 1830 they were disbanded. In its place a Naval contingent of 1,100 men were raised, which manned not only coastal fortresses but even had an array of vessels, including two steam powered frigates. These sailors saw combat during the Crimean War as French and British ships bombarded the Sveaborg harbor at the entrance to Helsinki. This detachment would continue until its disbandment in 1880.

  • 1854-1868

The second phase was in response to the outbreak of the Crimean War. Finland had one of the largest merchant fleets in the world at that time and was prospering in both economic and social spheres. Finland’s position allowed it to become a place of importation for Russia, which heavily relied on imports from neighbours and abroad, it also helped to protect the capital, St Petersburg and the major naval base at Kronstadt.

The raising of this ‘National Defence’ Force was seen more as a way to secure the loyalty and keep the morale high of the local Finns. General Baron Platon Rokassovski, acting Governor-General of Finland, proposed to Tsar Nicholas I that “There is no doubt that the enemy will seize on every opportunity of making the people of the coastal areas of finland waiver in their feelins of duty and loyalty…. [A national defence force would form] a powerful obstacle not so much physically as morally. To drive the enemy back is a natural wish. When the people have their own sons and brothers among these troops, they too must sincerely wish them success”.

With this recommendation, a small force was raised using the old Swedish allotment system. 9  tarkk'ampuja (sharpshooter or rifle) battalions were formed between 1854-1855. Like the Swedish tenure Regiments, these units weren’t permanent but worked on small farms and assembled occasionally for training. These units were immediately reduced after the war ended and the last of them were disbanded in 1868. This decision was made due to economic constraints brought on by bad harvests and subsequent famine (1866-68). Alongside these battalions, there were some ad-hoc  militia groups, like the one that helped Russian forces at the ambush of Halkokari (which successfully repelled a British Royal Navy landing force of around 200 troops).

A painting by Johan Knutson depicting the Russian Army and Finnish miltia forcing defending against the British Royal Navy landing at Halkokari. Source:

  • 1881-1901

This last grouping was to be a new army, one that helped answer the question of Finland’s defence as an autonomous state within the Empire. Tsar Alexander II introduced a universal conscription in 1874, in which Russian subjects upon reaching age 20 were to serve for 6 years. During the discussion, the question about Finland came up, due to its special legal position, it required the input of the Senate, the Estates (Finland’s Parliament) and the Russian War Ministry. What came about was the Military Service Law of 1878, which created a Finnish conscript army made up solely of Finnish citizens, that would only serve within the borders of the Grand Duchy and outside of the Russian War Ministry’s Finland Military District. The Finnish people would have to bear the burden of equipping and supporting their own national force.

An army of 8 Rifle Battalions and the Guards Finnish Rifle Battalion was raised in 1881, soon to be supported by 32 reserve companies in 1883 and the  Finnish Dragoon Regiment was founded in 1889. Another stipulation to an independent Finnish army was that its strength would not be more than half of the number of Russian troops serving within the Finland Military District. The purpose of the 1881-1901 Finnish Army was ‘to defend the throne of the fatherland and thus contribute to the defense of the Empire’. However, as the Army consisted of light infantry, it was dependent upon the Russian army in the country to provide artillery and engineer support in the event of war.

The Finnish Dragoon Regiment as it looked in 1899. Source: Wikimedia

The Army was recruited, with the exception of the Guards Rifle Battalion and the Dragoon Regiment, locally. These units were:

Guards Finnish Rifle Battalion
1st Uusimaa Finnish Rifle Battalion
2nd Turku Finnish Rifle Battalion
3rd Vaasa Finnish Rifle Battalion
4th Oulu Finnish Rifle Battalion
5th Kuopio Finnish Rifle Battalion
6th Mikkeli Finnish Rifle Battalion
7th Hämeenlinna Finnish Rifle Battalion
8th Viipuri Finnish Rifle Battalion
Finnish Dragoon Regiment
Finnish Cadet Corps

This army would serve, without firing a shot in anger, until 1901 when a new Military Service Law came into effect. This was part of the Russification of Finland and called for Finnish men to now serve in the Russian Imperial Army. However there was a lot of opposition to this new law and after the 1905 revolution, Finland was exempt from it but had to contribute money instead.

One of the Rifle Battalions during summer field exercises in 1901. Source: Wikimedia

Guards Finnish Rifle Battalion – The exception to the rule

Finns very often joke about exceptions to the rule, especially when one is learning their language. The Guards Finnish Rifle Battalion is just another Finnish exception to the rule.

In 1817 the 5th Viipuri Battalion was broken up and a 274 strong special contingent was formed. In 1819 it was named the Helsinki Teaching Battalion and in 1824, after moving into new quarters in Helsinki, was named the Finnish Training Battalion. In 1827 a decision was made to disband the Finnish Army and a reorganisation took place, however the Finnish Training Battalion was saved from the save fate as the other Battalions.

In July 1829 it was ordered to join the Imperial Life-Guards' exercise camp in Krasnoye Selo south-west of Saint Petersburg. On the 27th July, the Battalion was inspected by Tsar Nicholas I and he announced that it would be promoted to the ranks of the Young Guard. The next day it was officially renamed Henkikaartin 3. Suomen Tarkk’ampujapataljoona (Leib-gvardii 3-j strelkovyi Finski bataljon in Russian) and was assigned to the 4th Brigade of the 2nd Guards Infantry Division. It occupied a unique position in being under command of the Governor-General of Finland but also under the command of the Inspector of the Imperial Guard, its costs were covered by Finland but the regulations and command language were Russian. It was to be recruited entirely from volunteers from across the whole of the Grand Duchy of Finland and on 17 September 1829 it was inaugurated with a new uniform and colours.

The Finnish Guards Rifle Battalion as they looked in 1830. Source: Wikimedia

The Battalion became a point of pride to Finland as the Guards held a privileged position within Russian society. They were protectors of the Sovereign, gained the favour of the Imperial Family and held superiority over Line Regiments. The Battalion showed Finland’s loyalty to the Tsar and commitment to the Empire. However, just because it was a Guards unit, it didn’t mean it was all for show and in January 1831 it was deployed as part of the Imperial reinforcements sent to crush the Polish Uprising. In April it received its baptism by fire when it, alongside other Imperial forces, were to evict Polish forces from the area between Bug and Narew rivers. It continued to fight, and earn distinction as a marksman force, till the end of the campaign in October 1831.  It only lost 9 men and 1 officer during combat but about 399 officers and men succumbed to wounds or disease out of the original strength of 746. For its service, the Tsar granted the Battalion with the Saint George Flag and the text "In honour of the defeating the Polish uprising in 1831".

This wouldn’t be their only campaign. They were deployed during the Hungarian Uprising of 1849 but the rebellion had been quelled before the Battalion arrived. During the Crimean War it was first sent on guard duty at the Winter Palace in St.Petersburg before moving through the Baltics to protect the coast from invasion and raids. It ended the War in Belarus, helping to secure the border from any Austrian attempts of taking advantage of the situation.

The Finnish Guards Rifle Battalion during the 1850s had a German style Pickelhaube for a headdress. Source: Wikimedia 

Its last military campaign was during the Russo-Turkish War 1877 – 78. It was during this campaign that it gained its fame. It was deployed alongside other Imperial forces after the offensive stalled in July 1877 and more forces were needed to help break the stalemate. 870 officers and men left Helsinki on 6th September to cheers and wishes of luck by the populace, and arrived in the Bulgarian warzone on 3rd October. The Battalion, alongside the rest of the Guards' Rifle Brigade, served under Lieutenant General Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko. The Finns lead the assault against the fortress of Gorni-Dubnik. Helping to secure victory, losing  22 men as fallen, with 95 wounded, including 8 officers, 5 non-commissioned officers and five bandsmen. However their actions earned them much fame and praise from their Russian peers. It would see action in some other battles but it would be Gorni-Dubnik that the Battalion would become known for.

It would end the campaign at the Gates of Constantinople and would be subjected to a deadly  Typhoid fever epidemic which plagued it until its return home in May 1878 to jubilant crowds. It was also awarded Old Guard status from Tsar Alexander II for its heroic deeds during the campaign.

When the Finnish Army of 1881 was created, the Guards were to merge into the organization and become an all-volunteer force to a national conscripted one. However it still retained its Guards status and participated in the Guards exercises and was the only unit of the Finnish Army of 1881 with a mandate to serve outside of its borders. It survived the disbandment of the Finnish Army in 1901 and was reintegrated fully in the Imperial Russian Army but due to the 1905 Revolution and the increased hostility in Finland against service to Russia, the decision was made to disband the unit and so in 1905, after 97 years, Finland did not have a domestic military force.

The Colours of the Finnish Guards Rifle Battalion after 1831 with the commemoration to the Polish Campaign. Source: Wikimedia

The Legacy

Despite an unstable and incomplete structure, the Armies of the Grand Duchy of Finland held up well when faced with trials. They showed loyalty to the Empire and performed bravely under fire. Despite them being seen more as a secondary force, one to help keep the spirits of the population up, they stepped up when required and earned their share of honours.

Several modern Finnish units claim the heritage of the former Battalions of the Finnish Army and uphold the traditions of these units. The Guard Jaeger Regiment claims descent from the Finnish Guards Rifle Battalion, it even holds a special honorary day on 24th October to celebrate the Battle of Gorni Dubnik. The Pori Brigade keeps the traditions of 2nd Turku Finnish Rifle Battalion alive.


J.E.O. Screen, The Finnish Army, 1881 - 1901 - Training the Rifle Battalions (Finnish Historical Society 1996)
J.E.O. Screen, The Army in Finland – During the Last Decades of Swedish Rules 1770-1809 (Finnish Literature Society, 2007)
Basil Greenhill, The British Assault on Finland, 1854-1855: A Forgotten Naval War (Naval Institute Press, 1988)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

'Built upon this Rock' - The Lost Speech that helped unify Finland

On the 5th May, in the small town of Nivala, hundreds of citizens of Finland gathered outside the Town's Church, including the country's President, Sauli Niinstö and Prime Minister Juha Sipilä. They were all there to celebrate the 100th anniversary of what has become known as the Reconciliation Speech. 

Part of the crowd at the Nivala Church, 5th May 2018. Source: Kaleva, Jukka-Pekka Moilanen

The Background

From late January 1918 till May of that year, Finland was torn apart by a vicious civil war that saw the country completely divided and confused. With the collapse of the Russian Empire and the subsequent Civil War raging their between various Red (Communist and Socialist elements) against various White (Monarchists and Parliamentarians) , as well as smaller other groups, Finland saw itself free for the first time in its existence but despite unifying to form a new Finnish state, the country was engulfed by a political match for power that soon broke into open warfare. 

Even though it was on the peripheral of the Eastern Front of the First World War, it was still of value to both Russia and Germany, who both put their influences into their respective sides and sent various forms of aid. Despite this though, the war remained heavily Finnish based.

On the 8th April the Battle of Tampere was over and no longer would the Reds hold the upper hand. From here it was retreat followed by retreat, with small scatterings of holdouts that quickly collapsed, for the Finnish Red forces. 5th May saw the final defeat of the Finnish Red Forces (but not the end of the Finnish Civil War as there were still several small Russian garrisons holding out in the country) at Ahvenkoski and it was on this day that the foundation for the unification of Finland was laid.

Kyösti Kallio

President Kyösti Kallio at his desk. Source: National Board of Antiquities

Born on the 10th April 1873 in the farming town of Ylivieska, Kyösti was brought up in a politically active and hard working family. He was educated not only in his birth town but also in near by Raahe and eventually moved to Oulu to study at the Lyseo (Secondary education). It was here that he became influenced by the Young Finnish Party and eventually became an active member of the organisation and its protests against the Russification of Finland. At 31 years old he was voted into the Diet of Finland which was remarkable for someone so young, he wouldn't let his young age be tempered by older heads and was known to be a very opinionated and vocal politician, especially against policies that were detrimental to the Finnish state. 

He rose in political prominence, being voted into the first parliament in 1907, being made agricultural minister in 1917, and during the Civil War he was in hiding until the liberation of Helsinki, in which he led the Senate of Helsinki.

After the Civil War he held various positions within the newly independent Finnish state, from Agricultural minister to President. He led the country during the Winter War and thus signed the 1940 Moscow Peace Treaty, in which he stated "May my hand, which is forced to sign such a paper, wither." It would not be long after that his prophesy came true, as due to failing health, his right arm became paralysed. He suffered a stroke in August and his duties passed to his Prime Minister, Risto Ryti. After a long struggle, he decided to resign from office in November and wanted to retire to his farm in Nivala. In December he attended a formal farewell ceremony at Helsinki train station, where he suffered a heart attack and died whilst the band played the Porilaisten marssi.

Taken as President Kallio goes to retirement. The farewell ceremony on the 19th Decemeber 1940 at Helsinki train station. Seconds after this photo was taken, he would suffer a heart attack that would claim his life. Source: Hugo Sundström, Wikimedia

The healing starts

Even though the war was still in effect, it was in the final stage, and almost all but the very South Eastern areas were in the hands of the Whites, the process of healing a divided and broken Finland needed to be started.

Kallio had taken a train from Helsinki to Nivala, passing through the devastated Finland (especially the heavily mauled city of Tampere). It was here that he, acting as a senator, gave a message for peace and reconciliation between Red and White. This wasn’t exactly an easy message to deliver, the senate was still suspended (it would be called again the next day, 6th May), martial law was still in effect, thousands of reds and their supporters were in prison camps and there was still violence in the streets (summary executions was not unheard off).

So what was the speech? That, in the words of President Niinistö, is a great “irony of history that the speech was not saved in its entirety for posterity”. To date there hasn’t been a single copy of the speech found, nor do any Newspapers record it. However, what has been quoted, and passed on to this day, is “We need to create a Finland where there are no Reds and Whites but only Finns who love their fatherland, citizens of the Republic of Finland who all feel themselves to be members of society and who are at home here”.

These words started the process to create an independent Finland, one united together in a common cause of national identity and pride above such petty divisions like politics. Some historians have questioned the validity of this much repeated quote due to no copies being saved, but Professor Kari Hokkanen believes it to be correct albeit that Kallio didn’t have it in written form but freely spoke it. Prime Minister Juha Sipilä said at the ceremony, "Thousands of people were killed in post-war altercations and prison camps before the reconciliation policies began to be implemented in earnest. Kallio preferred a policy of mercy over revenge,...This integration effort reached its fulfillment years later, after Kallio was elected president and named both the winners and losers of the conflict to work side by side in the government,"

The relevance today

With the centenary of the Civil War, there is obvious discourse within public and academic forums about the war. Most have been of a civil disposition, with many books and articles being published taking a more middle ground approach to the war, but some have pushed a more extreme position, blaming one side or the other for the bloodshed.

President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Juha Sipilä were both present at the ceremony this year and urged all those in Finland to respect one another regardless of views. Source: Kaleva, Jukka-Pekka Moilanen

President Niinistö stated at the ceremony, "The events which took place a hundred years ago are still of relevance for Finland today, and it is not insignificant how we account for the past. Civil war is the worst thing that can happen to a nation. Let it be a lesson to us to remember and preserve our stability at a time of turmoil in various parts of the world,". He would continue by pointing out today’s issues, especially with regards to social media and internet forums and the rise in antagonism, "I encourage you, ladies and gentlemen, to take the responsibility. Nurturing democracy is an invaluable tool in reconciling different points of view. This is a good rule of thumb: even where there is diversity and people of different backgrounds, convictions and goals, we have a right to disagree. This is something we must be able to respect, however differently we ourselves might think. This is what Kyösti Kallio urged his fellow citizens to do, to seek reconciliation, in his famous Nivala speech as well as consistently in his other actions. Let's not forget it."



The title 'built upon this rock' was chosen not only because Kallio's speech was seen as the cornerstone for building a new Finland but also because Kallio translates to rock. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Memorial Hunter - Raatisaari Prison Camp 1918

One of the many things I like to do in connection to my hobby of studying Military History is tracking down related memorials. I have done it so much that my son has taken on the habit of looking at memorials, much to the chagrin of my wife. Whenever we go to a new place, I will scour the internet looking for interesting memorials for us to visit, pay our respects and learn more about the event in connection. It is with this in mind that I thought I would write about these memorials I have come across; where they are, what is the background and other interesting facts.

So without further ado, here is the first of my Memorial Hunter posts.

1st May, also called May Day or Vappu in Finnish, is one of the biggest holidays in the Finnish calendar. It’s a day filled with celebration, parades, eating munkki (Finnish doughnuts), tippaleipä (Finnish funnel cakes) and drinking sima (mead). It is also the day that Socialists and Communists have chosen for International Workers’ Day and so throughout Finland various memorials to the Reds (Socialists and Communists of the Finnish Civil War) will be remembered with wreaths, flowers and ribbons. It was during this festive day that a memorial I had passed many times on my way to work caught my eye.

The memorial as it looked on 1st May 2018. Source: Author's collection
The Raatin punavankileirin muistomerkki, Raati Red Prisoner Camp Memorial, was created in response to Oulu City’s Council request to the Oulu Arts Council to mark the 70th anniversary of the Prison Camp’s operation in 1988. It is part of the overall attempts in Finland to help build solid relations between the two main divisions in the country, that despite years of outward unity, still displays the scars on society.

The Prison Camp

In the aftermath of the Battle of Oulu the Whites found themselves with around 850 prisoners and no where to house them. At first they were placed into various buildings around the city, like the Lyseo (Secondary School), the theater, and the State Provincial Office. However, these accommodations were not ideally suited for long term holding and so a new, centralised institution was needed. In several areas, like Raahe and Kokkola, small camps had been constructed to house Red prisoners and so it was decided to copy that idea but on a larger, more permanent scale.

Some Red Guard Prisoners at the Lyseo. Source: OUKA
To decide where to build this new prison camp was fairly easy. Raatinsaari was home to a Russian Coast Guard Station manned by troops tasked with guarding the coastal area during the First World War. Turning the barracks and station into a prison camp started on 20th March, between 40-140 prisoners were assigned to a building and the whole facility was surrounded by barbed wire.

Like in other camps across the country, treatment wasn’t of the best quality but due to the need for volunteers at the front, Oulu’s camp saw many conscripted guards. These conscripts were often described as ‘Red Hearted’ which isn’t all that surprising as Oulu was an industrialised Workers’ city at that time. Also, unlike in some camps, Oulu’s prisoners were used as labour in the area; this allowed them to have more freedom, better rations and generally better lifestyle than other prisoners elsewhere. All these things contributed to Oulu having the second lowest mortality rate out of all the camps of the Civil War.

The mortality rates of Finland’s Civil War camps are well known in Finland, some had a rate of more than 20%, but out of the around 2,100 prisoners who were housed there from its opening in March to its closing in August, only 46, 49 or 51 died (depending upon the source used). Out of this number only 9 were executed and the rest mainly succumbed to disease.

The Memorial

Jouko Toiviainen was chosen to produce the sculpture. He said he was inspired by an incident that occurred when a prisoner was hunting a frog to eat but a guard thought he was trying to escape and proceeded to shoot him. He described the memorial as a broken shell of a man on top of a slab cracked in half with something fallen from the man’s grip in the middle.  He also goes on to say that he doesn’t see heroism in the Civil War but the human tragedy during that time has touched him.

A close up. Source: Author's collection
On one half of the slab there is the text "PUNAVANKILEIRI RAATISSA 1918" which translates to Red Prison Camp Raati 1918.

The memorial is located at 65.019622, 25.461415, opposite the Sports Stadium, in front of the YMCA.

Significance Today

Even at, or even because of, the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, there is still tension surrounding the event. People still search for reconciliation and understanding and it is only in recent years through open and diverse research and discourse that we have seen the wounds start to heal. The building and maintaining of these memorials is a part of this reconciliation.


Ala-Häivälä, Kai: "Vankina valkoisten – Oulun vankileiri 1918" Suomen historian pro gradu -tutkielma (Helsingin yliopiston historian laitos, 2000)
Haapala, Pertti, Tampere 1918: A Town in the Civil War (Tampere Museums, Museum Centre Vapriikki, 2010)
Memorials to the Reds: Raatinsaari Red Prison Camp

Monday, April 23, 2018

Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive – SA Kuva

Looking at photos of older times and events really helps us get closer to our ancestors. Photos allow us to see how our past family and relatives live, how people acted during certain events and times. It allows us to almost put ourselves right there in their shoes.

Picture from the home page of SA Kuva. Source: SA Kuva

We are lucky in this day and age of the internet to have access to numerous photo archives that depict many various times and events. The Finnish Defence Forces hosts their own photo archives, Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive (also known as SA Kuva), which holds over 160,000 photographs from early 1939 to the summer of 1945. These photos don’t just look at the army, the battles but also the home front, industry, civilians in their daily lives during these trying times. It is a really wide and in-depth archive.

Another plus to it is that the photos are licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0. This means you can distribute, edit and publish the photographs as long as SA-kuva is credited as the source. This is great for individuals like myself who want to post certain pictures on sites to accompany a piece.

The only downside to the archive, at least for non-Finns, is the search function only works with Finnish words and so requires at least some knowledge of Finnish. However, not all is lost though. There is a bunch of people over at forums who have marked the numbers of certain interesting pictures, allowing you to easily find certain items.

This source is really a valuble tool and is great at helping us understand a little more about those times in which Finland struggled against impossible odd.

Monday, April 9, 2018

What were the Red Army Losses during the Winter War?

Since the end of the Russo-Finnish Winter War in March 1940, there have been numerous attempts at calculating the number of those lost from the Soviet Armed Forces. Numbers ranging from as low as 45,000 to as high as 1 million.

So what has Russia claimed

As is known to many people, the Soviet Union was a tightly controlled society, in which information was highly guarded and only relevant and doctored pieces were released to the general public. To question the officially stated information was liable to lead someone to trouble. Soon after the conclusion of the war, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov reported that the losses of the glorious Red Army were only 48,745 dead and 158,863 wounded while the enemy had lost over 300,000 (reported as at least 60,000 dead and 250,000 wounded). However a special session of the Supreme Soviet was held on 26th March 1940 and gave the numbers as 48,475 dead and 158,863 wounded.

The Main Directorate of Personnel of the Ministry of Defense of the USSR collected raw data from the several sources and published the overall ‘irretrievable losses’ as 126,875, which was broken down into those killed in action, died during sanitary evacuation, died of accidents and wound, and missing in action. It also put the sanitary losses, these are those who suffered wounds, frostbite, disease and had to be evacuated and treated, 264, 904. These numbers were not made public until a research team, headed by Lieutenant General Grigori Krivosheev, published them in a 1993 report titled Гриф секретности снят: Потери Вооруженных Сил СССР в войнах, боевых действиях и военных конфликтах (Soviet Armed Forces Losses in Wars, Combat Operations and Military Conflicts).

Generally Krivosheev’s numbers are the ones that are typically used by many historians, both within and outside of Russia. However, his report has garnered criticism. This is mainly down to Russian historians claiming that he underestimates the number of PoWs and Missing in Action, but also by those outside of Russia. For example in the report, he mentions the Finnish losses as 48,243 dead and 43,000 wounded. His numbers for the enemy losses at Khalkhin-Gol are also way off, claiming 61,000 in overall losses (with 25,000 being KIA), when the Japanese only had a force of 38,000 at peak strength.

The wounded being flown out of the Karelian Isthmus. Source:

The next attempt at giving the numbers was a team headed by Vladimir Zolotaryov under decrees from the Russian Federation Government. Between 1999-2005 they published ten volumes detailing the names of all those who lost their lives in combat between 1929-1940 and 1946-1982. Volumes 2-9 focused on the Winter War. This project used previously unknown and new data from Military and Medical archives and rose the figure to over 130,000.

There were also some individual estimates given by various historians, such as 53,800 killed by Mikhail Semiryaga, about 72,500 of all losses by the Russian Historian A Noskov, and up to around 400,000 total losses by PA Aptekarya.

Why such trouble with the numbers

The problems with getting the exact numbers for Soviet losses during the Winter War comes from the lack of formal identification carried by Soviet Soldiers. While there was meant to be a form of dog tag (a locker type device worn around the neck), it was either not worn correctly or the information contained was incorrect/lost.

Another problem, and probably the biggest, is the from the shortcommings of the military clerks serving in the units at the time. While literacy rates were fairly high (about 75%), it did not mean that the clerks had a sufficient grasp of the language, and so we can see numerous incorrect spellings, which has lead to difficulty in identifying the dead. Also the poor training of military clerks meant that there could be duplicates of a soldier within the records. Then with the dual toponym (Finnish and Karelian) of the theatre of operations, the Clerks had a hard job. When the region saw Russification in the late 40’s, all the names were changed and so causing masses of confusion to many trying to track down possible grave sites.

A Field Hospital somewhere near of the front in December 1939. Source:
Yuri Kilin, a Russian historian who has specialised in Russian-Finnish conflicts, has attempted to get a clearer picture of the losses of the Soviet Union for the Winter War. He started a project, Russo-Finnish War 1939-1940, alongside Veronika Kilina, with the main aim of helping relatives find their lost. Starting with an initial 168,024 irretrievable losses, they managed to correct the number down to 138,551 dead. They also matched up the places names and corrected those that had been misidentified. Adding these to the sanitary losses of 264,904, we are given a total casualty figure of 403,455.

So how does this break down

This means that the Red Military suffered an almost 95% loss rate from their initial forces. This breaks down to a daily casualty rate of 3,842, with 1,320 of those being irretrievable. Obviously though not all the divisions saw an equal split of casualties. 60 Soviet Divisions were committed to the war before its conclusion, out of these the 18th Rifle Division of the 56th Corps suffered the highest losses. Becoming encircled in Lemetti in January, by the end of the war it had suffered 7,677 dead, another 5,223 were wounded or lost, from an initial force of 15,000. The 44th Rifle Division suffered the biggest single daily loss during the Battle of Suomussalmi with 1,001 dead, 2,243 missing, 1,000 captured and 1,430 wounded from an initial strength of 13,962. This gives a daily loss of 811 (the battle lasted 7 days).

A photo showing some of the Soviet dead from the 'Regiment Motti' in Feburary 1940. There is about 400 in this photo. Source: SA Kuva

Overall, the losses suffered by the Soviet Army, in comparison to the Finns, are massive. The Finns set up their own database in the early 90’s to help get a solid number of their dead. Their conclusion came to 26,662 irretrievable losses and 44,557 sanitary losses. This translates to a daily loss of 678 men or only 21% of that suffered by the Red Forces. This helps to push the idea that the Red Army was ineffective in the Winter War and was part of the reason why the Soviet Armed Forces went through such reforms in the early 40s.

So do we now have the exact number?

Despite Kilin’s brilliant work, and the praise he has received from his peers, he does go on to warn us that the figures should now be seen “as the very precise figure”. The oppurtunity afforded through the use of the internet to interact with relatives and more access to archives means he can adjust the data accordingly. He clarifies though that will the number will inevitable change in the future, it would be more along the lines of hundreds rather than thousands.

However, I think the last words rest with Former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the USSR and current president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, General of the Army Makhmut Akhmetovich Gareyev. He stated in Battles on the military historical front, that the official number of losses during the Soviet era have not been published and that all claims are the work of their respective authors.

A monument in St.Petersburg, devoted to the victims of the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–1940. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Maryanna Nesina


Turtola, Martti, Perspective on the Finnish Winter War: Winter War-seminar in Helsinki 11 March 2010 (Edita Prima Oy, Helsinki 2010)

Monday, April 2, 2018

Heroes of Finland- Viljam Pylkäs

In 1954 the book Tuntematon Sotilas (Unknown Solider in English) appeared on the shelves of Finnish bookstores. By the end of 1955 over 161,000 copies had been sold nationwide. Since then the book has been adapted into three films, several theater additions, as well as having over 60 additions and translated into 20 languages. The book has sold over 800,000 copies and despite it being a fictional account, it is seen as an ‘excellent sociological document’ and a important part of Finnish culture.

While the characters of the book are fictional, they are based upon real individuals, and the settings do reflect the experiences of the author, who served as a NCO in a machine gun company during the Continuation War (1941-44).

During the novel, and films, there is a scene where the strong willed Winter War veteran Corporal Rokka ambushes a platoon of Soviets trying to outflank the Finnish line and single handledly kills all 50 of them. While to many it seems to be an overkill, unbelievable, the reality behind it is a whole lot more badass.

Viljam Pylkäs

Born to a farming family in the Karelian county of Valkjärvi in February 1912, Viljam Pylkäs followed the route of many of his peers and was conscripted into the Finnish Army in 1933. He served for a year, receiving training in the usage of the Maxim Machine Gun, as well as being assigned to the Karelian garrison. After being discharged in 1934, he went back to his farm in Sakkola and likely would have remained a nameless farmer if events had gone differently.

Viljam Pylkäs taken sometime in 1944/45 displaying his awards. Source:SA Kuva

Due to the increased aggression from the Soviet Union and the worry of invasion, Finland prepared itself with a mobilisation in October 1939 under the guise of extraordinary refresher training. During this mobilisation, the Separate Battalion 6 was raised from troops of the Coastal areas of northern part of the Ishtmus, and Pylkäs was assigned to the battalion’s machine gun company. His battalion became well known due to participating in the Battle of Kelja. Here 2 Finnish battalions fought off an assault by the Soviet 4th Rifle Division, however the Soviet bridgehead threatened the Finnish defensive line as more men and equipment were building up. The 6th were then ordered to attack the bridgehead and force the Soviets back to the other side of the Suvanto lake, after making preparation, the Finns attacked on the morning of the 27th December. The Soviets had dug in, with machine guns covering their flanks, and so the attack stalled against this heavy resistance. But the Finns were not deterred and launched a second strike only an hour after the first, this time they broke through, forcing the Soviets to flea across the iced Suvanto and at the mercy of the Finnish artillery that proceeded to smash the thin ice and swallow who squads of Soviet soldiers. Despite a victory, the battalion suffered 100 wounded and 52 killed.

The battalion saw action in the Taipale sector for the rest of the war, being subjected to heavy Soviet artillery and tank attacks. The unit did not break but was massively reduced in number and by the declaration of the armistice on the 13th March 1940, only 341 men were still able to fight out of an original strength of 1055.

Pylkäs was demobilised after the Winter War, and with his family, moved from the village of Sakkola, which was now inside Soviet territory, towards the interior of Finland and established a small farm. At the outbreak of the Continuation War in June 1941, Pylkäs was once again called up. This time he was assigned to the Machine Gun Company of Infantry Regiment 8.

During the advance into East Karelia, Pylkäs’ company participated in numerous battles and he performed with distinction. On one occasion he single-handedly captured a mortar position. Before the ceasing of offensive operations in December 1941, Pylkäs had been awarded the Medal of Liberty in both 2nd and 1st class and promoted to the rank of Corporal. Throughout the war he participated in several skirmishes, helped to established the frontline, went on leave to bring in the harvest and did the things that his comrades did. Despite being a well liked soldier by his peers, his attitude was not very military like and got him in to trouble with his superiors. During one event, a captain of another company demanded that he be saluted but Pylkäs replied that he came to fight, not to honour.

Pylkäs keeping watch. Source:

When the Soviet’s launched their Summer Offensive in June 1944, he was at his reclaimed home in Sakkola and after helping his wife and children pack, he returned to the front. He then participated in the fighting withdrawal from East Karelia until 4th July 1944 when he was gravely wounded crossing the Tulemajärvi. This ended his war but he was rewarded for his service by receiving a small farm in Punkalaidun. When Väinö Linna published his book, Tuntematon Sotilas, in 1955, he wrote to Pylkäs explaining how he was the model for Rokka.

He had 4 children and lived a relatively modest life as a farmer and forestry worker until he passed away in 1999.

The Ambush

On 12th April 1942, the frontline has been relatively static in the Pertjärvi region. However, the lines were not solid dug in trenches as would appear later but more fluidly placed defensive points by both sides. Infantry Regiment 8 and Infantry Regiment 61 (a Swedish speaking Finnish regiment of some fame) were assigned to the sector and had set about creating a defensive line. The Soviets had decided to launch an attack that day and a fierce firefight erupted along the forests and fields of Pertijärvi. The flank of the 61st was being pushed hard and so Pylkäs was ordered to go assist with another soldier. As they made their way through the deep snow covered terrain, they came across a Soviet platoon attempting to move through the gap between the regiments.

Map of the disposition of 11th Division's forces on the 11th and 12th April 1942. Source: Kansallisarkisto 

Here Pylkäs set himself up on a slight hill and ordered the other soldier, by the name of Kärkkäinen, to help with the reloading. Allowing for the gap to close, Pylkäs aimed his Suomi SMG and pulled the trigger. The Soviets were completely taken by surprise, attempting to scatter in the deep snow and return fire. One of these panicked shots hit Pylkäs in the head but luckily it was a graze and only stunned him for a few seconds, enough though that Kärkkäinen considered retreating. The firefight didn’t last long and the Soviets were soon forced to retreat, leaving many behind in their wake. The firing from the SMG left the snow black and melted, Pylkäs had used over 680 rounds as well as change the barrel of his weapon.

After everything had calmed down, the dead were counted and it was discovered that the field contained 83 dead Soviets. Pylkäs’ ambushed is credited with being the decisive factor that stopped the Soviets from achieving a breakthrough. He was awarded the Cross of Liberty 4th Class for his actions. His deeds reached the ears of the Germans and upon inspecting the sight, they awarded Pylkäs with the Iron Cross 2nd Class in August 1943.

Dispute over the number of killed

Over the years the official kill count of 83 has been disputed, mainly within Finland. The citation for the German Iron Cross only puts the kill count at 15. In Pylkäs’ own book, Rokka: Kertomus konekiväärimiehen sodasta, he only states that his comrades informed him they counted 80 dead Soviets. Numbers from other sources have given 13, 20 and 53 as the number that fell before Pylkäs’ sub-machine gun. Regardless of the exact number, even if as low as 13, the feat achieved is impressive. It also cannot be denied that Pylkäs did contribute to blunting the assault of the Soviets upon the positions of Infantry Regiment 61.

Pylkäs Iron Cross citiation. Source:


Monday, March 19, 2018

Tampere 1918 Exhibition– A Town in the Civil War

Recently I was visiting the city of Tampere, a few friends brought to my attention an interesting exhibition at a local museum. It was titled Tampere 1918 and held in Tampere’s main museum, Vapriiki.

A Poster for the exhibition. Source: Vapriiki
As Finland looks at the centennial of the start of the Battle of Tampere (15th March 1918), I thought it would be a good topic to look at this eye opening and wonderful exhibit.


The Battle of Tampere holds the dubious distinction of being the largest, longest and bloodiest battle of the Finnish Civil War. It was one of the most decisive engagements of the war, it saw the Reds forced unto the defensive and give the initiative to the White forces. It saw large scale urban fighting, as well as uncontrolled violence in the form of executions and fierce beatings. By the time the battle ended on the 6th April, some 820 Whites, 1,000 Reds and 71 civilians had been killed in the fighting but by the end of the war, an additional 1,000 or so Reds were summarily executed.

Today, despite the White victory, the scars of the battle are still visible both physically (bullet holes on buildings and graves) and mentally (protests and vandalized of memorials). However though, with the passage of time and a more open minded and willing generation of historians, the treatment of this conflict and processing the trauma associated with it has become ‘easier’ and allowed many to come to terms with it.

One of the many posts around the exhibition that help give information and ask fundamental questions. Source: Personal Collection

Behind the Exhibit

When the 90th anniversary of the Finnish Civil War was commemorated in 2008, discussions were held in Tampere about how the city could remember, reconcile and commemorate the War, and specifically their City’s central point.

Luckily, thanks to the efforts of those who came before, especially the artist Gabriel Engberg, who collected numerous objects and documents relating to the battle and which had been stored in the various Tampere museums collections. It was decided by the Museum heads that Vapriikki would host a new exhibition and research project based around the collections, entitled ‘Tampere 1918’. With the help of Tampere University’s Department of History and Philsophy, a whole host of researchers and Museum workers came together to produce the exhibit as well as various associated materials. The main architect of the exhibition was Taina Väisänen.

Source: Vapriiki
The exhibition was opened in April 2008, to coincided with the 90th anniversary of the ending of the Battle of Tampere. The main goal it was to show the conflict from numerous angles, as well as presenting as unbiased and fair viewpoint to the audience as possible. A book, ‘Tampere 1918 – A Town in the Civil War’ was also released alongside the exhibit, filled with numerous articles by various historians to help paint a bigger and clearer picture of the Battle.

The Exhibition overall attempts to give people a better understanding of the times and situation surrounding such a sore point and to give people, of all backgrounds, an opportunity to come to terms with what had happened.

The Exhibition

Put on the first floor of the Museum, you are first presented with numerous banners of the various workers’ groups of the city, artifacts of the Russian Empire and a opening question ‘Why Tampere 1918?’. The exhibition is divided into roughly 4 rooms and in that first room the visitor is subjected to the background of the Civil War. The precarious position Finland occupied in the Russian Empire, the geopolitical situation of the First World War and how it was affected the Finnish people. From stories of the frustrated Finnish worker to the uniforms of the local Russian garrison, it struck me with how divided Finland was at the turn of the 20th Century. One of the highlights of that first section was the giant timeline of the far wall, displaying all the events relating to the First World War, Finland and Tampere respectively between 1914 to 1918.

A collection of banners used by various trade unions in protests during the run up to the First World War. Source: personal collection
Walking into the next room, you are drawn to a little hole in the floor, within it is a bag and a knife. A guidebook soon explains that there are 26 floor showcases and each one contains recovered artifacts from the battle, with the majority being recovered by Gabriel Engberg during the Spring of 1918. This room seems to mainly focus upon the two opposing forces, how they were made up, their equipment. On walls there are pictures displaying members of the Red Guard and the White Guard, to look at these youthful men, you wouldn’t have thought they were fighting against one another, how similar they looked. A few display cases show uniforms of White volunteers from Sweden, German infantry, Red Guards and White Guards. We see various Russian equipment, showing how the two sides mainly scavenged what they could from the collapsing Empire’s military stores. Soon you are subjected to the loud boom of a canon and in the corner you can see a Russian 76.2 mm divisional gun model 1902. These guns made up the vast majority of the artillery forces for both sides during the conflict.

One of the 26 floor showcases. This one shows a Finnish produced steel helmet that was to be issued to Russian forces but ended up in the hands of both sides. Alongside it are other various artifacts found upon the former battlefields of Tampere. Source: Personal collection

The next room presents the battle, its aftermath and the atrocities committed. The various artifacts show how the battle affected all present, Reds, Whites and especially Civilians. There are a few interactive displays dotted across the room, giving a deeper story. One picture shows a lifeless child who had been caught in the crossfire between Reds and Whites and really drives home the horror of Civil Wars, especially those fought in urban areas. Photos showing surrendered Reds, executions, wounded in hospitals all drive home the disaster of war.

The last section has a sitting area and a book shelf with various reference materials for someone to look deeper into the war. It displays the aftermath of the war, the numerous orphans that occurred, the attempts at rebuilding Finnish society as a unified state, the memorials built to commemorate both sides, as well as personal stories for us to get a feel of how it was to be there.


It is easy to see why the Tampere 1918 exhibition has won awards. It is full of objects and displays to help the individual look at the Battle and the circumstances surrounding it. The fact that the exhibition doesn’t pick sides and sticks to facts helps it come off as an impartial observer. The many interactive displays, overlaying authentic sounds and highlighted displays really helps mark the exhibit as a unique look at the chaos of Civil War.

A pride of place in the exhibit. The 76mm canon; 179 of these were acquired by the end of the Civil War and were the basis of the Finnish Artillery Corps. These type of guns were also the first to fire shots during the Battle of Oulu in Feburary 1918. Source: Personal collection

The goals laid out by the team are really met, it helps one make sense of the Battle, why things went the way they did and how we can move forward. It presents the individual with a question, What would you have done in the situation?, and really drives home how things are easy in hindsight but at the time it isn’t as easy as picking a side.

It is well worth a visit, the information is presented in Finnish, English, Swedish and Russian, so it is inclusive of a wide range of people.

For information on Vapriiki’s openings and prices:


Haapala, Pertti, Tampere 1918: A Town in the Civil War (Tampere Museums, Museum Centre Vapriikki, 2010)