The Imperial Russian Army’s Recovery, September 1915-February 1917

By late September 1915 the stalemate of trench warfare at last appeared to be gripping the Eastern Front, and the world’s attention returned to the dreary struggle of the Western Front, the debacle at Gallipoli, and the destruction of Serbia. The tsar’s armies now rested and were rebuilt with better logistics while he and his son toured the front to raise morale. In the Caucasus, the world had been shocked by the Turkish massacre of Armenians in spring 1915. By July this had permitted a Russian advance to Van, but that city was soon again abandoned. In December, however, Yudenich opened a major offensive in Armenia which led to the storming on 16 February 1916 of the strategic fortress of Ezerum after three days of bitter fighting. The Turks continued to retreat and by 21 February 1916 General D. K. Abatsiev’s forces had taken the major strongpoint of Bitlis, and in July Erzingan. In the meantime Liakhov’s Coastal Detachment, well supported by the Black Sea Fleet, had advanced down the Caucasian coast and on 4-5 April, he seized the major Ottoman supply port of Trebizond.

The tsar’s forces also entered Ottoman Persia in fall 1915 in order to divert the Turks by linking up with the British. This advance passed through Kasvin, Hamadan, and on 13 February 1916, Kirmanshah. The Russians then turned westward to threaten the Turkish flank in Mesopotamia and help relieve the besieged British force at Kut. Their march continued after the fall of Kut (16 April) to Khanikin and Rowanduz while another detachment joined the British on the Tigris. These successes compared favorably with the Allied failure at the Dardanelies and a secret Anglo-Franco-Russian treaty carving up Asiatic Turkey therefore awarded Russia Armenia, part of Kurdistan, and all of northern Anatolia. This pact supplemented the March 1915 promise that Russia would receive Constantinople and the Straits, and it demonstrates the importance still accorded Russia by Allied statesmen. Inter-allied cooperation was further strengthened by the dispatch of a Russian brigade to the Western Front while on 15 July 1916 another joined the Allies at Salonika. And in spite of Turkish recovery of Khanikin, Kirmanshah, Hamadan, Musg, and Bitlis, the Russians ended 1916 confident of future success in both Persia and the Caucasus. Moreover, Admiral A. V Kolchak, the new commander-in-chief of the Black Sea Fleet, had initiated an aggressive mining policy that had blocked the Bosphorus and returned control of that sea to the Russians.

Signs of improvement appeared elsewhere as well. On 23-25 November 1915 Stavka’s representatives in France met the Allies near Chantilly to coordinate plans for 1916 plans, and in December 1915 the Eleventh Corps on the Russian European Front launched a limited local offensive along the River Strypa. If the latter failed to break through enemy trenches and had no effect upon German planning, it was a sign that the Russian Army was far from destroyed. Nonetheless, on 8 February 1916 General von Falkenhayn opened the German campaign to destroy the French on the anvil of Verdun, while the Austrians now focused on routing the Italians in the Trentino.

By March 1916 the Russians were sufficiently recovered to respond to a French appeal with a major, two-pronged assault on the German entrenchments at Lake Naroch and Visjnevskoe, south of Dvinsk. In spite of a two-day bombardment, this 1915-style attack failed utterly. Whatever relief it gave the French at Verdun, the cost was perhaps 110,000 Russian casualties to 20,000 Germans, and it showed clearly that conditions on the Eastern Front paralleled fully the trench war in the West. Most generals now assumed that preliminary bombardments, followed by massive infantry assaults to produce breakthroughs to be exploited by cavalry, were the solution to the stalemate the Russians called “position warfare.” When these tactics failed, the generals again blamed shortages of munitions. So for a new offensive in the Vilnius area, the local command had demanded even more guns and shells. But these concentrations had precluded surprise at Naroch, and the bombardment on a very narrow front merely turned the battlefield into a muddy morass on which defensive firepower allowed even inferior forces of defenders to inflict stupendous losses upon the attackers.

Fortunately for the Russians, the generals gathered around Brusilov, now commanding the Southwestern Front, had pondered recent failures and developed new sets of operational and tactical approaches. These envisaged employing infantry assaults simultaneously at several different places with a minimum of artillery preparation. In fact, since Stavka was supporting the offensives in the north, when Brusilov proposed launching a secondary offensive, he was forced to achieve surprise by using only the forces in place for his planned strike toward the Carpathians. This was to take place along a 14-mile front at Lutsk, supported by attacks on smaller sectors at Tarnopol and Yazlovetsa, and a demonstration toward Lvov. Aerial photographs were used to brief his troops on opposing trench systems while secrecy was preserved by effective camouflage and building large underground bunkers, in which to hide the attackers. He also dispensed with the always visible cavalry, usually concentrated in masses behind the front, at the risk of not being able to support a breakthrough.

In the meantime the ltalians had appealed for help after the Austrians overran their positions in the Trentino. Consequendy, Brusilov launched his offensive 11 days early, on 22 May 1916. His armies struck along a 300-mile front in Galicia and Bukovina, with the important rail center at Kovel as their target. Because Stavka had withheld artillery support, Brusilov’s own guns fired only 250 rounds each in the first two days as compared to 600 rounds used daily on the Somme. Surprise was complete and the Austrian lines were ruptured, Lutsk recaptured, and the battle joined along the Strypa River (29 May-17 June). The Hapsburg forces were completely disorganized and demoralized, forcing the Germans once more to come to their aid. Making efficient use of the rail net, the Germans attacked the northern edge of the Lutsk salient. This stabilized the front, but not before Chernowitz fell to Brusilov’s Russians. Meanwhile, to the north, Stavka had attacked from Baranovichi. But like the simultaneous Battle of the Somme in France, this assault failed to break the opposing line, although the fighting lasted only 12 days. As for Brusilov, he now reverted to employing heavy bombardments and massive infantry attacks that failed to take the Kovno railhead. He declared his offensive ended on 31 July, though some heavy fighting continued thereafter, and his forces suffered 500,000 casualties in all. Yet his opponents had lost 1.5 million men and 582 guns.

Unfortunately Brusilov’s successes were quickly balanced by defeats elsewhere. After prolonged negotiations, Allied promises and Russia’s Galician victories persuaded the Rumanians to enter the war on 14 August 1916. Against Russian advice, they at once attacked Hungarian Transylvania, where Germans and Bulgarians under von Mackensen and von Falkenhayn quickly surrounded their forces at Hermannstadt. Having then captured the port of Constanza, the two German-Ied forces broke through the Carpathian passes into Wallachia and advanced upon Bucharest, which the Rumanians abandoned. As a result, Brusilov was soon forced to thin and extend his front some 300 miles to the southeast to open his own Rumanian front. The Rumanian retreat finally ended on the Sereth River in January 1917, but it left the Germans in control of Rumanian wheat and oil.

Despite this setback, the Allied meeting at Chantilly in November 1916 remained optimistic due to the German failure at Verdun and Brusilov’s success in the East. Although Alekseev was concerned over the Balkans, the Allies put that region in second place in their plans for victory in 1917. Nicholas 11 shared this view and Stavka began implementing the Chantilly plan for simultaneous offensives in France, Italy, and Russia. To keep the Germans off balance, in late December Russia’s Northern Front struck silendy through the fog to open the Mitau Operation, which recaptured and held Riga in a five-day batde. But on 9 January 1917 the Germans counterattacked and in time recovered most of the lost ground. Nevertheless, by the month’s end the 12th Army had stopped the Germans and held before Riga. The Mitau Operation, the last offensive of the tsar’s Stavka, demonstrated that Brusilov’s methods had spread throughout the Imperial Army, that it was still capable of defeating both Austrians and Germans, and that it could cooperate in the Allies’ planned offensives.

That this was possible was thanks to the industrial mobilization carried out under the aegis of the Special Council for State Defense. Since 1914 the Russian economy had expanded, not collapsed, with growth rates over 110 percent annually. The tsar wisely resisted Stavka’s proposal of mid-1916 for a military dictatorship. By 1917 the output of rifles was up 1,100 percent, that of shells by 2,000 percent, and in October 1917 the victorious Bolsheviks inherited a reserve of 18 million shells. The story was similar in other areas of production and by January 1917 Russian soldiers finally were entering battle fully equipped with even reserve gasmasks. What gaps remained promised to be filled by Allied aid after the Inter-Allied conference that opened in Petrograd on 19 January 1917. Manpower demands had slackened with only 3,048,000 men having been added in 1916. But if this gave a grand total of 14,648,000 since August 1914, most of these new troops were of declining quality, and war-weariness was sapping civilian morale. Most important, in June 1916 an order to draft 400,000 inhabitants from Turkestan and Central Asia provoked a major rebellion that sucked off forces to put it down.

At the same time, rapid industrialization had brought urban overcrowding, wartime shortages, and inflation. The value of the paper ruble, which increased in circulation six times as compared to 1914, had dropped from 56 to 27 kopecks by 1917. Most significant of all was the crisis provoked by the overloaded and aging railway system. The tsar and his ministers sought fixes that would prevent breakdowns, food shortages, and riots. Yet Nicholas’ attempt to have the new chairman of the Council of Ministers, Prince M. D. Golytsyn, reorganize the transport system failed, and this led directly to the food riots in Petrograd that sparked the revolution and forestalled the regime’s remedial measures.

If Russia’s leaders still had room for optimism in January 1917, their efforts were being undercut by the pessimism reigning in unofficial Russian political circles. This last was a major factor in the February Revolution. It stemmed from a general war-weariness, but also from the persistent “antiblack forces” campaign. This last had made it difficult for the monarch to find acceptable ministers even since the reconvening of the Duma in February 1916. Though Nicholas apparently ignored his wife’s advice, Rasputin’s claims of influence gave credence to mounting rumors. Then in October, the Progressive Bloc’s bureau resolved to attack the government in the person of Chairman of the Council of Ministers R. V. Sturmer, whom they saw as a German protege of Rasputin. When the Duma reassembled in November 1916, both the Kadet leader P. N. Miliukov on the Left, and V. V. Shulgin and V. A. Malakov on the Right, delivered seditious speeches accusing the government of conduct that was either stupid or treasonous. Rumors of a separate peace increased, and this despite formal denials by the ministers for war and the navy. Nicholas’ changes of other ministers brought little relief and, faced with further opposition demands, the tsar stood firm.

On the night before the Duma adjourned in late 1916, highly placed conspirators assassinated Rasputin. But this achieved nothing and, by early 1917, Imperial Russia presented a strange picture. Its successful industrial mobilization and recent military achievements had little impact on the pessimism in the rear. Even as Nicholas struggled with the railway and provisioning crisis, the French and British ambassadors overstepped diplomatic bounds and advised him to make concessions. Rumors were rife that the tsar was under pressure to abdicate, and that plans were afoot for a palace military coup d’etat. Even Grand Duke Nikolai failed to tell the tsar that the mayor of Tiflis had proposed that he lead an anti-tsarist coup, but that he had refused on the grounds that the army would not follow him. Thus the Empire entered a new period of winter shortages as a house divided against itself.




Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein

The battle of Lützen. Cornelis Danckerts: Historis oft waerachtich verhael.., 1632. Engraving by Matthäus Merian.

At the end of September 1631, Gustav’s forces were once more on the march, this time across Thuringia and Franconia to the Rhineland, a fertile supply region with good communications. Swedish forces entered Frankfurt am Main on 27 November; Mainz capitulated on 22 December. Oxenstierna arrived there the following month to set up Sweden’s administrative and supply headquarters. Gustav styled himself ‘duke of Franconia’ and treated areas under Swedish control as occupied territory. Supplies were requisitioned arbitrarily and places were taxed for military purposes. Church lands were confiscated and handed over to officials and commanders as compensation. Libraries and art collections were plundered and taken back to Sweden. The Swedes acquired more German allies than before, but many of them were forced into agreements to provide zones in which the Swedes could requisition supplies. Those who joined of their own accord were either dispossessed princes (Frederick V of the Palatinate) or minor Franconian princes and Rhineland cities hoping for protection. Richelieu looked on with barely concealed alarm at burgeoning Swedish fortunes, now closer to France’s own spheres of influence.

For the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs Sweden’s advance was a catastrophe. Philip IV’s garrisons in the Palatinate were eliminated and the Spanish Road broken. Worse followed when Count Tilly’s counter-attack on the Swedes at Bamberg in March 1632 failed, giving Gustav the excuse to advance on Bavaria. The League army was crushed, Tilly mortally wounded in the battle of Lech (15 April 1632), and Gustav and Frederick V entered Munich in triumph on 17 May. With Saxon forces invading Bohemia and Maximilian in exile in Salzburg, Emperor Ferdinand considered fleeing to Italy, but instead took the advice of his counsellors and recalled Wallenstein. The precise terms of the agreement which Ferdinand reached with Wallenstein at Göllersdorf in April 1632 will never be known, but they probably granted his Generalissimo the right to sign peace treaties in his name and to confiscate lands he conquered or pardon their rulers. In return, Wallenstein raised a new army of 65,000 men and besieged Gustav’s forces at Nuremberg. The city’s population was already swollen by refugees and Gustav had to fight his way out with heavy losses. He then engaged with Wallenstein’s forces to the southwest of Leipzig at Lützen (16 November 1632). The Swedes emerged victorious and Wallenstein withdrew to Bohemia, but Gustav Adolf had been killed in battle.

Chancellor Oxenstierna took over the direction of affairs in Germany, while a Regency Council was installed in Stockholm to advise Gustav’s daughter and heir, Christina. Confronted with a collapse in confidence, Oxenstierna was forced to make generous offers. German counties and bishoprics were off-loaded to colonels as ‘donations’ to reward them for what they were owed. How to satisfy the financial demands of the military entrepreneurs who kept the Swedish military machine going became the major concern of its strategists through to the end of the war. Oxenstierna hoped to lessen Sweden’s burdens by spreading the obligations among German allies, but the Heilbronn League, signed in April 1633, never fulfilled his expectations. The outstanding debts could not always be verified; and, where they could, they were so enormous that they absorbed all and more of the French and Dutch subsidies which the Swedes put at the League’s disposal. Worse, France reduced its subsidies and moved to limit Sweden’s impact west of the Rhine. In August 1633, French troops invaded Lorraine and, by the end of the following year, they controlled a large stretch of territory in the Reich from Basel up to Lorraine, with garrisons in Speyer, Philippsburg, Mannheim and Trier. Above all, Oxenstierna lost the support of Brandenburg and Saxony. The former could not be reconciled to Sweden’s insistence on Pomerania as a territorial guarantee in any eventual peace negotiations. The latter was unwilling to be a junior partner in a Swedish-dominated alliance, especially one led by that ‘pen-pusher’ (Plackscheisser) Oxenstierna. When the Saxon Elector learned the full extent of Sweden’s demands for compensation in July 1634, he made overtures to the emperor.

The possibility of luring Saxony back into the imperial fold is one explanation for Wallenstein’s failure to exploit the military advantage which he enjoyed in 1633. Exactly what the imperial Generalissimo was negotiating – with Sweden as well as Saxony – constitutes the essence of Wallenstein’s enigma. His diplomatic manoeuvres, coupled with his failure to come to the aid of Bavaria, gave ammunition to the growing number of critics in Vienna, orchestrated by the emperor’s Jesuit confessor Lamormaini. The Spanish were preparing to send a relief army to the empire and contested Wallenstein’s claims to be in charge of all Catholic troops in the Reich. His enemies seized on news that (aware of the plots circulating against him) he demanded his colonels swear an oath of personal loyalty at Pilsen on 12 January 1634. Ferdinand ordered his arrest, alive or dead. Wallenstein was assassinated by members of the garrison at Eger on 25 February 1634, the place to which he fled, apparently en route to the Saxons. The Swedes highlighted the news as one more sign to their wavering German allies that the emperor was not to be trusted.

The military operations of Gustav Adolf and Albrecht von Wallenstein mobilized the largest armies yet seen in Europe. Wallenstein had well over 100,000 troops under his command in 1628–9; Gustav Adolf had perhaps 150,000 men in his armies by late 1631. At Breitenfeld, over 30,000 imperial and 40,000 Swedish and Saxon forces were in combat. The underlying strategy for maintaining such massive military concentrations was to coordinate as far as possible the supply and resourcing organizations in order to occupy and defend the key parts of central and North German territory, Bohemia, Silesia and Moravia. The logistical key to the operation was the rivers. The resource portfolio was secured by war taxes (contributions), collected in goods or cash from as wide an area of productive territory as possible. Wallenstein’s strategy revolved around the Elbe and Oder, with the supply-chains fed from Moravia, Silesia and Bohemia. Gustav Adolf’s relied on the Rhine and its tributaries until he moved from Bavaria into Franconia. The Swedish débâcle at Nuremberg (between the Main and the Danube) was in part attributable to its weakened supply-chains.

After the Peace of Prague, the numbers of troops deployed by belligerents in Germany declined. The War Council in Vienna estimated that it had 73,000 troops mobilized in early 1638, but only 59,000 in 1639. Under Gustav Adolf, the Swedes maintained five campaign armies. By the early 1640s, this had been reduced to just two. The last important battles of the war involved armies considerably smaller than those which had fought in the early 1630s. At Jankau (5 March 1645) in southern Bohemia, 16,000 imperial forces clashed with a similar number of Swedes. At the second battle of Nördlingen (Allerheim, 3 August 1645) 16,000 Bavarian and imperial troops confronted 17,000 French and Hessian combatants. The resulting smaller armies were more resilient and battle-hardened. The ambitions of colonels to over-extend their entrepreneurial operations were curbed. Commanders were better able to manage their supply-chains and the arrears of pay were more controllable. They used their operational freedom of manoeuvre to protect their field armies, avoid sieges and concentrate on securing or maintaining strategic advantages.

The Swedish army, for example, was gradually rebuilt after the defeat at Nördlingen. From its supply-base in Pomerania and Mecklenburg, and supported by Baltic toll-revenues and French subsidies, Field-Marshal Johan Banér led campaigns in 1636–7, 1639–40 and 1641 into Silesia, Moravia and Bohemia with an army composed largely of German and Scottish veterans. With a force that rarely exceeded 20,000, he was able to prevent the imperial armies from eliminating the Swedish presence in Germany. His successor, Field-Marshal Lennart Torstensson, continued this strategy, his expedition in 1642 culminating in a crushing defeat of imperialist forces at the second battle of Breitenfeld (23 October 1642). His campaign in 1643 was curtailed by operations in Denmark, but that of the following year into the German heartland wiped out the imperial army commanded by Matthias Gallas at the battle of Jüterbog (23 November). Leading a force of 12,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry into the fray, Gallas (the ‘army wrecker’) retired to Bohemia with only about 2,000 foot and a few hundred cavalry left. He was relieved of his command, and after imperial defeats at Jankau and Allerheim the following year, Vienna reluctantly contemplated concessions at Westphalia.

The trend towards smaller, more professional armies was driven by the practical and political limits of what armies could extract from German territories and a changing relationship between military entrepreneurs and their state sponsors. Ransoms for senior officers tended to become the responsibility of the state and not part of war operations. The imperial-Bavarian and imperial-Saxon armies were no longer financed by contributions extorted by troops from occupied territories but paid for through regular taxes. The Electors and Estates at the Diet of Regensburg (1641) regularized other payments, at least for troops in garrisons, so that they were, to some extent, financed less arbitrarily.

The cumulative impact of the Thirty Years War on the civilian population in Germany has never been possible to estimate accurately. Although there were deliberate scorched-earth tactics (in Lorraine in the 1630s, Swedish troops in Bavaria in 1632 and 1646), the biggest impact was undoubtedly through scarcities of food, loss of plough-teams and the spread of disease. Although smaller towns were sacked, especially when garrisons refused to surrender, larger towns rarely saw any major military contingents within their walls. The catastrophe at Magdeburg was an exception. The worst devastation took place in the 1630s and early 40s. Grain prices rose to record levels as agricultural production was affected by warfare, climatic instability and the temporary migration of country folk to the towns to escape troops. The resentments towards military exactions appeared in peasant ambushes and resistance. The Sundgau peasantry rose against the Swedes in 1633; peasants in Westphalia joined nobles and imperial cavalry against the Hessian army. There were certainly some places where population levels sank by over 30 per cent as disruptions to family and community resulted in collapsing birth-rates.

Although walled towns were, to a degree, protected, the wealth of patrician élites was eroded by war contributions and unpaid interest on loans and bonds. Contemporary eye-witness testimonies furnish graphic accounts of individual experiences. The diary of Peter Hagendorf, a Catholic soldier, described in matter-of-fact terms his role in the sack of a town in Bavaria in 1634: ‘Here I got a pretty girl as my booty, and 12 thalers in cash, some clothes and a lot of linen.’ A few weeks later, he recorded the same in another location ‘and here again I got a young girl out of it’. The alabaster sculpture by the brilliant miniaturist sculptor from Hall, Leonard Kern, of a Swedish soldier abducting a young naked woman, her hands tied, about to be raped, is a reminder of the brutal encounters which imprinted themselves on the generation which survived.

These form the bedrock to a collective consciousness of an all-destructive war which was evoked afterwards in the classic 1668 German picaresque novel by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. The Adventurous Simplicissimus recounts the life of a vagrant, Melchior Sternfels von Fuchsheim, who joins the army, changes sides, enjoys a high and low life, ends up in Russia and finally returns to become a hermit. The experiences were not autobiographical but they were read as having been so. They implicitly pointed the finger at the public authorities in the empire who had failed to protect their subjects. It is not surprising that, in Saxony and elsewhere, rulers did not summon the Estates for fear of what they would hear. In those places where they did meet – Hesse-Kassel and the principality of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, for example – there was a crescendo of rage at princely failure. Different confessions and social orders united in saying that they were the state which princely misrule had ruined.

The question of how to sustain attritional warfare was also fundamental to the Spanish and French monarchies. Neither had effective mechanisms for distributing fairly the burdens that warfare on this scale generated. Spain had for so long borne the costs of major military commitments in Europe that it was next to impossible for it to change the means by which it distributed that load. France avoided major external military commitments until the mid-1630s. Its entry into the Thirty Years War was principally to dismantle Spanish Habsburg hegemony in Europe and replace it with its own. To achieve that objective required military campaigns on several fronts at once and the rallying of allies to achieve consonant objectives. The Thirty Years War was transformed into a global struggle which brought Spain and France to the brink of collapse.

The Policies of Nicholas I: Military Instrumentalities

Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias: Nicholas I

Diplomacy by itself would not always suffice to bring about the international outcomes Petersburg desired. In that event it would be necessary to rely on Russia’s armed forces. The regime of Nicholas I used those forces both to threaten war and to fight it. Of the two courses, the former was considered preferable. The idea was simultaneously to influence events abroad and to avoid a war by threatening to wage one. Indeed, a crude principle of coercive deterrence was the key to Nicholas’s military policy. In the 1830 note in which he had observed that Russia needed no new conquests, the Emperor had gone on to argue that Russia’s “defensive position ought to be so imposing so as to make any aggression impossible.” Nicholas maintained such an enormous army and navy precisely because of the imposing impression he hoped they would make on Russia’s enemies at home and abroad. The mobilizations, maneuvers, naval demonstrations, even parades of the Nicholaevan era were all scenes in a theater of intimidation that Nicholas staged for the benefit of his foes. If matters were adroitly handled, military deployments could be used to communicate Russia’s displeasure (and its overwhelming strength) to its potential adversaries. For that reason, Nicholas often made the deployments with a maximum of publicity and ostentation. Throughout the reign, when Nicholas decreed a concentration of infantry forces on the frontier or a voyage by his men of war, it was usually done to browbeat a foreign government, not to put Russia’s forces in an advantageous position from which to open hostilities.

In the late 1820s, for example, Nicholas tried to use naval demonstrations in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to cow the Turks into bowing to his will over the Greek revolution. When that failed to work, he announced that his forces would occupy the two Danubian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia in the hope of sending an even stronger and more efficacious signal to Constantinople. The idea, of course, was to scare the Turks into capitulating without inciting them to start a new war with Russia.

Nicholas also relied on military intimidation when confronted by problems of domestic order. After the Polish insurrection of 1831 had been crushed, the Emperor instructed Paskevich, his most trusted commander, to waste no time in constructing a strong citadel on the outskirts of Warsaw. The fort was built not in anticipation of defending the Polish capital against foreign aggression but to frighten and demoralize the Poles out of their rebelliousness. Nicholas wrote of the Warsaw citadel that “from the moment of the erection of its walls all hope of the Poles of ever wrenching themselves free of Russian power will collapse—and then they will tremble!”—a prospect to which he obviously was looking forward with unconcealed glee.

During the crisis of 1833, when Nicholas felt it prudent to support the Sultan against the Egyptian Khedive, he turned again to military intimidation. He organized a menacing demonstration by a Russian flotilla in the Constantinople roadstead, complete with a troop landing. When the revolutions of 1848 broke out in Western, Southern, and Central Europe, Nicholas once more had recourse to his military to threaten, not to fight. The mobilizations Nicholas conducted in that year were designed to dampen any possible enthusiasm on the part of foreign revolutionaries and foreign revolutionary governments for an armed clash with Russia. The Russian military maneuvers of 1848 were decidedly not the prelude to the opening of a counterrevolutionary military crusade. As Nesselrode expressed it: “[L]et the other countries manage as they can, we shall let them alone as long as they do not touch us.” The next year, after Nicholas had reluctantly decided that he would have to help his Austrian ally combat the Hungarian insurrection, he secretly hoped that the very magnitude of the military preparations he made would be enough to terrorize the Hungarians into surrendering before Russia ever had to fire a shot. Paskevich later recalled that “it was decided to assemble 150,000 men so that the Hungarians would see the impossibility of the success of their schemes.”

Military threats were also a feature of the Russian policy that led up to the outbreak of the Crimean War. When the breakdown of negotiations over Russia’s right to “protect” the interests of Christians in the Ottoman Empire resulted in the suspension of diplomatic relations between Petersburg and Constantinople in the spring of 1853, Nicholas once again decided to occupy Wallachia and Moldavia as a means of pressuring the Turks. Intellectual justification for that operation was provided by Paskevich in a memorandum of March, in which he observed that the occupation would probably persuade the Turks to honor their treaty obligations. When the exasperated Turks failed to act as expected and declared war, Nicholas still clung to his original plan. He ordered his troops in those two Balkan provinces not to cross the Danube under any circumstances, evidently reasoning that the Turks (who might be bluffing) could perhaps still be persuaded to back down if Russia avoided giving them any more military provocation.

During his tenure as Emperor of Russia, then, Nicholas rarely deviated from the practice of planning military maneuvers and even initial operations in terms of their value as deterrents or threats, not as preliminaries to actual fighting. Almost the only exception to this pattern came in 1830. In the late summer of that year, almost fatalistically convinced that a general European war could not be prevented, Nicholas ordered four corps onto a war footing. What made that order so uncharacteristic was that Nicholas was adamant about keeping the military preparations secret, so as not to arouse “the suspicions of either our enemies or our allies.” Ordinarily, as we have just seen, Nicholas insisted on making military preparations so obvious and open that neither enemies nor allies could fail to take note of them. It was his way of telegraphing his intentions, inhibiting his adversaries, and signaling his resolve.

Despite all the skill of his diplomacy and military threats, however, war might still come. Nicholas’s efforts to deter or avert it did not always work. Repulsive as he found war to be, Nicholas nonetheless believed that two things were worse: dishonor and general war. Nicholas’s idea of honor will come under discussion later in this chapter. Here we shall consider his ideas about how Russia should try to prosecute a war should it have the misfortune to become involved in one.

In the first place, Nicholas believed that Russia could really afford to fight only localized wars. Russia might of course operate with the assistance of allies, but at all costs it had to avoid entering a war in which a coalition of powerful enemies was arrayed against it. The crisis in the Low Countries of 1830 provides an example of such thinking. When Belgium revolted against the authority of King William of Holland, the latter appealed to Nicholas for military assistance. William’s son was Nicholas’s brother-in-law, and Nicholas regarded William’s cause to be just, but he was at first extremely reluctant to do anything to help. Nicholas thought that if he were to make the first military move in the crisis, he might well find himself at war with France and Britain simultaneously. In any event, if London and Paris were to unite in support of the Belgian rebels, Nicholas was of the opinion that Russia had the power to protest but not much more.

Second, given the nature of Russia’s international objectives, Russia’s purpose could only be to fight limited wars in Clausewitz’s sense. Russia was a conservative power; it sought no great new expanses of territory anywhere in Europe or in Asia. Its purpose in waging war, therefore, could not be to overthrow sovereign states or dynasties. When it waged war, it did so in the interests of preserving the established order, enforcing treaties, repelling invasion, or inflicting reprisals. Regardless of their scale, the wars of Nicholas I were almost always conceptually akin to punitive operations.

It was the Emperor’s desire that such wars be fought and won as quickly as possible. That, obviously, necessitated speedy offensive operations. Nicholas’s voluminous wartime correspondence with his generals in the field is peppered with reprimands for their slowness, indecision, or hesitation. General Ermolov, who was unfortunate enough to be in command in Transcaucasia when the Persians invaded in 1826, was severely condemned by his sovereign for insufficient aggressiveness in his conduct of operations, even though he had only 10,000 troops with which to engage the Persian army, monitor the Turkish frontier, and maintain internal order, all at the same time. When the Tsar removed Ermolov and replaced him with Paskevich, he informed the latter that his duty was to “compel the Persians to a rapid peace.” In 1831 General Dibich was the target of the imperial wrath; Nichlas reproved him for his failure to suppress the Polish insurrection swiftly despite the numerical superiority of his forces over those of the rebels. The reason for his insistence on quick victory was no doubt Nicholas’s appreciation of the rate at which active military operations consumed military power. Money, equipment, and, most important, human lives were sacrificed by any state that went to war. Once expended, such resources were difficult to replenish. Nicholas also realized, just as his eighteenth-century predecessors had, that the typical theaters in which Russia went to war made the attritional effects of campaigning on the Russian army immoderately high. Just as in the past, this was attributable to the influence of climate and terrain factors (in addition to poor logistics and military medicine) on the health and well-being of the troops. During the last four months of the Turkish war of 1828–29 alone, more than 60,000 Russian soldiers perished, almost half of them in military hospitals. Certain military operations during the reign of Nicholas I came down to races against changes in the weather and the seasons. In the midsummer of 1849, for instance, Nicholas committed to paper his ardent wish that “military actions [against the Hungarian rebels] could be conducted as quickly and as decisively as possible so that they might be ended prior to the time of bad weather and bad roads.” If not, the Emperor added, Russia could expect to lose up to one-half of its expeditionary force in Hungary to disease. Here, however, a paradox emerges. Although Nicholas typically exhorted his generals to achieve quick successes (and berated them if they failed to do so), in certain special circumstances he worried that Russia might win a victory so quick and decisive that an unintended and undesired consequence might be the utter collapse of an enemy government. Sometimes the need for quick victory ran counter to Russia’s long-term political interests.

This was a particular worry in the case of Turkey. In 1853, when the Tsar and his advisers considered a possible war with the Ottomans, they paid attention to a bold proposal prepared by Nicholas’s son, the Grand Duke Konstantin, a noted naval officer and reformer in the subsequent reign. Should there be a Turkish war, Konstantin advocated ending it with one decisive naval and amphibious attack on Constantinople. While Konstantin admitted that such an operation would probably cost Russia at least five ships and the lives of several thousand sailors, he insisted that those losses would be small compared with those incurred in a one-to two-year ground campaign “in which the troops [would suffer more] from the hardships of the march, fevers, and cholera than from the enemy himself.” Despite the fact that the plan was endorsed by Prince Paskevich, it was decisively rejected by both the Naval Minister and the Tsar. Nicholas apparently concluded that Konstantin’s plan posed grave risks, whether it failed or succeeded. If it failed, Russia would have squandered military resources without gaining anything. If it succeeded, there was the possibility that the Turkish Empire would simply cave in. Nicholas’s preference was for no war at all, both because he shared his son’s concern for the ruinous effect of the climate of the Balkans on the health of the troops and because “of the indeterminate goal which we may have to appoint for our forces, if we wish of course to avoid the overthrow of the Turkish Empire.” In other words, since Russia could not afford to deliver an annihilating blow against the Turks it might have to protract a conflict with them unnaturally, should one erupt.

A final exception to the rapid war scenario would occur in the unhappy event that Russia found itself faced with the prospect of overland invasion from Central Europe. Yet the plans for such a contingency were extremely rudimentary. The Ministry of War hoped to rely on the shield of the Polish fortresses of Novogeorgievsk, Ivangorod, and Brest to buy the army the five or six months that would be needed for a total mobilization.

In the majority of wars either planned or waged by Russia during the period, however, the operational approach endorsed by the Emperor was consonant with the goal of rapid and limited conflict. Nicholas and his generals were all keenly alive to the problem of supply. Although they realized that shortages of food and ammunition would inevitably plague any Russian army in the field, they were also aware that there was nothing like a total breakdown of logistics to prolong a campaign. As living off the land during a Balkan war was no more realistic for a Russian army of Nicholas’s time than it had been fifty years earlier, the Tsar’s commanders made strenuous (although not always successful) efforts to operate within the bounds of the logistically possible. Sometimes that entailed extravagant preplanning, or even the cooperation of foreign states. For instance, after the failure of the overly ambitious campaign against European Turkey in 1828, Dibich made his logistical preparations for the campaign of 1829 with a great deal more care; thousands of camels were used to haul foodstuffs, ammunition, and other supplies from central Russia to the theater of war. Paskevich’s intricate design for operations on the left bank of the Vistula in the spring of 1831 envisioned supplying the field army from a stockpile of more than 200,000 quarters of grain and forage, to be amassed with Prussian help in the fortress of Thorn. Indeed, Paskevich, whose talents lay more in the field of military administration than in generalship, was widely known for his pithy maxim, “He who does not think of food will get no benefit from victory.”

Operational objectives were similar to those that Russia’s eighteenth-century armies had pursued. Typically the Emperor’s commanders were instructed to catch the enemy in the open, divide him, and then destroy him in a general battle. Nicholas’s generals expended much intellectual energy on elaborate operational plans, which required maneuvers by Russian forces along interior geometrical lines so as to entrap the enemy. Nicholas I himself took the keenest interest in the design of the plans. The sheer volume and geographical detail of the proposals, orders, and suggestions that he sent his generals suggest that he must have devoted many hours to their composition with compass and map.

Yet a general battle might not always be possible. The enemy might act otherwise than had been expected. And when he retreated or fell back on his strong points, the Russian military resorted to its traditional siegecraft. Because Nicholas was almost always desirous of rapid victory, however, he placed strong emphasis on the speediest possible reduction of forts. They were to be taken by mining or by storm—not merely starved out.

A final point about the Nicholaevan approach to the conduct of war was that it was informed by memories of Russia’s military practices in 1812. The great interest of Nicholas and his generals in augmenting the operations of regular forces with partisan raids obviously stemmed from that source. During Paskevich’s Polish campaign of 1831, for instance, light cavalry detachments of Hussars and Cossacks were used to guard the rear of the regular army and to protect Russian lines of communication, while simultaneously attacking those of the enemy. During the Hungarian intervention of 1849, Nicholas himself strongly urged the use of cavalry raids “to seize the initiative from the enemy and strike fear into him.” On the very eve of his death, in a note of February 1, 1855, Nicholas showed his continued fascination with the military paradigm of 1812. Worried that Austria was about to declare war on Russia, thus joining the already formidable Crimean coalition, Nicholas sketched out a plan for the defense of Poland against an anticipated attack of 300,000 Austrian troops. Partisan operations against the enemy’s flank and rear played a prominent role in the plan. In the event of a dire need, the Nicholaevan military establishment was also prepared to fall back on an 1812 scorched earth policy. An example was the August 1853 proposal by Vice Admiral Serebriakov that the 13th Infantry Division be transferred to the eastern shores of the Black Sea in order to devastate all of the lands between the mouth of the Kuban and the valley of Adogum in order to complicate an enemy landing in the territory.

Analysis of the Battle of Quatre Bras – Strategic Issues

d’Erlon – out of two battles!

Napoleon’s main criticism was that Ney had failed to concentrate his entire force and that if he had achieved this, Quatre Bras would have been taken and d’Erlon could have safely been sent to the emperor’s support. In his memoirs, Napoleon identifies Ney’s fundamental error:

In other times, this general would have occupied the position before Quatre Bras at 6am, would have defeated and taken the whole Belgian division; and would have turned the Prussian army by sending a detachment by the Namur road which would have fallen upon the rear of the line of battle, or, by moving quickly on the Genappes road, he would have surprised the Brunswick Division and the 5th English Division on the march . . . Always the first under fire, Ney forgot the troops who were not under his eye. The bravery which a general-in-chief ought to display is different from that which a divisional general must have, just as that of the latter ought not to be the same as that of a captain of grenadiers.

Here we see Napoleon explaining that Ney had ignored or not grasped the bigger picture; the changing strategic situation and his part in it. In his growing frustration he entirely failed to understand and keep in mind what in modern military parlance is called his superior commander’s intent; Napoleon’s need to destroy the Prussian army. He thus failed to realise that, once Wellington’s force was fixed in place around Quatre Bras, his part in achieving this was the despatch of d’Erlon’s corps onto the Prussian rear and that he should have adapted his own operations to this end. We can only speculate on the reasons for this, but eyewitness accounts suggest it was his complete distraction with, and absorption in, what was happening in front of him, that resulted in his rash decision to recall d’Erlon without considering the wider consequences.

Ney was transfixed by the need to seize Quatre Bras, rather than the essential need to send d’Erlon to support Napoleon. Having failed to achieve the former, he should have considered how to achieve the latter, which had become the priority. It is therefore rather surprising how little emphasis was put on the eastern flank by either side and where there was little serious fighting. Yet for Ney, the Namur road was the key route for his despatch of a force to support Napoleon against the Prussians, as laid down in Napoleon’s orders of the morning, just as it was the route down which the Prussians were expecting support from Wellington. Ney appears to have allocated fewer than four battalions to secure his eastern flank; far too small a force to clear the allied troops off it and keep it open for his own use. The fighting here was essentially an action between light infantry forces that was unlikely to be decisive for either side. Having failed to secure the route for d’Erlon, the next best thing would have been to send him down the road that he actually took on to the Prussian flank, but from which Ney recalled him.

Ney never appeared to claim any credit for stopping any of Wellington’s army reinforcing the Prussians at Ligny; nor does he appear to have been given any credit for it by Napoleon. All he got from the latter, as we shall see later, was criticism. For Ney, an aggressive commander who liked to be in the front line, it seemed like a defeat and many of his officers and men felt the same (although much of the following comment by them was written with the benefit of hindsight). Chef d’escadron Lemonnier-Delafosse, Foy’s chief-of-staff wrote:

What precious time lost!

At Quatre Bras on the 16th June, a battle was necessary, where, the day before, it would only have been an affair of the advance guard. On this day, in the morning, one could still have succeeded although it would have undoubtedly been more difficult: our troops were full of enthusiasm and could not have been stopped; containing their élan was an irreparable fault. Besides, the pressing orders of the emperor did not allow the marshal to remain in thought before the enemy; he wanted to make up for lost time and without making a proper reconnaissance of either the position or the strength of the English, he threw himself, head lowered, upon them . . . Thus, by an inconceivable feebleness, one had fought to no advantage from 2pm until 9pm.

Even more junior officers who fought there had similar views; Lieutenant Puvis of the 93rd Line penned similar criticism:

It had seemed to us that with the spirit which animated our army, it would have been possible, without too much resistance to fear, to have seized the enemy position. Why was this not done? . . . The old soldiers blamed the hesitation that Marshal Ney displayed before the position of Quatre Bras. Indeed, if he had taken the place the same day we would have gained a march on the enemy.

The view of those supportive of Napoleon, and consequently critical of Ney, is best summed up by Colonel Combes-Brassard, the sous chef-d’etat of the 6th Corps, who, writing much later and having no doubt read all the accounts, wrote in his own history of the campaign:

Marshal Ney was indecisive, irresolute in his attacks during the day of the battle of Ligny. This circumstance is strange in a man whose audacious determination in war was well known. His groping around before an enemy much weaker than himself was inexplicable in a general who was accustomed to saying that the only enemy he feared was the one he could not see.

General Foy, however, seems to give a more balanced, if still rather downbeat, summary of the day:

It was, at least with us, a poor start to the campaign. I do not know what passed elsewhere. Marshal Ney’s attack had been hasty and lacking sense; one does not proceed thus against the English. We were able to colour this affair as we liked, for we had taken two cannon and the enemy had taken none of ours; he had suffered a greater loss than us thanks to the superiority of our artillery; we had maintained, to the end of the day, more ground than we had held before we started our attack. But these arguments are grabbing at straws. We had lost the battle, since we had been stopped from achieving our mission of seizing Quatre Bras.

With the benefit of hindsight, his recall of d’Erlon was Ney’s greatest failure on this day and probably cost Napoleon the campaign. However, we have already stated that Ney failed to achieve either of his two missions. This is not strictly true. In Napoleon’s orders of the morning of the 16th, Ney’s task was merely to advance to the Quatre Bras crossroads and to deploy his troops around it. However, at about the same time as he received these original orders, which did not suggest he would have to fight for the crossroads, he received another order from Napoleon which gave him much clearer direction;

Concentrate the corps of Counts Reille and d’Erlon and that of Count Valmy, who is just marching to join you. With these forces you must engage and destroy all enemy forces that present themselves. Blücher was at Namur yesterday and it is unlikely that he has sent any troops towards Quatre Bras. Thus you will only have to deal with the forces coming from Brussels.

Whilst this direction is unequivocal, crucially it does not explain why the marshal should do this, beyond the original orders stating he should be ready for the emperor to join him and then march on Brussels. The unstated ‘why’ was that the occupation of Quatre Bras would prevent Wellington’s army from marching to Blücher’s aid and would allow Ney to send troops to Napoleon’s support. In the former point Ney was entirely successful, causing Wellington considerable casualties into the bargain, but he failed in the latter. These were certainly Napoleon’s aims, but he did not specify the former, only the latter in more general terms. Napoleon just expected Ney to obey his orders. We must not pretend that if Ney was clear he was to stop Wellington marching to the aid of the Prussians that he would have acted any differently, and as already stated, in this he was successful anyway. Whilst in modern battle procedure a subordinate would expect his mission statement to lay down what he had to achieve and why, we must make our judgement based on the processes and procedures of the day, and there can be little argument that Napoleon’s orders were not clear.

Looking at the battle from Wellington’s perspective, it was fought solely to give support to the Prussians, and in this he clearly failed. The result of the fighting was a repulse for the French, but for the allies it was a strategic failure. Wellington did not fight at Quatre Bras to deny Napoleon the support of part of Ney’s force; that Ney recalled d’Erlon from his march was that marshal’s disobedience of orders and his failure to fully understand the emperor’s scheme. Most British writers conclude that the battle was a victory for Wellington and make no mention of his failure to support the Prussians, although Chesney at least admits, ‘Truly, in holding his own, the great Englishman owed something that day to Fortune.’

Ney’s failure to concentrate his whole force, his poor decision-making and Wellington’s constant trickle of reinforcements had prevented the French defeating the allied army at Quatre Bras. But Ney’s job was to hold back the British and send support to Napoleon at Ligny. He succeeded in the former, but failed in the latter due to his rash and ill-considered decision to recall d’Erlon. But if it was not a French victory, neither was it an allied victory. Whilst Ney had failed to capture Quatre Bras and send a force to support Napoleon, so Wellington had singularly failed to carry out any manoeuvre that supported the Prussians as he intended and Blücher had requested. The French troops had fought well against increasing odds and had scored some notable successes, and the fact that history has marked the battle as a defeat has far more to do with Ney’s command than the courage or fighting ability of his soldiers. It seems that real efforts were made by the French chain-of-command to adapt their tactics to counter those used by the British in Spain, and although they achieved some tactical success, significantly, they were unable to challenge the significant psychological advantage that the British continued to hold over them.

German Logistics – Rail in Russia I

August 1941. Victories along the whole eastern front. Russian broad gauge railways are converted to German gauge.

Track gauge conversion

One surprising aspect of the German Army in 1939 was the limited extent to which it was motorized. The British had dispensed with the horse apart from ceremonial duties, but the Germans surprisingly had made less progress in converting their army to motor vehicles. This was partly because of Hitler’s lack of attention to detail, which meant he focused on the more sexy hardware like tanks and aeroplanes, but was also a result of the German motor industry’s inability to meet army requirements. According to van Creveld, ‘of 103 divisions available on the eve of the war, just 16… were fully motorised and thus to some extent independent of the railways’. The rest of the army marched on foot while their supplies were, for the most part, carried in horse-drawn wagons as lorries could not cope with the demands of the army and, in any case, there were not enough of them. In the technological conditions of 1939, an astonishing ‘1,600 lorries would be required to equal the capacity of just one double-track railway line’. Worse, trucks use up vast amounts of road space and require more fuel and people than an equivalent railway, greatly elongating the army’s ‘train’, which meant that in relation to payload, ‘the railway maintained its superiority at distances of over 200 miles…however great the effort, there was little chance that motor vehicles would relieve, much less replace, trains as Germany’s main form of transportation in the foreseeable future.’

Hitler’s focus on motorizing his army and his failure to see it through left the railways suffering from comparative neglect, with the result that there were fewer locomotives and wagons available in 1939 than there had been at the outbreak of the First World War. To a large extent, the marching German armies depended on scavenging trucks from the local populace – a move that increased antagonism towards the invaders – and, equally unpopular, even from their own civilians.

While the German invasions of Poland, and France and the Low Countries in 1939 and 1940 respectively, were astonishing victories, they exposed weaknesses in the Army’s logistics. German advances were characterized by having two sections, a small rapid motorized advance party which quickly took over vast swathes of territory but lost contact with its supply line, and a much larger, slower-moving rear. This tactic was fine in these early assaults since they were successfully concluded rapidly enough not to require reinforcements and the prolonged maintenance of supply lines. In Poland, the destruction of the railways by the retreating Poles had been so complete that it was only the rapid surrender of their army that prevented a logistical bottleneck for the Germans, who lost about half their trucks to the atrocious roads on which they were wholly reliant. By January 1940, the supply organization at Army HQ (OKH) was forced to resort to horse-drawn transport to make up the shortfall in available trucks. In France, the logistical failings did not escape Hitler’s notice since they contributed to the decision of the Germans not to press home their advantage in their sweep through northern France. The armoured spearheads speeding over the Meuse towards Paris progressed faster than expected and, as the railways had all been destroyed by the French, lost contact with their supply lines, leaving a gap between the two flanks. Hitler called a halt to allow for the supply lines to be re-established, which is why the British Expeditionary Force was able to escape from the beaches of Dunkirk, an event which contributed much to the Allies’ morale. Although the sabotaged railways were reinstated as soon as possible, there were too few Eisenbahntruppen to carry out the work quickly enough or to work the lines efficiently. There were frantic calls to requisition ‘all the lorries of Germany’ but by the time they arrived the Dunkirk beaches had been cleared. Again, as in Poland, had the French not crumbled so quickly, the split between the two parts of the army could have been exploited by the Allies and the Germans would have been forced to stop and consolidate.

It was the invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941 where the logistical failings were to be cruelly exposed. In truth, however, Operation Barbarossa, the name given to the massive plan to invade Russia, was always doomed to suffer the same fate as all previous attempts to overcome the Great Bear. The Germans decided on a rather muddled three-pronged attack on a vast 1,400-mile front aimed respectively at Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg, then Petrograd), Moscow and Kiev, involving more than 3 million men, five times the number that Napoleon had at his disposal, and the largest invading army raised in the history of warfare. The basic orders for the operation, which van Creveld calls ‘a rambling and confused document’, provided for an advance to the line Dvina-Smolensk-Dnieper, respectively 600, 700 and 900 miles away from the point of departure. Yet, each army group only had one railway line to supply it during the advance, with motorized transport expected to do the rest. It was simply impossible because of the massive shortfall of motorized transport. Not only was the fleet of trucks a ramshackle collection of vehicles of 2,000 different types largely purloined from occupied countries, but to replace rail with road movements to reach Moscow would have required ‘at least ten times the number of vehicles actually available’. Operation Barbarossa was overwhelmed by the logic of its supply constraints and its failure changed the course of the war.

There was, therefore, no alternative to using Russia’s sparse railway network and that was fraught with difficulties. Locomotives with boilers that kept functioning in the arctic conditions would have to be produced and track relaid because of the change in gauge between Germany and Russia. In other words, as Len Deighton puts it, ‘the speed of the advance would be limited to the speed at which a new railway could be built’.

The plan for the German advance was therefore drawn up in the light of these logistical constraints. To be successful Russia had to be conquered before winter and to achieve that a series of optimistic assumptions were made by the German HQ. It was to be the apogee of the blitzkrieg method of warfare, the strategy that combined tanks, infantry and air power in a single overwhelming attack concentrating tremendous force at points of weakness in order to overcome the enemy quickly. The plan for Barbarossa envisaged the rapid motorized units of all three army groups speeding 300 miles into Russia and then pausing while new railways were built and supply depots created to prepare for the final assault further east. To this end, remarkably, the Eisenbahntruppen, charged with repairing and converting the railway, were sent ahead as part of the advance party, even before the territory where they were expected to work was properly secured. This contradicted normal military practice. As van Creveld puts it, ‘instead of the logistic apparatus following in the wake of operations, it was supposed to precede them, a procedure probably unique in the annals of modern war’. Such expediencies were a measure of the desperation of the Germans, who grasped that the successful invasion of Russia depended entirely on their ability to supply their armies. And they couldn’t. The attack was launched on 22 June, rather later than seemed wise given the short Russian summer. Military historians argue about whether the start had been fatally delayed by Hitler’s last-minute decision to invade the Balkans to get the Italians off the hook in Greece, where they were being beaten by a poorly equipped Greek army, or whether he always intended to begin the invasion on the longest day of the year. Initially, the Germans met only feeble resistance from the shell-shocked Russians, allowing the fast advance units to reach their targets within days. However, the unmetalled roads proved to be even worse than expected, and deteriorated in the face of unusually heavy rainfall during the first week of July. A quarter of vehicles had failed within three weeks of the start of the campaign. On the railways, the difference in gauge meant the invaders were heavily reliant on using captured rolling stock but the Russians took away the best locomotives and destroyed the rest, leaving only a few wagons and coaches behind.

Not surprisingly, the Eisenbahntruppen could not cope with the scale of their task and were beset by a host of difficulties. Undermanned and lacking requisite skills, they failed to carry out conversions and repairs thoroughly, tending only to provide the tracks without installing such vital equipment as platforms, workshops and engine sheds. They were forced to travel by road but were not given the priority they needed because the officers of the combat regiments did not understand the importance of their task.

Changing the gauge was a slow and cumbersome job and proved to be the major obstacle for the efficiency of the lines of communication. While captured wagons could be adapted to standard gauge, it was impossible to convert locomotives and therefore, effectively, the Germans were always having to contend with two separate railway systems. At the point of change of gauge, which was advanced into Russia as quickly as possible and therefore had to be moved frequently, huge bottlenecks built up, at times delaying loads for two or three days.

Railways tend to have their own particular characteristics and the Russians had built theirs with lighter rails and fewer sleepers, with the result that the lines, even once converted, could not cope with the more modern but heavier German locomotives which were used on the sections where the gauge had been changed. German engines struggled in the winter, too, as they had not been built to withstand the extreme temperatures. Unlike the Russian engines, their pipework was external and in the harsh climate of the Russian steppe, far colder than anything ever experienced in Germany, the pipes quickly froze and burst, putting the locomotives out of action.

Shortages of fuel, both coal and petrol, were a perennial problem. Russian coal was inferior and therefore needed to be mixed with some imported fuel in order to power the German locomotives. To compound the supply difficulties, Russian petrol had such a low octane value that it was unusable for German vehicles. Even the horses were of the wrong kind. To pull their heavy wagons, the German army relied on strong draught horses, which proved unsuited to the cold conditions and required enormous quantities of forage. Amazingly, in order to ensure supplies could be carried, half the infantry divisions were equipped with small hand carts, Panje wagons, which meant the world’s most modern army was dependent on a transport method familiar to Christ.

Each of the three German armies was accompanied by two armoured trains. The Wehrmacht had been rather unenthusiastic about armoured trains, especially after their failure during the invasion of Poland, where attempts to use them to spearhead attacks on key railway crossings over rivers were stymied when the Poles simply blew up the bridges. The Poles themselves deployed five armoured trains, which proved effective in several encounters with German Panzer (armoured) units, but three of them were destroyed by the Luftwaffe, demonstrating their vulnerability to air attack. Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht decided that they would be useful in the initial stages of Barbarossa to seize railway bridges and then, after conversion to the wider Russian gauge, to protect the long stretches of railway line from attacks by partisans, which as the Germans advanced deeper into Russia increased in both severity and effectiveness. The Germans used not only their own armoured trains but several captured from the Soviet forces, who had started the war with a far bigger fleet but lost many in the early battles of Barbarossa. Some of the trains used by the Germans were even protected with armoured cars, mostly French Panhards, converted to rail use and sent out in front of the train to reconnoitre the line and draw any fire.

Of the three armies that invaded Russia in theory the northern group led by Field Marshal von Leeb, which headed towards Leningrad, had the easiest task as it only needed to cover a distance of 500 miles from East Prussia. And at first, helped by the good road and railway network in the Baltics, which had been prosperous independent states before their occupation by the Soviets in 1940, progress was remarkable, with the motorized units covering 200 miles in just five days. However, as the convoy headed north-east, the forests became denser and the roads fewer, and the supply trucks became entangled with the huge infantry columns marching ahead of them. Soon airlifts had to be organized to keep the forward troops supplied and although by 10 July the leading armoured troops led by General Max Reinhardt were within eighty miles of Leningrad, and were in the process of overwhelming the outer defence line of the city, launching an all-out attack proved impossible because the infantry was strung out over the Baltics and the tanks could not operate in the heavily wooded terrain. This was typical of many similar offensives in the Second World War in which the attacking armoured forces ran ahead of their logistical support that then failed because it was predominately road-based. By then the Eisenbahntruppen had converted 300 miles of railway but the railhead was still well behind the front and in any case the line was in such poor condition that it could only accommodate one train per day. The armoured troops therefore had to wait for supplies to arrive by road and for the transport situation to improve, and consequently the opportunity to take Leningrad swiftly was lost. Moreover, Russian resistance stiffened with numerous partisan attacks on German supply lines, making life difficult for the invaders, and in August heavy rain turned the roads into quagmires. By September, Hitler, recognizing that Leningrad could not be taken quickly, ordered the withdrawal of the Panzer tank unit, Panzergruppe 4, to join the assault on Moscow, leaving the Luftwaffe with the impossible task of trying to take the city. Van Creveld concludes that the strategy of the attack was fatally flawed at the outset: ‘It seems certain that Army Group North’s best chance for capturing Leningrad came around the middle of July, when Reinhardt’s corps had penetrated to within eighty miles of the city. At this time, however, supply difficulties ruled out any immediate resumption of the offensive.’ By the time any attack was possible, the citizens of Leningrad had built a series of fortifications, including anti-tank ditches, trenches and reinforced concrete emplacements that proved all but impenetrable during the siege, which lasted two and a half years and became one of the most deadly in human history.

German Logistics – Rail in Russia II

This is a German class 52 Kriegslok built in Vienna in 1943 and regauged to Russian 5ft gauge.

Soviet Railways1941

The middle group, aimed at Moscow and led by Field Marshal von Bock, was by far the strongest force. While initially its supply difficulties were the least pronounced of the three army groups because it straddled the main Warsaw-Moscow railway that remained undamaged, they were to play a crucial role in the army’s failure to reach Moscow. Indeed, the progress of the central army group was initially even more impressive than that of its counterpart to the north. The strategy was to create a series of pincer movements with Smolensk, about halfway to Moscow, as the target for the first stage of operations, but the usual difficulties of roads being blocked by streams of infantry and of insufficient railway capacity soon became apparent. There was a shortage of petrol exacerbated by the higher consumption of lorries on the atrocious roads and of spares, especially tyres, whereas on the railways there were the customary bottlenecks at the gauge changeover points. However, by and large there was reasonable progress until the Germans attempted to build up a supply base for the final attack on Moscow. Then it became clear that there was insufficient capacity to launch the assault on the Russian capital. Bock needed thirty trains per day to build up stocks whereas, at best, he was getting eighteen. Just as in the north, Hitler then changed the game plan, diverting resources – a tank unit, Panzergruppe 3 – to the south, along with 5,000 tons of lorry capacity, to ensure that Kiev could be taken. It was a terrible mistake. While Ukraine was important in terms of resources – wheat, coal and oil – Moscow was the centre of the nation’s communications and had the Germans been able to block it off, the Russians would no longer have been able to use the rail lines to transport troops between the north and south.

With the help of the extra panzers, Kiev soon fell but then another mistake resulted in the move eastwards being undertaken too hastily. Already the south group, which had been charged with taking Kiev and then crossing the Dnieper to capture the coalfields of Donetz and invading the Crimea, had been beset by wet weather that knocked out half its motor transport. Progress was also slowed by fiercer resistance from Russian partisans than faced by the other two groups. Once Kiev had been encircled, the eastward move resumed on 1 October but it was greatly hampered by the destruction of the bridges over the Dnieper, which forced supplies to be shipped across the river. The Germans took over sections of the Russian railways but they were in a poor state and during October barely a quarter of scheduled trains arrived at the two easternmost railheads. Chaos on the Polish railways further back on the line of communication added to the supply difficulties. Therefore, the decision to resume the offensive proved premature as, without any effective railway support, there was no hope of reaching the Donetz Basin with its mineral riches before winter set in. Although the Germans captured Rostov in late November, their supply lines were overextended and they subsequently lost the town, the first time the German advance had been successfully repelled.

The attack by the centre group on Moscow finally began on 2 October after the Panzer division returned from Kiev, but it was too little, too late. One unit reached the suburbs, but the Germans’ strength fell far short of the numbers needed to take the capital. There was a final hopeless attack on 1 December, which had no chance of success because of the lack of resources. The Red Army, which had the advantage of ski troops, counter-attacked, pushing the Germans back sixty miles by January, not only removing the immediate threat to their capital but, even more importantly in terms of morale, achieving their first large-scale success over the invading forces.

By the winter, therefore, all three prongs of the German advance were at a standstill far short of their objectives, and with little likelihood of achieving them. The Germans had to adapt to a war of attrition, for which they were not prepared, and which ultimately would be their undoing. As van Creveld concludes, ‘the German invasion of the Soviet Union was the largest military operation of all time, and the logistic problems involved of an order of magnitude that staggers the imagination’. Yet, although the means at the disposal of the Wehrmacht were modest, the Germans came closer to their aims than might have been expected, which van Creveld attributes ‘less to the excellence of the preparations than to the determination of troops and commanders to give their all’, making do with whatever means were made available to them. Indeed, during the initial phase of the attack, the supply shortages were greatly alleviated by the armies living off the land in the traditional manner, but once the frost set in, the conditions not only made transportation more difficult but the required level of supplies increased greatly. The most notorious failing was the lack of provision for winter coats and other cold-weather equipment for the troops advancing on Moscow, which resulted in thousands of men, fighting in their summer gear, freezing to death in the cold. There is much debate among historians as to whether this equipment was available or not, but van Creveld is convinced this is irrelevant because there were no means to deliver it: ‘The railroads, hopelessly inadequate to prepare the offensive on Moscow and to sustain it after it had started, were in no state to tackle the additional task of bringing up winter equipment.’

Ultimately, the Russian invasion was a step too far for the Germans, who even with everything in their favour and better preparation would probably not have succeeded simply because of the size of the task – the territory to be captured was some twenty times the size of the area conquered in western Europe and yet the German army deployed only 10 per cent more men and 30 per cent more tanks. Hitler’s dithering and his changes in strategy, and the dogged resistance of the Russians, often using guerrilla tactics, undermined the advance further and made failure inevitable, but supply delays played a vital, if not decisive, role. The German supply lines were simply extended beyond their natural limit, as the optimism of the HQ generals who had prepared the assault came up against the reality of the Russian steppe. The effect of the logistical shortfalls was not just practical but extended to the morale of the troops. Arguments between different sections of the military over the need for transport led the Luftwaffe to protect their supply trains with machine-gun-toting guards ready to fire not at Russian partisans but at German troops keen to get hold of their equipment.

Throughout the campaign, the Red Army troops retained the advantages of fighting on their own territory, which had proved crucial to all defending armies since the start of the railway age. Cleverly, rather than building up huge supply dumps that risked being captured by the enemy, the Russian Army supplied its troops directly from trains at railway stations, a task which required a level of flexibility and operational experience of the particular lines that would never have been available to an invading force. The Russians had, too, ensured that they retained most of their rolling stock by transporting it eastwards in anticipation of the German attack, with the result that the railways still in their control enjoyed a surfeit of locomotives and wagons. According to Westwood, ‘by 1943, the Russian railway mileage had decreased by forty per cent, but the locomotive stock by only fifteen per cent’.

Stalin, unlike Hitler, had long recognized the value of the railways and thanks to an extensive programme of investment in the interwar period the Russian system was in a much better state than at the onset of the previous war. While Hitler had been counting on the Russian system breaking down under the strain of retreating troops, it held up remarkably well. Indeed, the smooth running of the Russian railways was instrumental in allowing the rapid wholesale transfer of much of the nation’s industry during the early days of the war from threatened western areas to the remote east, an evacuation conducted so efficiently that even frequent bombardment was unable to disrupt it. At times traffic was so great that signalling systems were ignored and trains simply followed one another down the track almost nose to tail.

Russian railwaymen were effectively conscripted as martial law was imposed on the railway system and those who failed in their jobs were liable to find themselves in front of a firing squad – but then so was anyone else. Later in the war, however, Stalin, grateful for the railway workers’ efforts, created a series of special medals for railway workers, including one for ‘Distinguished Railway Clerk’, presumably for issuing tickets to war widows while under fire. The Russians laid a staggering 4,500 miles of new track during the war, including a section of line that supplied the defenders at Stalingrad. The railways were crucial, too, to the defence of both Leningrad and Moscow. When all the railway lines to Leningrad were cut off by September 1941 – the Finns blocked communications from the north as they were fighting with the Germans – the ‘death’ road across the frozen Lake Ladoga, so called because of the dangers of using it, became the last lifeline to the beleaguered city and was supplied from trains. Towards the end of the siege a railway was built across the ice, like on Lake Baikal in the Russo-Japanese War, but since the territory around the south of the lake was soon regained by the Russians, it was never actually used.

In Moscow, a circular line had been built around the city just before the war connecting the existing lines stretching fan-like out of the city and this proved vital in maintaining links between different parts of the country after the Germans cut off most of the main lines. When the Red Army went on the offensive, the Russian railway troops regauged thousands of miles of line – indeed some sections of track were regauged numerous times as territory was won and lost – including parts of the Polish and German rail networks. Indeed, Stalin travelled to the Potsdam peace conference in a Russian train.

The need for effective railways during the invasion was made all the greater because of that great barrier to smooth transport, mud, whose impact on the outcome of the war cannot be underestimated. Not only was it a frequent obstacle on the roads, but at times it even prevented tanks from moving. Undoubtedly, better roads would have improved the supply situation but not solved it. As Deighton suggests, ‘the virtual absence of paved roads meant that mud was an obstacle on a scale never encountered in Western Europe’. Only more railways with greater capacity could have tipped the balance, something that was not within Hitler’s ability to change. Each of the three army groups stalled after initial advances as they waited for the infantry to catch up, allowing the Russians to regroup or even counter-attack. Even if Hitler, as some of his generals recommended, had decided to focus all his forces on one target, Moscow, the lack of logistical capacity, especially railways, would have saved the city from invasion.

The failure to complete the invasion before the winter of 1941-2 set in proved to be the turning point of the war. There would be big battles such as Stalingrad and Kursk, and the siege of Leningrad would continue, but essentially the German advance was checked along a vast but not entirely stable front that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and when the war of movement resumed, it was a westward push by the Red Army rather than any continued advance by the Germans.


As Chief of the Army General Staff (O.K.H), General Kurt Zeitzler was very much the prime mover of Zitadelle, being permitted by Hitler to draft the documentation and oversee its detailed planning. Although initially very much the vocal champion of the offensive, he was concerned about the continuing delays. By June, he began to express public doubts about continuing with Zitadelle.

Three days later, convinced that events in the East no longer required his presence, Hitler gave the order to close down Werewolf, his Russian headquarters at Vinnitsa in the western Ukraine, and return to Rastenburg. The flight to East Prussia was made via Smolensk and the headquarters of Army Group Centre, where Hitler, with Zeitzler in tow, arrived shortly after midday on 13 March, to confer with Field Marshal von Kluge. In expectation of gaining some insight into the Führer’s thinking on the expected wide-ranging summer offensive, von Kluge and his staff expressed surprise at the seeming modesty of his aspirations. When asked about his intentions for the coming campaign, Hitler revealed that there would be no offensive campaign in the summer of 1943. The Ostheer would hold the line and conduct merely limited operations in support of that objective.

The primary purpose of his visit however, was not to discuss strategy but to assess the progress of the step-by-step retreat of Colonel General Walter Model’s Ninth Army from the Rzhev salient. The retreat was reaching its climax and the Ninth Army’s availability for employment in the proposed early, limited summer offensive, was the key to its execution and success. Hitler, until little more than a month before, had been consistently stubborn in his refusal to abandon this most forward German position on the road to Moscow. Its retention continued to pose a symbolic, if not an actual threat to the Soviet capital, which lay just 112 miles to the east. As such, the Rzhev salient maintained the fiction that a future German assault on Moscow remained a possibility. Although the Red Army had been most vigorous in its attempts to destroy the salient throughout 1942, the very skilful German defence of the position had stood as a rock in the face of numerous bloody and abortive Soviet assaults. Despite the losses inflicted on the Red Army, the Rzhev salient nevertheless tied down very extensive German forces at a time when demands for manpower from other sectors dictated that it should be abandoned to allow the front line to be shortened, permitting those divisions deployed therein to be released and made available for employment elsewhere. Such had been the constant refrain of Zeitzler in the weeks following the encirclement of Sixth Army. Hitler, unsurprisingly, would have none of it, until in the days following von Paulus’ surrender at Stalingrad, events fortuitously conspired to permit Zeitzler to get his way, by putting to the Führer an offer that given the circumstances, he could hardly refuse.

With the beginning of the New Year and even before the end at Stalingrad, the Army Chief of Staff had privately concluded that the Ostheer would have little choice but to adopt a strategic defensive in the East in 1943. He also realised that the general weakness of the Wehrmacht precluded the adoption of a purely passive defence that would grant the ever-growing Red Army the luxury of assaulting the German line at any time and point. Whereas Hitler was prepared to ridicule and dismiss the increasingly pessimistic intelligence summaries of the Fremde Heer Ost, Zeitzler viewed the dispassionate reports of Colonel Gehlen’s department about the Red Army’s burgeoning military strength with growing alarm. It forecast that by the spring of 1943 Soviet manpower would total some 5.7 million combatants deployed in 62 armies, three tank armies and 28 armoured and mechanized corps. This in turn would translate into some 400 infantry divisions, 194 infantry brigades and 48 mechanised brigades. At this time it was estimated Soviet industry was producing about 1,500 tanks per month – once again an underestimate – to which would need to be added the growing numbers of armoured fighting vehicles being delivered by the Allies through the Lend-Lease programme.

Zeitzler concluded that the only solution lay in the execution of a limited offensive by the Ostheer, the purpose of which – through the destruction of large numbers of Soviet formations – would be to neutralise the Red Army sufficiently to stabilize the Eastern Front for the remainder of the summer. Mindful that OKW already had designs on ‘his’ mobile formations in the event of an Allied landing in Europe, it was imperative that such an operation be launched as early as possible before they were inevitably pulled out for service in the West. Already convinced in his own mind that only an offensive solution, albeit limited, could resolve the impasse in the East, Zeitzler was present at Rastenburg on 6 February when von Manstein obligingly volunteered his own tentative ‘forehand’ proposal for the same.

Given his daily proximity to Hitler, Zeitzler was party to the wider factors impinging on the Führer’s thinking in a way that the Field Marshal was not. Sensitive to Hitler’s own predilection for offensive solutions and mindful of the German leader’s continuing loss of confidence in the wake of Stalingrad, the Chief of Staff of the Army was prompted to exploit his own present high standing and seize the opportunity offered by these discussions to kill two birds with one stone.

With von Manstein’s departure, Zeitzler pointed out to Hitler the twin advantages that would accrue from withdrawing the Ninth Army from the Rzhev salient. Not only would it shorten the front line, thereby making the new one more economical to defend, but in addition, the one army command, five general commands and twenty-one divisions, including three panzer and two motorised infantry thus released would form an operational reserve. This could be drawn upon for employment in the limited offensive ‘forehand’ option outlined by the Field Marshal, to be directed at some as yet unspecified sector of the Soviet front, in the late spring/early summer. This was a horse trade Hitler could both understand, and to which he could assent. So taken was he with the possibilities opened up by Zeitzler’s proposal that the order for the withdrawal of Ninth Army and elements of Fourth Army from the Rzhev salient was sanctioned by him that very night, but on the strict proviso that the forces released be retained as an operational reserve for future offensive employment.

Enacting long prepared plans to address such an order, the systematic withdrawal of the 250,000 men of the Ninth Army thus began in conditions of the greatest secrecy on 1 March. When Hitler arrived at Zaporozhye to confer with von Manstein on the 10th, Operation Buffel was still underway and moving towards a successful conclusion. In the meantime, it had also become apparent that halting the Soviet Central Front in its westward advance along the Sumy-Rylsk line at the end of February had served to generate a huge Soviet salient projecting deeply into Army Group Centre’s position. This provided the Red Army with a superb jumping-off point for future offensive operations. It was not lost on either Hitler or Zeitzler that the numerous Soviet forces now deeply echeloned within the position and being reinforced by other units flowing into the salient on a daily basis, was creating the optimum target for the limited and early offensive they wished to launch against the Red Army. Furthermore, the formations of Ninth Army – which by the 25 March would include fifteen infantry, three panzer and two motorized infantry divisions – along with the SS Cavalry division, redeploying into the sector of 2nd Panzer Army and earmarked for the planned ‘forehand’ operation, was now ideally placed to provide the strike force against the northern neck of this salient.

Thus, by 10 March, Hitler and Zeitzler had already agreed in principle to the destruction of the Kursk salient as being the primary focus of early German offensive action once the dry weather returned and the mobile formations had been rested and refitted. On this occasion, Hitler took an uncharacteristic back seat in the actual planning of the operation, devolving oversight of it and the drawing up of the necessary directives to Zeitzler. The continuing loss of nerve he had suffered in consequence of the Stalingrad débâcle had resulted in his willingness to defer to the advice of the professional military, and Zeitzler was more than happy to embrace the opportunity. So the primary force behind the planning for the operation was the Army Chief of Staff. General Warlimont of the OKW was later to observe how Zeitzler certainly viewed Zitadelle – at least in this early period – as very much his offensive.

In addition to those other factors that prompted Zeitzler to embrace the ‘forehand option’, he was all too aware that there were many in the senior ranks of the army who still regarded him as a relative parvenu. Many believed that he was promoted above his station, and held none of the advantages of seniority, experience or authority of his highly-regarded predecessor, General Franz Halder. There was a strong sense following his appointment on 24 September 1942 that Zietzler was very much Hitler’s man, having been selected because he would be a willing and pliable instrument in executing the latter’s will with respect to the conduct of the war in the East. Certainly his initial address to his staff officers at OKH – where he demanded that they must ‘believe in the Führer and in his method of command’ – seemed to bear out this perception. In his first year of office it was apparent that ‘he enjoyed Hitler’s confidence, but not necessarily that of his own general staff subordinates or of the army groups in the East, for he tended to be a mouthpiece and telephonic link between them and the Führer’. That being said, he was no mere poodle, as there is ample documentary evidence to show that when push came to shove he could, and did stand up to Hitler, thereby gaining his respect. It is against this backdrop that we should understand his advocacy for Zitadelle. Its successful execution would clearly do much to enhance his credibility in the eyes of those senior army commanders in the East who at present still nursed doubts about his capacity to exercise the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

This is not to say that Hitler was divorced from the planning process, as has been implied elsewhere. It is clear that both men were in frequent discussions between 6 February and 13 March, and that Operational Order No.5, presented by Zeitzler to Hitler for his signature on his return to Rastenburg – while produced by Zeitzler and thus reflective of his own agenda – was nevertheless thoroughly in accord with Hitler’s own wishes and desires.