Before the Red Army

The Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, and fighting against them started almost immediately. It soon became apparent that the Marxist conception of a people's militia replacing a formal army was about as realistic as most other Bolshevik ideals. The problems were deep with the Soviet forces: poor military ability, lack of trained commanders, units refusing orders, soldiers' committees deciding operational matters and political conflict about aims and means.

The early forces were a mix of:

Commanding them were men of revolutionary fervour, but often no military knowledge or talent. Orders were ignored and discipline was appalling. Intrigues were rife, and several armies descended into chaos as commanders over-stepped their bounds.

Recruitment was very slow. Their was no central control of it, and no way to pay or supply front-line soldiers. The supplies were obtained from the enemy, local warehouses, or random trains being sent from the cities.

Many of their opponents were not a lot better though. The early Nationalist and Cossack armies had many of exactly the same problems. The miniscule White groups had disciplined soldiers and experience, but the same issues of out-of-control commanders and supply – to which was added bitter political rivalries.

The Railway War

A feature of the very early RCW was the attachment of the armies to rail lines. This led to the so-called "Railway War" period. The armies were small enough to live in trains, and these became their bases, with supply any distance from a line being almost impossible. The war therefore devolved into attacks on rail bases and junctions.

Another feature of this period of the war was the long marches of isolated units to link up with their main bodies. The Whites had the famous Drozdovski march from Romania and the Ekaterinoslav March to the Crimea. But the Reds had similar ones – often of much larger groups. The Taman March, where 40,000 men escaped from encirclement on the Black Sea coast by marching via the Caucasus Mountains is famous, but the March of the Ural Army is similar. In these cases the units marching generally tried to avoid rail lines, because that kept the larger enemy from rushing up reinforcements.


The Workers and Peasants Red Army, the RKKA, was officially proclaimed on 28 January 1918 to solve these problems. But that mostly remained a hope for many months. Soviet power was precarious in many cities and the entire infrastructure needed to be set up, more or less from scratch. So the hodge-podge of forces remained.

It was the Germans and the Czech Legion that rubbed in exactly how bad the early Soviet forces were. The German problem was "solved" by the humiliating Brest-Litovsk Treaty in March 1918, but the Czechs threatened Bolshevik power. Hence it was here that the real RKKA arose, after Trotski and Tukhachevski raced out to Western Siberia and started to bang it together the disparate pieces previously existing.

It wasn't until late in 1918 that the last fronts were sorted into mostly regular Red Army. Even then, the habits of the old ways, termed partizanshchina died hard. I discuss partizanshchina here.

Wargaming the Early Periods

This is the one period where a disjointed group of units is realistic. You can literally have a company of sailors and a company of railway workers beside your regular army troops, backed up with a squadron or two of international cavalry. Armies tended to be tiny, and to form as a column, advancing along a rail line, or sometimes road.

Support was low. Artillery was a few light guns. Ammunition of all sorts was in short supply (usually because of supply issues from WWI stores, not because there was none). There were armoured cars, but armies struggled to keep them repaired.

Armoured trains were a staple, but they were more armed than armoured for the most part. Many of them had bales of cotton or railway sleepers placed around the guns, rather than the steel plate of later in the war.

Games should focus on a feature: a railway junction and/or accompanying village, or preventing of a crossing at a bridge or ford.

Morale was not always bad, but for most of the Soviet troops it was very brittle. In particular, troops would retreat at any risk of being surrounded – prisoners were often shot out of hand at this era. Or worse.


The book "Railway Troops of Russia" has a chapter on the features of the Railway War.

A rather Soviet version of the events, but accurate. The original is here.

"Mikhail Tukhachevsky in the Russian Civil War", by Neill Croll, Glasgow University 2002.

Tukhachevski was a major mover in the transformation to the Red Army, commanding on the key front against the Czechs and KOMUCH early in the war, and this thesis discusses the nature of the fighting.