Monday, 11 June 2012

The Black Army of Nestor Makhno

The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires left a vacuum which many peoples tried to fill. For the historic kingdom of Ukraine, split between the the Russians and Austrians, this was a heaven sent opportunity. Unfortunately, hundreds of years in different worlds had left little in common between the two parts, who fielded two separate armies, and were defeated and absorbed separately, by the Poles and Russians. But there was, for a while, a third force, the Black Army, or Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine.

The RIAU was led by Nestor Makhno (hence they were sometimes known as Makhnovists) the son of a very poor family who had worked in a iron foundry in Huliaipol, where he had first got involved in Anarchist politics. He eventually rose to command all the Anarchist groups in South Eastern Ukraine, where he tried to impose an Anarchist/ Communist society, abolishing capitalism, "nationalising" all land and setting up workers communes, though, strangely enough, most of the senior leaders seemed to come from Makhnos forces. In true Communist style Makhno adopted a nickname, "Batko", meaning Father.

Mostly though the RIAU fought, against White Russians, Red Russians, anybody really. To distinguish them from the White and Reds, and because they marched under the black Anarchist flag, they were known as the Black Army. In 1918 Makhno swiftly won victories against the much larger forces of the Hetmanate - the client state set up in Ukraine by Germany and Austro-Hungary - capturing vast amounts of supplies, and encouraging many Ukrainian peasants to join his cause.

By early 1919 Makhno had 15,000 men, mainly Ukrainian and Cossack peasants, equipped from the hundreds of thousands of Austrian and German soldiers streaming back through the Ukraine from the Eastern front. From the outside they didn't look too different from other armies of the time, with infantry, cavalry and artillery. The cavalry, both regular and guerrilla, was reportedly very good. Two things set the RIAU apart. Firstly, there were no officers as such, all commanders were elected by the troops, and major decisions taken by mass assemblies. Although ideologically pure in the anarchist sense, it was also responding to necessity. The Austro Hungarian army had had very few Ukrainian officers, and they were unlikely to join an Anarchist militia when there were White forces available. In contrast, the Polish forces for example, could draw on a large cadre of trained ex-Austrian officers, especially in the cavalry.

A tachanka and RIAU cavalry

The second distinctive feature was the tachanka. This was a two horse cart with a driver and one or two soldiers in the back, with a rear facing heavy machine gun. Again this suited well the local conditions, where the warfare was mobile and cavalry important, this gave the cavalry extra fire power, as well as covering the retreat, as the machine gun faced backwards. The RIAU used them en mass and it made a big impression on their enemies. Of course tachankas could also be used to transport infantry, much faster than marching.

Events in deepest Ukraine tended to be ignored in the Western press, one of few mentions of Makho concerns an interview in July 1919 with General Gregoriev, who had set up an independent republic in Odessa on the Black Sea, and who was associated with the "Green" army. Makhno and Gregoriev were, superficially, allies. Anyway, suspecting that he was going to defect to the Whites (highly likely given Gregoriev's numerous changes of side in the past), Makhno drew a pistol, and shot him.

 A tachanka and cavalry

The Black army had a number of successes, especially against the Whites of Admiral Denikin, but it was the Bolsheviks who were their downfall. Makhno's brand of Anarchism was a mixture of brutality and naivety, so that when a unit was captured the officers would be executed, but the troops often released to walk home as "proletarian brothers". Thus, although detesting the Cheka secret police, and the Bolshevik dictation of its subjects lives, Makhno regarded the Reds as natural allies. He was, inevitably, betrayed in June 1920 when Red units suddenly attacked various RIAU outposts, Trotsky ordered the Cheka to murder thousands of Ukrainian peasants sympathetic to the Anarchist cause, and two Cheka agents were sent to assassinate Makhno. Even then, when in the Communists offered another alliance in September 1920 Makhno agreed, and campaigned against the White General Wrangel, preventing the Ukrainian grain harvest from falling into White hands.

"STEADFAST TO 'THE END, WRANGEL'S LAST DAYS IN TIE CRIMEA, The following is the substance of an  Oficial Report, published in the London "Times" of December 10 1920, on the evacuation of the Crimea by Lieutenant-Colonel Count Leon Ostrorog, an eye-witness and competent observer of the incidents he describes:- Having proceeded to the Crinea from Warsaw in the latter part of October on my own initiative with a view to ascertaining what assistance, if any, could be rendered to Wrangel's Army, I was an eye witness of the last scenes of the retreat and evacuation of both the Army and civil population, which commenced on November 11. 

Some days previous to that date an unprecedented cold wave had struck the peninsula, accompanied by a fierce norfherlv gale. The plight of Wrangel's Army, for the greater part in rags, shoeless, on short rations, lacking stores of every kind, with a scanty medical service, beggars imagination; in addition, munitions were scarce and artillery practically nil. This Army, composed of units of every description. though chiefly of Don and Kuba Cossacks, was flanked by Makhno's partisan bands on its' extreme right. The total fighting strength, infantry, cavalry and artillery, numbered originally 100,000 men, officers, rank, and file, on the Mariupol, Alexandrovsk, Aleshki. Kherson front-namely, 500 kilometeres (310 miles). It had fought without a break for over six months against vastly superior forces well armed, equipped, and fed, with a great superiority, not only in artillery and  ordnance, but ammunition as well, the Bolshevists being well supplied with both shell and fuses of the latest pattern. The heavy casualties among officers of high rank testify to the fierceness of the fighting, while, owing to lack of sea transport and the immense difficulty of communications for such as wished to join Wrangel's Army the General's reserves were reduced to nil. Nevertheless, this battered Army stood its ground in spite of the overwhelming forces which poured against it from the opening of the Polish-Soviet peace negotiations, until the effectives were reduced to 45,000 men, forming three divisions, against 28 Red divisions. This took place on October 28, and 10 days' continuous battle was followed by the retreat to the Perekop line. 

 RIAU troops

General Wrangel, besides directing operations, maintainnmg order among the population by his indomitable courage and personality, led in person many of the attacks against the Bolshevists, still hoping against hope that a hitch might occur during the. Polish Soviet peace negotiations, thus causing the withdrawal of some of the Bolshevist forces, and give time for supplies to reach him. His spirit and that of his troops never broke down. The last offensive; which had begun on October 28, ended on November 14, when Sebastopol fell. No words can describe the superb spirit of the inhabitants, as well as that of the few troops in Sebastopol. when it was announced officially that all hope was at an end, and that evacuation must commence at once. There was no panic, no looting, no disorder; absolute calm prevailed. When it is realised that officers' wives, delicate women, and children had been living for days on end in a city practically devoid of fuel, with Arctic cold, scanty food, ill-clothed, ill-lodged, cut off from and apparently abandoned by the outer world, one can but bow to such heroism, and see in its spirit the certain regeneration and ultimate grandeur of the Russian peoples."

 Two weeks after Wrangel's defeat in November 1920 Mahkno's headquarters staff met the Red Army command for a planning meeting, and were murdered. The Black army never really recovered, their best leaders gone and the peasants in the Ukraine cowed by Trotskys campaign of terror. In August 1921 Makhno slipped across the Romanian border to exile, finally in Paris where he worked amongst other things, as a stage hand at the Paris Opera.

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