Early Russian Armoured Cars

At the beginning of WWI Russia had virtually no motor industry but its one car company, the Russo-Baltic Russko-Baltiisky Vagon Zaved (R-BVZ, or Russo-Baltic Wagon Factory) located in Riga, Latvia, built an armoured car soon after the war started, and subsequently produced a few more so that a unit could be formed that was sent into action in October 1914. More armoured cars were ordered by the Russian authorities from abroad and especially from Britain. The most numerous of the British cars were produced by the Austin company to a Russian design, which incorporated a very peculiar arrangement of two side-by-side machine gun turrets. Their total, including armoured cars built in Russia on Austin chassis, rose eventually to more than 200. More armoured cars were procured from other companies and some were also built in Russia using imported chassis, bringing the total acquired by the Russian Army to more than 600 in 1917

Russian Empire Armoured Cars

Landships II



General Brusilov

During the uneasy inter-Allied conference at Chantilly in November 1915 the policy of coordinating Allied moves in the west and on the Russian fronts had been re-confirmed. Whatever Nicholas II’s generals had thought initially about their role as decoys to relieve German pressure in Flanders and, to a lesser extent the Austro-Hungarian threat against Italy, their reliance on Western arms shipments again forced them to launch an offensive – this time to coincide with the planned Allied offensive on the Somme, which was intended to develop into the ‘big push’ that would end the war. With OHL giving priority to building up men and munitions for Falkenhayn’s planned killing blow at the exposed fortress-city of Verdun in the spring – nobody then guessed that nearly a million men would die there, mostly blown to pieces by high-explosive shells – on the Russian fronts the winter 1915–16 passed in a series of small attacks of no great moment except to the thousands of men who were wounded, taken prisoner, died in combat or succumbed to exposure.

The Tsar paid a visit to several units on the south-western front, one of them 8th Army, commanded by General Brusilov, a slim and wiry cavalryman whose army career went back to the Russo-Turkish war of 1877. When the bodyguards’ train arrived one hour before the royal train, the commander of the guard expressed concern that Austro-Hungarian aircraft might bomb the units to be inspected during the visit, putting the Tsar’s life at risk. Brusilov pointed out that the low cloud would keep aircraft on the ground, so there was no danger of that happening. Accompanying the Tsar and crown prince, he noted how stiff and awkward they were when talking to the soldiers. A few overdue medals were presented and the royal train disappeared. Describing this in his memoirs, Brusilov contrasts this pointless visit with the fact that the commander of the south-western front, General Ivanov, visited the front so rarely that he had no idea of the morale or capability of his troops. He not only failed to make any preparations for an offensive, but also openly voiced his opinion that his troops could not defend their own lines, if attacked. This was in distinct contrast with Brusilov, who was already mapping out plans for 8th Army to attack and drive Austrian 4th Army under Archduke Joseph Ferdinand back to the Styr and Stockhod rivers. His only reservation was that his right flank needed to be protected by 3rd Army, which was not part of Ivanov’s command because it fell under the western front, commanded by General Aleksei Evert. Evert was an imposing man of fifty-nine whose chest was covered in medals and stars, but who was equally as lacking in fighting spirit as Ivanov. As time would tell tragically, Brusilov was right to suspect Evert of failing to support an attack by a neighbouring unit or army, even when ordered to do so.

As a sop to Brusilov, front commander Ivanov allotted sotni of Cossack cavalry to patrol on 8th Army’s right flank. As Brusilov pointed out, they were intended for fast-moving manoeuvres in open country and could not be of much use in the Pripyat marshes there. Instead, these bands of horsemen mainly roamed about behind the Russian lines, raping and looting the property of the remaining inhabitants. Their only successful operation against the enemy that winter was a raid by three dismounted sotni, who used local guides to follow secret paths through the marshes and raid the HQ of a German infantry division, capturing several officers including the commanding general. Generally, officer POWs were well treated when captured by regular troops but these prisoners must have been ill treated by the Cossacks because the general committed suicide, cutting his throat with a razor after receiving permission to shave himself. At the end of the winter, these irregulars were disbanded, with some men sentenced to death by court martial or exiled to hard labour for robbery and rape. As Brusilov commented in his memoirs without actually mentioning Ivanov, it is amazing how many otherwise intelligent people have stupid ideas!

He, as commander of 8th Army, spent the winter overseeing the construction of better shelters, both for the men’s comfort and health, and to protect them from artillery fire when winter gave way to spring and the front heated up again. However, when he later saw the reinforced concrete shelters constructed by the Austrians, he admitted that they were a great deal more impressive – especially the plentiful bathhouses which enabled the enemy troops to keep cleaner and less lice-infested than Russian infantrymen. It is true that there was less disease in the tsarist armies than in previous wars, yet outbreaks of typhus, cholera and smallpox recurred, as Florence Farmborough was to find. Nevertheless, Brusilov considered that morale was good, while regretting the lack of sufficient heavy artillery and aircraft for reconnaissance and artillery observation on south-western front and a total lack of armoured motor vehicles. These last had been promised from France, but did not arrive during the time he was commanding 8th Army.

When Falkenhayn at OHL began his Verdun offensive on 21 February 1916, Tsar Nicholas informed his generals that, in keeping with the ‘request’ of General Joffre at Chantilly, a new offensive must be launched on the Russian fronts to immobilise German forces that could otherwise be transferred to Verdun. The most promising sector for such an attack was on the northern front in the area of Lake Narotch (modern Narach in Belarus), where elements of two Russian armies totalling 350,000 men faced a German line held by General Hermann von Eichhorn’s 75,000-strong 10th German Army. The northern front was commanded since von Plehve’s health had given way by General Aleksei Kuropatkin, a man so disgraced during the defeat by the Japanese a decade earlier that he should not have been given any command, in Brusilov’s opinion. Grand Duke Nikolai had rightly refused to appoint Kuropatkin, but had been over-ruled by the Tsar when he took over as supreme commander.

On 17 March at the lake – now a peaceful and verdant tourist area – Russian 2nd Army opened the offensive. With conditions seemingly favourable for a rapid victory to raise Russian morale and please the French, a two-day preparatory bombardment that used up much Russian ammunition was so badly directed that it caused scant damage to the German artillery. The price for this was paid when the infantry went in, in tightly grouped squads. Not only did they suffer as obvious targets for the German artillery, but the failure to spread out and use what cover was available caused a terrible slaughter from well-sited German machine gun positions with interlocking fields of fire. The few local gains made were all subsequently lost in German counter-attacks. Early in April, this sector of the front went quiet, having cost another 100,000 Russian casualties, including around 10,000 men who died of exposure in the harsh weather conditions. For this further blot on his record, Kuropatkin was later relieved of his command and sent to distant Turkestan as its Governor-General.

On the day before the Lake Narotch offensive opened, Brusilov received an encoded telegram from Stavka, in which Chief of Staff General Mikhail Alekseyev informed him confidentially that he was being appointed commander of the whole south-western front, replacing Ivanov, who had had a nervous breakdown – as a result of which he was being transferred to a sinecure post in the Tsar’s household. Ten days later, 120 miles behind the lines at Berdychev, Brusilov arrived at Ivanov’s HQ to take formal command of the whole front. He found Ivanov living in a railway carriage, ready to depart, weeping and asking repeatedly why he had been sacked. This embarrassing behaviour continued at dinner in front of his staff. As Brusilov dryly commented, he could give no reply to Ivanov, not being privy to the precise reasons for Alekseyev’s decision.

The Tsar had not been keen on Brusilov’s appointment, but refrained from blocking it. He arrived on another tour of the south-western front and insisted on inspecting 11th Army, speaking to the troops paraded for the occasion without a glimmer of charisma. As Brusilov commented, the speech was not such as to lift the spirits of the men. During the visit, enemy aircraft appeared but were driven off by Russian artillery. To his credit – or perhaps his lack of imagination – the Tsar remained with 11th Army for two days and nights. Kaiser Wilhelm was also visiting German troops on the other side of the lines, where his gruff man-to-man manner had always gone down well with the rank-and-file, although on this visit he noticed for the first time an unpleasant surliness in his troops due to the high casualties, the harsh weather on the Russian fronts and news from home of social unrest and the imprisonment of revolutionary socialists like Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

Brusilov’s next meeting with Tsar Nicholas was on 14 April, when attending his first meeting of Stavka as commander of the south-western front. This took place in Mogilyov (modern Magilyou in Belarus), described as a depressing town, chosen because it had some large buildings to accommodate the various staffs, and was presided over in his usual indecisive manner by Nicholas. Among the officers present was General Evert, commanding the Russian western front, who supported Kuropatkin’s claim that the failure at Lake Narotch had been due to inadequate reserves of artillery shells. They both agreed that this made further offensives pointless. As chief of staff, Alekseyev nevertheless ordered a summer offensive on the northern front by 2nd and 10th armies when new conscripts had replaced casualties and missing in action, to bring strength up to between 700,000 and 800,000 men. The right flank of this offensive would drive on Vilna while the rest of this force, outnumbering the Germans by a ratio of 5: 1 or better, was tasked with playing a waiting game to interdict movement of enemy formations against the right flank. But there was a trade-off. There always was with Alekseyev, an unpretentious man of humble origin who tried to avoid contact with his own staff and felt embarrassed if he did not pay his own mess bill, unlike many of the noble officers he commanded, who took it as of right that the army should feed them. In his favour, it has to be said that he had effected an excellent clear-out of the aristocratic cavalrymen who had scavenged at the table of his predecessor, yet was unable to impose his will at times like this. He agreed to a two-month delay and accepted the need for 1,000 more heavy guns for the preparatory bombardment.

At this conference, Brusilov surprised the other front commanders by volunteering to direct a simultaneous offensive on his front to prevent the enemy moving reinforcements on the railway network in Austrian Galicia to reinforce their positions on the northern front. After he refused to be deterred by Alekseyev’s warning that he could expect no priority in reinforcements or materiel, Kuropatkin and Evert rubbished the idea of Brusilov’s offer. At dinner that evening one of the senior generals – in his memoirs, Brusilov does not name him, for whatever reason – gave some advice: ‘You’ve just been appointed front commander. Your reputation stands very high, why take a risk like that which could tarnish it and cancel out all your achievements so far?’ Brusilov replied that he saw it as his duty to attempt to win the war, whatever the problems of manpower and materiel.

He reasoned that the crippling shortage of artillery, rifles and ammunition that had beset the Russian armies earlier in the war was being steadily overcome, and that the situation would continue to improve because the retreat of 1915 had shortened the front, making re-supply more rapid, and Russia’s indigenous armament industry was at last producing 1.5 billion cartridges and 1.3 million rifles per annum, with a further 2 million in process of importation from abroad. The standard of recruit training was also much improved and a policy of initially drafting ‘new meat’ to quiet sectors of the front meant that raw recruits no longer de-trained to find themselves thrown into combat the next morning. Ivanov, still not recovered from his breakdown, was in habitual negative mood and asked the Tsar to veto Brusilov’s proposal. As usual, Nicholas refused to throw his weight on either side, so Brusilov left Stavka to present his plan to his own staff.

Alexei Brusilov was unlike most of his fellow generals in the Russian forces in not being an alumnus of the General Staff Academy. He also did not share their conviction that endless bayonet charges would win the war by killing more of ‘them’ than ‘us’. To his way of thinking, new materiel like tanks and aircraft offered more efficient possibilities. To some extent, this was because he was familiar with Western European military thinking, having visited the German, French and Austro-Hungarian cavalry schools before the war and had made his own independent analysis of the Japanese defeat of Kuropatkin and his army commanders Rennenkampf and Samsonov in the war of 1904–5. Britain’s senior soldier of the Second World War, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery considered that Brusilov was one of the seven outstanding commanders of the First World War. It is certainly arguable that the eventual result of the war in the east might have been very different, had Brusilov been given overall control at the outset and authority to override the blinkered nineteenth-century thinking of the generals senior to him, particularly at Stavka.

The third generation of his family to serve in the tsarist army – his grandfather had fought against Napoleon in 1812 – Alexei was born in 1853 in Tiflis of a Russian father and Polish mother. Orphaned young, he was raised by relatives in Georgia until the age of 14, when he was sent to continue his education with the prestigious Corps of Pages in Saint Petersburg – a promising first step to a military career. There, a tutor’s report on him contained the comment: ‘Of high potential, but inclined to be lazy.’ The slur hardly fits with the man he showed himself to be in 1916. His rejection by the Tsar’s prestigious guards regiments had more to do with lack of family money to subsidise life as a guards officer than any character defect. Instead, he was posted with the rank of ensign to a lowly dragoon regiment back home in Georgia.

There, keenness and efficiency saw him rapidly promoted to regimental adjutant with the rank of lieutenant. In the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 he was awarded several medals and ended the war as a captain. He must have caught the eye of some senior officers, for this was followed by a posting to the prestigious cavalry officer school in St Petersburg, leading to an appointment on the staff of the college, where he spent the next thirteen years. By 1902 he was a lieutenant general commanding the school. It was at this time he was able to travel to France, Austria-Hungary and Germany, ostensibly to study horse breeding and other harmless matters, but also to observe first-hand, in Germany and Austro-Hungary, the manoeuvres of the very armies he would almost certainly be confronting one day, and thus gaining an appreciation of their commanders’ thinking.

Although not as shattering to Russian society as the 1917 revolution, the revolution of 1905, triggered by Russia’s defeat and appalling death toll in the Russo-Japanese war, caused much disruption of life in St Petersburg, as it then was. Coming after the death of his first wife, this caused Brusilov to seek a posting away from the capital. He was rewarded in 1912 with appointment as deputy commander-in-chief of all Russian forces in the strategically important Warsaw Military District. It was, however, not a happy time because his superior, Governor-General Georgi Skalon, was an autocrat whose brutal repression of civil unrest there at the time of the 1905 Russian revolution had led to an attempt on his life by Polish nationalists. Brusilov simply did not fit in the rigid pomp-and-circumstance hierarchy of Skalon’s command and had himself transferred to Kiev in the Ukraine.

On mobilisation in July 1914, he was promoted to command Russian 8th Army on the south-west front in Galicia, which smashed its way through the opposing Austro-Hungarian forces, rapidly advancing nearly 100 miles, but had to retreat in the general withdrawal after Tannenberg. Early 1915 saw the same script replayed, with Brusilov’s spearheads advancing through the Carpathian passes to threaten Budapest until forced back in the general retreat. Never the sort of commander to stay back at HQ all the time, he had thoroughly reorganised 8th Army before handing over command to his successor and made a complete tour of inspection of the whole south-western front after his promotion to front commander. He felt confident that, although his two previous successes had been forfeited by the shortcomings on his flanks and shortages of materiel, this time Evert would have to attack simultaneously, so that he could again push the opposing German and Austro-Hungarian forces back to the Carpathians and this time hold them there.

Brusilov disagreed with the customary Russian practice of concentrating an offensive on a small sector of the front for the good reason that this left the advancing troops vulnerable to counter-attack on the flanks. What he was planning, was an attack that would hit the enemy in many places over the whole 280-mile length of the south-western front, reasoning that this would prevent the enemy moving forces to strengthen weak positions, one of which would give way and lead to a collapse. His artillery was also to be deployed differently, not to make saturation barrages but to target strategic points such as road junctions and command posts of the German units they were facing. Brusilov even accepted the transfer of some divisions to Evert’s front on the assumption they would be attacking at the same time as he did and securing his right flank.

On 17 April at front HQ in Berdychev he therefore informed his four army commanders that the offensive would be launched simultaneously in a number of places from the southern limit of the Pripyat marshes down to the Romanian border, with 8th Army targeting particularly the railway junctions at Lutsk and Kovel – an axis that had the potential to split the opposing CP forces in two. The army commanders’ reaction mirrored that of the generals at Stavka. In fairness to them, the enormous scale of previous losses in this theatre and the fact that every advance made had, sooner or later, been repulsed by the enemy, had eroded whatever aggressive spirit they once had. Traditional military thinking was that an attacking force should be roughly three times as strong as the defenders. With a manpower ratio of roughly 1:1 – each side had about 135,000 men in the line on this front – General Aleksei Kaledin, commanding 8th Army because of family connections with the Tsar, who had blocked Brusilov’s choice of appointee for that post, said openly that the offensive could not succeed. He was pulled up sharply by Brusilov, who reminded him that he had just handed 8th Army over to him and was personally aware that it was well prepared to attack – and also that he was familiar with every mile of 8th Army’s front. The commander of 7th Army, General Dmitri Shcherbachev was the only one initially favourable to Brusilov’s plans, and even he allowed himself to be talked round until Brusilov found all four of his army commanders speaking out openly against them. He then informed them all that he was not asking for their advice, but ordering them to prepare the offensive.

His four armies gave him forty infantry divisions and fifteen cavalry divisions. The four opposing armies they would be taking on consisted of thirty-eight infantry divisions and eleven of cavalry. In artillery, Brusilov’s 168 heavy guns and 1,770 light guns roughly matched the Austro-Hungarians’ 545 medium and heavy guns and 1,301 light guns on that front.

Time spent in preparation is seldom wasted. The old maxim from Caesar’s day, or earlier, was Brusilov’s credo. He commenced by ordering reserves brought forward all along the line, so that enemy aerial reconnaissance could not determine at what point the offensive was likely to come. Once ‘up’, these troops were set to excavating sheltered places d’armes or assembly areas for thousands of men, with the displaced soil piled up into berms running parallel to the front line, both to impede observation from the ground and to afford some protection against incoming artillery fire. From these areas, communication trenches were dug to the front lines. Not content with that, Brusilov ordered saps, or tunnels, to be dug out into no man’s land. The purpose of these was to bring the jumping-off points for his infantry within 50–100yd of the enemy lines and thus radically reduce the time they were exposed to machine gun fire during the assault.

The Smolensk War

Surrender of Mikhail Shein at Smolensk.

After the death of Tsar Boris Godunov in 1605, Russia was plunged into crisis. The extinction of the original dynasty meant that there was no universally recognized claimant to the throne. The Smuta, a period of anarchy, civil war, and peasant rebellions, ensued. Eventually the disorder in Muscovy caught the attention of neighboring states: both the Swedes and the Poles intervened in force. Although the election of Michael Romanov as tsar in 1613 nominally resolved the domestic unrest, war with Sweden dragged on until 1617, and the conflict with Poland until 1618. Muscovy had to pay dearly for peace. Under the Stolbovo treaty Moscow ceded to Stockholm a huge swath of territory curving around the northern and western shores of Lake Ladoga. Russia was now cut off completely from the Gulf of Finland. For their part the Poles, in return for the fourteen-year Deulino armistice, exacted important lands along the western border of the state, including the strategic city of Smolensk. For the rest of the seventeenth century the government of Muscovy saw as one of its most pressing tasks the recovery of those alienated possessions. Muscovy had to choose which of its two adversaries to confront first. In the 1620s and 1630s the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was viewed as the principal enemy.

There were several reasons behind Moscow’s preference for a Polish war: personal, dynastic, religious, historical, and pragmatic. First, the most powerful man in the Muscovite state—the tsar’s father, Patriarch Filaret—was profoundly antagonistic toward Poland, and with good reason. Arrested by the Poles in 1611, he had languished almost ten years in captivity before the Deulino armistice had resulted in his release. Second, there was an important dynastic consideration. During the time of the troubles King Zygmunt III of Poland had proposed his son Wladyslaw as candidate for the Muscovite throne. Many of the most prominent boyars in the realm (including Michael Romanov) had in fact sworn fealty to Wladyslaw. On that basis the Poles refused to the recognize Michael’s claim and throughout the 1620s routinely denied his title in diplomatic correspondence. From the standpoint of the Muscovite ruling elite this behavior was more than a discourtesy; it represented a clear danger to the state. The Smuta had been the result of contention over the right to rule, after all, and had come to an end only when all of the main political factions had agreed to respect Michael’s somewhat dubious title. For a foreign power to dispute Michael’s claim was a direct attack on the political compact that held the Muscovite state together and an open invitation to internal subversion and disloyalty.

Another factor in the targeting of Poland was a profound religious antipathy. To be sure, the Orthodox hierarchy of Moscow had no fondness for the Lutherans of Sweden or the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. But Catholicism was perceived as more threatening to Orthodoxy than either Protestantism or Islam. Muscovites were particularly alarmed at the proselytizing efforts the Catholic and Uniate clergy had been making among the Orthodox Christians of the Ukraine ever since the late sixteenth century. That missionary effort was simultaneous with an increasingly onerous domination by Polish landlords in the Ukraine and carried a heavy risk for Warsaw. In the 1620s Orthodox Ukrainians began to petition Muscovy for aid against the Polish Catholics. The rebellion of the Ukrainian Cossacks under Khmel’nitskyi against Poland (1648) cannot be explained without reference to the religious issue. And, in 1654, Muscovite intervention on the Cossack side (the Thirteen Years War) had the religious controversy as its backdrop.

Yet another reason for discord between Moscow and Warsaw was the very existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which frustrated Muscovy’s own imperial ambitions. One of the tsar’s honorifics, after all, was samoderzhets vseia Rusi, or autocrat of all Rus’. Its implication was that Muscovy alone was the true successor to the old Kievan state of the ninth through the twelfth century. Some of the lands and cities of Kievan Rus’, however, including the city of Kiev itself, lay under the sway of Poland. As Polish peace commissioners were to point out to their Muscovite counterparts in 1634, “the tsar should most properly style himself autocrat of his own Rus’ since Rus’ is located both in the Muscovite and in the Polish state.”

If all those considerations militated in favor of a war with Poland, there were eminently pragmatic motivations as well. As we shall see somewhat later, given the composition and logistics of the Muscovite army in the first half of the seventeenth century, a foray into Polish white Russia, where food and forage were readily available, had a greater chance of success than a war against Sweden, which would, perforce, be fought in the barren wastes of Karelia, Finland, or Ingria.

In any case, for Muscovy to undertake a full-blown war with any other state was hardly an easy matter in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. There was, of course, a financial problem: the time of the troubles had emptied the tsarist treasury, and many years would be required to achieve that solvency and those fiscal surpluses without which war would be unthinkable. The difficulty here was compounded by the fact that in the 1620s and 1630s Muscovy received more than three-fourths of its revenues from import duties and a tax on the sale of alcohol in the taverns. It was obviously hard to squeeze more money from those sources than they already provided. Throughout the seventeenth century the Muscovite administration therefore continuously tried to find new ways of raising revenue, usually by imposing higher and (theoretically at least) more collectable new direct taxes.

Another impediment to war was the perceived inadequacy of Muscovy’s indigenous military system. The Livonian wars of the late sixteenth century plus the Smuta itself had aroused doubts about the training, equipment, and tactics of the traditional cavalry army. That army, consisting of members of the petty nobility (dvoriane and deti boiarskie) along with their armed dependents, was not a standing force. In exchange for service (and years sometimes went by between musters) these nobles received estates in usufruct or sometimes modest cash payments from the crown. Augmenting the horsemen were the so-called strel’tsy or musketeers, who, when not campaigning or serving in a garrison, engaged in petty trading and small-scale agriculture in the principal towns of the country. Although the Muscovite army had an artillery branch, there were few arsenals. Master gunners were in short supply. Such an army had its advantages: it was both relatively mobile and relatively inexpensive, at least by Western standards. It also had its uses in pitched battle against other cavalry formations. Indeed, this military system, which had been created for fighting Tatars, was to some extent modeled on similar Tatar military institutions. Yet by the early seventeenth century this army had ceased to be an army of aggressive conquest: it did not have the power to occupy any territory permanently, nor was it of significant use in siege warfare.

A final check on Muscovite belligerence was the geopolitical position of the Muscovite state itself. To the northwest, west, and southwest, Muscovy shared borders with three powerful potential enemies: Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Khanate of the Crimea. Those states were so embroiled in rivalry with Muscovy and with each other that Muscovy did not dare to go to war against one of them without an alliance with, or at least a promise of neutrality from, the other two. As the Smuta had demonstrated, Muscovy simply could not afford a two-front, let alone a three-front war. And there were many reasons for it to fear the power and intentions of each of those three states.

Muscovy had been at peace with Sweden since the Stolbovo treaty. The Swedish monarchy was satisfied with its terms and for the moment entertained no more territorial designs on Russia. But the Kremlin could not be certain that matters would stay that way. There was an anti-Muscovite party active at the Swedish court, and Sweden manifested a suspicious interest in monopolizing the proceeds of Muscovy’s transit trade with the rest of Northern Europe.

Swedish military might, founded on its vastly profitable iron industry, its effective system of conscription, and the military reforms of the great Gustaphus Adolphus, could not be taken lightly.

For the reasons already cited, relations between Moscow and Warsaw were tense. There was growing evidence of the political decomposition of the Commonwealth, beginning in the early seventeenth century, which for the Muscovites could only be a cause for satisfaction. The monarchy, elective since 1572, was becoming progressively weaker vis-à-vis the powerful noble clans. Soon the Polish-Lithuanian state would recognize the right of Liberum veto, which permitted any noble delegate to the Diet (or parliament) to “explode” it, thereby paralyzing the government. The state was further afflicted with poisonous feuds between the great magnates, to say nothing of religious, ethnic, and national tensions. All this notwithstanding, with a population of more than 8 million and a land area of almost 400,000 square miles, Poland was one of the largest of European states. Then, too, although the Polish army was small (fielding no more than 60,000 men in wartime) it was formidable beyond its numbers. The Polish light cavalry was the terror of Eastern and Southern Europe: between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries it fought outnumbered and often prevailed against Turks, Tatars, Cossacks, Swedes, Prussians, and Russians. In the early decades of the seventeenth century King Zygmunt had embarked on a series of Western-style military reforms of his own.

The territory of the last great security threat to the Muscovite state, the Crimean Khanate, lay roughly 600 miles south of the city of Moscow proper. The Girei dynasty, which ruled the Khanate, was one of the last in the Muslim world that could trace itself back to Genghis Khan. Although they were nominally tributaries of the Turkish Sultan, the Gireis reserved to themselves considerable freedom of military and diplomatic action. The danger of raids upon Muscovy by the Crimean Tatars and their Nogai allies was in theory averted by the annual tribute that the tsar delivered to the Khan. Yet those bribes did not buy total protection. There were always free spirits and outlaws among the Tatars—men who mounted their own attacks on Polish, Ukrainian, or Russian territories in defiance of the Khan’s orders. And given the economic problems of the Khanate (including inadequate stocks of food and overpopulation), the Khan at times yielded to the temptation to break his word and go on raids in search of plunder, slaves, and prisoners to ransom. As the Khan was able to put from 40,000 to 100,000 warriors in the saddle for a single campaign, this was no small worry. Muscovy had endured more than thirty major Tatar attacks during the sixteenth century; from 1611 through 1617 southern Russia had annually been ravaged by them. Muscovy was concerned with the Tatar danger throughout the seventeenth century and experimented with a variety of means (settlement of permanent garrisons, enlistment of the Don Cossacks, construction of fortified lines) in order to contain it.

Despite all of these problems—financial, military, geopolitical—Patriarch Filaret and the people around him were bent on war with Poland. In preparing for it they took steps to overcome each difficulty. In the mid-1620s Filaret decreed a new system of direct taxation (the dvorovaia chef), which enabled the government to compute taxes on the basis of the number of households in a region rather than their productivity. This fiscal measure and others permitted Filaret to restore financial stability while building up a substantial war chest.

Czar Paul’s Reign

Paul I in the early 1790s

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

The French Revolution had given new impetus to the demand for liberal reforms in Russia, but, more importantly, it rallied the strong reactionary elements around the empress. Talk of reform became treasonable and all hope of change vanished. Conditions in Russia continued to deteriorate alarmingly. Inflation, food shortages, the extravagances of the court, mounting military expenditures, and the underlying gangrene of serfdom combined to present the nation with a massive crisis. Russia needed an activist emperor, but forty-two-year-old Paul, who had succeeded Catherine, was unstable and impetuous.

Paul hated his mother. He blamed her for his father’s murder, and he bitterly resented the fact that she had usurped his throne for so many years. As much as possible, he rejected all that his mother had done. He shared Peter III’s hero worship of Frederick the Great and revered all things Prussian. He was obsessed with military parades and the paraphernalia of war. During the years when he was grand duke and heir to the throne, he had not been allowed to take part in state affairs. Virtually confined to his estate at Gatchina, he had spent his time drilling and parading his private army of 2,000 men. Now as emperor, he had the armies of the nation at his command.

St. Petersburg was transformed into a military camp. Army discipline became more savage. Men who were guilty of real or imagined mistakes were cruelly flogged. Paul further antagonized the army, and especially the regiments of guards, by introducing Prussian uniforms in place of the ones Peter the Great and Potemkin had designed.

The army and the parade ground defined Paul’s attitude toward the state. In his view, the emperor held the absolute power of a general over subjects, who were to be ordered about as though they were troops on parade. He regarded obedience and discipline as the basic needs of a healthy society. Apart from the regimentation he sought to impose, Russia began to suffer even more from the excessive centralization of all government functions in St. Petersburg.

Under Paul’s erratic rule, certain ukazy were issued to ease the burdens of the peasantry. A decree promulgated in April 1797, for example, laid down that landowners, some of whom exacted five or six days of labor a week from their serfs, should now require them to work only three days; the remaining three days belonged to the serfs for the cultivation of their own lands, and Sunday was for rest. However, it is doubtful this was ever enforced. The serfs had no means of recourse against landowners who ignored it. Paul, eager to limit the power of the upper classes, partially restored the right of the peasants to petition the throne with their grievances. But it was difficult to exercise this right, and landowners could still uproot their peasants and send them to Siberia. As if to negate these limited benefits, Paul insisted that unrest among the peasantry must be dealt with firmly. He issued a manifesto calling on all serfs to obey their masters without question.

At the same time, Paul antagonized the gentry by assailing privileges that Catherine had bestowed. In 1785, she had granted a charter guaranteeing them immunity from corporal punishments, payment of taxes, and deprivation of rank and estates except by judgment of their peers. He did not impose taxes on the gentry, but would “invite” them to contribute to the treasury for special purposes. He also required them to serve in the army. Refusal resulted in disgrace, banishment from court, and more serious punishments – often so savage that they caused severe injury or death. It was not uncommon for Paul, in one of his bouts of temper, to take away an offender’s noble rank – a crushing loss of privilege.

Foreign policy was also subject to Paul’s whims. He had criticized Catherine’s extensive military commitments and had vowed that on ascending the throne he would cancel them. But he was so strongly opposed to the revolutionary movement that he involved Russia in several European squabbles. He joined a coalition against France in 1799. He sent an army under the command of the brilliant Russian General Alexander Suvorov to join with the Austrian forces in northern Italy. But when the Austrians failed to support their allies sufficiently, relations between the two states quickly became strained. The combined armies nevertheless gained several victories in Italy and were preparing to invade France when Suvorov received orders to march on Switzerland without delay. In a feat of remarkable military derring, he led his army over the Alps by way of the St. Gotthard Pass. In Switzerland, however, relations between Russians and Austrians deteriorated further, and in 1800, Paul, angered by Austrian complaints about the disrespectful behavior of the Russian troops, suddenly canceled the accord and recalled Suvorov and his army. He next severed relations with Great Britain, mainly because the British failed to honor their promise to cede the island of Malta. By banning British ships from Russian ports, he inadvertently damaged Russia’s trade. He then joined the new Armed Neutrality with Sweden, Denmark, and Prussia to oppose British sea power, thus bringing Russian trade with its principal customer to an official standstill.

Meanwhile, Paul had reversed his earlier policy with France and decided that Napoleon was a necessary ally. He became enthusiastic about alliance with France, Austria, and Prussia for the purpose of partitioning Turkey and destroying British power. Russia and Britain now came close to war. In January 1801, the tsar formally annexed Georgia, which had been under divided Turkish and Persian suzerainty, and then he ordered a force of 23,000 Cossacks to proceed toward British India, which he dreamed of conquering.

Paul had antagonized the regular army and the gentry, the two main pillars of his throne, to the point where a palace revolution had become almost inevitable. The military governor of St. Petersburg, Count Peter Pahlen, was the leader of the final conspiracy. On March 11, 1801, he and several officers of the guard dined together and then set out for the Mikhailovsky Fortress, which Paul had ordered rebuilt for greater security. The sentries did not hesitate to admit the military governor and the officers with him. They made for the emperor’s bedchamber, but it appeared to be empty. Paul had heard them approaching and had hidden in the chimney of the fireplace, but one of the party noticed his dangling feet. They dragged him out, screaming for mercy. Someone struck him with a gold snuffbox and then strangled him with a scarf.

Russian Civil War Siberia I

Clockwise from top: Soldiers of the Don Army in 1919; a White infantry division in March 1920; soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Army; Leon Trotsky in 1918; hanging of workers in Yekaterinoslav by the Austro-Hungarian Army, April 1918.

In the West today, Siberia is remembered as a land of living death where post-Revolutionary Russian governments confined millions of ‘counter-revolutionary elements’, common law criminals and dissidents in the Gulag camps. Before the Trans-Siberian mainline was constructed in the nineteenth century to connect St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland with the Pacific at Vladivostok – the name means ‘lord of the East’, implying Russian ownership of the East Asian littoral – long columns of convicts were marched into Siberia, many of them in chains. They stopped at the border for men and women both to kiss the earth of Mother Russia and wrap a handful of it in a piece of cloth or paper, to treasure during their exile. Few of them felt anything for Siberia except that it was immensely vast and about as hospitable as the far side of the moon; even fewer expected to return.

Its enormous climatic differences over a north–south extent of 2,000 miles include one of the coldest inhabited places on the planet: recorded temperatures at Verkhoyansk range from a low of minus 69°C in mid-winter, when there is no daylight for two whole months, to a midsummer high of 37°C. The construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, which cost thousands of lives and was largely financed by foreign loans that were never repaid, was for two reasons: to open up the territory’s rich mineral and other resources to commercial exploitation with slave labour; and to move troops quickly from European Russia to the Pacific littoral, a train journey of 5,000-plus miles. It was indeed the perceived threat to Japan posed by the second purpose of the railway that triggered the 1904–5 Russo-Japanese war which ended so disastrously for Russia, the enormous number of casualties being a major cause of the 1905 revolution.

How many diners in a Chinese restaurant realise that the Tsingtao beer which washes down their dim sum is made from a recipe first brewed at the Germania brewery established in Tsingtao (modern Quangdao) after the German annexation of the port in 1898? What had originally been a poor Chinese fishing village became the home port of the Kaiserliche Marine’s Ostasiatische Kreuzergeschwader or Far Eastern Squadron. On 7 November 1914 a joint British and Japanese force captured the port from the German navy, making passage to Vladivostok safe for supply ships that transported millions of tons of materiel, to be dumped there for forwarding along the Trans-Siberian to the tsarist forces fighting 5,000 miles to the west. Some supplies, including Japanese rifles and ammunition, were transported, but despite the French and British governments urging their Japanese allies to take responsibility for security in eastern Siberia, where geography favoured them, Tokyo was playing a different game, in which the real prize was the hoped-for seizure of Manchuria and a large slice of north-eastern China.

By December 1917 no less than 600,000 tons of undistributed supplies had accumulated at Vladivostok, although the Bolsheviks had taken command of the harbour area and were sending shipments to the Red forces. To discourage them, the Admiralty tried the technique that had worked so well against ‘the lesser breeds without the law’ through the nineteenth century, and sent a gunboat: the British Monmouth Class cruiser HMS Suffolk was despatched from Hong Kong. In a game of nautical chess, Tokyo moved two rather ancient battleships – Asahi and Iwami – to outbid the single cruiser flying the White Ensign in Vladivostok harbour, but Japanese ground forces made no move, even when it was again suggested that they would fulfil a useful function by taking over security of the Trans-Siberian.

The railway still functioned, after a fashion. Florence Farmborough had been given permission in Moscow to travel with a group of other foreigners on the longer, northern route to Vladivostok for repatriation. After leaving behind the Urals in March 1918 in the dirt and discomfort of what was termed ‘a fourth-class carriage’ attached to a freight train, their journey was described as ‘twenty-seven days of hunger and fear’. From Perm to Ekaterinburg and on to Chelyabinsk they progressed slowly, their train making only 10 or 12 miles on some days after being repeatedly shunted into sidings as more important traffic thundered past. At Omsk, Red Guards stormed the foreigners’ carriage, pushed aside the screen of male passengers and insisted on searching every compartment in the hope of finding fleeing tsarist officers to execute by firing squad. Finding women and children instead, they ignored the protests, the properly authorised Soviet travel papers and the British passports to search the baggage for arms or contraband. From Omsk, the train slowly continued to Irkutsk and skirted svyatoe morye – the holy sea of Lake Baikal – on the last stretch of the line to be completed, which had required forty tunnels to be blasted and hacked through mountains that came right down to the water.

The people in the virgin forests and tundra of Transbaikalia were Asiatics: Kalmuk and Buryat. Soon Chinese faces became more common. After Chita, the Manchurian border being closed, the train followed the mighty Amur River, where mutinying troops had killed the governor, but allowed his two teenage daughters to walk away. One of them, called Anna Nikolaevna, later taught the author at the Joint Services School for Linguists in Crail. That she was somewhat odd is understandable after living through that and having to beg her way with her sister on foot for 600 miles from Blagoveshchensk to Vladivostok, where they hoped to find a ship to take them to Europe. On the way, they soon learned that poor peasants would normally share food with them while richer people turned them away.

At least Florence Farmborough did not have to walk. After arrival at Vladivostok, the passengers on her train were immensely cheered to see His Majesty’s ships Suffolk and Kent moored in the harbour. British, American, French, Belgian, Italian and Japanese soldiers patrolled the streets, thronged with thousands of civilian refugees of many nationalities. Whilst Red Guards were still a nuisance, their worst excesses were restrained by the Allied presence. She was told this was because a White general named Semyonov – but who behaved more like the Baikal Cossack ataman or warlord that he also was – was expected shortly to drive the Bolsheviks out of the port-city altogether. At night none of the passengers left the train, which was parked in a coal siding, because shots were frequently heard. The greatest joy for the weary, and very hungry, travellers was to find that food could freely be purchased in the Chinese street market, at a price. Spirits fell somewhat when a Chinese ship sailed into harbour flying a yellow fever flag and they learned that there was an epidemic of typhoid and smallpox among the undernourished coolies working as dockers.

After three weeks in the coal siding, guarded at night by a shore patrol from HMS Suffolk, great was their excitement at the arrival of a passenger ship to take them to San Francisco. Embarking themselves and their luggage under the protection of American sailors who beat off any interference from the locals and from other refugees who did not have the right papers, Florence and her exhausted companions settled into their overcrowded cabins, revelling in clean bed linen, clean towels and even clean curtains at the portholes. They went on deck to be played out of harbour by Royal Navy, US Navy and Japanese bands on the decks of the ships moored there.

Among the passengers on board was the indomitable Maria Bochkaryova, who had narrowly escaped execution by Red Guards on two occasions since being invalided back from the front. Early in 1918 she had been asked by loyalists in Petrograd to take a message to White Army commander General Lavr Kornilov. After fulfilling that mission, she was again detained by the Bolsheviks and sentenced to be executed until a soldier who had served with her in 1915 convinced his comrades to stay her execution. Thanks to him, she was granted an external passport instead, allowing her to leave for Vladivostok, en route to the USA. There, she dictated her memoirs to an émigré Russian journalist and met President Woodrow Wilson – and later King George V in London – to plead for Western intervention forces to crush the Bolsheviks.

Although she could certainly have requested political asylum in the West, she begged the War Office to let her return to Russia and continue the fight. In August 1918 she landed in Archangel, where she attempted to form another women’s combat unit without success. In April of the following year, she returned to her home town of Tomsk, hoping to recruit a women’s medical unit to serve under Admiral Kolchak. Captured by Bolsheviks, she was interrogated in Krasnoyarsk and sentenced again to death as vrag naroda – an enemy of the people. Sentence was carried out by firing squad on 16 May 1920. So ended the life of one of the bravest people to fight on the Russian fronts.

It has to be admitted that both sides in the civil war committed atrocities. The Whites justified this by regarding the enemy as traitors to Russia. The Reds regarded them as traitors to the Revolution. General Semyonov had one of the worst records, frequently holding hostages for ransom and holding up trains belonging to both sides like a bandit. However, he had his uses, so the British decided in February 1918 to pay him £10,000 a month. Two months later, the subsidy was cancelled, since his ‘army’ was more interested in looting than fighting. With smaller handouts from the French, he stayed in the region. To stop the large-scale pilfering of stores from the widely separated dumps of Allied stores, the captain of Suffolk proposed landing Allied ground forces, meanwhile deploying fifty Royal Marines in a cordon around the British Consulate. The Japanese took off the velvet gloves and landed 500 troops to restore order, but by 25 April these troops were withdrawn and the Bolsheviks were again masters of the port, the city and the stores.

A Belgian armoured car corps arrived – sans armoured cars or guns, which they had sabotaged after being given permission to withdraw via Vladivostok. Next came some of the Czech Legion, now several thousand men strong – and all impatient to get out of Russia and participate in the liberation of their homeland. The war on the Western Front was, of course, still ongoing at this point. Suffering some casualties, they kicked the Bolsheviks out of Vladivostok after just fifty-eight days of skirmishes and demanded stores from the Allied dumps so they could travel back along the railway to rescue the large number of their comrades far in the rear, who had taken control of the major Siberian city of Irkutsk after fighting with the Bolsheviks there. These were men who, forcibly conscripted by the Central Powers, had been taken prisoner and then volunteered to go back into action until Trotsky signed the second Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It says something about their esprit de corps that the slogan painted on the cattle wagons in which they lived on the railway was ‘Each of us is a brick, together we are a rock’.

Russian Civil War Siberia II


The original intention had been to withdraw the Czech Legion through Archangel but, to delay the Legion’s arrival on the Western Front, the Germans had pressured Trotsky into changing the exit route to the far longer and more difficult journey via Vladivostok. Deliberate obstruction from the Bolshevik authorities played a part in further delays, but the Trans-Siberian was genuinely over-loaded with trainloads of Central Powers POWs who had been released from the camps in Siberia and were required under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to be repatriated speedily, so the Czechs had a low priority on the line. Their progress stopped entirely at Chelyabinsk on 14 May 1918, when a released POW being repatriated westwards threw a stone or piece of metal that killed a legionnaire. Tensions between the legionnaires and their westbound compatriots, whom they regarded as traitors, were high. Hauling the stone-thrower off his train, the legionnaires lynched him on the spot. After local Bolsheviks arrested several Czechs for this, other legionnaires occupied the whole city with some bloodshed and released their comrades, proceeding to take over Petropoavlovsk, Kurgan, Novo-Nikolayevsk and several other towns along the railway until they were masters of the whole stretch of the Trans-Siberian from the Urals to Lake Baikal.

Some sources, however, disagree as to exactly why and how the Czechs became masters of the strategic railway line. As so often after Brest-Litovsk, when Russian history was completely re-written in accordance with the party line and Allied accounts conflict, confusion rules. Some historians believe that the take-over of thousands of miles of track could not have been accomplished spontaneously, which would indicate that British and/or French money was made available to a body calling itself the Czech National Council, which enabled the extended coordination called for by such an exercise in hostile, Bolshevik, territory.

In early July 1918, after Japan had landed some 70,000 troops in eastern Siberia and Manchuria to seize control of the Chinese stretch of the Trans-Siberian as far as Chita, President Woodrow Wilson seemed suddenly to realise that the billion dollars-worth of US materiel sitting in warehouses at Vladivostok and in the Far North was being filched away to the Red Army, fighting not the Central Powers as planned but the interventionist forces. On 2 August General William Graves was ordered to meet Secretary for War Newton Baker in Kansas, where he was instructed not to proceed to France with US 8th Division, but to take command of an American Expeditionary Force of 8,000 US servicemen being shipped to Vladivostok to protect the stores and assist the Czechs to extricate themselves from Russian territory – but not to fight Russian troops! It was like ordering a man to save a child from a crocodile without hurting the crocodile.

France also sent a battalion of colonial soldiers from Vietnam. A battalion of the 25th Middlesex Regiment arrived fom Hong Kong for garrison duty, the men being almost all medically unfit for active service. General Knox returned to the scene, arriving at the head of a British Military Mission with responsibility for setting up a training school for the White forces 4,000 miles to the west at Ekaterinburg – and organising the rear area, including all those stores. There were even some Canadians for a while, conscripted in fraught conditions by a coalition government that was unsure whether to back Britain’s intervention or not, but agreed to send a Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (CSEF) on condition that it was not to be sent into action! A number of men mutinied before even embarking at Vancouver, which resulted in a dozen courts martial.

After arrival at Vladivostok, pressure from General Knox and others to support Kolchak’s troops against the Bolsheviks was resisted by Canadian Brigadier General James Elmsley, although he did contribute guards to escort supply trains and despatched a token force of one lieutenant colonel and fifty-five men to Omsk, where they were to act as headquarters staff for the British battalions there – in other words, standing sentry to free British soldiers for more active service. By February 1919 questions were being asked in the Canadian parliament as to why, the war being over, Canadian citizens were still deployed in Russia. One Party leader said explicitly: ‘The question of how Russia shall settle her internal affairs is her concern – not ours.’ Fortuitously, a few Canadians just missed seeing action in April 1919 after American troops refused to get involved in a rescue column tasked with driving off some Bolsheviks attempting to liberate comrades taken prisoner by Kolchak’s forces, but by the time they arrived on the scene, the Bolsheviks had fled. Between late April and early June all the CSEF was withdrawn.

By September 1918 the Czechs had control of the Trans-Siberian from the Pacific to Samara (modern Kyubyshev) and Kazan, only 400 miles east of Moscow. Admiral Kolchak held the title Supreme Ruler of Russia after a murky deal that was attributed to Knox and the British Secret Service – and also because he had managed to secure a significant part of the Russian gold reserves, which travelled everywhere with him on his armoured train. However, this did not go down well with the other White generals, who regarded him as an amateur in ground warfare – which he was. Kolchak’s increasingly large staff became too top-heavy for him to exercise command efficiently, and included for a time General Maurice Janin, head of the French military mission, as well as a gung-ho officer from Suffolk by the name of Commander Wolfe-Murray. By a combination of circumstances, on 13 October 1918 Kolchak reached Omsk and set up a provisional White government there. In July it had seemed briefly possible that the Czechs might unseat the whole Bolshevik regime as their columns advanced towards Saratova and Kazan, only 400 miles from Moscow, but news of the General Armistice on 11 November caused considerable unrest in their ranks. Why, the Czech and Slovak legionnaires asked, are we still fighting in Russia when our homelands have been freed from German and Austro-Hungarian domination under the terms of the Armistice? At the end of the year, all the Czech columns were pulling back eastwards, so that, when Kolchak’s forces looked likely to reach Moscow and link up with a British force from Archangel in the spring of 1919, the game was lost after the Czechs failed to support his initiative.

The resilient Joseph Bumby described the chaos of being stuck in Petropavlovsk with 30,000 other European ex-POWs:

There was no accommodation for so many men, so we had to sleep on the pavements. Then we found an apartment in the house of a trader in Tatar goods and 250 men lived on the first floor above his shop and in the next house. For food, we had to walk about one hour to the central kitchen, where you could eat from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For a lunch there, we had soup with a piece of meat the size of a sparrow’s head and kasha or buckwheat gruel. It was already snowing in early October, so they were building a wooden camp of huge sheds, each with two stoves to warm 500 men. We had very little cash left. Even water had to be paid for. When some mail arrived, everything quietened down, especially when we got the Czech-language newspaper from Kiev.

Shore patrols from Suffolk and Kent were not confined to Vladivostok city and port. The most distant mission the RN personnel undertook was executed by a mixed bag of thirty-three British volunteers from Kent under Royal Marine Captain Thomas Jameson which departed in April 1919 to join the Kama River Flotilla after Suffolk’s artificers fitted out an armoured train with a 6in naval gun and four 12-pounders. This headed west to support White and Czech forces. The medically unfit men from Middlesex found themselves in action after all, along the line of the Ussuri River, north of Vladivostok. Others were posted to Knox’s training school at Ekaterinburg, along with – believe it or not – a battalion of cycle troops from the Hampshire Regiment. Both battalions were withdrawn from the theatre in November 1919.

Patrolling the immense Kama, a major tributary of the Volga some 600 miles east of Moscow and 3,000 miles inland from Vladivostok, was no sinecure. The flotilla was composed of eighteen craft under the command of Rear Admiral Nikolai Smirnov. Allotted a supernumerary paddle-wheel tug and a river barge, on which to mount the naval guns they had brought with them, the RN personnel named these two craft Kent and Suffolk. Flying the White Ensign, they distinguished themselves by being the only British forces under Russian command. Placed on the ration strength of Smirnov’s flotilla, they lived on a diet of stale or mouldy black bread and bear meat with whatever locally grown vegetables they could purchase.

With the advent of winter, poor food and inadequate clothing would have caused problems, but the guns they had brought were already suffering excessive wear from sustained use long before then. The 6in gun fired 356 rounds in two days of engagements. At the end of June, Smirnov decided that the Reds were getting too close for comfort and relocated eastwards to Omsk. The RN team stripped all the armament off the two boats and loaded it onto a train with the help of conscripted women labourers. Some muscle, those ladies! A total of 225 tons had to be transported and loaded, the 6in gun alone weighing nearly seven tons. The two vessels were then scuttled to deny them to the enemy. With the city of Perm crowded by thousands of refugees fleeing the advancing Reds and all trying to find transport to the east, Captain Jameson took an armed squad to the marshalling yards, commandeered a locomotive at gunpoint and had it coupled up to the British train on 29 June. That he was right to do this was abundantly clear when the Reds marched into the city just three hours after the train pulled out – next stop Omsk, 1,000 miles to the east. There, Jameson handed over much of the equipment to the Whites, although it was already obvious that time was running out for Kolchak. Bidding farewell to the other naval personnel, Wolfe-Murray stuck it out alone as an adviser to the admiral while Jameson took command of the train, travelling through a vast zone suffering an epidemic of cholera and typhus, where he kept railway staff at a distance with loaded rifles, to avoid infection.

By mid-September, Kolchak’s bolt had been shot. His last reserves having been beaten, he withdrew his HQ to Irkutsk on the Angara River, which runs into Lake Baikal – from where there was no retreat. In January 1920 he ‘resigned’ as Commander-in-Chief White forces, passing command to General Anton Denikin in southern Russia. Having alienated the Czech Legion and the Japanese with typically Russian xenophobia, Kolchak was now abandoned also by the British, and ‘traded’ by General Janin to the Reds, together with the gold, in order to buy free passage along the railway for the 50,000 Czechs, Poles, Yugoslavs and other Europeans stuck at Irkutsk, so that they could travel through to Vladivostok. General Janin became known as ‘the general without honour’ for having betrayed the Russian leader. Whether he was right to do so or not, one would have to ask the 50,000 men who might otherwise have been lost forever in the vastness of Siberia that swallowed up 100 times more people than that with no difficulty in the Gulag years.

By the end of December 1919 men of the Czech Legion were already being shipped back to Europe from Vladivostok, the evacuation being completed a few months later. Fortunately for history, Tomek, Filacek and Bumby were among them. Inevitably, Kolchak was executed by firing squad on 7 February 1920. As to what became of the Russian gold bullion known to be kept on his armoured train, there is a mystery.

Tourists visiting Prague who look for the McDonald’s fast food outlet on Boulevard Wilsonova may stray down the nearby street named Na Poříčí. There, they will find an extraordinary Cubist building that was obviously very expensive to build. Commissioned as the offices of Legionářská Banka – the bank of the legionnaires – it is the work of the famous architect Josef Gočár, whose services did not come cheaply, and incorporates the work of several well-known sculptors. The idea of a bank to help out legionnaires who would be in financial straits when they got home was mooted by a number of senior officers in the Legion before they left Russia. Some say that the funds to build the bank came out of savings the legionnaires had put by from their meagre pay in Siberia, but unconfirmed reports infer that some at least of the gold bullion on Kolchak’s train was brought back to Prague and financed the construction of Legionářská Banka. Next to the famous Charles Bridge in Prague is a bridge ceremonially opened in 1904 by Emperor Franz Josef I and named in his honour. In a microcosm of Czech history, it was renamed Most Legii – the Bridge of the Legions – twenty years later and, twenty years after that, under the German occupation, Smetana Bridge. The Communists who took over after 1948 renamed it again as 1st May Bridge. With them too consigned to history, it is again called Bridge of the Legions.

The American ground troops were evacuated from Vladivostok in April 1920. In October of that year some 70,000 Eastern European soldiers who had survived the Russian front hostilities, the POW camps in Siberia and the civil war embarked on eight British troopships, sent to bring them back to Europe. After their departure some kind of law and order was kept by the Japanese ground forces because the government in Tokyo had it in mind to exploit the chaos in Russia to regain the territory Japan had occupied and then lost under the terms of the peace conference after the war of 1904–5. They too were withdrawn in the autumn, when a variety of vessels embarked the last thousands of desperate refugees, destination the international concessions in Shanghai. These included the author’s teacher Anna Nikolaevna. Last to leave was HMS Carlisle, which cleared the port one week after the Reds occupied Vladivostok on 23 October 1922.

The Imperial Russian Air and Naval Forces 1914-1918

Staff Captain Pyotr Nesterov

For a country so backward in just about every other branch of technology, it is surprising that Russia had the second largest air force in Europe, after France. The Imperial Russian Air Force – Imperatorskii Voyenno-Vozdushny Flot (IVF), to give it its correct name – was even able to claim the credit for the first enemy aircraft ever destroyed in flight. Piloting a Nieuport IV monoplane, the aerobatic pioneer Staff Captain Pyotr Nesterov was the first man to fly a loop. On 25 August 1914 he repeatedly fired his pistol at an Austrian Albatros BII on a reconnaissance mission, then deliberately flew his Morane-Saulnier Type G monoplane into the Albatros. His specific intent is unknown because, in addition to causing the Austrian aircraft to crash, killing pilot and observer, his own plane was so damaged by the collision that it also crashed, killing him when he fell out on the way down. There were no parachutes at the time, except for observer officers in tethered balloons, because it was thought that this would cause nervous pilots to bail out before they needed to, instead of flying their valuable craft back to base for the necessary repairs.

Formed in 1910, IVF traced its beginnings back to earlier experimental flights by pioneers like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Igor Sikorsky, who emigrated to the United States in 1919 after the Revolution. Before the war, he built a four-engine airliner named after the Russian folk hero Ilya Murometz, but commonly called ‘the big ’un’, at his Russo-Baltic Wagon Company factory in Riga. Powered by French-built Salmson air-cooled engines, the civilian version had panoramic windows lining the large and comfortable insulated cabin, heated by the exhaust pipes, with wicker armchairs for up to sixteen passengers, a table, bunk, electric lighting – and the first airborne toilet! Hatches on either side of the cabin allowed the flight engineer to scramble out onto the lower wing to service the engines in flight. For the time, it was an extraordinary piece of engineering and set a world record by flying from St Petersburg to Kiev in Ukraine, a return trip of 2,400km, in under twenty-eight hours’ flying time with only one refuelling stop in each direction.

The several military versions designed for service as heavy bombers had a gun position equipped with an 8mm machine gun and a 37mm cannon set in the middle of the upper wing, where the gunner had 180-degree vision at the cost of being completely exposed to the elements. Up to eight other machine guns could be fitted in various positions, including a tail gunner pod, making this an early Flying Fortress. All this armament and the armour-plating that protected the motors made the Ilya Murometz the least favourite target for CP fighters, which also found the powerful prop wash dangerously destabilising if they got too close when attacking from the rear. Navigation instruments were still primitive but did include a drift indicator and simple bombsight. Bomb racks could accommodate up to 800kg of bombs. Seventy-three of these amazing machines were built in all, flying over 400 sorties and leading the way in squadron-strength raids, night bombing, photographic damage assessment and the dropping of safe-conducts to encourage enemy ground troops to desert.

The total of 5,000 aircraft of all types built in Russia between 1914 and the end of hostilities included ‘flying boats’ as float-planes were then called, constructed for the Imperial Russian Navy. Construction of all aircraft was limited by the need to depend heavily on foreign aero engines – mainly from France. Austro-Hungary did not do much better, but Germany allegedly produced over 45,000 aircraft during the war. Spare parts were also a big problem for Russia, given the wide variety of makes and models, for many of which spares were not available locally. Ground crews therefore tried to fit non-standard parts, which caused additional unreliability so that, as the war ground on, many aircraft in front-line squadrons would not have been considered airworthy at any other place or time.

For all the undoubted skills of Russian aircraft constructors and fliers, in the first months of hostilities IVF aircraft were confined to reconnaissance and artillery observation roles because the military applications of flying machines had yet to be fully appreciated. In December 1914 an otryad or squadron of Ilya Murometz aircraft was tasked with bombing missions against both German and Austro-Hungarian armies in the first step towards the carpet bombing of cities forty years later.

Among the other aircraft in IVF was the Anatra DS, built in Artur Anatra’s factory at Odessa in the Ukraine. This was a two-seater reconnaissance biplane with 150hp Salmson Canton-Unne water-cooled radial engine that necessitated an ugly cooling radiator mounted on the centre of the upper wing. The DSS model had radiators mounted on the plywood sides of the fuselage or under the nose. It had a maximum speed of 144kph and ceiling of 4,300m. The pilot had a forward-firing machine gun and the observer used a second machine gun firing in a wide arc. Also made in the Anatra factory was the oddest-looking aircraft of the war. The Anadwa VKh was a twin-boom three-seater biplane light bomber composed of two Anatra D fuselages, of which the left one was occupied by the pilot, and the right by his observer. The machine gunner was seated in a nacelle mounted on the centre of the upper wing, providing excellent all-round vision and field of fire. Powered by twin 9-cylinder air-cooled Gnome rotary engines, it could carry a bomb-load of 600kg at a maximum speed of 140kph and service ceiling of 4,000m.

The Moskva MB 2-bis single-seater fighter was powered by a single Rhône air-cooled rotary engine that gave it a maximum speed of 130kph and ceiling of 3,200m. The single machine gun was not synchronised, on some models firing above the propeller arc. Other models had bullet deflectors on the propeller blades, which seems a bizarre idea today. In 1916 two Russian engineers collaborated to produce the Savelyev Quadruplane. The four wings were in a strut-braced box tilted forward with a Morane-G fuselage fitted between. Under-powered when first flown in April 1916, it went into production with a more powerful Gnome-Monosoupape or Clerget 9-cylinder air-cooled rotary engine, giving it a maximum speed of 132kph and a ceiling somewhere above 2,000m, sufficient for reconnaissance work.

The Voisin-Ivanov was another biplane made in the Anatra factory, primarily for ground attack roles. Fitted with a Salmson P9 water-cooled radial engine, it carried a crew of two with one machine gun and a bomb-load of less than 100kg. Its design was based on the French Voisin LAS pusher biplane, which enabled the observer sitting in the front seat to have a clear field of fire to the front and sides. Maximum speed was 150kph with a ceiling of 3,500m. More than 100 were produced and some continued in use after the Revolution until lack of spares eventually grounded most aircraft in Russia.

At the start of the war, Germany had 200-plus aircraft in a corps designated Die Fliegertruppen, or flying troops. For the first months of hostilities their main activity was reconnaissance, often performed by pilots flying the reliable Rumpler-Taube monoplane which had been in production since 1912 and was instrumental in causing many casualties among Allied troops in Macedonia. As the combat potential of aircraft was realised, in late 1916 the German air force was renamed Die Luftstreitkräfte.

The Fokker MV was an unarmed single-seater monoplane, first produced in 1913. With its single wing above the cabin, it afforded excellent visibility of the ground below and was widely used in early months of hostilities. It was also the platform from which the more successful Fokker EI was developed. Marks II and III were also single-seater fighters, which first appeared on the Russian front in 1915. The EIII had a more powerful engine than the earlier models and one 7.92mm machine gun. At end of 1915 this was superseded by the Mark IV with an up-rated engine and two machine guns. The Mark V, with its Gnome-Lamda 7-cylinder rotary engine had a tubular metal construction that made it light and strong. Some modified Mark VIII models were designated AI and AIII, and fitted with a single 7.92mm parabellum machine gun. The Fokker DV1 was an all-metal biplane with a speed of 200kph that could reach a ceiling of 6,000m. However, it only arrived on the Russian fronts in April 1918, at the time of the Armistice.

The Albatros DIII biplane was feared by Russian pilots as the most dangerous German aircraft of the war, with its speed of 165kph and a ceiling of 5,000m. Its successor the Albatros DV biplane was reputed to be able to out-fly most Allied aircraft with the exception of the Bleriot-SPAD 7. The Roland CII appeared on the Russian fronts early in 1916, and was used for local and long-range recce, correction of artillery fire and precision bombing until mid-1917. The Fokker Dreidecker triplane was inspired by the British-built Sopwith triplane. With the fuselage between the two lower wings, early models had structural problems but the Mark V and later models stood every test on the Russian fronts starting in February 1917. Because of its inherent instability, the aircraft was loved by fighter aces for its ability to take immediate evading action and was the machine of choice for the German ace Manfred von Richtofen. It was in one of these that he was shot down and killed in April 1918.

The AEG GIII was the first German long-distance bomber – and range was imperative on the widespread Russian fronts. It was produced from mid-1915 onwards and was in service from the end of that year. It had two machine guns and could carry a 300kg bomb-load. The Zeppelin-Staaken RVI was another long-distance heavy bomber. Armed with four machine guns, it could carry eighteen 100kg bombs. The four powerful Maybach engines were mounted in two pods on either side of the fuselage that each had one pusher and one puller propeller. Between the two motors in each pod was a space for the flight mechanic to sit when carrying out in-flight maintenance. Although built in Germany, the Hansa-Brandenburg C1 biplane was passed on to Austro-Hungarian fliers as being not quite good enough for use as a fighter, although adequate for reconnaissance roles. Surprisingly, twelve Austro-Hungarian airmen scored sufficient kills with it to be labelled aces.

Although a side-show to the main conflict on land, the Baltic was itself a theatre of war. Here, Russia was at a great disadvantage because, during the Russo-Japanese war, Admiral Zinovi Rozhdestvensky had led the Russian Baltic Fleet from the Latvian port of Libau (modern Liepaja) to relieve the blockade of Port Arthur by the Japanese – a task well beyond the capacity of the Russian Pacific Fleet. On 14 May 1905 this fleet belatedly set course from Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for the surviving Russian naval base at Vladivostok, Port Arthur having already surrendered during the long voyage. Admiral Togo Heihachiro’s more modern and better armed warships were waiting in ambush in the Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea. In the long and bloody Battle of Tsushima 27–29 May the Russian fleet lost over 200,000 tons of shipping, against Heihachiro’s losses of 300 tons. Casualties were similarly disparate, with 4,830 Russian sailors killed and 6,000 taken prisoner, including the admiral, while Japanese casualties totalled less than 200.

Nine years later, with the Russian Baltic Fleet still well below strength, by 26 August 1914 both German and Russian submersibles patrolled the Baltic. In October 1914 a German submersible sank the Russian cruiser Palladia in October 1914 and a Royal Navy submarine sank the German heavy cruiser Adalbert. When the German cruiser Magdeburg went aground while mine-laying off the Gulf of Riga, its crew was evacuated by an escorting destroyer but left behind their code books, which greatly helped to break encrypted German radio traffic when forwarded to the British Admiralty. In the Baltic both sides laid thousands of mines, claiming several ships, and also shelled coastal towns held by the enemy.

Jan Nagórski

In late August and early September 1914 Polish-born IVF pilot Jan Nagórski was the first man to fly over the Arctic, making five search missions in his Farman MFII biplane in the hope of finding the lost Russian polar explorer Georgi Sedov. It was an incredibly brave undertaking, given the state of low-temperature engineering knowledge and the fact that the only lubricant was castor oil. Nagórski’s subsequent war service included flying as eyes-in-the-sky for the Baltic Fleet from a base at Turku, Finland, where he was the first man to loop the loop in a float-plane, in September 1916. In 1917 his aircraft was damaged far out over the Baltic and Nagórski declared missing in action when he did not return to base. After several hours in very cold water, he was picked up by a Russian submarine and recovered from exposure in a military hospital in Riga. Because the report of his rescue and recovery never reached his HQ, he was declared dead – and stayed that way for thirty-eight years! In 1955 he attended a lecture in Warsaw where he was referred to as ‘a dead Russian aviator’ and announced to the amazed audience that he was neither Russian nor dead.

On 8 August 1915 the largely obsolete Russian Baltic Fleet of five pre-dreadnoughts with four dreadnoughts, six ancient armoured cruisers, four light cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats and a few small submarines – including three Royal Navy submersibles that had sneaked into the Baltic – found itself facing a strong German naval task force of eight dreadnoughts, three battle cruisers, some light cruisers and destroyers of the High Sea Fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Franz Ritter von Hipper. Hipper was attempting to break into the Gulf of Riga to destroy Russian naval forces based there and lay mines to interdict Russian use of the port of Riga – a strategically important communications hub. The Germans’ first problem was negotiating the Russian minefields in the Irben Strait, which proved costly. After two minesweepers were sunk, the first attack was abandoned.

On 16 August a third minesweeper was lost but, more importantly, the ageing Russian battleship Slava was driven off by two German dreadnoughts while the main force stayed out in the Baltic. That night, two German destroyers broke through the Irben Strait, hunting the Slava. Battle was joined by Russian destroyers and one German destroyer was so damaged that it had to be scuttled. After daybreak, German dreadnoughts Posen and Nassau pursued Slava and scored three hits before it withdrew to the shelter of Moon Sound. After further mine-clearing, the first German warships were able to penetrate the Gulf of Riga and attack Russian shipping there. A blow for Britain was then struck when RN submersible E-1, captained by Lt Commander Laurence, scored a torpedo hit on the battle cruiser Moltke, damaging it in the bows.

On 14 August the British Admiralty had ordered Lt Commander Layton’s E-13 and four other submersibles to sail from Harwich to reinforce the Baltic flotilla, but E-13 was not a ‘lucky ship’ and ran aground on the Danish island of Saltholm while negotiating the narrows of Øresund on the night of 18 August. In spite of Danish navy attempts to screen it, two German torpedo boats opened fire on the stranded vessel. Re-floated, E-13 was interned until the end of the war, when it was returned to Britain, its captain having meanwhile been allowed to escape and find his way home. Sister ships E-18 and E-19 arrived safely in the port of Riga the following month. The fate of the fourth British submarine is a mystery.

After the damage to Moltke, Hipper decided to break off contact in what was really a ground support operation, reasoning that the High Seas Fleet would have need of its capital ships for more important naval tasks ahead. On land, for most of the Russian troops food was poor or non-existent for days on end; there was no home leave; due to lack of medical facilities, a small wound often meant death from infection. But the main problem lay in the inability of the Russian munitions industry to supply guns and especially shells for the artillery. Because of the lack of rifles to issue to them, the proposed call-up of the 1916 class had to be postponed. But there were signs of change. Some Japanese materiel was arriving from Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian railway.

Lying on a mile-wide stretch of the estuary of the Northern Dvina, Archangel was not much of a harbour in European terms. This river was not a northern stretch of the Baltic Dvina, but a separate watercourse, the word dvina being apparently a pre-Russian word for river. Although devoid of wagon-ways along which ponies could haul freight, and lacking cranes, Archangel was an established town overlooking the water, over a mile wide at this point. The chaos here, caused by the impossibility of moving the stores away fast enough, made a negative impression on every visitor. The nearest railhead was across the river at Bakaritsa, to which freight had to be transported by barge or, in winter, hauled across the ice of the frozen river by pony-drawn sled for onward transportation along the ramshackle narrow-gauge railway leading to the south. In 1914 the railway had a capacity of twelve short trains a day; the requirement was for at least five times this level of traffic. An additional, seasonal problem was that the Bakaritsa terminal was flooded during the spring thaw, when freight transported across the estuary by barge was then hauled through mud and water 8 miles further south, to Isakagorka.

Given the vital necessity to import materiel for the Russian war effort, one would have thought that Nicholas II’s government would have put in hand a priority programme of modernisation of the port, its freight handling facilities and the totally inadequate railway to the south. There was no such programme. Money was made available as and when: 1.5 million roubles to purchase two Canadian ice-breakers; 270,000 roubles to purchase metal barges to replace the rotten old wooden ones; another 20 million roubles for the widening of the railtracks – and so on. It was a Russian problem. No one was in overall charge, yet somehow by the spring of 1916 supplies were flowing in something like satisfactory manner.

To get around the insoluble problem of Archangel being ice-bound for half the year, a contract was given to a British company for the construction of a railway reaching all the way from Petrograd to the ice-free fishing port of Aleksandrovsk (now Murmansk) on the Kola Peninsula. It lay 350 miles to the north-west of Archangel, but was ice-free all year, thanks to the mitigating effects of the Gulf Stream. This warm-water inlet was to become the home port for the Soviet Cold War nuclear submarine fleet. The British company backed out – either because of the nature of the near-impossible job or because of the difficulty of dealing with the Russian authorities. A larger than life character named Admiral Roshchakovsky – big, bluff and with a chestful of medals – was given thousands of German and Austro-Hungarian POWs as forced labour to build a single-track railway from the fishing port of Aleksandrovsk to connect it with Petrograd and points south. As when Stalin ordered the construction of the White Sea Canal across the same region using Gulag labour in 1931–33 at the cost of 35,000 lives, so thousands of these POWs died during construction of the line.

There being no commercial docking facilities at Aleksandrovsk, Roshchakovsky’s labour force built a port too – not that any westerner was other than depressed at the first sight of the unplanned sprawl of hastily built wooden shacks that was to be their home there. While the 600-mile railway was a-building, Roshchakovsky requisitioned thousands of Lapps and their reindeer to haul sledges laden with stores south towards the fronts. The Lapps had formally been exempted from this sort of exploitation and had to be threatened with the execution of their hereditary leaders before they gave in. It was at Aleksandrovsk that the Royal Navy based a flotilla of armed trawlers for minesweeping the shipping lanes around the northern tip of Norway. In 1916 a permanent town named Romanov na Murmane was founded, and later became modern Murmansk.

Aside from the appalling winter weather, there can be few more difficult terrains through which to drive a railway across the permafrost tundra, of which the top half-metre gradually thawed in summer to destabilise the rails and release swarms of vicious mosquitoes that tormented the labourers. In anticipation of its completion allowing freight to travel directly to Petrograd, the Royal Navy was sweeping German mines from the sea lanes to the north Russian ports – although, as Knox himself was to discover, not always successfully.