Sergei BAZANOV, (c)
by Sergei BAZANOV, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), Institute of Russian History, RAS, Moscow
In line with the federal law signed by the RF President Vladimir Putin in 2012 the date of August 1 is declared Memorial Day of Russian Soldiers fallen in World War I of 1914-1918. In this year of the centenary of its outbreak a number of events devoted to this significant date were sponsored throughout our country--scientific forums and exhibitions, unveiling of the monument to the fallen soldiers on the Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow and Russia in the Great War Museum in St. Petersburg. The purpose of these events is to remind our society of those pages of history.
On June 15, 1914, in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Mlada Bosna nationalist group mortally wounded the successor to the Vienna throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who went there to participate in maneuvers, by a Belgian semi-automatic pistol. Under the pressure of Germany, the government of Austria-Hungary sent to Serbia (the terrorist was Serbian), an ultimatum but Serbia rejected its humiliating terms and a month after "the Sarajevo murder" declared war on Serbia.
Russia responded to such turn of the events with partial mobilization. The Berlin policy-makers, who started well in advance a secret preparation for war and concentrated its troops along its boundaries, demanded in stringent terms to stop it, which was an attempt of a gross inter-ference in the internal affairs of the great power. Having received no reply to its ultimatum Germany on July 19 (and four days later under its pressure also Austria-Hungary) declared war on Russia and on July 21 on France and then on Belgium. Great Britain and Montenegro came out on our side. For the first time in history an unprecedented number of countries (38) were involved in the war. Two groupings, the Entente (Russia, France, Great Britain, the USA and some others) and the Quadruple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria), were the main "motive forces".
As an initiator of the war Germany was keen to seize a part of Poland, Ukraine and Baltic countries from Russia and together with Austria-Hungary to gain a foothold on the Balkans. The ideological ground for participation
of our country in the European military conflict was reflected in the manifestos of Emperor Nicholas II of July 20 and 26, 1914. It included defense of the territory, protection of honor and dignity of Russia, its position among the great powers, vital interests of the people and national sacred places from infringements of other states, and assistance to the Slav brothers.
The Russian people met the war called officially the Great War with a unanimous outburst of patriotism. Everywhere prayer services were held on "bestowing a victory over the treacherous and subtle enemy" and also demonstrations and manifestations especially powerful in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Besides, the newspapers and journals of those days drew a parallel with the Patriotic War of 1812* the centenary of which was marked on a grand scale in 1912.
* See: G. Gerasimova, M. Prokhorov, "Moscow's Fortunes Sealed Out There", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2010.--Ed.
The outburst of patriotism in the autumn of 1914 was expressed not only in words but also in readiness for self-sacrifice. Suffice it to say that the first out of 19 mobilizations of the wartime was carried out not only successfully, promptly and according to plan (appearance of draftees was almost 100 percent) but also gave birth to a powerful voluntary movement which covered even a part of youth whose call up was postponed. Signed up were workers of defense factories who had exemption from military service, students and representatives of the intelligentsia. Among them were, for example, writers Alexander Kuprin, Vikenty Veresayev and poet Nikolai Gumilyov. Exiled revolutionaries also filed petitions to local authorities expressing readiness to join defenders of Motherland.
The women's voluntary movement was also launched in different parts of the country. The story of the Siberian peasant woman Maria Bochkareva who decided to go to
the war as a soldier was a striking example in point. At the assembly point she asked to register her as a volunteer but was refused as the weaker sex was not allowed to join the army. Then the brave girl sent a cable (as she was illiterate) to the tsar Nicholas II and soon got his imperial permit to join the country defenders. She went through the war, was wounded four times, became a full holder of the St. George Cross and rose to the rank of lieutenant, and in 1917 she became an initiator of women's striking battalions.
Antonina Palshina, a peasant woman from the Vyatka province was another woman who became known in the whole of Russia as she repeated the feat of arms of Na-dezhda Durova, a hero of the Patriotic War of 1812. From 1914 she fought bravely under the guise of man, became a holder of the St. George Cross, rose to the rank of junior non-commissioned officer and only in the summer of 1917 retired after another severe wound.
The empress Alexandra Fedorovna and her four daughters worked as nurses at the Tsarskoselsky Hospital. Grand Princess Olga Alexandrovna equipped the hospital at her own expense where she served as a nurse. Other representatives of noble families and social classes followed their patriotic example and worked in hospitals as nurses or medical orderlies.
The Russian Red Cross Society worked actively to organize mobile hospitals in the army in the field. Besides, in the first days of the war the All-Russia Union for Assistance to the Wounded in Action and then the All-Russia City Union were established, both of which merged to form the Union of Districts and Cities in July 1915. In the short run such organizations as the Volunteer Society for Assistance to War Victims, the Union of Holders of the St. George Cross, the Committee for Assistance to Families of Those Called up to the War, the Committee of "Book for the Soldier" and many other public institutions began functioning in the country. Postal workers, telegraph clerks, firemen, painters, artists and others conducted charity events.
A possibility to help one's fellowmen, convince them of a historic inevitability of the events under way and instill in them confidence in a victory over the enemy attracted attention of major national painters and graphic artists (among them were Apollinary and Viktor Vasnet-sov, Konstantin Korovin, Leonid Pasternak) to popular art such as magazine graphics, cartoons, cheap popular prints, posters and picture postcards. Theater and cinema kept pace with them, and political topics started prevailing in their repertoires. In a word, all social classes faced the menacing time with a decision to defend the Motherland.
However, the armed forces and national economy as a whole were not prepared for such sudden outbreak of the war. Only heroism and self-sacrifice of soldiers and
officers minimized to a large extent the element of surprise. By the way, a deplorable experience of the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905 (in which the enemy gained a victory) including awareness of necessity of preparation for possible military conflicts in peace-time compelled the tsarist government to take a number of steps for improvement of manning, combat training, centralization of higher command of the army and its combat equipment. For example, in 1909-1912, the updated programs for military schools and new military regulations were introduced, which improved considerably training of troops, and in 1912 a new conscription law was issued which allowed calling up of more recruits. But it was not managed to carry out the planned measures as the pace of this work was very low. According to the analysis of the General Staff our country could have conducted successful large-scale warfare at best in 1917-1919. But already in 1914 Russia was destined to play one of the key roles at the European theater of military operations.
Russia formed two fronts out of its armed forces. In August of 1914 the North-West Front (against Germany) launched the East Prussian operation*, which started quite successfully but ended in failure due to the mistakes of the higher command and a number of other reasons. A considerable number of corps of the employed 2nd army suffered heavy losses, and the army commander general Alexander Samsonov shot himself, according to most research workers. However, the strategic outcome of this ill-fated offensive cannot be diminished because the enemy was forced to bring here its troops from the Western (French) Front, which weakened its grouping there and enabled the allies to hold back the German strike in the Battle on the Marne river.
Almost simultaneously with the combat actions in Eastern Prussia, the Battle of Galicia at the South-Western Front started against Austria-Hungary which ended with
* See: A. Makarychev, "From Königsberg to Kaliningrad", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2014.--Ed.
a splendid victory on September 8, 1914. In the autumn of that year the Supreme Command formed the Caucasian Front. The Turkish warships cannonaded a number of our Black Sea ports, and in return the Entente states declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Thus, in 1914 our country offered successful counteraction to three powers drawing about half of the German bloc forces and dispelled its hopes for a triumphant blitzkrieg.
Meanwhile, the problem of regular personnel of the army in the field started to manifest itself by the end of the first year of war. The point is that initially the combat actions were conducted by professional and well-trained regiments and divisions but the campaign of 1914 was maneuverable and consisted of numerous major battles, therefore losses, especially among officers and noncommissioned officers, proved to be heavy. Of course, every week more and more new reinforcement companies came to the front but they consisted of untrained reservists. This problem was followed by shortage of shells, cartridges and artillery especially heavy ordnance; the aircraft park also was worn out; equipment and foodstuffs also left much to be desired; the railway transport hardly dealt with transportation.
In the campaign of 1915 despite the failure of the blitzkrieg strategy the German command entertained hopes for a quick victory. Due to the temporal calm at the Western (French) Front, the enemy decided to pass over to a strategic defensive and direct the main attack to the Eastern (Russian) front. It was planned to force Russia out of the war, make it conclude a peace treaty beneficial for Germany and then fall upon Russia's allies.
Meanwhile, the Russian command prepared a large-scale offensive with a view of invasion the Hungarian plain. Conducting encounter battles with the enemy the armies of the South-Western Front moved slowly forward and after a four-month siege captured the powerful Austro-Hungarian fortress Peremyshl (today Przemysl in Poland) on March 9, 1915. But after the next severe futile battles followed by heavy losses and acute shortage of ammunition the Russian military command gave an order to the armies to consolidate their hold on the objective. It should be noted that this operation called the Carpathian was one of the bloodiest in Eastern Europe but neither of the opposing parties achieved the desired results.
The next steps of Germany which still tried to force Russia out from the war was the Gorlico-Tarnow breakthrough* and then the offensive in the region of Warsaw which made our troops withdraw from Galicia (today Ukraine) and Poland. They consolidated on the line Riga-Dvinsk-Dubno but were not defeated despite the enemy intentions. Having concentrated 54 percent of its forces in Eastern Europe, Germany seized a considerable territory there, defeated Serbia and as a whole gained a victory in the campaign of 1915. But the main course of the war did not change, it dragged on, which was not in favor of the enemy as its resources were inferior considerably of those in possession of the Entente countries. Besides, that year the geography of the European military conflict extended when Bulgaria joined the Quadruple Alliance and Italy took side of the Entente.
In 1916 the German bloc continued combat operations as before at both the Western and Eastern Fronts which meant for it a war of attrition. Great Britain and France used a relative lull at the front to build up their military-economic potential. Despite the difficult campaign of 1915 the defense industry in Russia also reached significant successes assisted largely by military-industrial committees, i.e. public organizations set up to support the government efforts toward mobilization of the industrial
* Gorlico-Tarnow breakthrough is an offensive operation of the Austro-German troops in the Southern Poland in 1915.--Ed.
potential for the benefit of the army in the field under the slogan "Everything for the front, everything for victory!" As a result the supply of our troops with weapons, ammunition and equipment markedly improved.
The year 1916 was victorious for Russia when in May-September its troops carried out one of the major operations of World War I, i.e. the offensive of the Southwestern Front known as the Brusilov breakthrough (after the name of the outstanding military leader who headed the offensive) which became a major achievement of the military art*. In contrast to the accepted methods at that time which dictated the launch of an attack in one point by accumulating there the maximum number of troops and artillery the front commander Alexei Brusilov decided to inflict a blow simultaneously in four points (Lutsk, Zolochev, Stanislav and Kolomiya -- today the Western Ukraine). The plan aimed to disperse attention, forces and resources of the enemy and prevent it from maneuvering of reserves (its units in the zones between the said directions will drop back inevitably under the threat of being entrapped or surrender). Under Brusilov's plan, as a result the Austro-Hungarian Front opposing our armies will "crash" entirely. His estimates proved to be correct.
* See: S. Bazanov, "General Brusilov: His Life, His Hour of Glory", Science in Russia, No. 4, 2006.--Ed.
Already in the course of the battles, the Supreme Command highly appreciated services of the talented military commander and awarded him the St. George arms, i.e. a sabre decorated with diamonds and inscription "For the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian armies and capture of their heavily fortified positions in Volyn, Galicia and Bukovina". It can be assumed that a timely support of the offensive on the South-Western Front by other Russian operational-strategic forces and all allied forces could well create conditions for a successful completion of the war against the Quadruple Alliance countries already by the end of 1916. But unfortunately it was never done. Meanwhile the Brusilov breakthrough opened a perspective for a victorious completion of the war for the Entente countries.
The same year a significant event took place in one region of our country which was extremely important for cooperation with our friendly states, i.e. the city of Ro-manov-on-Murman (from April of 1917 its name is Murmansk)* was founded on the Murmansk coast of the Kola Peninsula and soon the construction of a railway was finished, which connected the new city with the Central Russia. The fact is that the scale of the interallied marine shipment of military troops and cargo via Arkhangelsk
*See: A. Kiselev, "Northern Outpost of Russia", in this issue of the magazine.--Ed.
increased sharply at that time, and construction of a new sea port became imperative. The more so as being constructed on the coast of the non-freezing Kola Bay of the Barents Sea, this city could function all the year round. For the purpose of safe marine shipment a flotilla of the Arctic Ocean was formed whose ships, in particular, accompanied ships with our troops sent to France. Only in 1916 about 36,000 soldiers and officers were transported by 36 such trips without losses due to good management of sea convoys.
The third year of the war did not bring either of the warring sides to fulfillment of its strategic plans. Nevertheless, in all major battles of 1916--at Verdun in France, Trentino in Italy and in Eastern Galicia--the Entente gained a victory, furthermore surpassed the enemy in size of the armies and weaponry. It is just in the campaign of 1916 that the strategic initiative passed to the Entente, and the military power of the German bloc was undermined completely.
But in Russia by the end of 1916 both at the front and in the rear the antigovemment sentiments began to manifest themselves, which were mainly a result of the "reshuffle of the Council of Ministers", "rasputin-shchina"*, food shortage for population, inflation and many other events connected with the protracted war. Besides, the campaign of 1917 passed in a complex situation especially in the economic field for both opposing coalitions. And the worst of it all and also in regard of financial and man-power resources the situation was in the German bloc.
The main provisions of the plan of the campaign of 1917 were worked out by representatives of the Entente countries in November of 1916 at the Allied Chantilly Conference (France). They decided to launch joint concerted offensive operations with the Western Front playing key role while the Eastern Front was to contain the opposing Austro-Hungarian forces and thus promote success of the allies.
It must be admitted that Russia was prepared for the campaign of 1917 far better than for the previous campaigns. For example, making use of the winter respite, the chief of staff of the Supreme Command General Headquarters general Vasily Gurko conducted reorganization of the army after which regiments consisted of three instead of four battalions, which allowed to decrease accumulation of soldiers in the frontline and thus reduced combat losses. The troops had now enough rifles, and ammunition for the forthcoming campaign was provided in such quantity that even in case of a complete suspension of defense production it would suffice for three months of continuous combat actions. Besides, ordnance
* Rasputinshchina is the name of one of the manifestations of the crisis of power at the turn of 1916-1917, which is accepted in literature and expressed in unrestricted influence of the adventurer Grigory Rasputin on Emperor Nicholas II and his family.--Ed.
delivery from the allies was in full swing. In a word, at that time many people thought that victory was near at hand.
But these quite realistic forecasts failed to come true. February of 1917 brought a revolution to Russia caused by slowness and suspension of important political and socioeconomic reforms. If in the beginning of the war patriotism brought together people and the tsarist power, now a substantial part of the society believed that overthrow of autocracy would save the country. The Provisional Government came to power which confirmed fidelity to the allied duty and readiness to fight against the enemy to a victorious end. But having got a legal status the members of the Bolshevik Party launched an extensive antiwar propaganda aimed first of all at the army (organization of rallies, fraternization with the enemy*, etc.), which resulted in a sharp decline of discipline at the front. In such complex political situation the Russian command conducted an offensive operation in the summer of 1917 (the last operation at the Eastern Front), which naturally ended in defeat.
Having seized power in the country in October of 1917 the Bolshevik Party set a course for withdrawal from the war. In its first legal document, i.e. the Decree on Peace, the new government called the states of the both opposing blocs to stop combat actions, but having received no support and broken the allied obligations it signed a truce agreement with Germany and started negotiations with its representatives. As a result on March 3, 1918, Russia signed the separatist Brest peace treaty under which the vast areas in its European part and Caucasia were detached from Russia. But the German bloc was already doomed.
We would like to point out finally that in the years of World War I approximately 16 mln people were mobilized in Russia but by the end of combat actions (autumn of 1917) 14 Russian armies which fought at 5 fronts numbered above 7 mln soldiers and officers and also about 45,000 as a part of the task corps in France and the Balkans. Besides the losses of our country made up around 2 mln people including above 775,000 killed in action, almost 240,000 died in captivity, about 900,000 died from wounds and illnesses, etc. Such is the price paid by Russia for a victory gained by the Entente in confrontation with the German bloc. Nevertheless, one must agree with the poetess Zinaida Gippius who wrote in 1916: "There is no excuse and there will never be for war."
* See: S. Bazanov, "Fraternization Phenomenon", Science in Russia, No. 4, 2005.--Ed.
Опубликовано на Порталусе 20 ноября 2021 года
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