Monday, May 21, 2018

The Finnish Army of the Grand Duchy of Finland - An impressive but incomplete force

Between 1809 to 1917 Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, entitled the Grand Duchy of Finland. This time saw Finland transform and grow, and while it wasn’t entirely stable, nor beneficial, it certainly helped improve the Finns into a more independent and proud people.


When Finland was ceded to Russia from Sweden with the Treaty of Fredrikshamn (also called the Treaty of Hamina), the Finnish raised regiments of the Swedish Army (12 infantry regiments, 2 infantry battalions , 2 dragoon regiments and 1 artillery regiment, plus depot and engineer staff) were theoretically adopted by the Russian Empire but a declaration on 27th March 1810 made it an army without soldiers.

The Finnish raised units of the Swedish Army fell into either one of two catergories; a Tenure (or allotted) Regiment or Enlisted Regiment. A Tenure Regiment was one that was a part time force, in which the soldiers, outside of training, were mainly tending to the crofts provided to them by local farmers. An Enlisted Regiment was a full time garrison or semi-continuous force made up of volunteers, these were normally garrisoned in towns and cities rather than supporting themselves upon crofts of the countryside. The original purpose was that the tenure regiments would be brought together and used to support the enlisted army in times of war but the reality was that both units would be used in whatever way the commander they fell under wished.

The famous painting, Porilaisten marssi (March of the men from Pori), by Albert Edelfelt in 1892. It depicts the Finnish raised Pori Regiment as it marches to war in 1808-09. Source: Wikimedia

Despite some people referring to these regiments as a ‘Finnish Army’, they were not independent and appeared in Swedish army lists without separation based upon whether they were from Sweden or Finland. Indeed, the Finnish units had many an officer from Sweden (for example the Finnish Guards Regiment had 80-85% of its Officers cadre from Sweden), not only this but a lot of the resources to keep the Regiments going came from Sweden.

The Finnish Armies of the Grand Duchy of Finland

The history of the Army of the Grand Duchy of Finland can be broken down into three separate periods. These are, 1812 to 1830, 1854 to 1867 and 1881 to 1901.

  • 1812 – 1830

On the 24th June 1812 Napoleon crossed the Niemen river with a force of 449,000 men, starting the Patriotic War of 1812. The first months of the invasion saw Russian forces push back and forced to retreat time and time again, sending panic through the command of the Russian military. It was during this grim period that Count Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt, the Minister State Secretary of Finland (the Grand Duchy's highest representative), suggested to Tsar Alexander I that a force of light infantry be raised from Finnish volunteers. The Tsar ordered the formation of 3 light infantry regiments (divided into 6 battalions), each made up of 1,200 men, on the 16th September 1812. These units were mainly to be for the defense of Finland, but could also be deployed to the Baltics or St.Peterburgs in times of need.

These units never saw combat and this is probably a good thing as they received little training. There was only three times a year in which the soldiers fired their rifles and these were limited to only four times per solider at 80 paces. It was decided that these units were a waste of resources and so in 1830 they were disbanded. In its place a Naval contingent of 1,100 men were raised, which manned not only coastal fortresses but even had an array of vessels, including two steam powered frigates. These sailors saw combat during the Crimean War as French and British ships bombarded the Sveaborg harbor at the entrance to Helsinki. This detachment would continue until its disbandment in 1880.

  • 1854-1868

The second phase was in response to the outbreak of the Crimean War. Finland had one of the largest merchant fleets in the world at that time and was prospering in both economic and social spheres. Finland’s position allowed it to become a place of importation for Russia, which heavily relied on imports from neighbours and abroad, it also helped to protect the capital, St Petersburg and the major naval base at Kronstadt.

The raising of this ‘National Defence’ Force was seen more as a way to secure the loyalty and keep the morale high of the local Finns. General Baron Platon Rokassovski, acting Governor-General of Finland, proposed to Tsar Nicholas I that “There is no doubt that the enemy will seize on every opportunity of making the people of the coastal areas of finland waiver in their feelins of duty and loyalty…. [A national defence force would form] a powerful obstacle not so much physically as morally. To drive the enemy back is a natural wish. When the people have their own sons and brothers among these troops, they too must sincerely wish them success”.

With this recommendation, a small force was raised using the old Swedish allotment system. 9  tarkk'ampuja (sharpshooter or rifle) battalions were formed between 1854-1855. Like the Swedish tenure Regiments, these units weren’t permanent but worked on small farms and assembled occasionally for training. These units were immediately reduced after the war ended and the last of them were disbanded in 1868. This decision was made due to economic constraints brought on by bad harvests and subsequent famine (1866-68). Alongside these battalions, there were some ad-hoc  militia groups, like the one that helped Russian forces at the ambush of Halkokari (which successfully repelled a British Royal Navy landing force of around 200 troops).

A painting by Johan Knutson depicting the Russian Army and Finnish miltia forcing defending against the British Royal Navy landing at Halkokari. Source:

  • 1881-1901

This last grouping was to be a new army, one that helped answer the question of Finland’s defence as an autonomous state within the Empire. Tsar Alexander II introduced a universal conscription in 1874, in which Russian subjects upon reaching age 20 were to serve for 6 years. During the discussion, the question about Finland came up, due to its special legal position, it required the input of the Senate, the Estates (Finland’s Parliament) and the Russian War Ministry. What came about was the Military Service Law of 1878, which created a Finnish conscript army made up solely of Finnish citizens, that would only serve within the borders of the Grand Duchy and outside of the Russian War Ministry’s Finland Military District. The Finnish people would have to bear the burden of equipping and supporting their own national force.

An army of 8 Rifle Battalions and the Guards Finnish Rifle Battalion was raised in 1881, soon to be supported by 32 reserve companies in 1883 and the  Finnish Dragoon Regiment was founded in 1889. Another stipulation to an independent Finnish army was that its strength would not be more than half of the number of Russian troops serving within the Finland Military District. The purpose of the 1881-1901 Finnish Army was ‘to defend the throne of the fatherland and thus contribute to the defense of the Empire’. However, as the Army consisted of light infantry, it was dependent upon the Russian army in the country to provide artillery and engineer support in the event of war.

The Finnish Dragoon Regiment as it looked in 1899. Source: Wikimedia

The Army was recruited, with the exception of the Guards Rifle Battalion and the Dragoon Regiment, locally. These units were:

Guards Finnish Rifle Battalion
1st Uusimaa Finnish Rifle Battalion
2nd Turku Finnish Rifle Battalion
3rd Vaasa Finnish Rifle Battalion
4th Oulu Finnish Rifle Battalion
5th Kuopio Finnish Rifle Battalion
6th Mikkeli Finnish Rifle Battalion
7th Hämeenlinna Finnish Rifle Battalion
8th Viipuri Finnish Rifle Battalion
Finnish Dragoon Regiment
Finnish Cadet Corps

This army would serve, without firing a shot in anger, until 1901 when a new Military Service Law came into effect. This was part of the Russification of Finland and called for Finnish men to now serve in the Russian Imperial Army. However there was a lot of opposition to this new law and after the 1905 revolution, Finland was exempt from it but had to contribute money instead.

One of the Rifle Battalions during summer field exercises in 1901. Source: Wikimedia

Guards Finnish Rifle Battalion – The exception to the rule

Finns very often joke about exceptions to the rule, especially when one is learning their language. The Guards Finnish Rifle Battalion is just another Finnish exception to the rule.

In 1817 the 5th Viipuri Battalion was broken up and a 274 strong special contingent was formed. In 1819 it was named the Helsinki Teaching Battalion and in 1824, after moving into new quarters in Helsinki, was named the Finnish Training Battalion. In 1827 a decision was made to disband the Finnish Army and a reorganisation took place, however the Finnish Training Battalion was saved from the save fate as the other Battalions.

In July 1829 it was ordered to join the Imperial Life-Guards' exercise camp in Krasnoye Selo south-west of Saint Petersburg. On the 27th July, the Battalion was inspected by Tsar Nicholas I and he announced that it would be promoted to the ranks of the Young Guard. The next day it was officially renamed Henkikaartin 3. Suomen Tarkk’ampujapataljoona (Leib-gvardii 3-j strelkovyi Finski bataljon in Russian) and was assigned to the 4th Brigade of the 2nd Guards Infantry Division. It occupied a unique position in being under command of the Governor-General of Finland but also under the command of the Inspector of the Imperial Guard, its costs were covered by Finland but the regulations and command language were Russian. It was to be recruited entirely from volunteers from across the whole of the Grand Duchy of Finland and on 17 September 1829 it was inaugurated with a new uniform and colours.

The Finnish Guards Rifle Battalion as they looked in 1830. Source: Wikimedia

The Battalion became a point of pride to Finland as the Guards held a privileged position within Russian society. They were protectors of the Sovereign, gained the favour of the Imperial Family and held superiority over Line Regiments. The Battalion showed Finland’s loyalty to the Tsar and commitment to the Empire. However, just because it was a Guards unit, it didn’t mean it was all for show and in January 1831 it was deployed as part of the Imperial reinforcements sent to crush the Polish Uprising. In April it received its baptism by fire when it, alongside other Imperial forces, were to evict Polish forces from the area between Bug and Narew rivers. It continued to fight, and earn distinction as a marksman force, till the end of the campaign in October 1831.  It only lost 9 men and 1 officer during combat but about 399 officers and men succumbed to wounds or disease out of the original strength of 746. For its service, the Tsar granted the Battalion with the Saint George Flag and the text "In honour of the defeating the Polish uprising in 1831".

This wouldn’t be their only campaign. They were deployed during the Hungarian Uprising of 1849 but the rebellion had been quelled before the Battalion arrived. During the Crimean War it was first sent on guard duty at the Winter Palace in St.Petersburg before moving through the Baltics to protect the coast from invasion and raids. It ended the War in Belarus, helping to secure the border from any Austrian attempts of taking advantage of the situation.

The Finnish Guards Rifle Battalion during the 1850s had a German style Pickelhaube for a headdress. Source: Wikimedia 

Its last military campaign was during the Russo-Turkish War 1877 – 78. It was during this campaign that it gained its fame. It was deployed alongside other Imperial forces after the offensive stalled in July 1877 and more forces were needed to help break the stalemate. 870 officers and men left Helsinki on 6th September to cheers and wishes of luck by the populace, and arrived in the Bulgarian warzone on 3rd October. The Battalion, alongside the rest of the Guards' Rifle Brigade, served under Lieutenant General Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko. The Finns lead the assault against the fortress of Gorni-Dubnik. Helping to secure victory, losing  22 men as fallen, with 95 wounded, including 8 officers, 5 non-commissioned officers and five bandsmen. However their actions earned them much fame and praise from their Russian peers. It would see action in some other battles but it would be Gorni-Dubnik that the Battalion would become known for.

It would end the campaign at the Gates of Constantinople and would be subjected to a deadly  Typhoid fever epidemic which plagued it until its return home in May 1878 to jubilant crowds. It was also awarded Old Guard status from Tsar Alexander II for its heroic deeds during the campaign.

When the Finnish Army of 1881 was created, the Guards were to merge into the organization and become an all-volunteer force to a national conscripted one. However it still retained its Guards status and participated in the Guards exercises and was the only unit of the Finnish Army of 1881 with a mandate to serve outside of its borders. It survived the disbandment of the Finnish Army in 1901 and was reintegrated fully in the Imperial Russian Army but due to the 1905 Revolution and the increased hostility in Finland against service to Russia, the decision was made to disband the unit and so in 1905, after 97 years, Finland did not have a domestic military force.

The Colours of the Finnish Guards Rifle Battalion after 1831 with the commemoration to the Polish Campaign. Source: Wikimedia

The Legacy

Despite an unstable and incomplete structure, the Armies of the Grand Duchy of Finland held up well when faced with trials. They showed loyalty to the Empire and performed bravely under fire. Despite them being seen more as a secondary force, one to help keep the spirits of the population up, they stepped up when required and earned their share of honours.

Several modern Finnish units claim the heritage of the former Battalions of the Finnish Army and uphold the traditions of these units. The Guard Jaeger Regiment claims descent from the Finnish Guards Rifle Battalion, it even holds a special honorary day on 24th October to celebrate the Battle of Gorni Dubnik. The Pori Brigade keeps the traditions of 2nd Turku Finnish Rifle Battalion alive.


J.E.O. Screen, The Finnish Army, 1881 - 1901 - Training the Rifle Battalions (Finnish Historical Society 1996)
J.E.O. Screen, The Army in Finland – During the Last Decades of Swedish Rules 1770-1809 (Finnish Literature Society, 2007)
Basil Greenhill, The British Assault on Finland, 1854-1855: A Forgotten Naval War (Naval Institute Press, 1988)

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