Russian Military Efficiency

By George Kennan

[The Outlook, February 3, 1915]

An American friend who has long taken a deep and sympathetic interest in Russia, and who has watched attentively the military operations of the Russians in Austria, Poland, and East Prussia, asked me a few days ago:

"Why are the Russians showing so much more efficiency in this war than they showed in the war with Japan? In Manchuria they did not win a single battle, while in eastern Europe they have decisively defeated the Austrians, and have at least held their own against so powerful a military machine as that of Germany. Surely the Japanese were less formidable antagonists than the Germans are. Why, then, are the Russian armies able to stand off the latter, although they were steadily defeated and driven back by the former? One might suppose that the Russians would be outclassed by the Germans in every way, and particularly in the scientific and technical knowledge upon which success in warfare has come so largely to depend."

The most obvious reason for the increased military efficiency of Russia in the present war is a geographical one, and it consists in her ability to avail herself of her great preponderance in numerical strength. She has more men available for military service than have Germany and Austria combined, and the scene of conflict happens to be so near that she can utilize her whole fighting force. The Japanese war was fought at a distance of more than five thousand miles, and the number of men that Russia could put into the field of operations was limited by the transportation facilities of a single line of railway, which had at first a capacity of only five military trains a day. In all the early stages of the war, therefore, the Russians were outnumbered by the Japanese. If there had been five lines of railway to Manchuria instead of one, or even if the one had had a double track, the result of the war would probably have been different. Russia had men enough to overwhelm even the hard-fighting armies of the Japanese, but it was a physical impossibility to put them where they were needed.

This explanation, however, does not fully answer my friend's question, because the Russian armies in Austria and Poland are not only stronger than Kuropatkin's armies, but are unquestionably fighting better. For this increased fighting efficiency there are several reasons, but the most important of them, perhaps, is the changed temper of the nation.

In times past, when wars were carried on by small standing armies, the attitude of the people toward a war was relatively unimportant. Now, as General Kuropatkin has said, "the obligation to render military service is general, and if a war is to be successful it must be carried on not by an army but by an armed nation." In these changed conditions, when the combatants are "armed nations," the temper of the people is of supreme importance.

Russia's struggle for supremacy in eastern Asia was the most unpopular—not to say hateful—war in which the Empire had ever been engaged. Nobody wanted it and few knew what it was about. As a clear-seeing and plain-speaking Russian said while it was in progress:

"Japan had long been preparing for a war with us; her people desired it, and a feeling of lofty patriotism pervaded the whole country. In her army and her fleet, therefore, every man, from the Commander-in-Chief to the last soldier, not only knew what he was fighting for and what he might have to die for, but understood clearly that upon success in the struggle depended the fate of Japan, her political importance, and her future in the history of the world. Every Japanese soldier knew also that the whole nation stood behind him. Japanese mothers and wives sent their sons and husbands to the war with enthusiasm, and were proud when they died for their country.

"With us, on the other hand, the war was unpopular from the very beginning. We neither desired it nor anticipated it, and consequently we were not prepared for it. Soldiers were hastily put into railway trains, and when, after a journey that lasted a month, they alighted in Manchuria, they did not know in what country they were, nor whom they were to fight, nor what the war was about. Even our higher commanders went to the front unwillingly and from a mere sense of duty. The whole army, moreover, felt that it was regarded by the country with indifference; that its life was not shared by the people; and that it was a mere fragment cut off from the nation, thrown to a distance of 6,000 miles, and there abandoned to the caprice of fate." ["The Feeling of Duty and the Love of Country," by M. A. Bildering, Russki Invalid, St. Petersburg, 1906.]

General Kuropatkin confirms these statements and says:
"Among the main reasons for our disasters must be mentioned the indifferent and even hostile attitude of the people.… The general feeling of discontent which already pervaded all classes of our population made the war so hateful that it aroused no patriotism whatever." ["The Russian Army and the Japanese War," General A. N. Kuropatkin, Vol. II, pp. 72 and 208.]

This hatred of the people for the war was increased by the activity of the revolutionary parties, which circulated immense quantities of seditious literature and distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets and proclamations even among the soldiers who were going to the front. [The following is a specimen of this anti-war literature: "To the Officers of the Russian Army: The worst and most dangerous enemy of the Russian people—in fact its only enemy—is the present Government. It is this Government that is carrying on the war with Japan, and you are fighting under its banners in an unjust cause. Every victory that you win threatens Russia with the calamity involved in the maintenance of what the Government calls 'order,' and every defeat that you suffer brings nearer the hour of deliverance. Is it surprising, therefore, that Russians rejoice when your adversary is victorious?"]

The popular discontent and the anti-war propaganda of the revolutionists were most demoralizing to the troops in the field. Officers malingered, and soldiers availed themselves of every opportunity to skulk or desert their companies during action. "There were many instances," Kuropatkin says, "where unwounded men went to the rear, under pretext of carrying away the wounded, at the rate of six, eight, or ten sound soldiers to one wounded. The result was that a company hotly engaged usually had only 100 or less rifles" (out of 250) "after a few hours fighting, although its losses might have been inconsiderable.… Our lack of moral strength, as compared with the Japanese, affected all ranks, from the highest to the lowest, and greatly reduced our fighting power. In a war waged under different circumstances—a war in which the army had the confidence and encouragement of the country—the same officers and the same troops would have accomplished far more than they accomplished in Manchuria. The lack of martial spirit, moral exaltation, and of heroic impulse affected particularly our stubbornness in battle. In many cases we did not have sufficient resolution to conquer such antagonists as the Japanese.… There was no military spirit in the army." [Kuropatkin, "The Russian Army, etc., Vol. II, pp. 52, 72, 80. It would be unfair to assume that Kuropatkin discredits his troops in order to excuse his defeats. In other parts of his history he does them full justice and admits with the utmost frankness his own errors and misjudgments.]

Compare all this with the state of affairs at the present time. Russia is now aroused, united, and inspired with the same patriotism that the Japanese displayed in 1904-5. Everybody knows what this war means, everybody supports it, and the whole nation is ready and eager to fight I tried to make this clear in my recent article on "The Spiritual Uplift in Russia," and the statements there made have since been confirmed even by Russia's enemies. German papers recently published a letter from Eberhard Krause, a German, who remained in Russia until the first of November, and who witnessed both the uplift and the mobilization. Describing the attitude of the people, he says:

"The war is extremely popular, and soldiers as well as officers go to the front with an unshakable determination to conquer or die."

Professor Hjalmar Shegren, a Swede, who also witnessed the mobilization, writes to a Stockholm paper:

"The state of affairs now is very different from what it was at the time of the Russo-Japanese War. All classes of the Russian people are now united; all popular disorder has ceased; and all social and national discord has been forgotten."

Understanding the reasons for the war, and feeling the sympathy and support of the whole nation, Russian troops are fighting now as they have never fought before. Common soldiers by the hundred, women, and even runaway boys, are being decorated with the Cross of St. George for conspicuous gallantry on the field of battle. At the recent anniversary jubilee of the Cavaliers of St. George in Petrograd, there were present three thousand persons who had won the cross of the order, including 431 wounded soldiers, one woman (a hospital nurse), and three young boys, all just back from the front. One of the boys, who was only thirteen years of age, and whose name indicates that he was a Polish Jew, had taken part in ten battles or important engagements, had been instrumental in the capture of an Austrian patrol of sixty men, and had finally been decorated with the Cross of St. George for a daring and perilous reconnaissance which led to the capture of a whole Austrian battery of heavy artillery. All three boys had run away from home, and had reached the front by collusion with soldiers and by hiding under the seats of military trains. When common soldiers are decorated with the Cross of St. George in a single brief campaign, it indicates that Russian troops are fighting with a courage and determination which they did not always show in Manchuria.

Another reason for Russia's increased military efficiency is to be found in the improvement of the army as a fighting machine. When General Kuropatkin entered the Russian War Office, in 1898, he found military affairs in an extremely unsatisfactory state. "The General Staff," he says, "was particularly weak. The promotion. of officers depended upon favoritism; soldiers were cruelly treated and badly fed; waste, thefts, and embezzlements were common. The command of regiments was intrusted to aristocrats who had squandered their personal fortunes and were seeking means of re-establishing their affairs by military service. As a result, the Russian army showed no improvement from a moral point of view, and from a material point of view it was inferior to other European armies."

General Kuropatkin, during his incumbency as Minister of War, made some improvements; but his history of the struggle in Manchuria shows that many of the old evils still remained. Four, at least, of his generals (Zasulitch, Grippenberg, Kaulbars, and Stoessel) were disobedient as well as incompetent: many officers of lower rank were unfit for their positions; attempts to get rid of such men were thwarted in St. Petersburg, and many recommendations for the promotion of capable and talented leaders were ignored or overruled. The army, moreover, was not adequately equipped, and for this Kuropatkin himself seems to have been largely to blame. It had, he says, very few machine guns, no mountain artillery, no high explosive shells, and no howitzers. Its telegraph and telephone service was very inadequate, and its leaders were "unable to conduct operations intelligently for lack of information." Its cavalry was very inefficient, and "whole regiments were moved to the rear as soon as the first shrapnel began to burst near them, although they had not lost a man." The four regiments of cavalry on whom fell the difficult, but honorable duty of obtaining information, arid opposing Nogi's enveloping forces at the battle of Mukden lost, in killed and wounded, only twenty-two men, which works out at less than one man per squadron. [Kuropatkin, "The Russian Army," etc. Vol. II, pp. 151-2.]

Finally, owing, to a "vicious system of command," the supreme control of Russia's Manchurian armies was vested in at least three different persons, viz.: Kuropatkin himself, the Czar in St. Petersburg, and Admiral Alexeief (a naval officer!) at Harbin. The nominal Commander-in-Chief had independent authority during only four months and a half out of nineteen. More than once—notably in the case of the disaster at Telisu—he was forced by Viceroy Alexeief (the naval officer) to undertake operations of which his (Kuropatkin's) judgment disapproved. It is not surprising that, in such circumstances and with such inherent defects, the Russian army did not work efficiently as a fighting machine.

The overwhelming and disgraceful defeat in Manchuria was profoundly humiliating, of course, to the Czar and the higher military authorities, and as soon as the war ended they made a most strenuous effort to strengthen the army and increase its fighting efficiency. Before they had had time, however, to accomplish much, they were again humiliated by their inability to interfere when Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. They would have tried to prevent that if they had dared, but they did not feel strong enough at that time to run the risk of war. Their disappointment and chagrin, however, spurred them on to renewed efforts, in which they had the co-operation and support of the army itself. For hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian officers the struggle in Manchuria was a great training school, which showed them their weaknesses and forced them to study seriously their profession. That they profited by their lesson of' defeat there can be no doubt. General Ruzski, who has recently won such distinction as leader of the armies operating against Austria, was one of Kuropatkin's officers in Manchuria, and General Samsonof, killed in battle in East Prussia September 1, was another. They, with hundreds of captains, colonels, and brigadiers, learned the modern art of war in eastern Asia, and those now alive and on duty are utilizing their knowledge and experience in an even more important field. With the cooperation of such men, and under the direction of a really capable Minister of War (General Sukhomlinof), the Russian army has become, probably, twice as efficient as it was six years ago.

All accounts agree that the general mobilization which followed Germany's declaration of war was accomplished with unprecedented smoothness and rapidity, and that when the Russian troops took the field they were apparently better equipped and better trained than they had ever been before. Eberhard Krause, the German whom I have already quoted, says with reference to this:

"The mobilization which occurred while I was in Russia was very rapid, and the troops, made upon me a favorable impression. The Siberian rifle regiments, in particular, were moved to the west with extraordinary promptness, and presented a most brilliant appearance. [There were nine divisions, or 108 battalions, of these troops in East Siberia alone, and they were regarded by General Kuropatkin as the élite of his army. It is doubtful whether in fighting efficiency they are surpassed even by the crack regiments of the Grenadriers and the Guards.] The railroads, too, were fully equal to the task imposed upon them."

Professor Shegren, the Swedish observer, says:
"It is impossible to compare Russia's military strength now with that shown at the beginning of the war with Japan. General Sukhomlinof, the Minister of War, is a man of great energy as well as a first-class organizer, and he has taken unusual pains to see that the money appropriated for military purposes has been properly spent. Finally, the Russian army has at the present time, in the Grand Duke Nikolas Nikolaievitch, a leader of extraordinary talent."

In the latter part of the question with which I began this article a doubt is expressed as to the strength of Russia "in the scientific and technical knowledge upon which success in warfare has come so largely to depend." It must be admitted, of course, that the Russians do not compare favorably in this respect with the Germans, the British, or the French; but they are not, after all, such unskilled barbarians as the world has been led to believe. Russia is not wholly destitute of scientists and technologists. As long ago as 1890 she was able to assemble 2,200 of them in a national convention in St. Petersburg, and at the present time she has fifty-three scientific societies, with a membership of nearly ten thousand, in nineteen different cities and towns. One hundred and thirty-eight Russian scientists have a European reputation, or at least have importance enough to justify the editors of the English "Who's Who in Science" in furnishing brief biographies of them with reference to their work. [Who's Who in Science," London, 1914.] These men represent seventeen different branches of scientific research, and two of them—Metchnikof and Mendeleief—are known, at least by name, to all the world.

Even in military technology the Russians are not hopelessly outclassed. Competent judges express the opinion that in military aviation Russia stands second only to France, and the distinctively Russian biplane, designed by Sikorsky, has a record for carrying seventeen passengers for an hour and a half, and six passengers for five hours, at a speed of fifty miles an hour.

The Russian peasants, of course, are neither scientists nor technologists; but even they think that they can do a few things—and especially work metals—as skillfully as anybody. A century or two ago, according to a folk-tale current in Russia, the Gossudar (the Czar) called together a dozen or more peasants who had a reputation for skill in the working of metals, and exhibited to them a steel flea, of natural size, which had been "made in Germany" and had been sent to him, partly as a gift and partly to show the delicacy of the German smiths' work. The Gossudar handed it to the peasants on a plate and said:

"Look at that! You think that you can work metals; but I don't believe there's one of you who can duplicate that steel flea."

The peasants said, "Perhaps not, Batushka (Little Father); but if you will let us take the flea home, we will see what we can do."

The Czar consented, and they retired. A day or two later they reappeared, and with low waist-bows presented to their monarch on a plate the same German flea, but without the expected duplicate.

"Ah!" said the Czar, "You couldn't make another. I knew you couldn't!"

"Will your Majesty deign to look at the flea through a magnifying-glass?" replied the peasants.

A glass was brought, and upon close inspection it was found that the Russian metal workers had shod the German flea with steel shoes.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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