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 in February 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)
The Finns were forced to retreat from the Mannerheim Line for the first time. Although victories continued north of Lake Ladoga and the eastern end of the Isthmus held, by early March the Russians stood at the gates of Viipuri in the west.
Meanwhile, France and Britain had an expeditionary force* ready to march to Finland, but neutral Sweden refused to grant transit rights. (*There is a lack of consensus about the main purpose of this expeditionary force. Undoubtedly some of it was destined for Norway; the French in particular wanted to open a Scandinavian front to divert the Germans from France. However, Stalin wanted no part of a war against the Western allies, and the threat of their intervention likely played a major role in his decision to make peace with Finland.)
While negotiations about the expeditionary force continued, the situation of the Finns grew dire. Reluctantly bowing to 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.
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. This was the Peace of Moscow. When the terms of the peace were announced, flags in Finland flew at half mast.
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.
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. –from Lost Ground
The last word goes to the man who led Finland’s army through the war, Marshal C. G. E. 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.“