The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed

The Southern Front

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

Reality and ‘Critical’ Chatter

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

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In the Izvestiya V.Ts.I.K. of July 1O we read this in an article by Tarasov-Rodionov: ‘Denikin’s sudden attack teaches us that we must now pay attention principally not so much to the quantity as to the quality of our forces.’ [56] If these words mean anything at all, they must be understood to signify that we had a great superiority in terms of quantity on the Southern front, whereas Denikin enjoyed superiority in terms of quality. And so the perspicacious author of the article in Izvestiya wants to explain to us that we need to replace large quantity by good quality. Whence comes this ‘lesson’? What is the source of this information? It is a concoction, pure and simple. Actually, Denikin’s success was wholly and entirely due to the superiority of larger over smaller numbers. It is not possible at the present time to elucidate in the press all the problems connected with this circumstance. But it is necessary to get certain facts and certain ‘criticisms’ in perspective, so as to stop the row which idle- minded persons like Tarasov-Rodionov, with the connivance of certain editorial boards, are kicking up around the most acute problems affecting our armed forces at the fronts.

If Denikin’s ‘sudden attack’ teaches serious people anything it is, precisely, that even if one has troops of the highest quality, such as were the majority of those on the Southern front (with the exception of the right flank), one cannot allow the quantity of these troops to fall below a certain level.

Many comrades, even those whose approach to all problems, including military ones, is incomparably more conscientious than Tarasov-Rodionov’s, are inclined to forget that our forces on the Southern front are waging in one and the same region, their second campaign in the course of the last six months. After smashing Krasnov’s army, the Red forces encountered the very substantial forces of Denikin. These forces had been brought up from the Kuban and North Caucasia, and, in part, from the Crimea and Odessa.

The central Soviet government was aware, of course, that behind Krasnov’s, several hundred versts away, Denikin’s forces were present, and it did not close its eyes to this danger. But at the same time we knew that there were in the Kuban and North Caucasia, fighting against Denikin, Soviet forces numbering between 150,000 and 200,000 men. This army, which was so huge in quantity, also, in the persons of its own local Tarasov-Rodionovs, evaluated its quality very highly, boasting especially that it was not constructed in accordance with the ‘bureaucratic’ system generally in force in Soviet Russia, that it did not want to know anything about old-fashioned regulations and statutes, or military specialists, but was, at the same time, on the highest level as a fighting force. At the centre, of course, we took with a pinch of salt this self-estimation by guerrillas who, as usual, did not call themselves guerrillas but always swore devotion to the idea of a properly organised army. Nevertheless, we at the centre never expected this shameful collapse on the part of helpless, amateur detachments with ignorant commanders – a collapse which, at one blow, freed Denikin’s forces and enabled him to advance to the line of the Don and the Northern Donets. In addition to this, as is well known the guerrillas on the right flank of the Southern front themselves broke up and decomposed entirely.

The leading workers of the Southern front had frequently warned the centre of possible complications. Thus, Comrade Sokolnikov wired Moscow on April 21: ‘The slowing-down in operations on the Southern front is due to the break-up of the "N" Army, which is now in need of reconstruction from top to bottom, together with the complete incapacity for fighting shown by Makhno’s units. The enemy has been given a respite of which he has made excellent use, to transfer what are undoubtedly substantial forces from the Kuban and Caucasia. Instead of the beaten Don Army we are now faced by a new army which has forces that are fresher than ours. Up to now, the enemy has not succeeded in wresting the initiative from us, but he is carrying out a thorough regrouping of his units, while at the same time reorganising them into larger fighting formations, and we can regard it as definite that the probable direction of this blow will be the centre of the half-ring that envelops him, the Lugansk-Kanienskaya sector. By this plan, of course, Denikin aims to link up with the rebels on the middle Don, dividing us deeply into two parts, and once more raising the Don Region against us. Our position cannot yet be considered shaky, but over the last two months the relation of forces has altered in the enemy’s favour and it is continuing to alter in that direction.

Later, Comrade Sokolnikov refers to the revolt in the rear, which has in turn diverted forces from a front which was already weakened, and comes to this conclusion: ‘Our practical task is to prevent a White-Guard come-back on the Southern front like the come-back on the Eastern front – a come-back which is imminent owing to the stationary state of our forces while the enemy is growing stronger. Forces need to be brought here from the fronts of secondary importance ... We must establish the principle that the front in the Donets Basin is the most important front in the Ukraine ... Without disturbing the concentrated attention and energy being focused by wide circles on the Eastern front, we need now to see a number of organisational measures taken to safeguard us against defeats in the South’ ... That was Comrade Sokolnikov’s eloquent telegram.

At that period, however, the centre, even though recognising the seriousness of the warning given, was obliged for the time being to sacrifice the interests of the Southern front for the sake of the Eastern front. The Ukraine, to which care of the Donets Basin was entrusted, proved to be still in no position to furnish units that were at all reliable. As a result, the armies of the Southern front, worn out by months of ceaseless struggle, in which they had advanced several hundred versts through snow and spring mud, and weakened in numbers, faltered when they came up against fresh enemy forces, splendidly armed and equipped, which on many sectors of the front were twice or three times as numerous as our men.

Thanks to the protracted, self-sacrificing and persistent work of the best Communists and the best military specialists, the Southern front acquired during last autumn and winter a stable organisation and firm, reliable cadres, and included in its ranks a number of heroic regiments and divisions. If this front gave way, that happened only because it had not received adequate reinforcements, so that the expenditure of human material exceeded the inflow. The inevitable consequence was that the cadres became worn out. This simple cause of our defeats, incontrovertible because based on facts and figures, cannot, one would have supposed, provide any grounds for chatter about the workers in the War Department favouring quantity at the expense of quality. Our Party, which, starting last autumn, has sent thousands upon thousands of the best proletarian Communists to the Southern front, has no need of Tarasov-Rodionov’s explanation of the military importance of quality.

It is true that phenomena of demoralisation and breakdown were observed on the Southern front. But these occurred almost exclusively on the extreme right flank, that is, where, in the words of Comrade Sokolnikov’s telegram, it was still necessary to ‘reconstruct the forces from top to bottom’, subordinating them to the regime generally obtaining in the Soviet forces. In so far as isolated manifestations of breakdown were observed also in other units on the Southern front, they resulted from the heavy blows received, the retreats imposed and the losses suffered – that is, they were inevitable as psychological consequences of the physical superiority of Denikin’s forces. And the only conclusion that emerges from the facts is that it was solely thanks to the exceptionally high quality of the armies of the Southern front that they not only preserved their cadres under the ferocious blows of the enemy’s superior forces, but also showed that they were fully capable of absorbing large reinforcements in a short time, and endowing them with the necessary steadiness. Now, when the entire task of the rear consists in providing the man-power needed to bring the cadres of the Southern Army up to strength, Tarasov-Rodionov’s critical exercises on the theme that what matters is not quantity but quality strongly. recall the wishes expressed by that sage who at funerals used to say: ‘So many corpses – you’ll never carry them all!’ and at weddings: ‘Vigil and incense.’

July 19, 1919
[Bakhmach is on the line from Konotop to Kiev.]
En Route, No. 65


56. The Izvestsya V.Ts.I.K. of July 10, 1919 carried an article by Comrade Tarasov-Rodionov entitled A company of Communists, in which, on the basis of experience of the way Communists were being used in one division on the Southern front, he drew conclusions regarding the lack of organisation and direction in the way that these precious forces were being utilised in the army.

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Last updated on: 22.12.2006