Partisan Warfare and East European Military Thought

The Russian tradition in partisan warfare dates back to the eighteenth century: a biographer of Barclay de Tolly noted that his hero was “initiated into the practice of partisan warfare by that well known Caucasian, Count Tsitsianov.” But the real hero was the poet-warrior Denis Davydov whose notable contribution to the theory of partisan warfare is discussed in some detail elsewhere in the present study. Russian military doctrine did not entirely neglect partisan warfare, though much of its effort was directed towards a precise theoretical definition of the subject — an enterprise of doubtful promise. According to the Russian Military Encyclopedia, there was a substantial difference between “small war” and “partisan warfare” — the latter being conducted by a detachment cut off from the main army. Partisan warfare, according to this definition, only took place when the rear of the enemy was vulnerable, and the more vulnerable it was, the more promising the outlook. But there was also a difference between partisan and popular (i.e., guerrilla) warfare; the latter was carried on at their own risk by groups of men tied to their native soil.

The same trend towards systematization can be found in much of the Russian literature on the subject; furthermore the stress was always on big units operating in close cooperation with the regular army. The very title of an article by Count Golitsyn first published in 1857 — the most noteworthy contribution since Davydov — reflects this tendency perfectly: “on partisan operations on a large scale brought into a regular system.” General Golitsyn (1809-1892), incidentally, was the only infantry officer among Russian writers on the subject; he is mainly remembered as the author of a fifteen volume military history and the editor of a well-known journal, Russki Invalid.

Russian advocates of partisan warfare faced a real dilemma, in that unorthodox practices had to be accommodated within the policies of a Tsarist autocracy. Partisan warfare put a premium on personal initiative and independent action unlikely to be adopted by a political system which regarded such qualities with disfavor and suspicion. While the Russian army had considerable experience in combating partisans and guerrillas of sorts (sometimes by adopting their tactics) in Poland, the Caucasus and Central Asia, Russian military authors ignored the lessons of these campaigns on the whole, referring almost exclusively to examples from wars elsewhere in Europe, or America, or of course to the campaign of 1812. Perhaps they thought in retrospect that their colonial campaigns had little to teach them and that, anyway, such wars were a thing of the past. This applies equally to the works of Novitski and Vuich who wrote about small warfare in general, as to the more specific studies of partisan warfare by Gershelman and Klembovski. Colonel Vuich, in a textbook written for the students at the Imperial War Academy, dismissed partisan warfare in one short chapter and popular risings in one paragraph. In his definition small wars were all operations carried out by small detachments; they were obviously actions of secondary importance which, unaided, could not possibly achieve the main aim, namely the defeat of the enemy in open battle. But they could contribute to the attainment of this goal, and since in every war there would be some elements of small warfare, it was a legitimate subject of study.

Some three decades later Fyodor Gershelman, a colonel on the general staff and commander of the Orenburg Cossack officers’ academy, criticized Vuich for not having made it sufficiently clear that there was a basic difference between a partisan unit and a light detachment. The assignment of partisans was not to act as scouts and patrols, nor was it correct to argue, as some French authors (such as Thibault) had done, that a unit should consist as a norm of two hundred to three hundred riders; in fact it could consist of several thousand men and deploy field artillery. A partisan unit, according to Gershelman, was one that had no lines of supply and communications, its task (and here he followed Decker) was to harass the enemy, without risking too much, particularly in places where large units could not operate freely. Success depended largely on surprise: this meant that their movements had to be unobserved and quick and, to this end, the partisan units ought to be constituted mainly of cavalry detachments. While a small war has a tactical connection with big operations, partisan actions have purely strategic significance. What the author somewhat clumsily and schematically wanted to stress was that since the partisans operated completely independently, their contribution to the warfare was, generally speaking, to weaken the enemy without making a specific contribution to any major battle. While a people’s war (guerrilla warfare) in the rear of an enemy uses the same means as partisan warfare, the two are quite dissimilar in their scope and character. Gershelman, like almost all Russian authors, did not deal with a war of this kind, only with partisan units comprised of regular army officers and soldiers. A small partisan unit consisted of a thousand horsemen, big ones of twelve thousand or more. Refuting the arguments of the opponents of partisan warfare, Gershelman claimed that despite the different topographical character of Central and Western Europe and the relative density of population, partisan warfare could be conducted there too; it could even be conducted in enemy territory, against a hostile population. He stressed that since partisans could be made combat-ready immediately they could play an important role at the very beginning of a war; regular armies were still taking some six to twelve days to mobilize. German military observers were aware of this danger and one of them suggested planting big blackthorn hedges on the border of East Prussia, putting up barbed wire entanglements and arming the local population against an eventuality of this kind. (It was also proposed that partisan Cossacks should be denied the status of prisoner of war.) Gershelman, who also discussed antipartisan measures, much regretted that the theory and practice of partisan warfare were not taught in Russia; similar laments by British, French and German authors have already been noted.

Victor Napoleonovich (sic) Klembovski’s work on partisan operations was published in 1894; he subsequently became a general and was wounded in the war against Japan. Like Gershelman, he was mainly interested in the activities of big, flying columns and most of his illustrations were drawn from the American Civil War and the operations of the French franc tireurs in 1870-1871. One of his main heroes was the Russian general Geismar, whose exploits in France in 1814 tended to fortify the thesis that partisan warfare was indeed possible in enemy country. He discounted the argument that partisans could succeed only if they faced young, inexperienced soldiers. When they attacked an army’s rear, the men who covered these long lines of communication were as likely to be as experienced as anyone in the front line. He believed, like Gershelman, that partisan warfare was perfectly possible, and indeed likely, in a coming European war.

Russian comments on partisan warfare were closely followed in Vienna. The Russian cavalry is trained to conduct partisan activities par excellence, an Austrian military observer noted in 1885; was it not a matter of elementary caution to watch these preparations? The Austrians had pioneered old-fashioned partisan warfare in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; J. B. Schels, of whom mention has already been made, was one of their chief theorists. Another notable contribution was made by Wlodimir Stan islaus Ritter von Wilczynski, a Pole serving in the Austrian army, who based himself to a considerable extent on the experience gained in the Polish insurrections. The partisan units, as envisaged by him, would consist of several units of “scythe men” (kossiniere), and some light cannon. The various partisan units in a given province would be under the overall authority of a district commander. Each unit should not be too large but constitute a “family,” obeying its head “like a father.” The unit commander could appoint (or depose) his officers, and was entitled to a pension and all the other privileges of a regular army officer. Unlike the Russian theorists, Wilczynski put as much emphasis on infantry as on cavalry units within the general framework of partisan warfare, and he even made provision for the presence of a surgeon and a padre.

As the nineteenth century drew to its close, Austrian strategists, like those of other European countries, reached the conclusion that the small war had lost much of its importance — new inventions such as the railways, the telegraph (“and in future also the balloons”) would 110 doubt shorten a future war; a mass army of half a million or more soldiers concentrated in a small space could sleep peacefully, pistol shots no longer would disquieten them. Some of the Austrian writers nevertheless thought that partisan warfare still had a limited future in view of the mountainous terrain of Austria’s border regions, in the Tyrol, the Carpathian Mountains, and above all in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Austrian forces had encountered guerrilla warfare on a small scale in 1878/79. Hence the conclusion that it was premature to regard the small war as a mere game.

Partisan units could be of particular use when the main body of the army suffered a setback and needed time to recover. Hron’s emphasis on ambushes and surprise attacks offered little that was new, except perhaps in his comments on the lessons of the war in Bosnia. In this mountainous territory, which sixty years later became once again the scene of a major guerrilla war, horses were of little or no use. The partisans had to follow the smallest and most tortuous mountain paths and employ artillery only in exceptional circumstances. Hron thought that the ideal size of a partisan detachment ought to be between eight hundred and a thousand men — if it were larger it would lose mobility, if smaller, the unit would be aware of its insufficient strength which could adversely affect its fighting spirit.84 The lot of the partisan officer was an enviable one, provided he had “a streak of genius.” That his men would have to be tough and fearless went without saying; it was unrealistic to expect that such men would have the character of a saint. The “Southern Slav character,” as Hron saw it, had always proved itself in partisan warfare, provided that the command was in the right hands.

The Austrian army, as Hron and others had predicted, did have to fight enemy guerrilla units during the First World War, especially in Serbia. Their activities became fairly intensive in 1917. The chief organizer of the bands was Kosta Vojnovic, a Serbian army captain, later reinforced by Captain Pecanac who had been parachuted by air from Allied Headquarters in Saloniki. The Austrians coped with the problem by establishing small flying columns of about forty men and by organizing Turkish and Albanian counterguerrilla units. The detachments used by both sides were smaller than had been anticipated by the theorists, and horses — against expectations — were widely used. Allied Headquarters prepared a general rising behind the Austrian and Bulgarian lines in March 1917 which was to coincide with an Allied offensive. But the enterprise failed, partly because the secret was not well kept and partly because the insurgents were not sufficiently well armed.


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