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

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Zhukov Goes to War

Georgy Zhukov, one of the greatest generals of the 20th century, began his military career—like so many others—started his military career in the Great War.

Victorious General
After his early education in a parochial school, Zhukov was sent to work in a furrier's shop, but he was drafted in August 1915, and from that time army service became the essence of his life.  He was singled out for NCO training and a year after his induction was sent to Moldova for frontline service.  En route his unit took its first casualties when a German plane bombed their column.  

Shortly after arriving at the front, Zhukov earned his first decoration, for capturing a German officer.  In October his was injured when an artillery detonation blew him off his horse. He would later receive a second St. George's Cross for the action.  A literally shell-shocked Zhukov was evacuated to Kharkov for recuperation.  Returning to his unit as a decorated NCO with combat experience he was already a highly respected man in his unit.

Consequently, after  the February 1917 revolution he was elected to head his squadron's soldiers' committee. However—in supporting the Bolsheviks—he clashed with the counterrevolutionary faction of the regiment's committee and had to go into hiding.  He returned home, caught typhus, and waited to see how things played out.  His moment of decision came in September 1918, when Lenin's government announced a new conscription program for the Red Army. Zhukov chose to report for service. From 1918, Zhukov was in the Red Army, fighting the White Army and suppressing the revolt in Tambov province. In the 1920s and '30s, he commanded a cavalry squadron, and later a regiment. His military career was swift and successful.  

NCO 5th Reserve Cavalry Regiment
While Zhukov originally rose through the ranks of the cavalry, the Red Army underwent a period of great intellectual activity during the interwar period. By the mid-1930s, Soviet military theorists began to explore new concepts of successive or "deep" operations that promised to avoid the positional warfare of World War One. During this period, Zhukov became an early advocate of massed tank formations and was extremely well placed to participate in this "renaissance."

When Stalin launched his purge of the Red Army in 1937, Zhukov was a corps commander. Though interrogated at length, he survived. In 1939, Zhukov, then a deputy military district commander, was summoned to Moscow. Zhukov was relieved to find that he had been ordered to proceed to Khalkin Gol in Mongolia, where Soviet troops were facing a Japanese incursion across the border. There he would win an overwhelmingly decisive victory that positioned him for top leadership in Stalin's military machine.

Sources:  Encyclopedia of Russia; Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov by Geoffrey Roberts


  1. Thank you for this background to one of WWII's most important characters.

    Khalkhin Gol is so crucial to the early 20th century, and still so neglected.

  2. My dad, a WWII vet, always said that Marshal Zhukov was the only "honest Communist."