- from 'the War Budget', May 1st, 1915
- 'Ivan Ivanovitch'
- the Truth about the Russian Soldier
- by Perceval Gibbon
a British Reporter with the Soldiers of the Czar
Russian troops in winter furs
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at Warsaw is an affair of yellow glazed brick, surmounted by the clustering gold domes which are the chief character of Russian ecclesiastical architecture. Within it is a vast space of marble flooring, its walls frescoed to the arches of the roof, with a. great gold screen closing one end of it, in which are framed the ikons of many saints. Its doors are open all day; it is the headquarters of the Greek Church in Roman Catholic Poland; and here, upon any day of the week, is the place to see the Russian soldier making ready for the business of war which lies before him.
They come singly or in little groups, sturdy soldierly figures in their long-skirted grey great coats and knee-boots, tiptoeing their way across the wide and echoing floor-space, each making towards the saint of his choice Basil, Alexander, or George, as the case may be. The splendours of the place distract them a little at first, but a Russian soon finds himself at home in a church; and it is not long before they have found their saints and are kneeling before them.
I never quite understood the ceremonial of address through which they go, the order of kneeling, crossing oneself, bowing one's head till one kisses the pavement, and so forth but to them it is all familiar enough. It is a thing done as naturally as eating; there are sometimes a score of them at once, each earnest and busy, commending himself to protection before he takes his bayonet in hand to protect himself. Many officers come likewise, often with their families; and in every church in Russia the men who are summoned to the colours are doing the same thing.
At the front, where the great trenches slice across Russia from the Baltic to the Carpathians, one sees them in another guise. What strikes one then as their main quality is their toughness, their rather resigned and patient character of men to whom hardship is native. A touch of brutishness, of a half-animal strength and docility is common among them; one becomes accustomed to the harsh stare of eyes that tell, nothing, of hairy faces inexpressive as a mask. When they sing on the march, their songs are like slow hymns; there is hardly ever a moment when one sees them either in high spirits or depressed. To a Westerner, they make the impression of men guarding a secret, men who could tell something that would startle you to hear but they never tell it.
Or perhaps it is only to the gold-framed saints that they tell it. I think, if one wished to account to oneself for the Russian soldier, that one would need to look upon him as a man who, in the background of his mind, guards the confidences he has exchanged with the glowing ikon which stands to him for his saint. The man you see in the trench peering along his rifle through the loophole, his bashlik drawn forward over his head, his eyes, reddened by the bitter wind, watchful and alert, is only half of the real man. He is generally a biggish man, with great peasant's shoulders, apt for burdens, and huge hands horny as hooves. He is obedient with the obedience of a spaniel, humble and faithful; ho can march and dig and endure frost and wet and hunger with any soldier on earth. But that is not the whole of him. Somewhere in the core of him, where he keeps and hides his soul, there is something inflammable, something that responds with instant and fiery readiness to appeals which come by way of his emotions.
Russian troops in provisionary trenches
The long battle along the Rawka and Bsura rivers in Poland, when for three months Von Hindenburg's great army was held at a profitless standstill, showed the Russian soldier in his true colours. It was trench warfare, war with the spade and pick through a long and wet winter, in which the snow came late after weeks of depressing wet and mud. He had to live and fight in great gutters where the water only sank to leave behind it a slough of all-pervading mud in which nothing and no one could keep dry. There is nobody like Ivan Ivanovitch for that kind of thing. Life at its best is a pretty bare thing for him, an affair of grim labour for very little reward. He endured it with that grunting, inexpressive stoicism with which he envisages all things and conditions, the best as well as, the worst, grew perhaps a little bonier under the stress of it, a little higher in the cheekbone under his furry beard, a little slimmer in the region of the belt. His officers, drawn from a more exacting class, cursed freely; Ivan Ivanovitch went on much as usual. He was always docile, obeying all orders with a kind of friendly and humble alacrity. And when it came to fighting he was as good as ever.
Those were the days when the Germans still had hopes of taking Warsaw, and every night saw their attacks renewed in a continual and desperate endeavour to advance on the road to the city. There was always the same procedure; it became a kind of horrible routine. A day of heavy shelling, designed to shake the morale of the sober sturdy Russians who waited with such indomitable patience behind their loop-holed parapets in the muddy trenches scores, sometimes hundreds, of guns working together, spraying the Russian line with an infernal rain of shrapnel and large-calibre shell. There are fields in Poland, great spaces of land flat as a table, where, the ground looks as if it had. been turned over by a huge shovel; the shells have literally ploughed the ground. Then, when darkness arrived, would come the attack, the famous German attacks in column formation that splashed their way through the little river and came wavering and staggering up the bank to assault the Russian trench.
The whole history of war affords few parallels to the frantic persistence of those attacks. . The true winter came late, but already in November the nights were acid with cold, and each morning showed the face of the water filmed with new ice. It was into the bitterness of that water that the Germans came down from their lines, wading through it armpit deep with the rifles upheld to keep them dry, while the fire from the trenches thrashed at their ranks, and the searchlight teams settled on them to point them out to the screened marksmen above. Column after column of them came, following each other down into the stream, straining with broken and ragged ranks towards the further bank, with dead men floating beside them and the wounded drowning about their feet. And all the while Ivan Ivanovitch at his loophole was patient and careful, pouring bullets forth like a grey- coated machine, working as calmly and expertly at his new trade of war as ever he worked at the plough or the bench in his home village. It was not. Germans who could stir him from his habit of serious quiet.
- left : under fire in the trenches near Gumin
- right : Cossacks, legendary fighters of the Czar
But can he be stirred. ? Above the Rawka, where the road from Guzow to Bolimow crosses the river, is the little village of Gumin, a mere hamlet strung out on both sides of the road. To the south of it, slicing across the dreary levels, is the trench which was held by the 13th Infantry, the famous Biekzersky Regiment, whose heroic record in the present war shows that their four battalions of a thousand men each have actually lost over five thousand men, the losses being made good by new drafts, so that of the original regiment there remained on January 1st of this year, when I visited them in their trench, only sixteen hundred men. It was the Bielozerskies who stood the brunt of the attack in the beginning of February when the great German columns, massed , for a special effort came diagonally across the road and forced them to fall back to their second line trenches.
That occurred late in the afternoon. Contrary to the general practice, the Germans on this occasion attacked by daylight. They held the trench of the Bielozerskies exactly five hours, till the winter dark flowed over the mournful flats and night settled down. The senior officer of the Bielozerskies was a Stabs Kapitan equivalent to a Senior Subaltern the others were dead or wounded. He had been with his men since the outbreak of the war, had lived with them in six dozen trenches, and marched with them and fought with them all across Poland. He had made them his in that peculiar relationship which a Russian officer of the best kind can always establish with his men, a kind of comradeship, half official, half affectionate. Now he put that relationship to the test.
"We've got to take that trench back," is the substance of what he told them. "I'm disgraced if we don't."
He knew his men. They would have attacked at the order in any case, but not as they attacked when he gave the word. The inflammable something at the core of each one of them was alight, that radiant and burning emotionalism of which the Russian is capable. So, when presently they returned towards the trench whence the Germans had driven them forth, they went in a lunatic frenzy of battle that carried them and their bayonets clear into the trench, a roaring horde, of slashing and stabbing fighting men against which nothing could stand. There was no holding them; it was the great charge of the whole long Rawka-Bsura struggle; they left not a German alive in the whole of the trench.
And if they can do that for the sake of an officer they like, conceive how they will act at the prompting of deeper appeals, when it is for the Little Father himself that they swarm across their breastworks, or for the august and beloved name of Holy Russia.
pages from British war-time magazines
A factor in the Russian army which has probably surprised the enemy, more than any other is the artillery. That conception of Russia which leads German official publicists, to speak and write of it as a barbarous and only slightly civilised country would help the German General Staff to add to its other conspicuously false estimates of its enemies the idea that while Russia could produce a serviceable kind of infantryman in any numbers, she would be lacking in trained men for the more scientific branches of war work. They know better now. Even as our defeats at the beginning of the South African war were the making of the British army, so Russia's failure in Manchuria has stimulated her to bring her forces up to a new pitch of efficiency. No department in the army has benefited more than the artillery.
I recall the day on which, deserting my usual beat between Msconow and Guzow, I went up to Socachew, drawn thither by the noise of a tremendous artillery fire that seemed to betoken something serious in the way of attacks. The main road from Warsaw to Socachew was blocked by transport; officers of the railway service pointed me out a route across snowy fields, by which I could come to the railway and follow its embankment to the town. My car went slowly, bumping heavily over the broken and frozen earth,. till presently across the white and dismal fiats I could see a great tower of smoke that rose against the pearly western sky.
Even as I saw it, a spark of wan fire shone at the heart of it, and the sharp detonation of a bursting shell travelled up to my ears. It was Socachew which the Germans were bombarding.
I had to leave the car; no wheels that were ever built could last long on those stone-hard clods. I bade the chauffeur wait for me under the embankment, and climbed up to walk along the railway to the town. From the line one could see Socachew plainly, with a big brick factory at its southern edge and its roofs outlined sharply against the sky. The great German gun away beyond the Bsura thudded heavily, and at once for the sound of it came slowly one saw the new pillar of dark smoke that spouted up among those roofs and the fragments of homes that rained down out of it. A Taube monoplane, high overhead, was wheeling in circles, reconnoitring the country below for Russian batteries; it seemed to me that there were none.
No doubt the Taube was deceived, too. It was when I had done my business at the town, had photographed it, and was walking back along the railway to rejoin my car that it and I were undeceived. Possibly the purposeless shelling of the deserted town had angered somebody in authority; but of a sudden, from away to my left as I walked, there was the heart-catching bang of a gun getting to work, and the high, hysteric howl of a shell travelling through the smoke of the burning houses to find and silence the German battery. On the heels of it, another bull-mouthed monster woke; then others, shouting in a tremendous diapason from flat lands that had seemed empty of life. All around were buried guns, an underground population of them, obeying the orders of the observers who work down at the very front of the extremest front and guide their batteries by telephone.
To my right, as I walked, was the little village of Cysto, with a big barn of red brick at its western edge. Suddenly I heard that special growing howl in the air, which is the herald of a shell coming towards one, the most uncomfortable noise that I know. Then a bang as the big shell landed, dropping neatly through the roof of the barn. There was a moment in which one could see the brick walls of the structure bulge outwards and the whole building lose shape. Then the roof spouted upwards in fragments, a cloud of black smoke sprang up, and the whole barn fell asunder. The big German gun was groping for the Russian batteries.
It put half a dozen shells into poor harmless little Cyste, where no gun was. That, throughout the war in the east, has been the main defect of the German artillery; their firing is without guidance; they lavish shell without knowing the results of their shooting. Presently they changed direction. A raving shell came right overhead, screaming its way straight down the line, to burst on the slope of the embankment ahead of me. I went to the side of the line to beckon my car to come up to help me out of range; I saw it, still a mile away, making off at top speed from the zone of fire.
Still the Russian guns were firing, five or six batteries at work at once, and presently one was aware that the German gun had ceased. Forthwith the Russian guns ceased likewise; they do not waste their shell when there is no target.
Later in the day I learned that they had done their work neatly and completely, putting the German out of action.
That is the quality of the Russian artillery a kind of purposeful and strictly utilitarian precision. At Gumin I saw a gun come into action against a German trench opposite our own. The word came down by telephone that they would open fire at a certain time; officers in the trench were to observe and report the effects of the fire. Punctually to the moment the, gun spoke away in the rear. The shell burst perhaps eighty yards short of the German breastwork. The next was an equal distance beyond it; they were "bracketing" the trench.
"Now," said the officer in the trench happily, "they will begin."
The gun spoke again, the shell squealed in the air, and in the middle of the German parapet there appeared a miniature volcano; the shell had landed on the top of it. The officer in the trench babbled delightedly into the telephone. Twelve shells in all landed either on or close to the German trench, raking the length of it, before a German battery began to remonstrate, and forced our gunners to limber up and move to another point.
pages from a British war-time magazine
There are other phases of Russian strategy which should be recorded. I recall some from those early days of fierce fighting in East Prussia.
South and south-west from Wirballen, where Rennenkampf had his headquarters, the land crumbles into that maze of small hills and little ragged-edged lakes called Masurenland, a complicated bit of country hard to keep under observation.
The reconnaissance which definitely established the fact of a concentration among those secret hills serves to typify the quality of the actual fighting in this war of that spirit of lavishness and gusto in the work of slaughter which is, for the moment, the whole culture of Europe. It was a night raid across the border from Grajewo to Bialla, a small place to the east of the Spirdig See, not shown on any but large maps. It moved in some force a whole Cossack regiment, three batteries of field guns, and a couple of thousand of the fine, quick-marching infantry that is so rife hereabouts and its purpose was to attack Bialla, gather facts as to the concentration and. its immediate purpose, do what damage it could, and return with its news. At daybreak they were up with Bialla; the Cossacks had rushed a couple of outposts, and the fight was on in the fresh light of a resplendent sunrise.
"Their aeroplanes spouted up from behind the town like a flock of wild ducks."
An infantry officer who was through the affair told me that detail, and how the machines swooped forward over the Russian position, each spluttering forth into rocket signals red for artillery, blue for infantry, and how the thickly dotted clumps of fir-wood made their observation futile. At no time did the Germans guess the strength of the ridiculously inferior Russian force; they were bluffed from the start. Their guns shelled hill-sides far in the rear of the Russians with a terrible spray of shrapnel, as though the fight were miles thick, with supports and reserves and everything handsome about it, instead of a piece of bare-brained piracy.
In the end it was an infantry business; the simplicity of infantry, the directness of the bayonet, the decisiveness and clarity of the issue, one way or the other, appeal to the Russian psychology. Everybody agrees that the Germans fought, as Germans can, magnificently; it was they, and not the Russians, who tried first to get to grips gapped, rippling lines of them suddenly apparent upon the fields, racing forward, checking, torn asunder by the fire, coming on again, going down in platoons, destroyed or driven back. In one place a Russian captain, lying among his men in a wide ditch, gave the order to cease fire to let the enemy approach. He waited, talking all the time to his soldiers as one talks to soothe a restive horse, warning them to wait for the signal, a shot to be fired by himself. He held them till the charge was eight paces away till, as he explained, "he could see their teeth." Imagine those lips contorted with effort, parted breathlessly, and the unmoved man in the ditch, watching steady-eyed, perhaps with a sort of pitying amusement, till he could see between them the white shine of the tooth. Then, and not till then, he let loose the volley that cut them down to the last man.
in snow-covered trenches
"The trenches were like the long graves we dig after a battle; they were full of dead; and the blood stood on the ground in pools and puddles."
Those again are the words of my eye-witness informant. I myself am a war correspondent, and therefore did not see it. But I remember, before Adrianople, the night on which the sheepskin-clad Bulgarian reservists took the trenches on the wet slopes of Papa's Tepe in the rain, and what those trenches looked like an hour afterwards. Men's bodies, not lying, but tangled, in them, the grotesque and writhen attitudes, the faces yet grimacing inhumanly in the light of the lantern, the stiff limbs that stuck up and seemed to brandish themselves, and the mud underfoot that was wet with more precious stuff than rain. And I remember thinking, too, that if one could only follow back the ravelled intricacy of causes and interests behind the war, one might arrive at last at some one man, the supreme criminal whose action or inaction had brought this horror into being, the man who filled the trench with dead; and that he would never see his work.
But if I were to seek for myself a symbol to express the true sense and import of war, it would be a road, such a road as those old trade roads across the Government of Kovno, a streak of grey dust in a grey, horizon-ringed dreariness of plain, and against the western sky a low hanging smudge of smoke, as from a burning village. Upon the road would be people, strung out, straggling far apart, sore-footed and slow, men, women, and feebly-crying children, all poor and ordinary; and the night would be coming on. And there, in a little compass, within the scope of the most usual daily commonplace, would be war in its incidence and just proportion.
There is no room, within tie span of a single article, to describe the vast diversity of the Russian army, its Cossacks, its regular cavalry, its hospital and Red Cross services, its most capable engineers, and its commissariat. It is the product and expression of a vast Empire of many races, all gathered together within a single far-flung frontier, various as the races of men can be, yet having in common that inner fire of devotion to the true Russia, that great Russia which is the mother of her peonies and earns from them the devotion of sons. Here and there on the troop-crowded roads of Poland you meet men who seem foreign; there are Cossacks in claret-coloured or saffron kaftans, with the slant eyes and blue-black hair of Japanese, who speak no Russian and carry their Mullah with them. .Yet they are Russians; they are the Askhabad horsemen, all volunteers, each with his own Arab horse and his family sword with the studded silver hilt. I asked their Colonel, a Russian, how they would regard a war against Turkey and the Khalif.
"Well," he replied, "they're Mohammedans, of course, and, as you see, they carry their priest around with them. Ho has tried to escape once or twice, but they have recaptured him. He doesn't like war, I'm afraid. But as for fighting the Turks, they've fought their Mohammedan neighbours all their lives."
Russians enjoying an open-air meal
Finally, here is a story, a true one, which I can personally vouch for. A certain German officer, straying from his lines, was snapped up by a vedette and brought in as a prisoner.
He was dispatched on, foot to Teresin in the custody of. a single infantryman. They started, the officer walking in front with his blue-grey cloak. gathered round him, the Russian soldier, with the . eternally fixed bayonet which Russian soldiers affect, following at his heels. The officer went slowly.
"Get on," commanded Ivan Ivanovitch.
The officer explained. He had had a foot frostbitten, and it was hurting him. "All right," said the soldier. But progress was slower and slower. "This won't do," said Ivan Ivanovitch. " We'll have to get a ride on a transport cart."
But all the transport was going the other way, and time was passing. Ivan Ivanovitch was illuminated by an idea.
"Look here," he said to the prisoner. "I know what we'll do. You carry my rifle and I'll carry you."
They duly arrived at Teresin, the officer, rifle in hand, carried on the back of Ivan Ivanovitch.
- left : the author - Perceval Gibbons in Russia
- right : cheerful Russians in a dug-out
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