The Imperial Russian army of 1914


With 14 million peasant drafts lead by an officer corps one percent of that size, the Russian army was short of every single thing except soldiers, bravery and enemies.

When the guns of august blew that began the Great War that we now call world war one, the army of Tsar was struggling to reform its feet of clay. The Russian empire of the time included what are now Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, the Baltic countries, and Finland. The army was made up mainly of conscripted illiterate peasants lead by a very small (compared to other European forces) officer corps and an even smaller cadre of professional non commissioned officers. Western sources have given the tsarist officer corps a bad rap in the past eighty years– painting it as a group of rich titled buffoons with no military skill. The fact is that it was a professional dedicated group that was mainly drawn from the tiny Russian middle class-nearly 40-percent of the officers in the Russian Army were of peasant origins.

Russia, after a very embarrassing defeat at the hand of the Japanese in 1905, embarked on a rearmament and reorganization plan. A state defense council was formed under the tsars cousin: the Grand Duke Nicholas with Generals Danilov, Golovine, Rediger, and FF Palitsyn in attendance. These officers made many recommendations during 1907-1910 to modernize the army and it was to their credit that the Russians could take to the field at all in 1914. These efforts produced at the time the worlds largest peacetime army of 1,423,000 men organized in 16 Guards, 16 Grenadier, 208 Infantry, 44 Siberian rifle, 20 Sharpshooter, 12 Finnish rifle, 8 Caucasian rifle, 22 Turkestan rifle regiments plus 64 regular cavalry regiments and no less than 52 regiments of Cossack auxiliary cavalry. When mobilized with reservists and fully fleshed out this army amounted to 3,115,000 men in the front lines when war was declared on August 3rd, 1914. A force of 22 million stood ready to answer the call to defend the motherland if total mobilzation was used. This huge ‘steamroller’ army was to oppose the German, Austrian and Turkish army along a front many times longer and much more brutal than anything seen in France or Belgium.

The arms and armaments of the Russian Army were some of the best in Europe. The excellent 1891 Mosin nagant rifle is still carried by many eastern European armies today as is the maxim heavy machinegun. The 76.2mm light field gun was well respected and considered by many to be one of the best light cannon of the modern era. Russian munitions scientists such as AF Federov, father of the assault rifle, and artillery expert Mikhail Pomortsev were designing the weapons that would win the Second World War. In 1914 the Russian Army actually had the highest ratio of machine guns to troops of any major power, 2.2 pieces per thousand men, at a time when the next best ratio was the Germany Army’s 1.3. The principal stumbling block to this was in the sheer scale of the need to arm millions with an overtaxed and backward industrial complex that struggled to produce thousands. Russia started the war deficient in quantities of every needed military store except men. Terrible logistical support was the final nail in the army’s coffin, leaving the huge mass of men lacking of all basic supplies.

The Russian Military Air Fleet had about 244 aircraft, many already worn, in 30 aviaotryadiy (AOs) (aviation detachments) and eight fortress aviation detachments. There were 213 pilots, and 14 airships, only four of which were fit for wartime service. The Russian Amy had only 420 motorized transport vehicles (including two ambulances) and 259 passenger cars. In early 1914, European Russia had only two thirds of a mile of railroad track for each one hundred square versts (1 verst = 1.067 km) of territory, while Germany had more than ten times that amount of track.

Four years of world war saw 14,000,000 Russians of all backgrounds placed into the uniform of the tsar. The graves of the eastern, Caucasian, and western fronts kept an unknown number of these men, the ledger book being lost in the subsequent civil war. General Golovine calculatied 1,300,000 men were killed in action; 4,200,000 wounded, of whom 350,000 later died; and 2,400,000 taken prisoner. Ths gives a total of 7,900,000, more than half of the total number of men mobilized bewtween 1914 and 1917. The over taxed Russian officer corps heroically led from the front. This can be observed in the fact more than 90,000 of those dead came from the 155,000 Russian officers who served in the war. The Russian army had the dubious distinction of having more men captured than any other combatant with Germany and Austria reporting 2.1 million Russians in their POW camps in 1917. The ultimate irony of the war was that the Russians, sick of the carnage, withdrew from fighting and signed a separate peace only eight months before the German defeat then promptly began a civil war that killed more than 15 million Russians in one way or another and devastated large areas of the country that had been untouched by the Great War.