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Treachery Tovarich!

22 March 2003

by Peter Hunt

If you are not confused you don’t understand the situation”. Whilst this aphorism was true of many wars it was especially suited to the variety of participants and complicated series of alliances and motives that marked the Russian Civil War. This confusion was well demonstrated at the little battle of Vanzhai Junction that took place in the war’s third year, deep in the Ukraine .

The terrain around Vanzhai is marked by light woods and rolling hills and resembles a letter “T”. The main east-west road runs up the leg of the “T” which is then capped by the north-south railway. At the junction stands Vanzhai itself, a collection of hovels and warehouses, and, of course a church. It was the warehouses that brought the war to this quiet spot.


The Whites, backed by Interventionist French forces, had exploited the toil of the masses and brought in all the harvest from the surrounding countryside and stored it in the village prior to selling it to the Polish Interventionist forces. This was a cash-on-delivery transaction. A Polish motorized convoy would proceed up the road, load up in the village and then return. Taking with it the grain and potatoes, which should have seen the peasants of the district through the harsh winter, to convert into vodka to fuel the fleshpots of Warsaw .


Hearing of this theft, Nestor Makhno, (played with great panache by Jeff,) pulled together a loose alliance of Reds, Ukrainian nationalist and his own anarcho-syndicalist bands. His aim was to stop the convoy, or, better still, take Vanzhai and liberate the harvest. In true anarchist style Nestor dismissed any concept of a coordinated attack as a symptom of bourgeois militaristic thinking that should be consigned to the dustbin of history. Consequently the leftists made a series of randomly timed and directed thrusts against the road and the village.


First up was Hetman Ken leading the Ukrainian cavalry. As he entered on the side of the “T’s” leg the battlefield appeared empty. The Hetman favoured a cautious approach but, goaded on by Nestor, he decided to immediately cut the road instead. For a brief moment he stood in triumph on both sides of the road. Then he discovered that the enemy had indeed been slaves to militaristic dogma and had deployed their troops hidden in the many woods and hills near the road. As a result Ken was caught in a crossfire from several woods occupied by Generals Frank and Dick, and the approaching convoy led by Andrzej. Charged in the flank, surrounded and outnumbered, Ken went down fighting, and managed to inflict some losses on the convoy before the inevitable end.


Next Commissar Pityor leading the Red naval brigade and workers moved against the village from the edge of the cap of the “T”. Using high ground to cover his approach he moved cautiously. Thus he was unable to prevent the Polish convoy entering the village but at least Pityor was able to take the hill that dominated the road with no losses. This happy situation did not last long however as the houses opposite him were garrisoned by French Interventionists under Commandant Paul who, with the advantage of cover, training and target practice quickly shot the advancing Reds to pieces.


Whilst this was going on Ken’s more left wing cousin had appeared over the battlefield flying the Makhnovite’s only aeroplane. A quick reconnaissance showed that must of the rightists were still deployed in cover so Ken recovered some family pride by turning his Vickers on the convoy and Frank’s cavalry left in the open.


Finally the leftists seemed to get their act together. Almost simultaneously Commissar Kris and his Reds arrived at the cap of the “T” on the opposite side of the village to Pityor, whilst the Makhovites under Nestor and Phillipe arrived, together and in force, on the leg of the “T”. At the village Kris’s arrival brought forth a withering fire from more Poles hidden in the village itself and the femme fatale Andrilea emerged from the woods to counterattack Kris’s flank. Thus Kris’ attack stalled and he was unable to prevent the convoy loading up. However as the convoy drove out of the village it masked the fire of the French Interventionists. This allowed Pityor’s sailors both to extricate themselves from the killing ground on the hill and to pour a devastating fire into the convoy as they withdrew, knocking out one of the vehicles.


Meanwhile, on the leg of the “T”, Nestor and Phillipe exploited their numerical superiority against Frank’s cavalry. Although in a series of charges and countercharges the White horsemen put up a good show, they could not hold out in long enough for Dick’s infantry to come to their help. Their fate was finally sealed by another strafing attack by aviator Ken. Phillipe even managed to get the returning convoy in the sights of his artillery only to find that Nestor was just as weak at logistics as he was at strategy. Instead of blowing away the convoy’s vehicles one-by-one the Makhnovist gunners could just look on impotently as their ammunition ran out. Even so Nestor was firmly astride the road and the battered convoy looked as if it would not be able to fight its way though his cavalry. Sensing the final victory of the masses he drew his sabre, squared his shoulders, stood up in the stirrups and looked over his shoulder…only to see his men streaming away from the battlefield. The leftists’ cumulative losses in their uncoordinated attacks had been too much for their simple peasant, worker and sailor spirits. They had broken at the possible moment of victory. Sadly Nestor turned and followed his fleeing bands. The cruel war would continue and it would be a hungry winter for the people of Vanzhai.


Kris, ever the opportunist, attempted to change sides, but his timing was poor, having given such a hard time to the Poles defending the village, he was shot out of hand.  There was, of course, the usual session of self-criticism after the battle. Nestor and Ken did the decent thing and ended everything with a single bullet.  Phillipe and Pityor were less noble and fled with whatever they could lay their hands on.  Remarkably they all ended up as waiters in Paris after the war. When they tired of simple pleasures like gobbing in the bisque of their capitalist clientele: “more cream Monsieur?” they would occasionally meet up and, over pyrogi and vodka think back to that autumn day in the Ukraine . . . what if? what if? 


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