In November 1917 Colonel A. I. Dutov started to raise counter-revolutionary forces in the southern Urals. Bolshevik forces in Orenburg were attacked. Troitsk and Verkhneural'sk also rose, cutting communications between the Soviet centre and central Asia.
Most of these early forces were officers and cadets, both locals and those fleeing the Soviet centre. The bulk of the Cossack forces were from the Imperial Cossack Reserve Regiments (one each in Orenburg , Verkhneural'sk and Troitsk) and the training school, as most veteran frontoviki were still making their way home. (As in other Hosts the frontoviki were generally pro-Bolshevik anyway, although they did not surrender their officers. When they did arrive they generally headed straight for their villages, having being invariably been disarmed before they got there.)
Dutov was elected Ataman and the leader of the local counter-revolutionary forces. Mobilisation of the Cossack was ordered and recruitment started in the villages. The numbers provided were erratic, with some villages providing cavalry, some infantry and many nothing. While the Host was divided into four military districts (Orenburg, Verkhneural'sk, Troitsk and Chelyabinsk) it proved very difficult to interest the Cossacks in anything other than defence of their local stanitsas. Attempts were made to recruit Bashkirs and Kirghiz.
The Soviets transfered troops to the Orenburg area in response to the cutting of their communications with Turkestan (modern southern Kazakhstan). Petrograd sent the 17th Siberian Regiment and some Baltic sailors under Pavlov. There were Red Guards from Samara, Yekaterinburg (now Sverdlovsk), Perm, Ufa and elsewhere. From the south the Turkestan Bolsheviks pressed on Aqtobe. A few Cossacks, especially under the Kashirin brothers, and local workers rose in support of the Soviets.
The Soviet attacks started in earnest in late December, although both sides were still fielding minute forces. Chelyabinsk and Troitsk were taken, but generally co-ordination was poor. Orenburg city was pressed by forces from Samara but held for the while.
In mid-January Dutov's forces were defeated at Kargala and by 31 January Orenburg was again in Soviet hands. Dutov himself retired to Verkhneural'sk, while part of his forces fled to Uralsk. Most Orenburg Host territory was now in Bolshevik hands.
Counter-revolutionary forces could muster no more than 2,000 to 3,000 men, depending on how many men from local partisan bands were available. (However the Bolsheviks believed they were much more plentiful, and their numbers from the period have a tendency to still appear in the literature.)
The Cossacks then counter-attacked, relying on mobility and surprise, and once more gained the upper hand. A priority was given to obtaining ammunition, since even sabres were in short supply. A few successful attacks, especially near Kassel'skii, solved the problem for the moment regarding rifles and machine-guns, but artillery remained non-existent.
It was the turn of the Soviet forces to regather, and during March they took Verkhneural'sk. Their commander was Vasily Blyukher (Blucher), originally a Red Guard from Samara. Dutov was driven back, first to Krasninskii, and then in mid-April 600 km into the Turgai Steppe (Kirghiz territory). Another partisan force raised in the northern Orenburg marched on the south at this time, but was supressed fairly easily.
The Orenburg Host therefore followed the general pattern for western Cossacks in the winter of 1917/1918. A rising initially led by officers and students led to confused fighting which, due to a lack of commitment by the villagers, led to the hard core of Whites being driven into hiding in a "Steppe March". However Dutov had a stroke of luck denied the other Atamans, because while isolated in the Turgai Steppe his men located large stores left over from the 1916 suppression of the Kirghiz. This solved his supply problems for the while, and luckily the local Kirghiz were friendly.
Again following the general pattern, the brutality of the Soviet regime led to a village based rebellion of Cossacks. More and more men were drawn to the White cause, including significant numbers of frontoviki this time. The railway line to Turkestan was a primary target. Despite the extreme shortage of weapons, Orenburg was briefly surrounded and large forces were built up, albeit dispersed as partisan units across the villages rather than unified.
On 14 May the Czech Legion began to oppose the Soviets, and fighting began in the cities to the immediate north of the Orenburg Cossacks – Chelyabinsk initially, then Zlatoust and Ufa. Soviet forces collapsed quickly.
In June 1918, Dutov was summoned by the village rebels to lead them. They wished to take full advantage of the Czech revolt, but they lacked experienced officers and a proper command system. Dutov's forces were now reasonably well equipped, and some supply was freed up by the Czechs. In early July Orenburg city was taken, with the Red defenders fleeing south by train to Aqtobe. Working in the north with the Czechs, most of the Orenburg Host area was liberated.
About this time Siberian Ataman Boris Annenkov arrived in the Orenburg area, recruiting local Cossack men. He took Verkneural'sk and then moved to the southern border. He largely operated independently, but always in support of the wider Cossack cause.
In June the left-leaning KOMUCH government had been formed in Samara, while in Omsk a right-wing Siberian Government started to take control. The Orenburg Host was divided between these two new governments and Ataman Dutov attempted to work with both of them. While politically conservative, and so preferring the Omsk regime, the Cossacks were dependent on Samara for food and ammunition, so could not break with KOMUCH (Dutov was actually a member of the KOMUCH Assembly). Dutov declared his army separate, but supplied officers to the KOMUCH "People's Army" – which was in desperate need of them – and also some cavalry.
While the various White, Czech and Cossack forces had taken control of almost all western Siberia they were unable to destroy the opposing forces. In the Ural mountains the various Red groups resorted to partisan action, slowing congregating around Beloretsk. Realising that they could not continue while so isolated they composed themselves into the "Consolidated Urals Detachment" and elected to break out to the east under N. D. Kashirin (who commanded the largest force of Red Cossacks). An initial move took Verkhneural'sk and Tirlyansky, but local opposition and Dutov's forces pushed them back on Beloretsk. Kashirin was wounded and Blyukher, previously his deputy, took over.
From 5 to 13 August a second breakout westward was more successful. The Urals were crossed and Krasnousolsk entered. Two thousand local workers joined up followed by 1,300 more from the Archangel Plant. Now calling themselves the "Urals Partisan Army", Blyukher's forces crossed the Sim River on 22 August and destroyed the rail communications from Ufa to Chelyabinsk around Iglino. KOMUCH forces prevented them from taking Ufa, and they were forced to head north. Eventually Blukher's forces met with the Soviet 3rd Army and, on 21 September, arrived at Kungar. The 54 day trek over 1,500 km, fighting Whites, Czechs and Poles, was much celebrated by the Soviets and made Blyukher a hero.
During August and September the Orenburg Host attempted to take Orsk, the last city holding out against them in their region. The intention was to attack towards Aktyubinsk and eliminate the Southern Front facing Turkistan. Progress was slow because, with the obvious enemy defeated, most men wanted to go home for the harvest. Morale dropped and they showed increasing unwillingness to fight away from their villages. No help came from the host's allies, other than a small amount of material.
From 8 to 23 August a conference of anti-Bolshevik parties and organizations was held in Ufa, worried about the political and military situation. The Ufa Directory was formed, combining the KOMUCH and the Omsk governments.
The Ufa Directory reorganised its forces. The core of the Orenburg Cossacks were in the "Southwestern Army", with Dutov as its commander. (Its eventual order of battle is here.) In theory it included the Urals and Astrakhan Cossacks too, but the long distances involved meant each Host's Army remained separate (except that one Orenburg regiment was sent to support the Urals Host). Some regular infantry was given to Dutov, since his forces were short in this area, while in exchange individual Orenburg regiments remained on the Yekaterinburg and Ufa fronts to supply the cavalry the Whites and Czechs lacked (there had been Orenburg Cossacks in the attack on Yekaterinburg which had attempted to free the Tsar). Another regiment was with the People's Army in Samara.
General mobilisation was ordered and an Orenburg Infantry Division started. This included some men who preferred to serve in it rather than in the Socialist People's Army. Some Kirghiz cavalry was organised, although the majority remained neutral. A Bashkir Infantry Division arrived. The increasing forces made the uncertain supply chain an even more pressing problem. Only small amount arrived from Samara, Siberia and the Czechs.
By September the Red Army had finally got itself organised enough to make a concerted effort. Kazan fell to it, followed by Syzran, Simbirsk and Samara. The fall of Samara in particular was a disaster for the Orenburg Cossacks, as it cut off their only direct rail line (no line headed east from Orenburg), and thus the main supply of weapons and ammunition. To make matters worse the Czechs were now starting to withdraw from the front lines.
Orenburg units helped out to oppose Trotsky's drive. The Infantry Division and some cavalry was sent to the Buzuluk Front facing Samara to fight alongside the Volga Division (a volunteer unit from Syzran, Khvalynsk and the Volga). To the north the Ufa Group included Orenburg Regiments. A brigade was with the Siberian Army in Ekaterinburg.
However the main thrust for the Host was southwards facing the Turkestan Soviet, which Ataman Dutov personally oversaw. He led the attacks on Orsk, which finally fell in early October. The superiority of the Reds in MGs and artillery had made this particularly difficult. This released men to the Buzuluk Front and to push southwards towards Aqtobe.
However by now the situation to the west was now desperate. Soviet forces took Buzuluk on 29 October and a few weeks later were pressing on Orenburg.
On 18 November 1918 Admiral Kolchak overthrew the Ufa Directory and declared himself the supreme ruler of Russia. This was too much for the Czechs who were from this point on no longer willing to serve with the White forces. By the end of the year they were withdrawn to protect the rail line eastwards, which they did to ensure their own extraction. The Cossacks were not pleased either, but decided that their only chance was to align with the new regime.
The new dictator reorganised his forces in the last days of 1918. The SouthWestern Army was dissolved, being replaced by separate Orenburg and Urals Armies (under Ataman Dutov and Savliev respectively). The regular troops previously with the Orenburg forces were withdrawn, which severely affected Cossack morale.
An order of battle for the Separate Orenburg Army in January 1919. Ganin, using Russian State Archives, states that at this time the Orenburg Army had 23 battalions (10,892 bayonets) and 230 sotnias (22,449 sabres), but this may be an overestimate made by the Soviets.
Dutov's primary aim was to prevent the Soviet forces from establishing a rail link between the centre and Turkestan, concentrating on the Iletsk to Aktobe stretch. However in January Orenburg and Orsk both fell to Soviet forces. Soon only parts of the Orsk and Verkhneural'sk areas remained in Host hands.
Morale was now very low. Bolshevik propaganda made increasing inroads and large defections occurred. The most significant was on 18 February when almost the entire Bashkir force crossed over to the Reds (they had been acting independently and unreliably for a while).
In March however Admiral Kolchak's troops commenced a drive on Saratov, Simbirsk and Samara under General M.V. Khanzhin. What remained of the Orenburg Army formed the southern wing of that attack.
Frunze, commanding the Soviet Southern Group, placed his main effort against his more northern forces, remaining quite passive against the Orenburg Host. The Soviet defence of the major railway node at Orenburg was assigned to the Orenburg Group under M.D. Belikanov, with approximately 6,000 bayonets and sabres, 84 MGs and 11 guns. The fighting for Orenburg started on 20 April. Initially the Soviet 20th Rifle Division defeated attempts to turn the city on the Salmysh River but in the end Dutov was able to more or less surround the city.
As with similar Cossack efforts elsewhere, attempts to take a fortified position were fruitless despite stubborn efforts, and the situation in the Cossack army deteriorated. The White command realised that the Cossack cavalry needed infantry and support weapons to take such positions and to hold the vital rail lines. As a result on 23 May a new "Southern Army" (later 3rd Army) was formed under Belov combining Cossack (about half) and regular forces.
It was too late however, as in late May the Soviets managed to send extra reinforcements to Orenburg city and the Cossacks were forced onto the defensive.
Volkov records the the Orenburg Army as having 15,200 bayonets, 12,000 sabres, 247 machine-guns and 27 guns at this time, but it is not clear if this includes units attached to other armies.
Ufa fell to the Soviets in July and the White's main front was in full retreat. The unsuccessful diversion of the main forces of both the Urals and Orenburg Cossacks to capture their respective capitals had greatly relieved the threat to the southern flank of the Soviet attack against Kolchak. Now Frunze was able to draw off some troops to direct towards those Cossacks.
In August the Soviets commenced the "Aktubinsk Operation", following the defeat of the white counter-attack at Chelyabinsk in late July. Orenburg city was quickly cleared of besiegers. A Soviet drive on Orsk was stopped 150 km north of the city, but an attack from the west was more successful and the city fell on 30 August. On 2 September the Red Orenburg Group took Aktubinsk and advanced south down the rail line. Meanwhile the Red troops in Turkistan were advancing northwards and took Chelkar on 13 September. The Soviet forces from north and south joined, and the oil fields at Emba were secured and the rail link re-established.
This cut off the bulk of Belov's Southern Army off from the main White forces to the east. On 21 September the Orenburg Army was reformed under Dutov to reflect the situation. However morale was low and troops started to surrender in very large numbers.
Soon Dutov was forced to retreat eastwards with what remained of his army – 8 Orenburg Cossack regiments, the 21st Yaitsk Infantry Division (81-84th regiments, each 200-300 men), two cavalry divizions (100 sabres) and an artillery divizion. His forces merged with large numbers of White troops, commanded by General Bakich, and they gathered up a mass of refugees along the way.
Meanwhile another 2,000 men, being the majority of the remnants of the 1st Orenburg Corps, retreated under General Akulinin to the Urals Host. They were dispersed in November, a few making it to Denikin in Dagestan.
On 15 October the Soviets crossed the Tobol River. Dutov and Bakich retreated in parallel but south of the main White forces to the Ishim. Typhus and desertion meant the river could not be held, but a series of forced marches allowed the Cossacks to separate themselves from their pursuers and reorganise. A position around Atbasar-Kokchetav was held for a while, until news of the fall of Omsk came in mid-November. A further retreat ensued across the bare steppes. The cold, shortage of food and rampant typhus made the march as terrible as anything experienced on the more famous "Ice Marches" of the main White armies.
On 1 December the Reds took Semipalatinsk and on 10 December Barnaul to the east. This prevented Dutov's forces from any chance to reconnect with the main White army. They elected to head south towards Semirechensk, where Ataman Annenkov was established.
By the time the remaining 10,000 Orenburgers (about half the originals) reach the Semirechensk region they were exhausted and most were ill. Despite being largely fellow Cossacks, they were met with hostility, as they put pressure on the area's limited resources. Annenkov took overall military command of them, but kept them separate from his other forces. As stragglers came in, their number reached perhaps 12,000 soldiers (and as many refugees).
The situation obviously being hopeless, in March 1920 Dutov and 20,000 of his supporters, despite their already incredible marches, set out to retreat into China over the Kara Saryk pass in winter. There they were interned.
Life was very tough, and some 6,000 soon returned to Russia, many getting permission to go the Far East. The remainder of his supporters, under General Bakich, were forced by Soviet forces (who were prepared to cross the border to attack them) to march east once again in what became known as the "Hunger March". Many surrendered, the rest mostly perishing in the march to Mongolia at the end of 1920.
Dutov was assassinated in February 1921 by the Soviets.