German soldiers Battle of Marne WWI

WWI—Part Six: Tsarist Russia and the War

Read Part Five here.

In the bloody struggle for world domination Russia entered as a second-rate partner of the Entente. The apparent strength of the Russian Empire concealed its internal contradictions and fundamental weaknesses. Russian tsarism combined elements of a semifeudal, semicolonial country, heavily dependent upon foreign capital, with the aggressive characteristics of imperialism. Indeed, despite the economic backwardness of Russia, which never exported a single kopek of capital, Lenin included it as one of the five main imperialist countries.

German soldiers Battle of Marne WWIHowever, Russia’s war aims were of a regional and provincial character, reflecting its relative weakness. Tsarism did not aspire to dominate Europe but to seize the Turkish Straits and lay hands on Constantinople in order to turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake and allow its navy free passage into the Mediterranean. It wished to expand its military-bureaucratic domination into Polish Galicia and dominate the Balkans at the expense of Austria, and to strengthen its stranglehold over the Caucasus by the incorporation Armenia at the expense of Turkey.

Britain and France were quite happy to accept these things, which did not affect their own interests. But there was a price to be paid. Threatened by the seemingly unstoppable German advance, the French imperialists were urgently demanding that the Russian army should attack in the East in order to relieve pressure on France and divert German forces from their goal: Paris.

French imperialism was pressing Russia to begin hostilities as a means of diverting German forces to the East. Since tsarist Russia was heavily in debt to French finance capital, there was no question of refusing to comply with the request from Paris, which was really more like a direct order. The men in Paris were now calling in their debts. Russia paid with the blood of her people for her right to be a member of the rich man’s club of imperialism.

wwi-eastern-frontOf course, the Russian ruling clique had its own interests in the War. It was greedy to make territorial gains in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Dardanelles. The Russian bankers and capitalists smelled the tempting aroma of profits. For their part, the Russian general staff was eager to fight the Germans. But there was yet another reason for the entry of tsarist Russia into the War in August 1914, a pressing political reason.

The two years before the outbreak of war, Russia was in the throes of a new revolution. The workers had finally recovered from the defeat of the 1905 Revolution and had launched a wave of strikes and mass demonstrations. The influence of the Bolsheviks in the working class was growing exponentially. This revolutionary upsurge culminated in the great general strike of July 1914, which paralyzed more than four-fifths of St. Petersburg’s industrial, manufacturing, and commercial plants. One right-wing newspaper described the situation as revolutionary, saying “We live on a volcano.”

The outbreak of war in early August 1914 cut across all this. The class struggle was drowned in a wave of flag-waving patriotism.  When conscription orders were distributed in the capital, more than 95 percent of conscripts reported willingly for duty, most of them backward and illiterate peasants under the influence of the priest, and easy prey to patriotic propaganda. In the ranks of the tsarist army the workers were in a small minority. The voice of the revolutionaries was silenced by the din of patriotic slogans and hymns.

Underlying weakness

On paper, Russia was an awesome military force, and the mood of Russia’s ruling circles was one of optimism. In March 1914 an article appeared in the Russian press that was generally thought to be the work of the War Minister, Sukhomlinov. It said: “The army is not only large but excellently equipped. Russia has always fought on foreign soil and has always been victorious. Russia is no longer on the defensive. Russia is ready.” The cruel irony of these words was fully revealed before the end of the year.

The Russian army, though formidable on paper, was accustomed to fighting more backward peoples in the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was hopelessly inadequate to face the formidable forces of modern, industrial Germany. The inherent weakness of the Russian Army had been cruelly exposed by the war with Japan in 1904–5, which led directly to the Revolution of 1905–6. In the years of counterrevolution that followed the defeat of the revolution the monarchy, with the support of the bourgeoisie, had attempted to reform and modernize the army. But these reforms remained incomplete in 1914, when Russia faced a far more serious test.

Every army is a reflection of the society out of which it arises, and the Russian army was no exception. There were some very talented Russian officers, men like Aleksei Alekseyevich Brusilov. Years later the British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery expressed the opinion that Brusilov was one of the seven outstanding fighting commanders of World War I. But for every capable officer in the Russian army there were a dozen idle, cowardly, and inept aristocrats, promoted to leading positions of authority by virtue of favoritism and family connections.

At every step the army leadership was affected by the poisonous influence of the court clique, particularly the Tsarina, who constantly manipulated and intrigued to remove able men and replace them with her favorites. The deep contradictions in society were enormously exacerbated by the war, which not only turned the common soldiers and NCOs against their officers, but even drove a section of the latter to go over to the side of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. In the end the rottenness of the old regime undermined not only the army but the monarchy itself.

The former tsarist junior officer Tukhachevsky, the hero of the Civil War, was to become the most prominent leader of the Red Army. After the October Revolution Brusilov himself helped to organize the Red Army and served the Revolution loyally throughout the Civil War. When he died in Moscow in 1926 he was given a state funeral with full honors by the Bolsheviks. Tukhachevsky was not so fortunate. He was framed and murdered by Stalin in the notorious purges of 1937.

The Russian offensive

Under the command of Grand Duke Nicholas, the Russian Army entered the war with a total strength of 1.5 million men, with three million reservists—numerically more than a match for the German Army. In August 1914 two Russian armies marched into Germany through East Prussia and Austria via the Carpathians. In the beginning, the Russian Army was successful against both the Germans and Austrians.

No one could doubt the courage of the Russian soldiers who, when they ran out of ammunition, fought with their bayonets.  But in modern warfare the courage of the individual soldier is not necessarily the decisive factor. Despite all their bravery, the Russian soldiers were little more than cannon fodder. Their initial successes only served to mask profound problems in the Russian Army.

The real relation of forces in modern warfare is determined not by numbers alone but by equipment and supplies, modern weapons, the training of the troops, and the quality of the officers and NCOs. These factors, in turn, are determined by the relative level of industrial, technological, and cultural development of each country. Russia’s less developed industrial base and ineffective military leadership were glaringly exposed in the events that unfolded.

Thousands of Russian troops were sent to the front without proper equipment. They lacked everything:  weapons, ammunition, boots, and bedding. As many as a third of Russian soldiers were not issued a rifle. In late 1914 Russia’s general headquarters reported that 100,000 new rifles were needed each month, but that Russian factories were capable of producing less than half this number (42,000 per month). The soldiers, however, were well armed with prayers, as Russian Orthodox bishops and priests worked diligently to bless those about to go into battle, showering them generously with holy water from a bucket.

Initially, the Russian attack caused panic among the German civilian population. On all sides the cry went up, “The Cossacks are coming!” The alarm soon spread to the German general staff, which was so worried by the advances of the Russian Army into East Prussia that they moved two divisions from the Western Front to the Eastern Front. This was what gave the French the breathing space they needed at the Marne to stop the German advance on Paris. But the Germans need not have been so worried.

The Russian Army had 60 heavy artillery batteries while the German Army had 381. Russia had two machine guns per battalion. Germany had 36. Russian supplies were also very poor. The backwardness of Russian capitalism was shown by the deficiencies of military supplies and finances and the lack of munitions. The number of factories was simply too small for their production, while the lack of railway lines impeded the transportation of troops and supplies.

By December 1914, the Russian Army had 6,553,000 men. However, they only had 4,652,000 rifles. Untrained troops were ordered into battle without adequate arms or ammunition. And because the Russian Army had about one surgeon for every 10,000 men, many of its wounded soldiers died from wounds that would have been treated on the Western Front. With medical staff spread out across a 500-mile front, the likelihood of any Russian soldier receiving any medical treatment was close to zero. 

The Battle of Tannenberg

The two Russian armies in East Prussia were under the command of Generals Rennenkampf and Samsonov. Rennenkampf’s First Army was to converge with the Samsonov’s Second Army to give a two-to-one numerical superiority over the German Eighth Army. The plan began well. But relations between the two Russian generals were bad and communications between them poor.

The German Army under Ludendorff counterattacked, and by August 29 the Russian center, amounting to three army corps, was surrounded by Germans and trapped in the gloomy and impenetrable depths of the Tannenberg Forest with no means of escape. The Battle of Tannenberg lasted three days. General Samsonov attempted to retreat but found himself encircled by an immense German cordon that held the Russian forces in a vise-like grip. Most of his troops were slaughtered or captured. Only 10,000 of the 150,000 Russian soldiers managed to escape. Stunned by the extent of the catastrophe, General Samsonov shot himself.

The conduct of the Russian general staff at Tannenberg was indescribably appalling. Battle plans were sent out uncoded over the radio, and the Russian generals leading the offensive, Samsonov and von Rennenkampf, refused to communicate with each other. Incredibly, all through this battle, Rennenkampf did not lift a finger to help Samsonov and his troops, who he knew were being slaughtered by the Germans. In this battle alone the Russians lost 100,000 men in a single day. By the end of the battle, the Germans had annihilated half of the Russian Second Army.

The Germans, who lost only 20,000 men in the battle, were able to take more than 92,000 Russian prisoners. The German victory at Tannenberg set the stage for the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes one week later, where the reinforced German Eighth Army now faced only the Russian First Army and inflicted on it a crushing defeat. Despite more than threefold numerical superiority (250,000 Germans against 800,000 Russians), Russian losses were nine times larger than the German.

Among the Russian dead were a large number of officers who obligingly went into battle wearing their ceremonial uniforms, providing excellent targets for German snipers and machine gunners. By 1915, a Russian officer had an 82 percent chance of being killed. In some parts of the front their life expectancy was only four or five days. A German machine gunner wrote in a letter: “they just kept coming and we just kept shooting. Periodically, we had to push the bodies aside in order to fire at the fresh waves.”

wwi-picture of august von mackensenThe German Ninth Army, led by August von Mackensen, attacked the Russian Second Army, under General Smirnov, near the Polish village of Bolimów, lying on the railway line connecting Łódź and Warsaw. This battle saw the first attempt to use large-scale use of poison gas. On New Year’s Eve the Germans fired eighteen thousand xylyl bromide gas shells at the Russians. But the poisonous cloud was blown back towards their own lines. The gas caused few, if any, casualties because the cold weather caused it to freeze, rendering it ineffective. But a fatal precedent had been established.

The failure of the gas attack caused the German commanders to call it off. In response, the Russians launched a counterattack with 11 divisions. They were cut to pieces by the German artillery, suffering a further 40,000 casualties. No army could withstand the huge number of casualties that Russia suffered in the first ten months of the war. In total, they lost around 250,000 men—an entire army—as well as vast amounts of military equipment. Thus the Russian offensive in East Prussia ended in a disgraceful rout.

The fall of Warsaw

Russian offensives on the Southwestern Front were more successful, allowing them to push across the Carpathians and into Galicia.  These spectacular celebrated victories were in stark contrast to the catastrophic debacles on the other fronts. But here the Russian Army was facing Austro-Hungarian, rather than German troops. The Russian successes against Austria-Hungary, however, are explained rather by the feebleness of Austria-Hungary than the strength of Russia.

The success of the Russian offensive led by General Brusilov was short lived. The army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was one thing. But the mighty German war machine was another matter altogether. The arrival of German reinforcements in May 1915 again forced the Russians to fall back. By the spring of 1915, the Russians had retreated to Galicia, and, in May, the Central Powers smashed their way through Poland’s southern frontiers. On August 5, they captured Warsaw and forced the Russians to withdraw from Poland.

The invasion of East Prussia was a bloody failure for the Russians. But worse was to come. On the Eastern Front, the next phase of the combined Austro-German offensive against the Russians commenced in northern Poland, with the Austro-Germans advancing toward Warsaw. The Russian Army was now growing weaker by the day as a result of chronic supply shortages and declining morale.

Within five days, the Austro-German troops broke through the Russian lines and pushed the Russian Third and Eighth Armies further eastward. Russian casualties soon surpassed 400,000. On August 5, 1915, Warsaw itself was taken by Austro-German troops, putting an end to a century of Russian control of the city. Buoyed up by their successes, the Austro-German forces went on to capture Ivangorod, Kovno, Brest-Litovsk, Bialystok, Grodno, and Vilna. By the end of September, the Russian troops were driven out of Poland and Galicia, back to the original lines from which they had begun the war in 1914.

The Russian attack ended in disaster, but it served to relieve pressure on the French Army and undoubtedly played a major role in halting the German advance on Paris. Head of French Intelligence Colonel Dupont wrote, “Their debacle was one of the elements of our victory.” For the time being, the battered Russian Army was effectively eliminated as an offensive threat on the Eastern Front, freeing the Germans to concentrate once more on the Western Front. In reality, the Russian Imperial Army was acting as mere cannon fodder for the Allies. The Russian soldiers began to think and even to express his thought: “they are all ready to fight to the last drop of my blood.”

Crisis on the home front

The combined losses of the Austro-German offensives in Galicia and Poland were over 1,400,000 casualties and 750,000 captured.  Casualty rates were the most evident symptom of disaster. In order to replace these appalling losses, barely trained recruits had to be called up for active duty, a process repeated throughout the war as the losses continued to mount.

A similar change affected the officer class, especially in the lower echelons. The gaps left by the loss of qualified officers and NCOs were quickly filled by raw soldiers rising up through the ranks, usually of peasant or working-class backgrounds. Many of these were to play a large role in the politicization of the troops in 1917. On the front, Russian soldiers in the field were without rifles, which they could only get from fellow soldiers after they were killed or wounded. Only on July 1, 1915 did Russia create a Central War Industries Committee to oversee production and address a severe shortage of artillery shells and rifles.

News of the military catastrophe caused panic in the ruling circles. Trotsky quotes the words of the Russian War Minister Polivanov, answering his colleagues, alarmed at the situation at the front: “I place my trust in the impenetrable spaces, impassable mud, and the mercy of Saint Nicholas Mirlikisky, Protector of Holy Russia.” That was on August 4, 1915. One week later General Ruszky confessed to the same ministers, “The present-day demands of military technique are beyond us. At any rate we can’t keep up with the Germans.” That was the plain truth.

What became known as the Great Retreat frequently turned into a disorderly rout. Desertion, plunder, and chaotic flight were common. The Russian generals made the peaceful population pay for their own criminal incapacity. They issued a cruel order for a total evacuation of the civilian population. This caused terrible suffering for the people as they were forced to leave their homes and head eastward, clogging the roads and hampering the movement of Russian troops. Enormous tracts of land were violently laid waste. As always in such cases, bloody pogroms were unleashed against the Jews as a convenient way of diverting the anger of the soldiers away from the real authors of their misery.

The fleeing mass of Russian troops and civilians from Poland poured fuel on the smoldering flames of political and social unrest in Russia, which was increasingly directed against the Tsar and his degenerate and corrupt court clique. The Tsar expressed his outrage at the defeat by removing his army commander-in-chief, Nicholas Nikolayevich, and taking command of the army himself, although he had no practical experience of strategic warfare or commanding infantry and artillery in combat. Egged on by his wife, Nicholas proceeded to the front.

By assuming personal command of the Russian Army, Nicholas was hoping to rally his demoralized troops.  However, this decision did not have the slightest effect on Russia’s war effort, since the Tsar rarely intervened or countermanded the decisions of his battlefield generals. What it did do was to make himself personally responsible for every military failure. It also placed the government of Russia, at a time of growing social and political crisis, in the hands of his ambitious and scheming wife Alexandra. The stench of corruption and incompetence in the imperial government began to circulate in the population. The notorious influence of the drunken, debauched “Man of God” Grigori Rasputin over the imperial family was common knowledge, exposing the inner rottenness at the heart of the tsarist regime.

The devastation of war did not only affect the soldiers at the front. By the end of 1915, there were clear signs that the economy was breaking down under the unbearable strains of wartime demands. There were food shortages and rising prices. Inflation eroded incomes at an alarmingly rapid rate, and even such things that could be afforded were in short supply, especially in St. Petersburg, where distance from supplies and poor transportation networks made matters even worse than elsewhere.

Russia was further weakened economically by the loss of Poland’s industrial and agricultural production. The conscription of millions of men produced a labor shortage on peasant landholdings and a resultant decline in food production. Large numbers of peasants were also moved to the industrial sector, which generated a slight rise in production, but nowhere near enough to meet Russia’s war needs. As a result, agricultural production slumped and civilians had to endure serious food shortages. Shops were running out of bread, sugar, meat, and other provisions, and there were long lines for what remained. It became increasingly difficult to afford food, or even to find it.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 had initially served to suffocate the growing social and political protests, focusing hostilities against a common external enemy, but this false patriotic unity did not last long. As the war dragged on with no end in sight, the fog of patriotic intoxication began to clear from people’s minds as war weariness gradually began to take hold of the masses.

It was the wives of the workers who had to bear the heaviest burden. Working class women in St. Petersburg reportedly spent about forty hours a week shivering in the cold for hours on end while lining up for food. To feed their hungry children, many were compelled to turn to begging or prostitution. Tearing down wooden fences to keep stoves heated against the freezing cold of the Russian winter, they cursed the rich and the government and its wars that meant only misery and endless suffering for them, their children, and their husbands at the front. When would it all end?

Public morale and support for the war was dwindling, and the people became more receptive to antiwar propaganda. On September 17, 1915, Alexei Kuropatkin, former Minister of War and Commander of the Grenadier Corps, wrote, “The lower orders began the war with enthusiasm; but now they are weary, and with the continual retreats have lost faith in a victory.” From the middle of 1915 the number of strikes increased inexorably. The stage was being prepared for revolutionary developments.

Read Part Seven here

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