August 1914:
Finland Rifle Brigades

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
September 2020

After the Russian First and Second Armies invaded East Prussia, Russian war plans called for the new Tenth Army to join them. This force would be built around infantry corps deployed from the farther reaches of the Russian Empire: Turkestan, Siberia and Finland.

The XXII “Finland” Corps was the smallest of the Imperial Army’s 37 peacetime corps, numbering 24 infantry battalions in three rifle brigades (1st, 2nd and 3rd Finland) rather than the usual 32 battalions in two infantry divisions. It also included the Finland Dragoon Regiment, a half-regiment of Cossacks, a howitzer battalion and a sapper battalion.

What it did not include was any Finns. Recruits and reservists came from elsewhere in the St. Petersburg Military District, mostly from the capital itself. Conscription in Finland had been abolished in 1901, with the Grand Duchy of Finland’s Diet undertaking to take on extra taxes instead, the so-called “military millions.” Perhaps 1,000 Finns volunteered for service with the Imperial Army during the course of the Great War, about half of them medical personnel. About twice as many Finns fought for the Germans against the Russian Empire as fought for it.

Finnish soldiers on field training exercises, 1901.

The Russian Empire took the Grand Duchy of Finland from Sweden in 1809. During the conquest, the Russians pledged to respect Finland’s autonomy, and Finland retained many of its own institutions and remained free of conscription. During the 1860’s Tsar Alexander II instituted a number of reforms aimed at strengthening the Finnish majority at the expense of the Swedish elite. Those included a separate Finnish currency and Finnish army.

Alexander’s Minister of War, D.A. Miliutin, deeply objected to the concept of a separate Finnish army. At the most, he told the Tsar, Finns could have their own locally-recruited regiments under the same terms as those raised in any other non-Russian provinces: the units which would also include Russians, they would be liable for service anywhere in the Empire, and they would use Russian as their language of command.

That opposition delayed created of the Finnish Army by more than a decade. Nine battalions of part-time soldier-farmers formed during the Crimean War were disbanded in 1867, pending their replacement by the new army, but the Imperial order establishing the new force was not issued until 1871. Alexander did not approve the new Finnish Military Service Law until December 1878, and it came into force on 1 January 1881.

The Finnish 1st Uusimaa Rifle Battalion, 1901.

The new army would be comprised of full-time soldiers raised by conscription, and include eight rifle battalions, one Guards rifle battalion carried over from the old establishment, and one dragoon regiment. It had no other services: no engineers, no artillery, and few non-combatant elements outside of the small headquarters staff. All of the officers would be Finnish and all of the costs borne by Finland. The Finnish Army’s commander throughout its existence, Baron Georg Ramsay, was a career officer of Scottish descent who had been born in Finland and commanded a Guards regiment during the Russo-Turkish War.

The eight rifle battalions would each be stationed in one of the eight provincial capitals and recruited from the province. The Guards battalion and dragoon regiment would draw recruits from all over the Grand Duchy, with the Guards battalion attached to the Guards Corps but stationed in Helsinki. The Russian garrison in Finland remained unchanged at one division plus supporting units, and fortress garrisons in Vyborg and Sveaborg.

All told, the Finnish Army had about 5,600 men, with an equal number of reservists on paper but fewer in reality. In a compromise, the Finnish Army used Russian-language command words, but Finnish or Swedish would be used for instruction. Officers and NCOs were initially not required to be fluent in Russian, only to understand the command words; that changed in 1886 and young officers were required to spend three years attached to a Russian regiment and display their fluency in the language.

The Finnish Diet assured that their troops were better paid, fed, armed, clothed and housed than their Russian counterparts. The Finns wore a uniform similar to the green of Russian rifle battalions, but with white trousers. Their barracks were newly-built brick structures, but they were among the last Russian units to receive the new Moisin-Nagant Model 1891 bolt-action rifle that armed Russian infantry during the First World War. Other than their uniforms, which were made in Finland, all other gear, weapons and ammunition came from Russian producers.

The Finnish 3rd Vaasa Rifle Battalion, 1901.

Finnish conscripts served for three years, followed by two in the reserves, compared to six years of active duty and nine more in the reserves for the rest of the Empire. That caused a great deal of resentment, as did the much lower intake of recruits: about 10 percent of eligible young men were called to the colors each year, compared to 27 percent in the rest of the Russian Empire. A liberal policy of deferments and shortened service for educated men made it difficult to train and retain Finnish officer candidates and NCO’s.

The Imperial Russian Army held its maneuvers during the summer, and the Finnish Army copied that practice. In 1883 the governor-general of Finland issued orders encouraging soldiers to take up skiing as a leisure activity to promote fitness, but this Finnish Army did not embrace skis as did the Finns of the next century. One of the rifle battalions developed its own doctrine for the tactical use of ski mobility, but this was not embraced throughout the Finnish forces and not at all in Russian regiments. During those summer maneuvers, which some battalions conducted alongside Russian units, the Finns earned a reputation for outstanding marksmanship, and for hard drinking.

War Minister Pyotr Vannovsky, who took office in 1891, saw the separate Finnish military as a challenge to the Empire’s unity. Along with other Pan-Slavs, he advocated for Russification of Finland with the army serving as the school of the nation. As a first step, he transferred eight new Russian rifle battalions to Finland to be garrisoned alongside the Finnish units. The new battalions, making up the 1st Finland Rifle Brigade, had previously been reserve infantry battalions and drew all of their recruits from Russian provinces.

Pannovsky’s efforts went into higher gear in 1898 with the appointment of Nikolai Bobriukov as governor-general of Finland. Bobriukov, a staunch Russian nationalist, wanted to make Finland an integral part of the Empire and assimilate the Finns to Russian language and culture. Russian would be the official language of the state, the powers of the Finnish Senate would be curtailed, and the separate Finnish Army abolished with general conscription enacted in Finland.

The eight rifle battalions were disbanded in 1901 under the new Finnish Military Service Law. To balance their loss, the War Ministry formed the 2nd Finland Rifle Brigade of eight battalions, also manned solely by Russians. Bobriukov had intended to retain the cavalry regiment (right), but abolished it as well when its officers protested the law. The Guards battalion would be retained, and the initial conscription numbers were very low, just enough for the Guards battalion. Even then, 42 percent of those called refused to report. Following Finnish strikes and protests during the 1905 Revolution, the Finnish Guards Rifle Battalion was disbanded in November 1905.

The Finnish Senate tried to reason with Bobriukov, offering to double the size of the Finnish Army to 12,000 men and relax restrictions on deployment outside Finland. Bobriukov haughtily refused, and in June 1904 a Senate clerk shot Bobriukov three times in the building’s lobby before shooting himself twice. All three shots bounced off the ridiculous number of medals with which Bobriukov coated his chest, but one of the bullets ricocheted into his stomach and he died in agony hours later.

With Bobriukov out of the way and the Finns now utterly opposed to military service, the Tsar’s government accepted a compromise in which the Military Service Law was withdrawn and the Finnish Senate paid an additional tax in place of the lost manpower.

The three “Finland” rifle brigades (“Finlyandskaya Strelkovaya Brigada”) - very deliberately not styled “Finnish” brigades - were an echo of the old arrangements, when Russian battalions were raised to match the eight Finnish ones. But the Finnish battalions had been gone for years by the time of the Great War, and soon enough the Finland battalions followed them.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published eleventy-million books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.