Czar Nicholas and his Navy

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Imperial Russian battleship Borodino at Kronshtadt, Augst 1904. Borodino was the lead ship of her class of pre-dreadnought battleships built for the Imperial Russian Navy although she was the second ship of her class to be completed. Named after the 1812 Battle of Borodino, the ship was completed after the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. Borodino was assigned to the Second Pacific Squadron sent to the Far East a few months after her completion to break the Japanese blockade of Port Arthur. The Japanese captured the port while the squadron was in transit and their destination was changed to Vladivostok. The ship was sunk during the Battle of Tsushima on 27 May 1905 due to explosions set off by a Japanese shell hitting a 6-inch (152 mm) magazine. There was only one survivor from her crew of 855 officers and enlisted men.

The Industrial Revolution and the age of steam heralded a period of comparative decline in the Russian navy which was destined to last more than a century. They were slow to adopt steam-powered ships, this in itself reflecting the innate conservatism of Russian society, their lack of natural resources in coal and iron, and the paucity of labour and skilled craftsmen. In the Crimean War the Russian Navy was hopelessly out-matched both in the Black Sea and the Baltic so that the sailors were used on land as infantry while the warships were laid up in their home ports. Only on rare occasions did the ships venture out and even then scuttled back behind the shelter of their garrison artillery at the first sign of the Royal Navy. In the final quarter of the century there was some revival of interest in the fleets, the Czar Alexander II appointed his brother as Minister of Marine. This resulted in a prototype ironclad being imported from England and the eventual appearance of a small squadron of screw-driven warships in the Baltic, but the standard of maintenance was such that the ships had only an indifferent performance, while their design lagged far behind the more progressive navies.

By the turn of the century the navy had begun to show some improvements under Czar Alexander III and his son Nicholas II: the navy was encouraged to learn from others and new methods were copied from the naval powers, especially the Germans. However all this was dissipated in a ruinous war with Japan; the Russo- Japanese war is probably chiefly remembered for the almost total defeat of the Imperial Navy at the Battle of Tsushima. Czar Nicholas introduced an acquisitive foreign policy in the Far East which meant that the Pacific Fleet should operate out of the secure base of a warm water port. Such a policy was bound to result in a collision with the rapidly emerging naval power of Japan. The Russians found their base in Port Arthur which the Japanese had been forced to return to China in 1895; the Chinese with a little pressure allowed the Russians to garrison this base under the cynical guise of protecting them from the further ravages of Japan. For the first time in their history the Russians possessed two viable bases for their Pacific Fleet, in Vladivostok and Port Arthur, and this represented a direct challenge to Japanese ambitions for the naval hegemony of the North Pacific.

The Japanese war aim was clear and explicit. They needed to bottle up the Russian squadrons in their respective bases and then destroy each in turn with an overwhelming show of force. To this end the Japanese prepared secretly for war and then, in a style reminiscent of a later occasion, struck swiftly and without warning early in 1904. Japanese mine-laying proved almost immediately successful for when the Russians sailed out from Port Arthur in April to meet the Japanese challenge their flagship the Fetropavlousk was enticed onto a minefield and sank, taking almost the full complement and their Admiral, Makharoff to the bottom. By August of that year the Russian naval presence was practically destroyed. While the Imperial Japanese Army laid siege to Port Arthur from the landward side, their naval squadron defeated the Russian fleet twenty miles out, the few vessels that survived struggled back into the harbour. In the meanwhile the squadron at Vladivostok was defeated by the Japanese fleet under Admiral Kamimura as it tried to reach Port Arthur. In five short months the Japanese had thus secured control over the Northern Pacific and had completely destroyed the Russian squadrons as a viable naval force. It is ironic that the architect of this brilliant episode in Japanese history. Admiral Togo, was an officer who had studied the art of naval warfare in England and whose major victory over the Russians, which was still to come, was to earn him the immortal title of the ‘Nelson of the East’.

Czar Nicholas II prided himself on being a European and thus this defeat of his navy by an oriental power represented a double humiliation as well as thwarting his ambitions in the Pacific. He therefore decided to restore the balance and regain his tarnished reputation by transferring his only remaining fleet from the Baltic to the Northern Pacific, and so began what must be regarded as one of the most bizarre episodes in naval history. Nicholas appointed Admiral Rozhestvenski to command this expedition, at fifty-six a relatively young officer who owed his rapid promotion to his dashing exploits as a torpedo boat commander when fighting against the Turks. The spearhead of the Baltic fleet was built around four new battleships, which were not really operational, manned by novice crews. The rest of the fighting ships (together with the fleet support and colliers) were vessels that already belonged to a bygone age, old ships armed with obsolescent guns and poor crews.

Rozhestvenski intended to work up his fleet during the voyage to the Pacific, but even as he sailed from the Baltic alarmist (and totally unfounded) reports warned him that Japanese torpedo boats, which had been shipped to England, were already lying in wait in the North Sea. This jittery Russian fleet fired on a Swedish merchant ship and the occasional German fishing vessel in the Baltic; it was hardly surprising therefore, that when it came upon British trawlers operating in the fishing grounds off the Dogger Bank, in the dead of night, that ‘all hell should break loose’. At point-blank range, as mass hysteria gripped the Russian ships, broadsides poured into the trawlers, although British loss of life would have been much greater if the Russian gunnery had been even half-way efficient. Nevertheless by the time the Russians had realised their mistake the damage had been done; although only one trawler actually sank, a number of lives were lost and the resultant indignation and sense of outrage in England pushed the two countries to the brink of war. Royal Naval units shadowed the Russian fleet through the English Channel and out into the open seas as far as Tangier, with their main armament trained on this hapless Russian Force. At the Mediterranean the Russian fleet divided, the older units proceeded to the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal while Rozhestvenski took his main squadron the additional 10,000 miles around the Cape of Good Hope. In the New Year of 1905 the units rendezvoused at Madagascar where the fleet waited for two months for the reinforcements of the Black Sea fleet and for colliers and auxiliaries to replenish the much depleted bunkers. This period of enforced delay and inactivity in an unhealthy and disease-ridden anchorage played havoc with Russian morale and efficiency.

It was while they were off Madagascar that news was received of the Fall of Port Arthur. Rozhestvenski dared not turn back and so the nearest haven was Vladivostok, a voyage in itself of many thousands of miles through waters unknown to the navigators, and between them and safety was the Japanese fleet under Togo. In March new units joined up with the fleet at Madagascar, including the battleship Nikokai I and the force set out across the Indian Ocean. In early April the Royal Navy shadowed the Russian fleet as it passed within sight of Singapore on the way to Kamranh Bay in Cochin China where Rozhestvenski intended to make his final landfall and complete his preparations before undertaking the last leg of this remarkable voyage to Vladivostok. At Kamranh Bay a reinforcement reached the Russian Admiral in the form of a second squadron of new fast battleships from the Baltic fleet, which had not even been completed when the original force first sailed. On the 14th May 1905 this enormous armada set sail for its rendezvous with destiny and the waiting Japanese. The Russians had already completed an incredible voyage, but the ships were now badly in need of a major refit, the crews were stale and tired and the strain of command was already beginning to exert a fatal influence over Admiral Rozhestvenski. The Japanese, on the other hand, had been able to follow the Russian movement from the telegraph of the press agencies, while the precise details were passed on by the friendly British. The Japanese ships had been refitted and replenished, their crews were well trained, rested and, above all, under the inspired leadership of their dynamic commander.

Rozhestvenski’s force made sedate passage northwards passing through the Bashi Channel between the Philippines and Formosa, his more modern and faster warships fatally inhibited by the pace of the older and slower brethren. Although lacking any precise information of the Japanese deployment, location or strength, Rozhestvenski was sanguine enough to appreciate that he must now fight his way through to Vladivostok. Accordingly he detached his auxiliaries from the main force at Shanghai where they were to await events. From Shanghai northwards there were a number of routes the Russians could take to reach Vladivostok, but Admiral Togo was convinced that the Russians must come through the Tsushima passage, for it represented the most direct course, and he deployed his force accordingly. Rozhestvenski was indeed heading for the passage and was timing his run to clear this stretch of water in daylight for he knew that he could not trust the competence of his ships’ navigators to make the passage at night.

On the 27th May 1905 thirty-seven Russian warships steamed through the Tsushima passage at their best speed of eleven knots; the battle force was deployed in two parallel lines, cruisers scouted ahead while the few essential auxiliaries brought up the rear escorted by the older vessels. The Japanese received word of the Russian movements from their scouting cruisers and Togo deployed his force from its anchorage at Masampo Bay in Korea in good time to contest the Russian passage. The Japanese were, on paper, heavily out-numbered but had the advantage of superior fire-power and speed; this allowed Togo to complete the classic maneuver of naval warfare by crossing the ‘T’ with his battleships while his armoured cruisers harried the Russian flanks.

Battle opened at a range of 9,500 yards in the early afternoon and the Japanese broadsides wrought havoc on the Russian battleships in the van of the line who could offer only poor response with their forward firing guns. Most of the many excellent accounts of this engagement are all based on the report of a British naval officer who with the sang-froid typical of his breed, observed events from a deck chair on the Japanese flagship’s quarterdeck! By the late afternoon the Japanese victory was assured. The Russian battleships were either sunk or disabled, their squadron commanders had lost all control, and indeed the wounded Admiral Rozhestvenski was captured as he tried to run for Vladivostok in a fast destroyer after his own flagship had been sunk. As night fell those Russian vessels that had somehow survived the holocaust of fire were harried and pursued by the lighter units of the Japanese navy while the disabled battleships were finished off by Togo’s cruisers. Only one small cruiser, the Almaz, reached Vladivostok with two attendant destroyers while three other cruisers sought sanctuary in Manila.

The maritime powers hastened to digest the lessons of Tsushima and almost all learned the wrong ones. For Russia, humiliation and defeat was even further endorsed as the Japanese revived the old custom of incorporating the spoils into their own fleet. Eastern power had displayed its ability to master Western technology, but few nations seemed to take cognizance of that fact.

Ufa Offensive I

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Alexander Vasilyevich Kolchak (16 November [O.S. 4 November] 1874 – 7 February 1920) was a polar explorer and commander in the Imperial Russian Navy, who fought in the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War. During the Russian Civil War, he established an anti-communist government in Siberia—later the Provisional All-Russian Government—and was recognised as the “Supreme Ruler and Commander-in-Chief of All Russian Land and Sea Forces” by the other leaders of the White movement (1918–1920).

His government was based in Omsk, in southwestern Siberia. He tried to defeat Bolshevism by ruling as a dictator but his government proved weak and confused. For example, he lost track of the imperial gold reserves and much of it disappeared. He failed to unite all the disparate elements. He refused to consider autonomy for ethnic minorities, refused to collaborate with non-Bolshevik leftists, and relied too heavily on outside aid. As his White forces fell apart, he was captured by independents who handed him to the Bolsheviks, who executed him.

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A formation of White Russian soldiers outside of Rostov.

Admiral Kolchak’s spring attack, also called the ‘Ufa Offensive,’ was one of the five most dramatic anti-Bolshevik operations of the Civil War (the other four being the 1918 Volga campaign, Denikin’s May–June 1919 advance from south Russia, his September–October 1919 advance, and the Polish 1920 attack). The main blow came in the centre of the front on 4 March 1919; the attacking White force was Western Army under General Khanzhin, a veteran artilleryman; it advanced roughly parallel to the east–west railway from Cheliabinsk (in the Urals) to Simbirsk and Samara (on the Volga). Khanzhin’s troops moved rapidly across the snowy steppe in sledges. Ufa was recaptured on 14 March, and by the end of April the White army had taken points within 75 miles of the Volga, at Chistopol (on the Kama River) and on the Ufa-Samara railway. Some 250 miles had been covered in eight weeks. The Whites had taken 115,000 square miles of territory (an area bigger than Britain) and a population of 5 million. Moscow was badly frightened, and in faraway Paris the Allies saw the White movement finally justifying itself. At the same time the other major White force, Gajda’s Siberian Army, made on Khanzhin’s right flank an advance of about ninety miles, a third of the way from Perm to Viatka.

Unfortunately for the Whites, Khanzhin was soon driven back. Two weeks were lost fighting around Ufa; then, in mid-April, came the spring thaw, the rasputitsa, which turned the roads to mud, and rivers and streams into serious obstacles. Khanzhin had pushed back the Red Fifth Army, but his flanks were threatened by Second and First Armies. Once the ground became firmer, on 28 April, the Reds began their counterattack. During May Western Army had to retreat far from the Volga; by the end of the month it was trying to defend a line 275 miles east of the Volga along the Belaia River. Ufa itself, on the Belaia, was threatened. On the night of 7 June Chapaev’s 25th Rifle Division made a surprise crossing below the city, which fell to the Reds on the 9th with large amounts of supplies and grain. By mid-June the Whites had been pushed fifty miles east of the Belaia. At this time the northern bulge of Kolchak’s front had been crushed in as well: at the beginning of June Gajda’s Siberian Army had actually pushed farther west along the Perm-Viatka railway to the town of Glazov, but then the Reds drove it back to within fifty miles of Perm.

Several factors were behind the events of March–June 1919, a White defeat that would prove to be decisive. One was political failure. Moscow’s propaganda always spoke of the ‘Kolchakovshchina,’ the reign of Kolchak. This was exaggerated, but the Omsk regime was unapologetically that of a military dictator, and any judgment of the Omsk regime must begin with the dictator, the Supreme Ruler, himself. The British and French military advisers had quite different views of the man. General Knox reported (as late as December 1919) that despite Kolchak’s defeat and personal failings ‘he was and is the best man in Siberia.’ General Janin, however, regarded him as an incompetent neurotic and reported to Paris that he was probably addicted to drugs. Kolchak’s associates found him moody and indecisive. The Russian General Budberg, in charge of army supply, assessed Kolchak’s complex personality:

He is a big, sick child, a pure idealist, a faithful slave of duty and ideals and Russia; he is undoubtedly a neurotic, who is quick to lose control, extremely stormy, and unrestrained in showing his dissatisfaction and anger. . . . He is wholly consumed by the idea of serving Russia, of saving her from Red oppression, of restoring her in all her strength and inviolable territory; thanks to this idea he can be made to do anything; he has no personal interests, no personal ambition, and in this respect he is crystal pure. . . . He has no notion of the hard practicalities of life, and he lives by mirages and imposed ideas. He has no plans, system, or will of his own and in this respect he is soft wax from which his advisers and retainers can make what they want, knowing that it is enough to present something as needed for Russia and the cause to get the admiral’s agreement.

Whatever the faults of his personality, Kolchak’s politics did not fit the stereotype of a black reactionary. His father was a military engineer; Kolchak himself was a young specialist from a technically advanced part of the armed forces. He was apparently not a monarchist, and his regime did not call for a restoration of Tsarism. He took the advice of a small ‘Council of the Supreme Ruler,’ staffed by men who were often of Kadet sympathies and remarkable youth. The Kadets – of the party’s right wing – had more influence in Omsk than in any of the other White governments. Gins, one of Kolchak’s main advisers, was thirty-two in 1919; Sukin, running foreign affairs, was twenty-eight; Mikhailov, in charge of finance, was twenty-four. His associates grumbled with some justification against this reliance on Wunderkinder (both in the administration and the army).

But Kolchak had already lost the support of the political Left. The November 1918 coup overthrew a government, the PA-RG, which claimed – through the Constituent Assembly and the Ufa Conference – national legitimacy. At the end of December 1918 there was an uprising in Omsk, inspired mainly by the Bolsheviks; in their fierce suppression of the rising the authorities flailed out against everyone on the left. Prominent SRs, including several Constituent Assembly delegates, were summarily executed; the episode showed again that Kolchak’s officers hated the SRs as much as the Bolsheviks. Even without the December events, however, the SRs would not have cooperated with Kolchak, and so the largest party in Siberia and the Urals worked against the Supreme Ruler from the beginning. After the Omsk coup a number of former Komuch leaders, including Volsky, even crossed over to the Red side, encouraged by Moscow’s gestures towards socialist pluralism. And in January 1920 the Siberian SRs would wreak a terrible personal revenge on the admiral himself.

Whoever its friends and enemies were, the Kolchakovshchina was not an effective dictatorship. At the central level Kolchak was unable to make the government work. Budberg sat through many top-level meetings; ‘The regime,’ he re-marked, ‘was only form without content; the ministries can be compared to huge and imposing windmills, busily turning their sails, but with no millstones inside and with much of their machinery broken or missing.’ This came about partly because Siberia had been an administrative backwater of the Tsarist Empire, with few experienced government personnel. But the nature of the November coup had made things worse by permanently alienating one source of administrative talent, the pro-SR intelligentsia. Kolchak’s civilian subordinates felt also that he concentrated too much on military affairs; one felt ‘the Admiral who was Supreme Commander-in-Chief swallowed up the Admiral who was Supreme Ruler, along with his Council of Ministers.’ To a large extent the government just became an organization for supporting the army.

If Kolchak could not create a proper administration in Omsk, he had no chance of extending effective control over the vast territory of Siberia. Much of western Siberia (the front) had been under military administration even during the period of the PA-RG, and in mid-April 1919 military control was extended to all towns and the railway. And army rule was disastrously inefficient. The lack of administrative personnel, meanwhile, was even more important at the grass-roots level than at the centre. Kolchak was fortunate that most Siberians were Great Russians; he lost much of the organized support of part of the important Bashkir minority (between Orenburg and the Urals) when, in February 1919, the Bashkir Corps changed sides, but this was a small problem compared to General Denikin’s friction with the Ukrainians or General Iudenich’s (in the Baltic) with the Estonians. Kolchak could not control the Orenburg and Ural cossacks, but unlike the southern Whites he was not faced with great cossack claims; Denikin had to make his first headquarters (Ekaterinodar) in the heart of one of the cossack hosts; Kolchak’s problem was that geography cut him off from the main Orenburg and Ural Hosts. Overall, however, Kolchak still had the greatest trouble imposing his will over the vast territory that had been taken from Red control. A notorious area of weakness was the region east of Lake Baikal. There local atamans such as Semenov and Kalmykov were a law unto themselves and enjoyed the support of the Japanese. ‘Stenka Razin under a white sauce’ is how General Budberg described them. They choked the long supply line upon which the Siberian army and economy had to rely.

Kolchak’s economic policy was ineffective. Galloping inflation was made worse by the disastrous abolition of ‘Kerenki’ banknotes in April 1919. Kolchak, seeing himself only as a trustee, would not use the captured Imperial gold reserve. The few Siberian capitalists gave little help; donations came, one minister recalled, ‘like milk from a billy-goat.’ The military gave little thought to the long-term condition of the economy, and as a result Kolchak’s only industrial region, the Urals, was in a bad way; as early as April 1919 the official in charge resigned in protest at chaotic military rule, lack of food supplies, and an absence of coherent support from Omsk. The Allies provided no economic aid. Siberia’s economic problems were beyond the ability of any regime to solve quickly. The World War had upset the whole Russian economy, and Civil War cut Siberia and the Urals off from their natural supplies and markets in central Russia. Consumer goods had to be brought in along the one rail link with the Pacific. And the war against the Bolsheviks, fought on a limited base of manpower and natural resources, demanded great economic sacrifices.

In his base area, Kolchak faced no conflict between dispossessed landlords and revolutionized land-hungry peasants; prerevolutionary Siberia had had no large gentry estates. (There was, however, some tension between the starozhili the ‘old’ settlers, and the poorer immigrants of the past few decades, the novoseli.) Nevertheless, there was no effective land law, no confirmation of the Bolshevik decree on land. This was a greater weakness once the Kolchak forces reached the fringes of European Russia, where the land question was more important. In newly occupied regions such as Ufa Province the peasants had little reason to welcome Kolchak, especially when some of his commanders enforced the return of seized lands to their owners. Meanwhile, there was no reason for the peasants in the Soviet-controlled Volga provinces to rise in support of the White armies advancing toward them.

The lack of ‘propaganda by deed’ was matched by the lack of any effective mobilization of support. As one of Kolchak’s generals later lamented, ‘we not only did not give the muzhik [peasant] the bird in the hand, we were even afraid to promise him the bird in the bush.’ Kolchak’s propaganda organization, Osved, was organized too late; funds were eventually pumped into it, but it was ineffective and it was unpopular among the army high command.

The weaknesses, political and administrative, of the Kolchakovshchina had two major effects on the spring campaign. First, it made the Whites less attractive to the peasants of the Volga-Kama basin who were the first objects of ‘liberation.’ And second, it made it more difficult for Kolchak to raise enthusiastic popular forces to serve in his army. Kolchak seized power in November 1918 and called the population ‘to union and to struggle with Bolshevism, to labor and to sacrifices.’ One of his basic problems was that the response to that call was so weak, and the weak response came partly from the nature of the Kolchakovshchina. Active internal resistance to Kolchak’s rule was not, however, a major cause of the failure of the Ufa offensive. The rear of Kolchak’s armies was more stable than it would be later, and it was not necessary to pull troops out of the front line for battle with anti-White partisans. And it is not clear that the alternatives to military dictatorship would have been any more effective. Would the pre-Kolchak ‘liberal’ Omsk PA-RG have been able either to attract military leaders or to enforce conscription? It would in any event have been challenged by the Chernov-led SRs. Would such a government really have created more enthusiastic forces, or brought about risings behind the Bolshevik lines? This had not been the case for Komuch in 1918, and the Bolshevik hold was stronger by the late spring of 1919.

Kolchak’s armies were stopped and then pursued back toward the Urals. This was largely due to the growing size and quality of the Soviet forces. But the initial Red defeats were a sign of problems in the Red Army, and these were only gradually overcome in the course of the campaign. The Soviet high command had had little knowledge of what was going on in Siberia, and it was surprised by Khanzhin’s Ufa attack on 4 March 1919. Ten days before, Vatsetis had reported to Lenin that the local situation was improving and that the Urals were nearly within reach; given the danger of Allied intervention, he urged that the main stress of Soviet grand strategy still be put on the Ukrainian and Western Army Groups. On 24 February Trotsky made a most optimistic speech in Moscow to a meeting of Red Army cadets; ‘Summing up the position on our fronts it can be said that the situation is completely favorable.’ The commander of Eastern Army Group misread White intentions; Colonel Kamenev assumed a concentration in the north around Perm, rather than in the centre before Ufa, and the poor initial deployment of the Red armies was one reason for Khanzhin’s successes.

The confusion in the Red eastern command continued during the battles with Kolchak. Kamenev did work out a counterattack plan, which was approved at a high-level meeting with Trotsky and Vatsetis in Simbirsk on 10 April; he began a counterattack with his two southern armies, now under the command of Mikhail Frunze. (Frunze was a veteran Bolshevik who had become involved in the army in the previous summer, and in 1925 he would replace Trotsky as Red Army chief; his 1919 ‘Southern Group’ had originally been formed for the advance into Turkestan.) In the end, however, the planned sweep from the south was threatened by rapid White progress. Troops had to be thrown in front of the Whites, and Frunze’s counterattack was launched earlier than planned and with more limited goals. But the White drive was stopped, and clearly Kamenev deserved much of the credit. On 3 July, after his armies had pushed Kolchak back to the Urals (and with disaster threatening on other fronts), he replaced Vatsetis as Red Army Main Commander-in-Chief. But this was only after he himself had been sacked, on 5 May, just as the shape of his victory was becoming clear. (According to Kamenev’s memoirs, Vatsetis dismissed him for ‘non-execution of his orders and, in general, for lack of discipline’.) He was, however, brought back by Lenin (presumably over Trotsky’s objections) three weeks later, at the demand of the Eastern Army Group commissars.

The various Red armies had begun the spring campaign in a disorganized state. The shortcomings had been brought out at the time of the ‘Perm Catastrophe.’ Dzerzhinsky and Stalin reported that Third Army’s move in December 1918 from the Urals to beyond Perm was not even a proper retreat, but ‘an absolutely disorderly flight of an utterly routed and completely demoralized army.’ It was in a deplorable state. Commanders were unreliable; commissars inexperienced; soldiers confused, hungry and cold. Of 30,000 men, only a third remained; some had begun fighting on the White side. Fifth Army – shattered at Ufa in March 1919 – was a centre of the Military Opposition to Trotsky’s centralizing policies with, as Vatsetis complained in mid-April, continuing splits between officers and commissars. Trotsky himself blamed the defeat of Fifth Army on the local commissars’ ‘system of slackness, grumbling and criticism implanted from above.’ These shortcomings in the Red Army were gradually dealt with, partly as a result of Trotsky’s victory at the Eighth Party Congress.

On the other side of the battlefield, the lines of advance and timing of the White Siberian armies have been much criticized. Kolchak on 6 January 1919 did order a halt at Perm and a shift of the main axis of advance from the north to the centre of his front. This was, however, sound strategy. To have tried to develop the December victory and chase the Red Third Army west along the Perm–Viatka railway line would have been senseless. If Arkhangelsk was the objective, then the nearest rail route meant an advance of 600 miles to Vologda, and another 250 north from Vologda to the Allied-White lines; even the rail-river route via Viatka, Kotlas, and the Northern Dvina was a distance of 600 miles. Any deep thrust on the Perm-Viatka line alone would have been threatened on its southern flank from the Soviet heartland. The northern region, moreover, was thin in people and supplies, and it was the middle of winter; the frozen port at Arkhangelsk would not open until May 1919, and it would be some time later that (unpredictable) supporting operations by the Allies could develop from there.

More important, in January 1919 Kolchak’s front was most seriously threatened in the centre – from the Ufa direction – where the Reds were approaching the Urals passes. The situation demanded as a first step a counterattack in this central area. Khanzhin was originally only given limited goals, but Kolchak’s Stavka (GHQ) was right to develop his initial success and urge him early in April, as a second step, on to the Volga. It was necessary to take control of the region between the Urals and the Volga–Kama river system, whether Kolchak moved on Arkhangelsk, Saratov, or directly to Moscow; only with the centre of the White front covered by the great rivers, with rail links from the Urals to the crossings at Samara, Simbirsk, Sarapul, and Perm, could a further advance be considered. And an advance to the Volga line would give the Whites manpower and food, take those things from the Reds, and cut the most important Soviet river communications line.

A more telling criticism of the White line of advance is that a weak area was allowed to appear on the southern flank. The Bashkir Corps changed sides in February 1919, and the Orenburg and Ural Cossack forces were badly organized after the fall of Uralsk and Orenburg in January – which made it possible for Frunze to burst the White bubble from the south in late April. And poor overall coordination made it difficult to shift troops from Siberian Army (around Perm) to Western Army. But the general conception of the attack was sound enough.

The timing of the offensive was more debatable; it came before the White army had been properly organized. Knox summed up the faults of Stepanov, Kolchak’s Minister of War – in charge of the rear – and Lebedev, Kolchak’s Chief of Staff, in charge of the front-line armies. ‘Stepanov thought he had ten years to beat the Bolsheviks. Lebedev wanted to do the job in ten minutes. Both were excellent fellows in their own way . . . but together they were enough to ruin any Empire.’ Knox was annoyed at Stepanov’s plodding approach to the formation of new units in the rear, and in March bluntly told Kolchak as much: ‘People are so occupied by talk and paper schemes that decisions are indefinitely postponed. The plain truth is that we will have to fight this year for our lives and every hour is of value.’ Stepanov concentrated his resources on raising five new infantry divisions in central Siberia, and these were still only skeleton formations when the Ufa offensive began. Lebedev, however, attacked before the army was formed and trained, and he soon found himself without reserves. Kolchak’s most experienced formation, Kappel’s Volga Corps, was still refitting in early March and trying to incorporate Red POWs; it was thrown into battle piecemeal at the beginning of May and defeated. But what else could the Whites have done? In theory they moved too late, rather than too early. Two full months passed between Kolchak’s January directive and Khanzhin’s offensive, and an earlier start might have brought Khanzhin to the Volga before the rasputitsa. But it was winter, and his troops had had to be redeployed and refitted after a long campaign.

Ufa Offensive II

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Photo of Bogdan Vasko, commander of the Red Army detachment near Ufa, 1918.

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Kolchak’s Army Offensive

The Whites might, on the other hand, have had a much more cautious policy, holding the Urals line and equipping their army behind it. This made sense in purely military terms; it is what Stepanov and Knox wanted. Kolchak might have waited to mount, with General Denikin’s southern White armies, a coordinated late-summer offensive against Moscow. But Denikin’s advance, which took him to Kharkov and Tsaritsyn at the end of June, could not have been predicted, and may only have occurred because Red troops had been moved from south Russia to fight Kolchak.

And there were basic political, psychological, and military factors pushing the Whites forward. Some of their leaders thought the Reds would simply fall apart if attacked – a not unreasonable assessment, given the pressures on Bolshevik Russia from several sides. Whatever Knox’s local advice, Kolchak saw the political necessity of an offensive as a means of getting Allied aid and recognition. ‘Foreign policy was made by the army,’ one of Kolchak’s advisers recalled. ‘On it depended both the scale and continuation of the Allies’ help.’ And underlying Kolchak’s dilemma was the overall balance against him: the Red Army – with its big population base – was getting stronger all the time.

Kolchak’s Ufa offensive was later described by Stalin and a generation of Soviet historians as part of the ‘First Campaign of the Entente.’ In fact there is no evidence that the Allies provoked the March 1919 offensive; the most important Allied representative in Siberia, General Knox, wanted Kolchak properly to prepare his forces before going over to the attack. The March offensive, Knox later reported to London, ‘was commenced without our previous knowledge’; the local British mission had to accept it as a fait accompli. The attack, unlike the 1918 Volga campaign, was a purely Russian affair; the Czechoslovaks, in particular, had been withdrawn to the rear to guard part of the Trans-Siberian railway. There were no Allied troops involved in the fighting. (A handful of Allied battalion-strength detachments were stationed deep behind the lines in Siberian cities, and there was a large Japanese presence east of Lake Baikal.) General Janin, the head of the French military mission, tried to assume command of all forces in Siberia, but this was stiffly rejected by Kolchak on grounds of national pride.

On the other hand Allied, and especially British, logistic support for Kolchak was most important. Rural Siberia had neither munitions factories nor arms depots. The Urals would be the arsenal of the 1941 war, but in 1918–1919 the factories there were in turmoil and starved of food and fuel. Weapons and supplies could only come from outside, and thanks to the port of Vladivostok they began to flow to Kolchak six months before they began to flow to General Denikin in south Russia (via the Black Sea). Knox stressed the British contribution in a letter to Kolchak of June 1919: ‘Since about the middle of December [1918] every round of rifle ammunition fired on the front has been of British manufacture, conveyed to VLADIVOSTOK in British ships and delivered at OMSK by British guards.’ ‘Britmiss’ (the British military mission) reported the arrival between October 1918 and October 1919 of 79 ships with 97,000 tons of supplies. The bulk arrived in Omsk between March and June 1919. Supplies included 600,000 rifles, 346 million rounds of small-arms ammunition, 6831 machine guns, 192 field guns, and clothing and personal equipment for 200,500 men. Kolchak was sent infantry weapons (rifles, machine guns, ammunition) on a scale comparable to that sent to Denikin. (He was, however, sent much less [five times less] artillery, and few if any aircraft or tanks.) One Soviet source spoke of 600,000 rifles and 1000 machine guns from the U.S. in 1918–1919, 1700 machine guns and 400 field guns from the French, and 70,000 rifles, 100 machine guns, and 30 field guns from the Japanese. Whatever the figures, the Allies, led by the British, sent to Kolchak arms and equipment roughly comparable to total Soviet production in 1919.

But the bulk of British supplies did not begin to arrive in Omsk until after the Ufa offensive had started. And there would be great problems throughout 1919 in ensuring the flow of weapons. There was hardly anywhere on the globe that was less accessible than Kolchak’s battle-front. Vladivostok was far from the military depots of western Europe and North America. And even then it was a trip of four to six weeks from Vladivostok to Omsk via the single-track line of the Trans-Siberian, a route dependent on Japanese good will and vulnerable to the looting of local leaders such as Ataman Semenov.

The Kolchak army, officially called the ‘Russian (Rossiiskaia) Army,’ was large by White standards. Kolchak’s commanders realized, however, that Siberia could not match the Reds in overall numbers and that quality could prove the key factor. Vatsetis later explained the initial success of the Ufa offensive by the Whites’ better officers and better disciplined and standardized forces. But the overall quality of Kolchak’s army was never very good, and in particular was below that of Denikin’s ‘Armed Forces of South Russia,’ which had the advantage of a larger pool of experienced and capable generals and colonels, and the officer-veterans of the ‘Ice March.’

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Lebedev Dmitry Antonovich (1883-1926) the Colonel (1917). The General-major (11.1918). Siberian military school (1900). Mihailov artillery school (1903). Nikolaev academy of the Generall Staff (1911). The participant of the Russo- Japanese War 1904-1905. April, 22, 1915 awarded with St George cross for Zimgrod defensive operation A member of the Main committee of the Union of officers , 1917 Arrested by Red Revolutionaries in Nov 13, 1917,but  escaped from prison, Then join Kornilov’s army, sent out to join Kochack’s army to Siberia. 18 November 1918 year – Commander and the head of general stuff of Kolchack White army in Siberia. 6 January 1919 General-Major. 23 May 1919- military Minster. 12 August 1919 lost his minister’s rank after Cheljabinsk operation failed. Estonia in 1920 and served in Estonian army in the same rank of General-Major. Professor 1921-1926 till his death in 1926 year(due to the wounds received in WW1).

Kolchak’s defeat is often explained by his admiral’s ignorance of land warfare. On the other hand Kolchak had been a very capable and energetic admiral; he was a distinguished combat officer in both the Pacific and the Baltic, and had been selected for early and rapid promotion (he was only forty-five in 1919). In any event, while Kolchak was nominally Supreme Commander-in-Chief, the day-to-day command army was in the hands of his chief of staff. But it is just here, in his choice of subordinates, that Kolchak is most easily criticized. The de facto commander of Kolchak’s armies from November 1918 to June 1919 was General D. A. Lebedev; Lebedev was a thirty-six-year-old wartime colonel who, although a General Staff officer, was better at political conspiracy than high command. Kolchak installed Lebedev in place of the Directory’s competent commander, General Boldyrev, and passed over a number of other qualified officers. Perhaps Kolchak preferred him to a more senior man who would have challenged his own authority; in any event the poorly thought out spring campaign showed Lebedev to have been a bad choice.

Other aspects of the army’s command left much to be desired. The administrative staffs in the rear were too big, which made them ponderously inefficient and starved the active units of officers; Kolchak’s ‘Stavka,’ the former headquarters building of the Tsarist Omsk Military District, was described as a ‘military anthill.’ In addition, the quality of Kolchak’s officers was not high. There were 17,000 of them, but only 1000 had been pre-1915 cadre officers with training and experience in mobile warfare; the great mass were young ‘prapory,’ wartime ensigns (praporshchiki). None of Kolchak’s corps or division commanders had been prerevolutionary generals; the only ‘proper’ general active in the fighting of March-June 1919 was Khanzhin. Lebedev and Stepanov, commanders of the front and the rear, were former colonels in their thirties. ‘Lieutenant General’ Gajda, Commander-in-Chief of the other main front-line force, Siberian Army, was twenty-seven and an NCO deserter from the Austro-Hungarian Army. Of the other best-known Kolchak commanders Sakharov was thirty-eight, Kappel was thirty-six, and Pepeliaev was twenty-six. So in terms of experience there was little to choose between White and Red armies.

Kolchak was never able to make use of what might have been a major asset, the cossack cavalry. Cossack brigades were attached to each White corps but made little impact before September 1919; there was nothing like the successes of the Don Cossacks or the Mamontov raid on Denikin’s front. Kolchak’s potential cossack strength was much less than Denikin’s. The front-line Orenburg and Ural Hosts, with total populations (men, women, and children) of 574,000 and 235,000 respectively, were considerably smaller than those of the Don (1,457,000), the Kuban (1,339,000), and the Terek (255,000). In the steppe south of Omsk was the Siberian Host (114,000) but this was mobilized – incompletely – only in August 1919. The 58,000 Semirechie Cossacks were tied down in Central Asia. (The 258,000 Transbaikal cossacks and 96,000 Amur, Ussuri, and Irkutsk cossacks were in eastern Siberia; with leaders such as Semenov and Kalmykov they were more a liability than an asset.)

The quality of Kolchak’s rank and file was not high. He avoided older World War veterans, from a fear that they had been radicalized by the revolution. Instead he called up the youngest ‘classes,’ nineteen- and twenty-year-olds who had not been ‘infected.’ These men had to be trained (unlike the veterans conscripted by the Reds). The main French adviser thought they were puny, and drily compared them with Jules Verne’s hero: ‘the population of Siberia, particularly in the east, is rarely the Michael Strogoff type.’ Wide use was also made of captured Red soldiers, who were most unreliable. The White army began to fall apart once the Volga advance was stalled. As it was pushed back across Ufa province there were large-scale desertions and even mutinies. By the time Western Army had retreated to the Belaia its strength had fallen from 62,000 to 15,000.

In March 1919 Kolchak’s armies were the largest anti-Bolshevik forces, with a paper front-line strength of 110,000 men. (Total strength – combatants and non-combatants – grew from 160,000 in November 1918 to 450,000 in June 1919.) Siberia had been under White control and free of serious fighting since midsummer 1918; in contrast Denikin and the Don Cossacks were fighting for their lives right through the winter 1918–1919. On the other hand Kolchak’s population base was small, relative to the size of his territory and the strength of the Reds. At its greatest extent the White zone in the east – including the Urals, Orenburg, Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Far East – contained about 20 million people. In the crucial central zone between the Urals and Lake Baikal, where Kolchak had fullest control throughout 1918–1919 (Tobolsk, Tomsk, Enisei, and Irkutsk Provinces), the population was less than 8 million.

The population of the Soviet-held zone, on the other hand, was 60 million. The total strength (combat and non-combat personnel) of the Red Army in January 1919, two months before the Kolchak offensive, was 788,000, with 120,000 in Eastern Army Group and 147,000 in the Iaroslavl, Ural, and Volga Military Districts behind it. The combat strength of Eastern Army Group in February 1919 was 84,000, and there were another 18,000 combat troops behind it in the three military districts. At this time the Reds had 372 guns and 1471 machine-guns in Eastern Army Group (plus 184 and 231 in the three districts), compared to Kolchak’s 256 guns and 1235 machine-guns.

Meanwhile, after Kolchak’s Ufa offensive, the Reds began to channel resources to the east. Special theses of the Bolshevik CC in early April said that Kolchak’s victories were creating ‘an extraordinarily threatening danger for the Soviet republic’ and demanded maximum effort. Fortunately for Moscow the situation on the other fronts appeared good in April; the French had withdrawn from the Ukrainian ports and the Don Cossacks were under siege; Trotsky could announce in April that Kolchak was ‘the last card of the counter-revolution.’ (At the start of May Vatsetis told Lenin that all reserves were being sent to Eastern Army Group.) By mid-May the total strength in Eastern Army Group was listed as 361,000, plus 195,000 in the Iaroslavl, Urals, and Volga districts. The Reds, then, had large reserves of manpower, Kolchak did not.

In May 1919 one White officer visited Ufa, which stands on a hill above the Belaia River, and looked to the west.

Beyond the Belaia spread to the horizon the limitless plain, the rich fruitful steppe; the lilac haze in the far distance enticed and excited – there were the home places so close to us, there was the goal, the Volga. And only the wall of the internatsional, which had impudently invaded our Motherland, divided us off from all that was closest and most dear.

But it was not to be. Kolchak’s Ufa offensive failed. After two months of success his armies found themselves back where they had started. They would never again threaten the Red heartland, and for the rest of their existence would be on the strategic defensive.

If the White armies had actually achieved the intermediate goal of getting back to the Volga (and they would probably have trapped large Soviet forces in the process), they would have had the benefit of a mile-wide river obstacle between themselves and any Red counter-attack, and they might have been ready for some kind of coordination with Denikin’s armies in the south. On the other hand, even if Kolchak had got to Samara and Simbirsk on the Volga in May 1919 he would still have been 500 miles from Moscow, and the Ufa campaign showed the huge difficulties to be overcome. This chapter has been about those difficulties that emerged in the first months of Kolchak’s regime. The basic reason for failure was that even the limited task involved was too difficult. By May the Whites had lost the initiative. The next chapter will be about why Kolchak’s army was unable even to hold its ground, and why, by November 1919, it had been shattered beyond redemption.

WWI – Russian Navy versus German Navy

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Gangut at anchor in Helsingfors, 1915. Note the deployed torpedo net.

WORLD WAR I-BALTIC

After the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War reforms were initiated, and under the able Admiral von Essen the reconstruction of the Russian Navy was taken in hand. In the Baltic, the aim was to reach sixty percent of the strength of the German High Seas Fleet. At first, help from the outside was utilized to a considerable extent. The armored cruiser Rurik (15,400 tons, 4 254-mm. guns, 8 203-mm. guns) was built in England by Vickers, turbines for large destroyers in Germany. At the same time, the creation of an efficient armaments industry was begun; large shipyards were built. In June 1909 the keels of four fast battleships (23,400 tons, 12 305-mm. guns) were laid in shipyards in St. Petersburg. The ships were commissioned in 1914-1915. Three similar battleships, slightly slower, but better protected, were finished in Black Sea shipyards between 1915 and 1917, but four very large battle cruisers (32,400 tons, 12 356-mm. guns) for the Baltic were never completed. A high-quality product of the new Russian shipyards was a series of 36 large destroyers, excellently suited for minelaying.

When war broke out, both sides considered the Baltic a secondary theater of operations. The Germans had to be more active because they were more vulnerable to Russian naval operations. They generally used their old ships in the Baltic but had the advantage of being able to send ships from the High Seas Fleet as reinforcements on short notice. This possibility made the Russians very cautious. They were well prepared for minelaying, and in the first winter of the war undertook a number of cleverly planned operations of this kind in the eastern and central Baltic. Several German warships and merchant steamers were sunk or damaged by Russian mines; operations were considerably hampered. On the other hand, German submarines, as well as mines, proved dangerous to the Russians. After the death of Admiral von Essen in the spring of 1915 Russian naval activity decreased noticeably.

In the spring and summer of 1915 a massive German-Austrian land offensive forced back the Russian armies several hundred kilometers. When German land forces approached the large naval base of Libau (Liepaja) a squadron of Russian armored cruisers tried to interfere but retreated after a short fight with German light cruisers, in which no ship was seriously damaged. The only other encounter between surface forces in the open Baltic happened on 2 July 1915. A squadron of five Russian armored cruisers intercepted the minelayer Albatross (2,200 tons, 8 88-mm. guns), which was protected by the light cruiser Augsburg (4,300 tons, 12 105-mm. guns). The Albatross was soon damaged and beached herself at Östergarne on the Swedish island of Gotland. Then the German armored cruiser Roon (9,500 tons, 4 210-mm. guns) and the light cruiser Lubeck joined in the fight. With 4 254-mm. and 20 203-mm. guns the Russians were still far superior but they did not succeed in seriously damaging the German cruisers. They received some hits, too, and finally retreated although no other German forces were near.

In August 1915, a German squadron, reinforced from the North Sea, made two attempts to break into the Gulf of Riga. In the first, the mine barriers proved impenetrable. The second succeeded, in spite of considerable losses to mines, but had no lasting consequences because the German Army did not participate, although its flank on the Gulf of Riga was being continuously harrassed by bombardments from the sea and even raids by parties landed from the sea.

In the summer of 1915, the number of British submarines in the Baltic was increased. The larger E-boats again passed the Sound (between Denmark and Sweden) as in the fall of 1914; the smaller C-class arrived via canals from the White Sea. They proved distinctly more effective than the Russian submarines. For two years neither side undertook any large naval operations. The Germans suffered losses to mines and submarines, but their domination of the Baltic was never challenged. Sea power worked unobtrusively.

For Germany it was vital to have absolute control of the central and western Baltic: she received most of her iron ore from Sweden, most of the grain from her eastern provinces and coal from the Ruhr district was carried by ship, the supplies for the northern wing of the army fighting Russia went by sea, and-last but not least-sea power relieved the army from the necessity of defending the long coasts in the Baltic. Lord Fisher, for many years the British First Sea Lord, strongly advocated large-scale operations in the Baltic. He was of the opinion that this would compel the Germans to station one million men along their coasts. His estimate was probably too high, but it indicates the size of the potential problem for the German armed forces. Early in 1915 the Royal Navy ordered the Courageous class (19,000 tons, 4 381-mm. guns, 32 knots, draft only 6.8 m.) for Baltic operations. However, the outcome of the Battle of Jutland (31 May/l June 1916) clearly showed that such an undertaking would be too risky even for the Grand Fleet. The battle did not change the over-all strategic situation and therefore in some quarters is considered of little importance. True, the blockade of Germany continued but so did that of Russia, since the British had to abandon their plans for directly supporting her through the Baltic.

As early as January 1915 the Russian government had asked the Western allies to open the sea routes to European Russia again. This request led to the well-conceived, but clumsily executed attack on the Dardanelles in the spring of 1915. In the land campaign of that year the Russian armies suffered disproportionately heavy losses in men as a result of lack of ammunition. According to Minister of War Suchomlinov, field batteries received no more than four rounds per gun for a whole day of fighting. When the Black Sea and the Baltic remained closed the situation in Russia deteriorated steadily. Construction of the Murmansk railway had only just begun; from Arkhangelsk 900 kilometers of narrow-gauge rail led to the main railway system. Nine thousand kilometers of single-track railway crossed Siberia to the Far East. In the winter of 1916-17 food in the larger towns was in such short supply that four meatless days per week had to be instituted. The revolution in February 1917 was the consequence of starvation at home and decimation and defeat in the field. When the Kerensky government tried to continue the fight, the Central Powers put pressure on with three limited offensives. The last was an amphibious operation to take the Baltic Islands of Ösel, Moon (Muhu), and Dago. Russian ships still fought well but without luck. The old battleship Slava was damaged by German battleships and had to be blown up by her own crew. The destroyer Grom was taken. The Germans lost a number of smaller vessels to mines.

In this context it is amusing to read another fairytale [1] of Gorshkov’s: “The Moon Sound operation (12 to 20 October 1917) … had the far-reaching goal of uniting the Central Powers, Britain, the U. S. A., and France in the struggle against the Russian Revolution.” When he quotes Lenin to support this strange idea he only shows that this paragon of political wisdom knew very little of sea power and its consequences. He should have been grateful to the Central Powers, for the loss of the Baltic Islands further weakened the Kerensky government and helped make the Bolshevist October Revolution possible. Figures and facts are distorted in Gorshkov’s short description of the operation, which practically ended the naval war in the Baltic.

[1] In a series of articles written in 1972 (published by the U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1974) Admiral Gorshkov.

WORLD WAR I-BLACK SEA

In the Black Sea the Russian naval forces were more active than in the Baltic. After the German battle cruiser Goeben joined the Turkish fleet in August 1914 neither side had a marked superiority until the new Russian battleships appeared. There were quite a number of engagements, but no conclusive results. When their allies attacked the Dardanelles the Russians repeatedly bombarded the fortifications at the entrance to the Bosporus but did not attempt any landing operations. By this abstention they may have missed the best opportunity for radically improving their supply situation.

The Turkish army in East Anatolia depended on sea transport for a great part of its supplies. When the first new Russian battleship was commissioned· in the winter of 1915-16, Admiral Kolchak, formerly chief-of-staff to Admiral von Essen, made good use of her, and soon the Russians had the upper hand. Well-supported from the sea, their army advanced deep into Turkish territory. At the same time naval forces attacked and nearly stopped the vital transport of coal from Zunguldak on the Black Sea to the Bosporus. With a British army advancing on Palestine, Turkey’s situation soon became critical, but then the October Revolution put an end to Russian operations in Anatolia. The Germans occupied the Ukraine and the Black Sea ports. After the German capitulation, French forces entered Sevastopol temporarily. The best ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet left with them and rusted for many years at the French base of Bizerta in Algeria.

After foreign war, two revolutions, and a long civil war, the remnants of the Russian Navy were in bad shape. Its reconstruction had to take second place behind that of the Army. The experts disagreed on the type of navy needed by the Soviet Union. The Communist Party decided for a kind of “jeune ecole” fleet, a navy for coastal defense with torpedo craft and submarines. Then Stalin assumed command. With his acute sense for politics and power he saw the possibilities of a strong navy for furthering his plans. He also saw the technical difficulties and therefore did not precipitate matters. The second Five-Year Plan (1933-1937) provided for construction of six heavy cruisers, a number of large destroyers and a minimum of 50 submarines. Then, in the Party Congress of 1934, Stalin launched his campaign for capital ships-through a prominent submarine officer. For the construction of battleships and carriers, begun in the third Five-Year Plan, he tried to get help from the USA, but his request was turned down. After the treaty with Hitler in 1939 .he received a half-finished heavy cruiser (the Seydlitz), fire-control gear, and other equipment. In the Supreme Soviet, Premier Molotov declared that in the third Five-Year Plan the Navy had first priority. Pravda declared: “Only the biggest High Seas Fleet will meet Soviet demands.” When the Germans attacked in 1941, the big ships were not yet ready, but 291 submarines of the target number of 325 were in service or nearing completion.

Siege of Pleven

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The artillery battle at Pleven. The battery of siege guns on the Grand Duke Mount, by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky.

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The Capture of the Grivitsa redoubt at Pleven, by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky.

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Date: July 19-December 10, 1877

Location: Pleven (Plevna) in northern Bulgaria

Opponents (* winner)

*Russians, Romanians, Bulgarians

Ottomans

Commanders

Russians, Romanians, Bulgarians: Grand Duke Nicholas; Prince Charles of Romania

Ottomans: Ghazi Osman Pasha

Approx. # Troops 150,000, including 120,000 Russians plus Romanians and Bulgarian volunteers

Ottomans: Probably more than 50,000

Importance

Regarded as the birthright of modern Bulgaria, the battle opens the way for the Russians to move south against Constantinople (Istanbul), but their stand here wins considerable sympathy in Western Europe for the Ottomans

In the early 1870s Ottoman power was in decline, but the empire still controlled most of the Balkan Peninsula. In the south Greece was independent, while to the north Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro enjoyed the status of autonomous principalities. In 1875 and 1876 uprisings occurred in Herzegovina, Bosnia, and Macedonia. Then in mid-1876 the Bulgarians also rose, only to be slaughtered by the Ottomans. Serbia and Montenegro then declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Russia, defeated in the Crimean War of 1854-1856 by a coalition that included the Ottomans, sought to recoup its prestige in the Balkans and secure a warm-water port on the Mediterranean. As a result, concerns mounted that fighting in the Balkans might lead to a general European war.

While the major European powers discussed intervention, the Ottomans, led by Ghazi Osman Pasha, were winning the war. By the autumn of 1876 it was clear that they would soon capture Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. That October Russia demanded an armistice, which the Ottomans accepted. A conference at Constantinople in December soon disbanded without tangible result, and in March 1877 Serbia made peace with the Ottoman Empire. Sentiment in Russia was then so strong for intervention that despite warnings of bankruptcy from his minister of finance, Czar Alexander II declared war on the Ottomans in April 1877, beginning the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

Because the Ottomans controlled the Black Sea with ironclad warships, a Russian land invasion proved necessary. In the last week of April 1877 two Russian armies invaded: one in Caucasia, advancing on Kars, Ardahan, and Erzurum, and the other in the Balkans. Romania was essential to a Russian drive down the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula, and following agreement between Prince Charles of Romania and Alexander II, Russian troops crossed the Prut (Pruth) River into Moldavia. The Ottomans responded by shelling Romanian forts at the mouth of the Danube, whereupon on May 21 Romania declared both war on the Ottoman Empire and its independence. Serbia reentered the war in December. Bulgarian irregular forces fought with Russia, and Montenegro remained at war, as it had been since June 1876. Romanian support was vital to the Russian effort in terms of both geographical position and manpower in the ensuing campaign.

Russian forces under nominal command of Grand Duke Nicholas, brother of the czar, crossed the Danube River on June 26 and took Svistov (Stistova) and Nikopol (Nicopolis) on the river before advancing to Pleven (Plevna, Plevne), about 25 miles south of Nikopol. The Bulgarians acclaimed the Russians as liberators. Russian general Nikolai P. de Krudener, who had actual command, established his headquarters at Tirnovo and sent forces across the Balkan Mountains into Thrace, then back toward Shipka Pass through the mountains to defeat the Ottomans. Russian troops, assisted by Bulgarian partisans, also raided in the Maritza Valley, seemingly threatening Adrianopole.

The military situation changed when Sultan Abdul Aziz appointed two competent generals: Mehemed Ali, named Ottoman commander in Europe, and GhazI Osman Pasha. Mehemed Ali defeated the Russians in the south, driving them back to the Balkan Mountains with heavy losses. To the north the main Russian armies encountered a formidable obstacle in Ottoman forces sent to the Danube under Osman Pasha. Soon he had entrenched his men at Pleven. Ottoman engineers created in the rocky valley there a formidable fortress of earthworks with redoubts, trenches, and gun emplacements. The 10-mile Ottoman defensive perimeter was lightly held, with reserves in a secure central location from which they could rush to any threatened point.

Superior numbers led the Russians to underestimate their adversary. Failing to adequately reconnoiter the Ottoman positions, on July 19, 1877, the Russians assaulted the strongest portion of the line and, to their surprise, were repulsed with

3,000 casualties. The battle demonstrated the superiority of machine weapons in the defense, as the Ottomans were equipped with modern breech-loading rifles imported from the United States. They also had light mobile artillery. On July 30 Russian forces again attacked and again were repulsed.

Over the next six weeks Osman Pasha worked to improve his defenses, while the Russians demanded that Prince Charles of Romania furnish additional manpower. Charles agreed on the condition that he receive command of the joint Romanian-Russian force. Confident of victory, the allies then planned an attack from three sides with 110,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. On September 6, 150 Russian guns began a preparatory bombardment. The Ottoman earthworks suffered little damage, and there were relatively few personnel casualties. Wet weather also worked to the advantage of the defenders.

The infantry attack began on schedule on September 11. With Alexander II in attendance, at 1:00 p.m. the artillery fire ceased, and the infantry began their assault. The attackers took a number of Ottoman redoubts, and for several days it appeared that the allies would be victorious. But on the third day the Ottomans successfully counterattacked. The allies suffered 21,000 casualties for their efforts.

Russian war minister Dimitri Aleksevich Miliutin now recalled brilliant engineer General Franz Eduard Ivanovich Todleben, who had directed the defense of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. Todleben advised that Pleven be encircled and its garrison starved into submission. Osman Pasha, having twice defeated a force double his own in size, would have preferred a withdrawal while it was still possible, but the battle had captured the attention of Europe and created a positive image of Ottomans as heroic and tenacious fighters. Sultan Abdul Hamid therefore ordered him to hold out and promised to send a relief force.

The Russians committed 120,000 men and 5,000 guns to the siege. They also placed Todleben in charge of siege operations. Other Russian forces under General Ossip Gourko ravaged the countryside, preventing Ottoman supply columns from reaching Pleven from the south. The Russians also easily defeated and turned back the sultan’s poorly trained relief force.

Winter closed in, and the Ottoman defenders at Pleven, short of ammunition, were soon reduced to starvation. Osman Pasha knew that his only hope was a surprise breakout. On the night of December 9-10 the Ottomans threw bridges across the Vid River to the west and then advanced on the Russian outposts. The Ottomans carried the first Russian trenches, and the fighting was hand to hand. At this point, Osman Pasha was wounded and his horse shot from beneath him.

Rumors of Osman Pasha’s death led to panic among the Ottoman troops, who broke and fled. Osman Pasha surrendered Pleven and its 43,338 defenders on December 10. Although the Russians treated Osman Pasha well, thousands of Ottoman prisoners perished in the snows on their trek to captivity, and Bulgarians butchered many seriously wounded Ottoman prisoners left behind in military hospitals. Some 34,000 allied troops perished in the siege. With the Russians threatening Constantinople itself, in February 1878 the Ottomans sued for peace.

Russia imposed harsh terms in the Treaty of San Stefano on March 3, 1878, leaving the Ottoman Empire only a small strip of territory on the European side of the straits. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro were enlarged, but the major territorial change was the creation of a new large autonomous Bulgaria, including most of Macedonia from the Aegean Sea to Albania. This would make Bulgaria the largest of the Balkan states, although the assumption was that it would be dominated by Russia. The Battle of Pleven is therefore regarded by Bulgarians as marking the birth of their nation. The treaty did not last, however. Britain and Austria-Hungary threatened war if the treaty was not revised, and Russia agreed to an international conference that met in Berlin in June and July 1878.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, Bulgaria was divided into three parts. Bulgaria proper (the northern section) became an autonomous principality subject to tribute to the sultan; eastern Rumelia, the southeastern part, received a measure of autonomy; and the rest of Bulgaria was restored to the sultan. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro all became independent, and Greece received Thessaly. Russia received from Romania the small strip of Bessarabia lost in 1856 and territory around Batum, Ardahan, and Kars that it had conquered in the Caucasus, while Romania had to be content with part of the Dobrudja. Austria-Hungary secured the right to occupy and administer, though not annex, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The region continued to smolder, however. During 1912-1913 there were two Balkan wars, both of which threatened to become wider conflicts. Then in June 1914 the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand led to a third Balkan war that this time became World War I. The military lesson of the siege of Pleven—that modern machine weapons gave superiority to the defense—was soon to be relearned.

References

Herbert, Frederick William von. The Defense of Plevna, 1877. Ankara, Turkey: Ministry of Culture, 1990.

Kinross, Lord [John Patrick]. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: William Morrow, 1977.

Sumner, B. H. Russia and the Balkans, 1870-1880. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.

Russia attacks the Ottoman Empire

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On 25 September 1789, Russian and Cossack troops take the fortress of Khadjibey, defeating the Ottomans and thus providing the impetus to found Odessa.

Throughout the last two decades of the eighteenth century the Ottoman system was shaken by a succession of challenges to its corporate existence. By 1781–2 the evident decay of centralized administration, the anarchy in many outlying provinces, and the threat of erosion along distant frontiers, had begun to tempt the Sultan’s most powerful neighbours into behaving as if the Empire were under notice to quit. Catherine the Great, influenced by her favourite Prince Potemkin, exchanged letters with the Habsburg Emperor, Joseph II, proposing an alliance: Austria would acquire large areas of modern Roumania and Yugoslavia while Russia would absorb Turkish lands around the Black Sea and establish autonomous states in Rumelia, eventually setting up a new Byzantine Empire under the sovereignty of Catherine’s grandson, the infant Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich (1779–1831). When, in April 1783, Catherine proclaimed annexation of the Tatar khanate of the Crimea as a first step towards realization of this secret ‘Greek Project’, there was widespread indignation at Constantinople. But no declaration of war was made; the Sultan and his viziers were pessimistic about their chances of success without a powerful ally, and none was forthcoming.

Yet it became increasingly difficult for Abdulhamid to ignore Russian provocation. His chief concern was the persistent Russian advance in the Caucasus, following the establishment in 1783 of a protectorate over Georgia. But there were other acts of aggravation, too: the encouragement given to visits by Greek Orthodox churchmen to the court at St Petersburg; the incitement of unrest by Russian consular officials in Bucharest, Jassy and several Greek islands; the rapid building of a river port to handle Black Sea trade at Kherson, on the Dnieper, where 10,000 people were settled by 1786; a triumphal progress by the Empress through her newly acquired Crimean lands. Abdulhamid was physically strong and mentally alert, the father of twenty-two known children, but by 1785 he was ageing rapidly and growing morbidly suspicious of palace intrigue. In the spring of that year he connived at the fall and execution of Halil Hamid, a reforming minister who had trimmed down the Janissary Corps by some sixty per cent. In January 1786 the Sultan appointed Koça Yusuf as Grand Vizier. He was a Georgian convert to Islam who as governor of the Peloponnese had been inclined to see Russian agents lurking on every quay in his province. In August 1787 Koça induced the ailing Abdulhamid, although still without an ally, to declare war on Russia.

This renewed conflict with imperial Russia began a half-century in which the Ottoman Empire was intermittently at war with foreign powers for twenty-four years. During the same period the Sultans were also forced to mount fifteen repressive campaigns against insurrections in outlying provinces, the most serious of which developed into wars of national liberation. These military and naval demands checked the economic growth of the Turkish heartland and limited the character of the reforms undertaken by Abdulhamid’s two strong-minded successors, Selim III and Mahmud II. At the same time, they brought the Sublime Porte into the European diplomatic system, posing an Eastern Question to which the only possible solution ultimately proved to be the dissolution of the multinational Ottoman Empire itself.

At first, in the early autumn of 1787, Koça Yusuf’s war seemed reluctant to come to the boil. Even when Joseph II became Catherine’s ally, six months later, little happened. On land, the Austrians lumbered into Bosnia and crossed from the Bukovina into northern Moldavia, while the Russians eventually took the fortress of Ochakov, commanding the approach to the Bug and the Dniester; and in June 1788 two naval engagements were fought amid the mudflats of the Dnieper estuary, where a Russian flotilla led by the American hero John Paul Jones exposed the weakness of the newly revived Ottoman navy. There was little co-ordination between Russia and Austria, both empires being distracted by threats elsewhere in Europe. Habsburg victories in Serbia went unexploited by the Russians until Suvorov won his ten-hour battle at Focsani in August 1789; but by the following summer, when Suvorov and Kutuzov stormed the Turkish defences around Izmail, Austria was already negotiating for a separate peace. The Ottoman envoys secured good terms from the Habsburgs at Sistova in August 1791; and joint British, Prussian and Dutch mediation enabled the war with Russia to be ended before Catherine’s armies swept south of the Danube delta. Even so, the Peace Treaty of Jassy (January 1792) was yet another humiliation for the Porte in what had so long been reserved as the Ottoman’s maritime lake: the Sultan recognized, not only Catherine’s annexation of the Crimea and the protectorate over Georgia, but the southern advance of the Russian frontier to the line of the lower Dniester. It was in this region that, in August 1794, the first stones were laid of the port of Odessa, soon to give the Turks a more formidable competitor for Black Sea trade than up-river Kherson.

Abdulhamid I, like his predecessor in an earlier conflict with the Russians, succumbed to apoplexy at the height of the war. His nephew Selim III acceded in April 1789, that momentous month when George Washington became the first President of the United States and deputies converged on Versailles for Louis XVI’s opening of the States General. Events in America mattered little to Selim; but what happened in France was of considerable interest. Even during his years of nominal confinement in the kafe, Selim had been in touch with Louis. A trusted friend, Ishak Bey, served as Selim’s personal emissary, travelling to Versailles in 1786 with a plea that France, as a long-term friend and ally of the Ottoman Empire, should provide aid in modernizing the army and support policies aimed at the containment of Russia. But the Comte de Vergennes, Louis’ foreign minister for the first thirteen years of his reign, had himself served as ambassador in Constantinople: he was sceptical over the prospects of reform in Turkey and strongly opposed to any enterprise which might lead to a Franco-Russian conflict. Louis’ reply to Selim was guarded and patronizing. ‘We have sent from our court to Constantinople officers of artillery to give to the Muslims demonstrations and examples of all aspects of the art of war’, Louis wrote in a letter dated 20 May 1787, ‘and we are maintaining them so long as their presence is judged necessary.’

Throughout the war with Russia French officers continued to give advice to cadets on the Golden Horn. Translations of military manuals were turned out by the excellent private press attached to the French embassy: aspiring Turkish gunnery specialists could therefore study the treatises from which the young Bonaparte profited at the academy in Brienne. Of course, none of these benefits were in themselves sufficient to change the military balance along the shores of the Black Sea. Whatever his sympathies and inclination, Selim was able to do little to reform or improve the Ottoman state during the first three years of his reign, when day-to-day reports of the war with Russia determined the behaviour of sultan and viziers alike. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1791 Selim ordered twenty-two dignitaries, both secular and religious, to draw up memoranda on the weaknesses of the empire and the way to overcome them. When, a few months later, the Jassy settlement gave the Ottoman Empire a respite from war, the Sultan resolved to press ahead with a policy of westernization. He hoped that the preoccupation of European statesmen with events in Paris would, at the very least, enable him to ensure that his army and navy should catch up the armed forces of the West in training and equipment.

These good intentions look tediously familiar, but Selim’s plans went further than any reforms contemplated by his predecessors. The twenty-two collected memoranda encouraged Selim to seek a ‘New Order’ (Nizam-i Cedid), thereby virtually imposing a revolution from above. Administrative changes included revised regulations to strengthen provincial governorships, the creation of more specialist secular schools to provide training in the ancillary subjects essential for military and naval command (including the French language), control of the grain trade, the institution of regular ambassadorial diplomacy with the major European Powers, and improvements in methods of ensuring that provincial taxes reached a new central treasury, which was given the right to impose taxes on coffee, spirits and tobacco. Earlier Sultans had given their somewhat erratic support to the building of modern ships of the line and the reform of new light and heavy artillery units; Selim III instituted a form of conscription for the navy in the Aegean coastal provinces, tightened discipline in the artillery and other specialist corps and, amid widespread consternation, announced the creation of new infantry corps, organized and trained on French lines and equipped with modern weapons. The Janissaries, suspicious as ever of innovation, had their arrears of back pay settled, and were promised more money for active service, and regular pay-days. But the new barracks for young Turkish recruits above the Bosphorus and at Üsküdar seemed a direct challenge to the entrenched status of the Janissaries. Sultan Selim’s other reforms were soon forgotten, and the term ‘New Order’ became applied solely to the regular infantry battalions which the Nizam-i Cedid brought into being.

Russian Army 1915 Part I

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Constant talk of shell-shortage, and the blaming of everything upon it, concealed a much more important factor: the increasing crisis of authority in the Russian army. Shell-shortage, lack of officers, and the increasing restiveness of the men were the three factors that most influenced the shape of affairs in 1915, and it is not surprising that Stavka, with respectable public opinion in general, concentrated its attention on shell-shortage which at least had an obvious, material remedy, and one moreover that could profit respectable public opinion. But the shell-shortage had itself been greatly complicated by the nature of the army, which in the long run mattered much more than shell-shortage.

Officer and man began to draw apart, almost as soon as the initial patriotic euphoria had vanished. Revolutionary urges began to affect the men: not yet in the form of mutiny, but certainly in the form of je m’enfoutisme—malingering, passive resistance, dumb insolence, overstaying of leave. To measure such things is of course difficult. There are several collections, in print, of soldiers letters home in this period, but both they and the censors’ comments on them present the historian with a well-known trap, since much depends on the methods of sampling. Some of the printed collections have the reader wondering why revolution failed to break out in December 1914, and others equally have him wondering why it broke out at all. Just the same, there are clear indications that, in 1915, ‘incidents’ multiplied. Sick-lists lengthened, with 85,000 men evacuated to the rear in 1914, and 420,000 in 1915. More revealing still, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians captured, in 1915, over a million prisoners, so many that the Russian authorities lost track of them. There was a widespread demoralisation of the army, that had inevitable effects on the commanders’ strategy. In some ways, ‘shell-shortage’ was a mere technical translation of the great social convulsion within Russia.

The difficulties were blamed on ‘agitators’, and at the generals’ conference in Cholm, just before the evacuation of Lwów, arrangements were made for construction of barracks in provincial towns, ‘so that reserve-battalions can be kept away from the populace’. Hitherto the troops had been kept mainly in Moscow, Petrograd, Kiev, because these alone had housing and supply-facilities, and the bulk of troops continued to be placed there, for lack of anything else. Naturally, their contact with the populace, particularly in Petrograd, and particularly with the women, who were more uncompromising revolutionaries than the men, caused trouble for officers. Still, at this time the soldiers were still overwhelmingly ‘patriotic’ in their orientation, and though they resented their officers’ behaviour, they shrank from full-scale mutiny. There were riots, drunken outbreaks; there was some desertion. But, just as in this period there were not many strikes, so these outbreaks were confined to a sort of continual revolutionary murmur.

It was not agitators, but the collapse of the old army’s structure, that produced trouble. The army’s numbers went up, beyond the capacity of the administrative machinery even to count. The standing army, the first class of the reserve, the recruit-years (by anticipated conscription) of 1914–18 were called up. Beyond these, there was the enormous mass of territorial troops, the opolcheniye, who had little or no training, but who found themselves bearing arms—of a sort—as the man-power crisis bit deep. Altogether, nine million men seem to have been called up by July 1915. On the other hand, the number of officers, inadequate even for the peacetime army at its full strength of two million men, went down because of officer-casualties, of which there were 60,000 by July 1915. The 40,000 officers of 1914 were more or less completely wiped out. Replacements from the officers’ schools could proceed only at a rate of 35,000 per annum. Wide recourse was had to ‘‘warrant-officers’, men with little fitness to become officers, promoted straight from their high schools. But by September 1915, it was rare for front-line regiments—of 3,000 men—to have more than a dozen officers. The training-troops of the rear were similarly few in number, because officers were not enough for the purpose. The whole of Russia supported 162 training-battalions, which would take in between one and two thousand men for a training-period supposed to last six weeks. It is therefore understandable that a large number of the hundreds of thousands of troops arriving every month in army depots had nothing to do for most of the day. Moreover, the army leaders would not, until the turn of 1915–16, promote men from the ranks on a sufficiently lavish scale to make up; and even when men were promoted in this way, they never attained substantial posts. It is sometimes astonishing to see how many men, sometimes due for brilliant careers in the Red Army two years later, failed to rise above a non-commissioned post in the Tsarist Army. Zhukovs, Frunzes, Tukhachevskis were available to the Tsarist army, but they never rated more than a subaltern’s job, much as Napoleon’s marshals had done in the days of the ancien régime.

But the problem with officers was only part of the structural problem. There was also a problem, perhaps more serious, with N.C.O.s. As Dragomirov said, ‘this vital link in the chain of command was missing’. N.C.O.s were appointed ad hoc, shared the men’s facilities—there was no sergeants’ mess, certainly none of its ethos—and usually were among the first to go Bolshevik, unless they were in the privileged cavalry or artillery. It was partly the blindness of the old régime that was responsible for this, for officers could not imagine that an N.C.O. could appear in less than ten years of service. It was also a consequence of the social development of Russia, where the N.C.O.-type had not emerged to nearly the same extent as in western countries. France and Germany had a whole range of artisans: men, certainly not of officer-status, who none the less had their own parcel of responsibility, over a counter-help, a Polish maid-servant or seasonal labourer. In the German army, artisans made up two-fifths of the N.C.O. corps and in some regiments even more; independent peasants made up most of the rest. The State offered its support for this process, because it guaranteed a man who served for seven years, and became a Reserve-N.C.O., a job in the Prussian postal or railway-services, which suited many men of artisan-background at a time when excessive competition was eating away their livelihoods. What the Prussian bureaucracy had done for the economically-pressed Junker, it also achieved for the artisan or small farmer in difficulties, and it acquired thereby the most solid N.C.O.-corps in Europe. Russia was a different case. Only three per cent of her peasant population was in the habit of hiring labour, and the village commune indeed existed to dismantle properties that looked as if they would proceed on western lines. Moreover, where Russia had the egalitarian commune, western Europe had a plethora of trade-unions, churches, schools, boy-scout organisations where men could learn discipline and also learn how to transmit it. At N.C.O.-level, there was a smudgy copy of the officer-class, which did excellent service in turning a mass-army into a serviceable military unit. In Russia, this caste was much weaker: in 1903 there existed only 12,109 long-serving soldiers in the army, in place of the 23,943 there should have been—two per company, where the Germans had twelve.