Soldiers of the Tsar [Czar] I


Battle of Kulikovo

The armies of north-eastern Russia from the Mongol conquest until the accession of Ivan the Terrible. Dvor were the paid troops of the prince and the more important boyars. This period saw the rise of Moscow to preeminence under the protection of Mongol overlordship. Muscovite rulers were said to be skilled in both ingratiating themselves with the Mongols and in discreetly leaving Mongol armies on the eve of battle. Open war in 1380 saw the defeat of the Mongols at the epic battle of Kulikovo. Russian armies of this period were predominantly of cavalry, and their tactics were similar to those of the Mongols. The usual formation consisted of an advance guard, a strong centre, the “bolshoi polk”, left arm, right arm and rearguard, the right arm having seniority over the other divisions. Infantry were first used for offensive campaigning by Ivan III in 1469 and provided almost exclusively by town militia in separate bodies of spearmen and bowmen and by Cossacks. Muscovite grand prince Ivan III began using the term TSAR to introduce an added level power and majesty to his rule. Cossacks (“adventurers”) were originally renegade Tartars and Russian peasants not on the tax rolls or who refused to work another’s land and were free associations who settled along distant borders in areas of uncertain control. Although we think of them today as light horse, they at this time provided many infantry and specialised in boat work, taking quickly to handguns when these became available.


The musketeers, or streltsy (literally “shooters”), were organized as part of Ivan IV’s effort to reform Russia’s military during the sixteenth century. In 1550 he recruited six companies of foot soldiers armed with firearms, organized into tactical units of five hundred, commanded and trained by officers from the nobility. These units were based from the beginning in towns, and eventually took on the character of garrison forces. Over time their numbers grew from three thousand in 1550 to fifty thousand in 1680.

Militarily, they were ineffectual, mainly because of their economic character. The musketeers were a hereditary class not subject to taxation, but to state service requirements, including battlefield service, escort, and guard duties. During the seventeenth century, the state provided them with grain and cash, but economic privileges, including permission to act as merchants, artisans, or farmers, became their principal support. One particular plum was permission to produce alcoholic beverages for their own consumption. They also bore civic duties (fire fighting and police) in the towns where they lived. Pursuing economic interests reduced their fighting edge.

Throughout the seventeenth century the musketeers proved to be fractious, regularly threatening, even killing, officers who mistreated them or represented modernizing elements within the military. By 1648 it was apparent that they were unreliable, especially when compared with the new-formation regiments appearing prior to the Thirteen Years War (1654–1667) under leadership of European mercenary officers. Rather than disband the musketeers entirely, the state made attempts to westernize them. Many units were placed under the command of foreigners and retrained. Administrative changes were made during and after the war, including placing certain units under the jurisdiction of the Tsar’s Privy Chancery, which appointed officers and collected operations reports. The Privy Chancery, and by extension, the Tsar, was at the center of the attempt to transform the musketeers into more thoroughly trained western-style infantry.


The Imperial Russian Army and Navy owed their origins to Peter I, although less so for the army than the navy. The army’s deeper roots clearly lay with Muscovite precedent, especially with Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich’s European-inspired new regiments of foreign formation. The Great Reformer breathed transforming energy and intensity into these and other precedents to fashion a standing regular army that by 1725 counted 112,000 troops in two guards, two grenadier, forty-two infantry, and thirty-three dragoon regiments, with sup- porting artillery and auxiliaries. To serve this establishment, he also fashioned administrative, financial, and logistical mechanisms, along with a rational rank structure and systematic officer and soldier recruitment. With an admixture of foreign- ers, the officer corps came primarily from the Russian nobility, while soldiers came from recruit levies against the peasant population.

Although Peter’s standing force owed much to European precedent, his military diverged from conventional patterns to incorporate irregular cavalry levies, especially Cossacks, and to evolve a military art that emphasized flexibility and practicality for combating both conventional northern European foes and less conventional steppe adversaries. After mixed success against the Tatars and Turks at Azov in 1695–1696, and after a severe reverse at Narva (1700) against the Swedes at the outset of the Great Northern War, Peter’s army notched important victories at Dorpat (1704), Lesnaya (1708), and Poltava (1709). After an abrupt loss in 1711 to the Turks on the Pruth River, Peter dogged his Swedish adversaries until they came to terms at Nystadt in 1721. Subsequently, Peter took to the Caspian basin, where during the early 1720s his Lower (or Southern) Corps campaigned as far south as Persia.

After Peter’s death, the army’s fortunes waned and waxed, with much of its development characterized by which aspect of the Petrine legacy seemed most politic and appropriate for time and circumstance. Under Empress Anna Ioannovna, the army came to reflect a strong European, especially Prussian, bias in organization and tactics, a bias that during the 1730s contributed to defeat and indecision against the Tatars and Turks. Under Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the army reverted partially to Petrine precedent, but retained a sufficiently strong European character to give good account for itself in the Seven Years’ War. Although in 1761 the military-organizational pendulum under Peter III again swung briefly and decisively in favor of Prussian- inspired models, a palace coup in favor of his wife, who became Empress Catherine II, ushered in a lengthy period of renewed military development.

During Catherine’s reign, the army fought two major wars against Turkey and its steppe allies to emerge as the largest ground force in Europe. Three commanders were especially responsible for bringing Russian military power to bear against elusive southern adversaries. Two, Peter Alexandrovich Rumyantsev and Alexander Vasilievich Suvorov, were veterans of the Seven Years War, while the third, Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, was a commander and administrator of great intellect, influence, and organizational talent. During Catherine’s First Turkish War (1768–1774), Rumyantsev successfully employed flexible tactics and simplified Russian military organization to win significant victories at Larga and Kagul (both 1770). Suvorov, meanwhile, defeated the Polish Confederation of Bar, then after 1774 campaigned in the Crimea and the Nogai steppe. At the same time, regular army formations played an important role in suppressing the Pugachev rebellion (1773–1775).

During Catherine’s Second Turkish War (1787–1792), Potemkin emerged as the impresario of final victory over the Porte for hegemony over the northern Black Sea littoral, while Suvorov emerged as perhaps the most talented Russian field commander of all time. Potemkin inherently understood the value of irregular cavalry forces in the south, and he took measures to regularize Cossack service and bring them more fully under Russian military authority, or failing that, to abolish recalcitrant Cossack hosts. Following Rumyantsev’s precedent, he also lightened and multiplied the number of light infantry and light cavalry formations, while emphasizing utility and practicality in drill and items of equipment. In the field, Suvorov further refined Rumyantsev’s tactical innovations to emphasize “speed, assessment, attack.” Suvorov’s battlefield successes, together with the conquest of Ochakov (1788) and Izmail (1790) and important sallies across the Danube, brought Russia favorable terms at Jassy (1792). Even as war raged in the south, the army in the north once again defeated Sweden (1788–1790), then in 1793–1794 overran a rebellious Poland, setting the stage for its third partition.


Military Parade of Emperor Paul in front of Mikhailovsky Castle painting by Alexandre Benois.

Under Paul I, the army chaffed under the imposition of direct monarchical authority, the more so because it brought another brief dalliance with Prussian military models. Suvorov was temporarily banished, but was later recalled to lead Russian forces in northern Italy as part of the Second Coalition against revolutionary France. In 1799, despite Austrian interference, Suvorov drove the French from the field, then brilliantly extricated his forces from Italy across the Alps. The eighteenth century closed with the army a strongly entrenched feature of Russian imperial might, a force to be reckoned with on both the plains of Europe and the steppes of Eurasia.



Soldiers of the Tsar [Czar] II



At the outset of the century, Alexander I inherited a sizeable and unaffordable army, many of whose commanders were seasoned veterans. After instituting a series of modest administrative reforms for efficiency and economy, including the creation of a true War Ministry, the Tsar in 1805 plunged into the wars of the Third Coalition. For all their experience and flexibility, the Russians with or without the benefit of allies against Napoleon suffered a series of reverses or stalemates, including Austerlitz(1805), Eylau (1807), and Friedland (1807). After the ensuing Tilsit Peace granted five years’ respite, Napoleon’s Grand Armée invaded Russia in 1812. Following a fighting Russian withdrawal into the interior, Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov in September gave indecisive battle at Borodino, followed by another withdrawal to the southeast that uncovered Moscow. When the French quit Moscow in October, Kutuzov pursued, reinforced by swarms of partisans and Cossacks, who, together with starvation and severe cold, harassed the Grand Armée to destruction. In 1813, the Russian army fought in Germany, and in 1814 participated in the coalition victory at Leipzig, followed by a fighting entry into France and the occupation of Paris.

The successful termination of the Napoleonic wars still left Alexander I with an outsized and unaffordable military establishment, but now with the addition of disaffected elements within the officer corps. While some gentry officers formed secret societies to espouse revolutionary causes, the Tsar experimented with the establishment of settled troops, or military colonies, to reduce maintenance costs. Although these colonies were in many ways only an extension of the previous century’s experience with military settlers on the frontier, their widespread application spawned much discontent. After Alexander I’s death, unrest and conspiracy led to an attempted military coup in December 1825. Tsar Nicholas I energetically suppressed the so-called Decembrist rebellion, then imposed parade- ground order. His standing army grew to number one million troops, but its outdated recruitment system and traditional support infrastructure eventually proved incapable of meeting the challenges of military modernization. Superficially, the army was a model of predictable routine and harsh discipline, but its inherent shortcomings, including outmoded weaponry, incapacity for rapid expansion, and lack of strategic mobility, led inexorably to Crimean defeat. The army was able to subdue Polish military insurrectionists (1830–1831) and Hungarian revolutionaries (1848), and successfully fight Persians and Turks (1826–1828, 1828–1829), but in the field it lagged behind its more modern European counterparts. Fighting from 1854 to 1856 against an allied coalition in the Crimea, the Russians suffered defeat at Alma, heavy losses at Balaklava and Inkerman, and the humiliation of surrender at Sevastopol. Only the experience of ex- tended warfare in the Caucasus (1801–1864) afforded unconventional antidote to the conventional “paradomania” of St. Petersburg that had so thoroughly inspired Crimean defeat. Thus, the mountains replaced the steppe as the southern pole in an updated version of the previous century’s north- south dialectic.


Alexander II’s era of the Great Reforms marked an important watershed for both services. In a series of reforms between 1861 and 1874, War Minister Dmitry Alexeyevich Milyutin created the foundations for a genuine cadre- and reserve-based ground force. He facilitated introduction of a universal service obligation, and he rearmed, reequipped, and redeployed the army to contend with the gradually emerging German and Austro-Hungarian threat along the Empire’s western frontier. In 1863–1864 the army once again suppressed a Polish rebellion, while in the 1860s and 1870s small mobile forces figured in extensive military conquests in Central Asia. War also flared with Turkey in 1877–1878, during which the army, despite a ragged beginning, inconsistent field leadership, and inadequacies in logistics and medical support, acquitted itself well, especially in a decisive campaign in the European theater south of the Balkan ridge. Similar circumstances governed in the Transcausus theater, where the army overcame initial setbacks to seize Kars and carry the campaign into Asia Minor.

Following the war of 1877–1878, planning and deployment priorities wedded the army more closely to the western military frontier and especially to peacetime deployments in Russian Poland. With considerable difficulty, Alexander III presided over a limited force modernization that witnessed the adoption of smokeless powder weaponry and changes in size and force structure that kept the army on nearly equal terms with its two more significant potential adversaries, Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary. At the same time, the end of the century brought extensive new military commitments to the Far East, both to protect expanding imperial interests and to participate in suppression of the Boxer Rebellion (1900).


Under Russia’s last Tsar, the army went from defeat to disaster and despair. Initially over-committed and split by a new dichotomy between the Far East and the European military frontier, the army fared poorly in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Poor strategic vision and even worse battlefield execution in a Far Eastern littoral war brought defeat because Russia failed to bring its overwhelming re- sources to bear. While the navy early ceded the initiative and command of the sea to the Japanese, Russian ground force buildups across vast distances were slow. General Adjutant Alexei Nikolayevich Kuropatkin and his subordinates lacked the capacity either to fight expert delaying actions or to master the complexities of meeting engagements that evolved into main battles and operations. Tethered to an 8-thousand-kilometer-long line of communications, the army marched through a series of reverses from the banks of the Yalu (May 1904) to the environs of Mukden (February–March 1905). Although the garrison at Port Arthur retained the capacity to resist, premature surrender of the fortress in early 1905 merely added to Russian humiliation.

The years between 1905 and 1914 witnessed renewal and reconstruction, neither of which sufficed to prepare the Tsar’s army and navy for World War I. Far Eastern defeat fueled the fires of the Revolution of 1905, and both services witnessed mutinies within their ranks. Once the dissidents were weeded out, standing army troops were employed liberally until 1907 to suppress popular disorder. By 1910, stability and improved economic conditions permitted General Adjutant Vladimir Alexandrovich Sukhomlinov’s War Ministry to undertake limited reforms in the army’s recruitment, organization, deployment, armament, and supply structure. More could have been done, but the navy siphoned off precious funds for ambitious ship-building programs to restore the second arm’s power and prestige. The overall objective was to prepare Russia for war with the Triple Alliance. Obsession with the threat opposite the western military frontier gradually eliminated earlier dichotomies and subsumed all other strategic priorities.

The outbreak of hostilities in 1914 came too soon for various reform and reconstruction projects to bear full fruit. Again, the Russians suffered from strategic overreach and stretched their military and naval resources too thin. Moreover, military leaders failed to build sound linkages between design and application, between means and objectives, and between troops and their command in- stances. These and other shortcomings, including an inadequate logistics system and the regime’s inability fully to mobilize the home front to support the fighting front, proved disastrous. Thus, the Russians successfully mobilized 3.9 million troops for a short war of military annihilation, but early disasters in East Prussia at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, along with a stalled offensive in Galicia, inexorably led to a protracted war of attrition and exhaustion. In 1915, when German offensive pressure caused the Russian Supreme Command to shorten its front in Russian Poland, withdrawal turned into a costly rout. One of the few positive notes came in 1916, when the Russian Southwest Front under General Alexei Alexeyevich Brusilov launched perhaps the most successful offensive of the entire war on all its fronts.

Ultimately, a combination of seemingly endless bloodletting, war-weariness, governmental inefficiency, and the regime’s political ineptness facilitated the spread of pacifist and revolutionary sentiment in both the army and navy. By the beginning of 1917, sufficient malaise had set in to render both services incapable either of consistent loyalty or of sustained and effective combat operations. In the end, neither the army nor the navy offered proof against the Tsar’s internal and external enemies.

The French Army at Smolensk 1812


Peter von Hess (1792-1871). Battle of Smolensk (1812).


At 2 p.m., seeing that the Russians were not going to come out and give battle, Napoleon gave the order for a general assault on the city. Over two hundred guns opened up, and three corps of the Grande Armée went into action. It was an unforgettable sight for those present. The city of Smolensk lies on a slope descending to the river Dnieper, on the side of a great amphitheatre, the other side of which is made up by the slope rising from the other side of the river. This was occupied by Barclay’s army, which could see the whole city across the river and the French attacking it from three sides. As the French attackers went into action, their comrades watched from the top of the slope, cheering them on. The weather was fine, the troops were in full dress uniform, and they went into the attack with their bands playing. It was a magnificent spectacle.

In the centre were Davout’s three divisions, under Generals Morand, Gudin and Friant; on the left Ney with two divisions, one of them of Württembergers; on the right Poniatowski with two divisions, and on his right General Bruyère’s cavalry division; a total of some 50,000 men. The French columns lumbered forward. Bruyère’s horsemen charged a body of Russian dragoons under General Skallon and swept them off the field, killing their commander. The infantry penetrated the suburbs and forced the defenders to retreat. The Russians attempted a counterattack, but this was beaten back in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. ‘On both days at Smolensk, I attacked with the bayonet,’ recalled the Russian General Neverovsky. ‘God preserved me, and I only had three bulletholes in my coat.’ Eventually the French reached the city walls, which they then tried, vainly, to escalade. They had no ladders, so all they could do was attempt to climb them.

Auguste Thirion of the 2nd Cuirassiers went to get a better view from the emplacement of one of the French batteries, which was being shelled by Russian guns from the heights on the other side of the river. ‘I cannot conceive how a single man or a single horse could escape that mass of cannonballs coming from two sides and crossing in the midst of those batteries,’ he wrote, but it did not prevent him enjoying the spectacle. ‘We also saw at our feet infantry laboriously descending into the ditches, or rather the ravines which made up the moat of the fortress. It was a Polish division which was trying to storm those rocks with a courage, a desperation worthy of greater success; these brave men tried to scale them by climbing on each other’s shoulders. But the nature of the terrain would not permit of success, and it was a unique and curious spectacle to see that ant-like mass of men crawling over the rocks in such a picturesque manner while above their heads the cannon which were the object of their efforts thundered against their brothers in arms. Opposite them, the French batteries fired projectiles which occasionally fell short, showering the rocks with a mass of fragments of the walls.’

Charles Faré, a lieutenant in the 1st Grenadiers of the Old Guard, told his mother in a letter home that he had never seen French troops fight with greater dash. Ney himself said that the attack by one battalion of the 16th Regiment of the Line was the bravest feat of arms he had ever seen. But not everyone was cheering. General Eblé and his colleague the cartographer of the Grande Armée, General Armand Guilleminot, could see no point to the grand frontal assault on the city walls. They knew that the twelve-pounder field guns Napoleon had brought up were of no use, as their cannonballs were simply absorbed by the soft brick fortifications, and that they could not make a breach in the massive walls. ‘He always wants to take the bull by the horns!’ exclaimed Eblé, shaking his head. ‘Why doesn’t he send the Poles off to cross the Dnieper two leagues upstream of the city?’

Others who were not enjoying the spectacle were the citizens of Smolensk. In the morning the inhabitants of the suburbs had taken weapons from the bodies of dead soldiers and made up gaps in the ranks of the defenders; priests holding crucifixes aloft placed themselves at the head of the militiamen and died with them. When the troops were beaten back, the civilians tried to follow. ‘The inhabitants fled in horror, dragging their valuables; here I saw a good son, bearing on his shoulders an infirm father, there a mother making her way along a safe path towards our positions clutching her little ones in her arms, having sacrificed everything else to the enemy and to the fire,’ recalled one artillery officer.

Their fate was not much more to be envied when they did manage to get into the old city within the walls, according to a fifteen-year-old officer in the Simbirsk Infantry Regiment. ‘What an awful confusion I witnessed within the walls: the inhabitants, believing that the enemy would be repulsed, had remained in the city, but that day’s strong and violent attack had convinced them that it would not be in our hands by the morrow. Crying out in despair, they rushed to the sanctuary of the Mother of God, where they prayed on their knees, then they hurried home, gathered up their weeping families and left their houses, crossing the bridge in the utmost confusion. How many tears! How much wailing and misery, and, in the end, how many victims and blood!’

The grandiose spectacle of the afternoon turned into a scene from hell as the evening drew in. The mortar shells that the French had been lobbing into the city had set many of the predominantly wooden houses on fire, and this spread rapidly. Baron Uxküll of the Russian Chevaliergardes speaks for many who watched impotently as one of their old cities and its inhabitants were engulfed in the flames. ‘I was standing on the mountain; the carnage was taking place at my very feet. Shadows heightened the brilliant sheen from the fire and the shooting,’ he wrote. ‘The bombs, which displayed their luminous traces, destroyed everything in their path. The cries of the wounded, the Hurrahs! of the men still fighting, the dull confused sound of the rocks that were falling and breaking up – it all made my hair stand on end. I shall never forget this night!’

The French onlookers were equally gripped by the ‘sublime horror’ of the spectacle; thoughts turned to the fall of Troy. ‘Dante himself would have found here inspiration for the hell he set out to depict,’ according to Captain Fantin des Odoards. As the French still tried to storm the walls, much of the city was on fire, and the defenders showed up as black silhouettes against the flames behind them, looking for all the world ‘like devils in hell’, as Colonel Boulart of the artillery put it. Similar thoughts were going through the head of Caulaincourt as he stood in front of Napoleon’s tent, watching. Suddenly he felt a slap on his shoulder. It was the Emperor, who had come out to watch, and who compared the sight to an eruption of Vesuvius. ‘Don’t you think, Monsieur le Grand Écuyer, that this is a fine spectacle?’ he added. ‘Horrible, Sire,’ was Caulaincourt’s only answer.

Grand spectacle or not, Napoleon had nothing to be pleased about. As the fighting died down that night it became apparent that the French had gained nothing and lost at least seven thousand men in dead and wounded. Barclay too had little to rejoice over. Aside from the satisfaction of denying the French an easy victory, he had achieved nothing, beyond the loss of over 11,000 men and two generals.

Barclay realised that he could not stay where he was much longer, as it was only a matter of time before Napoleon crossed the Dnieper upstream and cut him off. He had made a symbolic gesture in defending Smolensk for two days, and it was now time to think of saving the army. He therefore ordered Dokhturov to evacuate the city after setting fire to all remaining stores and anything else that could be of use to the enemy, and to destroy the bridges after him. The holy icon of the Virgin of Smolensk had already been removed from its shrine, placed on a gun carriage and escorted over the bridge to the northern bank of the river.

Barclay’s orders for the city to be abandoned provoked a general outcry. ‘I cannot express the indignation that prevailed,’ wrote General Sir Robert Wilson, who had just arrived to take up his post as British ‘commissioner’ at Russian headquarters. A succession of senior officers came to beg Barclay to reconsider his decision, or, if he were determined to retreat, to allow them to fight on to the last drop of blood. Bagration wrote him a note demanding that Smolensk be defended regardless of cost. Bennigsen, in stark contradiction to his earlier assertion that there was no point in a battle at this point in the retreat, came out in favour of a last-ditch stand. He stormed into headquarters, accompanied by Grand Duke Constantine and a bevy of generals, demanding that Barclay change his plans. The Grand Duke virtually commanded him to rescind his ‘cowardly’ order and launch a general attack on the French. ‘You German, you sausage-maker, you traitor, you scoundrel; you are selling Russia,’ he shouted at Barclay for all to hear. ‘I refuse to remain under your orders,’ he added, saying he would move the Guards corps under Bagration’s command. He continued to heap invective on Barclay, who eyed him in silence. ‘Let everyone do their duty, and let me do mine,’ he finally interjected, cutting short the argument. That evening Constantine received an order from Barclay to take an important letter to the Tsar and hand over command of the Guards to General Lavrov.

Two hours before dawn the last of Dokhturov’s men trudged back across the bridges and set fire to them. A short while earlier, a voltigeur company of the 2nd Polish Infantry managed to make a breach in the walls and entered the blazing city. In the morning, once one of the gates had been opened and its approaches cleared of the dead and dying bodies heaped around it, the French made their entry into the city.

It was a veritable charnelhouse, its streets strewn with corpses, mostly blackened by fire. In the ruins of houses that had been engulfed by fire lay the remains of inhabitants or wounded soldiers who had taken refuge inside. ‘One had to walk over debris, dead bodies and skeletons which had been burned and charred by fire,’ recalled one French officer. ‘Everywhere unfortunate inhabitants, on their knees, weeping over the ruins of their homes, cats and dogs wandering about and howling in the most heart-rending way, everywhere only death and destruction!’ The Russian wounded had been laid out in makeshift hospitals, which had then been swept by fire as their comrades evacuated the city. ‘These unfortunates, abandoned in this way to a hideous death, lay in heaps, calcinated, shrunken, conserving only just a human form, amidst the smoking ruins and burning beams,’ in the words of Lieutenant Julien Combe of the 8th Chasseurs à Cheval. He was not the only one to notice that the bodies of the burnt soldiers had shrunk; some thought they were those of children. ‘Soldiers who had wanted to flee had fallen in the streets, asphyxiated by the fire, and had been burned there,’ observed Dr Raymond Faure. ‘Many no longer resembled human beings; they were formless masses of grilled and carbonised matter, which the metal of a musket, a sabre, or some shreds of accoutrement lying beside them made recognisable as corpses.’


Barclay had remained on the north bank of the Dnieper throughout the day of 18 August, holding the suburb on that side of the river and preventing the French attempts at rebuilding the burnt bridges. But that night he withdrew. As the road to Moscow ran for several miles along the north bank within range of French guns, he set a course that started in a northerly direction, gradually swinging round to rejoin the Moscow road at Lubino. So as to avoid encumbrance along the small country roads they would have to use, he divided his force in two. But this only complicated matters, as during the first stage of the withdrawal, on the night of 18 August, several units lost their way. Progress was slower than expected, with guns and supply wagons getting stuck at the crossing of the many streams dissecting the roads. The inclines were so steep that in several places guns and heavy wagons rolled down, dragging their teams of horses and men to a nasty death at the bottom of a ravine, and in turn obstructing progress further.

In the meantime, Ney had repaired the bridge at Smolensk, crossed the river and started to advance down the Moscow road, while Junot had begun to cross further upstream, at Prudichevo. Fearing that they might reach it before his retreating men did, Barclay had sent General Pavel Alekseievich Tuchkov with a small force to Lubino to cover the point at which the wheeling Russian columns were to rejoin the Moscow road.

Ney, who began to move along the Moscow road in the morning, was checked by what he thought was a counterattack developing on his left flank. In fact it was Ostermann-Tolstoy’s division, which had got lost in the night, and after marching in a circle for ten hours reappeared outside Smolensk. Ney deployed against it, which gave Tuchkov some time, but soon the French were pushing the Russians back along the Moscow road.

On hearing of the fighting, Napoleon rode out to the scene. Assuming that this was no more than a rearguard action, he ordered Davout to back up Ney with one of his divisions. Together they pushed Tuchkov back, but he too was reinforced by other units and the timely arrival of Barclay himself, who rallied the troops and steadied the situation. Wilson was impressed by Barclay, who ‘seeing the extent of the danger to his column, galloped forward, sword in hand, at the head of his staff, orderlies, and rallying fugitives, and crying out, “Victory or death! we must preserve this post or perish!” by his energy and example reanimating all, recovered possession of the height, and thus under God’s favour the army was preserved!’

The Russians took up strong positions at Valutina Gora. Junot with his Westphalians was actually behind their left wing, and could have taken them in the back, which indeed Napoleon ordered him to do. But the usually fearless Junot, who had been acting strangely and complaining of heat stroke, made a number of incoherent replies and would not move, even when Murat galloped up in person to tell him to attack.

‘If we had attacked, the Russians would have been routed, so all of us, soldiers and officers, were eagerly awaiting the order to attack,’ wrote Lieutenant Colonel von Conrady, a Hessian in Junot’s corps. ‘Our ardour to go into battle was expressed vociferously, with whole battalions shouting that they wanted to advance, but Junot would not listen, and threatened those who were shouting with the firing squad … Grinding our teeth, we were reduced to the role of spectators, while honour and duty beckoned. Never was an opportunity to distinguish oneself more shamefully lost! Several officers and soldiers in my battalion wept with despair and shame.’

There were by now some 20 to 30,000 Russians facing, and outflanked by, as many as 50,000 French. According to Barclay’s aide-de-camp Woldemar von Löwenstern, Tuchkov rode up and asked for permission to fall back, to which Barclay allegedly replied: ‘Return to your post and get yourself killed if you must, for if you fall back I shall have you shot!’ Aware that the fate of the Russian army was in his hands, he held on, but it was touch and go. At one point Yermolov, who was watching, seized his aide-de-camp by the elbow. ‘Austerlitz!’ he whispered in horror.

If the French had been able to defeat Tuchkov, they could have sliced through the middle of the Russian forces on the march, and these would have stood no chance. ‘Never had our army been in greater danger,’ Löwenstern later wrote. ‘The fate of the campaign and of the army should have been sealed on that day.’

It was unlike Napoleon not to sense the reason behind the Russian stand, but at about five o’clock in the afternoon he left Ney to get on with it and rode back to Smolensk. ‘He seemed to be very annoyed, and broke into a gallop when he came up with us, whose acclamations appeared to importune him,’ noted an officer of the Legion of the Vistula who watched him ride by.

Tuchkov stood his ground, and his men fought like lions. Ney’s divisions, supported by Davout’s Gudin division, also fought with dash and determination, and the battle developed into a massacre which only ceased when darkness fell. The field was strewn with seven to nine thousand French and nine thousand Russian dead and wounded, but the living lay down to sleep among them, too exhausted to build a camp.

The following morning, Napoleon rode out to the scene. ‘The sight of the battlefield was one of the bloodiest that the veterans could remember,’ according to one of the Polish Chevau-Légers who escorted him. He took the salute of the troops drawn up on this field of death and proceeded to enact one of the rituals that made him such a brilliant leader of men. He had decreed that he would award the coveted eagle that topped the standards of regiments which had proved their valour to the 127th of the Line, made up largely of Italians, which had distinguished itself on the previous day. ‘This ceremony, imposing in itself, took on a truly epic character in this place,’ in the words of one witness. The whole regiment was drawn up as if on parade, the men’s faces still smeared with blood and blackened by smoke. Napoleon took the eagle from the hands of Berthier and, holding it aloft, told the men that it was to be their rallying point, and that they must swear never to abandon it. When they had sworn the oath, he handed the eagle to the Colonel, who passed it to the Ensign, who in turn took it to the centre of the élite company, while the drummers delivered a deafening roll.

Napoleon then dismounted and walked over to the front rank. In a loud voice, he asked the men to give him the names of those who had particularly distinguished themselves in the fighting. He then promoted those named to the rank of lieutenant, and bestowed the Légion d’Honneur to others, giving the accolade with his sword and giving them the ritual embrace. ‘Like a good father surrounded by his children, he personally bestowed the recompense on those who had been deemed worthy, while their comrades acclaimed them,’ in the words of one officer. ‘Watching this scene,’ wrote another, ‘I understood and experienced that irresistible fascination which Napoleon exerted when he wanted to, and wherever he was.’

By this extraordinary ceremony, Napoleon managed to turn the bloody battlefield into a field of triumph, sending those who had died to immortality and caressing those who had survived with kind words and glorious rewards. But many asked why he had not been there himself to direct the battle. And his entourage wondered what, if anything, had been achieved by the past four days of bloodletting.

Czar Nicholas and his Navy


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


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.


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


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


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.’


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


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


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.


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.