Red & White Suomi: Finnish Civl Wars & Kinship Conflicts, 1918-1922

Finland’s Civil War (Suomen sisällissota) was one of the first major conflicts connected with the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War that was fought throughout the former Empire of Russia which began in October of 1917. Before and immediately after declaring independence from the Russian Empire on 6 December 1917, Finland (Suomi) had first flirted with an independent monarchy when the German Prince Charles Frederick of Hesse was elected King of Finland before the collapse of the German Empire in October 1917. A republican government was established instead of monarchy by the politician and lawyer Pehr Evind Svinhufvud. Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg (b.1865-1952) became the first president of an independent Finnish Republic in the year 1919. There was mass opposition to the early post-independence government led by the “socialists” and the numerous Bolshevik-Communist supporters in Finland, mainly the Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue, the Finnish Communist Party (SDP) and its armed supporters, the Red Guard.

Red Guard during the Finnish Civil War

The Red & The White: Civil War Begins

Strikes were organized by socialists and true “Red” Bolshevik supporters throughout 1917-1918 and eventually small but violent clashes broke out between the Civil Guard known also as the “White” Guard and the Red Guards and their working class allies. The political and very early street struggles only added to brew of civil strife and anarchy fermenting within Finland’s cities, towns, and countryside.

The cities and southern regions of Finland were controlled by the Red Guard forces numbering between 95-150,000. The countryside and the northern regions of Finland were controlled by the White Guards and their upper and middle class supporters, numbering 70,000-90,000 armed men and women. The White Guard had the support of the German’s politically and militarily whilst the Red Guard and the SDP had the support of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

White Volunteers during the Finnish Civil War

White Guard (Swedish-German aristocratic) army and officer corps were led by General Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (b.1867-1951), a Swedish speaking cavalry veteran of the Tsar’s army. Destined to become the single greatest Baltic statesman and military mind of his age, Mannerheim was the military councilman and top general of the vulnerable Finnish Republic following the outbreak civil war in January 1918. He became marshal, commander-in-chief, and later the 6th President of Finland serving from 1944-1946.

Militarily speaking the White Guards officers corps of the Suojeluskuntas, the Finnish Civil Guard, were comprised of many commissioned officers and nco’s who were veterans of 27th German Jäger battalion. It was this core of highly trained and motivated officers and soldiers which helped the Whites attain a victory in Finland’s bloody civil war. Women served on both sides in the conflict including in combat roles though General Baron Mannerheim deeply discouraged their participation as armed members of the White Guard. Children as young as thirteen or fourteen fought and mandatory conscription of all male adults by the legal government ensured that most of the population was mobilized by the time the nearly five month conflict came
to an end.

General Mannerheim saluting White Guardsmen at the front, 1918

The White Guard’s enemies were the Finnish-Bolshevik “Red” Military Committee. Originally they had the support of 30,000-40,000 Russian soldier’s who supplied them with weapons, rudimentary training, and revolutionary advisement. These Russian soldiers left Finnish territory however following the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 and had little effect on the outcome of the Civil War. The Red Guards themselves were a diverse force of laborers, working class city dwellers, intelligentsia, and non-land owning men and women who were non-skilled workers. Most of the Red Guard’s were disorganized poorly led (or not led at all) and shoddily armed as well. Several hundred were definitely die-hard veterans of the 1905 Revolutions group the “Protection Guards of Workers” who had Bolshevik leanings.

Red Guards, 1918

The War for Finland

The frontline of Finland’s Civil War were established by General Mannerheim’s White Guard’s near the major towns Ahlainen-Vilppula-Mäntyharju-Antrea-Rautu in the north. The Red Guard’s and their Communist allies held the south throughout most of the conflict and nearly all of the roads and major railways as well. Red Guard’s controlled the major cities including the capital Helsinki, whilst Tampere and Viipuri were notable military garrisons as well.

Unquestionably the greatest lasting cultural legacy of the Finnish Civil War were the “Red and White Terror” which punctuated this bitter struggle for the soul of the country. Tens of thousands of Finns were killed, wounded, displaced, or detained throughout the brief but bloody war as White Guard units rounded up suspected Bolshevik sympathizers. In occupied Red Guard territory purges were initiated and monarchists and/or loyalists were persecuted and in some cases executed. As in many civil wars reprisals were harsh and vengeance a common theme in extra-judicial politically motivated killings.

Victims of civil War, Tampere, 1918

Over 7,500 Red Guards were later executed whilst 11,000 more would die in prison camps of ill treatment, communicable disease, and hunger/malnutrition, the three major killers in any the hellish prison or concentration camp environment from the Revolutionary War in 1776 to after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The most notable battles of the civil war were fought at Oulon, Lahti, and Kuru.

At the Battle of Tampere, a siege fought from March to April 6, 1918, the Red Guard was broken in the largest battle of the war in Baltic and in one of the largest sieges fought during the Russian Civil War. Tampere had been held by 14,000-15,000 Red Guard’s and Red militia before the city's capture by Mannerheim’s Civil Guard and White Volunteers. Between 11,000-12,000 Red guardsmen were taken prisoner following the end of the Battle of Tampere.

Red Guard POW's, Tampere, May 1918

Artillery shells pounded the city for a month and it was only taken after brutal hand to hand fighting in the streets and buildings of the destroyed city. German involvement in the war was decisive and well timed when the Baltic Sea Division (Ostsee-Division) of Major General Rüdiger von der Goltz landed near Tampere on 3 April helping the Finnish Civil Guard to later capture the city. Four days later heavily armed German legions landed at Hanko and Loviisa, promptly attacking Helsinki and expelling the Red’s leadership from the country entirely. The Germans inflicted 300 Red KIA's and captured some 8000 men in arms following the capture of Helsinski on 14 April 1918. On 29 April Vippuri (modern Vyborg, Russia) was taken by Mannerheim ending the White offensive campaign south.

German soldiers in Helsinki, 1918

Scattered fighting continued in very small pockets until late May but Mannerheim’s triumphant ride into the city of Helsinski on 16 May 1918 is often seen as the end of this bloody and bitter four month civil conflict. Tens of thousands of Red Guard veterans were detained charged with various revolutionary and treasonous offences and then executed privately or en masse. The “White Terror” in Finland as it came to be known was brutal and is still very controversial to this day. Particularly intriguing is General Mannerheim’s own complicity in the summary executions and mass executions of thousands of Finns by their own countrymen as POW’s and state prisoners.

Mannerheim in a 1918 victory parade

The Kinship Wars, 1918-1922

Finland’s Civil War was not just a conflict fought within conventional Finnish borders. A wave of nationalism and anti-Communist feeling had led to a series of wars, interventions, and expeditions launched against White Finland’s enemies from 1918-1922. These expeditions had begun before the Civil War when Finnish Major General Kurt Wallenius (b.1893-1984) led the first White expeditionary campaign to oust Red Finns from the border reaches of Karelia. 

No less than seven major Finnish Karelian expeditions, mostly small military or paramilitary volunteer “operations” would be launched before 1921-1922. None were successful as the majority of Karelians were indifferent to fighting for a violent separation from Russia. Besides the Estonian theatre, Finnish expeditions reached as far as Ingria across the Gulf of Finland near St. Petersburg. In one of the expeditions in 1918, two battalions of civilian volunteers, about 200 armed men, led by two doctors, the so called “Dragoons of Lapland” invaded Petsamo but were repelled by Royal Navy Marines from the HMS Cochrane. Another expedition was launched on Petsamo in 1920 as well. 

Map of the Heimosodat or Kinship Wars, 1918-1922

One of the largest and most ambitious of these expeditionary campaigns was the Aunus Expedition in 1919. 3000 Finnish soldiers spurned on by the patriotic “order of the day” from General Mannerheim crossed the border into Karelia attempting to annex the Olonets Karelia region, a former Russian Imperial governorate. Tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers responded and the Finns were forced back across the border in a couple of days after triumphantly marching on the Karelian border.

Thousands of Finnish professional and volunteer soldiers would fight in Estonia alongside Swedish and Danish volunteers during the Estonian War of Independence against the Red Army and its allies in the northeastern Baltic (during the Red Armies’ Western Offensive) between November 1918-February 1920. The Pohjan Pojat, “Boys of the North”, and the First Finnish Volunteer Corps were the leading Finnish expeditionary formations who saw action Estonia during the war in Estonia. 

East Karelian Forest Guerrillas, 1921-1922

Not to be outdone by the Estonian volunteers many other Finnish volunteer legions would fight the Bolsheviks from Murmansk in Northern Russia (as allies of the British) to Karelia in the south and north in the Russo-Finnish disputed territory of “White” Karelia. This greater period of conflict is referred to in Finland as the Heimosodat, the “Tribal Wars”, known as the “Kinship Wars” or “Kindred Nations Wars”. The last major conflict between the Russians and Finns during the Kinship Wars of the inter-war era would take place during the East Karelian Uprising of 1921-1922.

Many of the Eastern Karelians were deeply unsatisfied with rule under the Bolsheviks following the Treaty of Tartu which acknowledged Soviet control over a moderately autonomous Karelia. This treaty all but ended the “First Finnish-Soviet War”. Petsamo was given to the Soviet’s and Repola and Porajärv in the southern Karelia were given to Finland as a result of the broader peace between the Soviet Union and the now independent republics of Finland and Estonia. Thousands later rose in rebellion however as they were unhappy with the British and Soviet promises that were not met by the treaty. Known as the Forest Guerrillas these 2500 lightly armed Karelian rebels fought a bitter but unsuccessful guerrilla campaign in the snow and ice of northeastern Karelia with the aid of 500 Finnish volunteers.

East Karelian Forest Guerrilla fighting alongside Finnish volunteer, 1921


Finland’s Civil War left an indelible mark on the young nation's psyche especially for such a small country. 35,000 Finns would perish in the civil war and the Kinship Wars, around 1 percent of the total population of the country at that time. Less than half of this number would be killed in engagements with the enemy, many more would perish in executions, persecutions, disease, or by famine throughout the conflict.

An independent Finland would remain a divided society long after the painful memories of the civil war had faded. Communist constituents gained seats in the republican government for many years thereafter and enjoyed a large and loyal following amongst the industrial workers and laborers of Finland until well into the 1980’s. White Guard and Jäger veterans of the civil war and the Heimosodat dominated army leadership until the 1960’s and their White political representatives would dominate Finland's upper echelon of politics for many years after. The last White Guard President of Finland was Urho K. Kekkonen (1900-1986) who served as the 8th president of the republic from 1956-1982.

Map of the Finnish Civil War-Gold Arrows represent Swedish military aid to Finland, Black Arrows represent German aid, and White represents Finnish aid in the Baltic

Finland would fight two separate wars against the Soviet Union first in 1939 and then again in 1941-1944 as a nominal ally of Nazi Germany in the context of the Eastern Front; even most Finn’s who had voted communist in previous years elections fought like mad men to defend Finland from the Red Army and total Soviet Russian control.

Suggested Further Readings

The German Freikorps 1918-23
By: Carlos C. Jurado & Ramiro Bujeiro (Osprey, 2001-2008)

A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War 1939-40
By: William R. Trotter (Algonquin Books, 1991)


  1. You might also want to read this post on the Estonian War of Independence (part of the Heimosodat) - http://www.alternativefinland.com/finnish-volunteers-in-the-estonian-war-of-independance/

  2. With all due respect for the author, but where did you get that photo with caption "Finnish soldiers of the Aunus Expedition on the assault, 1919"? Seems more to me like French grenadiers from Western Front in WW I than Finnish volunteers in Russian karelia :(

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