♦ The Russian Army in World War I ♦

Special Studies Series


Russian soldiers on the march, East Prussia, 1914 (Imperial War Museum)

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In August 1914 the Russian Army mobilized well over three million men in 115 infantry divisions, 24 cavalry divisions, 17 rifle brigades and 8 cavalry brigades—a force that was to grow substantially as reservists were recalled to the colors and new units were raised.

The Army's basic combat formation was the army corps, usually consisting of two infantry divisions, a cavalry division or brigade, an artillery howitzer battalion, a sapper battalion, a bridging battalion, a supply battalion and an aviation detachment. The infantry division consisted of a headquarters company, two infantry brigades and an artillery brigade. Each infantry brigade controlled two infantry regiments; the artillery brigade had two battalions, each with three batteries of field guns. By modern standards the infantry division's support services were minimal. On campaign a company of the corps sapper battalion and perhaps a squadron of cavalry were detached to each infantry division, but supply and communications troops were controlled by the corps and field army headquarters. Cavalry divisions had a similar organization—two cavalry brigades each with two cavalry regiments—but instead of an artillery brigade they had only one battalion of horse artillery.

A field army—nine were constituted upon mobilization—consisted of three to five army corps plus heavy artillery, engineer, supply, transport and aviation units. The senior field headquarters was the front (army group), controlling a variable number of armies. During the war the principal fronts were Northwest Front (against Germany) Southwest Front (against Austria-Hungary) and Caucasus Front (against Turkey).

Command Flag of the XI Army Corps (Graphic by Tom Gregg)

Contrary to legend, the Russian Army in 1914 was reasonably well equipped with small arms (including eight machine guns per infantry regiment) and field artillery. The standard 76.2mm field gun was an excellent weapon of its type and each infantry division had 48 of them. But the lack of light and medium field howitzers capable of high-angle fire was a serious deficiency. The infantry divisions had none and most army corps had only one artillery howitzer battalion with twelve 122mm howitzers. Heavy artillery suitable for use in the field was also in short supply; only a few corps had a heavy artillery battalion with 152mm howitzers and 107mm long-range guns. Against the Austro-Hungarian Army, which had a similar artillery deficit, this did not matter very much, but against the better-prepared German Army it was to prove a major handicap.

More serious still was the ammunition situation. Prewar planning had greatly underestimated the rate at which ammunition—artillery ammunition in particular—would be expended in battle. Existing stocks were quickly consumed in the 1914 campaign and new production was unable to keep up with demand. Most ammunition was manufactured in state-owned factories and there had been no serious planning for the conversion of civilian industry to war production. Consequently the Russian Army suffered a chronic shortage of ammunition. Production of rifles, machine guns and artillery was also insufficient to both replace losses and arm newly raised divisions. These problems were gradually solved, but by the time they were the Russian Army had already suffered crippling losses and the country was moving toward revolution.

The shell shortage, as it came to be called, did prove useful in one respect, serving Russian commanders as a convenient alibi for defeat. After each disaster the cry went up for ever more guns and shells—enough to pulverize the enemy's defenses. And the failure to provide munitions in the quantities demanded enabled the generals to shift the responsibility onto the government. In fact, however, the shortage of weapons and munitions, though real enough, was never so serious that it could not have been compensated for by careful planning and appropriate tactics. But this, unfortunately, was easier said than done.

For another problem that bedeviled the Russian Army was a shortage of trained staff officers, noncommissioned officers and technical troops. Most conscripts and reservists were illiterate peasants: hardy, obedient, patriotic and brave but difficult to train in any but the most rudimentary military duties. It was particularly hard to find sufficient men for those service branches requiring formal education and technical qualifications, such as the artillery, engineers, signal corps, railway troops, air service, etc. And in sharp contrast to the well-educated, well-trained noncommissioned officer corps of the German Army, Russian NCOs were usually not much better educated than the men they led. As a result, crude battlefield tactics exacerbated by poor staff work regularly turned defeats into debacles. The field artillery, which considered itself the elite branch of the service, was disdainful of the infantry—"cattle" in the opinion of artillery officers—and coordination between them was generally poor. In many cases the artillerymen simply pulled out of action when things began to go wrong, saving their guns but leaving the infantry in the lurch.

A Russian howitzer battery in action (Imperial War Museum)

This shortage of trained and qualified personnel also set limits on the wartime expansion of the army. Peasant manpower was available in plenty, but it was exceedingly difficult to find the necessary officers and technical specialists to make newly raised reserve divisions effective. The mid-war shortage of weapons and ammunition only compounded the problem. In combat against the Germans, these poorly trained units tended to fare badly, falling to pieces or simply evaporating in the face of a coordinated attack.

All these factors conspired to limit the Army's combat effectiveness. Against the Austrians and Turks the Russian Army proved more than capable of holding its own, but against the Germans its deficiencies resulted in a succession of costly and demoralizing defeats.

Further exacerbating the Russian Army’s problems was the confusion of Stavka, the high command. In peacetime there had been no overall army headquarters. Upon mobilization Stavka was hastily botched together and in the opening round it failed to exert firm control over the field armies. The primary culprit was factionalism. The Army’s senior officers were split between two groups: the “Northerners” who believed that the Army should make its main effort against Germany, seen as the main enemy, and the “Southerners” who favored making the main effort against Austria-Hungary, seen as easier to defeat. In hindsight it appears that the Southerners had the better argument: Austria-Hungary's defeat would fatally have undermined Germany's position. But nothing was done to implement this strategy nor, indeed, to develop any sort of overall strategy.

Tsar Nicholas II (left) and his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas (Imperial War Museum)

The commander-in-chief, Grand Duke Nicholas—the Tsar’s uncle—was a much-admired figure but even his prestige in the Army was ineffective in resolving this dispute over strategy. So the Russian Army found itself fighting what were virtually  two separate wars against Germany and Austria-Hungary, to the accompaniment of much wrangling over the allocation of reserves, replacements and supplies. The two army groups—Northwest Front against Germany and Southwest Front against Austria-Hungary—seldom coordinated their action and Stavka, which was supposed to enforce such coordination, was largely ignored. Thus victories over the Austrians in 1914 and 1916 could not be fully exploited: Northwest Front proved reluctant to part with reserves for the benefit of its rival, Southwest Front. But the string of defeats it suffered at the hands of the Germans, culminating in the loss of the Polish salient, essentially paralyzed Northwest Front. Controlling the larger part of the forces on the Eastern Front, it did nothing—and its paralysis proved fatal for Russia.

Whether a properly coordinated strategy, defensive against Germany, offensive against Austria-Hungary, would have produced better results for Russia is an interesting but doubtful question. Of all the major belligerents, tsarist Russia was the one most susceptible to civil unrest and revolutionary turmoil under the shock and stress of war. What is certain is that the non-strategy actually pursued invited needless defeats while throwing away hard-won victories, driving the country toward breakdown and revolution. So perhaps, just perhaps, a coherent strategy, imposed by an effective high command, might have staved off disaster. But given Russian realities in 1914, it’s difficult to see where such a strategy and such a high command could have come from.

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Organizational Diagram 

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