Российская ассоциация историков Первой мировой войны



Evgeny Sergeev



Key words:

Eastern Front, Russian Army, war as a cultural shock, the experience of the First World War for Russia, the image of adversaries and allies, the transformation of the consciousness of Russian society.




The study of tremendous experience that Russia got on the battlefields of the First World War and the armed conflicts occurred after its conclusion, represents an important scientific problem on the modern stage of historiographic development. Its importance is conditioned by three points: firstly, the introduction of big massive of sources that comes from previously inaccessible archives; secondly, the appearance of the new generation of historians, who are free from former ideological stereotypes and who know the comparative methods of historical studies; thirdly, the disappearance of former barriers which hinder the international contacts between scientists, and the expanding of the possibilities to acquire new information through global computer nets.

Unfortunately, the acquaintance with the published studies and articles, dedicated to the analysis of events which occurred on the Eastern front of the Great War, compels the specialists to make the unfavorable conclusion. Till the present time the quantity of studies dedicated to this theme especially in the western historiography is quite limited and its subjects comprise for the most part the description of military actions or the investigation of the revolutionary transformations in Russian society which led to the collapse of empire and to the withdrawal of Russia from war in March 1918.[1] In the studies of European and American historians which examine the Great War in general the events on the Eastern Front are described only in one or two chapters and there is no aim to make in-depth analysis of the role and importance of the Eastern front not only for the victory of the Entente but also for the following change of social and political landscape of Central and Eastern Europe[2].

Due to the ideological causes the representatives of Russian historiography ignored the First World War or took with great skepticism the studies of the former participants of war who had emigrated from Russia after Civil War. This state of affairs began to improve at the turn of XXI century[3]. Over recent years there appeared several substantial studies which demonstrated the change of paradigm of scientific study and the creation of the new conception of the Second Patriotic War in Russian history, which finds more and more adherents among the specialists[4].

Thereupon there is a need to outline the range of problems concerning the history of the armed conflict between Russia and Quadruple Alliance on the Eastern front as to reconstruct the astounding picture of development of total war in that part of Europe. This article dedicated to the attainment of this goal, and the author set a problem to analyze the general problems of appearance, transformation and collapse of the Eastern Front in connection with organization and conduct of coalition war of the countries of the Entente.

It is necessary to underline that the main attention is paid to the dynamics of Russian position on the line of confrontation with Germany and Austro-Hungary. The study of events in Caucasian front where during the course of war took place tenacious and exhaustive battles with Turkish forces is left beyond the scope of this article. This apprehension of the Eastern front from German and Austro-Hungarian command, not to speak of Tsarist strategists, found its way into strategic documents of different staff headquarters as well as memoirs of the first-hand combatants.


The Eastern front as a geostrategic reality


Under the name of “the Eastern Front” the strategists of both coalitions understood the battle ground from Baltic to Black sea (after the Romanian entrance into war on August 27 (September 9) 1916) with the expanse of 850-900 km in the beginning of the war and with more than 1600 km in the end of 1917. The ultimate tactical depth of the Eastern front reached 500 km during certain periods of mobile warfare, for example, during German and Austrian offensive in summer 1915. The crucial peculiarities of the Eastern front in the beginning of the war were the disalignment of Russo-Germanic and Russo-Austrian borders with the natural barriers and the existence of the so-called Polish ledge which resembled the square with the depth of more than 400 km from the East and approximately 500 km from North to South. Another special feature of this front was the paucity of natural strategic barriers. These were Masurian Lakes in Eastern Prussia, the river lines of Neman, Bobr, Narev and Visla on the territory of Kingdom of Poland, marshy and forested terrain of Polesye in Belorussia, Carpathian Mountains in Galicia and rivers Seret and Proot in Romania and Bessarabia from the autumn of 1916. These things considered, war ministries of Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary took serious efforts for the building of fortresses and other fortifications based on natural barriers which could stop or at least to hinder the advance of the enemy. On the German territory such fortified points were Koenigsberg, Danzig, Torn, Marienburg, Graudenz etc. Within Austro-Hungarian borders there were Krakow, Peremyshl and Lvov to a certain extent. Russians built fortifications in the regions of Kovno, Osovets, Novogeorgievsk and Brest-Litovsk (the construction of Grodno fortress was in full swing from the beginning of the war). On the first stages of war there were only two fronts – North-Western and South-Western; from August-September 1915 the first of them was divided into North and Western fronts; after military involvement of Romania there appeared the Romanian front. Nevertheless, Russian General Staff and Supreme High General Headquarters conditionally divided Eastern European battle ground into five strategic regions: Central, or Previslan (The Kingdom of Poland); South-Western (the territory between the Southern border of Polesye and Carpathian Mountains); Northern (the territory between the Baltic Sea and the |Northern border of Polesye); Polesye (the territory between the Northern and South-Western regions) and Southern (the territory between Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea)[5].

To complete the brief characteristic of the Eastern front’s strategic peculiarities it is necessary to note two important factors: the strongly pronounced seasonality of offense/defense operations which happened for the most part in summer or more frequently in winter and heavy dependence of the velocity of redeployment on the existing logistic infrastructure which was based on railways. The following data testifies the inequality of enemies on the Eastern Front in this question: Germany and Austro-Hungary had 32 railways which led to the Russian border, but Russia had only 13. That’s why Germans could deliver 550 troop trains per diem, Austrians – 226 and Russians only 223[6].

Vast expanse and difficult natural and climatic conditions predetermined the low density of troops per square kilometer comparing with the Western front. This circumstance and hard loamy soil which didn’t allow the soldiers to dig deep trenches predetermined the relatively high mobility of warfare during the whole war. As a result massive strategic operations were possible on the Eastern front, such as maneuver during Tanenberg  battle in 1914, the general offensive of German and Austrian troops in spring-summer of 1915 and Brusilov breakthrough in Galicia in summer 1916.


Periodization of combat actions on the Eastern front


The question of periodization of combat actions on the Eastern front is complicated by the several facts that have to be taken into consideration.

In the first place it is important to mention that despite of coalition character of the Great War Russians, as contrasted with English and French soldiers on the Western front or Italians on the front with Austro-Hungarians were fighting alone. They didn’t feel the feeling of camaraderie with allies or experienced the euphoria from the arrival of Australian, New Zealand, Canadian reinforcements, the troops from African colonies or the American soldiers in the decisive period of spring-summer 1918. Those scanty detachments like the British submarine’s crews, the Belgian battalion of armored cars or the squadron of French pilots, who fought on the Russian side on the Eastern front, couldn’t compensate the absence of direct cooperation with the Entente countries. The attempts to fill this “vacuum” by arms and transport (the engines, for the most part) delivery in 1917 were late and gave the Entente the cause for intervention to Russia after Bolsheviks came to power and made the separate peace treaty with the Central powers. In that connection the synchronization of warfare stages on the Eastern and other fronts and the general periodization of the Great War comes across with great difficulties[7].

More than that, the situation is complicated by the intertwining of foreign and domestic events, viz, by the influence of military campaigns on deep social and political crisis, which embraced Russian Empire in 1914-1918. It is obvious that the forced transition to total war under conditions of unfinished industrial modernization and general delay of the processes of civil society’s establishment, which could endure the long war for exhaustion, became the cause of collapse of autocratic regime in Russia[8]. The revolutionary events of February – October 1917 which at first led to disintegration and later led to demobilization of an old army were not the main cause of the Eastern front’s liquidation, because even after Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the German and Austrian troops who occupied the huge territories of the Baltics, Belorussia, Ukraine and Caucasus on spring 1918 held more than million soldiers and officers (for the most part, from reserve detachments) on the Eastern European military theater. We can do the reasonable assumption that Wilhelm II lacked those troops for the decisive onslaught in the first half of 1918.

All considered the military actions in Eastern Europe can be divided chronologically into the following periods. The opening – from August 1914 till Spring 1915 – which was characterized by the patriotic enthusiasm in Russia on the background of opposite maneuvers of the enemies which led to mixed success; the second period (summer – autumn 1915) was characterized by the intensification of social and political strains in Russian society connected with hard defeats on the front and with losing of the vast territories on the west of empire; third (spring-autumn 1916) was associated with the general tiredness from war, the beginning of crisis in the leadership of the country and with the exhaustion of moral spirits of the Tsarist army when the brief euphoria which had sparked after the Brusilov onslaught ended. During the fourth period (February – October 1917) there were the attempts to democratize the army and to create the new army based on the principles of volunteering and labor enthusiasm with the broad material and technical support from the Allies. Unfortunately, they were too late.  The fifth and the last period (November 1917 – October 1918) was characterized by the legal ending of war on the Eastern front (through the truce and after that through the conclusion of peace treaty). Nevertheless, as it was already mentioned, this peace didn’t mean the disappearance of the Great War’s factor in the strategic plans of both coalitions, especially after the beginning of local conflicts on the east of Europe after November 11, 1918[9].


The first period of war on the Eastern front and the Russian society


War became totally unexpected for the most part of peasants and workers, the Orthodox Church appraised it as a divine retribution for the people’ sins. Nevertheless, the transformation of the local armed conflict between Austro-Hungary and Serbia into all-European and after that into the world war caused the powerful rise of patriotic spirit in all social strata of Russian Empire. For the time being the Tsarist regime was given practically unlimited credit of doubt, because only the Tsarist government could organize the worthy rebuff of the enemy. The immense wave of patriotic feelings overwhelmed all warring nations (the contemporaries called it “the spirit of 1914”), but only the Russian case can be called unique, because several years before that the significant part of Nikolay II’s subjects demanded the limitation or even the liquidation of his autocratic power. The participant of these events, the famous military historian, General-Lieutenant N. N. Golovin noted, that “everybody who witnessed the war between Russia and Japan, cannot help to be impressed by the difference between the national feelings in 1904 and 1914”[10].

The manifest of the Tsar, the addresses of different public and political figures, the speeches of numerous orators on the rally during enormous patriotic manifestations, propagandist articles in newspapers and magazines declared that the war on the Eastern front was fought for the ideals of freedom and democracy, for supporting the small countries which were the victims of Austro-German aggression,  for the liberation of the downtrodden          nations of Europe and against “the Teutonic barbarity” and “the soulless machine of German civilization”[11]. This is the example of the enemy image that was widely known in the Russian society: “The German yoke will bring the evil and hatred to the ranks of dejected, it will disengage for ever all bonds of blood, faith and culture. Here lies the secret of German power, for that end was prepared this bestial nation – to sow the horror and hatred”[12]. More than that, from the first days of war the big role in the mass consciousness was played by the ideas of Slavic solidarity (with Serbia and Montenegro), the loyalty to allies in the face of Austro-German aggression and the independence of Russia and its influence among great powers. According to the opinions of numerous contemporaries Russian Empire was bound to execute the sacral mission of saving world from “germanism”. It is not coincidence that the leading article of one affluent Moscow newspaper underlined the following: “War is the beginning of the new age in the life of Europe; the beginning of the new page of history. The fate of the great European nations is set on stake. The question is about the future, the life and death of whole countries depend on the current moment”[13].

The latest studies of Russian historians show that during the first weeks of war not only Officer Corps, businessmen and middle urban strata, but also the overwhelming majority of peasants and workers despite of the mobilization stood by the war due to the influence of propaganda. If the first group had in view the possible redistribution of landed property of German and Austrian subjects in Russia not excepting the fertile lands of German colonists in Southern provinces, the latter group, despite of mobilization, cherished hopes for the new working places created by the government on the defensive factories[14]. Social-democrats wrote that propaganda of pacifism let alone defeatism among the workers in 1914 – the first half of 1915 was practically impossible, because such actions could lead to charges in aiding the enemy[15].

Pretty soon the mottos of the fair liberating war acquired the conceptual form of Second Patriotic War (after the war of 1812) or even the Great Patriotic War of Russian people against German-Austrian invaders. The symbol of these feelings became the renaming of St. Petersburg into Petrograd on July 23 (August 5), 1914. The introduction of Prohibition on the whole territory of empire also should lead to unity of all social groups of Russian society[16]. The great contribution into the formalization of patriotic ideology was made by the representatives of Neoslavophilism, the right conservative, philosophic and religious movement which received recognition just before the Great War. According to their opinions the main ideas which had to inspire Russian soldiers on the battlefields were, from the one side, the understanding of national unity and, from the other side, the sense of solidarity with the progressive European nations – the French, the English and Belgians. All Neoslavophils predicted the arrival of the new historic period after the defeat of the enemy, when East and West of Europe could overcome all contradictions that existed between them[17]. It is to be noted that bursts of patriotic feelings on the front and the homefront though on more lower scale were observed at least twice: in Spring 1915 when Russian troops took strongly fortified fortress Peremyshl and in summer 1916 when this burst was connected with general Russian onslaught on North-Western front which could lead to collapse of Austro-Hungarian empire. At the same time under the influence of failures in Eastern Prussia in autumn 1914 and after great defeats in Poland and Galicia in summer 1915 all these feelings became extremely germanophobic on the background of mass deportation of civilians together with the search of inner enemies, spy hysteria and negative attitude to some national minorities, especially, the Jews[18]. Though the pogroms of the property of foreign citizens, including ethnic Germans and Austrians, happened in many Russian cities during the first weeks of warfare, they acquired the widest scale in Moscow in the end of May – beginning of June 1915[19].

In the beginning of the war the noticeable tendency of social life was the formation or activation of a variety of noncommercial organizations which goal was to unite the efforts of the front and homefront. First and foremost this refers to All-Russian Union for help to wounded headed by Prince G. E. Lvov and to All-Russian urban union headed by Moscow mayor M. V. Chelnokov (these organizations united into the Union of zemstva and cities in July 1915 – ZEMGOR). In the same time the special commissioner of Russian society of Red Cross, the leader of Octobrist party A. I. Guchkov dealt with deployment of field hospitals in the active army. The Aid Society for the victims of war, the Unity of St. George’s Knights, the Aid Committee for the families of the drafted citizens, the Committee “Book for soldiers” etc. played an important role among voluntary noncommercial organizations. De facto for the first time in Russian history in spite of censorship the public opinion began to have a serious influence on the activity of public offices in the affairs of defense.


The crisis in the perception of events on the Eastern front


In the end of the first period of war there was the understanding that war will be long and total. This in its turn gave birth to such typical for the Eastern front phenomenon as “shkurnichestvo”, extreme self-interest, in other words, the tendency of the part of philistines to avoid the draft, to use the economic difficulties for the acquisition of speculative profits and also to distribute for their own benefit the property which was left without the legal holders who were killed on the battlefields, departed from the country, or the property of foreign subjects victimized by the government. It is worth saying that certain role in this was played by the rumors propagated in empire from summer 1914 that the Tsar would confiscate German lands to distribute them among peasants and the soldiers awarded by St. George’s cross for feats of arms would receive the grounds at the expense of landlords – the subjects of Germany or Austro-Hungary, or German colonists, expelled from the frontline provinces of Russia[20].

The faith into the unity of different layers of Russian society was further disrupted by the temporary collapse of the Eastern front in spring-summer 1915 and by the following retreat of Tsarist troops on the line from Baltic region till Carpathian Mountains, which caused massive flow of fugitives from west to east[21]. During hard defense battles there took place practically complete rotation of commissioned staff of  Russian troops on the ground. New sustainer squadron came to the front instead of properly trained professional officers and enlisted men. They consisted of badly prepared reservists of second and third lines under the command of ensigns and lieutenants of “war time”, in other words, junior officers who received accelerated education in military academies or special schools according to the programs which lasted only three months. As a result to 1917 the absolute majority of Officer Corps consisted of those who received education and a commission during the war[22]. Before the revolutionary events soldiers mainly consisted of reservists of senior military ages. They were  poorly educated and illiterate peasants from Russian provinces. From 15, 6 millions of conscripted in the years of war more than 12, 8 millions were drafted from villages and 90% of them didn’t do military service[23].

The great psychological shock, experienced by former peasants, workers and students that were caught in the trenches of the Eastern front, reinforced by the burdens of retreat in 1915, can be explained by several causes.

Firstly, there was no psychological preparation of the Russian population to the total war, which goals were out of limits of understanding for the majority of subjects of Nicolay II. According to the recollections of Russian war correspondents, most soldiers shared the following opinion: “Why we need to conquer this Galicia, Your Honor? It’s so difficult to plow”[24]. The famous Russian general who later became one of the leaders of the White movement, A. I. Denikin, noted that officers for fear of repressions followed the high order, issued before the war, and tried to avoid the talks with the soldiers that was connected with the goals of Russia in this war. Only some commanders broke this rule[25]. As a result most peasants and workers perceived war as a terrible natural disaster which couldn’t be defeated, but you could adapt to it by using the age-old traditions of collectivism, mutual supportiveness and patience. Significantly, that five thousands priests were drafted to the front and their aim was to overwhelm the psychological discomfort connected with the transgression of the commandment “Thou shall not kill” and general wickedness of war as a result. Despite of sermons and private talks priests couldn’t decide this problem[26].

Secondly, Russian combatant found himself in very unusual conditions during the whole war. They were connected with technological novelties such as tanks, airplanes, machine guns which perished thousands of people in very short time; with poison gases, from which you couldn’t defend yourself especially in the first period of war; with the very atmosphere of long battle full of constant attacks of heavy artillery, long kilometers of barb wire, enormous quantity of corpses, wounded and shell-shocked brothers in arms, even with the views of disfigured horses and deformed landscape. Consequently, the peasant soldier felt more and more acutely his isolation from his family and traditional rural life. The very long existence in trenches without any significant activity did a psychological injury to Russian soldier and even to the officers which was connected with the feeling of “boredom”, “ennui”, “the eternal anxious waiting”. According to medical statistics and the data of military censorship which controlled the private correspondence of soldiers, the most widespread symptoms of psychological disorders in 1915-1916 were nostalgia, the thoughts about worthlessness of life, depersonalization and suicide attempts. At the same time the feelings of irritation and hate grew stronger. They were expressed in the search of enemies, and the circle of the latter was constantly expanding. In the beginning of 1917 in this category were not only traitors, spies, “inner Germans”, self-seekers, but also merchants who made money on people’s sufferings; the landowners, owners and clerks of banks, industrial enterprises and government institutions who “lived at the expense of the workers” and even wives who in the absence of husbands engaged in harlotry with war prisoners and fugitives. Sample surveys testified that no more than 25-30% of soldiers and officers in Russian army suffered from different forms of psychopathological deviations[27].

The third factor which influenced the combatants on the Eastern front was active German propaganda that was widely spread in 1915-1916. A lot of leaflets and proclamations were delivered by airplanes, air balloons and special mines to the location of Russian troops. They said that Russia shed its blood only for allies, especially, Great Britain, which allegedly drew Russia into massacre only for English selfish interests and made money on this[28]. The feelings of disappointment and bitter resentment replaced patriotism and self-sacrifice, and the latter were heated by the criticism towards allies, towards their passiveness during offensive operations on the Eastern front, the deliberateness in providing the material help to Russia and even intentional prolonging of war with aim to exhaust Russia and Central powers and to dictate the peace treaty on English and French conditions. The attempts of liberal intelligentsia to preserve and strengthen the adherence of all Tsar’s subjects to the ideas of coalition war met with more and more difficulties. In the end of 1916 even in the camps of Russia war prisoners there was discontent by the actions of allies not only from the side of the former soldiers, but even from the side of officers[29].

At last, one more important event influenced the content of military experience of Russians. It was the demotion of grand duke Nikolay Nikolayevitch from the station of commander-in-chief  and enunciation of  Tsar as the new military leader of Russia in the end of August – the beginning of September 1915. In spite of retreat and heavy losses suffered by Russian troops in Baltics, Belorussia and Galicia, the prestige of Nikolay Nikolayevitch as commander-in-chief  was high on front and on homefront. General A. A. Brusilov, who knew grand duke in person recollected, that “army knew that grand duke couldn’t be blamed in hard position of army and everybody believed into him as a military leader. Of course, nobody believed into military genius and knowledge of military affairs of Nikolay II… This replacement made very hard, even disheartening impression on the army”[30]. More than that, Nikolay Nikolayevitch was considered as uncompromised fighter with influential germanophilic party, the existence of which was more and more discussed in Russia. His great merit in the face of the patriots was the cleaning of command staff from people with German family names. “We fail only because we have a lot of traitors in the face of different vons and barons. We need to knock off damned German thrall… Without him (Nikolay Nikolayevitch – E.S.) it is practically impossible to fight with Germans. The Germans feel his steel fist and huddle as an imps crushed by the cross”[31].

 The generally successful campaign of spring-summer 1916, more improved coordination of offensive operations between Russia and its allies, the Romanian entry into the war on the side of allies, rapid increase of military supplies from the Entente especially after the completion of Murmansk railway and significant improvement of supplying army with weapons and ammunition from Russian military plants couldn’t stop the gradual development of distrust syndrome to the government in soldiers and in part of officers which can be seen during the second and the third stages of war[32]. As a result the feeling of uselessness and compulsiveness of war to Russia grew among soldiers and in the society as a whole. The highest exacerbation of the front which was stable on winter 1916-1917 was aroused by the rumors about the treason in the top echelons of power. These rumors were further promoted by public speeches of leaders of liberal opposition, for example, by popular speech of P. N. Milyukov on the meeting of Imperial Duma (November 1 (14) 1916) and by the gossips about Rasputin’s adventures. Public opinion set forward the Empress Aleksandra Fedorovna on the role of the main culprit for the existing situation, because in army’s opinion she surrounded the throne with “Germans” and their accomplices. As a result in the minds of the majority of Russia social strata happened the transition of the image of Aleksandra Fedorovna from “the main sister of mercy” to the traitor. The community “we” became the antagonistic community “them”, in other words, the carriers of ideas and values hostile to Russia[33].


The crisis on the Eastern front in 1917 – the beginning of 1918


After the ending of yet another interallied conference, which was held in Petrograd on winter 1917, it seemed that the fourth year of war would brought victory to the Entente, its resources exceeded the potential of Quadruple Alliance. The reports about possible entrance to war of United States on the side of allies gave additional optimism to anti-German coalition. The German-Austrian High Command was preparing for strategic defense on all fronts and the leaders of the Entente powers planned to make decisive coordinated strikes of the Western and Eastern fronts and finally to defeat the enemies. It is significant to point out that these plans had serious reasons, because German satellites, especially Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires went into political crisis and were on the verge of collapse.

However, the rapid deterioration of situation on the Eastern front in spring-autumn 1917 made significant adjustments into the plans of all warring countries. The turning point in the perception of war by Russian army and society became reality: the necessity of losses and sacrifices for the victory against enemy became obsolete, the feelings of tiredness and despair were everywhere on the front, such phenomenon as desertion, self-mutilation, refusal to execute the orders and lynching of commanders became widespread. There were numerous incidents of fraternization with enemy on the front especially during religious holidays and the pogroms from the rookies in the homefront provinces became more frequent. Brusilov recollected, that “voiceless agitation of minds on the homefront unwittingly reflected on the front and it can be said that on February 1917 the whole army – more ready on the one front, less ready on the other – was prepared for the revolution. In that time Officer Corps was also hesitating and was really dissatisfied with the state of affairs… In this situation February revolution started”[34].

The discontent with the Tsarist regime who continued to wage war, the spontaneous desire for peace and the hope for the establishment of social justice became the dominant feeling of public conscience. According to the accounts of war censors the defeatist feelings in the army grew with the critical statements about the government. The letters of soldiers testified that. For example, the peasant from Vyatskaya province V. Yelkin expressed those feelings like this: “Tsar, the emperor will take everybody soon, he is murderer, he intervened into another’s affair, and he’s shedding another’s blood. He will be killed, he will be swept from the earth, and after that everybody will be equal”[35].

The wide circulation of the ideas of liquidation of autocracy, of organization of competent government which would be responsible to the State Duma, and first and foremost of the conclusion of worldwide democratic peace was testified, for example, by the resolution carried on the meeting on one of the Petrograd’s plant in the middle of January 1917: “Russian proletariat under present conditions brings forward the aim of organizing the Provisional government which will lean on the people. This government will act in the name of the people, will decide the question of war and peace and will reorganize politically the whole country”[36].

The author of this article doesn’t have a goal to analyze the revolutionary events of 1917.  It only should be noted that all generals from High Command including the grand duke Nikolay Nikolayevitch who was the governor of Caucasus in that time didn’t support the discredited regime of Nikolay II that’s the autocracy collapsed as “a tree rotten inside” according to the words of many contemporaries. After the emperor’s renunciation all Russian press regardless of political inclination began to accuse the Tsar in “treason” depicting him as the main “enemy of the people” who was ready to open the Eastern front for Germans with the aim “to suffocate” the revolutionary movement[37].

Meanwhile in spring 1917 revolutionary euphoria overtook the majority of Russian society. It also touched the active army. However, it is mistake to think that the army divided into two antagonistic groups – soldiers-revolutionaries and officers-counterrevolutionaries. In fact a lot of junior officers especially those who took a commission in the war time met the collapse of autocracy with delight and led the committees which were organized by the soldiers according to the Order #1 of the Executive Committee of Petrograd Soviet of Worker’s Deputies. In the same time the senior officers and generals were calm about revolution, but regarded it with favor and made fealty to the Provisional Government. The majority of Officer Corps remained on their patriotic positions. As for the soldiers who in that time were for the most part poorly educated rural and sometimes urban youth came to the front recently, all of them took revolution as a signal for permissiveness. The military discipline fell sharply, the most incredible rumors and propaganda materials circulated in the army; the fraternization with enemy became practically legal. Only the small part of enlisted men such as St. George’s cavaliers, the soldiers of technical divisions (artillery, aviation, motorized troops and communications men) and volunteers who arrived on the front on summer 1917 were ready to defend the Motherland[38].

Three factors played the negative role in the breakdown of the Eastern front. Firstly, it is the wide antiwar agitation made by German-Austrian commandment. According to the witnesses of A. I. Denikin “the German Headquarters did this thing on a big figure with the detailed instruction where was envisaged the reconnaissance of our forces and positions, the demonstration of their armament and force, the persuasion of soldiers about the aimlessness of war and the incitement of Russian soldiers against their government and officers whose interests alone allegedly continued this “bloody massacre”[39]. The intensification of propaganda war from the side of Central powers in 1916-1917 can be seen in the dynamics of leaflets spread. According to the newest archive studies there were three types of leaflets in 1914, 26 in 1915, 39 in 1916 and 17 in 1917[40]. The main themes of these leaflets were the proposal to surrender and the promise of good treatment of war prisoners. Besides there were the information about successes of the Quadruple Alliance, invectives against Russian allies and also the thoughts about the aimlessness of war for the common people. Here is the quote from the leaflet found on May 23 (June 5) 1917 on the positions of 64 Infantry Division of the Eighth Field Army: “The Central powers declare that they are ready to make peace which will be honest for the both sides and conditions of which will be discussed under separate agreement. This peace will restore the former good relations between our countries and will give Russia great economic support for greater good of all interested nations”[41].

Secondly, it is the great activation of Bolshevik’s emissaries who embedded into the soldiers’ minds the ideas of defeatism and of transformation of war from patriotic into civil. The Declaration of Soldier’s Rights passed in May 1917 which made soldiers equal with civil citizens from the legal point of view, gave them the freedom of speech and the right to enter into any political parties, played into hand of the left socialists. “The Bolshevik’s infection spread fast on the body of our army, - wrote A. F. Kerensky in his memoirs. In spring 1917 he made frequent agitational trips to the active army. – All attempts to recommence the preparation for the military actions were met with decisive resistance of soldiers on the whole front. There were squadrons, regiments and whole divisions where Bolshevik defeaters and paid German agents dominated in the committees… Orders were not executed; the commanders who didn’t suit to committee’s tastes were replaced with demagogues and dishonest timeservers”[42]. At last, the third factor was the constant appeals of the Entente with the demands to fulfill obligations that were given earlier, in other words, to start the offensive on the Eastern front in spring 1917. Under the pressure of allies who threatened to stop the military supplies to Russia and to reconsider the already concluded agreements about territorial accretions, the Provisional Government was forced to begin preparation for the offensive, which failed after brief success, and Russian armies retreated in June-July 1917. In this period big upheavals happened in the army, when the whole regiments pull up stakes and went to the homefront[43]. The offensive became the last active operation against German-Austrian troops, and its failure strengthened the antiwar feelings among soldiers and also led to the fall of government prestige. As a result the revolt of General L. G. Kornilov happened on August 25-30 (September 7-12) 1917.

The final loss of any legitimacy of the Provisional Government in the eyes of practically all layers of society predetermined the success of Bolshevik upheaval. Kerensky attempted to lean on the troops of the Northern front, but failed. When V. I. Lenin made speech on the meeting of regiment representatives of Petrograd garrison on October 29 (November 12) 1917 he remarked that “Kerensky has nobody at his back on the front”. In other words, the legitimacy moved from the former government to the Soviets in the eyes of the majority of soldiers. And the Soviets immediately passed Decree on Land and Decree on Peace. By this they at least signified the tendency to solve the questions that were very important for Russian society[44].


The Liquidation of the Eastern front in the end 1917 – beginning 1918


Before the Bolshevik upheaval Supreme High Command General Headquarters in that time led by general-lieutenant N. N. Duhonin made the Plan of actions for the rising of force performance in spring 1918. The most important point in this plan was the creation of new Russian people’s army based on the principles of voluntariness and territoriality. The important role in the strengthening of the army could be played by the organization of national regiments in Republican army. According to this process Duhonin ordered to make separate Czechoslovak Corps from the former war prisoners of Austro-Hungarian army. But that was all, because on November 9 (22) 1917 Council of  People’s Commissars demoted Duhonin and soon he was brutally killed by the drunk revolutionary sailors.

The conclusion of truce between Soviet Russia and the Central powers on November 21 (December 4) was accompanied by mass fraternization on the front and by desertion from the front. In that conditions the decree on gradual reduction in force from November 10 (23) accelerated the liquidation of the Eastern front. It was accepted by the soldiers as the signal for the general demobilization. The peasants in military overcoats wanted to return home and to participate in the division of land and other property sanctioned by the government. The Bolshevik attempts to replace the officers by the representatives from enlisted men led to full chaos. Only all-army meeting which took place in Petrograd on December 15 (28) 1917 till January 16 (29) 1918 could adopt the resolutions which controlled the creation and activity of demobilization commissions on the front. When Treaty in Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918 more than half of active army left the front and in fact it just stopped to exist. The end of this process connected with the liquidation of field headquarters and the retirement of its records went in April-May of the same year[45].

The offensive of German troops in February 1918 and the occupation of extensive territories of  Russia in spring-summer 1918 demonstrated the futility to create the new “revolutionary army” on the principles formulated by N. N. Duhonin. The voluntary regiments of worker’s Red Guard, part of which was led by former Tsarist generals, were few in number and poorly educated. They couldn’t resist the German troops (only on Petrograd direction), and Germans occupy without any resistance the line Narva – Pskov – Orsha – Rostov-on-Don and also occupied South Caucasus with the Turkish forces.

However, Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which legally destroyed the Eastern front played an evil joke on the Central powers. It was already mentioned that the standstill on the Eastern front didn’t free Germany and Austro-Hungary from the military control over occupied territories where in summer 1918 began partisan war because of requisitions. Even in the period of the last desperate offensive operation in France German command continued to keep the considerate amount of troops in the Eastern Europe. More than that, on March 18, 1918 the Entente declared that its countries will wage war till victory. The ravenous conditions of Treaty in Brest-Litovsk vividly demonstrated the fate which would wait the enemies of Quadruple Alliance in the case of their defeat. In other words the capitulation of Soviet government with collapse of the Eastern front only strengthened the military spirit of the French, the English and their allies on the final stage of war. But for ruling circles of German and Austro-Hungarian empires the peace treaty with Soviet Russia meant the growing of Bolshevik propaganda on all classes of society and different ethnic groups which became an important source of revolutionary events which took place in the Central powers in autumn 1918.

The signing of Treaty in Brest-Litovsk meant for the Bolsheviks the final break not only with other socialist parties (Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Anarchists), but also the actual termination of coalition with their closest political allies – with Left Social Revolutionaries, who raised mutinies in several big Russian cities during summer 1918. In spring 1918 only 39% of local Soviets approved the politics of Lenin[46]. But the strong opposition to foreign policy of Bolsheviks from the side of peasants and workers was hardly possible because tiredness and apathy of masses  from war arrested all attempts of antibolshevik forces to evoke new patriotic rise for the repulse of German-Austrian troops which didn’t met any resistance during occupation of Belorussia, Ukraine, Caucasus. Only the requisition of foodstuffs caused the rise of partisan movements on the occupied territories and separate terrorist acts against the representatives of military administration, for example, the killing of Field Marshal G. von Eichgorn on July 30, 1918[47].

The following intervention of the Entente into Soviet Russia and the Civil War of 1918-1922 raised the question of reconstruction of the Eastern front. Its separate fragments emerged, for example, during the attack on Petrograd by North-Western army of General N. N. Yudenich in autumn 1919 or during Soviet-Polish war of 1919-1921. It should be mentioned also that in 1919 the command of the Entente tried to engage the former soldiers and officers of Russian army who were still in prison camps on the territory of Germany and Austria into the antibolshevik troops. They were created around special recruiting centers, but this campaign didn’t achieve any serious results[48]




The experience that the Russians got on the Eastern front during the Great War had a variety of important consequences for the former empire and neighboring states.

One of the most catastrophic results of the Great War was the tremendous casualties that Russia suffered in 1914-1918. The contradictory statistic data doesn’t allow operating with exact figures, but the majority of specialists thought that from 700 till 800 thousands of people were killed in action, 1 million 300 thousands died because of wounds (totally about 2 millions of combat losses). More than that, from 3 millions of prisoners of war 285000 died in camps, 238000 didn’t return to Russia and about 800000 people left missing. Among the civil population more 400 000 people died from diseases and hunger. Thus total losses during the Great War constitute 5% of men of most productive age (from 15 till 49 years)[49]. The Second Patriotic War became the first stage of demographic catastrophe of XXth century followed by the Stalin repressions and irreparable damage done to the population of Russia during 1941-1945.

Another serious consequence of the Great War was the change of mental picture of the world around and the psychological deformation of millions of people who took part in the First World War. Not coincidentally the feelings of irreconcilability, permissiveness, voidness, constant search for the inner enemies, skepticism towards human values of morals, contempt for Christian values etc became the characteristic traits of public life in Russia after the war. To this picture also should be added the crisis of family values and thousands of street children in Soviet Russia who frequently became the members of criminal gangs. In such society the ideas and practice of totalitarianism found the fertile ground for development.

And at last as a result of the war USSR fell out of Versailles-Washington system of international relations. In Russian historiography this is a name for the world order formed after two important conferences: the Paris conference of 1919-1920 and Washington conference of 1921-1922. This system was fragile and short-lived, and in fact, according to the opinions of many contemporaries, only sanctioned the respite between two world wars. The crisis and liquidation of the Eastern front reduced, but not eliminated its geostrategic importance for the Entente during the final stages of war. However, the transformation of the image of allies in the minds of Russian soldiers and the whole Russian society became the prelude for the following perception of the Western democracies as the constant enemies of Soviet Russia, the citizens of which felt themselves as “the garrison of besieged fortress” in capitalist surrounding during whole XX century.


© E.Y. Sergeyev, 2012       


[1] Stone N. The Eastern Front, 1914-1917. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975 (2nd ed. London: Penguin, 1998; 3rd ed. London: Penguin, 2004); Gatrell P. Russia’s First World War: A Social and Economic History. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 1991; Jukes J. The First World War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1918. Oxford: Osprey Publishers, 2002; MacMeekin S. The Russian Origins of the First World War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011.

[2] For example, Keegan J. The First World War. London: Vintage, 2000; De Groot G. The First World War. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001; Strahan H. The First World War. Oxford University Oress, 2001. Vol. 1. To Arms; Evans D. The First World War. London: Hodder Arnold, 2004; etc.

[3]For more on: Shubin N.A. Rossija v Pervoj mirovoj vojne: istoriografija problemy (1914-2000). M.: Nauka, 2001

[4] Shacillo V.K. Poslednjaja vojna tsarskoj Rossii. M.: Jauza, Eksmo, 2010; Bazanov S.N. Za chest' i velichie Rossii. – Lib.: Zabytaja vojna / Compiler R.G. Garkuev. M.: Sodruzhestvo «Posev», 2011, p. 333-461; Zabytaja vojna i predannye geroi / sost. E.N. Rudaja. M.: Veche, 2011; Sergeev E.Ju. Pervaja mirovaja vojna – prolog istorii  XX v. – Lib: Pervaja mirovaja vojna: vzgljad spustja stoletie. Materialy mezhdunarodnoj konferencii «Pervaja mirovaja vojna i sovremennyj mir» (26-27 maja 2010, Moskva). M.: Izdatel'stvo MNEPU, 2011, p. 6-17.

[5] Rostunov I.I. Russkij front Pervoj mirovoj vojny, 1914-1917. M.: Nauka, 1976, p. 61.

[6] Ibid, p. 103. For more details see: Heywood A. The Most Catastrophic Question: Railway Development and Military Strategy in Late Imperial Russia. – In: Otte T., Neilson K. (eds) Railways and International Politics: Paths of Empire, 1848-1945. London: Routledge, 2006, p. 45-67.

[7] Wallach J. Uneasy Coalition. The Entente Experience in World War I. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993.

[8] According to statistical data, in 1914 the rural population constituted 85% of the whole Russian population, the level of its literacy ranged from 14,8% in Penza province to 41,7% in Moscow province. In: Golubev A.V., Porshneva O.S. Obraz sojuznika v soznanii rossijskogo obshhestva v kontekste mirovyh vojn. M.: Novyj hronograf, 2012, p. 73.

[9] See Artico D., Mantelli B. (eds) From Versailles to Munich. Twenty Years of Forgotten Wars. Wroclaw: DWE, 2010.

[10] Cit.: Bazanov S.N. Za chest' i velichie Rossii, p. 343.

[11] Tsarskie slova k russkomu narodu. Vysochajshie manifesty ob objavlenii vojny s Germaniej i Avstro-Vengriej. Pg.: Gosudarstvennaja tipografija, 1914.

[12]Bostunich G. Iz vrazheskogo plena. Ocherki spasshegosja. Istorija mytarstv russkogo zhurnalista v Germanii. Pg.: Tip. B.P. Bondarenko i P.F. Gnezdovskogo, 1915, p. 228.

[13] Moskovskie vedomosti, July 22(August 3) 1914, № 169. About the enthusiastic relation to war of majority of intelligentsia one can see.: Noskov V.V. «Vojna, v kotoruju my verim»: nachalo Pervoj mirovoj vojny v vosprijatii duhovnoj jelity Rossii. – In.: Rossija i Pervaja mirovaja vojna. Materialy mezhdunarodnogo nauchnogo kollokviuma. Sankt-Peterburg, 1-5 ijunja 1998 g. SPb.: Izdatel'stvo «Dmitrij Bulanin», 1999, p. 326-339.

[14] About the feelings of national masses during the first period of war: Porshneva O.S. Krest'jane, rabochie i soldaty Rossii nakanune i v gody Pervoj mirovoj vojny. M.: ROSSPJeN, 2004, p. 86-103, 133-149.

[15] Ibid, p, 140

[16] More details about the introduction of Prohibition can be find in: Makki A. «Suhoj» zakon v gody Pervoj mirovoj vojny: prichiny, koncepcija i posledstvija vvedenija «suhogo» zakona v Rossii, 1914-1917. – In.: Rossija i Pervaja mirovaja vojna, s. 147-159.

[17] Trubetskoj S.N. Otechestvennaja vojna i ee duhovnyj smysl (publichnaja lekcija). Pg.: Tip. I.D. Sytina, 1915; Jern V.F. Vremja slavjanofil'stvuet. Vojna, Germanija, Evropa i Rossija. Pg.: Tip. I.D. Sytina, 1915; Runkevich S.G. Velikaja Otechestvennaja vojna i cerkovnaja zhizn'. Pg.: Tip. Troice-Sergievskoj lavry, 1916. For more on Neoslavophils: Noskov V.V. Pervaja mirovaja vojna i russkaja ideja. – Dialog so vremenem. Al'manah intellektual'noj istorii. 2008. № 25 (2), p. 51-87.

[18] During 1914-1917 Tsarist government deported more than 1 mln non-combatants, including 500 000 of Jews and  300 000 of German colonists. See: Holkvist P. Total'naja mobilizacija i politika naselenija: rossijskaja katastrofa (1914-1921) v evropejskom kontekste. – In: Rossija i Pervaja mirovaja vojna, p. 89.

[19] Lohr E. Nationalizing the Russian Empire. The Campaign against Enemy Aliens during World War I. Cambridge, Mass. – London: Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 31-54.

[20] Mur K. Zemlja za sluzhbu: krest'janskie predstavlenija o spravedlivosti i zhertvennosti v Rossii v gody Velikoj vojny. – V sb.: Pervaja mirovaja vojna: vzgljad spustja stoletie, p. 355-361.

[21] On the end of 1917 the total quantity of  fugitives and dislocated civilians reached 5 million people and their return to the previous places of residence delayed till 1924. See:Kurcev A.N. Bezhenstvo. – In: Rossija i Pervaja mirovaja vojna, p. 140, 144.

[22] According to the registration details, in the beginning of the war the total number of Russian officers reached 80 thousands, but on January 1, 1917, there were about 146 thousands officers in the army.  During the period from August 1914 till April 1917 from military schools graduated 74,5 thousands of junior officers and from the school of ensigns graduated 113,5 thousands of people: Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj voenno-istoricheskij arhiv (RGVIA), f. 366, op. 1, d. 74., l. 25; Ibid, op. 2, d. 214, l. 79. For more see: Marynjak A.V. Podgotovka oficerskih kadrov russkoj armii v gody Pervoj mirovoj vojny. – In: Zabytaja vojna i predannye geroi, p. 219-232. The detailed analysis of Officer Corps in the current period can be find in the following monograph: Grebenkin I.N. Russkij oficer v gody mirovoj vojny i revoljucii: 1914-1918 gg. Rjazan': Rjazanskij gosudarstvennyj universitet, 2010.

[23] Rossija v mirovoj vojne 1914-1918 gg. (in figures). M.: Central'noe statisticheskoe upravlenie. Otdel voennoj statistiki, 1925, p. 4, 49.

[24] Stepun F.  Byvshee i nesbyvsheesja. SPb.: Aleteja, 1994, p. 270-271

[25] Denikin A.I. Ocherki Russkoj Smuty. Krushenie vlasti i armii, fevral' – sentjabr' 1917. M.: Nauka, 1991, p. 98.

[26] Porshneva O.S. Mental'nyj oblik i social'noe povedenie soldat russkoj armii v uslovijah Pervoj mirovoj vojny (1914 – fevral' 1917.). – In: Voenno-istoricheskaja antropologija. Ezhegodnik. 2002. M.: ROSSPEN, 2002, p. 259-260.

[27] Astashov A.B. Vojna kak kul'turnyj shok: analiz psihopatologicheskogo sostojanija russkoj armii v Pervuju mirovuju vojnu. – In: Voenno-istoricheskaja antropologija. Ezhegodnik. 2002, p. 268-281.

[28] Kolonickij B.I. Politicheskaja funkcija anglofobii v gody Pervoj mirovoj vojny. –In: Rossija i Pervaja mirovaja vojna, p. 273; Golubev A.V., Porshneva O.S. Obraz sojuznika v soznanii rossijskogo obshhestva v kontekste mirovyh vojn, p. 121-122.

[29] Sergeev E.Y. Russkie voennoplennye v germanii i Avstro-Vengrii v gody Pervoj mirovoj vojny. – Novaja i novejshaja istorija, 1996, № 4, p. 75; Nagornaja O.S. «Drugoj voennyj opyt»: rossijskie voennoplennye Pervoj mirovoj vojny v Germanii (1914-1922). M.: Novyj hronograf, 2010, p. 229.

[30] Brusilov A.A. Moi vospominanija. M.: ROSSPEN, 2001, p. 144, 197.

[31] Gosudarstvennyj arhiv Rossijskoj Federacii (GARF), f. 102, d. 1042, l. 3-3ob. Published in the monograph: Kolonickij B.I. «Tragicheskaja jerotika»: obrazy imperatorskoj sem'i v gody Pervoj mirovoj vojny. M.: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2010, p. 415.

[32] The British historian N. Stone marks that the predominance of the Russians over the Germans and Austro-Hungarians in weapons and ammunition on the Eastern  front can be compared with the level that the allies reached only in the middle of 1918:  Stone N. The Eastern Front, p. 12.

[33] Porshneva O.S. Mental'nyj oblik i social'noe povedenie soldat russkoj armii…, p. 264.

[34] Brusilov A.A. Moi vospominanija, p. 204-205.

[35] Cit.: Porshneva O.S. Krest'jane, rabochie i soldaty Rossii nakanune i v gody Pervoj mirovoj vojny, p. 115.

[36] Ibid, p. 172

[37] For more information see: Kolonickij B.I. «Tragicheskaja jerotika»: obrazy imperatorskoj sem'i v gody Pervoj mirovoj vojny, p. 236-238.

[38] During June-July 1917 Russian national central executive committee for the organization of revolutionary shock battalions from the volunteers from the homefront created  about 80 recruiting stations. Through them 40 thousands rookies went into the active army. From these rookies later were created two shock regiments and more than 50 shock battalions, including female battalions. Bazanov S.N. Za chest' i velichie Rossii, p. 424-427.

[39] Denikin A.I. Ocherki Russkoj Smuty, p. 329.

[40] Astashov A.B. Propaganda na Russkom fronte v gody Pervoj mirovoj vojny. M.: Spetskniga, 2012, p. 29.

[41] Ibid. P. 179

[42] Kerenskij A.F. Rossija na istoricheskom povorote. Memuary. M.: Respublika, 1993, p. 183.

[43] Frenkin M.S. Russkaja armija i revoljucija 1917-1918. Mjunhen: Posev, 1978, p. 347-393.

[44] For more details see: Bazanov S.N. Razlozhenie russkoj armii v 1917. (k voprosu ob jevoljucii ponimanija legitimnosti Vremennogo pravitel'stva v soznanii soldat). – In: Voenno-istoricheskaja antropologija. Ezhegodnik. 2002, s. 282-290.

[45] Bazanov S.N. Za chest' i velichie Rossii, p. 456.

[46] Tjutjukin S.V. Rossija: ot Velikoj vojny – k Velikoj revoljucii, p. 157.

[47] Shatsillo V.K. Poslednjaja vojna carskoj Rossii, p. 321.

[48] Nagornaja O.S. «Drugoj voennyj opyt»: rossijskie voennoplennye Pervoj mirovoj vojny v Germanii (1914-1922), s. 83. For more details see: Rzheshevskij O.A. (red.) Vojna i obshhestvo v HH v. M.: Nauka, 2008. Kn. 1. Vojna i obshhestvo nakanune i v period Pervoj mirovoj vojny.

[49] Tjutjukin S.V. Rossija: ot Velikoj vojny – k Velikoj revoljucii. –In: Vojna i obshhestvo v XX veke /Ed. by V.A. Zolotarev, S.V. Listikov. M.: Nauka, 2008, kn. 1, s. 158; Shatsillo V.K.  Poslednjaja vojna carskoj Rossii, s. 348; Bazanov S.N. Za chest' i velichie Rossii, s. 457.  It seems, that these figures are more authentic than those that can be find in the works of modern foreign historians. For example,  Cornish N. The Russian Army and the First World War. Stroud: Spellmount, 2006, p. 235-237.



Автор: Evgeny Sergeev | Дата добавления: 2013-09-27 | Просмотров: 5353

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