Capitalists ponder: How to make revolutionary soldiers keep fighting an imperialist war?

Above all these fluctuations and contradictions in the army and in the country, one eternal question was hanging, summed up in the short word, war. From the Baltic to the Black Sea, from the Black Sea to the Caspian and beyond into the depths of Persia, on an immeasurable front, stood sixty-eight corps of infantry and nine of cavalry. What should happen to them further? What was to be done with the war?

In the matter of military supplies the army had been considerably strengthened before the revolution. Domestic production for its needs had increased, and likewise the importation of War material through Murmansk and Archangel – especially artillery from the Allies. Rifles, cannon, cartridges, were on hand in incomparably greater quantities than during the first years of the war. New infantry divisions were in process of organisation. The engineering corps had been enlarged. On this ground a number of the unhappy military chieftains attempted later to prove that Russia had stood on the eve of victory, and that only the revolution had prevented it. Twelve years before, Kuropatkin and Linevich had asserted with as good a foundation that Witte prevented them from cleaning up the Japanese. In reality Russia was farther from victory in 1917 than at any other time. Along with the increase in ammunition there appeared in the army toward the end of 1916 an extreme lack of food supplies. Typhus and scurvy took more victims than the fighting. The breakdown of transport alone cancelled all strategy involving large-scale regroupings of the military mass. Moreover an extreme lack of horses often condemned the artillery to inaction. But the chief trouble was not even here; it was the moral condition of the army that was hopeless. You might describe it by saying that the army as an army no longer existed. Defeats, retreats, and the rottenness of the ruling group had utterly undermined the troops. You could no more correct that with administrative measures, than you could change the nervous system of the country. The soldier now looked at a heap of cartridges with the same disgust that he would at a pile of wormy meat; the whole thing seemed to him unnecessary and good for nothing; a deceit and a thievery. And his officer could say nothing convincing to him, couldn’t even make up his mind to crack him on the jaw. The officer himself felt deceived by the higher command, and moreover not infrequently ashamed before the soldiers for his own superiors. The army was incurably sick. It was still capable of speaking its word in the revolution, but so far as making war was concerned, it did not exist. Nobody believed in the success of the war, the officers as little as the soldiers. Nobody wanted to fight any more, neither the army nor the people.

To be sure, in the high chancelleries, where a special kind of life is lived, they were still chattering, through mere inertia, about great operations, about the spring offensive, the capture of the Dardanelles. In the Crimea they even got ready a big army for this latter purpose. It stood in the bulletins that the best element, of the army had been designated for the siege. They sent the regiments of the guard from Petrograd. However, according to the account of an officer who began drilling them on the 25th of February – two days before the revolution – these reinforcements turned out to be indescribably bad. Not the slightest desire to fight was to be seen in those imperturbable blue, hazel and grey eyes. “All their thoughts and their aspirations were for one thing only – peace.”

There is no lack of such testimony. The revolution merely brought to the surface what already existed. The slogan “Down with the war!” became for that reason one of the chief slogans of the February days. It came from demonstrations of women, from the workers of the Vyborg quarter, from the regiments of the Guard. Early in March when deputies from the Duma made a tour of the front, the soldiers, especially the older ones, would continually ask them: “What are they saying about the land?” The deputies answered evasively that the land question would be decided by the Constituent Assembly. But here would sound out a voice betraying the hidden thought of everybody: “Well, as for the land, if I’m not here, you know, I won’t need it.” Such was the original soldier programme of revolution: first peace, and then the land.

Toward the end of March at the All-Russian Conference of Soviets, where there was a good deal of patriotic bragging, one of the delegates representing the soldiers in the trenches reported very sincerely how the front received the news of the revolution: “All the soldiers said, ‘Thank God! Maybe now we will have peace!’” The trenches instructed the delegate to tell the conference “We are ready to lay down our lives for freedom, but just the same, Comrades, we want an end of the war.” That was the living voice of reality – especially the latter half of it. We will wait a while if we have to, but you up there at the top, hurry along with the peace.

The czar’s troops in France in a completely unnatural atmosphere – being moved by the same feelings, passed through the same stages of disintegration. “When we heard that the czar had abdicated,” an illiterate middle-aged peasant soldier explained to his officer, “we all thought it meant that the war was over … The czar sent us to war, and what is the use of freedom if I have got to rot in the trenches again?” That was the genuine soldier philosophy of the revolution – not brought in from the outside. No agitator could think up those simple and convincing words.

The liberals and the half-liberal socialists tried afterwards to represent the revolution as a patriotic uprising. On the 2nd of March, Miliukov explained to the French journalists: “The Russian revolution was made in order to remove the obstacles on Russia’s road to victory.” Here hypocrisy goes hand-in-hand with self-deceit – the hypocrisy somewhat the larger of the two. The candid reactionaries saw things clearer. Von Struve, a German Pan-Slavist, a Lutheran Greek Orthodox, and a Marxian monarchist, better defined the actual sources of the revolution, although in the language of reactionary hatred. “In so far as the popular, and especially the soldier, masses took part in the revolution, it was not a patriotic explosion, but a riotous self-demobilisation, and was directed straight against a prolongation of the War. That is, it was made in order to stop the War.”

Along with a true thought, those words contain also a slander. The riotous demobilisation was growing as a matter of fact right out of the war. The revolution did not create, but on the contrary checked it. Deserting, extraordinarily frequent on the eve of the revolution, was very infrequent in the first weeks after. The army was waiting. In the hope that the revolution would give peace, the soldier did not refuse to put a shoulder under the front: Otherwise, he thought, the new government won’t be able to conclude a peace.

“The soldiers are definitely expressing the opinion,” reports the chief of the Grenadier Division on the 23rd of March, “that we can only defend ourselves and not attack.” Military reports and political speeches repeat this thought in various forms. Ensign Krylenko, an old revolutionist and a future commander-in-chief under the Bolsheviks, testified that for the soldier the war question was settled in those days with this formula: “Support the front, but don’t join the offensive.” In a more solemn but wholly sincere language, that meant: defend freedom.

“We mustn’t stick our bayonets in the ground!” Under the influence of obscure and contradictory moods the soldiers those days frequently refused even to listen to the Bolsheviks. They thought perhaps, impressed by certain unskilful speeches that the Bolsheviks were not concerned with the defence of revolution and might prevent the government from concluding peace. The social patriotic papers and agitators more and more cultivated this idea among the soldiers. But even though sometimes preventing the Bolsheviks from speaking, the soldiers from the very first days decisively rejected the idea of an offensive. To the politicians of the capital this seemed some kind of a misunderstanding which could be removed with appropriate pressure. The agitation for war reached extraordinary heights. The bourgeois press in millions of issues portrayed the problems of the revolution in the light of “War to complete victory.” The Compromisers hummed the same tune – at first under their breath, then more boldly. The influence of the Bolsheviks, very weak in the army at the moment of the revolution, became even weaker when thousands of workers who had been banished to the front for striking left its ranks. The desire for peace thus found no open and clear expression exactly where it was most intense. This situation made it possible for the commanders and commissars, who were looking round for comforting illusions, to deceive themselves about the actual state of affairs. In the articles and speeches of those times it is frequently asserted that the soldiers declined the offensive because they did not correctly understand the formula “without annexations or indemnities.” The Compromisers spared no effort to explain that defensive warfare permits taking the offensive, and sometimes even requires it. As though that scholastic question were at issue! An offensive meant re-opening the war. A waiting support of the front meant armistice. The soldiers’ theory and practice of defensive warfare was a form of silent, and later indeed of quite open, agreement with the Germans: “Don’t touch us and we won’t touch you.” More than that the army had nothing to give to the war.

The soldiers were still less open to warlike persuasions because, under the form of preparation for an offensive, reactionary officers were obviously trying to get the reins in their hands. In the soldiers’ conversation appeared the phrase: “Bayonet for the Germans, butt for the inside enemy.” The bayonet, however, had here a defensive significance. The soldiers in the trenches never thought of the Dardanelles. The desire for peace was a mighty underground current which must soon break out on the surface.

Although he did not deny that negative signs were “to be observed” in the army, Miliukov tried for a long time after the revolution to assert that the army was capable of fulfilling the tasks laid out for it by the Entente. “The Bolshevik propaganda,” he writes in his character of historian, “by no means immediately reached the front. For the first month or month and-a-half after the revolution the army remained healthy.” He approaches the whole question at the level of propaganda, as though that exhausts the historic process. Under the form of a belated struggle against Bolsheviks, to whom he attributes veritably mystic powers, Miliukov carries on his struggle against facts. We have already seen how the army looked in reality. Let us see how the commanders themselves appraised its fighting capacity in the first weeks, and even days, after the revolution.

On March 6 the commander-in-chief of the northern front, General Ruszky, informs the Executive Committee that a complete insubordination of the soldiers is beginning, popular personalities must be sent to the front in order to introduce some sort of tranquillity into the army.

The chief of the staff of the Black Sea fleet says in his memoirs: “From the first days of the revolution it was clear to me that it was impossible to wage war, and that the war was lost.” Kolchak, according to him, was of the same opinion, and if he remained at his post as commander at the front, it was merely to defend the staff officers against violence.

Count Ignatiev, who occupied a high command in the Imperial Guard, wrote to Nabokov in March: “You must clearly understand that the war is finished, that we can’t and won’t fight any longer. Intelligent people ought to be thinking up a way to liquidate the war painlessly, otherwise there will be a catastrophe …” Guchkov told Nabokov at the same time that he was receiving such letters by the thousand. Certain superficially more hopeful reports, rare enough in any case, were mostly contradicted by their own supplementary explanations. “The desire of the troops for victory remains,” says the commander of the 2nd Army, Danilov. “In some regiments it is even stronger.” But just here he adds: “Discipline has fallen off … It would be well to postpone offensive action until the situation quiets down (say one to three months).” And then an unexpected supplement: “Only 50 per cent. of the reinforcements are arriving. If they continue to melt away in the future, and are equally undisciplined, we cannot count on the success of the offensive.”

“Our Division is fully capable of defensive action,” reports the valiant commander of the 51st Infantry Division, and immediately adds: “It is necessary to rescue the army from the influence of the Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies.” That, however, was not so easy to do.

L.D. Trotsky, “The Army and the War,” The History of the Russian Revolution


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