The Grand Duchy of Finland or Russian Empire period started in the 19th century. This is as a result of the Swedish Empire losing to the Russian Empire in the short Finnish War of 1808-09. The Treaty of Hamina concluded peace on Russian terms by ceding everything east of Tornio and Muonio Rivers, as well as the Åland islands. The Grand Duchy of Finland was set up by Tsar Alexander I in order to bypass Finnish resistance to Russia. He promised to respect Finland’s Lutheran faith, Swedish base Diet and Estates, freedom of language and other minor details. While nominally autonomous, it still was subjected to the whims of the Tsar, which caused issues in the late 19th century.
During this period, Finland’s own military history can be broken down into three separate phases. The first beginning on the 18th September 1812 with the establishment of three jäger regiments, these were mainly intended for home defence in case Napoleon decided to strike at Russia through Finland. Today the Guard Jaeger Regiment traces its origins to the 3rd Jaeger Regiment which was originally raised in Viipuri but in 1817 a company of 274 men were assigned to Helsinki, which eventually grew into the 3rd Life Guards Rifle Finnish Battalion. Most of these units, apart from what would eventually by the Guards Rifle Battalion, would be disbanded in 1830 for two main reasons. The first being the economic, with these units not being cheap, the second being that the incoming Governor-General Prince Alexander Menshikov, who was a navy man and wanted Finland to focus more upon naval service than army service. 1830 saw the establishment of 1000 strong naval unit. Some of these men were formed into coastal defence batteries, others manned small sloops.
The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 saw the next stage of Duchy’s military start. It was clear to Russian commanders that Finland was a possible gateway to Russia proper. Using the old Swedish allotment system, 6 battalions of light infantry formed in July and August 1854. However despite these units, alongside several Russian units, the British launched several successful raids along the coast, as well as capturing and destroying the Fortress of Bomarsund on the Åland islands. So as 1855 arrived 3 more battalions were raised and additional Russian units arrived. It was this year that that Helsinki was attacked by a joint Anglo-French fleet. As campaign season of 1856 approached, the number of troops in Finland swelled to around 50,000, with 71 battalions of Russian infantry, 18 units of Cossacks and 84 batteries of artillery, this was supported by the, 1 Guards Rifle Battalion, 9 Finnish rifle battalions and 2 Finnish naval detachments. The Anglo-French forces were planning a large 250 vessel strong fleet that would be tasked with finally breaking the Russian forces defending the Baltic region but the war ended in March before any fighting took place.
Even with the war over, tensions were still high in the Empire and Duchy, the 9 Rifle Battalions and 1 Naval Detachment (the other being disbanded at the war’s end) stayed in service, albeit in a reduced state, until 1867 when all Rifle Battalions (minus the Guards Rifle Battalion) were disbanded mainly due to the vast economic plight in the country. The naval detachment stayed in service until 1880 when it was also disbanded.
The final phase of the Duchy of Finland’s military history started in 1881 when it was decided that Finland should have its own army, independent of the Russian army. Using a new, Russian based, conscription law, 8 rifle battalions and 1 dragoon regiment were raised. The Guards Rifle Battalion was also transferred to the new Finnish Army but it occupied an interesting position due to its nature of being part of the Imperial Guard Corps. The Hamina Cadet School was controlled by the Main Administration of Military Educational Institutions and would now produce officers for both the Finnish and Russian Armies. Major-General Georg Edvard Ramsay, a decorated war veteran of the Finnish Guards, was named commander of this newly raised army.
When Tsar Nicholas II took the throne in 1896, he concentrated on making his Empire more Russian, this included a manifesto being published on the 15th February 1899. In it, it strengthened the position of the Orthodox church, reduced the powers of the estates and diet considerable, it also sure the abolishment of Finnish stamps. The Finnish Army was to be disbanded and the Finnish citizen was now to become subject to the same conscription laws as every other citizen in the Russian Empire.
The Rifle Battalions and Dragoon Regiment were completely disbanded by March 1902, the Cadet School was closed in 1903 and the Guards Rifle Battalion followed suit in 1905. Many Finns refused their call up and such strong passive resistance saw the replacing of the conscription law with a defence tax in 1905. Finns still continued to volunteer for service in the Russian Army and when Russia went to war with Japan in 1905, hundreds of enthusiastic Finns signed up, others, of a more Nationalistic nature, made contact with the Japanese and received monetary and material support to stage an uprising, however the war ended before anything substantial could take place.
Despite the split ideas of the country, when the Russian Empire went to war in 1914, there was a flood of patriotism in the country in favour of the Empire. There were around 300 finnish officers serving in the Imperial Army at the time and by the end of 1914 550 volunteers were in training. By the end of the first world war in 1918 around 800 Finns had fallen in service to the Empire. It was also during this turbulent time that Finland gained its independence in December 1917, as the Russian Empire descended into the chaos of a Civil War.
Finnish ANZACs – The story of how some 300 Finns signed up with the Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War