Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Battle of Oulu: A forgotten liberation

Finland declared its independence from the Russian Empire on December 4th 1917, two days (6th) later the Finnish Senate adopted the declaration and thus taking its destiny into its own hands for the first time in its existence.

However like the birth of anything, there was to be pains in its coming. The Social Democrats and other left leaning groups refused to recognise the power of the slight majority held by Conservative and other right leaning groups.Soon both sides came to blows, each one claiming to be acting in defence, tearing the country apart along social, political and class lines. After a brief, 3 month conflict, the war ended with the Conservative and Right side (names the Whites) emerging victorious. But as the old adage says 'In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers.' and Finland saw 1.2% of its population dead as a direct result of the war, its population growth took a -15, 608 nature change dive.

The Civil War saw several major battles between the Forces of the Whites and Reds, as well as numerous minor skirmishes throughout the Finnish landscape. One of these major, but often overlooked and forgotten, battles was for the City of Oulu.

Map of the division at the start of the Finnish Civil War.
Source: Wikipedia
Oulu occupied a strategic location for two reasons. Firstly it was a hub for the railway system (the lines on the map) and so whoever controlled the rails could transport troops and supplies rapidly to the major population centres of Finland. Secondly was that Oulu held a fairly large garrison of Russian troops who were now waiting around for orders. This meant that there was a large amount of military equipment ready to be appropriated for the cause.

As Oulu was a modest industrial city, it held more left leaning supporters than right and with this the local Red Guard  made their presence known. On the 30th January, the Oulun suojeluskunta (Oulu city’s White Civic Guard) went to the local Russian garrison to secure their arms in accordance with Mannerheim's orders to strip the Ostrobothnia are of all military equipment. However when the small contingent  arrived at the barracks they found themselves confronted by members of Oulu's  Workers Red Guard and a gunfight broke out between the two factions. Now the White Guard retreated to the Cathderal area of the City and entrenched themselves there, while also calling for support from nearby Suojeluskunta units. 

The Reds knowing they would soon need to repel an attack gathered as much firearms and munitions from the Russian Garrison and even took on volunteers from the soldiers. Soon the Red Guard ranks swelled from 700 to around a 1,000 and they fortified the area around the Garrison, train station and the fire house. They also laid siege to the defences of the local White Guard.

Upon hearing of the situation, Mannerheim ordered Colonel Alexander von Tunzelman Adlerflug, who had just taken control of the nearby town of Raahe (1st February). Colonel Adlerflug arrived with an advanced party by train and was met by a Workers Council led by Yrjö Henrik Kallinen. Kallinen was a pacifist and suggested that both sides throw their weapons into the Oulu river and go their separate ways but Colonel Adlerflug demanded unconditional surrender and the more militant members of the Red Guard wanted to fight. Mannerheim wanted quick results and so sent another column consisting of 200 men (including some veteran Jaegers, 14 machine guns and its only artillery guns, 2 76.2 mm divisional gun model 1902 captured on the 28th January from the 106th Field Artillery Brigade of Russian Army in Ilmajoki), he also gave command of the Oulu situation to Lieutenant Colonel Johannes (Hannes) Ferdinand Ignatius. 
The original two 76.2mm divisional guns used by Colonel Ignatius during the Battle of Oulu. They are sited at the positions they held that very day.
Source: Personal collection

Negoations broke down on the afternoon of the 2nd February and the Red Guards launched an assault upon the White Guards' position around the Cathedral. The local Russian commander had also given away the majority of his weapons to the Red Guards in exchange for protection. However the Reds could not remove the Whites from their stubborn positions and eventually returned to their positions in the city in the early hours of the 3rd. Colonel Ignatius' column meanwhile arrived and set about deploying his forces for an assault on the city.

Map of the Battle. Source: Own Work

Colonel Ignatius put his two artillery guns in the north, on the beach of the Laanila area of the city, with a direct line of sight of the barracks and the Red Guard positions there. The rest of his men were spread in the North shore of the Oulu river, East overlooking the barracks and train station and the main assault force coming from the south from the direction of the railway. At 0900 the artillery guns rang out with the first shots of the battle (and the first shots by an independent Finnish artillery) marking the start of the retaking of the city. One of the guns though encountered problems after the first shot and so only one canon was able to continue its fire support for the day. The assault from the South spread through the city, some heading to relieve the besieged White Guards, others tackling the positions around the train station and workers' hall. The heavily fortified cemetery and garrison area were assaulted from the East and by 1300 the cemetery and city hall were taken. Fighting still continued around the workers' hall and garrison area but the combined weight of machine gun and artillery fire soon saw the Reds call out for cease fire. At 1510 the surrender of the Red was officially taken and 900 Red Guards surrendered themselves to the victorious Whites. However some Reds and Russians still held on at the barracks and the Raati island maritime station and it wouldn't be until 2300 that all fighting stopped and the 1,100 strong Russian garrison surrendered itself to Finnish custody. 

Picture of 13 year old Onni Kokko. The youngest soldier present at the Battle of Oulu. This picture was taken soon after the disarming of the Liminka garrison. After this Onni went with an advance party to help the Oulu Civic Guard but was taken prisoner soon after arriving. He escaped and linked up with the incoming main force and being assigned as adjutant to Oskar Peltokangas and went out to fight in Tornio, Vilppula and Ruovesi before being morally wounded during the Battle of Tampere and dying of his wounds shortly after. He is the youngest recipient of the Order of the Cross of Liberty.
Source: Wikipedia

The end allowed for the taking account of the losses of the day. The White forces saw 33 killed and 34 wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Ignatius was given a promotion to full colonel for his excellent handling of the situation. The Reds had 26 dead and another 26 wounded. The Russia's also saw a few of their number killed or wounded but numbers vary on how many. 

The ultimate sacrifice. A funeral procession for the White dead.
Source: Pohjois-Pohjanmaan museum

The prisoners soon saw themselves interned at the local prison, the police station and a school house until March when a purpose built Prison camp was constructed. This camp was one of 13 big and 60 smaller prison camps set up at the end of the Civil War to hold Red prisoners and sympathizers until trial. The majority of the White Force went north to help take the town of Tornio from Red Forces, they took their war booty of over 500 rifles and 10 machine guns with them.  The town was liberated February 6th and thus secured the entire railway network in the North of Finland to the White cause. 
Memorial to the Prison camp at Raati Island, Oulu.
Source:Personal collection
The victory parade for the liberation of Oulu held at the seaside market place on February 4th.
Source: Wikipedia 

Today a memorial to the liberation of Oulu stands tall in Mannerheim Park and despite a memorial service held every 3rd Febuary, the battle has seemed to have been forgotten by the majority of citizens of this Nordic city. 

Memorial dedicated to the Liberation of Oulu, called the Statue of Freedom, it was erected in 1920 and sculpted by Into Saxelin.
Source: Wikipedia

Memorial to all the victims of the Finnish Civil with the interned remains of over 20 souls.
Source: Personal collection

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