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Russian Military Logistics in World War I

Дата публикации: 04 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Александр Павлович Шиманский
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS) - Imperial Russia →
Источник: (c) http://russia.by
Номер публикации: №1188913493 / Жалобы? Ошибка? Выделите проблемный текст и нажмите CTRL+ENTER!

Did Russia have an efficient logistical system during the Great War?

Viewpoint: Yes. Although Russia did suffer some shortages during the conflict, it produced and received enough matériel to sustain its war effort.

Viewpoint: No. The Russian logistical system was able to only sustain the material demands of the war for a few months before sliding into gridlock and eventual collapse.


Among the most enduring images of the Russian effort in the Great War is a lack of the tools of modern war--not merely artillery pieces, shells, and aircraft but also basic requirements, such as small arms. Accounts are replete with stories of replacements being sent unarmed to the front and told to pick up the rifles of casualties, or of bayonets being used to do the work that more-sophisticated armies entrusted to shells and bullets.
This explanation was useful during and after the war for those associated with the tsarist system to explain away the defeat of Russian armies. On one level it nurtured an image of Russia as entering into a conflict for which it was unprepared in order to support ungrateful allies. Some versions go so far as to accuse France and Britain of bad faith, or at least indifference to the fate of Russia, in that the Western Allies failed to make a sufficient effort to deliver the war matériel Russia needed so badly. The Communist government also found the shortage motif useful both as an indictment of the old order and a justification for the heavy concentration on military spending. Finally, scholars of all cultures have found the arms shortage a useful focal point for discussions of the Russian failure to develop an industrial society before 1914.
Norman Stone in The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 (1975), his seminal analysis of the Russo-German conflict during World War I, challenged conventional wisdom on a statistical level. He made a strong case that domestic Russian production, combined with the Allied delivery of munitions, showed that Russia was on the whole no worse off than the other major combatants for most of the war. Subsequent research has focused less on figures than on infrastructures. The material results cited by Stone were the product of a national mobilization that depended for financing on borrowing and on printing money--both the causes of runaway inflation. The new and expanded factories drew labor from unskilled men and women, taken largely from the farms. That employment diminished productivity both in the cities and in an agricultural system that was increasingly labor-intensive as work animals were requisitioned by the army. Finally, the Russian administrative system was less and less able to move either food or manufactured goods where they were needed. The prewar "crust of competence," people who could make trains run on time and keep records accurately, was thin at best. The losses and sacrifices of war diminished Russian industry and overstrained the survivors to a point where, well before the Revolution of 1917, the decisive problem was not shortages but gridlock.

Viewpoint: Yes. Although Russia did suffer some shortages during the conflict, it produced and received enough matériel to sustain its war effort.

Russia achieved remarkable growth in the production of war matériel, with a continuous improvement in quantities of supplies from 1914 through 1916. Machine-gun production, for example, rose from 165 units per month in 1914 to more than 1,200 per month by December 1916. In addition, over that same period of time Russia received more than 32,000 machine guns from its allies, mostly from the United States. Even more important than sheer quantitative increases such as this one, however, was the improvement in the Russian production system during the first two years of World War I.

In an unprecedented event private Russian citizens and agencies of what might be termed "civil" society joined forces with government ministries and industrialists in two forums to address Russian supply needs. The first of these, the Zemstva Union, provided critical supplies and humanitarian aid to the army during the chaos of the opening months of the war and the Great Retreat of 1915. Under Prince Georgy Lvov, who had earned a heroic reputation in Russia for his assistance to veterans of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the Zemstva Union provided 7.5 million suits of underwear, 250,000 tents, fur winter clothing for 250,000, and more than 180,000 hospital beds from privately funded sources in the first six months of the conflict. The Union represented a voluntary effort to coordinate the efforts of local Russian officials. Limited in its scope, the Zemstva had originally been formed by the Great Reforms of Tsar Alexander II in the 1860s. Despite restrictions placed on its activity by an untrusting central government, the Zemstva raised more than 25,000,000 rubles in 1914 and more than 100,000,000 in 1915, all of which was spent on supplies and medical aid. When Commander-in-Chief Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich begged the visiting president of the Duma in September of 1915 to "Get my army shod!" the Zemstva Union led the response, buying more than 5,000,000 pairs of boots from the United States.

The second, more-formal forum that mobilized Russian society and production to meet war needs was the "Special Conference on National Defense." This agency, a mixture unprecedented in Russian history, brought together government ministers, private industrialists, technical experts, supply and weapons specialists in the army, and patriotic citizens. A combination of political and bureaucratic authority with technical expertise enabled this agency to drastically improve Russian industrial production to meet the needs of the army. Under its leadership, Russian rifle production soared from 41 total rifles produced in the first seven months of 1914 to more than 40,000 each month by the end of 1915. By the spring of 1916 every Russian rifle had a reserve of about 400 rounds, as Russia produced 1.3 million rifles and 1.5 billion cartridges per year. Shell production, which had limited Russian artillery to 2 or 3 rounds per gun per day early in the war, rose to more than 1.5 million shells per month by early 1916, an increase of more than twelve times from the opening days of the war. Gun production increased just as dramatically. From 1900 to 1914, including the period of the Russo-Japanese War, Russia produced an average of 1,237 field guns per year. In 1916 alone it produced more than 5,000 field pieces. In fact, Russian production of field guns was, by 1917, greater than that of either Britain or France. In summary, the "Special Conference" greatly enhanced Russian production, despite the many obstacles it faced. In so doing, it reduced (but did not eliminate) the dependence of Russia upon foreign sources of supply.

The Allies provided Russia with prodigious quantities of equipment as well. The relative calm on the Western Front in 1915 enabled British and French sources to deliver more than 150 heavy guns, 500 trench mortars, 2,000,000 hand grenades, 75,000,000 rifle cartridges, 2,500,000 pounds of explosives, and 50 airplanes, as well as armored cars, barbed wire, and other supplies to the port of Archangel. According to W. Bruce Lincoln, in Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914-1918 (1986), British military observer General Alfred Knox noted that "The Russian military position had improved by the commencement of summer 1916 far beyond the expectations of any foreign observer who had taken part in the retreat of the previous year."

That improvement also included food, the most critical supply of any army. By mid 1916 Russian grain reserves were more than twice that of the previous year. Keeping grain that would have been exported in peacetime boosted Russian reserves. Lincoln noted that Russia had "grain to spare" as 1916 drew to a close.

Thus, it was not matériel shortages per se that crippled the Russian effort and set it on the path to defeat and revolution. Instead, incompetent military and civilian leaders mismanaged domestic material production and reserves and failed to properly deliver the Allied aid it received.

Russian war plans were fundamentally flawed. On its frontier with Germany, Russia relied heavily upon massive fortress complexes, such as Novo-Georgievsk and Ivangorod on the Vistula and Brest-Litovsk, supported by smaller fortresses such as Grodno, Kovno, and Osowiec. Such bastions hearkened back to an earlier age of warfare and failed to account for the mobility and speed of the modern German army, not to mention the awesome power of siege artillery in the twentieth century. Most critically, however, these fortresses tied up massive quantities of weapons, supplies, and troops that could not be made available to the hard-pressed Russian field army in the opening months of the war. The arsenals of those field armies contained only about two-thirds of the (profoundly outmoded) estimates by the Russian General Staff of cartridge reserves in August 1914. Thus, while the troops of the Third Army fought hand-to-hand, using bayonets fixed on empty rifles in the spring of 1915, more than 75,000,000 rifle cartridges were locked away in the fortresses of Kovno, Grodno, Osowiec, and Brest-Litovsk. As the Germans drove eastward, the armies that faced them begged for shells and supplies. Nine thousand pieces of artillery, including 900 heavy guns, 1,000,000 shells, and more than 100,000,000 rounds of rifle and machine-gun ammunition were lost in the fall of Ivangorod and Novo-Georgievsk. Russian commanders could not marshal the trains to move those supplies to the field armies, even if they had taken the decision to do so, during the German offensives in spring 1915.

Perhaps nowhere was the mismanagement of resources so pronounced as in that of grain. Russian peasants refused to sell their bumper crops of 1915 and 1916. Artificially low prices set by the government and the lack, or complete absence, of consumer goods provided absolutely no incentive for peasants to deliver grain that the urban workers and the army so desperately needed. By 1916 peasant protests and riots signaled the first ominous steps toward collapse and revolution.

One final aspect of the Russian supply situation was also critical. The transportation system faced impossible challenges in trying to deliver the enormous wartime volumes of matériel over the vast distances of Russia. When both domestic and Allied sources of supply are considered, each bullet fired by a Russian soldier had to be brought more than 4,000 kilometers from source to front. Each artillery shell was transported more than 6,500 kilometers from manufacturer to gun. Combined with the impossibly scrambled Russian distribution system (for example, it was more efficient to import iron ore and coal from Baltic sources to Petersburg industries than to move domestic sources from Krivoy Rog in the south), these distances overwhelmed the transportation system.

Thus, mismanagement, incompetence, and geography were the crippling factors of Russian wartime logistics. Ample quantities of supplies and material were produced by Russia or received from the Allies, but the inability to deliver them where they were most needed fatally undermined the army and the regime, paving the road to defeat and revolution.

-- David L. Ruffley, U.S. Air Force Academy

Viewpoint: No. The Russian logistical system was able to only sustain the material demands of the war for a few months before sliding into gridlock and eventual collapse.

In addition to its many other structural problems, Imperial Russia never developed an adequate infrastructure to supply its armies with the materials needed to fight a modern war. Entering World War I as the least-developed great power, its factories could neither compete with those of its enemies nor equal those of its allies, at least not in proportion to its wartime responsibilities. Chronic mismanagement in the top echelons of the government prevented Russia from reaching its full potential. Such related factors as weak war finance, poor railroad construction and maintenance, and political instability damaged the ability of Russia to build and stockpile armaments all the more.

The main problem with Russian military preparation actually preceded the outbreak of war in 1914. Rather than taking constructive steps to make the army a competitive force in Europe, Vladimir Sukhomlinov proved to be an absolute disaster as Imperial War Minister. In addition to habitual personal malfeasance, dubious associations with people who later turned out to be enemy agents, and backward thinking about strategy and tactics, Sukhomlinov did a terrible job of equipping the army. In the years leading up to 1914, a time characterized by increasing diplomatic and strategic tension with Austria-Hungary and Germany, he actually underspent the allotted annual funding of his ministry. Although military spending increased in the years before 1814, Sukhomlinov did a poor job.

Because of sloth and general incompetence the Russians allowed their stockpiles of shells, small arms, artillery, and other important war materials to decrease. When the Russian army went to war in 1914 the inadequacy of its preparations became immediately apparent. A significant percentage of its infantry (approaching one-third in some units) went into combat unarmed. When the poorly equipped soldiers were sent into battle, they were told to pick up the weapons dropped by their fallen comrades. Russian artillery units were so undersupplied that they often stood silent in the face of German bombardments and infantry assaults or fired off only a few token rounds each day. Infantry attacks against German positions could not be supported by coordinated fire from heavy guns, and defensive positions could not be supported by artillery fire. In a war that came to be dominated by fortified front lines, the swift exhaustion of Russian ammunition stockpiles allowed the Germans to conduct effective campaigns and conquer significant amounts of enemy territory. When Germany opened its offensive in Russian Poland in the spring of 1915, the only realistic strategic option for the Russian general staff was to conduct a withdrawal to a shorter and more defensible line.

Once the magnitude of the supply disaster was identified, however, the Russian government took several steps in the right direction. In 1915 Tsar Nicholas II finally dismissed the ineffectual Sukhomlinov and replaced him with General Alexei Polivanov, an industrious, technocratic modernizer. The tsar also allowed the formation of "special councils" to address problems of production and supply on the home front. A group of distinguished industrialists and financiers formed a War Industries Committee, led by the moderate right-wing political figure Aleksandr Guchkov, to coordinate the efforts of the special councils and to rationalize military production. The Russian government appealed to the Allied powers, domestic investors, and their own growing banking sector for loans to facilitate further development. It also communicated news of its shortages to the Western Allies (Sukhomlinov never mentioned it to them) and accepted their offers of material and technical assistance.

Despite the improvements brought about by these efforts, however, the Russian system of war supply remained a lost cause. Production increased, but even its most dramatic growth was inadequate for the needs of the army. Russia was producing as many artillery shells as Great Britain by September 1915, but statistics such as these were misleading for several reasons. First, Russia mobilized thirteen million men over the course of the war, compared with the relatively smaller totals of Britain and France. Even if it produced equivalent quantities of war materials by the autumn of 1915, its per-capita production remained only a fraction of what the British and French were realizing, and Russia could make correspondingly less material available to its troops. The technological sophistication of Russian weaponry, furthermore, lagged significantly behind that of most other major combatants, and Russia never developed emerging military technologies such as tanks, planes, and telephone communications on a competitive scale.

Second, Russia had to defend single-handedly a one-thousand-mile front against both Germany and Austria-Hungary, as well as another significant front against the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France had imperial commitments and engaged in small campaigns on other fronts, but the overwhelming majority of their strength was concentrated in the geographically small area of the Western Front. They shared the burden of defense there, moreover, with the tenacious Belgian army, troops from their colonial empires, and ultimately with the might of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). With the exception of Serbia and Romania, the first of which was effectively eliminated as a combatant by the autumn of 1915 and the second of which entered and left the war in a three-month period in late 1916, Russia stood alone in the East.

Although some historians point out that the initial successes of the Brusilov offensive, launched in Galicia in the summer of 1916, were possible because Russian artillery batteries had higher reserves of shells than those of their opponents, this logistical feat was hardly spectacular for a country that had not taken the offensive for nearly two years and had offered only token resistance in the meantime. German and Austrian forces opposing General Aleksey Brusilov were less well supplied because their counterparts on the Western Front were more heavily engaged. Indeed, a significant part of the Battle of Verdun, where German guns often fired several hundred thousand shells a day, was concomitant with the whole duration of the Brusilov offensive. Despite early successes, the Russian effort collapsed as soon as German reinforcements and supplies arrived. Even if Russia had consistently produced a comparable amount of armaments to its Western allies, the armaments still would have been insufficiant to satisy its military responsibilities.

Third, while British and French war production was significant, these countries were also in a much better position to expand their arsenals through trade and purchase than Russia was. London and Paris started buying military munitions from the United States well before America entered the war in April 1917. American banks extended generous credits and loans to the Western Allies almost from the beginning of the conflict. British ownership of half the merchant marine in the world, its possession of the largest navy, and--despite the German U-boat blockade--the relative ease of access to ports in the British Isles and France for transatlantic shipping made importing war matériels quite easy. Although Russia received foreign war materials, its infrastructure was totally unprepared to handle either their receipt on an adequate scale or their transport to the front. German control of access to the Baltic Sea and Turkish control of the entry to the Black Sea meant that Russia could only receive supplies through three ports--Murmansk on the Arctic Sea, Archangel on the White Sea, and Vladivostok on the Pacific. Frozen Archangel could only be used for a maximum of six months out of the year, while construction of the Murmansk and Trans-Siberian railroads was only completed in 1916. The strain that the war placed on Russian railroads overall led to frequent breakdowns and chronic congestion, especially since the most sophisticated segments of its rail network and much of its rolling stock--together with much industry--were lost in the Polish territories that fell to the Germans in 1915. By 1917 the situation was so difficult that Russian railroads could barely move domestically produced matériels to the front or, ominously, even supply the major cities with food. A large amount of Allied war supplies simply sat on the loading docks of distant ports; some supplies sat long after Russia left the war.

Russian war production had a myriad of other persistent problems as well. In addition to the geographic factors of its isolation, it did not enjoy financial resources comparable to those of its allies. While it possessed a modern banking system and a generally competent ministry of finance, it already had huge foreign debts that dated back to the industrial growth of the late nineteenth century and had only increased in the years leading up to the war. France and Belgium, the largest prewar creditors to Russia, were now fighting for their lives and had no available capital to lend out. Like Britain, both countries had to borrow abroad just to keep themselves supplied and fighting. While America lent freely to Britain and France, its political leaders and capital markets distrusted Tsarist Russia almost as much as they distrusted Imperial Germany and had little inclination--or practical ability, for that matter--to help it financially. Relative to its European allies, the ability of Russia to borrow abroad was sharply curtailed.

State revenue for industrial development and military production was also problematic. Without its regular peacetime infusions of foreign capital, and having to compensate for its serious initial lack of supply, the Russian government embarked on an inflationary course that dramatically cut the value of its currency and its people's real wages. While inflation was a problem throughout Europe, the situation in Russia, where cost of living rose three times faster than wages by late 1916, was truly catastrophic. Uniquely among the combatant powers, the Russian tax base suffered, for the government had not adopted the modern revenue-generating schemes of direct taxation of property and income, practices that had become common in Europe and the United States in the decade before the war. Most of the Imperial budget was still supported by excise taxes on goods that people were less likely to buy in an economy of high prices and scarcity and by customs duties on imports that had vanished because of the geographic isolation of the empire in wartime.

Perhaps the greatest threat to steady war production came from the political turbulence of 1917. After the monarchy was toppled in February of that year, the management of labor and production questions by the Provisional Government was, like so many of its other initiatives, a dismal failure. In addition to its inheritance of the structural problems of the Old Regime, Russia neither completely succeeded in reestablishing law and order nor effectively challenged radical challenges to its economic policy.

Although Russian industrial workers had many legitimate grievances and were in many ways manipulated by socialist agitators and political parties, their increased radicalization was catastrophic for war production. Identifying political controversies closely with the nature of their work and the general economic situation, sprouting workers' committees presented industrial owners and managers with demands for shorter hours, higher wages, and better working conditions. Such demands were sometimes modest, reasonable, and acceptable to management, but in many cases--especially in the overworked war industries--they were radical, unrealistic, and violent. Among other things, radical workers frequently demanded broad worker participation in managerial decisions, the removal of unpopular managers and foremen (regardless of their actual qualifications or effectiveness), impossibly high pay increases, and abstract political reforms that business owners were simply incapable of bringing about. The physical intimidation and violence that accompanied many of these labor-management confrontations frequently scared owners and managers into accepting any demand presented to them, however absurd or economically unsound, or into shutting their plants down altogether. In short, Russian industry became simultaneously less productive and more expensive to operate.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, moreover, their wholesale expropriation of industry created an even bigger disaster. Their initial policy of giving over nationalized industrial assets to "worker control" merely resulted in workers voting for even higher wages, still shorter hours, and worse production decisions than they had originally demanded. Already having asked Germany for an armistice, Bolshevik hopes for maintaining some leverage in the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations were made impossible by the almost total disintegration of the Russian industrial base, as well as the continuing disintegration of the military. Only the imposition of a full command economy based on central planning, ruthless coercion, and political terror could eventually restore some semblance of order to Russian industry. By then, of course, Russia had lost World War I and had begun its descent into civil war and communist dictatorship.

-- Paul Du Quenoy, Georgetown University


In his memoirs Russian general Anton Denikin, commander of the Fourth Rifle "Iron" Brigade, recounts the lack of adequate supplies on the Eastern Front:

By late 1914 there was already a keen shortage of supplies and cartridges, but the careless and ignorant war minister, Sukhomlinov, succeeded in convincing the sovereign, the Duma, and the public that all was well. Toward the spring of 1915 a terrible crisis became evident in equipment and especially in military stores. The strain of artillery fire in that war reached unprecedented and unexpected dimensions, upsetting all the theoretical calculations made by both our and western European military science. But while industry in the western countries, by extraordinary effort, coped with the critical task of creating huge arsenals and stocks, we were unable to do so.

Only toward the spring of 1916 did we manage, by colossal effort and foreign orders, to acquire heavy artillery and replenish our stock of cartridges and supplies. Of course it was still not on a scale with that of our allies but it was sufficient for prolonging the war with some hope of victory. . . .

I recall that in the 8th Army that summer we had only two hundred shells remaining for each gun and had not been promised supply replacement from the artillery department before early fall. Batteries consisting of eight guns each were reduced to six guns and empty ordinance depots were dispatched to the rear as unnecessary.

The spring of 1915 will remain in my memory forever. Grievously bloody battles. Neither cartridges nor shells. The battle near Peremyshl in mid-May meant eleven days of cruel fighting for the Iron Brigade. Eleven days of the dreadful boom of German heavy artillery, literally razing whole rows of trenches along with their defenders. And the silence of my batteries.

We were unable to answer. There was nothing with which to answer. Even rifle shells were rationed. Nearly exhausted regiments repulsed one attack after another with bayonets or, in extreme cases, by firing point blank. I watched as the ranks of my brave riflemen diminished, and I experienced despair as I realized my absurd helplessness. Two regiments were almost annihilated by one burst of enemy fire. When after three days' silence our six-gun batteries received fifty shells, it was reported by telephone to all the regiments. And all companies, all the riflemen, breathed more easily. Under such circumstances no strategic plan toward either Berlin or Budapest would or could be carried out.

Source: Anton I. Denikin, The Career of a Tsarist Officer: Memoirs, 1872-1916, translated by Margaret Patoski (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975), pp. 252-253.



Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (London: Cape, 1996).

Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History (New York: Holt, 1994).

John Keegan, The First World War (London: Hutchinson, 1998).

W. Bruce Lincoln, Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914-1918 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986).

Bernard Pares, The Fall of the Russian Monarchy: A Study of the Evidence (London: Cape, 1939; New York: Knopf, 1939).

Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1990).

Dennis E. Showalter, Tannenberg: Clash of Empires (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1991).

Norman Stone, The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 (New York: Scribners, 1975).

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Macmillan, 1962).

Rex A. Wade, The Russian Revolution, 1917 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Allan K. Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers' Revolt, volume 1, The Old Army and the Soldiers' Revolt (March-April 1917) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).

Опубликовано 04 сентября 2007 года

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