18th Century Russian Campaigning in Eastern Europe II

Russian Guards of the 18th Century.

The size of the Russian logistical apparatus and the nature of East European terrain thus produced chronic shortages of fodder and often of food whenever Russian armies went off to war. One reason why so many of Russia’s eighteenth-century campaigns appear so irritatingly indecisive to modern observers is that although Russia might frequently take an objective, capture a city, or even conquer an entire province, it often was forced to evacuate it owing to a lack of victuals and forage. In the middle of June 1736, for example, Münnich breached the fortifications of Perekop and, for the first time in Russian history, led an invading Slavic army into the Crimean peninsula; the stunned Turks and Tatars fell back respectively on Kaffa and the Yaila mountains. Yet by the end of August Münnich had to retreat, for he had all but exhausted his own stock of food and water. He could not rely on locally obtained supplies, because his enemies had taken the precaution of burning the granaries and poisoning the wells. The following summer Münnich took the Turkish fortress of Ochakov after ferocious fighting in which perhaps as much as 80 percent of the defenders and inhabitants were butchered. Yet on the July 5, 1737 Münnich had no choice but to break camp and march the main Russian army away from Ochakov, this time because of a dearth of forage. The field marshal reported to St. Petersburg that 1,720 horses and 685 teams of oxen had died from the heat or from lack of fodder.

Insufficient forage was a problem that dogged the Russians in other wars years later. It was most particularly acute (and damaging) during the Seven Years War, when it severely compromised many military operations. P. A. Rumiantsev, then in Brandenburg, wrote to V. V. Fermor in July 1758 that he often lacked the cavalry necessary for even the simplest reconnaissance because of the undernourishment of his horses. Skimpy forage often precluded decisive military action. Armchair generals have often lambasted Apraksin for his conduct after the battle of Gross Jägersdorf (August 30, 1757). They maintain that after having gained the advantage there, Apraksin should have harried the Prussians with a vigorous strategic pursuit instead of retreating. It is quite true that Apraksin did not have to retreat, but it is equally true that strategic pursuit was totally beyond his capacity in view of the condition of his underfed cavalry horses. Apraksin’s inability to renew offensive action after Gross Jägersdorf did in fact provide Der Alte Fritz with the time he needed to regroup and defeat the French at Rossbach. There was little, however, that Apraksin could have done to prevent that, no matter how aggressive and offensive-minded he might have been.

Indeed, shortage of forage was a problem that just would not go away. Almost two years later in the war, P. S. Saltykov explained to the Empress Elizabeth that he was organizing scavenging raids for the seizure of

. . . as many horses and kine as possible and also provisions, as in the army of Your Imperial Majesty. . . . the baggage and artillery horses and oxen [have] fallen into extreme exhaustion because of the great heat and poor feeding.

Elsewhere in the same missive, Saltykov noted that his artillery was largely useless because it had not been resupplied with shells; that in itself was a consequence of the inadequate quality and quantity of draft animals.

The adamantine laws of the military ecosystem thus forced the Russian government and its military commanders constantly to calculate and recalculate the requirements of human and equine alimentation. Sometimes an apparent good really concealed an evil. During the Swedish war of 1788, for instance, the provisioning department requested Catherine II’s permission to send four hundred horses to transport food and forage to Russia’s Finnish magazines and its army in the field there. Catherine referred the petition to her Council of State, where it was rejected as “deeply onerous” since “the feeding of these horses in a poor country [Finland] would increase the need of the regimental horses already there for food.” In other words, the possession of additional beasts of burden would actually disadvantage the army, as the liability of their food consumption would totally outweigh any benefit from their labor power.

Warfare in Eastern Europe thus naturally entailed very high rates of attrition. Distances were vast, terrain difficult, operations intense, and rations short. It was not uncommon for a regiment to ruin most of its equipment from hard use in the course of one summer campaign. In August 1739 Münnich sent his prisoners-of-war back to Russia under an escort of four entire regiments. The reason for employing such a large convoy was that these regiments, in Münnich’s words, “were completely without uniforms,” that is, they had thoroughly worn out their uniforms.

The conditions in which Russia waged war also promoted the spread of disease. The health of the troops was most definitely not furthered by the common practice of randomly appointing regimental surgeons from among the untrained peasants in the ranks. Examples of astonishing military epidemics abound during the eighteenth century. In the 1722–39 period, for instance, Russia kept certain districts of Transcaspian Persia under the military occupation of 30,000 men. When the St. Petersburg government agreed to withdraw its forces, it did so more because of pathology than geopolitics. Almost 130,000 Russian troops had perished from disease while on garrison duty in Persia—a full half of all who served there—over the seventeen years. The Turkish war of 1735–39 was itself a medical catastrophe. During it, as Manstein observed, the Russian army had more to fear from “hunger, thirst, continual fatigue, and marches in the intensest heats of the summer” than from the Tatars or the Turks. Münnich’s son, a passionate booster of his father’s military reputation, nonetheless conceded that the “bad climate, combined with the unbearable heat and drought, produced many illnesses among the men.” Some 30,000 soldiers are said to have died in the first year of the war, chiefly from disease. During the campaigning season of 1737 Russia’s army suffered 25,000 deaths, 60 percent of them from disease. In the following year Münnich wanted to chase the Turks into Moldavia but had to halt at the Dniester when plague broke out among the men. The majority of the 100,000 Russian casualties incurred from 1735–39 were clearly traceable to sickness.

In terms of both morbidity and mortality, the Russo-Turkish war of the 1730s was perhaps the worst of the post-Petrine eighteenth century. But infectious disease stalked Russian armies in later wars as well. Twelve thousand soldiers, for instance, died in one year (1757) of the Seven Years War—9,500 of them, or 80 percent, of diseases. In the Turkish wars of the second half of the century, the Russian soldier’s most dreaded enemy was cholera, whose outbreak in 1771 (just to adduce one example) totally spoiled Russia’s planned campaign.

“Action in war,” Clausewitz writes in Vom Krieg, “is like movement in a resistant element.” He continues to explain his concept of friction, those forces that in warfare grind armies down and make “the apparently easy so difficult.” Friction was an inescapable feature of warfare in eighteenth-century Western Europe as well. Western armies, like Russian ones, suffered from disease and logistic shortfalls. In view of the greater population density and agricultural productivity of Western Europe, however, talented commanders could minimize the effects of friction in ways their Russian counterparts could not. In the spring of 1704, for instance, Marlborough was able to march from Coblenz to the Danube while keeping his army virtually intact: he traversed populous country and made shrewd use of prepositioned magazines. That justly famous maneuver could not, however, have been accomplished in Eastern Europe. As the century progressed, the disparity between West and East European warfare grew still greater, as Western commanders benefited from population growth, rising agricultural outputs, and expanding networks of roads. To be sure, friction remained, but in East European warfare there was a superabundance of friction by comparison. Military power is after all a consumable resource, one not readily renewed. Yet the speed with which any military operation at all devoured power in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe represented a real constraint on Russian strategy and statescraft.


One thought on “18th Century Russian Campaigning in Eastern Europe II

  1. An echo of this was found by my (late) Waffen SS colleague who as a butcher volunteered for the Waffen SS. He ended up on the Ostfront where after seeing the shambles and waste he found himself appointed Sergeant Butcher – as each horse was slaughtered for food and for the lack of fodder so moving equipment became impossible. In the end they abandoned their 88mm and other heavy equipment and headed west. He survived to become a gefangener in the West and later a master butcher with Dewhursts.


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