Like some other powers, there are a great many misconceptions about the part played by the Russian Empire in World War I. This is true generally but also in regards to the Russian Imperial Army with about the only thing every historian seems to agree on being the courage and endurance of the average Russian soldier. As was not uncommon in those days, but particularly so in Russia, the army also had a special bond with the monarch, Tsar Nicholas II, and many of the misconceptions about Russia and the Russian military necessarily involve the Tsar. In the first place, there is a misconception as to the overall quality of the Russian Imperial Army at the start of the war and a misconception about the part played by the Tsar in, if not starting the war, at least escalating it from a regional conflict into a world war. In some ways, the two are linked as both are often related to the most recent conflict Russia had fought prior to August of 1914; the war with Japan. In both instances, the Tsar was accused of being recklessly aggressive and the army was, in both instances, accused of performing rather poorly. In fact, the opposite is true. In East Asia, just as Russia had earlier taken up the role of defending China, and so gain an ice-free port on the Pacific, so too did Russia move to defend the Han Empire of Korea from the Japanese. As master of the vastly larger power, in land, population and resources, the Tsar was confident that Japan would not resort to war over Korea.
|Russo-Japanese War poster|
If there was to be conflict, Russia was not about to take any action until at least the Trans-Siberian railroad was completed and so St Petersburg was shocked and horrified when Japan initiated hostilities with a surprise attack on Port Arthur. The army there put up an incredible resistance, holding out against fierce and repeated attacks as Japan knew that they stood no chance unless they could win quickly before the full strength of Imperial Russia could be transferred to the east. So, they were willing to accept horrendous casualties in repeated attacks to force the issue to a close and drive Russia out of Manchuria. Russia simply could not move men and material fast enough over such a vast distance and, in the end, the total defeat of the navy would have negated any such victory by the army anyway. Still, it would be a mistake to think that the Russians underperformed on land. Caught unaware and with severe logistical handicaps, they actually came very near to winning the war by inflicting such devastating losses on the Japanese and driving the still burgeoning Japanese economy to the brink of bankruptcy. In fact, it was only a last-minute loan from sympathetic businessmen in the United States that saved Japan from being forced to accept defeat due to financial collapse (and this was not common knowledge at the time so, ironically, many in Japan blamed the United States for Japan not coming out better in the peace negotiations when, in fact, it was not the overwhelming victory they had been led to believe it was).
|The Tsar inspecting his troops|
The faithful of Russia must surely have felt that no good deed goes unpunished for the Russian Empire has been criticized for aggressive behavior in the last two wars it fought and both were fought on behalf of smaller countries that were threatened by larger neighbors. As Korea was in the east, so Serbia was in the west and just like before, the Tsar has been accused by some of being a warmonger who was looking for a fight. After losing one war, he had to repair the prestige of his country by winning the next one. Certainly, that feeling was prevalent in some sections of Russian society but it was not as widespread as one might think. The Russians, apart from the navy perhaps, did not feel themselves to be a defeated people. They had fought until a negotiated peace was arranged and came out losing relatively little. Even then, they were just as likely to blame Britain and America rather than feeling sorry for themselves as all throughout the war the Empire of Japan was commonly portrayed in Russia as simply being the puppet of Great Britain and to a lesser extent the United States. The Russian Empire and certainly the Tsar, did not feel he had anything significant to prove and he was not anxious at all for another war.
|Tsar Nicholas II|
As we have talked about here before, virtually none of the monarchs of Europe wanted a war in the summer of 1914 and Nicholas II was no different. He has more responsibility to bear than some to be sure but few care to notice that it was Russia which urged the Serbs to not be defiant. They recognized that, with the murder of the Archduke, Austria was the injured party and so advised the Serbs to act accordingly. It was probably thanks almost entirely to Russia that Serbia did what they were not naturally inclined to do and agree to almost all of the demands made by Austria in their infamous ultimatum. There again, few care to remember that Tsar Nicholas II tried to calm the situation and avoid war by having negotiations to settle the differences between Slav and Teuton based on the good will Serbia had shown in response to the ultimatum and with the fair warning that Russia could not be indifferent if Serbia were attacked by Austria after being so amenable to Austrian demands. Unfortunately, Austria rejected the proposal. Britain almost simultaneously made a similar suggestion which was rejected by the Germans. As mentioned here many times before, when it comes to the start and spread of the First World War, almost everyone shares a measure of blame, at least in terms of governments. The Tsar did not want war any more than any of his fellow monarchs did but he refused to leave Serbia to stand alone and so, under immense pressure, the die was cast.
|General Nikolai Ivanoff|
The Imperial Russian Army was, undoubtedly, one to inspire confidence that such a struggle could be won. Russia had the largest army in the world and it was a much more advanced force than most realize. Russia had been training military pilots since 1910 and when World War I began had the second largest air force in the world. Although off-topic here, Russia also fielded the first military submarine fleet in the world at Vladivostok. It is true that in terms of industry, infrastructure and armaments, Russia was at a severe disadvantage but the Russian Imperial Army also shocked the world with what it was able to accomplish. They had done good intelligence work that enabled them to know most of the Austrian plan ahead of time and when the Austro-Hungarians launched their opening offensive to cut off the Polish salient, despite early setbacks, Russian forces under General Nikolai Ivanoff launched a counter-attack that smashed the Hapsburg forces and inflicted devastating losses that Austria-Hungary never fully recovered from. At the same time, their attention was diverted by cries for help from France to take pressure off the western front by attacking the Germans. The result was a minor opening victory and the invasion of East Prussia by Army Group Jilinsky. We all know how that turned out eventually but it is worth taking the time to consider a few things.
|Backbone of the army|
The Germans were taken completely by surprise with this offensive. No one had expected the Russians to be able to hit so hard so fast given how slowly most rated the Russian capacity for mobilization. In fact, the opening Russian victories, minor though they were, threw the German commander into a total panic which led to his replacement with the winning team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The resulting Battle of Tannenberg was a stunning defeat for Russia with heavy casualties but a few things should be kept in mind. This was the first big battle between the Germans and Russians and not even one the Russians had planned on fighting. It represented a change in plans to come to the aid of France and in that regard it did, somewhat, have the intended effect as the Germans diverted troops from the critical western front to the eastern front (a mistake as they did not even arrive in time to participate in the battle). Why pick on the Russians? The French had only one front and one enemy to worry about and their initial plan failed and cost them immense numbers of casualties. Even the German plan (though it was not followed to the letter) ended in failure. So did that of the Austrians. Early battles by inexperienced troops often have this result so Russia should not be singled out for undue criticism. Likewise, against Austria-Hungary they performed quite well after the initial shock and while their drive into East Prussia had failed, they still ended the first round in control of the vital Galicia region and with the Austro-Hungarians pushed back to the Carpathians. Toward the end of the year even German Silesia was under threat and this only subsided due to the logistical problems of the Russian armies which was always a major hindrance.
|Fighting in the snow|
In 1915, the first German offensive out of East Prussia was defeated by the Russian forces but then came the surprising and crushing offensive of Gorlice-Tarnow which saw Austro-German forces under August von Mackensen punch through the Russian lines and ultimately capture Warsaw. It was a painful loss with Russia losing about two million men, yet, the Russian Empire displayed remarkable tenacity and war production actually increased. The losses were made good, more supplies began to arrive at the front and less than a year later Russian generals felt prepared to take the offensive again. Few other armies on earth could come back so strong from such a major defeat and yet, Russia was able to. Relatively few people also consider how Russia was forced to fight on so many different fronts. Whereas other powers, like France, had only one front to concentrate all their strength on, Russia faced the Germans to the northwest, the Austro-Hungarians to the southwest and the Turks to the south. Oftentimes the threat of the Ottoman Empire is ignored altogether (possibly because some wish to avoid the Armenian issue). However, there again was a case of the Imperial Russian Army performing very well. Despite being hard pressed elsewhere, they successfully defended the Caucasus against a major Turkish invasion. The Turks had planned it for some time and were aiming for the Baku oilfields but the fierce Russian winter and determined Russian resistance brought about a massive Turkish defeat. In fact, out of an invasion force of about 95,000 men only 18,000 Turks survived their clash with the Imperial Russian Army.
|General Alexei Brusilov|
Stung by such a horrendous defeat, the Turks never attempted a major offensive against Russia again, however, it should not be forgotten that minor attacks and raids in the Caucasus region continued for the next two years, forcing Russia to keep troops deployed in the south that could have been used elsewhere. The Germans, for their part, had rather underestimated the Russian army (again) and figured that after the punishing defeats of 1915 they could count on a respite to focus on the western front. However, though many overlook this, in 1916 the Russians had expanded their industrial output, had begun to make up for their previous deficiencies in weapons and war material and by the spring of 1916 were prepared to take the offensive again. The Tsar was in command and, despite what some detractors insinuate, was not averse to new ideas and approved the unorthodox plan put forward by General Alexei Brusilov of the Southwest Army Group. For the first time, the Russian forces made use of things like aerial photography, offensive trench systems and became highly adept at concealing their reserves (the build-up of which usually tipped off an enemy that an attack was imminent) and began to coordinate their artillery with the advancing infantry.
|Postcard celebrating 1916|
Despite being about equal in numbers with their Austro-German enemies, the Russian series of attacks known as the Brusilov offensive, was a stunning success. From June 4 to June 12 the Russian Imperial armies had advanced 50 miles and captured 200,000 Austro-Hungarian prisoners as well as huge amounts of weapons and supplies. Brusilov called for assistance and was prepared to press on even further and if he had been given the support he wanted could almost undoubtedly have done so. However, such assistance could not reach the front fast enough. As would happen to the Germans themselves, the Russian offensive had been so successful that they had outrun their supplies and the drive ground to a halt as more German forces were diverted to stave off disaster. However, once his troops had caught their breath and supplies caught up to them, Brusilov resumed his offensive in late July and early August. Once again, the Russian Imperial armies surged forward and by September the Germans had lost 150,000 men to them and the Austro-Hungarians a crippling loss of over 600,000. By simple attrition the Russians were finally forced to halt but in this one offensive they had come within a breath of knocking Austria-Hungary out of the war completely.
The Germans were forced to divert forces from the western front to rush to the rescue in the east and prospects for an Allied victory looked so good that the Kingdom of Romania was induced to join the war against the Central Powers with promises of vast swathes of Hungarian territory at a time when it looked like it would all soon be over. Unfortunately, this proved to be no help to the Allies and actually quite damaging for Russia. In fact, it helped ensure that the 1916 offensives would be the last of the Russian Empire. General Erich von Falkenhayn arrived from the west (reassigned after the Verdun bloodletting) to command a combined force of Germans, Austro-Hungarians and Bulgars that basically curb-stomped Romania. The kingdom was conquered and Russia, already exhausted by the great victories under Brusilov, was forced to greatly extend their lines to guard the borderlands of now occupied-Romania. The strain at home began to show, the Bolshevik plague was released on the home front by Germany, bread riots began to break out (due to transportation problems rather than any serious lack of foodstuffs) and, as we all know, the revolution erupted soon after and by March of 1917 Tsar Nicholas II was deposed and the Russian Empire collapsed, replaced by a provisional liberal government that proved easy prey for the godless Bolsheviks.
|Little Father & soldier|
Many try to portray the Russian Imperial Army as coming completely apart in those days and, while it is true that there was considerable unrest and mutinous behavior, it was not until the Tsar was gone and the provisional government was in charge that things completely fell apart. The provisional government tried to continue the war but it was to no avail. With the Tsar and the Russian Orthodox empire, the men had something to fight for, something to inspire and motivate them but the provisional government could offer none of these things and the situation degenerated into chaos. Whereas the Germans would become famous for their propaganda about the “stab in the back”, this was what really did happen to the Russians. They were betrayed by revolutionaries on the home front, traitors to the war effort and because of that, the new leadership had every motivation to blame all problems on the Tsar. Those Russians who believed this lie fought for the Reds while those who rejected it fought for the Whites in the Russian Civil War that soon followed the humiliating peace terms of Brest-Litovsk.
Taken altogether, the Russian Imperial Army put up an incredible fight. They deserve much more credit than they usually receive. Despite immense industrial and infrastructure deficiencies, the Russians surprised everyone with the speed and strength of their initial attacks. They recovered from defeats quickly and won stunning victories on multiple fronts. They adopted new ideas and adapted to new technologies (it was actually a Russian pilot who was the first man in history to bring down an enemy aircraft) and were a cohesive and tenacious force. On the Caucasian front, Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Caucasus Greeks and others all fought together to inflict devastating defeats on the Turks, it was the Russians who put Austria-Hungary at a considerable disadvantage right at the outset and which came close to putting the Dual Monarchy out of the war completely as early as 1916. With around 2 million dead, the Russian Empire sacrificed more than any other of the Allied Nations and it was collapse at home rather than defeat at the front that took the Russian Empire (if not Russia herself) out of the war. Some generals were inept but some were also masters of their trade and the Russian soldier was, like those who had gone before him, tough, determined in defense, fierce and fearless on the attack and possessing of a level of endurance to hardship that was so amazing some considered it almost inhuman.
|The Martyred Tsar|
Today, even after the fall of the communist system that shackled Russia and retarded Russian progress for decades, it is still the communist mentality that prevails when it comes to celebrating more than any other the defeat of Germany in World War II. None have been so lionized as the participants of what is still called the “Great Patriotic War”. This has meant that the Russian Imperial Army of the First World War is often neglected but it should not be so. Participation in the war (as with most countries) may have been a mistake, and I certainly believe it should not have happened, but it was done for noble reasons and the soldiers who fought did so with immense courage and fortitude and for a much more ancient and honorable motivation that was symbolized by their faith and their beloved “Little Father”. The Soviets went to war when they were turned on by their previous partner in crime, the Russian Imperial Army, however, went to war, once again, in defense of a weaker neighbor, with heads held high and with a heartfelt determination to make any sacrifice and endure any hardship for God, the Tsar and Holy Russia. Their service, their considerable accomplishments and their painful sacrifice should never diminished and never be forgotten.
Additional Note: The fact that the Imperial Russian Army was a cohesive and determined force is also proven by the ensuing Russian Civil War in which anti-Bolshevik White Russian forces fought on until 1921. The accomplished General Ivanoff, a staunch monarchist, led a Cossack army against the Reds until his death in 1919. The celebrated General Brusilov, out of an attachment to order, went along with whoever was in power but was, also, always a royalist at heart. Finnish General Mannerheim, who would become so famous in the "Winter War" was a Tsarist officer who took the side of the Whites. After fierce fighting in 1919 in southern Russia, a temporary revival began that carried the war into 1920 under the command of General Pyotr Wrangel (the famous "Black Baron") but the instability of their military and civil leadership had taken its toll on the White Russian forces. Still, elements fought on in Central Asia and the Russian Far East under men such as Grigory Semyonov and the notorious "Mad Baron" Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. Especially in the eastern areas, Russians were often a minority in these armies and yet they fought as one, enduring extreme hardship, unsupported and often isolated. That they carried on for so long is a tribute not only to the men themselves but the ideals that motivated them. It is no coincidence that it was the most monarchist factions of the White Russian movement that carried on the struggle longer than any others. Some, in a non-military way, even to this day. God bless them.
|"Why Aren't You In The Army?"|