On the outbreak of the First World War it has been claimed that Russia had the largest army in the world. It is believed that there were 5,971,000 men in the Russian Army in August 1914. This was made up of 115 infantry and 38 cavalry divisions. The Russian estimated manpower resource included more than 25 million men of combat age.
However, Russia's poor roads and railways made the effective deployment of these soldiers difficult. The standard infantry weapon in 1914 was the Mosin-Nagant rifle and machine-gun units used modern Maxims manufactured in Russia. It is claimed that the Russian Army had 7,100 field guns, 540 field howitzers and 257 heavy guns.
In 1910 General Yuri Danilov had developed what became known as Plan 19. Danoliv argued that on the outbreak of war in Europe the German Army would concentrate its forces against France. Danilov therefore suggested that four of its armies (19 corps) should immediately invade East Prussia.
Some leading members of the Russian Army disagreed with the tactics of Plan 19. They argued that Austria-Hungary represented a greater threat to Russia than Germany. In 1912 it was decided to substantially alter Plan 19. Only two armies were now to attack East Prussia with the rest concentrating on defending Russia from the Austro-Hungarian Army.
During the early stages of the First World War, the Russian Army was mainly concentrated on the Eastern Front but some detachments also served on the Balkan Front and the Western Front. At first the army had no problems with recruitment. Stephen Graham reported: "There is scarcely a town or school in Russia from which boys have not run away to the war. Hundreds of girls have gone off in boys' clothes and tried to pass themselves off as boys and enlist as volunteers, and several have got through, since the medical examination is only a negligible formality required in one place, forgotten in another; the Russians are so fit as a whole. So among the wounded in the battle of the Nieman was a broad-shouldered, vigorous girl from Zlato-Ust, only sixteen years old, and nobody had dreamed that she was other than the man whom she was passing herself off. But not only boys and girls of sixteen and seventeen, but children of eleven and twelve have contrived to have a hand either in the fighting or in the nursing."
Early defeats at the Battle of Tanneberg and at Lodz, inflicted heavy casualties and by the summer of 1916, the Russian Army had lost nearly 3 million men. Hamilton Fyfe reported in the Daily News: "The impression I got in April was the Russian troops, all the men and most of the officers, were magnificent material who were being wasted because of the incompetence, intrigues, and corruption of the men who governed the country."
Arthur Ransome visited the Russian Army on the Eastern Front. He later recalled: "Looking back now I seem to have seen nothing, but I did in fact see a great deal of that long-drawn-out front, and of the men who, ill-armed, ill-supplied, were holding it against an enemy who, even if his anxiety to fight was not greater than the Russians', was infinitely better equipped. I came back to Petrograd full of admiration for the Russian soldiers who were holding the front without enough weapons to go round. I was much better able to understand the grimness with which those of my friends who knew Russia best were looking into the future."
The high death-rate made conscription more difficult. There were conscription riots in several cities and with soldiers refusing to fire on demonstrators, the government fell in February, 1917. In an attempt to prevent defeat on the Eastern Front, Aleksandr Kerenski, encouraged the formation of the Women's Death Battalion.
The failed Russian Kerenski Offensive in July, 1917, broke both the army and the will of the government. The October Revolution brought Lenin to power in Russia. The Bolshevik government immediately entered into negotiations and fighting on the Eastern Front officially ended on 16th December, 1917.
Almost 15 million served in the Russian Army during the First World War. Casualties totalled an estimated 1.8 million killed, 2.8 million wounded and 2.4 million taken prisoner.
I was staying in an Altai Cossack village on the frontier of Mongolia when the war broke out, a most verdant resting-place with a majestic fir forests, snow-crowned mountains range behind range, green and purple valleys deep in larkspur and monkshood. All the young men and women of the village were out of the grassy hills with scythes; the children gathered currants in the wood each day, and folks sat at home and sewed furs together, the pitch-boilers, and charcoal-burners worked at their black fires with barrels and scoops.
At 4 a.m. on 31st July the first telegram came through; an order to mobilize and be prepared for active service. I was awakened that morning by an unusual commotion, and, going into the village street, saw the soldier population collected in groups, talking excitedly. My peasant hostess cried out to me, "have you heard the news? There is war." A young man on a fine horse came galloping down the street, a great red flag hanging from his shoulders and flapping in the wind, and as he went he called out the news to each and every one, "War! War!"
Who was the enemy? Nobody knew. The telegram contained no indications. All the village population knew was that the same telegram had come as came ten years ago, when they were called to fight the Japanese. Rumours abounded. All the morning it was persisted that the yellow peril had matured, and that the war was with China. Russia had pushed too far into Mongolia, and China had declared war.
Then a rumour went round. "It is with England, with England." So far away these people lived they did not know that our old hostility had vanished. Only after four days did something like the truth come to us, and then nobody believed it.
"An immense war," said a peasant to me. "Thirteen powers engaged - England, France, Russia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, against Germany, Austria, Italy, Romania, Turkey.
Two days after the first telegram a second came, and this one called up every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-three.
Looking back now I seem to have seen nothing, but I did in fact see a great deal of that long-drawn-out front, and of the men who, ill-armed, ill-supplied, were holding it against an enemy who, even if his anxiety to fight was not greater than the Russians', was infinitely better equipped. I came back to Petrograd full of admiration for the Russian soldiers who were holding the front without enough weapons to go round. I was much better able to understand the grimness with which those of my friends who knew Russia best were looking into the future.
Brussilov was the ablest of the army-group commanders. His front was in good order. For that reason we were sent to it. The impression I got in April was the Russian troops, all the men and most of the officers, were magnificent material who were being wasted because of the incompetence, intrigues, and corruption of the men who governed the country.
In June Brussilov's advance showed what they could do, when they were furnished with sufficient weapons and ammunition. But that effort was wasted, too, for want of other blows to supplement it, for want of any definite plan of campaign.
The Russian officers, brutal as they often were to their men (many of them scarcely considered privates to be human), were as a rule friendly and helpful to us. They showed us all we wanted to see. They always cheerfully provided for Arthur Ransome (a fellow journalist), who could not ride owing to some disablement, a cart to get about in.
I am often on guard over the Russians. In the darkness one sees their forms move like stick storks, like great birds. They come close up to the wire fence and lean their faces against it. Their fingers hook round the mesh. Often many stand side by side, and breathe the wind that comes down from the moors and the forest.
They rarely speak and then only a few words. They are more human and more brotherly towards one another, it seems to me, than we are. But perhaps that is merely because they feel themselves to be more unfortunate than us. Anyway the war is over so far as they are concerned. But to wait for dysentery is not much of a life either.
A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world's condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim. Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, then they are if they were free.
There is scarcely a town or school in Russia from which boys have not run away to the war. Hundreds of girls have gone off in boys' clothes and tried to pass themselves off as boys and enlist as volunteers, and several have got through, since the medical examination is only a negligible formality required in one place, forgotten in another; the Russians are so fit as a whole. So among the wounded in the battle of the Nieman was a broad-shouldered, vigorous girl from Zlato-Ust, only sixteen years old, and nobody had dreamed that she was other than the man whom she was passing herself off. But not only boys and girls of sixteen and seventeen, but children of eleven and twelve have contrived to have a hand either in the fighting or in the nursing.
There appears to be no sex-antagonism in Russia. Indeed the line of sex cleavage is of the very faintest. Men and women do not lead separate lives. They work side by side normally, whether in the fields or as students of medicine, politics and the like in universities. And, as every one knows, there are (or were before the war changed everything) as many women Anarchists as men. It is only natural that the iron-hearted and adventurous should desire to share in the great adventure.
The news of a woman recruit had preceded me at the barracks and my arrival there precipitated a riot of fun. The men assumed that I was a loose-moraled woman who had made her way into the ranks for the sake of carrying on her illicit trade.
As soon as I made an effort to shut my eyes I would discover the arm of my neighbour on the left around my neck, and would restore it to its owner with a crash. Watchful of his movements I offered an opportunity for my neighbour on the right to get too near me, and I would savagely kick him in the side. All night long my nerves were taut and my fists busy.
26th July, 1917: Yasha Bachkarova, a Siberian woman soldier had served in the Russian Army since 1915 side by side with her husband; when he had been killed, she continued to fight. She had been wounded twice and three times decorated for valour. When she knew the soldiers were deserting in large numbers, she made her way to Moscow and Petrograd to start recruiting for a Woman's Battalion. It is reported that she had said, "If the men refuse to fight for their country, we will show them what the women can do!" So this woman warrior, Yasha Bachkarova, began her campaign; it was said that it had met with singular success. Young women, some of aristocratic families, rallied to her side; they were given rifles and uniforms and drilled and marched vigorously. We Sisters were of course thrilled to the core.
9th August, 1917: Last Monday, an ambulance-van drove up with three wounded women soldiers. We were told that they belonged to the Bachkarova Women's Death Battalion. We had not heard the full name before, but we instantly guessed that it was the small army of women recruited in Russia by the Siberian women soldier, Yasha Bachkarova. Naturally we were all very impatient to have news of this remarkable battalion, but the women were sadly shocked and we refrained from questioning them until they had rested. The van driver was not very helpful but he did know that the battalion had been cut up by the enemy and had retreated.
13th August, 1917: At dinner we heard more of the Women's Death Battalion. It was true; Bachkarova had brought her small battalion down south of the Austrian Front, and they had manned part of the trenches which had been abandoned by the Russian Infantry. The size of the Battalion had considerably decreased since the first weeks of recruitment, when some 2000 women and girls had rallied to the call of their leader. Many of them, painted and powdered, had joined the Battalion as an exciting and romantic adventure; she loudly condemned their behaviour and demanded iron discipline. Gradually the patriotic enthusiasm had spent itself; the 2000 slowly dwindled to 250. In honour to those women volunteers, it was recorded that they did go into the attack; they did go "over the top". But not all of them. Some remained in the trenches, fainting and hysterical; others ran or crawled back to the rear.