- from 'the War Illustrated', 21st September, 1918
- 'Portrait of Russian General Alexeieff'
Men and Cities of the War
two portraits of general Alexeieff
For a man who has been so many times killed Alexeieff seems to be surprisingly active. He looks, indeed, as if he were to be one of the leading figures in the Far Eastern phase of the world-war. When he turned up at Omsk the other day with the troops whom he had collected for the anti-Bolshevist army he was at once appointed Commander-in- Chief. of the forces in Siberia, and it may turn out to be an incalculable benefit to, Russia that the stories of his having been executed by Bolshevists had no truth in them in spite of one being vouched for by a soldier who said he was a witness of the general's death.
For Alexeieff is, in my judgment, next to Foch, the ablest strategist and tactician revealed by the war. He has none of the outward and visible signs which are supposed to distinguish a leader of men. He is small of stature, not more than five feet six. He is pink- and-white complexioned. He is modest and quiet in his speech; a shy man, and one who, like most great thinkers, says little as a rule.
Chief of Staff
The first time I saw him he came shyly into the officers' club at Moghilev, the little half- Jewish Ukrainian town which Russian G.H.Q. the "Stavka," as they call it inhabited for two years. He glided to his place, bowed to the guests, slid into his seat, and began at once upon his dinner.
He had a kind smile, and once or twice dropped into easy chat upon some chance topic. It was no topic connected with the war, for these were ruled out. There was at one time, I remember, a fine to be paid by anyone who introduced anything of the kind. But, although it was not mentioned, I could see quite well that the war was in the general's thoughts.
How could it be otherwise ? This was the man upon whom rested the weight of responsibility for Russia's part in the war. He was appointed to be Chief of Staff when the Tsar Nicholas became Generalissimo. This was at the end of the summer of 1915, at the close of the wonderful retreat which lasted from May until September. The last phase of that retreat, which resulted in the extricating of 80,000 men from a very difficult situation between Vilna and Dvinsk, had been directed by Alexeieff. He ordered every move. It was one of those rare occasions when a general resembles a chess-player, and he won the game. Over and over again the enemy cried "Check !" but was never able to checkmate.
Watching it from Petrograd I was there at the time for the sittings of the Duma the excitement and suspense were painful. One felt afraid some mornings to unfold the newspaper. Yet at the Stavka there were no signs that anything specially interesting was occupying the minds of the Staff. Alexeieff got up as usual at seven, drank his tea, and went to work at half-past, worked over maps, and with telegrams and telephone messages, until one; lunched at the officers' club, stayed in his office again from half- past two till half-past seven ; dined at the club, went for an hour's walk in the damp darkness, then worked again till the small hours.
Soldier not Courtier
A friend of mine who was there, said it reminded him of the Japanese Headquarters Staff during the Battle of Mukden. Marshal Oyama and his Chief of Staff spent most of the time playing croquet, giving orders as messages came in strengthening the line here, ordering a withdrawal for the moment there, diverting reserves to move up nearer in one place, giving the word for some rapid turning movement in another, but not betraying any excitement or the slightest apprehension as to the fortune of the day.
The Tsar liked his strong, silent "chief," and suggested that he should take his meals at the Imperial table. Ivanoff, who was a great friend of the Emperor, and pleased to be near him, always did this when he was at the Stavka. But Alexeieff excused himself. He was a soldier, not a courtier, he told the Tsar. It was better that he should lunch and dine with his officers.
The Tsar understood, and with a tactful smile said, "Noo horosho! (well, all right). I suppose you know best."
Under Alexeieff the Headquarters Staff -of the Russian Army numbered seventy-five officers very much smaller than our own. They were all serious, hard-working men. They tried not to think about the war at meal-times, but all the rest of the time they thought of nothing else. All things considered, the staff-work of the Russian Army was good, though the gossip of London and Paris set it down as "impossible."
When operations went wrong, it was usually because generals refused to obey orders. They called the Russian system Autocracy, but it was in truth Anarchy. Every one who fancied himself strong enough to defy authority took his own line. If he was called to account, he appealed to somebody higher up, upon whom he had a "pull."
"Russia is Perishing!"
Alexeieff had neither the prestige nor the bullying character of the Grand Duke Nicholas, but he had a quiet way of reprimanding offenders which made them writhe. When he became Generalissimo after the Revolution he made his power and personality felt. He became less reserved and taciturn. Sometimes at meals he was positively talkative. He developed also a habit of speaking in public.
One of his orations will have its place in history. He delivered it at a conference of officers in May, 1917. The text of it was "Russia is perishing." He saw what the consequences of the weak Kerensky rule must be. He deplored the lack of discipline, the class dissensions, the absence of inspiration in the Army. He ended with a passionate appeal for a better spirit, and "for some minutes the building shook with applause," so the newspapers reported.
It brought his differences with Kerensky to a head, however, and in June Alexeieff was removed from his command. The official statement was that "he had been superseded because he was not considered to possess the energy, enthusiasm, and confidence necessary."
Energy he had in full measure, but confidence, no. How could any man with eyes to see be confident with Kerensky in power ? (Some day I must tell you about Kerensky, but for the moment he, . as the Russian saying goes, is "from another opera.")
It was not long before Alexeieff was reinstated, but then the "rot" had gone too far to be stopped. At a National Conference in August, 1917, he drew a tragic contrast between the Army of 1915 and the Army of that time. "In 1915," he said, "we were short of everything, but the spirit of all ranks was magnificent. Now we have plenty of munitions, but the spirit is deplorable."
One Who Saw Clearly
He gave an example. An attack was ordered on an Austrian position. Twenty-eight officers and twenty "non-coms." advanced, with two privates only. "The rest of the men looked on." To such a depth of apathy had the crimes of the Tsardom reduced the Russian soldier; and the Revolutionary Government, instead of putting fresh heart into him, had lowered his moral still further by abolishing discipline. In September, Alexeieff resigned.
Still he clearly saw into the future. "This war," he said about this time last year, "is a struggle between two races, the Germanic and the Anglo-Saxon. If Russia continues to be utterly feeble, then Japan must enter upon the Russian stage." To-day his prediction is being fulfilled. Three Japanese divisions have been sent to Siberia.
Alexeieff always saw clearly. He has a powerful as well as an acute mind. The high domed forehead, the deep-set reflective eyes, mark the thinker, no less than the firm jaw-line and high cheekbones proclaim the man of action.. He understands human nature as well as he understands military science. To a friend of mine, while he was Commander-in-Chief, he said he deplored the secrecy which had been maintained under the old system about individual achievements. "It unnecessarily deprived the Army of a precious bond of union with the nation." A rarely wise man, and a supernaturally wise soldier.
It was said of a singer once, "She is not a woman so much as a voice." I should say of Alexeieff, "He is not a man, but a brain."
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