The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed

The Southern Front

II. Denikin’s Offensive (May 15-August 1919)


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

* * *

The defeats we have suffered on the Southern front are very important: the temporary loss of Riga and Vilna is far from having, from the military standpoint, such importance as the loss of Tsaritsyn, Novokhopersk, Kharkov and Yekaterinoslav. In the West we advanced, after the German revolution, almost without fighting. Our forces there were slight. The organisation of the Western front was until recently rudimentary, and there was no reason to be surprised if the first serious thrust by the enemy caused us to fall back. In the West all our work still remains to be done.

It was different on the Southern front. There we had made substantial efforts, and our successes of last winter on the Southern front were very important. Why has a period of victorious offensive been succeeded by one of grave defeats?

There is now much talk about this problem and many articles are being written. It must be said, however, that a considerable proportion of these articles seek the causes of our recent defeats not at all where they should be sought.

Our defeats are due to the most natural, most fundamental and most elementary cause of the majority of defeats in war: at a certain moment we proved to be significantly weaker than our adversary. How did this happen?

The armies of the Southern front fought against Krasnov’s troops. At first, when guerrilla-ism and amateurism prevailed on the Southern front, we retreated. When the resistance of the guerrillas, both open and concealed, had been overcome and a unified, centralised command had been established, we at once obtained greater superiority and began quickly to advance towards Rostov and Novocherkassk, enclosing the nest of counter-revolution in a half-ring of iron. If the affair had been confined to Krasnov’s Cossacks, our armies of the Southern front would long since have finished it off.

But behind Krasnov, to the South, stood Denikin’s White-Guard forces. Did we know about them? Of course we did. But behind Denikin’s forces, in turn, stood the Soviet armies of North Caucasia. These two armies comprised 150,000 or even 200,000 men. At any rate, they indented for supplies for that number. However, these were not properly organised forces, but guerrilla detachments, behind which tailed numerous refugees and mere parasites and plunderers. There was no trace of any proper organisation of supply, administration or command. Self-appointed commanders were unwilling to take orders from anyone, and fought each other. [R. Lucketi, The White Generals (1971) writes (p.191) of Sorokin, the Red commander in the Stavropol area that, in October 1918, he ‘began to execute commissars and commanders whom he disliked, notably those of Jewish birth. He also started conspiracies against Shelest and Kozhuk, respectively commanders of the Iron Division and the Taman army group’. Then he arrested and shot five leading members of the Soviet of the North-Caucasian Republic who had tried to oppose his regime of ‘high-handed executions’ and ‘unwillingness to undertake systematic planning’. In the end, men of the Taman army shot him.] As always happens with guerrillas, they exaggerated their forces to a frightful degree, treating with disdain all the warnings they received from the centre, and then, after the first serious blow from the Denikinites, they began to crack up. When this happened, a great quantity of military equipment fell into the hands of the enemy, and innumerable men perished in the course of the retreat. Nowhere, perhaps, has guerrilla-ism cost the workers and peasants so dear as in North Caucasia.

The rapid collapse of the North-Caucasian guerrilla armies of the Soviets at once freed Denikin’s hands. Leaving only small garrisons in Novorossiisk, Yekaterinodar, Stavropol, Pyatigorsk and Vladikavkaz, Denikin hurled his main forces, well supplied thanks to British aid, northward on to the front along the Don and the Donets. Our Southern armies, which had marched several hundred versts and suffered heavy casualties in the struggle with Krasnov’s Cossacks, came up against Denikin’s forces which were fresh and very numerous.

Thus, the fundamental cause of our defeats in the South is not the defects in organisation of our armies of the Southern front, but the role, treacherous in the full sense of the word, that was played by out-dated guerrilla-ism.

While the North Caucasian atamans, unwilling to accept any order or discipline, were allowing Denikin to move his forces without any hindrance up to the Don and the Donets, the Ukrainian guerrillas were coming to Denikin’s aid on the extreme right flank of the Southern front. However difficult the situation of our weakened and tired Red regiments after their clashes with Denikin’s men, they would never have fallen back so far as they did if the Makhnovites had not opened wide gates through which the White-Guard cavalry could attack our armies in the rear.

During the rapid retreat there were, of course, numerous cases of panic, disobedience to orders and actual disintegration of units. But this pestilence, too, had its source entirely in Makhno’s corner, and spread in waves, like typhus or cholera, first to the right flank of the adjacent army, then moved on to the centre, and so to the left flank and beyond. A regiment proved to be the worse affected by the pestilence, the closer it was, organisationally, to being a guerrilla detachment.

Having by its impotence and uselessness ensured that our opponent possessed numerical superiority, guerrilla-ism crowned everything by once again stabbing our army in the back when the decisive conflict occurred. From this we can see what miserable chatter it is to talk of the causes of our defeats lying in the methods of organisation of the Red Army. The truth is precisely the contrary: If the weakened Southern front has not collapsed, but has retained its cadres, this is precisely because it had been properly organised. Only thanks to this is it that the Southern front is now able to absorb into its framework tens and hundreds of thousands of fresh fighters, who will deal a mortal blow to the White Guards.

Organisation, like an individual, becomes best known for what it really is when a difficult moment arrives. That is the case now on the Southern front. Precisely in misfortune, in defeat and retreat, has it been fully demonstrated that the strongest regiments of all are those in which our Soviet military system has been best and most completely introduced.

Especially miserable are the attempts that are being made to re-kindle once more the question of the military specialists and to demand that it be ‘reviewed’. Naturally, under the influence of defeats, the number of cases of betrayal increases. But no single traitor or renegade, nor all of them put together, did or could do so much harm to Soviet Russia as was done by guerrilla-ism in North Caucasia and by Makhnovism and Grigoriyevism in the Ukraine. For every traitor we have now hundreds of former officers who have bound their fate with the Red Army and are working honourably and successfully.

Our recruitment of military specialists has been completely justified.

The division of labour between commanders and commissars, together with the close collaboration between them, has stood the test of experience and needs no changes.

This does not mean, of course, that all is well. No, we have many shortcomings – in the matter of supply, in the matter of commanding personnel, and in the matter of commissars and Communist cells. But this does not bring the system into question. The supply apparatus needs to be improved, worthless commanders need to be removed, traitors need to be shot. Weak commissars have to be replaced. Communist cells have to be checked in terms of their practice and purged of unworthy elements. This work must never be slackened, any more than the work of military training and political education of our Red Army units.

Today, when the Southern front is receiving such a substantial number of fresh political workers and commanders, there can be no doubt that the armies of the Southern front will be regenerated within a few weeks, and will show the impudent White-Guard swine that the Soviet military system, which proved its victoriousness in the fight against Kolchak, is perfectly capable of disposing of Denikin as well.

June 8, 1919

return return

Last updated on: 22.12.2006