Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The Causes of the Russian Military Collapse

While the Russian revolution was the eventual factor which relieved the Germans of trouble in the east, the Russians really had ceased to be dangerous before the revolution occurred. The vital difficulty was not military but industrial. There were no adequate facilities in Russia for manufacturing guns, ammunition, or clothing, upon which a modern army depended. There was at the outbreak of the war no adequate supply on hand to equip the first troops that went to the front, and even if there had been the efficiency of the army could not have been maintained from Russian resources. The Germans calculated, therefore, that the Russians might fight with effect once, conceivably twice, but not longer. They might equip one army, but not two; surely not three.

Unfortunately, too, Russia lacked the essential railway facilities for the distribution to her own troops of the materials which she did possess or was able to secure from her Allies. Here lay the true significance of the fatality at Gallipoli. If the Black Sea could have been opened, the immense river system of Russia might have been utilized for some adequate system of transportation of the flood of material which the Allies could have shipped to her. Archangel and a new port on the Murman coast were both immediately utilized as ports of entry, and new railroad lines were built to Petrograd from both in 1915. American and British engineers were secured to operate the Russian railroads. The Trans-Siberian Railway was also to bring goods shipped across the Pacific from the United States, but the task was too great. The amount of material necessary to support Russia was really greater in volume than these railroad systems could possibly carry such distances. Miracles were achieved, but even miracles could not perform the impossible. Had it not, however, been for direct treason in the Russian ministry of war and in the Russian army, the worst might still have been avoided.

As it was, the Grand Duke could scarcely do more than dissipate the German efforts, compel them to employ great forces in the east which might have been able to force a decision in France. His strategy must be to save his army; to retreat from position to position, forcing the Germans always to pay the price in men and in time. He must sacrifice cities, provinces, states, if essential, conscious that Russia could not lose the war so long as the British and French were unbeaten in the west. Without equipment Russia could not hope to win the war as a whole in the east. She could not fail to win the final objectives in the east, when the British and French should win the final victory in France. Indeed, the British and French held from the outset that victory in the east could not of itself win the war.

At the same time, it must not be forgotten that the Russian defeat was due as much to the positive efficiency of the German army as to the comparative deficiencies of Russian equipment. The German artillery was not only tremendous in number, but extraordinary in efficiency. The Germans had also created on their eastern frontier a wonderful system of railroads which enabled them to deliver an army, direct from the western front, to any point along the eastern front or to transport it along the eastern front itself from point to point, or from one end of the front to the other with maximum speed. The element of surprise in modern warfare was no less useful than in earlier wars and the physical facilities at Hindenburg's disposal enabled him invariably to surprise the Russians with the number of men he could transport long distances in an extraordinarily brief time.

The German army was unquestionably the finer army of the two. Hindenburg again was a great strategist, one of the greatest in this war, Ludendorff was a remarkable organizer and strategist, as the campaign of 1918 showed; while Von Mackensen was certainly one of the greatest field generals that this war produced. The Russians fell before no mean foemen. Indeed, it is one of the miracles of the war that the Russian army without equipment could have fought so long against such armies so thoroughly equipped and so competently led.