The Russian army left Novorossisk for Crimea ten hours before we did. The British troops were last to evacuate & our party sailed on the last troop ship. The Russian Army before sailing for Crimea let all their horses go loose in the town.
We in the west know of Cossacks as men who wear big furry hats, drink vodka all day long and perform athletic squat dances around campfires. All of that is true to some extent. The hats for sure. The vodka I imagine so too, though perhaps not all day long and the squat dance is a Ukrainian folk Dance of which the squatting bit is only a part. They were also excellent horsemen, warriors and fiercely independent in spirit. As such for many Cossacks the choice between siding with the Soviets and the Volunteer Army was a no brainer. The Cossacks fought alongside the Whites in the hope of retaining their independence after the war. It was a vain hope and the Soviet victory would result in the decossackization of the Steppe and the dissolution of a once great war force.
There is no real agreement over the exact origins of the Cossacks of the Steppe but most sources say the Cossack hosts, which originated around the Black and Caspian Seas, were made up of peasants fleeing serfdom in the 16th and 17th centurys along with other refugees, mavericks and mercenaries that found themselves adrift on the Asian steppes in response to one political shift or another. The word Cossack comes from Kazak which means adventurer or free man. Kazakhstan I imagine has it roots in that word too. The blood of the Cossacks ran thick with the spirit of independence and they would trade on their military might, fighting for various Tzars andothers, in return for permission to rule themselves. If you were a Cossack or accepted into one Cossack host or another you abandoned your nationality. You were no longer a Russian, Pole, German or a Turk-you were a Cossack. This would cause issues for the Kuban Cossacksat the time of the Civil War as they would falter between backing the Ukrainian Independence fighters of the area and fighting to retain their autonomy. The Kuban Cossack politicians would fight with Denikin and by March 1920 many would have already begun to return to their villages. We have mentioned before that RAF 47th squadron would drop leaflets signed by General Holman on Kuban villages that March in an effort to keep them in the fight (Smith, 2010).
There were a number of hosts, large and small, mainly in the south of Russia. Donald Trump you will remember was made an honorary Irbis Cossack in 2016, but even this Putin-loving bunch of shifty Johnny-come-latelys based in North Russia, who are not mentioned in any histories and only come up in internet searches in relation to Trump and laundering money, have been talking about taking Trumps’ title away.
The dashing General Wrangel, a Baltic aristocrat, was a commander of a Cossack Division during The Great War and in the last stages of the civil war became a representative of four separate Cossacks groups-The Don, Terek, Kuban and Astrakhan, an unprecedented alliance in the face of the Bolsheviks. The Russophile General Holman was an honorary Don and Kuban Cossack.
The main Cossack hosts included the Kuban, the Terek, Astrakhan, Kalmak, Orenburg, Ussuri and The Don Cossack, whose territory lay along 800km of the Don River. The Don Cossacks were the largest host, numbering around 1.5 million before the war, and it was the Don who fought the hardest alongside the Whites, the Don who remained steadfast right to the end and the Don who lost the most.
The identity of the Cossack was bound up in their horses. They lived on a vast Steppe and the best way to move about was on horseback. A Cossack would be on horseback by the age of three and a proficient rider by the age of five. A Cossack and his horse would have moved as one. In being forced to choose between their horses and their own lives at Novorossisk, they would be torn asunder, inherent in this separation between man and beast, the greater loss of centuries of independence, of a wide open steppe and of something akin to freedom, and home.
Rending thought this must have being, the Cossack host was very much male-dominated. I would like to tell you there were many women in the Cossack host but it seems they were for the most part in charge of the home and were famed for being very good at… knitting. They were tough cookies though. Nicolas Kotar tells us..
‘…the Cossack women were well known for their strong characters. The ethnographer G. B. Gubarev characterized them thus: “Centuries of constant troubles formed in Cossack women a fearless determination. She was a good boatman, rode a horse with great skill, was greatly adept with lassos and weapons. She was perfectly capable of defending her children and her home.”’
The Cossack women, if they had been at Novorossisk, would have been saying goodbye to a lifetime of toil and crochet at the hearth rather than the freedom of the steppe. The women who were left behind, and they must have beem legion, would have been decossacked that is raped, murdered, starved and/or absorbed into the Soviet experiment.
…we went on board the “H.M.S. Hanover” at 2:30pm on Friday 26th Mar. 1920 & sailed at 11:30pm on the same date.
By the 26th the Green Guards were getting bolder while the local Bolsheviks, who were already murdering and raping in the town, had also cut up several parties of Kalmyk Cossacks trying to get through to the port (Williamson, p.280). Williamson says in his book that at least one half of the troops fighting the rearguard action against the vast Red Army were Don Cossacks, having stuck it out far longer than the ‘ornamental’ Kuban Cossacks, as he refers to them.
During the night of the 26th of March 1920, General Holman stood on the mole of the harbour supervising the embarkation of his beloved Don Cossacks. General Denikin, in wanting to preserve the remnants of the Volunteer army for the last stand in the Crimea, had rushed them to the ships leaving the far more numerous Don Cossacks behind (Kopisto, p.171).
The Cossack troops had arrived at Novorossisk with their horses; when they were told that there was no room for the horses on the ships they shot them rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the Reds. The docks became littered with thousands of dead horses.
Some of them would swim their horses out to the ships and climb on board leaving their mounts to drown. The harbour was full of their bloated bodies (Williamson, p.282) (Kinvig, p.312). As with the panic of the refugees, my granddad makes no mention of horses bodies on or in the harbour or of swimming Cossacks but he does refer to the live horses left onshore and that paragraph leaves a dramatic after-image…
The Russian Army before sailing for Crimea let all their horses go loose in the town. Our ship left harbour under shell fire from the Bolshie guns…One of our warships named the “Emperor of India” & some of our destroyers…shelled the hills all round Novorossisk where the Bolshies were & then they blew up the town…all the oil-wells which surrounded the town were on fire & there was hardly a house standing.
These long limbed, elegant animals, black cut-outs against the back drop of a roiling red inferno, manes and tails like inverted flames and fringed with fire as they galloped here and there, desperate to find a way to freedom, destined to fail. It is a powerful image that in its fierceness captures the violence of the red tide and the voraciousness with which it consumed the freedom of all those that fled before it.
We’ll get to the ships, supplies and the RAF soon.
Further Reading & References
Encyclopedia Britannica (2018), Cossacks:Ukrainian & Russian People, [online], available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/Cossack [accessed 10/3/2018].
EveryCountry.com 92018), Don Cossacks:Marriage & Family, [online], available at http://www.everyculture.com/Russia-Eurasia-China/Don-Cossacks-Marriage-and-Family.html [accessed 10/3/2018].
Kinvig, C., (2006), Churchill’s Crusade:The British Invasion of Russia,London:Bloomsbury Publishing.
Kopisto, L., (2011), The British Intervention in South Russia:1918-1920, Helsinki. Helsinki University.
Kotar, N., (2016), Cossack Family Values, on http://www.nicoalskotar.com, [online], available at http://nicholaskotar.com/2016/02/11/cossack-family-values/ [accessed 10/3/2018].
Smith, J., T., (2010), Gone to Russia to Fight:The RAF in South Russia 1918-1920, Stroud:Amberley Books.
Williamson, H.N.H., (1971), Farewell to the Don, ed. Harris, J., New York:The John Day Company.
Wright, D., (2017), Churchills Secret War:The British & Commonwealth Intervention in Russia, Solihull:Helion Books.