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Military History

Although Finland did not achieve full national independence until 1917, its military traditions went back more than 300 years. As a part of the dual kingdom of Sweden and Finland, Finland supplied the Swedish armies not only with drafted foot soldiers, but also with highly qualified officers from the Swedish-speaking aristocracy. Contributing as much as one-third of the manpower of the Swedish armed forces, the Finnish infantry and cavalry distinguished themselves at a time when Sweden was playing a decisive role in European power politics. The setbacks that Sweden eventually suffered in Europe were explained by the Finns, with considerable justification, as mistakes that had been made by the Swedish kings on the political level. The performance of the Finns on various battlefields had justified their reputation for bravery and their confidence in their own martial abilities.

With the decline of Swedish power in the eighteenth century, the Finns were called upon to defend the country's borders to the east against the traditional enemy, Russia. On three major occasions, Russian armies occupied parts of the country for a number of years before eventually being driven out by Finnish and Swedish forces. When Finland became the Grand Duchy of Finland in the Russian Empire in 1809, the Finnish units of the Swedish army were disbanded.

The first indigenous Finnish military elements of three light infantry regiments were raised at the time of Napoleon's eastward drive in 1812, but during most of the nineteenth century, the only Finnish military force was a guards battalion paid for by the tsar. Finns were specifically exempted from Russian conscription, but more than 3,000 of them, mostly from the aristocracy, served in the tsarist armies between 1809 and 1917.

The Finnish Military Academy at Hamina continued to turn out officers who served with distinction in the Imperial Russian Army, a disproportionate number rising to the rank of general. Among these graduates was Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who later became the great hero of Finnish resistance and the struggle for independence.

In 1878 the tsar permitted Finland to raise its own national militia through a conscription law providing for selection of recruits by lot to serve either as regulars or reservists. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Finnish army consisted of eight provincial battalions of infantry and a regiment of dragoons, together with thirty-two reserve companies. In 1901, as part of the Russification movement, the Russian authorities introduced a military service law obligating Finns to serve in the tsarist army, for four years, anywhere within the Russian Empire. Only one regiment of dragoons and one battalion of guards from the Finnish army were to be retained; the rest were to be incorporated in the imperial army. The new law was met by passive resistance in Finland, and it strengthened the Finnish nationalist movement. In a shift of policy in 1905, the conscription law was suspended, and Finns were never again called upon to serve in Russian uniform. Nevertheless, the Russians dissolved the militia, the military academy, and the guards battalion.

Soon after Finland gained independence in December 1917, a nationalistic, middle-class militia known as the White Guards, which had been secretly established in 1904 and 1905 and which had remained underground since then disguised as athletic clubs and other groups, was officially proclaimed the army of the Finnish government under General Mannerheim. This so-called White Army was strengthened and trained by 1,100 officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) who had traveled clandestinely to Germany during World War I and had formed the Twenty-seventh Royal Prussian Jaeger Battalion.

Returning to Finland, they brought back with them urgently needed small arms captured from the Russians. The White forces were swelled by new conscripts, officers of the former Finnish armed forces, Swedish volunteers, and Finnish officers who had served in the Swedish and in the Russian armies, in addition to the jaegers. After three months of bitter civil conflict, the White Army of about 70,000 troops defeated the Red Guards from the radical wing of the Finnish Social Democratic Party, in May 1918. Both sides suffered thousands of casualties. In four months, the White Guards had evolved from a strongly motivated, but ill-trained, militia into a battle-hardened, disciplined national armed force. Although numerically superior and reinforced by the Russian garrisons in Finland, the Red Guards were deficient in equipment, training, and leadership.

During and after the Civil War, conflict emerged between the younger jaeger officers of the Finnish army and the former tsarist officers in its upper ranks. When most of the Finnish officer corps threatened to resign in 1924 over the dominance of the Russian-trained leadership, most of the Russian officers were moved aside and the jaeger officers began to occupy the higher echelons, bringing the influence of German military doctrine and training methods with them.

The new government reinstituted conscription after the Civil War and established a small national army. It also introduced a mobilization system and compulsory refresher courses for reservists. The Finnish Military Academy was reactivated in 1919, and during the 1920s a reserve officers' school was formed, together with NCO schools for various branches and arms of the service. The Civil Guard, a voluntary rightist formation of 100,000 personnel derived from the White Guards, constituted a local auxiliary. Nevertheless, Finland did not succeed in building a strong national army. The requirement of one year of compulsory service was greater than that imposed by any other Scandinavian country in the 1920s and the 1930s, but political opposition to defense spending left the military badly equipped to resist attack by the Soviet Union, the only security threat in Finnish eyes.

When the Soviets invaded in November 1939, they were met by a force of 135,000 Finnish troops organized into 9 divisions. In a matter of a few weeks, the Finnish army destroyed large numbers of invading Soviet soldiers. The initial Red Army contingents were poorly trained, and they were unprepared for combat under severe winter conditions. The Finnish army was able to inflict sharp defeats in battles on the Karelian Isthmus and in northeastern Finland. Momentarily, it looked as if Finland would turn back the aggressor and would inflict an astonishing military defeat on its great and powerful neighbor. When the Soviet commanders reverted to a strategy of wearing down the greatly outnumbered Finns in Karelia by their overwhelming firepower, however, Finland's defeat was inevitable. On March 12, 1940, an armistice yielded slightly more territory to the Soviets than they had initially demanded in 1939. The Soviets regarded this territory as being vital to their preparations for a future showdown with Nazi Germany.

In the Continuation War, fought by Finland as a cobelligerent with Germany from 1941 to 1944, Finnish forces again demonstrated their superior qualities. Thanks to the Germans, the army was now much better equipped, and the period of conscription had been increased to two years, making possible the formation of sixteen infantry divisions. The fully mobilized Finnish army of 400,000 was numerically superior to the opposing Soviet forces, which had been thinned to meet the need for troops to resist the German onslaught on the central front. The Finnish goal was not conquest but regaining territories traditionally Finnish. The Finns refused German pressure to join in the siege of Leningrad, but they pushed 80 to 160 kilometers into Soviet territory farther north above Lake Ladoga before settling for static defensive operations. The Finnish army continued to occupy this former Finnish area until the major Soviet offensive of June 1944. Confined in the losing Axis coalition, the Finns had to retreat for a second time, and they escaped total Soviet invasion and occupation only by entering into a separate agreement that obligated them to military action against the retreating German armies).

The demobilization and regrouping of the Finnish Defense Forces were carried out in late 1944 under the supervision of the Allied Control Commission. Following the Treaty of Paris in 1947, which imposed restrictions on the size and equipment of the armed forces and required disbandment of the Civil Guard, Finland reorganized its defense forces. The fact that the conditions of the peace treaty did not include prohibitions on reserves or mobilization made it possible to contemplate an adequate defense establishment within the prescribed limits. The reorganization resulted in the abolition of about 15 percent of officer and NCO positions, the adoption of the brigade--in place of the division- -as the basic formation, and the reduction of the term of service for conscripts to 240 days (330 days for NCO and for reserve officer candidates). The organization of the high command was unchanged, but the minister of defense was given slightly more authority in decision making. The completion of this reorganization in 1952 established the structure within which the modern Defense Forces were to evolve.

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Page last modified: 25-09-2019 18:57:36 ZULU