The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed

The Southern Front

III. The Red Army’s Second Offensive in the Ukraine
(August-December 1919)

Plan For Operations
on the Southern Front

(Notes from the secret archives)

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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The plan drawn up in advance for operations on the Southern front has proved to be absolutely incorrect. Our defeats on the Southern front are due primarily to the errors in the basic plan.

1. Fundamental to the plan was the identification of the threat from Denikin’s White Guards with the Don and Kuban Cossack communities. This identification was more or less sensible so long as Denikin’s centre was at Yekaterinodar and the limit of his successes was the eastern border of the Donets Basin.

As time passed, this identification became less and less sound. Denikin’s tasks are offensive, whereas those of the Don and Kuban Cossacks are confined to the defence of their own regions. When Denikin advanced into the Donets area and the Ukraine, elementary considerations urged the need to separate his westward moving forces from their original base, the Cossacks. A blow struck from Kharkov towards Taganrog or towards Berdyansk represented the shortest trajectory across a territory inhabited not by Cossacks but by workers and peas ants, and gave promise of maximum success with minimum expenditure of forces.

2. A considerable section of the Cossacks would have remained hostile to us, and liquidation of the specifically Cossack counter-revolution on the Don and the Kuban would have remained a distinct task. Whatever its difficulty, this is a task of a local character and we would have been able and would have had every possibility to deal with it as the second item on our agenda.

As a base, the Don is now exhausted. A large number of Cossacks have perished in the endless fighting. As regards the Kuban, it is opposed to Denikin. By our direct offensive against the Kuban we are bringing about a rapprochement between the Kuban Cossacks and the Denikinites. A blow struck from Kharkov towards Taganrog, which would have separated Denikin’s forces in the Ukraine from the Kuban, would have given temporary support to the advocates of independence for the Kuban and caused the Kuban to stop fighting for a time [A movement for autonomy was strong among the Kuban Cossacks, and this led to conflict between them and General Denikin, who was rigidly for ‘Russia one and indivisible’.], while waiting to see the outcome of our struggle against the Denikinites on the Donets and in the Ukraine.

3. A direct offensive along the line of most resistance proved, as had been forecast, wholly to Denikin’s advantage. The Cossacks of Veshenskaya, Migulinskaya and Kazanskaya stanitsas mobilised to a man, swearing never to surrender. In this way, by our very offensive we provided Denikin with a substantial number of soldiers.

4. In order to form a judgement of the operational plan it would not be out of place to take a look at its results. The Southern front was given forces such as none of our fronts had received before: at the moment of the offensive there were on the Southern front no fewer than 180,000 bayonets and sabres, with the corresponding number of guns and machine-guns. As the result of a month and a half of fighting we are miserably marking time on the eastern half of the Southern front, while on the western half there has been a serious retreat, with destruction of units and break-up of organisation. In other words, our situaaon on the Southern front is worse today than it was when the command proceeded to implement its ‘a priori’ plan. It would be childish to close our eyes to this. [66]

5. Attempts to put the blame on the state of the armies of the Southern front, the organisation of the apparatus, and so on, are utterly groundless. The armies of the Southern front are in no way any worse than those of the Eastern front. The Eighth Army is fully as good as the Fifth. The weaker Thirteenth Army is in any case inferior to the Fourth. The Ninth Army is approximately on the same level as the Third. To a considerable extent these armies were built by the same group of workers, and, to anyone who has observed these armies during their periods of success and of failure, talk of some differences in organisation or combat-capacity between our armies of the Southern and Eastern fronts sounds utterly false.

6. What is true here is this alone, that Denikin is an incomparably more serious enemy than Kolchak. The divisions that were transferred from the Eastern to the Southern fronts proved to be in no way better than the Southern front divisions. This fully applies to the commanding personnel. On the contrary, indeed, in the initial period the divisions from the Eastern front showed themselves to be generally weaker, until they found their feet in the new conditions, facing a new enemy.

7. But if the enemy in the South was stronger, we too were incomparably stronger than we had ever been before, on any of our fronts. We must therefore seek the reasons for our failure entirely m the operational plan. We advanced along the line of most resistance, that is to say, units of average steadiness were sent into localities inhabited entirely by Cossacks, who were not attacking but defending their stanitsas and their homes. The atmosphere of a ‘Don people’s war’ had a debilitating effect on our units. Under these conditions, Denikin’s tanks, his skilful manoeuvring, and so on, gave him a tremendous advantage.

8. In the region where smaller forces on our side could have achieved incomparably greater results, on the Donets and in the Ukraine, we left Denikin complete freedom of action, and thereby enabled him to obtain a huge reservoir for new formations.

9. All talk about Denikin not raising new forces in the Ukraine is rubbish. While there are in the Ukraine few politically-educated proletarians, a circumstance which hindered our attempts to raise new forces, the Ukraine has very many officers, sons of landlords and bourgeois, and brutal kulaks. Consequently, while we were pressing against the Don country, strengthening the Cossack barrier against us, Denikin was managing, almost unhindered, to raise new formations, especially of cavalry, throughout the whole territory he occupied.

10. The erroneousness of the plan is now so obvious that the question arises: how could this plan have been formed in the first place?

There is an historical explanation for its appearance. When Kolchak was threatening the Volga, the main danger was that Denikin and Kolchak might link up. In a letter to Kolchak Denikin spoke of keeping a rendezvous with him in Saratov. [General Denikin wrote in The White Army (1930) that ‘one of my letters to Admiral Kolchak on the question of an all-Russian Government contained the following words: “Please God, we shall meet in Saratov and decide that question for the good of the Motherland.”‘ This letter fell into Soviet hands,(as mentioned in Trotsky’s article, supra, Steel and Gold). Denikin notes: ‘According to Trotsky’s testimony my sentence about meeting Kolchak in Saratov served as a foundation for the Bolshevik plan of military operations on the Southern front in spring 1919, and led to the concentration of the main Bolshevist forces in the direction of Saratov.’]

Hence the task proposed by the former command, to form a powerful striking force on the Tsaritsyn-Saratov stretch of the Volga.

The Eastern front considered it impossible at that time to transfer any of its units. The then Commander-in-Chief accused the Eastern front of causing delay. The Eastern front stressed that the delay would not be too protracted or dangerous, as units would be brought up directly to the left flank (resting on the Volga) of the Southern front.

The echo of these old plans, plus secondary considerations about saving time in the transference of units from the Eastern front led to the creation of Shorn’s special group. All the other considerations (about striking a decisive blow at the Don and Kuban bases, and so on) were thought up after the event, when the absurdity of the a-priori plan began to be revealed more and more harshly.

11. Now, in order to gloss over the actual results, a fresh hypothesis has been advanced: if the principal forces had not been concentrated in the Tsaritsyn-Novocherkassk direction, Denikin would be in Saratov, and the Syzran bridge would have been blown up. [The special importance of the railway bridge over the Volga at Syzran was that this was the only rail link between Central Russia, on the one hand, and Siberia and Turkestan, on the other.] All these imagined terrors are meant to serve as our compensation for the real danger that threatens Orel and Tula, after our loss of Kursk. And the point is overlooked that it would have been as difficult for the Don Cossacks to get to Saratov as it is now for our forces to get to Novocherkassk.

September 1919  


66. It has not been possible to establish the precise dating of these notes. They were written after the August counter-move by the Southern front against General Denikin. On August 1, 1919 our retreating units of the Southern front stood on the line: Nikolayev, Yelizavetgrad, Bobrinskaya station, Romny, Oboyan, Korotoyak, Liski station, Povorino, Kamyshin, and from there down the Volga to its mouths (see Map 3). At that moment our command decided to strike a counter-blow at the enemy in two main directions: (a) from the Balashov-Kamyshin frontt towards the lower Don, and (b) from the Kursk-Voronezh sector towards Kharkov. The first of these directions was considered the decisive one. The offensive by our forces began in the middle of August. The enemy was driven back in both directions, and in twelve days we had captured, in the West, Volchansk, Kupyansk and Valuiki, and had got to within 60 versts of Kharkov. In the east we had reached the line of the middle Don. These partial successes did not bring about a general turn. The reasons for these failures are given in these notes. (The course of events can be followed from the chronology and from Map 3.)

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