Outer Mongolian Revolution: Tibetan-Buddhist Holy Warriors & the Asiatic Cavalry Division, 1919-1922

After the Russian Revolution but before the communist 'Red' Bolsheviks had yet to secure a total victory during the Russian Civil War (1917-1923), Soviet leadership under Lenin, Trotsky, and later Joseph Stalin (b.1878-1953), looked to the Far East to establish a sphere of influence as a buffer to Imperial Japan’s growth in the East and Pacific Ocean following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

The Japanese Empire spent most of the 1920’s and 1930’s refining and building their military capabilities for their planned economic and cultural domination of Asia which would begin in China and Soviets sensed that the Far East would become a vital diplomatic and military frontier later on. Hence the early heightening of Soviet political and military presence in Mongolia at the tail end of the Russian Civil War in 1920-1921. 

The 'Bloody White Baron of Mongolia': Baron Roman Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg 

After crushing most if not all of the White resistance on the Russian mainland, Red Army and Party leadership eyed the Far East rather greedily-looking especially to the crumbling territories of the Empire of China now ruled by a varying number of warlords spread throughout the vast territories of the former Qing Dynasty. Red Army occupation of Mongolia came as a result of one most bizarre and violent episodes in the bloody and widespread aftermath related to the Russian Civil War of 1917-1921.

Since the year 1918 former Tsarist cavalry officers the “Bloody” Baron Roman Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg and Commander Grigory Semyonov, or Semenov (b.1890-1946) had been rampaging through Siberia, the Transbaikal, and later into Mongolia, Manchuria, and Northern China evading and smashing much larger Red Army or pro-Bolshevik forces, pillaging, raping, and executing Jews and suspected Bolshevik/Communist supporters and their families at random whilst the heads of the irregular White unit, the Special Manchurian Division. The Trans-Siberian railway was vital to the survival of Semenov’s Division. The hetman himself rode on his own heavily armored train with crates of French champagne, fine cuisine, Austrian band accompaniment, and a harem car of beautiful women from around the world.

The Cossack Ataman Grigory Semyonov

In this period Roman Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg was Semenov's lieutenant as the cossack hetman had held a higher Imperial army rank and was by far much more respected and well known among the White (pro-monarchy/Tsar)  and other foreign-national entities including the Japanese; who became their unit's biggest financiers and allies. Semenov became rich plundering Red, White, and non-aligned foreign national railway trains during their time in the east. Baron Ungern cared little for these riches and was more of a pure anti-revolutionary, though Ungern did certainly benefit financially his spiritual path and warrior ethos dictated his course. They both made their living as essentially bandits and anti-revolutionary partisans during their campaign in the Transbaikal. Certainly tens of thousands were killed or died as result of the conflict fought in just this one region of the former Russian Empire between 1918-1920.

Subsequently the Semenovites and most of the scattered White military forces became a major threat to the new Soviet Russian state as they launched raids on Soviet Russian territory throughout 1918-1919-20 whilst courting alliances with the Czech Legion who were fighting their way through half of Europe since the end of World War I, as well as the Chinese, and the Japanese in the Far East. Ungern and his Semenovite allies fought for the restoration of the Romanovs and primarily for their own financial gain; many unknowing or uncaring that all of the immediate members of the Russian dynasty had already been murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. When it was clear that the White cause was lost in Europe; Baron Ungern mounted his horse and went East with a corps of cavalry

The “Bloody Baron’s” baptism by fire: Baron R.F. von Ungern-Sternberg’s military career, 1905-1919

A brief overview of Baron Ungern-Sternberg’s life and military career is needed in order to properly understand his later motivations and albeit sadistically skewed outlook on life and the practices of warfare and generalship in the Far East. Born in 1885 to Austrian parents, the young Roman von Ungern was an aristocratic heir who lived in Estonia during his formative years. A military cadet in the Marine academy he served in the tail end of the Russians disastrous effort in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Returning to Russia in 1906 he enrolled in the imperial infantry at the Pavlovskoe Military Academy where after studying warfare he enrolled in a Siberian cossack division. 

Ungern-Sternberg as a young cadet before 1905

From c.1909-1911 he led patrols on the Manchurian-Mongolia border with the Russian Empire capturing bandits and inspecting the empires far flung defenses. He eventually visited Mongolia in the year 1913. Ungern was known as a man prone to violence and to sometimes cryptic pious outbursts who fought many duels-he was in love with cossacks and anything cavalry. He was man who lived by the sabre and who rode tens of thousands of miles in the saddle during his short life, his endurance and iron will was legendary. He was also a documented violent drunk who took to opium smoking following his travels to the Far East in 1911-1914 and 1917-1921.

Baron Ungern’s extended holiday in the Far East and Mongolia was cut short following the outbreak of World War in July of 1914. Ungern mobilized in the same year with the Nerchinsk Regiment of cossacks and fought in some of the early sweeping victories of the Russian Imperial cavalry over the Kaiser’s Imperial troops in East Prussia and Galicia. He was awarded the Cross of St. George for the first of four times during his life early in the war for scouting German trenches under heavy artillery shelling and rifle fire. Ungern fought at the great Russian defeat at Tannenberg in August of 1914 where most of his cavalry comrades were killed. 

Russian Cavalry Charge at the Battle of Tannenberg, 1914

In 1915-1916, now holding the rank of junior captain, a considerably low rank when considering his own battlefield bravery and age, R.F. von Ungern-Sternberg fought in Galicia in Western Ukraine/Poland and then later in the Carpathian Mountains where he received a serious wound skirmishing against Austro-Hungarians uhlans (lancers, light infantry). He spent almost a year in military prison for assaulting and grievously wounding a fellow officer in a drunken rage before being transferred as a reserve to Lake Urmia in what is today northwestern Iran for the remainder of the war in 1917. It was near Lake Urmia were Ungern most certainly witnessed the aftermath of the systematic genocide of the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians (Christian Syrians) by the Ottoman Turks. When the Russian Civil War broke out he fought against the Red Guards and the Bolsheviks in the Transbaikal (near Lake Baikal), in Siberia, and in northern China where Commander Semenov decorated him for disarming a large pro-Bolshevik garrison at Hailar.

Battles for Urga (Ulaanbaatar), Mongolia 1920-1921

Baron Ungern’s first attack on Urga (Ulaanbaatar), Mongolia began on 26 October when his Asian Cavalry division charged the ancient fortifications of the Chinese market square at Maimachen sitting west of Urga in waves of charges feigning retreat and then charging again with guns and sabres at the ready only to retreat again. Around 2500-3000 Chinese soldiers held Maimachen (meaning Buy-Sell town) with scarce supplies and ammunition. A moderately adequate Chinese defense was bolstered by at least 7-10 artillery pieces positioned throughout Maimachen and greater Urga.

Beiyang Chinese soldiers, 1922

Their commanding officers had not heard news from the Beiyang capital at Peking in three months and hadn't been payed for a year or longer. For all intents this was a remote outpost which was entirely isolated both politically and militarily. The Bolshevik leadership of Lenin and Trotsky cared more for Outer Mongolia and Urga than the Beiyang Chinese did in 1921-1922. Two brigades commanded by Ungern and his loyal and ruthless second in command, Colonel Rezuhin, attacked with half of their total strength of 2,000-3,500 cavalry in a bid to overwhelm and surprise the underpaid and disillusioned Chinese defenders within Maimachen in two separate pincer actions. What ensued was a chaotic siege and running battle.

During Ungern’s first attack the Bogd Khan was imprisoned in his own palace-temple, forbidden to mingle with the populace of Urga or with outside Buddhist emissaries. Spies kept both both Ungern and the Khan informed of each other machinations however. Foreigners and especially Russians settlers and businessmen were persecuted, extorted, robbed, and some even killed by Chinese soldiers who deeply, deeply feared Ungern’s division and who tried unsuccessful. The Baron’s strategy worked initially and the Chinese were forced from their Maimachen defenses rather quickly but soon rallied and returned to their positions to defend Urga’s flank from the Asian Cavalry Division’s fanatical and scattered attacks. As Baron Ungern’s men ran low on ammunition during the fight they used their sabres and lances until they were killed, lost their mounts, or were forced to retreat back into the wilderness to relative safety. 

Unidentified White Cavalry Siberia or the Far East, 1919-1921

The Chinese artillery pounded them into submission and by 1-2 November Ungern’s cavalry had fled 160 miles east of Urga to Zam Kuren to make winter camp in the mountains while the Baron Ungern planned another attack on the city. Perhaps 500-1,000 of his men were killed in the first failed attempt to take Urga while the Chinese garrison lost at least 500 killed, wounded, or missing. The Asiatic Cavalry division replenished the manpower lost in the First Battle of Urga through gaining the fealty of several Mongolian princes and their bannermen, many of whom had been anti-Chinese bandits throughout the 1910’s. Some of the Mongolian “volunteers” chose to fight for a new, independent Mongolia ruled by the court of the living Buddha, Emperor Bogd Khan (b.1869-1924). Most were good scouts, riders, and shots with a rifle however many more made poor soldiers overall because, very simply, they did not wish to campaign or fight far from their families and territorial homes.

The second attack on Urga began on 18 January when the Asiatic Cavalry Division came down from the Holy Mountain somewhere north of the city. Baron Ungern’s troops attacked seemingly from everywhere charging and then galloping away in feigned retreat after feigned retreat. The Chinese made sloppy use of their artillery and machine guns and they had little effect in the coming Second Battle of Urga. The bone chillingly cold temperatures of Mongolia in the winter ensured that hundreds would die of exposure and sickness during the battle and most likely to blame for the breakdown of most of the Chinese heavy artillery and machine guns which probably had not been tended to mechanically or winterized properly.

Ja Lama (Dambiijantsan) Russo-Mongolian revolutionary and warlord 1921

Ungern fought at the front of his troops and according to James Palmer, author of The Bloody White Baron, the Baron killed three men himself during the early stages of the battle. His troops first took the defensive trenches of Urga and then stormed Maimachen which along with most of Urga proper had been set ablaze due to both the alleged actions of supposed “Tibetan saboteurs” and the continuous artillery fire which pummeled the wooden city during the attack. The Asiatic Cavalry Division made the Chinese defenders and many of the inhabitants of Urga pay for the brutal winter that they endured in the mountains suffering from exposure, disease, malnutrition, and Baron Ungern and his officers draconian cruelties.

Nearly two thousand or more Chinese infantry were killed in the Second Battle of Urga and perhaps civilian casualties eclipsed double that amount following the later sacking of the city. Though over a thousand Chinese did escape the city unharmed a large number of Beiyang troops were ridden down in the grasslands outside Urga and slaughtered to the last man by vengeful Mongolian and Tibetan riders. By the beginning of February, the city of Urga was under the control of Baron Ungern and the Asiatic Cavalry Division.

After rescuing the Bogd Khan another independent Mongolian Khanate was proclaimed in mid-February 1921 with Baron Ungern honored in ceremony as general of the army, essentially now the head of a new and highly unique “White Mongolian” political apparatus supporting the new regime. Surrendering Chinese troops were given amnesty and some even joined the Asiatic Cavalry Division. Historically speaking there is a fair deal of controversy over how much control Baron Ungern actually had over the Bogd Khan and his government. Numerous primary and secondary sources as well as amateur historians in the modern era have debated and will continue to debate the Baron's overall influence in Mongolia and the Far East from 1919-1921.
Mongolian soldier during the Revolution

Urga became an essential police state following his victory at the Second Battle of Urga. The White Terror had come to the far flung eastern kingdom of Mongolia in the guise of Baron Ungern, who raced around the filthy mud streets of Urga in a Fiat touring car to do random inspections and to mete out severe punishment or death sentences when it pleased him. He hung his own soldiers for looting and had civilians flogged or executed for doing the same according to the author J. Palmer. The Baron personally flogged his own men and many of his own officers were flogged or executed even for minor offenses.

The fear of punishment did not stop his men from killing indiscriminately at times. Ungern's officers often targeted rich foreign citizens and merchants within the city and murdered them in cold blood or by poison. This was a dark time in Urga in which hundreds were publicly executed, murdered, or otherwise greatly harmed or molested by the occupation forces. Ungern’s cossacks and White officer corps targeted and killed any and all Jews in pogromic violence which rivaled that seen in Tsarist Russia throughout 1880-1909, for nearly five months.

Baron Ungern’s Riders in the East: The Asiatic Cavalry Division

Not unlike their many other White Russian counterparts in Russia, the Ukraine and elsewhere, violence was often the only solution and its ends always justified the means for both the White and Red factions during the Russian Civil War. This period of pogroms, warlords, and insurgency came to be known in general as the White Terror. Baron Ungern came to represent the worst of the atrocities committed by the fragmented and desperate White movement from 1919 to 1921. The Asiatic Cavalry Division itself came about when Ungern decided to part ways with Semenov and travel into the backwoods of Siberia and Mongolia, a region he loved and people whose culture he greatly respected.

Dmitri Shmarin's Baron Ungern [in a yellow deel] For Faith, Tsar, and Motherland

After Baron R.M.v. Ungern’s-Sternbergs division’s capture of Urga (the modern day Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar) in January of 1921, he installed the Bogd Khan as the ruler and spiritual leader of an independent Mongolia and thereby reaped the benefits. To some Mongols and Buddhists adherents both Ungern and the Bogd Khan then and today were living reincarnations of Buddhist gods. The Bogd Khan, known as the 8th Bogdo Gegen, the “Living Buddha”, was both the political and spiritual leader of Mongolia and Tibetan Buddhists. He had always lived an indulgent and hedonistic existence, after all, what courtier, royal prince, or commoner could say no to a living god? In 1919 he was blind and dieing slowly of syphilis from his many years of prolific encounters with young men and young women. Believed by many to be a reincarnated living Buddha, the Bogd Khan (Bogd Lama) was the third most important Tibetan Buddhist traditionally behind the Dala Lama and the Panchen Lama.

The Bogd Khan as a young man in the 1880's or early 1890's

In the year 1911, following the Chinese Revolution, he became the Great Khan of an independent Outer Mongolia until the Chinese returned in 1919. Facing the relative might of a large Beiyang Chinese expeditionary army, 4000 strong, the Bogd Khan was forced to accept Chinese occupation of Mongolia yet again for the time being. Ungern’s spiritual aura meant something entirely different in truth and in practice. Devout Buddhists and Mongolian loyalists thought him a holy warrior who was less of god or spiritual deity than a crusader from the west who had come riding a pale horse to the Far East  (more than imagery-his favorite white mare was an old gift from Semenov), to help the Mongolians forge a new fully independent nation; free from the yoke of Chinese or Russian control.

Bogd Khan

The Asian Cavalry Division itself was in many ways a microcosm of the diversity of Mongolia and the Far East during this era of Asian history. Only half of the 2500-3000 strong division were strictly speaking Mongolian, the rest were of Russian or European origin, Japanese, Chinese, Buriat, Tartar, or Tibetan. His most trusted and ruthless officers were the small number of former Tsarist cavalry veterans who had served with him during World War I or during his time as a warlord in Siberia and on the Chinese-Mongolia border. Ungern’s most trusted bodyguards however were the Tibetans and Inner Mongolian ‘Charchar’ cavalry. Of the other major ethnic groups in the Asiatic Cavalry Division, the Tibetans and Charchars were dressed most brightly in bright green, yellow, or red silk coats emblazoned with yellow or red swastikas (for good luck) and other Buddhist religious symbols. The Charchars were fierce fighters as well as excellent horsemen who served as the Baron’s praetorian guardsman of sorts. They hunted ears and heads as souvenirs in battle and were some of the finest scouts in Ungern’s division.

The Bogd Khan's Tibetan Bodyguards c.1920

Most soldiers in the Asiatic Cavalry Division fought with either Japanese or Russian firearms however many of the “native riders” fought with and preferred swords, spears or lances, and pikes. Ungern had the use of artillery and Italian made machine guns purchased by the Bogd Khan’s royal household in 1914-1915 as well.

The Asiatic Cavalry Division’s collapse and the Red Army triumph, 1921-1922

The Bogd’s Khanate of Outer Mongolia did not last long under the vigilant gaze of Bolshevik Russia who eyed any independent republic immediately east or west of the former Russian Empire suspiciously. Whilst the Outer Mongolian Khanate was nominally “White” supported, a “Red” allied government sprang up at the behest of the Mongolian People’s Party which had been founded in the year 1920 by Damdinii Sükhbaatar (b.1893-1923).

Though small in number the Leninist-Bolshevik forces of Sükhbaatar (meaning the Axe Hero in Mongolian) and the other Mongolian revolutionary stalwarts under him grew into an adequate guerrilla movement of 800-1000 armed infantry and cavalry by the time Red Army troops crossed into Mongolia on 3 July 1921 to offer military assistance to the Red provisional government of the Mongolian People's Party. A provisional Bolshevik government had already been established by the Mongolians and the transition of state power was rather easy in the summer of 1921 following the military defeat of Baron Ungern. The Bolsheviks took Urga three days after crossing the border with little resistance offered in the city or elsewhere. 

Baron Ungern in a portrait photograph taken in Urga. His St. George's Cross-which he wore until his death, is hanging on his right breast

The Asiatic Cavalry Division did offer battle and was defeated in a series of engagements in July and early August. In September, the Mongolian People’s Republic declared independence and months later it was formally recognized by Soviet Russia though not by any other nation. By now Ungern was stark raving mad man with visions of a Buddhist apocalypse and a new ride from the east to heart of Russia to smite the wicked Bolsheviks once and for all. He had less than 1000 men and horses and most were tired, sick, or wounded else-wise. Convinced his remaining horsemen could stand and fight (and somehow win) the Baron defeated one officers suggestion that the Asiatic Cavalry Division should flee to China to fight again. Riding shirtless now through the Mongolian countryside he wore Buddhist spiritual talismans and Mongol-Tibetan necklaces of carved bone. Eventually Ungern’s own men, now just a skeleton force of Mongolians and Russians who had once been so fearful of their commanding officer, turned on him and his loyal band of diehards. The conspirators killed Colonel Rezuhin, many had hated him for his sadistic cruelty. They attempted to kill Ungern but they failed and he fled into the night unscathed.

Baron Ungern was eventually captured near Lake Gusinoe in the Transbaikal and met a Bolshevik firing squad on 15 September 1921. His execution had worldwide coverage from Paris and London to New York and Boston. The Bolsheviks had finally defeated one of the most sadistically violent, over-hyped, and yet a highly dangerous and highly effective anti-revolutionary threat of the latter stages of the Russian Civil War. Though Baron Ungern-Sternberg had been a factionalist offshoot himself from the larger Semenovite movement, he became one of the last great White generals who actively attempted to fight the Bolshevism and its spread eastward.

Ungern perhaps days or even hours before his execution in September 1921


The White movement itself was never fully extinguished and of those who managed to escape Bolshevik firing squads, some chose to fight for the Chinese warlord cliques into the 1930’s and later for the Nazi’s during World War II on the Eastern Front. Baron Ungern originally routed the Beiyang Chinese forces stationed in Urga but ruled Mongolia for a little less than a year until the arrival of the Red Army and his subsequent defeat, capture, and execution. In 1924 Soviet occupation of Outer Mongolia turned the emerging nation into a satellite republic, the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR) in June 1924. The Bogd Khan had died of illness and disease months before. The father of the Mongolian Revolution, Damdinii Sükhbaatar, died tragically young in the year 1923 most likely poisoned by political rivals, a common practice in the region during this period. In 1924, Urga was renamed Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Baatar), “Red Hero”, in his honor.

Soviet troops would not withdraw from Mongolia until March of 1925. Japanese influence peaked in Mongolia and Northern China in the late-30’s, as the Japanese Empire openly claimed Outer Mongolia challenging the Russians and the Mongolians in 1935, 1937, and in 1939. The Japanese relinquished their claims following the defeat of the Kwantung Army at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol May-September 1939 during the greater Japanese-Soviet border wars of c.1925-1939.

The Red Hero, Damdinii Sükhbaatar, Revolutionary & Father of the Mongolian Revolution

The emergence of politician and general Khorloogiin Choibalsan (b.1895-1952), a personal favorite of Stalin whom some may refer to as the “Mongolian Stalin” is also critical to this early period of Russo-Mongolia co-operation. Choibalsan became Prime Minister in March 1939, giving the Mongolians a populist-nationalist leader who had the desire to make the Mongolian People’s Republic and its Army (MPRA) a close ally and friend to the Soviets in the Far East. Inner Mongolians however tended to be pro-Japanese because they despised their common enemy the Chinese and the former Qing Empire. Many of the warlord cliques repressed Inner and Outer Mongolian socio-cultural identity and this deeply divided many. A trend echoed today in the sentiments of Mongolians who fear the immense and continuously growing Chinese population within the country.

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Suggested Further Reading
The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer (Faber & Faber, 2008).

The People’s Republic of Mongolia by A. J. K Sanders. (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).

Beasts, Men and Gods by Ferdinand Ossendowski (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1922).