- from the book 'Field-Notes from the Russian Front', 1915
- 'A Religious Service on the Field of Battle'
- By Stanley Washburn
- 'the Times' Correspondent with the Russian Armies
On the Russian Front
photos by Georges H. Mewes
Warsaw, Poland , November 1, 1914
He who tries to understand the psychology of the millions of simple soldiers of the Czar now with the colours, and overlooks the spiritual aspect of these humble privates, certainly fails to appreciate one of the keynotes in the character of the men who are carrying forward the honour and the banners of Russia towards a victorious consummation of the war. I never began to realize this extraordinary quality of the Russian soldier, until by rare good luck we happened a few days ago on services which were being held on the battlefield near a certain village in Western Poland.
The sun had set and the whole landscape was fading into the neutral tints of the afterglow of a cold afternoon in late October. A few hundred yards to the west was the line of the Russian trenches and the position of their field artillery, whose guns were hardly cool from the discharge of shrapnel shells. The last stretcher-bearers were disappearing to the rear with their melancholy burdens, while in a wood a few miles away the still bleeding bodies of the enemy's dead were stiffening in death. A few kilometres beyond, belated shells, like the last fire cracker in a pack, were bursting at infrequent intervals. The battle was over, and here we saw the change from the militant to the religious. The regiment in question was one of those from Siberia whose deeds of valour in eighteen days of consecutive fighting reduced its numbers from 4,000 to 1,700, and its officers from 70 to 12. The fame of their endurance and prodigies of courage had trickled back to the General Staff, and the Grand Duke had himself sent a wire of congratulations to the regiment, and ordered that it should be decorated with the Cross of St. George, the nearest equivalent to the V.C. which Russian tradition offers. This order is given only for bravery in action. Representing the regiment so honoured, forty soldiers, selected by their own comrades, receive the cherished little metal cross with its bit of black and orange ribbon.
The regiment that we now saw in the slowly dying October day had thus been honoured; and almost ere their rifles were cool, were ordered back into a little hollow dip to hear the message of the Commander-in-Chief, to receive their reward, and to participate in religious services conducted by a priest of their own faith.
The scene was one that I shall never forget.
Seventeen hundred war-worn veterans, covered with the mud and dirt of the trenches, massed in a half-square in all the atmosphere of battle. But the hard glint of cruel war was gone from their eyes, and in its place there shone that peculiar exaltation of the religious man in the presence of the chosen representative of his creed.
And such a representative! In the very centre of the square, with the entire staff of the regimental officers grouped bareheaded behind him, stood the most magnificent priest that I have ever seen. With golden hair hanging down to his shoulders, and a head transfigured with the light of one lifted above earthly matters, he stood in all his gorgeous robes before six stacked rifles, the bayonets of which served to support the Holy Bible and the golden cross that symbolizes the Christian faith. With eyes turned in rapture to the cold leaden heavens above him, the priest seemed a figure utterly detached from the earth. Behind him stood a few grimy veterans whose voices made them eligible to aid in the chanting. And on two sides, file upon file, leaning on their rifles with bayonets fixed, stood these sons of Russia's vast domain of steppes and desolation which sweeps from the Ural Mountains to the far fringes of the Pacific littoral in Asia.
The service I could not follow, as it was of course in Russian, but the spirit of it, there in the chill twilight upon the battlefield, was such as none could misread. And when there came the benediction, each of the soldiers fell upon his knees and with bended head listened to the sonorous voice that bespoke for them the mercy and kindness of Him who above the roar and tumult of battle and conflicting races yet watches over every one of His own. As they knelt there with their forest of bayonets silhouetted against the sky, it seemed as though the gleaming points must be part of a religious service, and not the type of war's most cruel weapon. The service ended, and then followed a scene almost as impressive. The colonel, a grizzled old warrior, stepped out and in sharp, military sentences ordered from the ranks those of the privates who had been honoured with the Cross of St. George. The men stepped forward and kissed the cross held in the hands of the priest. Next, the forty were formed in a line of twenty, two files deep. An officer then called out certain orders, and at once the sea of bayonets dissolved in a confusion of defiling columns, and at another order reshaped into the whole regiment in column of eights, with the colonel at their head. These then defiled past the new Knights of St. George to pay their respects to those among them who had borne the test of fire and of steel.
The first man was the old, grizzled colonel. In his left hand he carried a cane to support a foot which limped from a wound received in Manchuria. As he passed his own privates, he raised his hand in respectful salute. Behind him filed the whole regiment, company after company, each paying the respect that manhood renders to fortitude and bravery crowned by official recognition. And all the while the forty chosen ones stood with radiant faces, their rifles at the present. Here we saw them file past, these ragged, war-stained men from Siberia, and a finer body of troops more representative of their craft has never come before my eyes. Dirty, bearded, and jingling with their teapots, spades, and soldiers' knick-knacks, they moved slowly past their companions whom they had chosen to honour as types of their own bravery. When the last company had passed, the deep, stern tones of the colonel rang out, and at once the regiment dissolved into its companies, each of which returned to the place in the trenches from whence it had come to participate in this remarkable meeting. After it was over, I strolled along the lines and there sank into my mind the realization that these simple men had gone back to their trenches armed with a faith and an ardour which only religion sown on a fertile ground can stir in the breast of man.
I learn now that priests are with nearly all the armies, and services are held as frequently as possible, and that during the action these men of God move among the troops, administering the last offices to those that are beyond earthly help, and binding up the wounds of those whose condition is not hopeless.
The spirit of the troops is perhaps typified by the scene that I have imperfectly tried to describe. Let no one who would understand the temperament and capacity of the Russian soldier forget, that in the very aspect seen here, there is one of the greatest assets that an army can have, when it is embodied in the heart of each of the simple units that forms its regiments, the men who pay the price of war and whose lives and shattered carcasses form the foundation of the highway of advancing Empire.
photos by Georges H. Mewes
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