Red Cavalry

Peter Arshinov wrote:

The very numerous cavalry of the Red Army, organised later, was a cavalry in name only; it was never able to carry on hand-to-hand combat, and engaged in combat only when the enemy was already disoriented by the fire of cannons and machine guns. During the entire civil war the Red cavalry always avoided confrontation with the Makhnovist cavalry, even though the Red cavalry always outnumbered the Makhnovist.

Arshinov wasn't always the best judge of things – he returned to the USSR later, only to be promptly executed – but he did mix with men who had fought the Red cavalry, so we should not disregard his opinion. We just need to be careful which "cavalry" we are talking about.

Early Days

The Soviets started the war with little regular cavalry. That arm had historically been dominated by the wealthiest officers so few regular army units went over. The other sources of their initial troops – workers, sailors, etc – did not generate any either. The result was that the cavalry of the early Red Army in the west was lacking in numbers and quality. The ex-cavalry that did go over to the Reds formed the Moscow Cavalry Division (later the 1st Cavalry Division) in June of 1918, but I have no idea how large it was. It faced the Germans initially, before moving East for the rest of the war.

The situation wasn't so bad in some of the other areas the Soviets controlled. On the Don, the 2nd Don Composite Cossack Division was formed in July 1918 by merging various detachments and the 1st Composite Cavalry Division (later 4th CD) followed soon after, both formed largely from poor Cossacks. In the Caucasus some Caucasian mountaineers and remnants of the old army provided units. On the Eastern Front, however, there was a desperate shortage in mid-1918, which took a while to fix.

Thus by the start of 1919 the Soviets already had effectively four cavalry divisions, plus lots of independent units – so the early absence of Red cavalry was actually very short lived. This arm continued to grow as anyone with knowledge of horses was placed into the continually expanding cavalry. This allowed the Red Army, towards the war's end, to employ cavalry strategically, though it never became much of a tactical weapon.

Rifle Division Cavalry

A Red rifle division was allocated a 4-squadron cavalry regiment plus tachanka platoon, of 900 or so men in theory (briefly 4 divizions). In practice on most fronts quite a few rifle divisions had no integral cavalry at all, and when they did the number of sabres tended to average to about 200, though at times they did come close to the full allotted regiment.

This cavalry was used as support for the infantry, so largely for guarding the flanks, scouting and communication. It was made up of any men who could be mustered up who could ride. The commanders were often NCOs of the Tsarist cavalry, and many were low quality. On top of this, the division and brigade commanders also generally had no experience of operating mixed arms.

This is the cavalry that the Makhnovists saw until the end (cavalry divisions were not employed against him in any amount until the end of 1920) and it is not surprising that they were unimpressed by it – it wasn't really meant to be charging cavalry. (Note also that most Red Army units tended to sympathise with the Makhnovists, and Greens in general, and often performed poorly against them.)

As the Red cavalry grew, it was mostly grouped into divisions, brigades and then armies, rather than bring the integral cavalry of the infantry up to size. In fact many of the first cavalry brigades were formed by stripping the infantry of its cavalry. This was a deliberate policy for operational reasons, but it did mean the poor old infantry was woefully short of good cavalry support right up to the end of the war.

The formal structure of the cavalry is given at the bottom of this page. In practice it was a dead letter.

Independent Units

From the earliest period there were a few units that were independent cavalry: some internationalists, especially Hungarians, and national formations, such as the Bashkirs and Caucasian mountaineers, were proper cavalry right from the start. As with the infantry, units of similar origins were brigaded together wherever possible, so the few independent regiments of the early war did not last long.

As time went on, these units tended to wear out and they were absorbed into the new Red Cavalry units.

The few remaining independent units were now the kursanty cavalry trainees and some of the units that had lasted so long that they were reaching veteran status, such as the Chervonno Cossack Brigade.

The Cheka also had a small amount of cavalry, but I have no idea how good it was. Probably not very, as it lacked field experience. It was for putting down insurgent peasants.

Red Cossacks

One group that causes confusion is "Red" Cossacks. This combines three very different groups of men.

Right from the start there were a small number of revolutionary men of Cossack origin. They formed units that were very welcome, especially along the Urals, Orenburg and Siberian fronts, where they were badly needed and formed the nucleus of the new Red cavalry. They were transformed into standard Red Army units as soon as they could be – the point being to show that they were not the reactionary Cossacks of the Whites. They performed well, even though badly outnumbered by opposition horse, until their numbers were swollen by new recruits from less military equestrian backgrounds.

As the Soviets took Cossack territory, they attempted to press the remaining fighting age men into the Red Army, regardless of motivation. They then sent them to other areas in the hopes that they would not side with the locals. This often ended badly, for example with entire brigades passing over to the Poles in 1920 and then fighting against the Red Army. These units had low fighting value for the Soviets, but the aim was to take them out of their homelands so that they could not rebel, not create quality cavalry.

There were also units labeled "Cossack" in the Ukraine that were using the word in the historical sense of a free fighter. The famous Chervonno Cossack Brigade was one such. It was a good unit, but not from true Cossack background.

Brigades, Divisions, Corps, Armies

Divisions were numbered. Its three brigades would then, in theory, be the consecutive numbers up to the division number multiplied by three. The two regiments of the brigades would be those numbers in turn up to the multiple of two. For example, the 15th Cavalry Division had the 43rd, 44th and 45th Cavalry Brigades (up to 3 times 15), and the 85th to 90th Cavalry Regiments (up to two times 45). In practice the system wasn't always kept though, as the demands of the war led to many short-gap measures that played havoc with this structure.

Each of the regiments of a brigade or division was officially divided into four squadrons.

Troop numbers were far lower than regulation of approximately 1,100 men per regiment. A division of 1,500 men was not unusual, and one of 3,000 was quite large. Less than half of that would be sabres though, as there were frequently large infantry components, as well as artillery, tachankas and a substantial tail.

The formal support for a cavalry division was an artillery divizion of four batteries, and some communications squadrons (radio, telegraph and motorcycle). Many had high quotas of guns, often a four-gun battery per brigade, but was usually well under strength in the other areas.

Budenny managed to wrangle some armoured cars for his divisions, but it is doubtful how much action they saw, given the difficulty of keeping up across country. Other cavalry would have armoured support only if the Front attached some.

The number of attached machine-guns was, conversely, frequently well over the allotted ratio. Where possible, these would be tachankas. There might be well over one MG for every 10 sabres, but also as few as one per 100.

Note that the structure for the cavalry given in the Osprey Red Army book is for 1921, so irrelevant to the civil war. The formal organisation, for what it is worth, is at the bottom of this page.

Wargaming Red Cavalry

Because cavalry brigades and divisions were quite small, they would usually operate as a body, and should be gamed as such. While some cavalry divisions had a small amount of integral infantry, quite possibly merely cavalry without horses, they operated independently of the rifle divisions as such.

A regiment in the field would normally have 120 to 200 sabres, and be the base element of manouevre, rather than the forty man squadrons. They would be backed up by a very variable amount of tachankas, from one to three dozen to supply any required firepower. A battery or two of horse artillery would normally be present, and perhaps some battalions of integral infantry.

I believe most rules give the Red cavalry units too much melee power, and insufficient shooting ability. They were about probing for holes and exploiting flanks, not charging frontally. However, their morale should be high to reflect their resiliency.

The First Horse Army divisions seem to have been no better than other Red cavalry divisions and fought largely the same way, relying on mass and mobility. I have put my thoughts on the First Horse Army on a separate page.

The elite units were some early international units, kursanty and the "special" brigades of the horse armies (which don't always appear on orders of battle), made up of the most trusted and veteran men.

Tactics of Cavalry Divisions

With an attack there would be an active reconnaissance, searching for holes and flanks, sometimes undertaken by quite large units. But at other times the Red cavalry was often very slipshod in this area. Even the First Horse Army, the supposed elite, was often caught unprepared by the enemy, due to poor security measures.

The battle tactics of the red cavalry were not particularly subtle. The enemy would be softened up by artillery and tachankas. The cavalry could add their own firepower, dismounting if need be. (Despite many statements to the contrary, the Red cavalry frequently dismounted when facing stern opposition. Klyuev's account of the First Horse Army in Ukraine gives many examples of that.)

The charge, if it came, would be similar to the Cossack lava – a free-flowing quick movement using the lie of the land to minimise the enemy firepower and to hide its direction. The flanks might be thrown forward to form a crescent. If the enemy did not buckle, then contact might be avoided completely by flowing around them. If they did break the enemy, pursuit was ferocious. If a hole could be found in the line, then units would pour through, seeking to attack the defence from the rear.

This lack of desire to charge frontally boot-to-boot should not suggest lack of bravery. The new cavalry units included many more volunteers and dedicated Communists than the infantry and was often full of revolutionary elan. The leaders were often young and forceful – even divisional commanders would lead from the front. The result was a cavalry that was braver than it was trained, a weapon of power not delicate manouevre. It worked to its strengths: it was a strategic weapon of mass shock, with incredible stamina and mobility, rather than an elite tactical force.

Tachankas provided support, particularly on the defensive or in the preliminaries before an attack. The sheer number of them meant a cavalry division could have a serious amount of firepower. Budenny apparently even sent tachankas out on reconnaissance parties, which shows the extent to which firepower was treated as a primary tactic, unlike the White and Cossack armies.

Although the paintings show tachankas firing on the move, this seems profoundly unlikely. Not only could they not possibly hope to hit anything with a machine-gun while bouncing across the countryside, the guns weren't fixed so would be in extreme danger of falling off the tachanka. In any case, a tachanka fires to the rear, so firing on the move would only happen in a retreat. Being quite high, a tachanka would make a very attractive target, and I suspect that most not only stopped but even dismounted to fire if they could.

Unlike the Whites, very few units were lancers. The men used sabres and carbines, but a pair of pistols – Nagant revolvers and automatic pistols being the most highly prized – were the preferred weapons for close combat.

Cavalry Uniforms

Uniforms were mostly standard red army, except riding breeches and boots. The Horse Armies had no special distinctions.

The official Soviet regulations from January 1919 made blue the branch of service colour. Thus the cloth stars of an shlem, when available, would be blue not red.

Tsarist coloured breeches were often worn if stocks were available.

The 2nd Horse Army facing Wrangel 1920. Unusually the commander wears a kubanka, which was
strongly associated with the Cossacks, so not much favoured by the Soviets. It may well be the Army
commander Mironov though, who was actively Cossack.


Stephen Brown. The First Cavalry Army in the Russian Civil War PhD Thesis, University of Woollongong.

This includes highly detailed studies of the military aspects of the Army. Quite fascinating.

A Study of Bolshevik Cavalry in the French Revue de Cavalerie, July-August 1921.

In practice this actually studies the Konnarmiya during its Polish campaign, not Red Cavalry as a whole.

Side Note

People are often surprised that cavalry was still effective in the Russian Civil War, long after the machine-gun was common. Yet it clearly was, and large quantities of it were concentrated in some battles.

To a certain extent it was the poor quality of the infantry, but the real enemy of cavalry is not the machine-gun: it is barbed wire and the bunker. The Russian Civil War cavalry brought their own MGs and artillery, so could engage in a certain amount of fire-fight. But horses won't cross a string of wire, no matter how poor the infantry behind are. This remained true in the RCW – the Don, Ural and Orenburg Cossacks all found that they could sweep the steppes clean, but could not take the fortified cities defended by the very armies that they defeated in open field.

Another reason for cavalry's success is that the terrain was conducive. Russian and Polish fields of the time were not fenced, hedged or ditched to block free movement. There were few large forests (except up in the Petrograd area, where cavalry was less important). The zone in which cavalry excelled was the rolling lands of the south, where they were able to mass without exposure. Much of Russia and Poland is flat, in that it doesn't have many steep hills, but it generally isn't featureless.

Official Organisation of the Cavalry

This is taken from the Soviet Encyclopedia of the Civil War and Intervention in the USSR.

The structures below are the formal ones, but in practice they varied considerably and were almost always quite a lot lower. This is the source of the numbers cited in the Osprey Red Army book, but the table on page 14 is for the post-war structures and is not relevant to the civil war in any way.

Cavalry Divisions

Cavalry Division, the main operational and tactical unit of the army cavalry of the Red Army.

As announced by order of the Army RMS on 3 August 1918, a Cavalry Division was to have: a division staff, three independent brigades and a horse artillery divizion (of 4 batteries). A brigade was two regiments, each of 4 squadrons,.

The division staff was to include (apart from the Commander and RMS) the division headquarters, the political department, a supply service, sanitation service, and veterinary doctors, and others. The total was 7,653 people and 8,469 horses.

On 26 December 1918 the strength of a division was increased to 8,346 men and 9,226 horses.

Soon after on 4 January 1919 a technical squadron was added, which included: staff squadron , telegraph-telephone department, explosives platoon, motorcycle platoon, horse radio telegraph department. The technical squadron numbered 254 men, 231 horses, and 42 motorcycles.

By the order of the South-West Front of 21 July 1920, the technical battalions were made provisional and the batteries in the artillery divizion reduced to 3 instead of 4. The number of men increased by 550 men to: 9,499 men and 10,210 horses.

By order of 27 February 1921, a political department was created in the division's administration, and also added were: a horse MG regiment of three squadrons of 20 Maxim machine guns each, an armored car squadron, and in place of the technical squadron, a communications squadron and engineer squadron with two explosives and two road-bridge platoons.

Cavalry Regiments

In connection with the decision to form strategic cavalry units in the order of the Army RMS of 3 August 1918, cavalry divisions and brigades were composed of 4 squadron cavalry regiments. Each was to contain 1,105 men and 1,203 horses. In addition, the regiment included a regimental horse machine-gun command (four Maxim machine guns).

In December 1918, the Army RMS ordered that a cavalry regiment in a cavalry division was to have 1,152 men and 1,247 horses. Each squadron numbered 210 men (in 4 platoons, of 2 squads each) and 221 horses.

On the order of 27 February 1921 a horse machinegun squadron (20 Maxim guns) was introduced. The regiments went to 5 (instead of 4) squadrons, each of 176 men and 193 horses.

Divisional Cavalry

By order of the People's Commission for the Army on 20 April 1918, and supplemented by an order of 26 April, the cavalry regiment of a rifle division consisted of 4 cavalry squadrons and had 872 men and 947 horses. The regiment also included: a regimental horse machine-gun squad (two pack machine-guns), a communications squad, a permanent regimental school, and a supply squad. The staff of the regiment included: 2 assistant regimental commanders, clerks for combat and administration, 2 doctors, 2 veterinarians, a treasurer, and a weapons superintendent.

In November 1918, the cavalry regiment of the rifle divisions were abolished, and instead the rifle units had four independent cavalry divizions of two squadrons each.

In July 1919, on the order of the Army RMS, a rifle division once again included a regiment of 4 squadrons of division cavalry, numbering 915 people and 947 horses. The regimental horse-MG squads were renamed platoons (of two machine-guns).