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

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Russian Soldier of the Great War

By Colonel Peretts, Russian General Staff

The colossal growth of war technique has considerably modified methods of warfare, has even modified war itself, but, nevertheless, in the living power the soldier the main and decisive factor still remains. . .

Russia had in ancient times to protect herself from aggressive neighbors on all sides. Nomad Tartars fell upon her from the east, she had in the south to defend her frontiers from both Tartars and Turks, she was threatened in the west by Poles and Swedes. The wars with these various nations were defensive; and if Russia extended her boundaries it was not by a carefully thought-out offensive, but  entirely as the result of a successful defense, in which the beaten enemy in his flight abandoned part of his territory to pursuing Russian troops.

This circumstance has influenced the whole military science of Russia. That is, our military science invariably originates in a defensive way. Herein is expressed the soul of the Russian people, ever deeply convinced that God is not with aggressors. This idea is at the root of our national theory of life, and generations of Russian citizens have been reared on the principle of antipathy to aggression, though ever ready to defend their Motherland with the last drop of their blood. Yes, the Russian soldier when on the defensive shows extraordinary stoicism; and he is capable, when defending his mother earth the nurse at whose breast he has fed of inflicting incalculable losses upon the enemy.

It is enough to remember the war of 1812, when the whole population,  to oppose the army of Napoleon, voluntarily formed itself into regiments  when even peasant women, pitchforks in hand, went, all of their own accord, into the forests and there fell upon isolated detachments of the great army. They were protecting their country, they were the personification of the defensive idea that is so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the Russian people, and consequently in the Russian soldier. 

In the present war, the Russian troops retreating in 1915 before the pressure of the attacking enemy in Galicia and Poland, though lacking war material to such a degree that their artillery was utterly without ammunition, yet throughout three whole months tenaciously held back superior enemy forces, who were abundantly supplied with munitions and who were availing themselves of the latest discoveries in war technique. German officers, taken prisoner, while expressing their lively admiration of the Russian soldier's grit, confessed their inability to understand his heroic resistance under such disadvantageous conditions.

The Russian army, when on the defensive, purposely wears the enemy out; then, when his adversary is at his last gasp, choosing the moment when he is least expected, the Russian falls upon him and drives his foe before him with ever-increasing losses. So it was on the occasion of the Mongol invasion, of Napoleon's invasion, and so it will be in Kaiser Wilhelm s invasion.

The Russian soldier now firmly believes in his own invincibility and in the righteousness of his cause. A defensive followed up by an offensive we have here the base of Russian strategy, the peculiar characteristic of the Russian nation and of its history.

Russia is a country of agricultural laborers, a country in which town life only began to develop in recent times; the Russian people therefore are not weakened by the luxuries of over-civilization. Our soldier is very near to nature, he is able to endure hardships, he is ever ready to take his bearings and adapt himself to all kinds of surroundings; forest and field are his native element;  the horse is his friend. Hence, as a natural consequence, the love of the Russian soldiers for the perils of scouting, for night assaults, for the bold attacks of our flying cavalry. 

Minor tactics are our soldiers' favourite diversion. There are always plenty of volunteers for any risky raid or sally. Our soldier does not, like the German, hide himself behind the barbed wire; he even regards the methods proper to modern warfare as too colorless and as not yielding sufficiently rapid results. . .

The Russian manual for privates contains these words : "A soldier is the defender of the tsar and of his Fatherland from enemies within and without." In these words are defined those general duties that devolve upon every Russian citizen when he enters the ranks of the army. Firstly, it is the duty and obligation of every soldier to protect his tsar. Russian history is penetrated throughout with tsarism. Decades of generations of the Russian people have been reared up deeply imbued with love for their tsar, God's anointed, whose dominion therefore has ever in their minds been connected with the benevolence of God. Consequently, from childhood the Russian peasant learns to look upon the tsar as chosen by God to carry out His will. This is why, when the Russian is called to the ranks, by responding to the call he accepts the defence of his lawful tsar as his primary duty. . .

As to the relations between the leaders and their subordinates, these were peculiar even centuries ago. In the present regulations for home service the relations between officers and men are formularised in the following expression: "The officer must care for his subordinates like a father." In other words, the relations that exist between the leaders and the subordinates are parental. Upon the officer is laid the obligation of caring for his soldiers as for his own children. And this frequently meets with a reciprocal feeling. 

The conditions both of Russian service and of Russian home life have hardened the peasant, like tempered steel; he is astonishingly enduring, and is satisfied with  very little. He will march for miles along the terrible Russian roads without a murmur, while sinking in mud up to his knees. He has from childhood been accustomed to our lack of roads, and to him the marshy swamp of byways offers no impediment. The boundless space of immense Russia, the absence of railways, highroads and all other civilized ways and means of communication, early inure the Russian peasant to long journeys afoot. When in military service he is therefore able to cover tremendous ground with astonishing speed and the minimum of fatigue, and over what roads! In the present war there have been instances of Russian infantry marching some 70 versts (46 to 47 miles) in 24 hours. During such marches the baggage wagons perforce remain behind, and there is not even a transport kitchen to provide hot meals.

Source: The Soul of Russia by Winifred Stephens, Macmillan and Company, 1916

1 comment:

  1. " love for their tsar" didn't last much past this publication!