Friday, June 19, 2015

Russian soldiers fighting prowess

Russian soldiers were notorious for their fighting capacity and staying power: prior to the campaign of 1812 Napoleon’s worst experience on the battlefield had come at the hands of General Bennigsen at the battle of Eylau, whilst in the Seven Years’ War Frederick the Great had repeatedly been very roughly handled by the green-coated soldiers of the Empress Elizabeth, gaining an extremely pyrrhic victory over them at Zorndorf in 1758 and going down to ignominious defeat at Kunersdorf in 1759. Other Russian victories from the same war numbered Gross-Jägersdorf and Kay, whilst in 1799 General Suvorov’s invasion of Switzerland had seen Russian troops gain a series of dramatic successes: on 1 October, for example, 5000 troops under General Rosenberg had utterly defeated a column of more than twice as many Frenchmen under no less a figure than André Masséna, a general who is always rated as one of Napoleon’s greatest commanders. In all this the self-same factors generally identified as the mainspring of Russian patriotism in 1812 had made an appearance. Thus, throughout the eighteenth century commanders such as Rumiantsev and Suvorov had made every effort to play on the devotion of the soldiery to the Orthodox faith and to instill love of the tsar. In this respect it is the opinion of some historians that they appear to have had at least some success. Let us here quote Sir Robert Wilson’s account of the Russian army that fought at Eylau and Friedland in 1807: ‘The Russian, nurtured from earliest infancy to consider Russia as the supreme nation of the world, always regards himself as an important component part of the irresistible mass . . . Amidst the Russian qualities, the love of country is also pre-eminent, and inseparable from the Russian soldier. This feeling is paramount, and in the very last hour his gaze is directed towards its nearest confines.’ But, even supposing that this is so – and it should be noted that Wilson’s claims fit in with a long line of distinctly uncritical western writings on the subject of Russia that stressed the devotion of the common people to the ‘Little Father’ and the Motherland – the net result must be to suggest that what happened at such battles as Smolensk, Borodino, Maloyaroslavets and Polotsk was not representative of anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, it could even be argued that the Russian armed forces were actually less patriotic in 1812 than they had been in, say, 1762. Thus there were many non-Russian conscripts, most notably Ukrainians, in the army of Alexander II. What she neglects to say, however, is that conscription had only been extended beyond the frontiers of Great Russia in the reign of Paul I, and that a number of contemporary writers had been expressing fears that this would dilute the morale and fighting power of the soldiery.

For all the determined efforts of the régime to whip up popular patriotism in 1812, then, there is little concrete evidence that these made much difference in so far as the motivation of the common soldier was concerned: the Russian soldier fought in much the same style as he had for the past century. Why, then, was he able to give the French, the Prussian and the Turks such a tough time? One explanation that is sometimes put forward is that the conscripted serfs who fought for the Romanovs were so brutalized, so stupid and so devoid of initiative that they simply did not understand the concept of running away. The Polish leader, Kosciuszko, said that Russian soldiers fought as fanatics and ignored enemy fire so long as they had officers left to lead them, whilst, to quote Christopher Duffy, ‘It was not enough simply to kill Rusians: you had to knock them down as well.’34 However, this piece of type-casting does not work any better than that of the Russian soldier as the holy warrior of tsar and motherland. In the late eighteenth century, the Russian army had evolved a tactical doctrine that stressed initiative, flexibility and speed of movement, and, whilst Paul I did make some reforms, the fact is that he really only altered the emphasis of the regulations: firepower was now to be more important than the bayonet, but the same offensive spirit was still very much in evidence; simultaneously, meanwhile, the tsar initiated the practice of awarding medals to common soldiers. At the same time, under Alexander I there was a renewed move away from the Prussian models that had been favoured by Paul I and, at the time of the Seven Years’ War, the Empress Elizabeth: ever more emphasis was placed on the use of skirmishers, whilst the infantry adopted the same mixture of line and column visible in other armies. At Eylau, Friedland and Borodino the Russians certainly fought in dense masses, but this was not the result of bovine stupidity: rather, the position of the army was in each case very cramped with the result that there was little option but to form the troops in column and no means for them to change their position or take shelter. From this it follows that the performance of the Russian army was in the end determined by military factors. In the first place, it was plentifully supplied with artillery and therefore able to inflict terrible damage on its opponents, who were generally less well served in this respect: at Kay 28 000 Prussians and fifty-six guns faced 40 000 Russians and 186 guns, whilst at Kunersdorf 51 000 Prussians and 140 guns faced 41 000 Russians and 200 guns; moreover, both the organization and the armament of this arm of service were greatly improved under Paul I and Alexander I. The benefits of this situation continued to pertain in 1812 – at Borodino the Russian guns were both more numerous and heavier than their French opponents and even at the very end of the day they were still able to impose their superiority. Thus, according to the Russian commander, Kutuzov, ‘A ferocious artillery duel lasted until it was completely dark. Our artillery caused immense damage with its roundshot and compelled the enemy batteries to fall silent, after which all the French infantry and cavalry withdrew.’ Beyond this, meanwhile, Russian troops were frequently surprisingly well trained. Thus, the eighteenth-century reformer, Rumiantsev, the towering genius, Suvorov, and the victor of Borodino, Kutuzov, had all placed great emphasis on realistic battle drills, the fact being that the Russian army was therefore a very tough nut to crack.

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