Why Russia's Army Fell to Pieces

By Edward Alsworth Ross

[The Independent, March 16, 1918]

A long autumn afternoon in Kakhetia of the Caucasus, our train lay alongside a troop train from the Armenian front and we could observe the results of the breakdown of Russian military discipline. The floor of the box cars the soldiers lived in was thick with dirt and their clothing was in an indescribably filthy condition. Often their uniforms were torn and ragged and some went barefoot, having traded off their boots for liquor.

Most of them seemed to have become mere "bums" without standards of self-respect. They whiled away the hours dancing and stamping about their cars to the music of a harmonica. At the last station back a wine shop had been raided and not a few showed marked exhilaration. According to the mood of the moment they embraced one another or quarreled. One soldier pursued another up the station terrace with drawn sword, but a crowd of his comrades caught him and he was escorted back to his car, reeling and singing. When the first rush occurred an officer ran out of the station buffet and disappeared into the railway administration building. Nobody blamed him, for when trouble occurs the officers are quite impotent and would be the first victims did they interfere.

The smooth-faced lads were not so bestial as the older soldiers. The ringleaders in demoralization were men in the thirties. Those who made the most noise and took the initiative in misconduct were the less prepossessing—low-browed, snub-nosed, heavy-jowled and big-mouthed. The decent looking seemed to be without influence on the behavior of the troop. The dignified Georgian peasants on our train stared in silent amazement at the looks and behavior of these flushed, tousled; unshaven defenders of the flag. The language of the maudlin merrymakers was so filthy that the ladies in the cars opposite theirs were hastily conducted elsewhere. Some of them took to bellowing that the Georgian soldiers on our train were runaways, but took great umbrage when Prince T., an old Revolutionist, replied that probably many of them were deserters. It looked for a while as if the uniformed men of the two trains might come to blows, but a tactful allusion to the Prince's half century of exile saved the situation.

At this time the Georgians were shuddering at what might occur when the demoralized soldiers of the Caucasian front should be demobilized and returned to Russia thru Georgia. Only three days before a regiment passing thru Eutais had looted shops, got drunk and terrorized the town until they were taken in hand by two battalions of Cossacks and two of cadet officers from Tiflis. About the same time at the Tiflis railway station two hundred of these soldiers took it into their heads they wanted to go to Yelizavetpol "where the fruit comes from," and demanded a car for their use from the commandant of the station. On his refusal they beat him to death.

Under the old regime there was a truly Prussian distance between officers and men. The latter were punished in guard house for failure to salute or remaining seated in the former's presence. Common soldiers were not allowed inside tram cars, in the better restaurants, or in a theater save in the gallery.

If a superior officer entered a playhouse all other officers stood and remained standing so long as the lights were on. But in Vladivostok in July I never saw a military salute. Off-duty officers and privates called one another "Comrade" and mingled on a footing of equality. Following the order of' Grutzkow, first Revolutionary Minister of War, the superior was no longer addrest as "Your this" or "Your that" but as "Mr. Colonel" or "Mr. General." Petrograd had ordered that the handsome residence of' the Admiral be made a naval officers' club, but the sailors thought it unfair, so it was opened for naval men, whether officers or sailors. I was assured that the election of officers by men was common and that those thus singled out sometimes declined the honor, deeming officering too difficult under the existing conditions. The men assumed that an officer set over them without their consent must be a tyrant. Russian sailors visiting the "Buffalo" during her stay in Vladivostok were astonished to hear the American sailors speak well of their officers.

It is quite unjust to lay all the blame for the growth of insubordination in the Russian army on certain errors of Gutzkow. Under the old regime, discipline in the sense of obedience prompted by respect for the worth and rank of one's officer, did not exist. Things were so bad that the Grand Duke Nicholas authorized an officer to shoot down at once a man who failed to obey his first order. The terroristic system employed against the men is illustrated by an incident told me by an army surgeon who witnessed it. A man of the sanitary squad while getting his pay remarked to the company secretary that it was queer that sanitaries and orderlies had not been included in the Easter distribution of presents among the soldiers. The secretary tattled the remark to the commandant, who thereupon beat the sanitary with his fists and when the prostrate man protested, threatened to shoot him if he uttered another word.

The man was then stood up for two hours in front of the trench for the Germans to shoot at and a squad of fifty men were ordered to defile him. When they refused, they were punished by being made to stand at attention for two hours, under enemy fire.

Among the officers themselves there was little discipline. They drank heavily, gambled with cards, had loose women in their quarters and disregarded many general orders aiming to regulate their conduct in the interest of the service. Sometimes the men were sent into an unauthorized and utterly hopeless attack by their drunken officers. Scandalous, too, was the neglect of the sick and wounded by those in places of authority. As a result the men hated their officers.

What the soldiers had been thru tended to break down their morale. The lack of weapons was chronic. Before Riga in 1915 there were but half as many rifles as men. In the trenches were a multitude of utterly unarmed men who gained a weapon only when a comrade fell. They were fed well enough and had plenty of cartridges but lacked rifles. On the other hand they had artillery in abundance but lacked ammunition for it. Besides these maddening conditions the soldiers had no idea what they were fighting for. Prussia, Serbia, the Dardanelles were as much beyond their ken as the geography of Mars. Little meaning could the war have for those west-bound Siberian troops who on reaching Omsk supposed they were at the front and at every big town from there on poured out of their box cars ready to repel Germans.

It is clear, then, that the Revolution did not destroy discipline, but made apparent the absence of it.

The makers of the March Revolution knowing that the older and higher officers, while they might despise Nicholas, had no love for a truly democratic social order, hastened to forestall any attempt at an army counter-revolution by telling the soldiers that they were now free citizens and that they must scrutinize every order carefully and obey none which seemed, to betray them to the Romanoffs or the Germans. But thus was raised up a Frankenstein. Free citizens! How could the soldiers take this but as meaning they were free, of the most oppressive thing in their lives—their military service and obedience? If not that what could the Revolution mean to them?

Gutzkow's famous Order No. 1 to the effect that the rights of the soldiers and those of the officer are the same wiped out all those obligatory distinctions and attentions by which the private was made to feel the superiority of his officer. Then the soldiers were ordered to hold meetings and elect a committee, the chairman of which should be ex-officio the commanding officer. To these committees Gutzkow assigned specific functions relating to food, furlough and discipline. All complaints by officers of insubordination on the part of a soldier were referred to this committee and it fixed the punishment. Unfortunately the officers were not democratic in their feelings and manners and in these committees failed to work harmoniously with the men. They lacked skill in carrying their men with them, so that the men formed the habit of outvoting them—which was bad.

The soldiers wanted the higher command purged of certain evil or unworthy officers who had belonged to the secret police or been notorious for brutality to their men or hostility to the Revolution. But the generals hung together, as they had under the Tsar and the obnoxious officers remained. The war ministry meant well, hut high cabals made its decisions of no effect.

Then the soldiers themselves undertook to delete the bad officers. For example, the Tver garrison demanded that the action of the men in the meeting or by committee should have the effect of suspending an officer until the truth or falsity of the charges had been established in an open trial. The war ministry never recognized such a right in the men, but the Petrograd Soviet did so and even created a committee to consider charges brought by soldiers against their officers. On the other hand, not even the Soviet countenanced the demand voiced from some quarters that the soldiers be given the right to dismiss and elect their officers.

It was the Bolshevist propaganda beginning among the soldiers early in May which gave the finishing blow to the discipline of the army. The Socialist leaders thought it clever policy to take Russia out of the war by seducing the soldiers rather than changing the nation's will to fight. They did in deed defeat the intention of their political opponents to carry on the war, but in so doing they fostered the spirit of insubordination until the army was utterly worthless as a fighting force and Russia was left defenseless before the advance of the Germans. By their unscrupulous short-cut to the realization of their pacifist aims, they ruined their country and with it the working class they thought to advance. Not while that horrible instance of misapplied democracy survives in the memory of men will a nation tolerate such a propaganda of disobedience and anarchy among the troops as went on unhindered among the Russian soldiers in the summer and autumn of 1917.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury