Kaarlo Kurko; the journey to the Polish battlefields, 1919

In the previous post, we were introduced to Kaarlo Kurko, a young Finnish adventurer who fought as a volunteer in the Polish armed forces in the war against the Bolshevik Russia in 1920. Before we continue the story of his dangerous journey to Poland, let’s pause for a while to provide a short flashback from his youth, as well as for a brief exploration of his personality.

As mentioned before, Kurko – portrayed once again on the left – was only nineteen years old when he had his first taste of combat in the Finnish Civil War, where he eventually ended up serving as a commandant at a prison camp. In other words, he had started his military career as a teenager, at the same age as Ambrose Bierce or Ernst Jünger. Much like them, he was also a son of a middle-class, well-to-do family. His parents – Tapani Kurko and Hilja Kurko, née Hurstinen – were teachers, members of the provincial intelligentsia, whose friends included people such as composer Oskar Merikanto. Needless to say, his parents also represented the vanguard of the nationally-aware part of the Finnish population, which had, in the aftermath of the Tsarist February Manifesto, gradually developed an openly hostile attitude towards the Russian Empire. Consequently, the young Kurko had grown up in an atmosphere where Russia was considered as the main threat and the foremost enemy of the Finnish nation. Already in 1915, Kurko had attempted to enlist for the 27th Royal Prussian Jäger Battalion, a Finnish volunteer unit in the Imperial German armed forces. After the experiences of the Revolution and the Finnish Civil War of 1918, the Bolshevik menace blended effortlessly with these feelings, thrusting him towards further adventures in the Estonian War of Liberation and the Polish-Soviet War.

Leaving aside the atmosphere at his home and the impact of the revolutionary era, it’s quite obvious that there was also something in Kurko’s own personality which drove him to seek existential fulfilment from the battlefields. He was a restless youth and a free, creative spirit. As one might expect, his school years were quite turbulent, and he always attempted to break out from the conventional lifestyle. As a 12-year old boy, he decided to try his luck as a popular author, wrote a 300-page adventure story titled “The Secrets of Alhambra”, and sent his manuscript to a publisher, posing as an adult. After two weeks, the publisher actually contacted him and asked if “Mister Kurko” would be interested in signing a contract. The promising career as a writer ended when his father, Tapani Kurko, heard of this artistic escapade and promptly chastized his son, ordering him to focus on the school once again.

Thus, while the experiences of the Civil War – the White terror in particular – were no doubt shocking for young Kurko, they nonetheless also provided him with the freedom and the grand, exhilarating experiences he had been longing for. At one stroke, he had become his own master, he had defied death and he had survived. Consequently, much as Bierce and Jünger, the young Kaarlo Kurko also grew up and reached adulthood on the battlefield, with the war becoming an integral, essential part of his identity as an adult man.

After participating in the Estonian War of Liberation and the Yudenich offensive against Petrograd in the autumn of 1919, Kurko was determined to travel to Poland, to fight the Bolsheviks once again. This was by no means an easy feat. Traveling by ship to Danzig was out of the question, because the Finnish consuls in Riga and Tallinn were now unwilling to write passports for the volunteers. The recruitment of soldiers to the White Russian forces was strictly forbidden by the Finnish government, and the same rules applied also to those men who wanted to join the Polish army. Even though general C. G. E. Mannerheim, the former commander-in-chief of the Finnish White forces and the former Head of State, had visited Warsaw and personally met Józef Piłsudski in the autumn of 1919, he had done so as a private citizen. After Mannerheim’s defeat to Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg in the presidential elections of July 1919, the newly-independent Finland no longer wanted to have anything to do with the intervention against the Soviet Russia.

Traveling overland through the Baltic countries was also next to impossible. The Polish-Lithuanian border was closed and heavily-guarded, with both countries in de facto hostilities against each others because of the Polish conquest of Vilnius and the ensuing Vilnius dispute. The Polish-Latvian frontier was a complete war zone, with the city of Daugavpils still under Soviet occupation. Under the circumstances, the Finnish volunteers who were still in Estonia and Latvia and wanted to join the Polish armed forces could not travel together as a single group, but instead had to make their way to Poland each on their own. The map of the Eastern Baltic lands is attached below, showing the rough frontline situation at the end of the year 1919, at the time when the eastern parts of Latvia were still in the Bolshevik Russian hands, and when Poland had already started its counteroffensive in Byelorussia:

Having already survived two military campaigns, Kurko had decided to take his chances on a third one, and was not to be stopped. He crossed the border from Latvia to Lithuania with the help of a German prisoner-of-war who was returning home from Russian captivity. Upon his arrival in Kaunas, Kurko managed to get in contact with a group of Russian White refugees, who assisted him across the border from Lithuania to Poland. After several narrow escapes from the local Lithuanian patrols, who were dead set to prevent any volunteers from reaching Poland, Kurko was able to surrender to a group of Polish soldiers near Vilnius. The Finnish adventurer immediately declared his willingness to fight on the Polish side as a volunteer, and after thinking the matter over, the local commander granted him a travel permit to Warsaw.

Kurko arrived in the Polish capital in February 1920. The young man was enthusiastic with his expectations of combat and action, but also full of national pride, reminiscing the stories of the Finnish soldiers who had participated in the conquest of Warsaw in the ranks of the Swedish army during the Swedish-Polish war of 1655-1656. As he noted in his memoirs later on: “The surroundings felt familiar, and in my imagination, I could see the heroic ghosts of our victorious hakkapeliittas circling above their ancient battlefields”.

Although Kurko’s expectations were still somewhat romanticized, he was not altogether incorrect. As he would soon notice by experience – and as we shall also see in the upcoming installments of this story – the warfare in Eastern Central Europe had not actually changed all that much from the first bloody, total national wars of the 17th century.

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