"the Russian Advance"
an American with the Slavs
Told by Stanley Washburn,
Special Correspondent of the "London Times" with the Russian Armies

Experiences with the Russian Generals

general Brusiloff and his staff


Mr. Washburn was the only American (with the exception of the American Military Attache, Lieut. Sherman Miles, and Robert R. McCormick) to have access to the Russian fighting lines at the time this was written. He met on friendly terms the Czar, Grand Duke Nicholas, and all the Russians in high authority in the War. He was decorated by the Czar with the Cross of St. Anne. He has described the anguish of Warsaw and the Russian retreat in his book entitled: "Victory in Defeat," an authoritative account of his experiences in the campaign of Galicia and the retreat through Poland. In his second book, called "The Russian Advance," he tells how Russia, when overwhelmingly defeated, managed her colossal offensive drive.


the Russian 'steam-roller' on the march


I — Story of the Russian General Staff

One hears a lot in war about the "man behind the gun," but there is another individual, and a lot of them just as important, and that is the "man behind" the "man behind the gun," or, more briefly stated, the one higher up. I have known scores of Russian generals since the beginning of the war, and have written a good deal about the men at the greater staffs who play the intellectual end of the game in their distant offices, but, I think, far too little of the generals who sit in rough peasant cottages at the front, just behind the lines where the roar of the artillery and the rattle of the machine gun tells them of their troops in action even before the field telephone buzzes through its raucous message from the trenches. I spent June 23d (1915) with a division commander who may be taken as the type of scores of others who are directing the tactics of the war to- day.

And when I write of General Monkevitch I write, I think, of many more who are almost identical in character and mould. This General I call my "Russian godfather," because he was the first one I met when I came to Russia, and it was he who, sitting in a luxurious office in Petrograd in September, 1914, arranged the first permits that enabled me to join the army in the field. In those days he was an important member of the Petrograd General Staff and with his smart uniform and silver aiguillettes with his resplendent shoulder straps he was a picture of a city officer. Even in that early day he bemoaned his fate at being detained on staff work at the distant capital when the real work was going on at the front. When I came back from my first trip I was told that my friend had gone to the front "somewhere in Bukovina," and gradually the recollection of his kindly features drifted back among the memories of the past.

That afternoon I was ushered into the low-ceilinged room of a humble peasant's cottage, where a tired-looking man in war-worn uniform, tarnished shoulder straps, and muddy boots, was leaning over a hand-hewn table strewn with maps. He looked up as we entered, and I discovered in the commander of the division my erstwhile friend of Petrograd. Half of the house was still occupied by the peasants, while the General's sleeping apartment was in a rough shack outside, where he slept on a camp bed, with hardly any adornment in the room save a low bench on which was placed a battered old tin basin, if one may call it an ornament.

"The luxurious establishment of a Russian General of Divison," he told me laughingly as he showed me over his place of residence. In the trellised vestibule of the cottage were the telephones and telegraphs, while from all directions came the field wires from the positions six versts beyond.

Sitting round the rough table, we listened to the General's account of his divisions fighting against the advance, an achievement that I have already alluded to in a previous chapter, and then, at his advice, we paid a visit to the front, as I have also mentioned elsewhere. The generals higher up are so far away that it is only by chance that they see their men or come in actual contact with their wounded. These divisional commanders are the ones that stand between the intellectual end of the game and the men in the trenches. The moment a shot is fired unexpectedly, their telephone from the trenches tells them what is the cause. An hour after a fight starts, the wounded (if the positions be near) begin to drift back here. In this headquarters the General could look out of the window and see the price in human suffering that the plans he made on the map before him were costing Russia.

After dinner I accompanied General Monkevitch on a walk about the town. With a long, swinging gait he paced down the primitive little street, with a nod and a word for every soldier that he passed. With scrupulous courtesy he returned the bows of the peasants who smilingly greeted him, for it was easy to see that he was a favourite in the village. Even the little children came in for a pleasant word and a bit of chaff, and several times he stopped with his officers about him to joke with the kiddies, and the littler they were the more happily they responded to his pleasant words.

A bit down the street we turned into the great shed where first come the wounded from the smaller units of the divisions. Yesterday, the General told us, his face suddenly going very sad, had resulted in heavy losses. For a moment he stood in a reverie, and then, throwing off his mood of melancholy, shrugged his shoulders and said: "Well, let us look at those within."


wounded Russian soldiers brought to the rear by horse-cart


II — Tales of the Wounded Russian Soldiers

The great wooden shed was divided into a series of rooms where clean, sweet-smelling hay and new-cut clover was piled deeply on the floor, and here lay those too heavily wounded to be moved immediately to the rear. All told, there remained but a few hundred, the great bulk, as the General told me, having been cleared within eight hours after their arrival, to be sent to the greater bases where more comforts awaited them. Between the double rows of haggard creatures slowly strode the General, stopping every few paces to speak to the wounded. The relation of the Russian peasant to his superiors is extraordinary. Never is there the slightest degree of self-consciousness or embarrassment on the part of the soldiers, no matter how high or exalted be the rank of the officer who addresses him.

Again and again soldiers whose haggard features and glazing eyes denoted the serious nature of their wounds called to him in faltering voices: "How goes the fight, Excellency?" or "Did we take the trench, my General?" And always he would stop and reply, "All goes well, my children. You have done superbly. I am proud of you. Go back now to the rear and get well. You have behaved like heroes."

Another groaned audibly as he raised himself to ask: "Have more of my brothers fallen than of the Austrians?" The General replied quickly, raising his voice that all might hear: "For each one of you here, my children, there are five Austrians to pay for it, so rest contented that you have done your duty well."

One mere stripling, shot through the stomach, called to his Chief: "I did my best, Excellency. I killed all I could," and then sank back, groaning, on his bed of straw. And thus it went as we entered building after building where lay the price of victory. One heavily wounded lad called to the General, who immediately went to his side and listened to the high, feverish voice tell of the assault, of capture, escape, and a bullet through the abdomen. With the quick compassion characteristic of the Russians, the General reached for his cigarette case and turned its contents out into the hands of the soldier.

Among the wounded were numbers of Austrians, with pallid features, lying side by side with the Russians, receiving the same kind words and gentle treatment that are accorded to the Russians themselves.

During these assaults many of the wounds are from machine-gun bullets, and a large portion of such are through the stomach or abdomen. Many, I think, of such must die on the battlefield, for of those that die in the hospitals later the bulk are of such a nature. Certainly they are hideously painful, and the little murmuring sobs of the soldiers trying to stifle their anguish are sad indeed to hear.

Outside under the trees was a row of stretchers, each reverently covered with a white sheet. The General halted for a moment, as he uncovered his head. "Our dead," he murmured reverently, and then briskly, "Shall we move on?"

And thus, in the wonderful afterglow of a hot summer day, we strolled with him and beheld the man in his changing moods — General, father of his soldiers, mourner for his dead — each phase merging and emerging from the other as the different sights we saw brought them out. As we wandered casually homeward toward his quarters we passed a house before which stood a sentry. It appeared that he was guarding an Austrian captive officer. Instantly the General turned in and, entering the tiny peasant room, greeted the officer, who proved to be a mere boy, in the uniform of the lowest grade of commissioned officer. The General shook him by the hand, chatted with him for a minute or two, and then again shaking hands and saluting, said in German: "Wohl, auf wiedersehen, mein Freund. Glucklicher Reise," and left the Austrian standing in the dim twilight, with a look of wonder on his face. I daresay the Germans never told him that the Russian officers were like this.


a Russian artillery emplacement


Ill — Along the Battle Road — With the Victorious

The first dull gray tinge of a misty morning was in our cottage room when we rolled out of our straw beds next day. A plodding soldier sleepily rubbing his eyes gave us a bit of bread and some hot soup, and we were ready for the day's work. Around at the staff of the corps we met the Chief of Staff in slippers and without collar, standing in the door looking dreamily across the hazy landscape. He smiled genially when he saw us as he announced that our infantry had already attacked and carried the first line of the Austrian trenches on the front of his corps. Away to the west came the heavy booming of guns, muffled as in cotton by the moisture that still hung in the air.

As we talked the General in command stepped out of his room as brisk and dapper as though he had had a night's sleep (which he hadn't). His face was wreathed in smiles as he pulled on his gloves and, lighting a cigarette, stepped out onto the verandah before which stood his motor. A moment later we started, and winding our way out of the little muddy village, we were soon in among the rolling billows of hills that stretch in great sweeps in this section of the country. . . . Though the hour was early the whole country- side, now saturated with the life of the army, was beginning to move. In every grove artillery ammunition parks were packing up, and already caissons were pulling out on to the roads to overtake their parent batteries which already had left their positions of the night before and were pushing closer to the retiring Austrians, who had succeeded in escaping from their first line of trenches.

Every village through which we passed was crowded with reserves getting on the march to be within easy call of the front, in case the enemy made a counter-attack against the troops that had been fighting and winning during the night. With each mile of our advance the signs of life and activity became more numerous. But as we pushed with our motors through the mud we soon began to encounter the back-wash from the battlefield.

First one met a weary, mud-stained soldier with a red, dripping bandage around one hand which he nursed tenderly with his other. He was the vanguard of the column that from now on we passed for an hour. Next came groups of those wounded so slightly that they could still walk to the rear. That is, those with minor head and arm hits, which represent but a few weeks or even days out of the firing line. Behind these came the creaking peasant carts, each with its pair of tiny horses tugging along through the mud and ruts of the roads, and each loaded with wounded. Some held six or eight men that were able to sit up. All had only the first-aid bandages and most of them were deep- stained with the blood that oozed through the hastily bound dressing. The attack had been made in the pouring rain, through a marsh, and every soldier was saturated with mud, and their faces, what with dirt and the pain of their wounds, looked in the early morning light to be the shade of putty.

Next, one began to encounter the carts of heavily wounded, two in a cart lying on the straw, their eyes staring up into the misty morning sky, their expressions indifferent, stolid, and unemotional. Some clung to the sides of the carts to ease the jolting caused by the inequality of the way. Others lay as though dead, with blankets thrown over their faces. These sights, however, have become as common now as the mud of the road itself and hardly warrant description.

Now, intermingled among the carts, began to appear a sprinkling of the blue-coated Austrians, wandering aimlessly along in the general direction of the flow of traffic. Sometimes a Russian guard plodded along behind them, but more often they came quite alone. Some that were slightly wounded sat beside the road, looking at us with stupid, heavy eyes as we passed in the motor. All, even as the Russian soldiers, were plastered with mud and many saturated with gore, either their own or that of comrades they had tried to help.


several pages from a British magazine


IV — Caissons! Horses! Men! — Drama of the Battlefield

With every verst we moved forward the denser became the traffic, and now the flow to the rear was as heavy in volume as that going forward. Caissons that had sat beside their guns all night feeding them the shells that had breached the Austrian lines came toiling back through the deep-cut roads, the horses steaming and sweating with their exertions and the mud-plastered drivers giving them the leash and forcing them into a trot whenever it was possible to get the empty caissons over the road more speedily.

One never realized what a number of characters it takes to make up the great drama behind a battlefield. It would be possible to sit beside the way for an hour and write a volume of the strange and curious things one sees. Here a cartload of peasants that are still pushing to the rear, unconscious, perhaps, that the battle has already gone in the opposite direction. Just beyond lie the smoking embers of the village we saw blazing last night. There is hardly a chimney standing, and soon the roads will obliterate even the site of a group of what but last night was a dozen thatched peasant cottages. I noticed in the throng a Russian soldier leading a pack horse still in the Austrian harness with the quaint blinkers that the enemy use on many of their transport horses. The poor patient beast had been shot through the nose, and little rivulets of blood streamed down his velvety cheek as with plodding steps he followed the soldier who was leading him. No doubt he would be patched up again. Certainly that was the intention of the kindly peasant who now and anon looked back with a gently murmured word of encouragement to his dumb and stricken friend and prisoner. The road is narrow at that part, and we slowed down or took the side again and again to let ambulances or carts of wounded pass us.

The General called out to the passersby, wishing them good morning, or occasionally stopped to inquire of a soldier where he was during the night or how he received his wound. There is an extraordinary spirit of comradeship between them, all these Russians, as I have mentioned many times in my records of this front.

The General stopped his car and in a few minutes was receiving news of the action from his Chief of Staff, whom we left back at ------. He listened intently, and then snapped back some directions, and we pushed on out of the village on to another crest. Here we met a general of cavalry with an orderly at his heels, both incrusted with mud and dripping with wet from the brush through which they had been riding across country. Spurring his hesitant horse up to the side of the motor, he shook hands with his commander and told him gleefully that the prisoners would run into the thousands and that already six guns were in our hands. As he backed away, saluting, he narrowly escaped collision with four stolid soldiers carrying a dead man on a stretcher elevated above their shoulders. "Why this pains with a dead man?" one wondered. "War is for the living and not the dead. Most of them lie where they fall, until buried." But we were on the move again, coming nearer and ever nearer to the guns. We are now surrounded by columns of unwounded Austrian prisoners winding back in droves that take up a mile at a time on the road. Turning a bit off the narrow ribbon we have been following, we motor up on to another crest, where is the Commander of the Division and his staff. Here is the observation point of a battalion, neatly dug out of the ridge, and men now stroll about casually in the place where it would have been instant death to show one's head four hours ago.


Russian soldiers in camp


V — High Spirits of the Russian Troops

The Commander of the Division, whom I knew last year at Warsaw, told gleefully of the prowess of his troops and pointed with riding-crop to the point beneath us where his men forced the river and broke the Austrian line. Everybody was in high spirits and congratulations were exchanged between the General and his officers. In a near-by wheat field were a couple of hundred blue-coated prisoners, waiting for guides to take them to the rear, while a hundred yards away were fifty sour-looking Germans, also waiting developments.

An approaching shell sang through the air and a big six-inch German shell landed in the field a few hundred yards away, throwing up clouds of dirt and heavy volumes of the greasy black smoke of the German high-explosive shell. Every one was surprised, but no one even mentioned it. I suppose it is bad taste to allude to such things. I must say, however, that these events do not bother the Russians in the least. Nowadays generals in high command are constantly going to the positions and studying out the situation personally, regardless of risks.

After a dozen shells the firing ceased, but suddenly broke out again on a farther ridge where I suppose some observer thought he saw something moving. The General himself sat quietly down on the crest of the trench and with map spread out on his lap began to dictate orders to an orderly who, crouching at his feet, transmitted them through the field telephone. Here one saw the real control of a battle. Over the ridge there our infantry was pushing forward, each regiment unrolling behind it its field wire and every unit constantly in touch with this man lying in the wheat field who with finger on map was directing the following up of the retreating enemy. Wherever one could see a road it was black with traffic moving forward, and wherever one looked over the ridges beyond us one saw the puff of shrapnel and heard the boom and reverberations of our heavy guns and the sullen report of bursting German shells. The map with its many blue and red lines was the key to the puzzle of sound, and the streams of men and horses moving in every direction. This one individual quietly smoking his cigarette on the hilltop, quite unperturbed by bursting shells, could by a single word divert or halt all of those endless columns that we saw. Truly is war a great and fascinating game for those whose post is not in the trenches. As for them — well, war is war.


Russian officers in front of a shelter

see also The Fall of Warsaw
by Stanley Washburn

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