Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Good Knight

Twas cold and dark in Finland's dark forests, but it was not empty. The woods were haunted, not by spirits but by human ghosts. Once upon a time the Finns were reputed for deviltry among the superstitious. And so must they have seemed to the Russians as they huddled about their camps in the night, to wake up to see another visit by the "white death" that glided through the endless woods on their skis, unbound by the narrow and sparse roads. For the past few years tyrants had seen little resistance. The Czechs and Austrians had submitted without a blow, as had the Baltic states. The Poles had stood - and died. Now for once was a foe who would not yield and would not be beaten, who defended it's den with the ferocity of a wolf defending it's lair, amid the frozen land. The Russians had come to conquer and had found only death.

Presiding grimly over the catastrophe, as cold as the snow, was Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. Finland and Mannerheim seemed ill matched for each other. Finland was one of the most democratic countries in the world. Democratic not just legally, but in customs and manner of life. Thanks to for original artwork.

Whatever Mannerheim was, he was not "Democratic". He had in his room a portrait of Czar Nicholas. He was familiar with the High Life of Europe and knew everyone "worth knowing". He had a dignified posture and a elaborate sense of old-world manners - one which could be turned into a weapon if he met someone he disliked. Mannerheim could have played as Captain von Trapp and done it better then Christopher Plummer; except that he would have been to snobby to be in a movie.

But in one way Mannerheim was perfect for Finland. Finland was a man's country inhabited by hardy folk scratching out their living in the cold wilderness and the fearsome Baltic. And Mannerheim was a man in a different way. He was an explorer, a soldier, a big-game hunter. At his house were displayed trophies and mementos from his many adventures. If the Finnish people were masculine in a plebeian way, Mannerheim was masculine in a patrician way. The Finns were men and Mannerheim was a man to lead men.

Mannerheim was born to a well-to-do family in the nineteenth century. As a boy he went to a Finnish military academy. However he soon got into a childish scrape and was expelled. Of course in the Czar's state patronage covered a multitude of sins, and Mannerheim managed to get a commission in the Russian army. Finland never had so profitable an expulsion of an unruly cadet.

Mannerheim spent many a year in the Czar's service. He distinguished himself in the Russo-Japanese war and in World War I. He also traveled through Central Asia in a "scientific expedition" to gather information for the Czar (British preferred to go on "hunting trips").

However, The Revolution came and Mannerheim, like many servants of the old regime was caught out. He managed to sneak back into Finland just in time. The Revolution, flushed by victory was spreading. However the Red Army was not yet the dreadful thing it was to become. To date it had only faced Russians, but it pressed westwards. One part entered newly independent Poland - and got soundly smacked. Another part threatened newly independent Finland in alliance with disgruntled members of the population. However the new government had a fine set of officers to choose from. Besides Mannerheim there were several who had been in the German service.

In a short war, the Russians were thrown back and the rebels were suppressed. However as is common in civil wars, there were mutual atrocities and Mannerheim was blamed for some of them (actually his only crimes were at most of omission - some captured rebels were treated dreadfully and it has been contended that he could have saved them had he pressed the issue. But that is a rather nebulous accusation).

After the war Finland got to work reorganizing itself. Most of the grievances that had brought on the rebellion managed to be appeased, and by the time of the Winter War, Finland was more or less united.

In the meantime Mannerheim devoted himself to this and that. He couldn't understand democracy and was a confirmed monarchist. However he was also a loyal Finn and accepted the status quo, and more or less dropped out of politics. He spent his time with philanthropy and with talking to the greats of the world - while the shadow started to grow. He also began the preparation of the Finnish army for the oncoming storm. He was never satisfied - soldiers never think they have enough and statesman often begrudge what is spent on the service in peacetime.

As it turned out it was good enough. For Finland was not country for tech. It was country for stout hearts and wilderness savvy. And the Finnish army had both in full. After the conquest of Poland the Russians demanded Finnish territory,"to protect the security of Leningrad" (presumably from the Germans-their "ally" at the time - as there was no one else who could have threatened them). The Finns refused, and the Russians were not used to refusals. Thus began Finland's finest hour.

Mannerheim had actually desired to appease the Russians and even offered to resign over it. When the invasion came there was no more talk of resignation.

The invasion came through roughly two routes. In the north there was a maze of lakes and few decent roads. The Russians, unaccustomed to the country, were limited to the roads and stretched in long winding, columns - like toothpaste going through a tube. The Finns could chop each column up into small isolated sections ("mottis" - Finnish lumberman's slang for wood chips). In point of fact many Finnish officers thought mottis were a nuisance for they were hard to reduce. However that was an obvious result of slicing up the Russian columns (just as stepping on wood chips is an obvious danger at a sawmill). Eventually the Russians were brought to a halt.

In the south it was like World War I. There was a narrow plain into which large numbers of Russians were jammed - again and again. Whether or not Finns once had a talent for deviltry (odd thought considering that they were unusually pious at the time-and yes that makes one wonder if that explains how they did so well) they certainly showed the cunning of wizards. Every hut was booby-trapped. Lakes that were supposedly safely frozen had mines to crack the ice when tanks or trucks were crossing. And the Finns made the Russians pay a terrible price. But at last numbers told and the Russians forced the Finns to cede large areas of territory - but not enough to save the Russians reputation. Or as one Russian officer said, "We have won just enough ground to bury our dead."

Through the next few months the Russians continued to demand more and more. At last the Finns began to make a "bargain with the devil", and started negotiating with the Germans (to be fair, we were bargaining with the "other devil" in those days). No one knows exactly what happened next. The Finns say it was the Russians fault (but they would, wouldn't they?). The Russians say it was the Finn's fault (but they certainly would, wouldn't they?). But the result was when the German invasion came the Finns were beside them.

Mannerheim was naturally commanding. Finland's campaign went off neatly. Then he ordered the Finns to stop to make it clear that they had no ambitions of conquest - leaving Leningrad in the Russian's hands. I actually wonder if he should have gone on - one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb and Leningrad would have been a useful bargaining chip. But historians generally give Finland their sympathy because Finland did stop-for whatever the sympathy of historians is worth.

As the war went on Russia's power grew. At just the right time Finland made peace. Then they had to intern or expel the German troops in Finland - in effect fight a third war. Then they had peace of a sort. But while the Russians did have an untoward influence on Finnish affairs, Finland was never really "Finlandized" despite diplomatic slang. If it was war-weary and scarred Finland survived and remained free, which was more than many of the smaller nations had done. And much of the credit belongs to Mannerheim.

Mannerheim was not a spectacular commander. The great feats done by Finnish arms were really more to the credit of his underlings. What he provided was a wise and shrewd guiding hand. He was not Finland's quarterback. Rather he was Finland's coach. He was an old-fashioned aristocrat in a world where aristocrats were dying away. But Mannerheim served well, guarding his country as a good knight should.

- Sir Jason


  1. The best description of Mannerheim was from, "A Frozen Hell" by William Trotter.
    Mannerheim is actually more interesting as a person then as a general. He did not actually plan any spectacular manuvers for the Finnish Army-though some of his underlings did. He was however a highly interesting person and had an air that could intimidate even Hitler.
    There were actually a number of people like Mannerheim in those days. One of the most fascinating things about the time was the curious interaction of the old with the new. This is brought out in the spy history "Istanbul Intrigues", and in the Alan Furst spy novels(which are mildly entertaining but hurt by their dreary style).
    There were a number of exiles around the world in those days. White Russians often settled down in Paris, and some became mercenaries or spies. In Mannerheim's case, he had a home to return to.
    Little nations like Finland, tended to have a more complicated war then America. They were often caught between the Russians and the Germans and few managed to survive.
    For other examples, the Yishuv was an ally of the British before and during the war, and an enemy afterwards. Poland was of course an ally and a most useful one-and was conquered by the Russians for it's pains. Romania managed to fight on both sides-but unlike Finland didn't get away with it. Switzerland was perhaps the luckiest. The closest they got to war was when they had to forcefully intern overflying belligerants(ironically in the process they sometimes used Messerchimets to shoot down German planes).

    Sir Jason

  2. Interesting commentary on a great man.

    Sir John

  3. It is said that whenever someone commented on the portrait of Czar Nicholas, Mannerheim would say, "he was my emperor."

    Sir Jason