Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914–1917
reviewed by Ron Drees

The Russian Army in the Great War: 
The Eastern Front, 1914–1917
by David R. Stone
University Press of Kansas, 2015

Densely packed with text and information, this book narrates one battle after another, recounting the stupidity of numerous generals, a grand duke, and a tsar. The previously undescribed tenacity of the Russian Army is detailed here despite so many well-known difficulties, making this book worth the read. Finally the discipline of the Russian Army collapsed, the resilience of the people wore out and the 1917 revolution erupted with grave ramifications for the Western Front and the world in general.

Russian Soldiers in Galicia Early in the War

Stone begins his narrative with a summary of how Europe wandered and blundered its way into the war. An unstated question arises — didn't the Austro-Hungarian Empire understand its own lack of military readiness while insisting on a war of punishment against the Serbs? It would have been nice if Stone had spent a page or two explaining the political dysfunction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had a direct impact upon its military readiness, leadership, and disastrous expeditions.

Russia went into the war unprepared, like many other nations, but in even worse condition. The army lacked shells, artillery, machine guns, airplanes, a viable railroad system, and officers, while the soldiers were illiterate. As the war raged on, some of the armament shortcomings were overcome, but the officer corps was depleted and replaced by ensigns, who were not even considered officers. The "90-day wonders" of the United States were much better.

The more competent Russian generals rose to the top, such as Brusilov, but there were not enough. Even those leaders overextended their army's capabilities, sometimes dragging defeats out of potential victories. What is needed next is a collection of short articles explaining how such incompetent officers — Russian, Austrian, and French — rose to such positions of importance with deadly consequences for millions of infantry.

Unfortunately, the maps in this book suffer from a dark gray background, rendering them almost incomprehensible. Cities are hard to locate and the names of nations are too faint to read. This is especially undesirable as much of this geography is unfamiliar to western readers.

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The author measures military strength in divisions, not actual numbers of men, ignoring the possibilities of loss of manpower, different staffing levels, and different compositions of divisions. As wars proceed, divisions are rarely at full strength, and their compositions change as machine guns and artillery are added. This makes comparisons between armies even more difficult.

The chief value of this book is the last chapter, "Conclusion". Despite the disintegration of the Russian army, Germany could not quickly move its divisions to the west. The Russian railroad may have contributed to this slow transfer. Even during the 1918 spring offensive, Germany had 47 divisions in the east, having reduced its armies from a peak of 89 divisions, while it had 146 divisions in the west. If Russia had collapsed more quickly, what would have been the ramifications for the Western Front? If the Russian Provisional Government had lasted longer, the German spring offensives might never have happened at all. So much of the 20th century hinged on these circumstances.

Ron Drees


  1. You show a bit of pro-British/American prejudice, when you say, " What is needed next is a collection of short articles explaining how such incompetent officers — Russian, Austrian, and French — rose to such positions of importance with deadly consequences for millions of infantry." The architect of the Somme comes to mind. I'm sure ther is one or two US generals that could be added. Don't forget Italy's Cadorna.

  2. I like your direct and to-the-point description of the book. A nice review, Ron! DB

  3. Reply to first comment:
    Prejudice, no. I just wanted to list the worst of the bad without going on forever. US battle fatalities were about 59,000 for the war. Some generals of other countries would lose three times that in one battle and fifty times that amount in the war. I'm sure General Haig is well documented elsewhere. I look forward to your articles on the generals you consider inept. Perhaps a more reasonable assignment--and certainly a shorter one--would be to discuss the competent generals of the war. RD