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)

The Courage Of Despair

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

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Denikin’s cavalry has broken through our front at Novokhopersk and penetrated deeply into Tambov province. It is a bold raid. But, at the same time, every person of common sense must ask himself: what do the leaders of this operation hope to achieve? Several White cavalry regiments have separated themselves by almost 200 versts from their bases: they have carded out raids on railway stations, on the telegraph line, on villages and hamlets, they have seized horses and grain. The White cavalry are operating in localities where the majority of the inhabitants are hostile to them, because they know that the Whites are carrying out the will of the landlords, trying to restore to them the land they have lost. The cavalry who have broken through may, of course, do considerable damage here and there: in certain places they may blow up bridges, cut communications, pillage the peasants, burn down some villages. But what is the military purpose of this adventure? Do Denikin’s generals really hope to take Moscow by means of a cavalry raid? No, they are not so stupid as to believe that. They also know that their cavalry, cut off from their base, in the rear of our forces, cannot hold out for long. Around them, sooner or later, a steel ring will close – it is already closing now – and then the dashing horsemen will become wretched bandits, surrounded and caught by beaters on foot. Why did Denikin decide to make such a move? Because nothing else was left for him to do. This move was dictated by the hopelessness of his position. It is the courage of despair.

Having struck his first hard blow at our armies, shaking their steadiness and their communications, Denikin then used to the utmost the principal advantage he possessed, namely, his abundance of cavalry. His task amounted to this: not to allow the Red forces time to stabilise themselves, consolidate and take in reinforcements. The White cavalry pursued our troops for several weeks. This mode of action was imposed on Denikin by the simplest rules of the art of war, but at the same time this procedure presupposed the presence of substantial reserves, commensurate with the task undertaken. These reserves Denikin did not possess, especially for such an immense front as he had created through the rapid thrust of his cavalry.

The shortage of reserves soon made itself felt. The force of his pursuit began to slacken. Our reserves came up. Our retreating forces acquired increasing steadiness and eventually consolidated their positions all along the front, apart from the extreme right, Ukrainian flank, farthest from Denikin’s base (Rostov-Yekaterinodar). The moment when Denikin’s troops found themselves obliged to halt along almost the whole length of the front was really the moment when the Southern counter revolution suffered defeat, for the lack of reserves was now bound to make itself felt quite obviously. A small body that flies fast can strike a hard blow: in this case the small size of the force was made up for by its high speed. The rapidity of the cavalry thrust replaced, for the moment, the large reserves that were not available. But as soon as Denikin’s offensive was brought to a standstill, his own forces felt all too clearly that they were insufficient. The Red front proved to be incomparably denser. The Red troops had recovered their self-possession and, in a spirit of calm confidence, they grouped their forces and their material resources in order to strike a final ruthless, crushing blow at the accursed enemy.

Denikin and his Mamontovs saw and felt this growing strength and confidence in the camp of their enemy. There were no reserves. Denikin pleaded in vain with Britain and France: they were in no position to help him with military units. The leader of the Southern counter-revolution was then left with no alternative but to try to break the terrible wall of the Red front by means of a risky, venturesome blow.

It was then that the desperate raid by General Mamontov’s cavalry was conceived. The first part of the plan was accomplished successfully: with a crash the White cavalry opened a gate for themselves and charged into our deep rear. Only then, however, was the real question posed. – what effect would this cavalry raid have upon the steadiness and strength of the Red forces of the Southern front?

Naturally it is disagreeable and worrying to have the enemy’s cavalry operating behind one. When a man is about to strike a blow, he can be prevented by the bite of a wasp that sinks its sting into his shoulder. Frightened by the unexpectedness of what has happened, the fighter may turn round and let go of his weapon. That is what Denikin counts on. His cavalry are the stinging wasp behind the Red infantryman whose face is turned toward Novacherkassk and Rostov. To frighten our Southern forces by the unexpectedness of the breakthrough, the impetuosity of the raid, the uncertain extent of the danger to the rear, to cause panic among the population, disorganisation in the ranks, breakdown of communications, collapse of the administrative apparatus, disarray and alarm in the units, resulting in their disorderly withdrawal on both flanks of the breakthrough and, at last, complete break-up of the Red Southern front – that was Denikin’s plan.

Everything in it was based upon surprise, suddenness, the creation of fear. But Denikin miscalculated. The breakthrough was made in spirited style, but our Southern front stood firm, barely faltering in the place where the cavalry thrust in their sting. And that means that Deniken’s plan has suffered complete ruin and will within a few days come crashing down on its organisers’ heads. The Red Army forces stand firm as before, in a heavy, compact mass, having stopped the hole that the White cavalry had punched in their wall. Our left flank, at Kamyshin, is successfully advancing, as also is our heavy centre. The Red infantry are going forward in dense ranks as though quite unconcerned by the fact that a poisonous insect is buzzing about behind their backs. And they are right. The Southern front has sufficient reserves with which to cope with the daring raid. The ring is being drawn tighter and tighter around the raiders. The gate that they broke open for themselves has closed behind them. They wanted and hoped to spread despair and fear, but, in face of the firmness of the Red Army, they them selves are filled with fear and despair. Mamontov’s cavalry detachment is doomed. It will be surrounded, either as a whole or in sections, it will be disarmed, and it will be smashed: part of it will scatter. But it is not only the detachment that will perish. Along with it will perish the last hope of salvation for the Whites. The last marked card of Denikin’s strategy will have been covered, and Denikin’s forces will see, hopelessly, that their numbers are too few.

The cavalry adventure has brought the moment of complete and conclusive change on the Southern front. Our offensive will become general, confident, irresistible. History will record that Denikin’s horsemen broke through into Tambov only so as, by their desperate raid, to announce to Soviet Russia that the moment was near when the counter-revolution on the Don and the Kuban was about to fall.

En Route
August 19, 1919, No.81

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Last updated on: 22.12.2006