The Russian Army before World War 1
The Russian army has had a long history with many successes such as those in the Russo-Swedish war and in particular over Napoleon. However in 1906 its fortunes had reached something of a nadir. Humiliated by defeat against Japan in the Russo-Japanese war, even its staunchest supporters recognised that change needed to come; particularly given the European situation where Tsarist Russia was aligned with Republican France against the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. This post details the issues it faced and how prepared it was for World War 1.
Political reforms were taking place. The revolution of 1905 convinced the Tsar and his ministers that change was necessary and as a result, a Duma was created, freedom of speech and assembly was granted and even restrictions against the Jews were lifted.
The industrial advances of the 1800’s and early 1900’s had had a significant impact on war making. Artillery could fire faster and at much longer ranges. Infantry fire power had rapidly increased and the influence of cavalry was much diminished. In the Russo-Japanese war, Russian officers recognised that small groups of Japanese infantry had defeated charging Cossacks but rather than accepting this as a result of the increase in infantry fire power, they argued that the Cossacks had been cowardly and henceforth were made to rely on the sabre. The supply situation was so chaotic that even three years after the war soldiers still did not have their iron rations. Such events convinced even the staunchest generals against change that it was now necessary.
Political reform also coincided with rapid economic growth. Years of railway construction and foreign investment had an impact as well as an extra 2,500 million roubles of government spending. Russia reduced her dependence on foreign investment from a half in 1904-1905 to an eighth in 1914. A clear sign of this growth is seen from the fact that government revenue nearly doubled in the last 15 years before WW1 to 3,500 million roubles.
There was a clear division in the officer class. Unlike many Western European countries, the army was a refuge for social mobility. Russia did not have a large middle class and so needed ambitious peasants to fill lower ranked officer positions. Attempts had been made to confine officer posts to the nobility in the past but these attempts had usually broken down due to a lack of numbers.
This led to officers who sought to change the system, by applying the lessons of the Russo-Japanese war. However, there were strong centres of reaction; notably the artillery and the cavalry, notably represented by the Grand Dukes Mikhailovitch and Nicholas. For example by 1906 it was clear than an 8 gun battery was too large and that due to advances in rate of fire, a 6 gun battery could do the same job. Whilst the artillerists agreed this was so, albeit reluctantly, they were not eager to act. In part this was because an 8 gun battery was commanded by a senior officer whereas a 6 gun battery would be commanded by a captain. With promotions and pensions at stake, the artillerists obstructed the matter so that by 1914, the batteries were still 8 gun affairs, which contributed to the infamous shell shortage.
Whilst the economic boom provided the army with a wealth of material, it still had to adapt to warfare in the 20th century. It had to change a social and administrative heritage of backwardness. Warfare had changed. Armies were larger. It was no longer enough to drill soldiers on a parade ground. They needed more complex skills. Officers needed trigonometry more than courage and a body of highly educated officers was needed to study war in its higher aspects; namely a general staff. Even so, Russian soldiers were taught two manoeuvres; forward and back. It was feared that anything for more complicated would cause confusion, particularly under fire.
The disasters of 1905 led to the creation of a general staff but it was small and its functions were not well defined. It had a torrid time trying to make any impact on an army with a large bureaucratic structure where administrators who could work the system had the most success.
These wrangles discredited the General Staff in the eyes of the Duma as after 3 years there was little progress. As such, this fuelled demands for a navy. Naval leaders appeared to have an air of competence that was lacking in army men. A navy was expensive however, at 40 million roubles a dreadnought. Army leaders combined to head off such demands but could not decide what to do with the money thus saved. Grand Duke Sergey, of the artillery, wanted more guns and Grand Duke Nicholas desired more cavalry.
It was said during the war that Russia lost battles in part because of a lack of heavy artillery. The truth of the matter is that Russia had plenty of heavy guns, but the vast majority were situated in the fortresses. Furthermore, they declared that high trajectory artillery was a ‘coward’s weapon’ and that infantry should not expect artillery to lob shells behind fortifications when they could charge them. The General Staff sent a representative to high level artillery meetings but they deliberately made discussions highly technical until the representative disappeared.
To try to resume progress, the Tsar appointed Sukhomlinov as Chief of the General Staff. He has had something of a bad press, being regarded corrupt and incompetent. The government arrested him in 1915 for corruption, as did the Provisional Government though ironically the Bolsheviks released him.
However the case against him is not strong. He made several enemies amongst the upper class officers by promoting lower class officers, pruning the privileges of the Guard Corps and by taking over some of the tasks of the Inspectors General. It was said by artillerists that he really wanted 6 gun batteries in order to make posts for his lower class clients. His assistant, Danilov, was regarded as an ‘agrarian revolutionary’. To continue his reforms, he needed better control of the promotions machinery. Higher promotions were a matter for the higher attestations committee and as such, outside his remit. Promotions lower down were a matter for the war ministry which he was able to seize via intrigue.
However in wartime, power moved from the administrators to the commanders in the field and military districts but both sides would try to cancel each other out through promotions. It was often such that a commander would hardly speak to his chief of staff but would have excellent relations with his quartermaster general. In I army, its commander Rennenkampf was an aristocratic cavalry man who refused to speak to his chief of staff Mileant but had good relations with his quarter-master-general Bayov. Both sides would seek to discredit opposing appointments but officers, if dismissed, would be caught in each other’s safety net. Divisional commanders, dismissed for inefficiency, could end up commanding corps. This did not help the army improve the quality of its officers. It was said that the army had the power to dismiss but not to appoint.
Sukhominlov’s reforms were aided by Russia’s economic recovery and between 1909 and 1913, some 3,000 million roubles were found for the army. By 1913-1914, the Russian army was receiving more money than the German army though it is likely the German army got a lot more for its money than the Russian army. The Germans noted with alarm in 1914 that the Russian recovery from the disasters of the Russo-Japanese war was almost complete.
It was said that Sukhomlinov was corrupt but the reality was that there was a good deal of confusion how the money should be spent. Often the infrastructure was not in place for a particular project. For example, money given by the Duma for ship building was in part spent on ice breakers, dredgers and light houses. It is said that he fell victim to development economics rather than corruption.
There were many obstacles to reform which hindered the Russian army. Sukhomlinov proposed the creation of reserve divisions, formed by detaching a group of officers and men from each corps and using reservists. Germany had such a system in which an army corps could form a reserve division. This was a good system if one did not want the expense of maintaining many divisions in peacetime but many Russian generals regarded these divisions as useless and artillerists tried to ensure that guns were not ‘wasted’ on them.
He also suggested that the Russian fortresses should be raised. In the late nineteenth century, fortresses were built in western Russia and Poland to offset the difference between the Russian and German mobilisations. However, by 1910, the fortresses were obsolete and were often made of brick. Heavy artillery and even field guns could destroy them. His opponents were aghast and demanded that they should be built up, rather than broken up. World war one showed the futility of this as all fortresses fell in a matter of days, with few exceptions such as Pryzmysl which was really defended by mud and Verdun which was defended from trenches. His opponents were eventually successful and by 1912 the programme of razing had to be abandoned. This meant that even more heavy artillery was placed in fortresses rather than for use by the field army. In 1915 when the fortresses were supposed to save Russia, they collapsed in a matter of days and the Germans captured hundred of guns and millions of shells whilst the Russian army, lacking mobile heavy artillery, could only retreat.
Planning for War
The saving of the fortresses had an impact of Russia’s plans for war. Russian fortresses were thought essential as the Germans could mobilise far quicker than the Russians, who planned to situate most of their troops well inside Russia. Poland was to be abandoned as it jutted out into Central Power territory. However, this lack of action was deemed inadmissible by 1909 as the Bosnian crisis had shown there was strong hostility between Russia and Germany.
In 1910, Sukhomlinov and Danilov rewrote this plan. They felt the Russian army needed to take to the offensive as early as possible to save the French from defeat. Attacking from Poland was risky to counter attack from East Prussia or Galicia so one of these bastions needed to be taken out. Austria-Hungary would not influence the first period of the war so East Prussia was chosen as the target. East Prussia could be attacked from the South and the East but the two were separated by a line of lakes. Danilov allotted four of Russia’s seven armies to an East Prussian offensive, leaving three for Austria-Hungary.
There was a huge outcry as commanders in the military districts and Sukhomlinov’s enemies opposed it. Some felt it would be better to take out Austria-Hungary first as she was the weakest opponent. Also, some argued that the Southern army could be taken in the rear by Austria-Hungary as early as the 20th day of mobilisation. Such ideas were pure fantasy (although sometimes replicated by the Austro-Hungarian General Staff) as by this day, they were a considerable distance behind their own borders. Nevertheless, the opponents succeeded in changing the plan. Two of the four armies allotted to East Prussia were now moved south to attack Austria-Hungary. This was dangerous because the two missing armies were intended to provide flank protection (from the fortresses of Konigsberg and Thorn) for the two attacking armies. Their absence meant that coordination between the two armies needed to be very strong to prevent the Germans from attacking each one separately.
Thus by 1912 the Russian army was split between the two operations; against East Prussia and Austria-Hungary. Russian weakness was not shown by Danilov’s plan, but rather the upsetting of it as it highlighted the lack of unity in the army.
In conclusion it has been shown that Russia was not economically backward as vast amounts of money were made available to the army before the war. It suffered from administrative mismanagement and a lack of understanding as to what the next war would be like. It also suffered from an ideological split between the aristocratic side of which Grand Duke Nicholas was a member and between the Sukhomlinovsky who were for reform. This had an impact of the equipment the army was provided, such as a lack of mobile heavy artillery, and through its war plans as the two operations were separate and neither had enough strength to ensure success. This substantially contributed to the Russian wartime defeat.
Much of this work is taken from Norman Stone’s ‘The Eastern Front 1914-1917’.