Rebuilding the Army – summer 1813 the Russian army Part II

Given British resistance to subsidies in 1806–7, Alexander may have expected tough negotiations in London. In fact Lieven found that the British were willing to offer Russia £1.33 million in subsidy and that a further £3.3 million would accrue as their share of the Federal Paper scheme. In the context of overall British overseas payments and subsidies these sums were relatively modest. The war in the Peninsula had cost the British £11 million in 1811 and all subsidies represented less than 8 per cent of the cost of Britain’s own armed forces. When calculated in paper rubles, however, £4.6 million was a mighty sum, which in principle should cover almost all Russian projected expenditure on the campaign in Germany for the remaining seven months of 1813. To be sure, the cash was slow to arrive, exchange and discounting costs took their toll, and some predictions on expenditure proved optimistic, but the British subsidy went some way towards calming Gurev’s worries at least for a time.

If Alexander’s orders to Gurev were peremptory, his instructions to the governor-general of Warsaw, Vasili Lanskoy, were positively brutal. On 12 June Kankrin had set out the army’s requirement from the Duchy for 3 million kilos of flour, 400,000 kilos of groats, 250,000 litres of vodka, 330,000 kilos of meat and 1,000 cattle on the hoof, and a huge amount of oats for the horses. Barclay wrote to Lanskoy the next day that ‘all the supplies assigned from the provinces of the Duchy of Warsaw are to be levied immediately for it is these supplies alone which can guarantee the army’s victualling…the slightest slowness or deficits can lead to the troops suffering from severe hunger and can wreck the army’s condition and its ability to conduct military operations’. When Lanskoy pleaded the Duchy’s poverty and the foodstuffs already requisitioned by the army, he received one of the fiercest letters written by the emperor during the whole course of 1812–14. Telling his governor-general that the fate of the army, the war and of Europe depended on this requisition, Alexander warned him that he would bear personal responsibility for any failure to levy the full amount and deliver it to the army on time and by requisitioned Polish civilian carts.

After receiving this command from Alexander, Lanskoy of course caved in totally, telling local officials that ‘no excuses of any sort will be accepted from anyone’, but Barclay remained unconvinced that the Polish provincial administration would carry out the requisition promptly and strictly. He therefore sent two special commissars to watch over them, armed with all the powers provided for in the Field Army law when it came to dealing with obstruction by officials in conquered territory. He gave these commissars an open letter commanding all officials ‘to execute the orders concerning the requisitioning and dispatch of supplies to the letter and without any deviation: any slowness, mistakes or, still worse, disobedience…will without fail result in a court martial under the army’s regulations for field courts martial and on a charge of treason’. Meanwhile orders went out to the commanding officer in the Duchy, General Dokhturov, to use his troops to enforce the levy. The Ukrainian mounted militia, in some cases of little use against the French, were formidable when it came to requisitioning Polish peasants’ carts to transport the supplies.

Immediately after the armistice was signed Barclay got down to the business of reorganizing, re-equipping and training his troops. For this task he was the perfect leader. On 10 June he issued an order of the day to the soldiers and their commanding officers. He told the troops that they had not been defeated, and that they had lost not a gun nor an unwounded prisoner of war to the enemy. The armistice meant not peace but a chance to concentrate Russian and allied strength and make the preparations essential for a new and victorious campaign. Commanding officers were instructed that ‘their duty during the armistice period will be to devote all their efforts to ensuring that weapons, equipment and suchlike are in proper order; to maintaining the soldiers’ health; to preserving strict order and discipline; to training inexperienced soldiers in military skills; in a word to bringing each unit to a state of perfect readiness to achieve new victories’.

During the two-month truce the measures taken earlier to re-uniform the troops bore fruit. On 16 July Kankrin reported that enough canvas for summer trousers and enough boots had now arrived for the entire army. In March Alexander had authorized the expenditure of 3.5 million rubles to pay for new coats and tunics for most units of the line. These were provided by private contractors in Königsberg and arrived during the armistice. Initially the cost was expected to be greater but Barclay de Tolly found and requisitioned a large store of excellent cloth in Posen in February initially earmarked for Napoleon’s army. This met the needs not just of Barclay’s own corps but also of the Guards. Still better, it was paid for by the Polish taxpayer.

Meanwhile, immediately after the armistice was signed and as an urgent priority, Barclay ordered a check on all muskets to try to reduce the number of different weapons and calibres in battalions. Captain Radozhitsky was one of the artillery officers assigned to this job. He wrote in his memoirs that he checked 30,000 firearms in ten days and came to the conclusion that the main problem lay with men returning from hospital who were simply given the first gun available before being dispatched to their regiments. He also stated that many soldiers in the line infantry regiments had old and useless muskets, though in fact this was only true in some divisions. Thanks to the efforts of Radozhitsky and his comrades, muskets were swapped between battalions to ensure much greater uniformity and thereby make the supply of ammunition more efficient.

None of these efforts by Barclay would have added up to much had he not got down immediately to sorting out the administrative confusion bequeathed, in part anyway, by Wittgenstein. It was after all hard to feed or re-equip men if headquarters did not know where units were or how many soldiers were actually in their ranks. Passing orders down the military hierarchy was impossible if divisions were apart from their correct corps, or regiments from their brigades and divisions. Another prerequisite for any kind of order in the army was reuniting detachments with their parent regiments and getting rid of temporary composite units. It was time too to reunite the shrunken reserve (i.e. second) battalions with the rest of their regiments. Immediately after the truce was agreed Barclay went to war on these issues. Within a week he had new tables issued listing the brigades, divisions and corps to which every regiment belonged and showing where all these units were to be deployed and quartered. He enjoyed about 95 per cent success in re-imposing a clear and logical structure on his army by the end of June. So long as ‘partisan’ units existed and combined a majority of Cossacks with detached squadrons of regular cavalry total success was impossible.

There remained one vital task: to integrate into the Field Army the tens of thousands of reinforcements who arrived during the armistice. Some of these were men returning from hospital or from detachments. As veterans, they were particularly valuable. Most of the new arrivals, however, came from the 200,000-strong reserve units formed in Russia during the winter of 1812–13 from new conscripts. For each regiment on campaign, a reserve battalion of 1,000 men, divided into four companies, was created within Russia. When these new battalions were ready, Alexander’s plan was that some of their companies would be dispatched to reinforce the armies in the field but a sufficient cadre would remain behind to train the next wave of recruits. These would bring the battalion back to full strength and allow, in time, yet more reinforcements to be sent to join the field armies. Similar arrangements were to be made for the artillery and cavalry. In the latter’s case, for every regiment on campaign, two reserve squadrons, each of 201 men, would be formed within the empire.

In all, more than 650,000 men were conscripted into the army in 1812–14. The great majority of these were netted in the three general call-ups between August 1812 and August 1813 (83rd, 84th, 85th recruit levies) which covered almost all the empire’s provinces. In addition, however, a number of smaller call-ups targeted specific provinces. Since noble estates bore the burden of recruitment for the militia, these recruit levies above all targeted the 40 per cent of peasants who lived on state lands. The authorities realized that unless existing requirements were relaxed, they might not meet their quota of recruits. Therefore the age limit for new conscripts was raised to 40, the minimum height was reduced to just over one and a half metres, and men with minor physical defects were accepted. The huge demand for recruits meant that older and married men were conscripted in large numbers. Even if they survived the war, they faced decades of peacetime service. Tens of thousands of women would never see their husbands again but had no right to remarry, and many young families lost their main breadwinner.

The 1810 regulations for state peasants required that recruitment records be kept which would guarantee both that obligations were fairly shared among households and that the burden of conscription fell on big families with many adult males rather than on small families which it would ruin. In 1812 recruit boards were ordered by the war ministry to check these records and at least in Riazan province – for which the sources are exceptionally full – the records were actually submitted along with the conscripts to show that due process had been observed.

Pamfil Nazarov was a state peasant conscripted into the army in September 1812. His memoirs are a unique insight into conscription as seen from below. Nowhere in the memoirs does Nazarov suggest that his recruitment was unjust. On the basis of his family’s previous record of conscription and of the number of its adult males the Nazarov household was in line to provide a recruit. As was always the case, the peasant communal government targeted households, not individuals. It was up to the household itself to decide whom to send into the army. In this era most peasant households were extended families, including a number of married brothers and their children. It was notorious that the head of the household generally sent his nephews and even brothers into the army rather than his own sons. But in the Nazarov family it was clear that Pamfil was the only possible choice. Both his elder brothers were married: one had children, the other was weak. His younger brother was still under age.

Pamfil on the contrary was a strong, unmarried lad of 20. None of his family wanted to lose him: an atmosphere of misery reigned for days, with both Pamfil and his mother in particular sometimes overcome with tears. In September 1812 Napoleon was marching into the Russian heartland. Pamfil’s own province, Tver, was threatened and Moscow fell in the midst of his induction into the army. Pamfil was untouched by any feeling of patriotism or awareness of the broader political context, however. Instead he was possessed by numb misery and fear at the prospect of being ripped out of his accustomed world of family and village, and thrust into the alien and brutal life of a soldier. Resigned fortitude, and in Pamfil’s case prayer and obedience to God’s will, were his only support, as was true of the overwhelming majority of peasant conscripts in these years.

Pamfil was accompanied by his brothers and grandfather to the recruit board in the town of Tver. The governor of Tver province presided ex officio over the board and himself inspected Pamfil briefly. The medical inspection was barely more thorough. Once Pamfil stated that he was in good health it amounted to no more than a check on his teeth and a brief glance at his body. There followed immediately the two great induction rituals of the Russian conscript: Pamfil’s forehead was shaved and he took the military oath. Within a few days the recruits were sent to Petersburg: given the need for speed they travelled by cart. Once assigned to his regiment Pamfil Nazarov experienced some of the other typical aspects of the young conscript’s rite of passage. The shock of being thrust so suddenly into an alien and harsh world made him very ill: during his two-week fever his money and clothes were stolen. A fist in the face from a junior NCO for whom Pamfil refused to do an illegal favour was also typical, as was a caning when he made a mess of his first shooting practice with powder and lead.

Nevertheless, not everything in Pamfil Nazarov’s military life was pure suffering and shipwreck. The Grand Duke Constantine personally inspected the new recruits and assigned them to their regiments in Petersburg. At 1.6 metres Pamfil was too short for the Preobrazhenskys or Semenovskys, but Constantine assigned him to the light infantry of the Guards, meaning in this case the Finland Regiment. As a Guardsman Pamfil got better pay and a real uniform, rather than the shoddy recruit uniform which was the lot of most conscripts in 1812–13. Service in the Guards was no picnic: the Finland Guards suffered heavy casualties at both Borodino and Leipzig. Nevertheless the Guards regiments were in general held in reserve: service in them on campaign was not the weekly meat-grinder experienced by some regiments of the line infantry. Though wounded at Leipzig, Pamfil Nazarov was back in the ranks by the fall of Paris and he and his comrades took pride in their achievement. Unlike most men conscripted in 1812 he was to see his family again: as a reliable and exemplary Guardsman he was allowed three home leaves in the eleven years following the war. Even more unusually, Pamfil learned to read and write while serving in the Finland Regiment. When he retired after twenty-three years of service in the Guards he became a monk and was one of only two private soldiers in the Russian army of this era to write his memoirs.

So long as recruits met the height and medical requirements, on private estates the government left it to the landowners to decide which of their serfs to send to the army. Richer peasants, and indeed most of their middling neighbours, preferred to put the burden of conscription on poorer villagers, who paid less of the village’s collective tax burden. The landowner might share the view of the peasant commune that conscription should be used to rid the village of marginal or ‘uneconomic’ families. On the other hand, some aristocratic landowners did attempt to uphold fair conscription procedures and to protect vulnerable peasant families. Whether they succeeded depended greatly on their estates’ managers because wealthy aristocrats owned many properties, and were themselves in any case most often to be found in Petersburg, Moscow or on service. Success might also depend on the nature of peasant society on a specific estate. Particularly in the more commercialized and less purely agricultural estates, it might be hard for a distant landowner to control the richer peasants.

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