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Beginning of Modern Military Practices, 1911-21

In terms of a consciously expressed military tradition, modern Mongolian military history began in 1911 with the autonomy of Outer Mongolia (see Glossary) and the establishment of a new-style army with Russian military assistance. Russia, after its disastrous defeat in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, noted the modernization of the Chinese army and realized the need for a buffer between a resurgent China and Russia's tenuous lifeline to eastern Siberia, the Trans-Siberian Railway. Consequently, Russia looked with favor on Outer Mongolia's efforts to free itself of Chinese rule in 1911. The tsar received a Mongolian delegation in August 1911, and he agreed to furnish arms and ammunition to Outer Mongolia. When the Chinese revolution occurred in October, the Mongolians proclaimed their freedom, receiving diplomatic support from Russia (see The End of Independence , ch. 1).

In 1912 a small Russian military mission arrived in Yihe Huree (present-day Ulaanbaatar--see Glossary) to train a Mongolian army of conscripts furnished by the ruling nobles. As increments of this force were trained, they were sent as first priority to the Chinese frontier. About half the army was retained near Yihe Huree as a general reserve. In the summer of 1912, elements of this fledgling army fought their first battle, forcing the surrender of a Chinese garrison at Hovd in western Mongolia. On November 3, 1912, a secret Mongolian-Russian agreement supported Mongolia's claim for its own national army and promised to prohibit Chinese troops in Mongolia.

The Mongolian government of monks and nobility lacked both the funds and the will to pay for such an armed force. The Mongolians, who wanted the Chinese to leave, were disappointed by the Sino-Russian Declaration of November 1913, which recognized Chinese suzerainty over Outer Mongolia and substituted the vaguer concept of autonomy for the Mongolian claim to independence. In addition, not all the nobility, particularly not those in western Outer Mongolia, willingly accepted Yihe Huree's hegemony over their territories, and the Chinese initially held Hovd. The new national state still did not see the need for a modern armed force for its preservation, seemingly relying on Russia's diplomatic support and promises, as well as on its own estimate that revolution-torn China was little to be feared.

In February 1913, Russia granted the Mongolian government a loan of 2 million rubles (then equivalent to about US$1 million) for the maintenance and training of an army consisting of two cavalry regiments with a machine gun company, a four-gun battery of artillery, and 1,900 soldiers and officers. The loan and a Russian military mission did not solve the problem. The Russians promptly made a new loan of 3 million rubles, but this they time sent a Russian financial adviser to control the expenditures.

Russia's objective of creating a Mongolian self-defense and internal security capability encountered further difficulties in 1913. Freedom-loving Mongolian recruits did not relish the idea of two years of barracks life under harsh discipline. Furthermore, the Russian colonel in charge insisted on infantry drills, which were anathema to hard-riding nomadic cavalry. The desertion rate was high, and one unit actually mutinied against its Russian instructors, who called out the Russian Cossack Legation Guard to suppress the uprising. The Mongolian government's lack of interest in an effective military force further plagued the Russian effort; for the most part, misfits and sick men were sent as recruits.

Mongolian irritation at the harshness of the Russian instructors and the constant Russian pressures for government moral and material support resulted in the one-year agreement's being allowed to lapse on its termination date. Russia won reluctant Mongolian agreement to its being allowed to maintain 1,000 troops and thus to reduce its military mission by only half; however, by the end of 1914, continued resentment against the Russian instructors and reluctance to support a regular army forced the recall of the military mission.

World War I diverted Russia's attention from Mongolia. Russia's principal effort with respect to Mongolia and China was to call a tripartite meeting in Kyakhta, on the Siberian side of the Mongolian-Russian border, in 1915. Chinese and Mongolian representatives attended with considerable reluctance, but eventually a treaty resulted (see Period of Autonomy, 1911-21 , ch. 1). Its principal military effect was to limit Chinese forces in Mongolia to a 200-strong guard for the residence of the Chinese high representative at Yihe Huree. Between 1914 and 1919, the Mongolian army languished, but it retained some semblance of order. During these years, the expenditures for the army varied from 20 to 25 percent of the total government budget. Although an agent of the Communist International (see Glossary), also called the Comintern, said while visiting Yihe Huree in 1919 that there was no army, 2,000 troops were actually on the rolls.

The Chinese took advantage of the Russian preoccupation with their own revolution at home to reinforce their consular guard at Yihe Huree in 1918--in violation of the 1915 Treaty of Kyakhta. The Russians protested, but with the collapse of effective White Guard forces in Siberia in late 1919, the Chinese brought in 3,000 more troops. In October 1919, General Xu Shucheng arrived with an army of 4,000 (later increased to 10,000); he suppressed the autonomous government, carrying out numerous executions, looting, and other atrocities. Thus the army of autonomous Mongolia came to an end after a scant eight years of tenuous existence. The army was to live on, however, in a small cadre of demobilized Russian-trained soldiers that was led by Sukhe Bator and aspired to again free Mongolia from Chinese rule.

Sukhe Bator--whose name means Ax Hero--was poor and jobless when he was called up at the age of nineteen as one of the first conscripts for the new army in 1912. His lack of wealth and position reportedly was more than compensated for by intelligence and vigor. Sukhe Bator soon became a junior noncommissioned officer (NCO). During border clashes with the Chinese, he distinguished himself in combat and was promoted to senior NCO rank. As a member of a machine gun company, a technical and prestigious assignment for that time, he was associated closely with Russian instructors, and he learned some Russian. He also reportedly was a natural leader, liked and respected by his peers, and he was an accomplished practical soldier.

In late 1918, the recently demobilized Sukhe Bator, anticipating the return of the Chinese, formed a group of like- minded army friends to plan a new revolution and encouraged discharged soldiers to await his call. In November 1919, under the aegis of Russian Bolshevik agents in Yihe Huree, Sukhe Bator's group joined with a similar small group of revolutionaries led by Choybalsan. In 1920 Sukhe Bator and Choybalsan, with about fifty followers, escaped the returning Chinese forces and moved to Siberia where they received further military training.

As Bolshevik victories grew, some opposing White Guard troops retreated into Outer Mongolia, where they were supported and encouraged by Japanese forces in Manchuria and eastern Siberia. The largest White Guard band was 5,000 strong and was led by Baron Roman Nicolaus von Ungern-Sternberg. After an abortive attack on Yihe Huree in October 1920, von Ungern-Sternberg attacked again in February, drove out the Chinese troops, and declared an independent Mongolia.

In February 1921, Sukhe Bator, Choybalsan, and their followers were joined in Irkutsk by a Mongolian delegation from Moscow. In March 1921, they moved to Kyakhta, where they formed the Mongolian People's Party and a provisional national government. Sukhe Bator was named minister of war. The partisan forces, now numbering 400, were combined to form the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Army, with Sukhe Bator as commander in chief and Choybalsan as commissar.

In mid-March 1921, Sukhe Bator drove the Chinese out of the trading settlement now known as Amgalanbaatar across the Mongolian-Russian border from Kyakhta, and he established a provisional capital under the new name of Altanbulag. In April 1921, the provisional Mongolian government announced the conscription of all males older than nineteen in the territory under their control. At the same time, they asked for the assistance of the Russian Red Army in opposing the White Guards.

Von Ungern-Sternberg's force struck north against the new Bolshevik-sponsored government in May. The provisional government, assisted by a division-size task force from the Fifth Red Army, resisted. The White Guard offensive began May 22, 1921, and Altanbulag was attacked June 6, 1921. The Red Army force divided to meet this two-pronged attack; there was a Mongolian contingent in each column, one under Sukhe Bator at Altanbulag, and the other under Choybalsan. The attacks were repulsed, and the combined Red Army-Mongolian People's Revolutionary Army force swept toward Yihe Huree. Yihe Huree was captured on July 6, 1921, and it was renamed Niyslel--capital--Huree. A provisional national government was proclaimed on July 11, 1912, under close Bolshevik supervision. Von Ungern-Sternberg escaped with a remnant of the White Guards. In late August 1921, Mongolians in his own forces seized him and turned him over to the Red Army for execution (see Revolutionary Transformation, 1921-24 , ch. 1).

The Mongolians are extremely proud of these revolutionary feats. On every public patriotic occasion--such as the anniversary of the founding of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Army on March 18, 1921, the day marking the expulsion of Chinese forces from Maimaicheng--speeches of national leaders invariably refer glowingly to the events of 1921 and to the virtues of the participants, as well as to the fraternal help of the Red Army. Sukhe Bator died suddenly, and, some thought, mysteriously, in 1923 while still a young man. The tragedy of his early death assisted in his immortalization as the great young hero of the revolution. A heroic-size equestrian statue of Suhke Bator stands in the main square of Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero).

The Mongolian People's Revolutionary Army of Sukhe Bator and Choybalsan provided a convenient patriotic symbol to inspire Mongolians and established a new military tradition. This army also formed the nucleus of the eventual Mongolian People's Army, which was to expand to a strength of 10 percent of the population by the late 1930s in response to the Japanese threat. It also acted as a modernizing force and gave the nation a generation of political leaders. Choybalsan led the nation militarily in the 1920s and the 1930s as commander in chief of the army, and he was premier and top party leader from 1939 until his death in 1952 (see Modern Mongolia, 1911-84 , ch. 1).

Data as of June 1989


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