Mar 6, 2017

PhD blog 3/17: How the Finnish cadre army works

There seems to be endemic confusion in English-language discussions about how the Finnish cadre army system works, and indeed about cadre systems in general. Because I'm working on a PhD dissertation on the Finnish army, I thought I'd take a moment to try to explain.

The British and US armies have for quite a while now been made up of the regular army, which is supplemented by reservists and the National Guard or Territorial Army respectively. To understand the Finnish system, Anglo-American readers need to completely exorcize these concepts from their minds. These institutions do not have Finnish equivalents. William R. Trotter's generally pedestrian A Frozen Hell commits its worst howlers precisely by imagining that the Finnish army mirrors the US in these respects.

In the Anglo-American sense of a permanent body of professional soldiers at more or less combat strength, there's never been such a thing as a Finnish regular army. Various bodies of regular troops existed along the tenure army system while present-day Finland was part of Sweden, and after Sweden lost those provinces to Russia, a single Guards battalion - the Finnish Guard - and some auxiliary units were maintained in Finland as part of the imperial military. These were disbanded at the start of the 20th century, and Finland became independent in 1917 without an established military. The civil war of 1918 was essentially fought by armed civilians, more or less organized into civil guards and Red guards respectively, and bolstered on both sides by some ex-imperial army veterans and on the White side by the Finnish Jäger battalion that had fought on the German eastern front, and eventually also direct German intervention.

After the war, the Jäger and ex-czarist officers set out to create the Finnish army. Initially the army was conceived of as a quasicolonial auxiliary to the Imperial German army, much as Finland was intended to become a German vassal state with a German king as head of state. The collapse of the German empire left Finland more independent than the victors of the civil war had intended, and the army retained its German-derived structure into the thirties.

There was widespread agreement in the political class of the newly-founded state that national defense would be based on assigned male conscription, but the precise form this would take was debated. The agrarian party favored a Swiss-style militia system of decentralized local defence forces, while the Right pressed for a centralized national army. The Right eventually prevailed, and a centralized army was established.

From the beginning, this army was, in peacetime, a training establishment only. All of the formations you can see on a map of Finnish army forces, then or today, are conscript training organizations, not standing forces. There's no Jäger regiment in Santahamina right now, for instance; in fact, as far as I know, Jäger regiments don't exist in the Finnish wartime army at all. When the wartime army mobilizes, the Guards Jäger Regiment in Santahamina isn't brought up to wartime strength and deployed, but on the contrary ceases to exist, and its staff and the conscripts it has trained are mobilized to form a variety of wartime units. The structure of the Finish wartime army, in other words, is not the peacetime army plus reservists, but a completely different organization trained by the peacetime training establishment. The peacetime army is not analogous to the US or UK regular army. Conscripts would serve in a formation and be assigned a wartime placement, usually in a unit that would be created on mobilization.

Prior to and during the Second World War, the Civil Guard existed as an organization nominally subordinate to the army, but actually fairly independent, especially politically. Although the Civil Guard maintained its own formations in peacetime, these were made up of army reservists, whose continued training was the chief military responsibility of the Civil Guard organization. In wartime, these reservists were mobilized into the wartime army like everyone else. In other words, the Civil Guard was never an organization parallel to the military like the US National Guard or the UK Territorial Army, but was always made up of army reservists. Trotter, bizarrely, never seems to have understood this, and imagines that the Civil Guards were some kind of auxiliary militia, contrasting them unfavorably to the so-called regular army. In fact, the members of the Civil Guard were the best-trained soldiers in the entire army!

In the Second World War, the Finnish army mobilized in stages. First, the conscripts then in service and the border guards formed the first echelon (suojajoukot, covering force), which deployed to the border to cover the mobilization of the rest of the army. Should the enemy attack before mobilization was complete, the covering forces would delay and attrit the enemy while the main body of the army deployed behind them. Finnish doctrine of the time held that they would immediately go on the offensive and rout the invading enemy. That didn't quite work out, but it was how they thought. Behind the main force, the remaining training establishments and those Civil Guards not mobilized to the front formed the Home Forces, responsible for rear-area security and the ongoing training of new conscripts.

To sum up, in pre-World War II Finland, there was no regular army or separate Civil Guard militia. Rather, there was a peacetime training establishment made up of professional officers and NCOs, who trained the reservists who would make up the wartime army. Upon mobilization, this training establishment broke up to form the higher commissioned and non-commissioned ranks of the wartime army. Meanwhile, although the Civil Guard had its own merry quasifascist existence in peacetime, its primary military task was keeping its members trained for their wartime duties, and upon mobilization the civil guardsmen joined the same wartime army as everyone else.

The Civil Guard was outlawed as a fascist organization after Finland lost the so-called Continuation War, and voluntary defence has remained in a strange limbo ever since, but other than that, the Finnish army still works essentially similarly. Upon completing their conscript service, reservists are either assigned a wartime posting or passed into the general reserve; on mobilization, assigned reservists and active members of the peacetime military would form wartime units. These days there are some full-time professional soldiers in the Finnish army, but we still don't have a regular army in the sense that the US or UK do. Finnish peacekeepers deployed abroad are volunteer reservists and professionals, not active service troops.

As far as I know, this is more or less how most other European conscript cadre armies worked as well, but you'd have to consult an expert on them. As for the Finnish army, I'd recommend avoiding Trotter's Frozen Hell, unless you're especially keen on a vulgarly nationalist storybook version of the Winter War that thoroughly misunderstands the structure and functioning of the Finnish army. In general, this is what feminist scholars mean when they say that knowledge is situated: the Finnish army works the way the Finnish army works, which may or may not be how, say, the US Army works. Don't assume, find out.


Leon said...

That's really interested. However doesn't that mean the men don't have a permanent unit that they can establish some esprit de corps (e.g. the British regiment system)? On deployment wouldn't each soldier just be lumped with other strangers in a formation that neither has any connection to?

Also, what's a good English source for the Winter War(s)? Something to put on my (eventual) reading list.

Michael Halila said...

Effectively yes, which was a problem. Later on the Finnish army started building wartime units so that people who served together would also fight together. Wartime units were supposed to train together in peacetime, but before the war there was never any money for it. It wasn't exactly total strangers without any connections, though; units were usually recruited from a given area, so at least they'd share a local identity. Although sometimes they wouldn't have even that. The most famous and widely read Finnish war novel, basee on the author's own experiences, is the story of a machine gun company made up of people from all over the country.

I actually don't know if there are any good English-language books on the Winter War, unfortunately.

Leon said...

Ok, this comment is for your Team Yankee post - which isn't showing up on your site but is showing up via Feedly. Weird. You can just delete this post after you get it.

There are a bunch of miniatures for more 'popular' games like Flames of War and especially Warhammer that are stupidly overpriced. I took a look at Team Yankee stuff and it's ridiculous, the online store is charging $15 for plastic tanks ($72 USD for a 5 T-55s). Heck, you may be able to buy 1/72 models off of e-bay for less.

I'd recommend going with micro-scale mins like GHQ - they're consistently high quality and don't seem to have that popularity markup. They're flogging a T-55 platoon for $12 USD at 1/285 scale. That's around half the size/scale of 15mm and close to 6mm in scale. Having painted up 6mm Romans, you can paint up infantry that aren't just blobs of pewter/lead (but obviously you're not getting a lot of detail). I prefer 6mm (or 1/285) is it allows much larger scales to be played while maintaining a more realistic density (and not dozens of models crowded into a ridiculously small space). You'll just need to do some range conversions and be good to go.

Michael Halila said...

Alas, I tried to schedule it for later and typoed the date. It'll show up properly on the blog when it's meant to.

You're completely right about the prices, though, and I don't even think I'd need ebay; my local modeling stores have 1/72 tanks for less than what those guys charge. Thanks for the idea, though! I used to play Space Marine so I've actually done my first miniature painting ever on 6mm figures. Also, Zvezda quite shamelessly sells plastic tanks in 1/100 for a pittance compared to Flames of War minis, so I picked up a couple of those. They're going for €3.90 a piece... They also do some modern stuff but I've not yet seen them in stores here.