Russia in WW1

Russia in the First World War

The Russian army in 1914 was considerably larger than that of Germany at 5 million men against the 4.5 million of Germany. Even when the 3.35 million men of the Austro – Hungarian empire are included in the total, only war on a single front would give the Central Powers enough strength to attack Russia with any chance of success. Moreover the Russian population of 167 million would be able to continue to supply the army with young men at a far higher rate than combined populations of Germany ( 67 million) and Austro – Hungary (49.9 million)

The Franco – Russian treaty of alliance of 1892 ensured that Germany would have to fight a disadvantaageous war on two fronts unless a quick victory against France would allow the Germans and their allies to turn Eastwards before the Russians could fully mobilise. The Schleiffen plan was based on this premise and German planners failed to consider the effect of Russian army reforms after 1904. The Russian army was riven by internal disputes and factionalism, mainly between the elite of the aristocratically inclined cavalry arm, in the form of Grand Duke Nicholas, Inspector General of Cavalry, and Sukhomlinov, the Minister of War, a reformer whose efforts were undermined in the years before 1914. The General Staff existed only as an administration department of the Ministry of War and was largely ignored by the heads of the individual arms of the army, with the result that few officers were capable of undertaking staff work, despite lessons learned in the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-5.

Russian trenches in the forests of Sarikamish. (Winter 1914/15 Caucasus front)

Russian artillery doctrine was deeply flawed with great store being placed on fortesses and their enormous guns, the bulk of the funds granted for artillery development being spent on fixed fortress guns rather than modern field artillery (In 1906 700 million roubles were proposed for expediture on fortress guns against a mere 113 million roubles to be spent on field artillery,despite the Russian plans for a war against Germany being based, like those of the French, on an invasion of Germany).

Moreover there was almost no shared concept of operations between the infantry and field artillery. The former, despised by the latter, determinedly resisting attempts to subject them to infantry orders. This bias had the result that Suknomlinov’s orders that most of the Russian fortresses should be abandoned and the money spent on an army fit for mobile operations were simply ignored.

The Russian officer corps itself was a curious one, split between aristocrats and men of lesser birth with nearly two fifths of the ranks below colonel held by men of lower class origin. The promotion of lower class officers to General rank was rare but both Sukhomlinov and those who opposed him used the promotion system to put placemen in positions of influence rather than promoting on merit. In this way the officer system itself was deeply flawed.

Russian investment in it’s armed forces was considerable. outspending the German investment in naval development by 1913-14, although naval expenditure meant that, as in Great Britain and Germany, it was at the expense of larger investment in the armies. Despite this idea that the Russian army was both ill equpped and starved of equipment are not really true.

Russian industry was capable of competing with that of Germany and Austro-Hungary and in the period after 1910 the Russian armed forces continued to expand with the announcement in 1914 of the “Great Programme” which would build on Russian economic growth to produce a standing regular army of just under 2 million men, three times larger than that of Germany..

(For further reading see Norman Stone’s excellent book: The Eastern Front 1914-1917 , Hodder and Stoughton 1975, Penguin Books 1998)


East Prussia

The Russian mobilisation was swifter than envisaged by German plans, aided by the fact that two fifths of the Russian army were already stationed in the west before the war started, and both I and II Russian armies were ready for deployment by mid August 1914. On paper the Russian forces, at 208 infantry battalions and 228 cavalry squadrons, facing just 100 battalions of the German VIII army in East Prussia, were well placed to attack westward as envisaged by the Russian “Plan 19”. Early indications were that the Russians would do well and first contact,in the Gumbinnen area was a victory for the Russians. Prittwitz, the commander of VIII army lost his nerve and planned a withdrawal. He was sackrd and replaced by Hindenberg and his chief of staff, Ludendorf.

The Russian I and II armies, already disorganised, with little or no communications either with each other or Russian headquarters, and with no real knowledge of the German intentions or wherabouts, blundered on, with an increasing gap between them, into what would laterbe somewhat erroneously called “The battle of Tannenberg” by the Germans..

On the 27th of August confused contact between Samsonov’s II army and the Germans led to the Russians completely misreading the tactical situation and blundering forward and opening a flank to encircling German forces led by two of the German’s most able commanders, Francois and Mackenson. By the 28th Russian withdrawal was impossible. II army was destroyed and over 100,000 Russian prisoners were taken and only a 10,000 escaped to withdraw across the border . Samsonov alone in the woods,shot himself,

Ludendorf then turned his attention to Rennenkamp’s I army and in the battle of the Masurian lakes confused fighting led to a German tactical success with 30,000 Rusiians taken prisoner and the successfulo withdrawal of the I army back across the border.

Ludendorf would laud these actions as great strategic successes but the reality was that German staffing and command and control told against Russian inactivity and poor leadership, and the victories were only tactical. The Russians would soon launch new attacks on East Prussia. What was shown was that frontal attacks were inevitably costly failures and circling flank attacks would set the pattern for fighting for 1914 and 1915. Unlike the Western front the Eastern front, as in the Second World War, would be dominated by the vast open space of Eastern Europe. Trenches would be few and the war would remain one of manouvre.

Ludendorf wanted to show the Eastern front as a decisive area of action to counter the view of Falkenheyn that the war could only be won once the British army in Flanders, on the Western front, was destroyed. (This view was mirrored by Douglas Haig who argued, correctly, that only the defeat of the German army in Flanders could end the war.).

The Carpathian Front

Russian attacks against the Austro-Hungarian armies were marked by the extraordinary fact that the Austro-Hungarians were even more badly organised and led than the Russians. A ramshakle empire in which fifteen different languages were spoken ruled by an elderly monarch, Franz Joseph 1st, who had ruled for ten days short of 68 years when he died on the 21st November 1916, the beaurocracy and institutionalised lethargy of it’s administration was indicative of an edifice at the end ot its natural lifespan.

The mobilisation of the Austro-Hungarian forces was botched and delayed while the Austrian Chief of Staff, Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, dithered over whether to invade Serbia and in what force, disrupting the railway plans by changing his mind once the armies were actually moving. Conrad’s grandiose planning was usually both over optimisic and unrealistic, taking little notice of either difficulties caused by terrain or the strength of the enemy. While his strategy was usually sound failure to recognise operational difficulties would result in the strength of the Austro-Hungarians being disasterously eroded in the first year of the war. During the Russian Brussilov offensive of 1916 Conrad would lose almost 1.5 million men. As the war continued the Austro-Hungarian army became increasingly reliant on the aid of Germany.

The army was officered mainly by Hungarians and Austrians while many soldiers, speaking neither language, were required to learn 100 words of German in order to understand basic instructions. Moreover many of the soldiers were slavs who spoke russian and felt a natural afinity with the enemy they were asked to fight.

While the German army would meet with considerable success on the east Prussian front the Austro-Hungarians would meet with a series of military disasters which would require the intervention of German forces on an almost continual basis. This relationship between the two nations seperate fronts would mark the first few years of the war on the Eastern front.

(The satirical novel “The Good Soldier Švejk” by the Czech humourist Jaroslav Hašek describes the adventures of a simple Czech soldier during the Austro-Hungarian administrative chaos in the First World War, and is well worth reading within the context of this article).

An Austro-Hungarian armoured train on the Carpathian front

The major problem for the Russians was their own inability to operate in a cohesive way. Only a fraction of men liable to call up prior to the war had been actually taken into the army, which could simply not cope with the influx of recruits. When war broke out the system broke down and after the war ended no figures could be produced for the numbers conscripted, or for the numbers which became casualties during the war, although a subsequent investigation by the Soviet Union arrived at a casualty figure in the region of 7 to 7.5 million, which is probably a realistic estimate.

Russian industry too was slow to react. Although Russia had the ability to manufacture war good the organisation of manufacturing was both corrupt and lacked efficiency. Shells, rifles and the other items required to prosecute the war were normally much cheaper if bought from Britain or the USA, although failures of both foreign and Russian contractors to deliver on time was to result in spectacular shortages of materiel in 1915.

What goods did arrive entered a chaotic logistic chain which struggled to reach any sort of ability to service the front line, hampered as it was by long and difficult lines of communication both from the seaports to the central logistic networks, and then from metropolitan Russia to the Western borders, with inadequate or non-existent rail links and roads.

One result was that, despite reasonable results against the Austrians with only the Germans on the Northern Front posing any real difficulty for the Russians, the whole Russian line carried out a confused withdrawal, pulling back behind the Vistula between August and September 1915. The basic problem the Russians faced was an inability to train new troops, organise offensive operations or supply the army with the materiel to carry out offensive operations. The French criticised the Russians for having an army no bigger than that of the French while having a vastly greater population. The French threatened to cut off supplies of war goods unless the Russians contributed more effort, a stance which resulted in possibly the oddest event on the Western Front, the arrival of two brigades of Russian troops, with a further two brigades sent to Salonica, travelling via the long sea route from Vladivostok via Saigon to France.

The fate of these troops would be a sad one, with the revolution in Russia and involvement in the French mutiny of 1917 leaving them both isolated and riven by internal disputes. These brigades were broken up after the Russian revolution and the mutinies after the Nivelle offensive. Nearly 2500 Russian volunteers then volunteered for a “Russian Legion of Honour” and fought on attached to the French Morrocan force, 373 winning the Crois de Guerre. The Russian military cemetery at Saint-Hilaire le Grand, on the Marne front, contains the remains of 1000 Russians killed on the Western front, and is the memorial for all 6,100 Russian soldiers who died on French soil.The cemetery and chapel are cared for by the French government. Some Russian soldiers are buried in CWGC cemeneries (There are at least two to be found in the Gouzeaucourt New British Cemetery and two more in Crucifix Corner cemetery at Villers-Bretonmeux).

Russian military cemetery – Saint-Hilaire le Grand

After the revolution of October 1917 the Russian Army continued to oppose the Central Powers under the Kerensky government, but following the siezing of power by the Bolsheviks the Army collapsed and the Germans dictated punative terms favourable to themselves under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

As Russia turned in on itself, consumed by a bitter civil war and gradual descent into the police state of the USSR the German Army was free to withdraw it’s divisions on the Eastern front, transferring 60 to the Western front to try and force the issue by a massive attack on the Allies in the Spring of 1918, in a last desperate gamble to win before American troops reached France in numbers that would inevitably led to defeat by 1919.

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