Russian Army 1915 Part I


Constant talk of shell-shortage, and the blaming of everything upon it, concealed a much more important factor: the increasing crisis of authority in the Russian army. Shell-shortage, lack of officers, and the increasing restiveness of the men were the three factors that most influenced the shape of affairs in 1915, and it is not surprising that Stavka, with respectable public opinion in general, concentrated its attention on shell-shortage which at least had an obvious, material remedy, and one moreover that could profit respectable public opinion. But the shell-shortage had itself been greatly complicated by the nature of the army, which in the long run mattered much more than shell-shortage.

Officer and man began to draw apart, almost as soon as the initial patriotic euphoria had vanished. Revolutionary urges began to affect the men: not yet in the form of mutiny, but certainly in the form of je m’enfoutisme—malingering, passive resistance, dumb insolence, overstaying of leave. To measure such things is of course difficult. There are several collections, in print, of soldiers letters home in this period, but both they and the censors’ comments on them present the historian with a well-known trap, since much depends on the methods of sampling. Some of the printed collections have the reader wondering why revolution failed to break out in December 1914, and others equally have him wondering why it broke out at all. Just the same, there are clear indications that, in 1915, ‘incidents’ multiplied. Sick-lists lengthened, with 85,000 men evacuated to the rear in 1914, and 420,000 in 1915. More revealing still, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians captured, in 1915, over a million prisoners, so many that the Russian authorities lost track of them. There was a widespread demoralisation of the army, that had inevitable effects on the commanders’ strategy. In some ways, ‘shell-shortage’ was a mere technical translation of the great social convulsion within Russia.

The difficulties were blamed on ‘agitators’, and at the generals’ conference in Cholm, just before the evacuation of Lwów, arrangements were made for construction of barracks in provincial towns, ‘so that reserve-battalions can be kept away from the populace’. Hitherto the troops had been kept mainly in Moscow, Petrograd, Kiev, because these alone had housing and supply-facilities, and the bulk of troops continued to be placed there, for lack of anything else. Naturally, their contact with the populace, particularly in Petrograd, and particularly with the women, who were more uncompromising revolutionaries than the men, caused trouble for officers. Still, at this time the soldiers were still overwhelmingly ‘patriotic’ in their orientation, and though they resented their officers’ behaviour, they shrank from full-scale mutiny. There were riots, drunken outbreaks; there was some desertion. But, just as in this period there were not many strikes, so these outbreaks were confined to a sort of continual revolutionary murmur.

It was not agitators, but the collapse of the old army’s structure, that produced trouble. The army’s numbers went up, beyond the capacity of the administrative machinery even to count. The standing army, the first class of the reserve, the recruit-years (by anticipated conscription) of 1914–18 were called up. Beyond these, there was the enormous mass of territorial troops, the opolcheniye, who had little or no training, but who found themselves bearing arms—of a sort—as the man-power crisis bit deep. Altogether, nine million men seem to have been called up by July 1915. On the other hand, the number of officers, inadequate even for the peacetime army at its full strength of two million men, went down because of officer-casualties, of which there were 60,000 by July 1915. The 40,000 officers of 1914 were more or less completely wiped out. Replacements from the officers’ schools could proceed only at a rate of 35,000 per annum. Wide recourse was had to ‘‘warrant-officers’, men with little fitness to become officers, promoted straight from their high schools. But by September 1915, it was rare for front-line regiments—of 3,000 men—to have more than a dozen officers. The training-troops of the rear were similarly few in number, because officers were not enough for the purpose. The whole of Russia supported 162 training-battalions, which would take in between one and two thousand men for a training-period supposed to last six weeks. It is therefore understandable that a large number of the hundreds of thousands of troops arriving every month in army depots had nothing to do for most of the day. Moreover, the army leaders would not, until the turn of 1915–16, promote men from the ranks on a sufficiently lavish scale to make up; and even when men were promoted in this way, they never attained substantial posts. It is sometimes astonishing to see how many men, sometimes due for brilliant careers in the Red Army two years later, failed to rise above a non-commissioned post in the Tsarist Army. Zhukovs, Frunzes, Tukhachevskis were available to the Tsarist army, but they never rated more than a subaltern’s job, much as Napoleon’s marshals had done in the days of the ancien régime.

But the problem with officers was only part of the structural problem. There was also a problem, perhaps more serious, with N.C.O.s. As Dragomirov said, ‘this vital link in the chain of command was missing’. N.C.O.s were appointed ad hoc, shared the men’s facilities—there was no sergeants’ mess, certainly none of its ethos—and usually were among the first to go Bolshevik, unless they were in the privileged cavalry or artillery. It was partly the blindness of the old régime that was responsible for this, for officers could not imagine that an N.C.O. could appear in less than ten years of service. It was also a consequence of the social development of Russia, where the N.C.O.-type had not emerged to nearly the same extent as in western countries. France and Germany had a whole range of artisans: men, certainly not of officer-status, who none the less had their own parcel of responsibility, over a counter-help, a Polish maid-servant or seasonal labourer. In the German army, artisans made up two-fifths of the N.C.O. corps and in some regiments even more; independent peasants made up most of the rest. The State offered its support for this process, because it guaranteed a man who served for seven years, and became a Reserve-N.C.O., a job in the Prussian postal or railway-services, which suited many men of artisan-background at a time when excessive competition was eating away their livelihoods. What the Prussian bureaucracy had done for the economically-pressed Junker, it also achieved for the artisan or small farmer in difficulties, and it acquired thereby the most solid N.C.O.-corps in Europe. Russia was a different case. Only three per cent of her peasant population was in the habit of hiring labour, and the village commune indeed existed to dismantle properties that looked as if they would proceed on western lines. Moreover, where Russia had the egalitarian commune, western Europe had a plethora of trade-unions, churches, schools, boy-scout organisations where men could learn discipline and also learn how to transmit it. At N.C.O.-level, there was a smudgy copy of the officer-class, which did excellent service in turning a mass-army into a serviceable military unit. In Russia, this caste was much weaker: in 1903 there existed only 12,109 long-serving soldiers in the army, in place of the 23,943 there should have been—two per company, where the Germans had twelve.


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