The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed

The Fight for Petrograd

ORDER No.155

By the Chairman of the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic and People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs to the Seventh Army, October 18, 1919, No. 155, Petrograd

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

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It is stated in yesterday’s operations report by the Field Head quarters of the Republic that our troops have withdrawn from Gatchina after a fierce battle. This is not true. There was no fierce battle, but there was a shameful panic, followed by a senseless flight. The Field Headquarters writes on the basis of reports received from the Seventh Army, and the army head quarters reports on the basis of information received from the divisions. Falsehood wends its way upward.

At Gatchina a numerous body of troops were seized with panic as a result of being fired on by a handful of White Guards who had hidden themselves in the park. We are now hearing talk about a flank left uncovered, the presence of the enemy in the rear, and so on and so forth.

A still more senseless retreat has occurred today. One company of a rifle regiment became alarmed when a file of enemy soldiers appeared on its flank. The alarm spread from this company through the regiment, and the regimental commander ordered a retreat. The entire regiment left its position and, covering 8-10 versts at the trot, fell back to Aleksandrovka. When a check was made, it turned out that there had been no enemy on the flank, but one of our own units, on which the panicky company had opened fire and then infected the entire regiment with its own panic.

However, the regiment which had hurried to the rear proved to be not at all a bad one. As soon as it had recovered confidence, it at once turned back and, sometimes marching quickly and sometimes moving at the double, sweating despite the cold weather, it covered eight versts in an hour, and then drove out the (not very numerous) enemy and reoccupied its former positions, suffering only a few casualties. Similarly, the cadets who abandoned Gatchina are not at all bad soldiers. On the contrary, their morale is excellent and they are ready to give their lives defending the interests of the working people.

The whole trouble lies in the leadership, the command. The command is extremely passive, irresolute and inclined to panic, repeating uncritically foolish rumours about turning movements and encirclements by the enemy.

The enemy’s strength lies in the weakness of our commanding personnel. The enemy operates with small, well-armed detachments, which rely on surprise and effrontery. Until there is a direct, hand-to-hand clash, nothing will be achieved. It is quite understandable that the enemy avoids such clashes: his forces are too few, and if he were to get engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with our men he would be ground to dust. The enemy therefore always keeps just within range, and by using his machine-guns and automatic rifles he develops an impressive firepower which conceals the insignificance of his numbers.

Because they cannot see the enemy and do not actually clash with him, our Red Army men are not able to perceive, grasp and firmly realise that the enemy is tiny and they are strong. The commanders’ principal task is to make this fact apparent to our soldiers. How can this be done? Very simply: through attack, through a vigorous onslaught on the handful of enemy troops who are concealing their weakness by firing off a large number of cartridges.

The enemy’s interest lies in keeping us at firing distance, so as not to let us see him close to and thereby convince ourselves of his small size. Our interest lies in getting close enough to use the bayonets, when the mere sight of us is bound to overwhelm the enemy’s scanty forces. We must once and for all stop and suppress the chatter about the enemy having cut us off, got round behind us and encircled us, because, wherever he may appear – to the left, to the right or behind us – we are always in a position to face him, fall on him and crush him with our weight.

A commander who pulls back his unit because 'its flank has been uncovered’ must be court-martialled and punished as a traitor. Since we have before us isolated units, small groups, it is senseless to stretch our forces out to form a cordon, an unbroken line, standing shoulder to shoulder. On the contrary, we should form concentrated striking forces to operate in the most important directions. Each such force will inevitably have an uncovered expanse to right and left which will have to be searched by scouts, and when the enemy’s presence is discovered, the striking force must, as a whole or in part, come down upon him. When they have themselves firmly grasped this idea, commanders and commissars must explain it to every Red Army man and inspire him with it: whoever says ‘Fall back, the enemy is behind us’ is either a fool or a traitor.

The enemy operates by night, so as to use darkness to conceal the smallness of his numbers and to frighten us. Night operations call for great secrecy, carefulness and preparation. The enemy is sometimes able to make his night raids only because during the day we mark time, thus enabling the enemy to acquaint himself with the situation and prepare his raid in detail. This must cease. We must make use of the daytime, because we are interested in causing the numerical weakness of the enemy to manifest itself in practice. Besides, our large units are not suitable for night operations. From this the line for us to follow emerges quite clearly – to operate by daylight, not to waste the day. During the daytime we must tirelessly pursue the enemy, and chase him so hard that he will no longer possess either the desire or the ability to worry us by night.

As soon as our commanders stop being afraid of turning movements, Yudenich’s army will cease to exist for us. Every small detachment of theirs which impudently separates itself from their other forces will be smashed, for our large units will not run away from these detachments but will attack them.

The task facing the commanders of the Seventh Army is now to educate themselves along these lines and to pass this education on to their army.

We must have a clear appreciation of the truth, and we must not hide it. We must not write false operations reports about a severe battle when what actually happened was a severe case of panic. By such falsehoods commanders excuse themselves for their weakness, and dull the consciences of their soldiers. Falsehood must be punished like treachery. The practice of war permits mistakes but not lies, deception and self-deception: for a mistake can be corrected, but a lie which makes its way upward engenders in turn a mistake that makes its way down ward – and so on without end.

Fix this in your memory, comrade commander.

The enemy is undoubtedly less numerous than we are. The enemy does not maintain a continuous front. On the contrary, he has divided his forces into small detachments. These detachments sneak around our units, fearing to get close, and s~tnnkle them with their fire. The enemy’s whole idea, his whole concern, is that our soldiers shall not see him, but frightened by his shots, shall fall back. You are three and four times, often five times, as strong as he is. The enemy commander is afraid that the Reds may see how few Whites there are, and that the rank-and-file White soldier may see how numerous the Reds are. Consequently, it is in your direct interest, Red commander, to show the Red soldiers how few the Whites are and to show the White soldiers how numerous the Reds are. To this end you must make your unit visible and tangible. To make it visible, you must advance. To smash the enemy all that is needed is to hit him. To hit him you must get near him. Consequently – forward, attack, attack, attack! In this lies the guarantee of your victory. [Gatchina was in 1923 renamed Trotsk, to honour Trotsky’s role in the defence of Petrograd in October 1919. In 1929 the name was changed to Krasnogvardeisk, and in 1944 Gatchina resumed its original name.]

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Last updated on: 23.12.2006