Rebuilding the Army – summer 1813 the Russian army Part I

During the truce of summer 1813 the Russian army was transformed. By the time the autumn campaign began it was not just rested, well fed and reorganized but also much larger than had been the case in May. To understand how this happened requires us to retrace our steps a little and to look at events behind the front lines. In part this means understanding the complicated process of raising, training and equipping the hundreds of thousands of conscripts who reinforced the field armies in 1812–14. Just moving these forces from the Russian heartland to German battlefields was a challenge. In the autumn of 1812 the main training area of the reserve armies was in Nizhnii Novgorod province, some 1,840 kilometres even from Russia’s frontier with the Duchy of Warsaw. The war ministry reckoned that it took fifteen weeks of marching to cover this distance.

Once in Poland and Germany, Russian armies had to be fed and supplied while operating a huge distance from their home bases. One way of putting this in perspective is to remember that more than half a million Russian soldiers served outside the empire’s borders in 1813– 14, and this in a Europe where only two cities had populations of more than 500,000. It is equally useful to recall Russia’s experience in the Seven Years War (1756–63), when Russian armies operated in the same German regions as in 1813. Their efforts were crucially undermined by the need to retreat eastwards hundreds of kilometres every autumn because they could not supply themselves on Prussian soil. For the Russians in 1813–14, to defeat Napoleon was only half the problem. Getting large armies to the battlefield in a state to fight him was as great a challenge and an achievement.

In accordance with Barclay de Tolly’s January 1812 law on the field armies, as Russian troops advanced westwards a network of military roads spread across eastern and central Europe. It began well within the Russian Empire and stretched all the way to the front lines. Down these roads travelled the great majority of the reinforcements, ammunition and other supplies which kept the Russian army strong and in the field. At regular intervals along these roads food depots and hospitals were set up, and town commandants appointed. These commandants had detachments of up to 100 Bashkir and Kalmyk cavalry at their disposal, who if properly supervised were formidable military police. The commandant’s job was to make sure that roads and bridges were in good repair, and hospitals and depots properly supplied and administered. He registered the arrival and departure of all units on his stretch of road, reporting all movements to headquarters every ten days. The military roads made it much easier to ensure that troops en route to the front line were properly watched over, fed and cared for. The system was also a disincentive to desertion or marauding.

The January 1812 (OS) army law also set out in some detail how Russian soldiers were to be supplied and fed when serving abroad. A sharp distinction was made between operating on the territory of allies, where all such matters were regulated by treaties between the states involved, and campaigning on enemy soil. The law made no allowance for neutrals: their territory should be treated in the same way as that of enemies. On hostile or neutral territory the army must supply itself from the land by requisition. Its day-to-day upkeep must not be the responsibility of the Russian treasury. Requisitioning should be carried out in orderly fashion, however, in order to preserve the troops’ discipline and protect the local population and economy. Wherever possible this must be done through the local administration, overseen by officials of the army’s intendancy. The intendant-general of the field army was ex officio to be the governor-general of all occupied territory and all officials were bound to obey his orders under threat of severe penalties for disobedience. Receipts were to be given for all food and materials requisitioned in order to prevent disorder and allow the local authorities to equalize burdens by repaying the holders of these receipts from their tax revenues.

In the first half of 1813 Russian armies operated above all in Prussia and Poland. Well before the alliance with Frederick William was signed Alexander had agreed to pay for food requisitioned in Prussia. One-fifth of the value was to be paid immediately in Russian paper rubles, the rest subsequently in return for receipts. The instigator of this policy was Stein, who argued for it on political grounds and because it made no sense to ruin the population of a future ally, all of whose meagre resources would soon be needed for the war effort. This concession to the Prussians was never repeated when Russian troops were campaigning on Saxon and French territory.

Immediately after the Russo-Prussian treaty of alliance was signed, the two governments came to an agreement on the upkeep of Russian forces operating on Prussian territory. Prussian commissars attached to Russian corps would requisition the necessary food in return for receipts. The commissars would then either arrange for food to be supplied from stores or for troops to be quartered on the population. The terms of repayment for the overall upkeep of the Russian forces on Prussian soil were generous. Food prices were calculated on a six-month average across the whole of Prussia, not at the hugely inflated rates of the districts in which masses of troops were actually operating. Three-eighths of the cost was to be covered by shipping grain from Russia to the Prussian ports, which the Russians were intending to do anyway for their own army. A further three-eighths would be in receipts, repayable after the end of the war. The final two-eighths was to be paid in paper rubles. Completely avoided was any requirement for the Russians to part with scarce silver and gold coin.

The situation in the Duchy of Warsaw was very different, for this was conquered enemy territory. Polish food was to be crucial to the Russian war effort in 1813. Without it the Russian army could not have remained in the field in the summer and autumn of that year. The fact that all this requisitioned food was free was also vital for the Russian treasury. Though precision is impossible, the contribution of the Duchy of Warsaw to feeding and supplying both the Russian field armies and the Reserve Army, which was quartered on Polish territory from spring 1813, amounted to tens of millions of rubles.

Russian policy in Poland was ambivalent, however. On the one hand, the Poles had to be milked if the Russian war effort was to be sustained. On the other hand, the emperor was anxious to win the loyalty of the Poles, whom he wished to make his future subjects. Kutuzov’s proclamation setting up the Polish provisional government in March 1813 promised that ‘all classes should feel His Imperial Majesty’s care for them and through this, and also through the abolition of conscription, would experience how great was the difference between his fatherly administration and the former one, which had been forced to plunder in order to satisfy the insatiable thirst for conquest of masters who called themselves allies’. Promised full pay, full protection for persons and property, and strict punishment for any bad behaviour by the troops, the overwhelming majority of Polish officials in the Duchy of Warsaw stayed in their jobs. This was a great benefit to the Russians, who could not remotely have found the cadres to run Poland themselves. It did mean, however, that most officials in Poland would only requisition energetically for the Russians if their own lives and careers were clearly at stake.

The new provisional government was headed by two Russians: its deputy head was Alexander’s old friend, Nikolai Novosiltsev, a shrewd and tactful political operator whose appointment showed just how high a priority winning over the Poles was for the emperor. The head of the government, and simultaneously the governor-general of the Duchy, was the former intendant-general of Kutuzov’s army, Vasili Lanskoy, who was himself now replaced by Georg Kankrin. Lanskoy’s appointment underlined the even higher priority of using Poland to feed the Russian army, though most generals soon came to believe that he had ‘gone native’ and was serving Polish rather than Russian interests. For the Russians, however, the big problem was not in Warsaw but at provincial level. Despite what was said in the army law, it was impossible for the overstretched army’s intendancy to spare officials to oversee the Polish provincial administration. Nor could the army spare front-line officers. Kutuzov had appealed to Alexander to send officials from the Russian interior instead and this is what was done. But the number and quality of these officials was well below what was needed.

On the whole, from January until the middle of May 1813 the feeding of the troops went well and caused few clashes. This was especially true in Prussia and in Prussian settlements in the Duchy of Warsaw, where the population detested Napoleon and saw the Russian troops as liberators. Even in Polish areas matters usually went reasonably well, though Kutuzov’s advance guard moving through the centre of the Duchy of Warsaw subsisted on biscuit for most of January and only received its wartime meat and vodka rations from the beginning of February. The Poles undoubtedly suffered but not as much as civilian populations in areas conquered by Napoleon or, in the Seven Years War, by Frederick the Great. The Russians imposed neither conscription nor a war indemnity. Their leaders tried with some success to sustain discipline and protect the civilian population. For example, on 18 February 1813 Kankrin published instructions for the feeding of the Russian troops from Polish stores or by the households on which they were quartered. After spelling out the troops’ proper rations, which for soldiers operating abroad included meat and spirits three times a week, he encouraged the local population to report any excessive demands or misbehaviour by the soldiers. Given the men’s exhaustion and the way in which traditional distrust of Poles had been fed by the events of 1812, the regular troops appear to have behaved remarkably well. On 23 March, writing from Kalicz, Kutuzov told his wife that ‘our soldiers’ behaviour surprises everyone here and the morals shown by the troops even surprise me’.

For six weeks from mid-May 1813, however, the army faced a crisis as regards food supply. Barclay explained the reasons for this crisis in a key memorandum for Alexander. He stated that the army’s problems were the consequence of a year’s campaigning back and forth across an enormous area in a manner which had no precedent in history. Disorder was inevitable. ‘The army has drawn far ahead of the supplies prepared in Russia and has almost no food reserve left with its units.’ According to the terms of the convention, the Prussian government was supposed to feed Russian troops when they were on Prussian soil. In Silesia, however, the Prussians did not have enough in their magazines to feed even their own troops in May 1813. A little could be done if one was prepared to purchase supplies with silver but the army’s treasury was almost empty. It had received thus far in 1813 less than one-quarter of the money owed it by the ministry of finance. In the longer term, however, the answer to the army’s needs was not the use of limited Russian funds to buy food but instead effective requisitioning in the Duchy of Warsaw. The key aims of Barclay’s memorandum were to get Alexander to force the finance minister, Dmitrii Gurev, to release funds immediately and to make the governor-general of Warsaw, Vasili Lanskoy, carry out the army’s plan for massive requisitioning in the Duchy. Barclay concluded by stating that unless Alexander did this, ‘I cannot guarantee that we will not face catastrophic consequences which will have a fatal impact on our soldiers and on military operations’.

In his report Barclay told Alexander that the only thing which had saved the soldiers from starvation in early June was the providential arrival of the mobile magazine of Chichagov’s former Army of the Danube. The large store of biscuit it carried had tided the troops over for a number of weeks. Initially put together in Podolia and Volhynia in the summer of 1812, the 2,340 surviving carts of this magazine had struggled forward through snow and mud for 1,000 kilometres or more, despite the fact that heavily loaded peasant carts were supposed to be able to operate over distances of only 150 kilometres. Many of the carts had been hastily constructed of unseasoned wood. Most were of light construction and all were low slung with small wheels. In the autumn and spring mud it was almost impossible for horses to pull them. In comparison to Austrian carts, noted the magazine’s commander subsequently, the Russian civilian ones in his magazine carried less goods, were more fragile, and required more horses.

Matters were not improved by the fact that initially many of these carts were drawn by oxen. Given their voracious appetites, it was impossible for a train pulled by oxen to move in winter. In January and February 1813 therefore the mobile magazine had come to a halt and its oxen had been turned into rations. Urged on by Kutuzov, the mobile magazine had got under way again once spring arrived, its oxen replaced by requisitioned horses, but its Heath Robinson appearance was accentuated by the fact that most of the horses were having to pull the carts with furnishings initially designed for oxen. Many of the drivers had never had to deal with horses before, had not been paid since departure, and were in some cases individuals whom their landlords were trying to get rid of. In the circumstances it was a miracle that the magazine turned up.

The arrival of the mobile magazine bought enough time for the Prussians to get their system for supplying the Russians back in order. Once it became clear that the armistice would last for weeks, it was possible to disperse the army into quarters. The Russian cavalry commanders were always extremely concerned about their horses’ proper feeding: now their regiments could be redeployed to areas well behind the front where oats were plentiful. Meanwhile the Prussian authorities had been helpful in organizing a deal between Kankrin and private Prussian contractors, who offered 55,000 daily rations of flour and bread partly on credit and partly for paper rubles. In a theatre of operations the first deficit item was always carts. The arrival in mid-July of 4,000 carts of the main army’s mobile magazine was therefore a huge asset. Kankrin divided some of the mobile magazines’ carts into echelons to bring up supplies from Poland by stages. Others were utilized to pick up food purchased from or provided by the Prussians, which had previously been impossible to transport.

By the time the main army’s magazine arrived, Alexander had already responded effectively to Barclay’s appeal for money. He immediately commandeered for army headquarters almost 2.5 million paper rubles of ministry of finance funds held in Germany and he ordered Gurev to remit the remainder immediately, commenting that he himself was a witness to the army’s urgent needs. Faced with a direct imperial command, Gurev wrote to Barclay on 13 July that he had already sent him 4.8 million silver and 4 million paper rubles, and more was on the way.

From the perspective of headquarters Gurev’s delay in sending money already agreed in the military budget was indefensible. Inevitably, the finance minister saw things differently. Even before Napoleon’s invasion, budget deficits could only be covered by the printing of paper money and fears of financial collapse were common. As a result of the war, expenditure shot up and revenues shrank. Nearly 25 per cent of anticipated revenue had failed to arrive in 1812. In the first quarter of 1813 things were worse: only 54 per cent of expected revenues had come in by late April. Gurev blamed ‘the shock felt throughout the state in 1812, when on top of normal taxes, both traditional and newly established in that year, the population was burdened by the mobilization of the militia, by recruit levies, by military demands, duties and contributions: by a very conservative estimate all this amounted to over 200 million rubles’. Faced with a vast looming deficit all Gurev could do was to reduce expenditure wherever possible and fill the gap with additional printing of paper money. In April 1813 he predicted that if the war lasted throughout 1814 and its financing continued as at present then ‘no means will remain to rescue us from the final destruction of our financial system’.

Although Gurev feared hyper-inflation within Russia he tended to believe that the enormous amount of economic activity linked to repairing the damage caused by Napoleon’s invasion would mop up much of the newly issued paper money. So too would growing Russian external trade now the Continental System was destroyed once and for all. The finance minister’s true source of panic was the large amounts of Russian paper money which the Field Army was spending abroad. No foreigner would wish to hang on to this money, nor would private individuals use it in payment for goods and services provided by other Germans. Therefore the entire sum was likely to be remitted back to Russia for exchange, with dire consequences for the ruble’s rate against foreign currencies.

Gurev warned that if the paper ruble’s exchange rate collapsed, the Field Army’s financing would become impossible. To avoid this he dragged his heels as regards remitting funds to army headquarters and got the committee of ministers to agree to a number of proposals, including paying officers and men abroad only half their pay with the remainder to be given them on return to Russia. Gurev’s argument, partly true, was that officers and men serving abroad to a great extent lived off the land and did not need much cash. Nevertheless, had it been implemented, the impact of this policy on the morale of the troops can easily be imagined: the army was already very badly paid by European standards and was fighting an exhausting campaign on foreign territory in a cause many even of the officers did not understand.

Faced with peremptory orders from the emperor, Gurev would have released funds for the army in all circumstances but he was also greatly encouraged in this direction by news of a large impending British subsidy, of which he had despaired. In 1812 Alexander had not requested a British subsidy. This was partly a question of pride. In addition, fighting on his own territory he could finance the war without great difficulty. Perhaps for this reason, it was actually many months after diplomatic relations with Britain were restored that Alexander got round to appointing an ambassador in London. Once Russian armies advanced across the empire’s borders, however, the matter became urgent and the emperor nominated Christoph Lieven and sent him to London in January 1813 with a message for the British government: ‘In the present circumstances every dispatch of troops abroad is becoming very expensive for me. It requires the emission of metallic currency which totally undermines our rate of exchange. This would have a serious effect on our finances which they could not ultimately sustain, since the state’s revenues are bound to shrink considerably this year as a result of the complete devastation of some provinces.’ Lieven was ordered both to ask for a subsidy and to present the British government with a scheme for ‘Federal Paper Money’. This paper was to bear interest and to be redeemable immediately after the war. It was to be guaranteed by the British, Russian and Prussian governments, and was to be used to pay for part of the Russian and Prussian war effort. The scheme had been devised in Petersburg with the help, among others, not just of Stein but of the British financier Sir Francis d’Ivernois.


1 thought on “Rebuilding the Army – summer 1813 the Russian army Part I

  1. A bit politized, any pole would have prefered to pay more and get conscripted in exchange for independence, not in vain they sent 100000+ men to Russia in 1812, quite a feat for a small underpopulated land as was the duchy


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