Secret Agent, Soldier and Statesman

Of all the great explorers who plundered the ancient treasures of the Silk Road a century ago, Baron Gustaf Mannerheim would become the most famous, but not for his archaeological exploits.

Men such as Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein, Albert von Le Coq and Paul Pelliot were the celebrity-explorers of their time. Feted and financed by Europe’s monarchs, they were treated like heroes, returning home with rapturous stories of Oriental adventure and caravan loads of priceless antiquities. Nowadays, though, their names have been largely forgotten. Mannerheim is a different story.


Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was born at Louhisaari Manor in Askainen, Finland, on June 4, 1867. He was the third child of Count Carl Robert Mannerheim and his wife, Helena von Julin. At the age of fourteen, Mannerheim was sent to the Military Cadet School in Hamina, but was expelled for disciplinary reasons. He eventually entered the military by enrolling at the Nikolaevsky Cavalry School in St. Petersburg in 1887 and became an expert on horses. He first served in a Russian regiment quartered in Poland, and then transferred to the Tsar’s Chevalier Guards in St. Petersburg. In 1892, he married the daughter of a wealthy Russian general, and together they had two daughters.

Mannerheim volunteered for the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. The war was a humiliating defeat for Nicholas II, a blundering autocrat. Mannerheim performed his duties courageously and was promoted to colonel in the battlefield. Due to his long absence, his marriage suffered and ended in divorce. The next year, General Palitsyn, Chief of the General Staff, offered him a special commission to trek from Russian Turkestan to Peking on a secret intelligence mission to document the modernization and rise of China in the late Qing Dynasty. Covering 14,000 kilometres, he successfully completed the two-year journey in 1908.

Mannerheim was soon promoted to the rank of Major General and took command of the Tsar’s forces in Warsaw in 1911. During the First World War, he led operations against the Austrians as commander of a brigade and later a cavalry division. He earned the Cross of St. George, the highest military award in Russia, and became a Lieutenant General. During the last phase of the war, Mannerheim was given command of the Sixth Cavalry Corps on the southern front.


The Bolshevik revolution ended Mannerheim’s Russian military career. In December 1917, he returned to his native Finland, which had just declared its independence. There were some 40,000 Russian troops still occupying the country. The Finnish Senate requested Mannerheim to form an army, restore law and order, defeat revolutionaries and eject Russian troops from the country. The three-month long civil war ended with the victory of Mannerheim’s White Army and an independent Finland.

Relations between Mannerheim and the Senate gradually became tense. The Commander in Chief did not approve of the Senate’s pro-German policy, considering Kaiser Wilhelm II was losing the war. When Germany finally collapsed, the situation in Finland changed and Mannerheim was called back in December 1918 to act as Regent. Mannerheim signed the constitution of the independent and democratic Republic of Finland in July 1919, but lost the election to be President. He retired to private life and founded the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare in 1920. In 1931, he was appointed Chairman of the Defence Council and in 1933 was awarded the title of Field Marshal.


For Finland, the Second World War broke out in November 1939 when Stalin’s army started bombing Finnish cities. Mannerheim, now in his seventies, was appointed Commander in Chief, a position he held during the Winter War (1939-40) and the Continuation War (1941-44). Under Mannerheim’s leadership, the poorly armed and severely out-numbered Finnish army courageously held back the far superior Soviet forces. Their heroism earned the fighting Finns admiration around the world. Foreign journalists quickly dubbed Finland’s main defensive positions the “Mannerheim Line.”

Near the end of the war, Parliament appointed Mannerheim President. With his prestige and personal relationships (especially with Winston Churchill), Mannerheim led Finland, which had been forced into an uneasy alliance with Nazi Germany, out of the war as the sole country on the losing side that was not occupied by Allied or Soviet troops.

Upon his death, at the age of 83 in 1951, Finnish President Passikivi pronounced him to be “one of the greatest men and most illustrious figures in the history of Finland.” He was buried in the war cemetery at Hietaniemi in Helsinki. Great crowds turned out for the unforgettable funeral procession. “For them,” writes one biographer, “Gustaf Mannerheim was and remains a symbol of the republic of Finland and of its freedom.”

In 2004, Mannerheim was voted as the Greatest Finn of all time by TV viewers in Finland.

  • Paivi Evars


    I was hoping to be able to hear your lecture at the FinnGrand Fest in Sault Ste. Marie last year, but unfortunately, arrived too late. Now I came across your book again as I activated “a rebirth lottery game” in Helsingin Sanomat, the Finnish weekly, and was “reborn” in one of the northern Chinese regions, Gansu.

    As this area has Yugur population, and all the links are connected to Wikipedia, I soon found information pertaining to Marshal Mannerheim’s journey in the early 20th century, and naturally, your book as a reference source. My first question is this: why is C.G.E. Mannerheim referred to as Gustaf Mannerheim on your site? According to Veijo Meri, author of “Suomen marsalkka C.G. Mannerheim” (1990) “Mannerheim disliked his last Christian name – Emil – and wrote his signature as C. G. Mannerheim, or simply Mannerheim. Among his relatives and close friends he was called Gustaf. In Finland, his full name is officially considered C.G.E. Mannerheim as well, as broadcast in 2004 by the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Mannerheim was chosen the Greatest Finn of all times by popular vote.

    My second question is this: what sparked your interest in replicating Mannerheim’s trip? Just curious!

    I look forward to reading your book some time in the near future, it sounds fascinating. What we learned about Mannerheim at school was very limited and the post-war Finland was not exactly praising its war heroes. An old friend of mine, a book publisher in Finland, used to entertain his listeners with recollections about the highly cultured and multi-faceted marshal as well as his feisty Finnish cook ; )

    Best regards,

    P. Evars