02 December 2013

The Tsar's Army of Chaos, 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 5654-5669:
The long columns plodding forward into German territory filled observers with wonder at their exotic character and mingling of modern and primitive equipment. Many of the infantry lacked high boots. Supply arrangements were chaotic and inadequate, hampered by poor roads and few railways in their rear. The Russian army rejected howitzers as a ‘cowards’ weapon’, because they could be fired by men beyond sight of their enemies; for artillery support, they relied exclusively upon field guns. Communications were hampered by a shortage of radios, and commanders were obliged to signal in plain language, because each corps used a different cipher. The invaders owned a total of just twenty-five telephones and eighty miles of wire. The cavalry were trained to act chiefly as mounted infantry, filling gaps between corps, and made little attempt to fulfil the vital reconnaissance role. Most of Russia’s few available aircraft had been sent to Galicia, and those in East Prussia were temporarily grounded for lack of fuel.

In 1910 German writer Heino von Basedow described his impressions of the Tsar’s army in terms which reflected widespread foreign opinion: ‘The Russian soldier is impulsive as a child. He is easily excited by rabble-rousers (towards revolt) but equally readily restored to submission.’ Basedow was amazed by the careless culture of the Tsar’s soldiers, symbolised by the rakish angle at which each man wore his cap. An NCO calling ‘ras-dwa’ at the front of a marching column in hopes of maintaining its step and precision could not prevent a man in the rear rank from casually munching an apple. Soldiers supposedly marching at attention would nonetheless raise an unfailing hand to cross themselves when they passed a church or roadside icon. Meanwhile a grenadier might seat himself on a roadside marker and hawk his platoon’s bread to all comers. Such a way of soldiering did not inspire German respect. Alfred Knox noted the same casualness on the battlefield, where he was astonished to see Russian artillerymen sleeping huddled against their gunshields, minutes before they were due to open fire.

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