Red Cavalry in Summer Dress

Red Cavalry

The advent of the First World War saw the deployment of sizeable cavalry contingents by all major combatant nations. Although the use of the machine gun and trench narrowed the application of cavalry, such units did, nevertheless, perform a useful function by exploiting breakthroughs, particularly in the context of the ever shifting and expansive Russian front. To this degree, at the outbreak of the First World War, the Russian cavalry contingent also happened to be the largest, numbering 180,000 servicemen across twenty-six regular and ten Cossack divisions. Despite some setbacks, these units proved indispensable in the 1914 offensives and in the defence against the German 1915 September Offensive. A more static 1916 front meant that many such cavalry units were either reconfigured as infantry or were transferred to the reserve.

This ensured a relative abundance of well-trained cavalry personnel by the 1917 October Revolution (as opposed to other branches of service, greatly depleted by that time); a factor that, along with the rather discontinuous nature of the Civil War fronts, made cavalry an even greater asset in the subsequent Civil War. Although all factions used cavalry, it was primarily the success of the White Army’s mounted contingent that stressed the need for an organised and mobile countermeasure. The efficacy of White cavalry on the flanks and behind the Soviet frontlines also largely birthed Trotsky’s slogan “Proletarians, mount up!” These and other recommendations informed the Revolutionary Military Council’s eventual decision to create the First Cavalry Army on the 17th November 1919. The Army initially included three divisions (6th, 4th, 11th) of Budyonny’s First Cavalry Corps, a corps previously and primarily assembled in the Don region from amongst less affluent Cossacks, who populated the poorer, northern regions of the Don Host. Throughout 1920 the size of the army fluctuated with the addition of the Second Cavalry Corps, multiple separate mounted divisions, several rifle divisions, four armoured trains, and a motorised detachment.

Budyonny’s First Cavalry Corps had its initial success in May 1919. Several surprise offensives forced the White forces to withdraw beyond the river Manych, thereby allowing the 10th Red Army to effectively retreat to the city of Tsaritsyn, the defence of which was supervised by Stalin, and after whom it was later named Stalingrad. This was followed up by a successful retreat from Tsaritsyn itself. The Corps was crucial in halting the push of the Armed Forces of South Russia towards Moscow. Their first actions under a new name saw effective counterattacks near Kharkov (where our sets are manufactured) and the Donbass.

The first half of 1920 saw the 1st Cavalry Army participate in several North Caucasus offensives which seriously crippled White efforts and forced an evacuation to Crimea. These operations resulted in the capture of many trophies, and guaranteed that the First Cavalry Army was particularly well equipped by contemporary standards. These operations also brought about a considerable influx of former adherents to the White cause, captured in Novorossiysk after their somewhat failed evacuation to Crimea, into the army ranks. This, along with effective reconnaissance, high manoeuvrability and good use of formation, effective screening of artillery, effective bait/ hammer and anvil tactics, ruthless pursuit, novel use of machine gun platforms (Tachankas), and overall good utilisation of combined arms made the 1st Cavalry Army one of the most potent Red units.

Budyonny’s Army actively participated in the Polish-Soviet War and was instrumental in ensuring the success of the 1920 Kiev Offensive and in the elimination of pro-Polish forces in Central Ukraine. After some heavy fighting in Western Ukraine and around Lvov the 1st Cavalry Army was redeployed to the Lublin front in August. Despite some success in establishing a salient, the overextended 1st Cavalry Army, heedlessly pushed in advance, found itself encircled in Zamosc, with no outside communication, by a Polish force that was previously underestimated. The night of the 31st of August saw the Army break the encirclement and remain operational, despite considerable casualties and material losses. A Polish offensive on the 2nd of September was met with a stiff defence, although the risk of further encirclement meant a retreat from the salient and a further withdrawal beyond the Bug River. Despite this necessary manoeuvre, these days of heavy fighting saw the Army heavily bloodied, moved to the reserve and later moved to the Crimean front. Their prolonged and intensive use as a “fire brigade”, coupled with losses and a scarcity of supplies led to a fall in discipline and to cases of looting and Pogroms, which in turn necessitated harsh disciplinary action. It is notable that the 2nd Cavalry Army, formed in July 1920, modelled after the first, and with a contingent of four horse and two rifle divisions, likewise actively assisted in this theatre. After this the 1st Cavalry Army was also used against Makhno’s partisans in the Ukraine. The Army and Staff were finally disbanded in May 1921 and 1923 respectively.

Despite this, former parts of the First Cavalry Army continued to constitute other units in the Red military. The army itself had entered into popular Soviet consciousness through song, memoir and painting. Furthermore, it was in the Cavalry Army that a remarkable proportion of the future Soviet officer cadre began their career. Those like Budyonny, Timoshenko, Voroshilov, Kulik, Lelyushenko, Rybalko, Grechko and many others embodied a unique esprit de corps. Their experience as part of the 1st Red Cavalry Army was then widely transferred, dispersed and used in subsequent wars and in military theory. The successes of the 1st and 2nd Soviet Cavalry Armies inspired, to a great extent, Triandafillov’s theory of “Deep Operation”, a theory later utilised in Soviet offensives during the Second World War. Further information regarding this may be found in our introduction to set 125: Regular Cavalry of the RKKA.

Indeed, despite a relatively short lifespan, the Red Cavalry Armies recommended themselves as armies of great strategic and historical importance, and as armies that greatly determined the outcome of the Civil War.