The Civil War started on the Urals River in the same manner as most of the isolated portions of Russia. The Bolsheviks and their allies seized control of the cities in early 1918 and prevented anti-Bolshevik forces from grouping. Numbers were very low on both sides. The Urals Cossack regiments at the WWI front were a long time coming home, and when they did they were inevitably disarmed along the way.
In March 1918 anti-Bolshevik rebellions broke out in Guriev under Major-General V.S. Tolstov, and in Iletsk under Colonel K.I. Zagrebin. Initially forces were based on the training units in the areas, with support from officers and students. Very few men were former frontoviki.
Unlike most hosts, however, the Urals Cossacks found that it was able to quickly assemble a decent army. The lack of urban and industrial centres meant that there were few opposing forces, and they had a huge mobility advantage in being cavalry in an area with a low communication net. By April as many as 15,000 men were under the overall command of Major-General M.F. Martynov. The front spread from Guriev along the river to Iletsk, with forces also having to face the rear towards Turkestan. At this point the problem wasn't numbers but weapons, as the Urals Cossacks had no source of supply, either external or internal.
In May 1918 the Czech Legion started fighting the Soviets and this drew off even more opposing forces, leaving the lower Urals in entirely White hands. The host started to organise a formal army, and some supply came from captured towns.
According to Klaving, on 1 June 1918 the 1st Urals Corps (Saveliev) had the 1st and 2nd Urals Cossack Divisions, the 2nd Corps (Akutin) had the 3rd Urals Cossack and 4th Iletsk Divisions, and the Reserve had the 3rd Urals Horse Division. For the remainder of the war the 1st Corps fought along the river around Uralsk and the smaller 2nd Corps around Iletsk.
By July the front reached to Novouzensk. With their flanks protected by supporting forces (Kalmyks to the west, Kirghiz and Orenburg Cossacks to the east, and the north in Czech and White hands) the Urals Cossacks pressed on towards Nikolaevsk on the Volga. To the rear there remained the embattled Turkestan Soviet, which posed little threat at this stage. Some supply now started to arrive from the newly formed KOMUCH government in Samara.
In August things started to take a bad turn for the anti-Bolshevik forces, as Trotski began to organise the Red Army more systematically. One result was that the Ufa Directory was formed, combining KOMUCH and the conservative Omsk government. With that there was a reorganisation of White forces. The Urals Host troops were combined with the Orenburg and Astrakhan Hosts in the "SouthWestern Army" under Ataman Dutov of the Orenburg Host. In practice control remained with the local forces, as communication was too slow for it to be otherwise, although some limited sharing of resources did occur.
The Soviets initially concentrated on defeating the Czechs and Siberian Whites, correctly assuming that Cossack forces would not operate effectively far from their home territory. Kazan fell in September, and the Soviets continued to press eastwards. The Cossacks did not attempt to ride behind the Red Army lines to assist their allies, despite their overwhelming cavalry superiority.
In October the Soviets were able to draw men off to attack more forcefully towards the Urals River. The famous commander Vasili Chapaev (Chapaev) led the 2nd Nikolaevsk Rifle Division towards Uralsk city. The Uralsk to Iletsk stretch was the main front from this time onwards. While a potential threat to the rear of the Urals Cossacks came from the Turkestan Soviet forces no serious attacks ever eventuated. Likewise the Red Army along the Volga remained focused on their southern enemies (first the Don and then AFSR).
Volkov gives the Urals Army in October 1918, which is about the peak for that year before the defeats of the winter, as 21,000 men, with 169 MGs and 51 guns. There were 17 numbered Urals Cossack Regiments plus the 13th Orenburg Cossack Regiment. The low numbered Training Regiments were the main strike force. Infantry was only a quarter of the army, and came from the 33rd Nikolaevsk Infantry Regiment and various smaller units. A force mostly composed of non-Urals forces were now being assembled in Guriev, in order to face towards Astrakhan.
An order of battle for the SouthWestern Army at the end of 1918 gives total Urals forces of 10,000 sabres and 3,000 infantry, but this greatly underestimates the total numbers, as it excludes men in supporting units and is in mid-winter, when numbers had dropped slightly.
Although the Soviets were more numerous and had much more supply and heavy support, they were massively outnumbered in cavalry. Their progress was therefore slow, as they had to be very careful to guard their flanks and rear. From time to time Soviet regiments were isolated and destroyed, but in general weight of numbers began to tell.
In November Kolchak overthrew the Ufa Directory and the White fronts were reorganised soon afterwards. The SouthWestern Army was dissolved, and the Urals Host once again formally became a separate body (now under General Saval'ev). The bulk of the forces was in the 1st Corps, covering Uralsk, and the 2nd Corps, covering Iletsk. A small force was in Guriev covering attacks from Astrakhan or Turkestan. Cossack morale was low as the Red Army moved forward on all fronts but the main Soviet thrust was still eastwards, and the Urals Host was less pressed than Kolchak or the Orenburg Host.
It was January 1919 by the time the Soviets were outside Uralsk, and another month before they could take the Uralsk to Iletsk stretch. The Cossacks fell back southwards to a small pocket of loyal villages. However, they more or less kept their shape as an army, though reduced in size.
A Host conference was called, and in March Major-General Tolstov was elected Ataman, with full emergency powers (he had previously commanded the forces in the Guriev area). The host army was reorganised, based largely on the three strike Training Regiments, and then a group of territorially based Cossack Regiments. A few partisan units remained. There were a large number of non-Urals Cossacks merged into the Host by now, mostly in separate units in the infantry. These non-Host men included other Cossacks, units of the People's Army cut off during the retreats, former Red Army soldiers and various volunteers. The new 1919 order of battle remained more or less the same until the end of the year.
In March Kolchak began his Spring Offensive towards Saratov, Simbirsk and Samara. The Soviets still considered this front their main priority and forces were withdrawn from the Urals River. This allowed Urals Ataman Tolstov to once again take the offensive.
By mid-April the Cossacks had again reached Uralsk and the Soviet 22nd Rifle Division fell back into that city. It wasn't until early May however before a proper siege could begin. Soviet forces inside the city numbered some 2,600 men, with 27 MGs, 19 guns, improvised armoured train, improvised armoured car and armed boat. The northern sector, not protected by the Urals and Chagan Rivers, was heavily fortified with trenches and barbed wire, built by mobilised citizens. Lacking heavy support the Cossacks could not force the lines, despite at least four attempts. An attempted crossing of the Chagan was a total disaster.
The situation otherwise was looking fairly good by the end of June. Iletsk had fallen in early May, and apart from the pocket of resistance in Uralsk, the Soviet lines were pushed 100 kilometres beyond the Urals River. Pugachaev and Novouzensk were taken. The supply situation was still poor, but some help was coming via the AFSR, shipped across the Caspian. Sufficient forces had arrived from the Astrakhan area that the Urals-Astrakhan Corps could even attack towards the Volga and threaten Astrakhan city. The Separate Urals Army may have numbered as many as 25,000 men.
An order of battle for the Separate Urals Army in mid-1919 is available, though it appears to omit some units.
However Kolchak's defeat was now fairly obvious, and Frunze could withdraw troops to fight the Cossacks on his southern edge.
In early July the "Chapaev group", based around the 25th Rifle Division and a Special Infantry Brigade, start to make headway against the Urals Cossacks. Their main priority was to relieve the siege of Uralsk. Once again Chapaev's progress was slow, lacking the mobility of the Cossacks. Pugachaev fell to the Soviets, only to see a surprise raid take it back.
By 5 July Pugachaev was taken again by the Red Army, soon afterwards. Ataman Tolstov grouped his best forces around Uralsk, which was rapidly running out of food and ammunition, but on 11 July the city was relieved. The stubborn defence against larger numbers was much lauded by the Soviets, as it had proved critical in holding the flank of the Red Army's attack against Kolchak. If it had fallen early the Cossack cavalry would have had a welcome supply of material and been in a position to attack Frunze's flank.
The Soviets had now driven solid wedges between the various White forces in Siberia. The Urals Cossacks had the bulk of their forces falling back along the Urals river, while the 2nd Corps remained behind Iletsk. A small corps continued to attack along the Caspian coast towards the Volga. Solid links to the Orenburg Host were now broken though and there was no hope of serious co-ordination with Kolchak's forces. Meanwhile Tsaritsyn had fallen to the AFSR in July and their troops were now operating on the eastern side of the Volga. The Urals Host therefore transferred itself to the AFSR, while remaining operationally independent.
On 9 August Lbischensk (now Chapaevsk) on the Uralsk-Guriev rail line fell to the Soviets and it looked as if the Host would be rapidly driven into the Caspian. However, at this point one of the most amazing White attacks of the Civil War took place. A large force of Cossacks skirted the main Soviet forces by riding far west of the river and attacked the Soviet headquarters in Lbischensk. The destruction was total, including the death of the Soviet commander, Chapaev. The result was a demoralised and leaderless Soviet retreat back to Uralsk. The Cossacks gathered up thousands of prisoners and many valuable supplies.
The Cossacks followed up, and in October Uralsk was again threatened. Briefly a link was made with the AFSR forces which had pushed across the Volga at Tsaritsyn.
However the collapse of all the other forces allied to the Urals Host meant that the end was inevitable. The Soviets reorganised and diverted more forces to the Uralsk area. Three weeks of fighting around the city end with another Cossack retreat. Worse, the Red Army now has enough quality cavalry to pursue quickly.
By mid-December Kalmykov fell, and the bulk of the army retired on Guriev. The Iletsk Corps was cut off and fell back in a south-easterly direction. Its 6th Division retreated across the Bukeyev Steppe, but was totally destroyed by disease, hunger and pursuit. Large numbers of Cossacks started to surrender. A Kirghiz unit killed its officers and passed over to the Reds. The Alash-Orda (Kirghiz and Kazakh separatists) formally surrendered.
On 5 January 1920 Guriev was captured. More Cossacks surrendered.
The remains of the Urals Host, perhaps 15,000 people including refugees, retreated along the Caspian coast under Ataman Tolstov, with the aim of joining up with the AFSR army in Turkestan. Short of food and water and trekking across bare land in winter, the Cossacks fell rapidly. Port Alexander was reached after two months, by which time only some two to three thousand remained. A few early arrivals were lifted by the White fleet and joined General Dratsenko's forces on the other side, eventually retreating to Azerbaijan. However then the Red fleet arrived at the port and fought off the two White cruisers. On 5 April the few remaining Cossacks were forced to surrender and the Urals Army ceased to exist.
General Tolstov retreated with a few hundred people towards Iran. Many of these few remnants of the Host later emigrated to Australia.