14 SEPTEMBER, 1917: You And Whose Army?

Today marks the centenary of one of modern history’s great non-events: General Kornilov’s attempt to seize control of Russia by a military coup in Petrograd.  It never really got off the ground, and the details of its inception are shrouded in controversy, but it did trigger another decisive shift in the cascading process of Russia’s long and winding Revolution.  As such it was lot more significant for the future of the world than any of the ferocious fighting taking place in Western Europe in the late summer of 1917, and it gifts me a chance to catch up with the Russian Provisional Government’s doomed quest for a moderate socialist revolution.

I last hung around Petrograd (to ruin a Stones quote) at the end of the Kerenski Offensive, an attempt to silence peace-mongers at home while pleasing allies abroad that failed militarily and backfired politically.  In its aftermath, the Provisional Government’s precarious perch on the fence became uninhabitable.  While grass-roots socialists were mobilising workers and soldiers for popular revolution on the streets, liberal political forces, rather less liberal business interests and generally authoritarian military leaders – all necessary props for a regime clinging to legitimacy on shifting ground – were pulling in the opposite direction, desperate for some restoration of order before anarchy or the Germans took over.

Crisis came quickly.  Four cabinet members from the essentially liberal Kadet Party resigned on 15 July, and protest against the ‘betrayal’ of the failed offensive hit the streets of Petrograd the following morning, beginning four days of armed demonstrations known as the July Days (which for once took place in July by both the old- and new-style calendars).

Begun on 16 July by a regiment of machine-gun troops in the capital, street protests quickly erupted among workers and other troops, all demanding peace and many coining the Bolshevik slogan ‘all power to the soviets’.  By the next day protest had spread to the Baltic naval base at Kronstadt, to Moscow and to almost every other Russian town of any size, a chaotic, violent expression of popular discontent that couldn’t be controlled by the Provisional Government, the Petrograd Soviet (which refused popular demands for it to take power) or any other political group.

The anti-War Bolsheviks, at this stage still a minority pressure group agitating for workers’ revolution, did have a stab at directing the protests towards insurrection, but in a characteristically divided and somewhat chaotic manner.  Some Bolsheviks in Petrograd supported the protests from 16 July and urged violent overthrow of the state, but the party’s leadership, including Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, withheld formal support until the following day, and then called for the movement to remain non-violent.  The Bolsheviks officially withdrew their support on 18 July, by which time it had become clear that the Provisional Government and loyal Army units were willing and able to unite in suppressing the nascent rebellion.

July Days, Petrograd: there’s a riot going on and the Army’s not firing blanks.

They had done just that by 20 July (all these are new-style dates), and on 21 July Kerenski, the one political figure acceptable to both socialists and liberals, stepped up to become premier in a new ministry.  More reliant than ever on military and business support, less able than ever to represent the revolutionary pacifism engulfing soldiers, sailors and workers through their soviets, Kerenski lurched to the right in a bid to restore some kind of order.

The Bolsheviks were publicly accused of inciting the protests using German money, with Trotsky and other leaders imprisoned while Lenin escaped to Finland.  New laws were introduced restricting public gatherings and, under pressure from the military, Kerenski sanctioned restoration of the recently abolished death penalty to encourage military discipline.

At this point, General Lavrenti Kornilov moves to centre stage.  An unremarkable divisional general in 1915, when he was captured on the Eastern Front, Kornilov had ensured his status as a Russian Army hero and his rapid promotion by escaping from a Hungarian prison in the summer of 1916.  Thought to have some sympathy with liberal reforms, he had been put in command of the politically crucial Petrograd garrison after the February Revolution.  Any liberal principles withered in the face of mass rebellion, and he had resigned in May after Kerenski, under pressure from the Petrograd Soviet, refused to let him suppress street protests with armed troops.

Returning to the front in command of the Ninth Army during the Kerenski Offensive, Kornilov had achieved fleeting success in its early phases.  When the offensive’s overall failure forced the removal of Brusilov as Army c-in-c, he was the obvious replacement, and the Petrograd business and political classes generally welcomed his appointment on 1 August as the best hope of rescuing the Army as an instrument of state.

Kornilov gets the hero treatment in Moscow, August 1917.

What happened a month later is only vaguely understood, with details lost in a miasma of self-serving memoirs and political interpretations, so here’s a rough guide to the best guesses available to the dispassionate.

With its links to the Petrograd Soviet crumbling, and the Soviet anyway losing control over the revolutionary tide, the new coalition found itself planning for the restoration of order alongside moderate political opinion, business interests and the Army.  At the same time the government could only claim any kind of legitimacy by looking like representatives of the people’s will (and Kerenski was anyway a moderate socialist at heart), so discussions about what to do next were necessarily carried out in an atmosphere of secrecy and deniability.

Somewhere along the line, probably at a meeting in Moscow on 24 August, somebody in the Provisional Government – conceivably but probably not Kerenski – agreed to support Kornilov’s plan to restore order, as did a group of wealthy businessmen during a separate meeting with the general.  Since the plan involved marching his best and most loyal troops, most of them Cossacks, into the capital to arrest the Bolsheviks, break up the Petrograd Soviet, disarm the soviet-controlled Petrograd garrison and impose martial law, this amounted to a military coup.

Nobody has ever conclusively established whether Kornilov, by now the Army’s unchallenged figurehead, or Kerenski was to lead any new regime.  The scraps of available evidence suggests that Kornilov intended to establish a military regime and make himself dictator, but a minority claim that Kerenski was complicit in the plan, at least at the time of its conception.  Either way, once the last Russian survivors had been extricated from the front at Riga (3 September, 1917:  Trial By Fire), Kornilov began assembling his forces for railway journeys into Petrograd.

Kerenski wasn’t having it.  He may have accepted the idea of putting Petrograd under martial law, but once attempts to communicate with Kornilov had failed to clarify the general’s intentions the premier moved decisively to avert what he saw as an essentially counter-revolutionary military putsch.  Only one move was available to him, and so he put his faith in the revolutionary left.

The government denounced Kornilov as a traitor and stripped him of command on 8 September, installing Kerenski as the new c-in-c.  It issued calls for workers and soldiers to defend Petrograd from (as ever, allegedly German-sponsored) attack, and the Petrograd Soviet temporarily buried its party squabbles to organise the mobilisation. As Bolshevik leaders, including Trotsky, were released from prison to do what they did best, get the masses armed and onto the streets, and Kronstadt sailors arrived to defend the capital, the threat of ‘counter-revolution’ found the wildcat world of Petrograd in frenzied unity.

Say what you like about Lenin and the Bolsheviks, they knew how to organise the streets for action.

Counter-revolution didn’t live up to the hype, or even get started. Railway workers refused to run trains into the capital, and delegations of troops from Petrograd convinced most of Kornilov’s men to change sides, before Kornilov and his senior officers were arrested on 14 September.  Apart from one or two suicides among Kornilov’s aides, not a shot was fired.

Kornilov wasn’t finished.  He would escape from imprisonment in Bykhov Monastery within two months, and go on to become the first commander of the Volunteer Army, the main anti-Bolshevik force during the Russian Civil War, until he was killed by shellfire in April 1918.  Meanwhile his bid for power had achieved precisely the opposite of its intentions, because the Provisional Government had used the prospect of counter-revolution to mobilise the hard left in defence of the Motherland.

Counter-revolution was of course a genuine possibility in Russia during 1917, because the Army, the money and a large swathe of the political establishment were all more concerned with defeating what now became known as Bolshevism than with any post-Tsarist principles of their own.  Kerenski was well aware of this when he negotiated with them in the aftermath of the July Days, but seems to have been surprised by their lurch towards military dictatorship, forcing him to adopt very high-risk tactics in an attempt to stop them.

Kerenski’s call to arms at least partially vindicated and legitimised the Bolsheviks, enabling them to claim much of the credit for fighting off counter-revolution.  The threat of counter-revolution and/or conquest remained hot news (as it would in Russia for the next seventy years or so), and the Bolsheviks never looked back. Within days of Kornilov’s arrest they had won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet for the first time, a reflection of their burgeoning popularity wherever soviets had formed.  Meanwhile the Army’s disintegration was hastened by the failed coup, with most units melting away to their homes or joining new Red Guard units under the command of soviets, and Kerenski found himself hopelessly isolated, accused by the left of being in league with Kornilov and abandoned by the right (the Kadets quit again) for ‘betraying’ the general.  After months of instability as it manoeuvred in search of non-existent central ground, the Provisional Government was now a certified lame duck – and about to be a dead one.

Kerenski tends to be dismissed by historical commentators on all sides as a failure, too flexible (or dithering) to achieve what liberals wanted, too much the bourgeois compromiser for left-wing tastes and a scapegoat to right-wing opinion in need of someone to blame for the USSR.  Personally I’ve always found him a rather sad figure, a very competent, essentially well-meaning politician of the normal sort thrust into circumstances nobody could have sorted out – a bit like some of the War’s better generals. The Kornilov Revolt was his final nemesis.  By handing authority to the left, he effectively condemned his own vision of social democratic reform to death, but he isn’t responsible for, and could hardly have predicted, the long-term horrors inflicted on Russia, Asia, Eastern Europe and the world by the revolution that followed.  So maybe posterity should give him a small pat on the back for choosing the hard road to protect what looked like a good cause.

Gone and largely forgotten – Kerenski’s grave in SW London.

3 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Trial By Fire

First of all, on the off chance anyone’s noticed, apologies for being AWOL lately.  Plenty of travel, a busted laptop, a touch of war weariness and the presence of small children… give that lot to 1917’s sword bearers during a Mediterranean heatwave, they could’ve stopped the First World War in no time.  In my case it’s merely slowed things down a little, and requires me to slip something slight into the early September slot.  That’s fairly appropriate, because I want to spend a little time on the Eastern Front, and a century ago the war in Eastern Europe was all but over.

July’s failed Kerenski Offensive had left the Russian Army in no shape for any kind of attack, while what little coherent energy Austro-Hungarian forces could muster was focused on the Italian Front and everyone involved, including the Romanian Army, had settled for status quo in the Romanian campaign.  Only the German high command had the strength to consider attacking options in the east, but its thoughts had turned to exploitation of occupied territories, its ambitions were still centred on submarine warfare and its immediate concern was defence of the Western Front.

All the same, the German Army did bother to launch one last attack in the east, at the far northern end of the front, where a limited offensive launched on 1 September took the Latvian capital of Riga two days later.  It did this for three reasons, and one of them was quite interesting.

The first was a matter of tidiness, because Russian positions in front of Riga formed a small but irritating bulge in the line. The second was a matter of provocation, because a move on Riga might suggest a further attack towards Petrograd and add to the ongoing chaos in the Russian capital. The third reason was a matter of military experiment, because the German Army thought it had found a way to beat defensive trench warfare.  This was a potentially crucial development, and needed testing.

I think I’ve made it clear over the years that ‘breakthrough tactics’ had been tried, tried again and found wanting on all the main European battle fronts since 1915, but were still being used on the grounds that more men and bigger bombardments might just make them work.  BEF commander Haig had stuck with breakthrough tactics for his latest attack around Ypres, with disastrous consequences, and was only just learning to make use of the alternative approaches demonstrated at Messines in June.  The German Army was meanwhile developing a more radical departure from breakthrough, advocated in print by a French Army captain in 1915 but first put to full practical use during the attack on Riga. Called ‘infiltration tactics’ by the British, they were known to the Germans as ‘Hutier tactics’ after the operation’s commander, General Oskar von Hutier.

Breakthrough involved a long, a massed bombardment of enemy strong points, followed by a massed, concentrated infantry assault on the wrecked remains of enemy forward positions.  Infiltration was preceded by only a brief ‘hurricane’ bombardment, after which small but powerfully armed units would attack into the spaces between enemy strong points with a view to disrupting rear and artillery positions.  Equipped with light machine-guns, light mortars, flamethrowers and sometimes light artillery, and given first call on aircraft support, these ‘stormtrooper’ units were expected to penetrate as deep as possible behind enemy lines, forcing defenders to abandon the pre-prepared second- and third-line positions that had scuppered so many breakthrough attempts for so many years.

A German light mortar – the stormtrooper’s friend, developed as mobile support for attacking infantry.

Infiltration tactics certainly worked at Riga, which was defended by the Russian Twelfth Army, led by new c-in-c General Kornilov and pretty much the last coherent fighting force at his disposal.  Warned of the impending attack by the transfer of German reinforcements from Galicia, Kornilov was already preparing a retreat on Petrograd (of which more another day) when Von Hutier’s Eighth Army stormed into action across a 5km front along the River Dvina.

With important support from German Air Force units enjoying uncontested dominance of the skies, meticulously prepared German divisions carried out the new tactics perfectly, and had established a strong bridgehead across the river by the end of the first day.  The Russians abandoned the defence next day, and anything militarily useful was evacuated from Riga before it fell on 3 September.  The Russian retreat, though fairly orderly, was not particularly efficient, and von Hutier’s forces chased stragglers up the Dvina for the next three weeks before offensive operations were halted.  By that time any thoughts of advancing on Petrograd had been shelved as unnecessary, because the Russian war effort appeared to be collapsing on its own.

Infiltration tactics at their most effective: the Battle of Riga.

So were infiltration tactics the key to unlocking the ghastly stalemate of trench warfare?  Not really.  They did open up the possibility of making relatively large territorial gains in a hurry, but they didn’t solve the supply and transport difficulties that had been making long-range exploitation of gains impossible since 1914. Within a few months they would be tested three times on the grand scale – by Austro-German forces on the Italian Front at Caporetto, by the BEF on the Western Front at Cambrai and by the German Army for its 1918 spring offensive in France – and on each occasion attacking forces would quickly run out of momentum and support. Infiltration methods would be used during the relatively open warfare that brought final Allied victory on the Western Front in the autumn of 1918, but only as one element in a blend of tactics, and only for limited, pre-planned infantry advances.

My excuse for wandering off into trench tactics is, yet again, the persistence of popular myths about First World War command attitudes.  To listen to the heritage chorus you’d think tossing away tens of thousands of lives, time after time, was fine with most generals so long as there were yet more men available for the next round at the mincing machine.  While there is some truth in the accusation at strategic level, most obviously among the German Third Supreme Command, field commanders were almost uniformly horrified by the grim realities of twentieth-century ground warfare, and never ceased trying to change them.  Von Hutier and his staff (like Australian General Monash at Gallipoli and British General Plumer at Messines, to name a couple off the top of my head) were prime examples of this determination to alter the equation, and were backed by an embattled German high command desperate for any battlefield edge.

Well before the Germans arrived in Riga, the Russian Army fled, wrecking its infrastructure and making escape very difficult for civilians and native troops in the enemy’s path.

The German war effort didn’t need Riga, given that the Russian Baltic fleet had effectively ceased to function, and it didn’t need the burden of extra Latvian territory.  It had started transferring troops to the Western Front almost as soon as the city had fallen, and left only a skeleton force to occupy the region, a force more concerned with keeping Latvia quiet amid revolutionary turmoil than with bleeding it dry to supply the war effort.  That’s not to say the people of Riga didn’t suffer – even before the occupation their city was wrecked and stripped of food by the retreating Russians – but it does suggest that the German Army, already stretched beyond reasonable limits, had been prepared to mount an entire offensive to test out a tactical approach that might defeat trench systems.  Case closed.  Generals did care.

31 AUGUST, 1917: It’s All About The Riflemen

Nothing was happening a century ago that I feel compelled to talk about, or haven’t already bombarded with my opinions, so let’s have another go at getting down to basics.  One of the irritating things about a lot of modern popular history, as transmitted through mass media, is its ability to be simplistic without being basic. It can, for instance, spend a lot of time describing the fear, suffering and fates of soldiers without saying much about what they were doing or how they were doing it.

This kind of behaviour promotes myths without really trying, because ignoring its banal, everyday realities reduces warfare to a highlights reel. We are shown war fought with propaganda-hyped, audience-friendly machines, imprinting their stories on the public mind as central to the conflict’s narrative.  In some ways some of them were – the dominance of the machine-gun over attacking infantry in trench conditions was, to pick a relevant example, fundamental to the War’s course – but on the whole the First World War was less to do with machine-guns, tanks, aircraft, submarines, giant guns or gas, more about foot soldiers armed with rifles.

Rifles – that’s to say guns with a spiral groove inside the barrel to improve accuracy and range – had been around since the early eighteenth century, but they had been expensive to manufacture and difficult to maintain in combat conditions, so their battlefield use was largely restricted to the kind of sharpshooter units familiar from the Sharpe stories.  Improving production techniques, and the invention of bullets that didn’t leave barrels too dirty for re-use, made it possible for major armies to arm ordinary soldiers with rifles from the mid-nineteenth century, and they quickly became world’s standard infantry weapon.

They were still at the heart of all infantry fighting in 1914.  As long as machine-guns and mortars were prohibitively cumbersome for mobile operations, and grenades remained a one-shot weapon, concentrated rifle fire was the most potent attacking force known to contemporary warfare.  A spurt of intense development in Europe had seen most major armies introduce a whole new breed of rifle during the 1890s. Small-bore, bolt-action weapons, they fired multiple rounds (usually five) from a spring-loaded clip inserted into the magazine, and they remained the standard infantryman’s friend in all major armies – and the better-equipped units of minor armies – throughout the First World War.

John Nash painted this. I like it. It shows plenty of rifles. Job done.

Aside from a preference for short-barrelled ‘carbines’ over clumsier long-barrelled weapons, and the addition of periscopes for trench fighting, wartime development of rifle technology was minimal, because everyone was more interested in mass production than experimentation.  Some refinements of the basic design were in place from the start of the War, perhaps the best of them being the German Army’s standard 7.92mm Mauser (1898), which incorporated the clip and magazine into a single detachable mechanism.  The British Army developed a 10-shot magazine for its standard 0.303-inch Lee-Enfield (1907), which was also used by US and Canadian infantry during the War’s later years, while the French Army waited until 1916 before replacing its reliable old Lebel (1886), which held eight rounds but took a long time to load, with the 5-round Berthier.   Late in the War, Germany developed a one-shot 13mm Mauser for use against tanks, and it achieved some success against early light models.

What the Anglophone infantryman was wearing in 1917… the Lee-Enfield MkIII.

These are just random examples of the wartime state of the art. Older, wide-bore, single-shot rifles remained in use with the armies of small nations and with the second-line or colonial forces of major belligerents, and as the conflict ate into the resources of every warring state every kind of working rifle, no matter how old, was pressed into service somewhere.  British imperial forces alone used more than twenty different rifle types during the War, and attempting to list even the modern weapons used by various belligerents would be very boring for everyone, particularly since their performance was roughly similar across the board.  They could be all aimed accurately over about 600 metres and at a general area over about 1400 metres, about half their maximum range – but although design variations did make some difference to the all-important factor of firing speed, the real determinant was the skill of the rifleman.

During the mobile campaigns of the War’s first few weeks rifle skills mattered, and the performance of the small BEF’s highly trained riflemen at Mons, where each apparently fired 15 rounds per minute, is usually seen as their high-water mark.  General virtuosity became a lot less relevant once trench warfare had been established on the Western Front and elsewhere, and once rifles were in the hands relatively ill-trained mass armies, but individually skilled riflemen could still have an enormous impact in mobile actions (as emphatically demonstrated by the story of Sergeant Alvin York) and as snipers in static conditions.

Rifles weren’t just about shooting.  As the infantryman’s principal close combat weapon they were equipped with a detachable blade, or bayonet.  In theory, with a long blade attached to the long-barrelled rifle preferred by pre-War armies, the bayonet enabled a soldier to kill while still out of an enemy’s reach, but although the French Army used a long ‘needle’ blade on its Lebel rifle most bayonets were based on standard knife types.  Some German Army ‘pioneer’ units (engineers to you and me) used a saw-bladed bayonet for practical purposes, a refinement worth mentioning because Allied propaganda persisted in describing it as a barbaric anti-personnel device.

Bayonets were much loved by those more orthodox officers in European armies, especially the British and French, who considered a bayonet charge the very epitome of ‘offensive spirit’ and put a lot of faith its psychological effect on defenders (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front).  Troops were sometimes required to advance from trenches with fixed bayonets, discouraging them from blowing the element of surprise by firing, and were officially expected to use the bayonet thrust as their primary close-combat tactic.

Canadian troops training with bayonets. Pointless, but they wouldn’t know that until later…

This official enthusiasm, largely based on colonial campaigns that seldom featured well-entrenched defenders with machine-guns, was not shared by the rank and file.  Bayonets were clumsy to use, often spoiled the accuracy of rifles in the hands of inexpert users, couldn’t be used while firing and were usually removed at the first opportunity by experienced infantry troops, who preferred to use a separate blade, club, knuckleduster or anything else they could carry and get their hands on.

As the War grew old light machine-guns, light mortars and sub machine-guns offered infantry soldiers with the best-equipped armies alternative forms of mobile close support, as did aircraft (which were often armed with long-barrelled rifles in 1914, before suitably light machine-guns became available) and tanks.  Used with sufficient tactical nous, these weapons improved the chances of success for attacking infantry, but the modern rifle, a state-of-the-art weapon in 1914 and essentially unchanged in 1918, remained the principal weapon of attack all the way through the War on the main European fronts.  Sadly for the poor bleeding infantry on all sides, it was a War fought with technology that could almost always beat a rifle attack.