Russian Army 1915 Part II


Russia lacked officers, and lacked still more N.C.O.s who could link them with the men. The gap between the Russia of the officer-class and the Russia of the private soldiers widened throughout 1915. ‘The officers have lost all faith in their men’, wrote a well-informed staff captain in autumn, 1915. Officers were often appalled at the ignorance and savagery they encountered. Telegraphs would suddenly stop working; and investigation of the lines to the rear would reveal a party of soldiers cooking their tea with pieces of telegraph-pole. The chief of staff of 2. Corps said, in September 1915, that ‘when we sent the opolcheniye yesterday to take station near Leipuni, they burst into tears; a senior officer reckoned that, with a single heavy shell, the whole lot would run away’. Prince Kochubey thought ‘they hold their rifles like peasants with a rake’; and a host of orders from the various army commands reveals what officers thought of their men, who were told, for instance, to make sure that they cleared vegetation before trying to fire their rifles from a field-position, and to make sure that their rifles were clean. Artillery-officers thought the infantry not worth expensive shell; again and again, when the Germans attacked second-line divisions, there would be thousands of prisoners, but no guns in the Germans’ hands, a clear indication that artillery was leaving the ‘cattle’ in the lurch. The phenomenon was noted at the Wroclawek engagements of 11th–13th November 1914, and again in Yepanchin’s corps on the right of X Army in the battle of the Masurian winter, where the two second-line divisions were abandoned, not only by their own guns, but by Leontovitch’s cavalry as well. The officers very frequently remarked, not only on the number of prisoners taken by the Germans, but on the fact that these prisoners made no effort to escape, even when they might have done. They worked happily enough in kitchens and labour-camps behind the German lines. When the three divisions of Scheffer and Litzmann were almost surrounded by the Russian army east of Lódz in November 1915, one reason for their escape was that Russian cavalry supposed the Germans twice as strong as they were—mistaking for Germans the 16,000 Russian prisoners carried by the three divisions, who made no attempt to escape. The disintegration of IΙI Army in Galicia was similarly written down by its chief of staff, and corps commanders, to the opolcheniye’s surrendering in droves.

The officers over-reacted. This was a situation that called for the utmost finesse, sympathy and sense; men should have been promoted to high posts who understood what the front-line feelings were. The generals reacted, instead, by applying force, more and more viciously, and, in the short run, this did produce results of a sort. ‘His Majesty ordains that there should be no hesitation before the harshest punishments in order that discipline should be restored.’ Leave was cancelled, although there were too many soldiers as it was for the existing rifle-stock. General Smirnov, octogenarian commander of II Army, issued a general warning that sanctions would be taken against the families of prisoners, who would also be court-martialled on their return to Russia. Guns took to bombarding their own side. At Opatów in June 1915, a battalion, ordered to attack, fell into uncut wire and enemy machine-gun fire. The survivors fell into shell-holes, and were bombarded by enemy artillery. A few white flags then appeared above the shell-holes; and Russian officers, in the rear, ordered Russian guns to fire on the troops, as well as the German ones.


Treatment of wounded remained primitive: men were bundled into filthy sanitation-trains and dumped on straw when they arrived at the Warsaw station in Petrograd—though maybe with the comfort that a Grand Duchess would look after them. Zemgor, the union of municipalities and county councils, was supposed to look after the wounded as a voluntary operation. It took lavish government subsidies, despite its voluntary claims, and exempted from military service a large number of liable young men who worked with Zemgor. The wounded would have clean clothes put on them as they arrived in Zemgor hospitals, but they would be given their rags back, uncleaned, when the time came to shift them to an army hospital. Leave was always ungenerous, and the wounded would be taken back into service even if their case had been quite severe. Not surprisingly, hospitals were places of low morale. Sandetski, chief of staff of the Kazan military district, reported that spies he had placed among the wounded came back with endless tales of woe: ‘the absence of real capacity on the part of commanders is felt more strongly than lack of shell’. Alexeyev wrote at length to Brusilov on the state of morale, as reported by his own son: commanders were thought imbecilic, ‘and there is hardly a single general you can name who has become popular with the men’. There was a similar want of understanding between the men and the censors who read their letters. The Moscow Board, covering selected letters, soon saw that the men were appalled at their losses. The censors wrote off the figures given by the men as obvious examples of wartime hysteria. Then they examined the affairs of a single regiment, to see what bearing these figures had on the reality. They discovered that this regiment—the 226th Gryazovetski—had contained 2,389 men on 19th August 1915; on 27th August, 665.

For army morale, supply-considerations were often the decisive ones. Men might put up, as they did in other armies, with the brutality and inefficiency of their officers, provided they at least had something to eat and something to wear. By 1917, the overall economic crisis of the country had made survival even in the army questionable, since food and clothes did not arrive. By 1915, the problem had emerged, though not in the dimensions of 1917. It arose partly because the army authorities treated their men on a lavish scale: they supposed that each soldier must have 4,000 calories a day, twice the standard diet of today, and therefore arranged for soldiers to have one and a half lbs. of meat every day, and a pound of sugar, as well as exaggerated quantities of other food-stuffs, though only one ounce of soap per week. There was not much sense in these quantities, which were meant for a soldier marching and fighting in the manner of the past century. Yet they required 15,000 head of cattle per day to be sent, where the authorities could not really supply more than 5,000 per day, and armies lurched around eastern Europe with huge herds of cattle clogging their lines of retreat. Supply-attempts broke down in the face of exorbitant demand, and the men would be fed extremely badly for days on end, after which they would have a feast of food already going bad. The supply-depots, with huge stocks, often sold them off before they went bad: indeed, ‘they had a whole mechanism for robbing’. For similar reasons, an army group indented for 2,500,000 pairs of underpants in spring 1916, regardless of its casualties’ having made a great number of these superfluous. Supply-officers then made a profit out of this particularly ghoulish version of Dead Souls.

All of this went together with an insistence that, if things went wrong, it was the men’s fault. ‘The officers look on us as soul-less lumps, without any feelings at all’; there were savage beatings, ‘sometimes of old men with long beards’; ‘We throw our rifles away and give up, because things are dreadful in our army, and so are the officers’. The diary of one soldier, Shtukaturov, shows what life must have been in the Russian army in 1915. Shtukaturov was the type of man who usually made an excellent soldier—honest, intelligent, patriotic, enterprising. He had risen from his village to become a skilled workman of the Putilov factory, of which he was proud. He happily went off to do his duty in war. But his diary for the second half of 1915 shows what obstacles he met while doing so. After a stay in his village, he went back to the front in June, going through Moscow, where, thanks to an error in his railway-pass, he was stranded. He took the problem to a railway-official ‘who looked at me with majestic contempt’ and ignored him. Thanks to the kindness of a guard, he managed to go on without too much delay, after a night in the station. He arrived in Novocherkassk, meaning to pray in the cathedral, but found it closed. The supply-command in Kiev behaved brutally towards soldiers who grumbled; that in Podwoloczysk, near the front, made him pay forty-one kopecks for a meal that ought to have been free. In July he went to Vilna, where he witnessed the beating of a cretinous soldier, noted that even the N.C.O.s rifles were dirty, and heard from his wife in Smolensk a rumour that she, with the rest of the village, was to be evacuated to Siberia. In October he moved from Molodechno to Kherson—third-class, because someone had again blundered over his railway-ticket. He was then given a medal, but the wrong one was sent to him, and was taken back without replacement. He was finally killed in December 1915, in the offensive of the Strypa, one of Ivanov’s perfect little jewels of ineptitude. Maybe Shtukaturov’s case was merely one case of misfortune, but the authorities’ comments at the time suggest otherwise. Men began shooting themselves in the finger, as Brusilov complained, and were then ‘helped’ off the field by other men, there being (characteristically) no field ambulances

Running away already perturbed Yanushkevitch sufficiently for him to put to the Council of Ministers a suggestion that soldiers should be guaranteed twenty-five acres of land if they fought well—a proposal received with ribaldry.


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