Casualties in the Millions; Enormous Desertions.
Revolution in the Air.
Special to The Great War Project
(15-21 January) The situation in the Russian army is precarious and desperate.
At this moment in the war a century ago, Russia had so far, writes historian Adam Hochschild, “suffered a staggering six million war casualties. “Its huge clumsy army had been repeatedly and embarrassingly beaten by far smaller numbers of German troops, who now held a wide swath of Russian territory.”
“Its grain, coal, iron and other riches are feeding the German war effort.”
According to Hochschild, “British and French leaders were increasingly exasperated by the sluggishness of their ally.”
“After two and a half years of war,” reports Hochschild, “Russian soldiers still did not have wire cutters.”
Wire cutters are the essential weapon of choice to break through the barbed wire coils that are spread like snakes to defend the German trenches.
Writes Hochschild, “Expected to tear down German barbed wire entanglements by hand, some soldiers asked whether British troops did the same.”
Of course the answer is no.
Conditions are growing desperate inside Russia. British visitors to Moscow in these days a century ago, witnessed the outbreak of food riots in the streets.
“Inflation was out of control and the government was printing banknotes so fast they did not even have serial numbers.”
Desertion is rampant. A British military attache visiting Petrograd at the time estimated that “a full million Russian soldiers had deserted the army, most slipping quietly back to their villages.”
According to the British military attache with the Russian army, Russia’s military capacity is dwindling. “More than a million men had been killed,” he too reports, “A further two million men were either missing (that is to say, dead) or prisoners of war. More than half a million were in hospital.”
But British intelligence from Russia rejected such dire reports, relying instead on wishful thinking, reports one British visitor. “There is a great deal of exaggeration,” he reports, “in the talk of revolution and especially about the alleged disloyalty of the army.”
Britain must face up to the realities on the Eastern Front. Writes historian Martin Gilbert…
“the number of troops at the front, and those available to be called up, was insufficient…
…to meet the demands of 1917 if the losses continue as before.”
He urges the British to send more munitions and supplies. “He saw no alternative,” writes Hochschild. “An inept ally in the east was better than none, and if the Tsar’s army did not have the weapons to keep on fighting the Germans, he reasoned, the danger of revolution would be far greater.”
“If an upheaval were to take place, he wrote, its effect on the course of the war might be disastrous.”
More widely, “by now the war had become the most deadly catastrophe to strike Europe since the pandemic of the fourteenth century, the Black Death.”
Hochschild continues, “But unlike the bubonic plague of course, the cataclysm ravaging the continent was entirely man-made, and the organized opposition remained small.”
Writes Hochschild, “Although deserting soldiers in Russia were voting against the war with their feet, more open protest there was dangerous.”
At the same time, “the war had everywhere unleashed powerful national chauvinism, witch hunts for traitors, and public fury at any apparent lack of resolve to fight.”