Thursday, 14 August 2014

Russian army of the Great War Part I

In 1914 The Russian army was in good shape (at least on paper), and at least equivalent to any western army.  It was a fully modern army, and not a lumbering behemoth like the Austro-Hungarian army of the same time.  

When the War Began the  Central  powers  believed  the Russians  would take months to be ready for action, but in fact the Russian army mobilised in just 2 weeks.   

The subsequent invasion of  Germany and Austria took the Germans by total surprise and says much for its effectiveness in organisation.  The Russian army moved quickly and kept its supply lines well organised.  When Turkey entered the war the Russians were able to move vast forces to assault the Turkish forces, again taking Turkish planners by surprise.

I am not going to go into detail about how both campaigns failed, and the disintegration of the Russian fronts led to the collapse of Russia, that's another story.

One problem with the high command and officers in general was that promotion was based on terms of service, Bribery and nepotism, rather than actual ability.   This is not necessarily much different from the western armies, Great Britain used exactly the same system, which is why the British army was so badly led in both WWI & WWII, where promotion depended on which school you went to and who you were related to, rather than ability.  This meant that Russia, like Great Britain, Italy, Romania and America all tended to murder their own soldiers by Incompetence, rather than get them killed by accident, as other powers did.

With this archaic system of promotion however, leading to stupid officers been in-charge of armies was not as bad in the Tsarist armies at the outbreak of the Great war.  10 years previously The Russian army had fought a terrible campaign in the Russio-japanese war in 1904-05, where at the end of its supply lines the Russian forces had fought to a standstill.  Since then there had been a small civil war and a massive shake-up of the command structure.  Many officers with loyalty to the more rebellious generals were replaced.  Back in the Russo-Turkish war the Tsar's father had re-organised the command structure with more competent men and Tsar Nicolas hoped to do the same and in the run up to war he had gone along way to making the army command as a whole slightly more efficient.

The Reforms were not wide spread but certainly at middle to junior level the younger more energetic officers took up the slack let down from above.   Despite this the creaking communication system and archaic command structure made it hard to control such a vast army, forcing slightly too much responsibility to the lower officer ranks.  Also unlike the German and French armies where officers were expected to use their initiative, many Russian officers did not have that level of training or confidence.   Some officers on the eastern front did show remarkable flare but just like in the British army these officers who if they were French or German would find promotion, (see Rommel or De Gaulle) would find themselves either ignored or  regarded as Quixotic by their superiors.  

The Russian army also suffered from the same problem that effected the French and British armies, that the officers were always apart from the troops.  Many officers were of higher social class than their men and were discouraged from mixing, so when things went wrong the Russian infantry, disgruntled, Hungry and exposed to rebellious ideas of Bolshevism the Russian infantry found it easy to simply shoot their officer, and incidents like this began in mid 1915 in the Russian army.  It should be noted that this  mutinous  attitude which went onto the full scale October revolution in 1916 was present in the  British  and  French  armies,  but  without such dramatic effects, the French infantry practically dismissed all of their officers from the front lines, where as in the British army the most common death was within 10 yards of his own trench, probably from his own side, at least there is anecdotal  evidence on this.   This would have led to a  deterioration  in communications, with officers either afraid of issuing orders to advance, to soldiers simply refusing to, although I should note that in defensive battles, Troops would still fight with vigour.

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