by JAMES SIMPSON
The war train Zaamurets was the behemoth of the 1910s and 1920s.
Heavily armored. Bristling with guns. Everywhere it went, Zaamurets was the biggest, baddest thing around. Not many foes could touch it. If you possessed this train, you ruled the rails of early 20th-century Eurasia.
Even more stunning, this awesome, self-propelled war machine went on a journey across the world. The years-long voyage carried the train through Ukraine, Russia and China — illustrating the chaos and uncertainty of the era. The leviathan served in Tsarist, Bolshevik, Czech, White Russian and several Chinese armies.
Which is why everyone wanted it.
Zaamurets’ story is tangled up with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The revolution ended the reign of the Tsars, forced Russia to withdraw from World War I and launched a civil war that began a new era of ideological conflict.
As Bolshevik Reds, Tsarist Whites, anarchists and peasant Greens fought for control of the vast Russian Empire, they coveted the most devastating land-based super-weapon of the time — heavily armed and armored trains.
The best machines were carriages of thick steel armor bristling with gun-ports and turrets. Around 300 armored trains fought during the civil war. Only 75 of those were standardized platforms from Russia’s rail yards. Soldiers and sailors improvised the rest from whatever resources were available — industrial flat cars, sandbags, concrete, scrap and old naval deck guns.
In 1918, the Bolsheviks had 23 such armored trains. By 1920, one in every 10 of the the Red Army’s artillery guns rested on one of its 103 rail-borne battleships.
As the revolution spread out of Petrograd —present day Saint Petersburg — Red Russian forces took to the rails to link up with revolutionary councils across the country. As the war escalated, the trains became roving military bases, complete with telegraph machines and printing presses.
By 1919, armored trains even carried aboard raiding parties. These typically comprised a company of infantry — about 165 men — who would clear out enemy positions and provide security when the train stopped. A 47-man troop of cavalry provided added mobility and anti-sabotage reconnaissance capabilities. A machine-gun section with two horse-drawn machine-gun carts provided support.
With these raiding teams, armored trains could project force not only along the linear rails, but outwards to nearby installations. Red Army officers estimated that these raiding teams increased the effectiveness of armored trains five-fold.
This brings us to the subject of our story. The train had many names during its storied life — Orlik, BP-4, Lenin and Train No. 105. But in the beginning, it was simply Zaamurets.
Ukraine’s train war
The first two years of Zammurets’ life are largely a mystery. Few records of the machine’s travels exist today, but this is what we do know.
Laborers constructed the train at the Odessa rail yards in 1916, and the train entered service with the Tsarist army in October of that year. During the following winter and spring, it served as mobile anti-air platform on the Galician Front, where Russia fought the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Rail historian Christian Wolmar places the Zaamurets with Tsarist forces in Poland at that time in his book Engines of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways.
Zaamurets was the king of the mechanical beasts. It had two fully-traversible 57-millimeter Nordenfelt gun turrets — and eight machine guns for close-in protection.
Three to four inches of armor protected the vessel’s carriage and crew from incoming fire. Underneath the armor, two Italian Fiat 60 horsepower petrol motors could push the railcar to a top speed of 28 miles per hour.
In September 1917, Zaamurets returned to Odessa for a refit. Workers mounted square fire-control pillars to both turrets, and raised the turrets for better clearance when firing.
But the train had returned to Russia just in time for momentous events. The next month, the October Revolution erupted. The Tsar was gone. By January 1918, Red Guard expeditionary force commander Mikhail Artemyevich Muravyov had taken control of the war train.
Muravyov sent the machine to win control over the region’s bread basket — Ukraine.
But the communists weren’t going to get it easy. The Russian Empire’s collapse left Ukraine in chaos. Germany invaded and installed a nationalist government — a means to secure the country’s extensive food supplies.
German-backed nationalists fought the communists, who had an on-again, off-again relationship with anarchists, who fought the nationalists and the communists at different times. Local peasant uprisings added to the mess. War trains crisscrossed the country.
In March 1918, the Bolsheviks combined Zaamurets with another train — the BP-3. The latter machine served with nationalists in Ukraine until anarchist guerrillas derailed and captured it.
BP-3 was a mean weapon. One of four Khunkhuz-class trains built in Kiev in 1915, it carried three-inch mountain guns for long-range firepower. For close-in protection, it sported 12 machine guns.
Zaamurets — now coupled with BP-3 — went back into action. But German artillery soon ripped the train apart, so it limped back to Russia for repairs. The revolutionaries patched it up and then sent it south to fight the counter-revolutionary Whites.
When the train changed hands, the owners often changed its name — and at this point in the story, it’s known as the Lenin. But we’re using its original name Zaamurets to be consistent.
Enter the Czech Legion
The Zaamurets’ next owner carried it the furthest. The Czechoslovak Legion reflected the turmoil of the region’s revolutionary turmoil.
During World War I, nationalists in many countries fought to liberate their homelands from great empires. The Legion was one such unit. As the war in Europe erupted, ethnic Czech and Slovak residents of the Russian Empire saw a chance to turn Czechoslovakia — then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — into a free and independent nation-state.
To prove their loyalty to the Entente cause, the emigres formed a militia and joined the Eastern Front in October 1914. When revolutionary Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and pulled out of the war, the Legion had around 40,000 troops, many of whom had served with both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies.
The end of the Tsarist regime stranded the Legion in Ukraine as the Russian Empire collapsed all around them. Still passionate about freeing their homeland, the emigre force planned to travel to France and continue the fight.
Tomás Masaryk, the chairman of the Czechoslovak emigre government, traveled to Russia and secured Bolshevik and Ukrainian nationalist permission for the Legion’s evacuation. This would require an arduous, 6,000-mile journey to Vladivostok, where they would then sail to France.
There was one condition — the Czech troops had to swear to remain neutral. The legionnaires couldn’t fire except in self-defense. Those rules of engagement didn’t last long.
On Feb. 18, 1918, the Germans invaded Ukraine, and the Czech Legion was right in the path of the German advance. During the following weeks, the emigres fought a running battle across the country. They left behind 186 dead and missing. They took 210 wounded with them.
Escaping to Russia in March, the Legion prepared to head toward Siberia. But nothing in Russia would be that simple. The country’s railway network was under incredible strain.
There were more than two million POWs in Russia. So many, in fact, that they accounted for more than 20 percent of the Russia’s workforce. The transfer of the POWs back to their home nations was one of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk’s conditions. But the Russian revolutionaries needed every soldier they could get to fight the German armies breathing down their necks.
These tensions boiled over in May. At Chelyabinsk, the Legion lynched a Hungarian prisoner of war after he struck a legionnaire. The Chelyabinsk Soviets arrested the Czech station guards — who had restored order after the murder. In the legionnaires’ eyes, the guards were innocent.
Three thousand angry legionnaires seized control of the town, seizing 800 weapons from the local military commissariat. Leon Trotsky — who was trying to recruit the Czechs and Slovaks into the Red Army — was incensed. On May 21, he ordered the Legion forcibly disarmed and dissolved.
After months of uncertainty, the legionnaires held congress in Chelyabinsk and decided to take matters into their own hands — they would make their own way to Vladivostok regardless of Bolshevik attempts to stop them.
The well-trained, battle-hardened Legion became a counter-revolutionary force. One-by-one, their scattered forces took control over the region’s stations and rails.
They salvaged metal and guns to arm their trains and set about dispelling the illusion of Bolshevik control along the Trans-Siberian Railway. They hooked up with opposition forces such as the People’s Army of Komuch, and later the White Russian forces of the thoroughly incompetent dictator Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak.
In response, Trotsky dispatched Zaamurets.
After Zaamurets fought the Whites along the Southern Front, the war train had picked up a second Khunkhuz-class railcar. But despite the communists’ battle experience, they failed to stand their ground against the Legion.
Fighting not only Russian Bolsheviks but foreign volunteers in Simbirsk, the Legion captured Zaamurets and renamed it Orlik, a.k.a. “Young Eagle.” The Czechoslovakians gave the train a refit, replacing the Nordenfelt guns with with three-inch Model 1902 Putilov field guns, for which they had more ammunition.
The Legion used the train to devastating effect, and the soldiers and their White Russian allies ruled the rails with an iron first from 1919 to 1920.
But the legionnaires eventually lost heart. The 1918 Armistice ended the Great War and 1919’s Treaty of Versailles created an independent Czechoslovakia. The Legion had a nation-state — at last — but they were half a world away, fighting a civil war that wasn’t their own.
In early 1919, the Legion’s retreat to Vladivostok picked up pace. The fighters even blocked the movements of their White Russian allies if they interfered with their transit. As the Legion retreated, they left the Trans-Siberian Railway undefended.
The Bolsheviks followed behind the retreating emigres, taking advantage of the opportunity. The Czechoslovakians handed over the White leader Kolchak, and later, several car-loads of Tsarist gold bullion that they had looted from Kazan.
In exchange, the Red Army signed a truce that took the Czechoslovakians out of the war.
The Manchurian problem
The Czech Legion was out of the war, but still in Russia. The expats faced harassment from Japanese-backed Cossack bandits — despite the Japanese professing to have entered Siberia to help the Legion return to Europe.
Zaamurets formed the rear guard of the Czech convoy until the troops crossed into Vladivostok in April 1920. But the convoy almost didn’t make it. On the way to Vladivostok, the Legion stopped at Japanese-controlled Hailar in Mongolia.
The Japanese military officers in the area ere skeptical. The Legion had a reputation for unpredictability — and most worryingly, betraying its allies. In any case, the legionnaires possessed Zaamurets — and that made them dangerous.
Things came to a head when the Japanese authorities arrested several suspected Bolshevik sympathizers working on the railroad. A gun battle broke out.
The Czechoslovakians didn’t intervene, but the Japanese military accused them of firing Zammurets’ guns during the firefight. The Japanese ordered the Legion to give up the train. To avoid further conflict, and with the belief that the Japanese would return the train, the Czech commanding officer surrendered Zaamurets.
The Legion protested the seizure through diplomatic channels, but the Japanese officers at Hailar were reluctant to give it back. Returning the train meant admitting they had been wrong, which would risk losing respect for their men and the Empire.
But Czech diplomacy paid off, and Gen. Shigemoto Oi — commander of the Japanese Expeditionary Force in Siberia — ordered his men to take Zaamurets to Harbin and hand it back to the Legion. The emigres finally sailed from Vladivostok to Europe in September 1920, leaving Zaamurets behind in the hands of White Russian forces.
The Whites had maintained a large fleet of around 80 armored trains throughout the Civil War, but the Bolsheviks had slowly pushed the counter-revolutionary forces back to far eastern Russia, capturing chunks of the armored train fleet along the way.
The White Russians used Zaamurets until 1922, when the Bolsheviks finally took control of the strategy gateway port to the Pacific. The Whites evacuated to Manchuria … and took the train with them.
Chinese nationalist warlord Zhang Zoulin gave the Whites safe harbor in Harbin, where many of the fleeing Russians turned to mercenary work. Zaamurets patrolled the Chinese Eastern Railway until 1924, when White Russian volunteers fought alongside Zhang’s Fengtian Army against the Japanese-backed Zhili Army.
The Fengtian Army learned much from the White Russian refugees, and began building their own armored trains. Eventually, the Fentian Army fielded an entire armored train division consisting of Zaamurets and six other trains.
China was the largest train warfare theater of the interwar period. Warlords faced off against each other in vast territorial disputes, while Japan fomented instability for its own colonial ambitions.
But Zaamurets’ journey did not end with the Fengtian Army. Far from it. The train would later serve with other Chinese armies. It received yet another name — Train No. 105 — before the Tokyo-backed Kwantung Army captured it in 1931.
Like Britain, Japan saw the military utility of railways in its colonies. Japan’s troops had secured the Russian-built railroads of Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese war in 1904–05, and the Kwantung Army used those railroads as their main supply and transport routes.
From a Japanese perspective, the railroads of Manchuria were one of the starting points of World War II. The Japanese justification to invade Manchuria began with a false flag bombing of a stretch of the South Manchurian Railroad.
No-one knows what happened to Zaamurets after it fell into Japanese hands. Perhaps it was blown up and derailed during World War II. Maybe some scrap merchants cut it apart and sold it. Its fate is an enigma.
But the vessel’s story of many masters and incredible mileage was indicative of the wide-reaching chaos and effects of the Russian Revolution — and the time when no one wanted to mess with a really mean-looking train.