By early March 1940 the final act of the Winter War between Finland and Russia was underway. A new and massive Russian offensive had been launched on the Karelian Isthmus.
“Twelve Soviet divisions along with five Soviet tank brigades—approximately a quarter of a million men—were about to hurl themselves in the Viipuri area against two understrength, ammunition-poor, bone-tired Finnish divisions of less than twenty thousand.” (Gordon F. Sander, The Hundred Day Winter War, University of Kansas Press, 2013, p. 296)
In the face of this onslaught, the Finns were forced to retreat from the Mannerheim Line for the first time. By early March, although victories continued north of Lake Ladoga and the eastern end of the Line stood firm, the Russians stood at the gates of Viipuri on the western Isthmus.
Meanwhile, France and Britain had an expeditionary force ready to march to Finland, but there were obstacles. Neutral Sweden refused to grant transit rights. While negotiations continued, the situation of the Finns grew dire. Finnish reserves were almost totally depleted.
Reluctantly accepting the reality that Western aid would not arrive in time, the Finnish government signed an armistice with Russia on March 12, 1940. A ceasefire came into effect all along the front the next day, March 13. This was the Peace of Moscow.
When the terms of the peace were announced, flags in Finland flew at half mast.
The peace was just as traumatic as the attack had been on November 30.
The ceded area included Finland’s second largest city of Viipuri and much of Finland’s industrialized territory–11% of the territory and 30% of the economic assets of pre-war Finland. Twelve percent of Finland’s population, some 422,000 Karelians, had to be evacuated and re-settled.
One Soviet general remarked: “We have won just enough ground to bury our dead.”
The estimated number of Russian dead has changed over the years and may never be known. The generally accepted figure is 230 000- 270 000.
Finnish dead numbered approximately 25 000.
Many more soldiers and civilians were wounded or succumbed to the cold.
The Finns had lost so much and paid such a great price that at first the peace felt more unbearable than the war. That was before they knew how desperate the military situation on the Isthmus had been, how close they had come to catastrophe. Gradually, they understood. The peace was cruel, but there had been no other choice; and they still had their country and their freedom. Truncated, battered, bloodied, but still there.
Most of the foreign correspondents conjured themselves out of Helsinki as quickly as they’d appeared. The glamour of the war dissipated overnight and the Finns were left alone to clean up the mess—resettling half a million Karelian evacuees, rebuilding shattered cities and towns, learning how to live again as a nation.
And there was the return of the soldiers. The survivors, men from the abyss who had given everything and found it was not enough. Exhausted and silent, they trickled back to their homes. They sat on their porches during the long spring evenings, trying to remember the routines of civilian life. Each in his own way and his own time tried to put the war to rest. Some never did.
Tina watched them as they returned. Even the outwardly healthy ones were different now. They might tell a story from the trenches or even a joke, but they fell silent again far too quickly. As if they were waiting, still listening for something. What? The rumble of the artillery, the whine of grenades?
From Lost Ground
The last word goes to the man who led Finland’s tiny army through the war, Marshal Mannerheim:
“Soldiers! I have fought on many battlefields but never have I seen your like as warriors. That an army so inferior in numbers and equipment should have inflicted such defeats on an overwhelmingly powerful enemy is something hard to find a parallel for in the history of war.
It is equally admirable that the Finnish people were able to resist giving in to despair, and instead to grow in devotion and greatness.
Such a nation has earned the right to live.“