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The Semirechensk Host in the Russian Civil War

The Semirechensk Host was small, and only recently split off from the Siberian Host. The province of Semirech'e means "Seven Rivers" and refers to those which flow into Lake Balkhash. It occupied an area south of Semipalatinsk in what was then eastern Russian Turkestan, between the lakes in what today northern Kirghizstan and the area north of that in Kazakhstan.

The area has some very fertile parts, separated by high mountains and dry steppes, which were then being colonised by Russians. However, in 1919 the population was still three-quarters Kirghiz, plus sizable groups of Taranchis (Uighurs) and Dzungars (Mongols).

Following the history is made much more difficult by the different names for many of the features; such as for the largest towns of Almaty (Alma-Ata, Vyernyi), Bishkek (Pishpek), Karakol (Przhevalsk), Zharkent (Jarkent), Ayagoz (Sergiopol) and Semipalatinsk (Semey).
 

Uniforms

The Semirechensk Host soldiers wore standard Cossack dress, with their distinguishing colour being red (often given as "scarlet").

Cossack Cavalry
Regular Infantry
Other Units  – Plastoons, Artillery, Siberian Cossacks, Kirghiz and other natives
 

A Backwater

Isolated a long way from the main theatres, with no rail link and precarious communications, the Semirechensk area was always very much a secondary theatre of the revolution and Civil War. However that didn't prevent it from being the scene of continuous warfare.

The towns in the area set up Bolshevik-leaning Soviets upon the October Revolution, arrested and killed much of the Cossack leadership (including the Ataman), and took control of the area. The Cossacks remaining in the area dispersed to their villages. It took a while for the veterans to return home from the front, and many were Bolshevised by the time they arrived.

In spring 1918 fighting broke out between the Cossacks and the Reds, but it was mostly small scale and the Reds were able to hold all the urban centres. Under newly elected Ataman Ionov the bulk of the rebels were forced onto Chinese territory. However the Reds began a regime of anti-Cossack terror, and more and more men rose to oppose them. (In fact the fighting was as much about who would control the best land, and feed the towns, as it ever was about ideological issues.)

With the assistance of the 3rd Siberian Cossack Regiment, the north of the area was taken. Some help came from conservative peasants, especially Old Believers, and the local Kirghiz as well. The fighting was to and fro, but in mid-1918 the forces were still often only in the hundreds: in one of the larger actions Commissar A. Ya. Petrenko vastly outnumbered the defending Cossacks with his 1,000 infantry, 500 cavalry, 6 guns and several MGs.

In August, with the parties still disputing the northern part of the province, Ataman Ivanov-Rinov of the Siberian Cossacks sent the 5th Siberian Rifle Division to assist, but this was still unable to make sufficient difference. The Soviets in turn supplied men and equipment from central Turkestan. The Reds also faced numerous Cossack uprisings in their rear and partisan units striking from Chinese territory. Meanwhile the Whites likewise faced a determined partisan effort, especially around Cherkasskoe, as well as the more regular Red forces.

In December 1918 when Kolchak reorganised all the White forces in the east, the Semirechensk forces were designated as part of the Steppe Group (later the 2nd Steppe Siberian Army Corps). To the Semirechensk forces, the 3rd Siberian Cossack Regiment and the 5th Siberian Rifle Division already in the area, there was added the Annenkov Partisan Division.

Boris Annenkov was one of the Civil War's great adventurers, in the mould of Shkuro in the west. He had recruited a mixed force, including many Cossacks, and vigorously suppressed all opposition. Brutally, even sadistically, many would say. Nonetheless he was popular with the Semirechensk Cossacks and many joined him, mostly in his Ataman Regiment. He also recruited heavily in the Kirghiz and Mongols. The forces in Annenkov's Division are given here. The Semirechensk Ataman Ionov and Annenkov did not see eye to eye, which did not help the White cause.

The fighting continued with the Whites making more progress with their additional forces in the north but never coming close to clearing the province. White partisan detachments grew quite large: Colonel Sidorov had 1,000 men, including Cossacks, Taranchi and Kirghiz, and often operated out of Chinese territory. Meanwhile Colonel Bryantsev had formed a "Separate Rifle Brigade" which included a Semirechensk Plastoon Regiment and a cavalry regiment.

Towards the end of 1919 Ataman Ionov was sent eastwards by Kolchak, and Annenkov became the clear military leader. A Separate Semirechensk Army was formed. Volkov gives it 3,400 bayonets, 3,800 sabres and 6 guns, and it included the Annenkov Partisan Division, the 17th and 19th Regiments of the 5th Siberian Rifle Division, the Separate Semirechensk Cossack Brigade, the Kirghiz Mounted Brigade, and the 1st Sergiopol and 2nd Zaysan Infantry Regiments).

Then at the beginning of 1920 the area was over-run by people fleeing the Red Army – regular forces from Kolchak's army, the main body of the Orenburg Host and a huge number of refugees. Ataman Annenkov briefly tried to separate out the incomers and defend his territory. In the north was a group under General Bakich, mostly Orenburg Cossacks and about 12,500 strong. Annenkov's central group was 9,000 men with his Partisan Division as the core. The southern group under the Deputy Ataman, General Shcherbakov, included the 5th Siberian Rifle Division, several Semirechensk Cossack Regiments, a Plastoon Regiment, a native regiment and and four batteries

But the Red Army was far too numerous. In March they attacked in force, and after a brief struggle various groups passed over the mountains into China, while the others surrendered. 

Annenkov had led one of those groups, including quite a few Semirechensk Cossacks, and it remained initially quite well disciplined. During 1920 Colonel Sidorov even continued to raid Soviet territory with part of these forces, as discontent continued in the Cossacks stanitsas.

In 1921 there were still 3,000 men under arms, but now things became much worse for the Whites. The Soviet started to press over the border more energetically, having successfully disposed of the similar Orenburg group under General Bakich. They also stepped up a campaign of targeting the White leaders, by assassination and political pressure on the Chinese. However, the remnants of the Semirechensk Host under Sidorov and Ataman Shcherbakov lasted into 1922, still actively plotting a return.

There were also a few Semirechensk Cossacks who made it across China to form the "Ataman Annenkov" Regiment in the Primorye Province in April 1922.
 

Sources

Ivlev, M. Antibolshevik Forces in the Semirechensk Cossack Host. A brief historical sketch. White Guard #8. Posev 2005, pp. 225-235.

Articles at a-pesni.golosa.info.


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