Soldiers, workers rebel against military offensive

On the 21st of June [July 4 on the modern calendar] a machine gun regiment in Petrograd resolved in general meeting: “In the future we will send forces to the front only when the war shall have a revolutionary character.” In answer to the threat of disbandment, the regiment answered that it would not hesitate to disband “the Provisional Government and the other organisations which support it.” Here again a threatening note far in advance of the Bolshevik agitation. The Chronicle of the Revolution remarks under date of June 23: “Detachments of the 2nd Army have occupied the first and second line trenches of the enemy …” And right beside this: “At the Baranovsky factory (6,000 men) there were re-elections to the Petrograd Soviet. In place of three Social Revolutionaries, three Bolsheviks were elected.”

By the end of the month the physiognomy of the Petrograd Soviet had already considerably changed. It is true that on June 20 the Soviet adopted a resolution of greeting to the advancing army. But with what majority? – 472 votes against 271, with 39 abstaining. That is a totally new correlation of forces, something we have not seen before. The Bolsheviks, together with the left groups of Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, constitute already two-fifths of the Soviet. This means that in the factories and barracks the opponents of the offensive are already an indubitable majority.

The Vyborg district soviet adopted a resolution on June 24 every word of which strikes like a heavy hammer: “We … protest against the adventure of the Provisional Government, which is conducting an offensive for the old robber treaties … and we lay the whole responsibility for this policy on the Provisional Government and the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties supporting it.” Having been pushed out after the February insurrection into the backyard, the Vyborg district was now confidently advancing to the leading position. The Bolsheviks already completely dominated the Vyborg Soviet.

Everything now on the fate of the offensive – that is that is upon the trench soldiers. What changes had the offensive made in the consciousness of those who were supposed to carry it through? They had been irrepressibly longing for peace. But the rulers had succeeded to a certain degree – at least among a part of the soldiers and for a short time – in converting this very longing into a readiness to advance.

After the revolution the soldiers had expected from the new power a swift conclusion of peace, and had been ready until then to defend the front. The peace did not come. The soldiers resorted to attempts at fraternisation with the Germans and Austrians, partly under the influence of Bolshevik agitation, but chiefly seeking their own road to peace. But a drive had been opened against fraternisation from all sides. And moreover it was discovered that the German soldiers were still far from casting off obedience to their officers. Fraternisation, not having led to peace, dwindled rapidly.

There was on the front at that time a de facto armistice. The Germans availed themselves of it for a wholesale transfer of troops to the western front. The Russian soldiers noticed how the enemy trenches were emptied, machine guns removed, cannon carted away. Upon this rested the plan of the “moral preparation for the offensive.” It was systematically suggested to the soldiers that the enemy was completely weakened, that he had no force left, that America was pressing upon him from the west, and that we had only to give a small push on our side, and the enemy front would crumple and we would have peace. The authorities did not believe this for a single minute, but they calculated that once having put its hand to the war machine, the army would not be able to let go.

Having failed of their goal, both through the diplomacy of the Provisional Government and through fraternisation, a part of the soldiers undoubtedly inclined to this third scheme: to give that push which would make the war crumble into dust. One of the front delegates to the congress reported exactly in this way the mood of the soldiers: “At present we have before us a thinned out German front; there are at present no cannon; and if we advance and overthrow the enemy then we will be close to the wished-for peace.”

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A Russian officer attempts to force deserting soldiers to return to duty.

The enemy at first actually did seem extremely weak, and retired without accepting the battle, which incidentally the attackers were not able to give. But instead of crumbling. the enemy regrouped and concentrated his forces. Penetrating a few score kilometers inland, the Russian soldiers discovered a picture sufficiently familiar to them in the experience of the preceding years: the enemy was waiting for them in new and reinforced positions. Here it became evident that although the soldiers had agreed to give a push in the direction of peace, they were not in the least desirous of war. Having been dragged into it by a combination of force, moral pressure, and most of all deceit, they so much the more indignantly turned back.

“After an artillery fire unprecedented on the Russian side in its intensity and power,” says the Russian historian of the World War, General Zayonchkovsky, “the troops occupied the enemy positions almost without loss and did not wish to go any farther. There began a steady desertion and withdrawal of whole units from their positions.” A Ukrainian leader, Doroshenko, former commissar of the Provisional Government in Galicia, tells how after the seizure of the cities Calich and Kalush: “In Kalush there immediately occurred a frightful pogrom of the local population – but only of Ukrainians and Jews, they did not touch Poles. Some experienced hand guided the pogrom, pointing out with special care the local Ukrainian cultural and educational institutions.” The pogrom was participated in by “the better class of troops, the least depraved by the revolution” – those carefully picked for the offensive. But what still more clearly shows its face in this affair is the leadership of the offensive – the old czarist commanders, experienced organisers of pogroms.

On July 9 the committees and commissars of the 11th Army telegraphed the government: “A German attack begun on July 6 against the 11th Army front is developing into an overwhelming catastrophe … In the morale of the troops, only recently induced to move by the heroic efforts of a minority, a sharp and ruinous break has occurred. The aggressive flare-up is rapidly exhausting itself. The majority of the troops are now in a state of increasing disintegration. There is nothing left of authority or obedience. Persuasions and arguments have lost their force. They are answered with threats and sometimes with death.”

The commander-in-chief of the south-western front, with the agreement of the commissars and committees, gave an order to shoot those running away. On June 12 the commander-in-chief of the western front, Denikin, returned to his headquarters, as he says, “with despair in my heart, and with a clear consciousness of the complete collapse of the last flickering hope for … a miracle.”

The soldiers did not want to fight. The rear troops, to whom the weakened units turned for replacements after occupying the enemy trenches, answered: “What did you advance for anyway? Who told you to? It’s time to end the war, not attack. “ The commander of the 1st Siberian Corps, considered one of the best commanders, reported how at nightfall the soldiers began to abandon the unattacked first line in crowds and whole companies. “I understood that we, the officers, were powerless to alter the elemental psychology of the soldier masses, and I sobbed bitterly and long.” One of the companies refused even to toss a leaflet to the enemy announcing the capture of Galich, until a soldier could be found who could translate the German text into Russian. In that it expressed the utter lack of confidence of the soldier mass in its ruling staff, both the old one and the new February one. A century of taunts and violence had burst to the surface like a volcano. The soldiers felt themselves again deceived. The offensive had not led to peace but war. The soldiers did not want war. And they were right. Patriots hiding in the rear were branding the soldiers as slackers and baiting them. But the soldiers were right. They were guided by a true national instinct, refracted through the consciousness of men oppressed, deceived, tortured, raised up by a revolutionary hope and again thrown back into the bloody mash. The soldiers were right. A prolongation of the war could give the Russian people nothing but new victims, humiliation, disasters – nothing but an increase of domestic and foreign slavery.

The patriotic press of 1917 – not only the Kadet but also the socialist press – was tireless in contrasting the Russian soldiers, cowards and deserters, with the heroic battalions of the great French revolution. This testifies not only to a failure to understand the dialectic of a revolutionary process, but also to a crude ignorance of history.

The remarkable warriors of the French revolution and empire frequently began their careers as breakers of discipline, disorganisers – Miliukov would say, as Bolsheviks. The future Marshal Davout spent many months of 1789-90 as Lieutenant d’Avout destroying the “normal” discipline in the garrison of Hesdin, driving out the commanding staff. Throughout France up to the middle of 1790 a complete disintegration of the whole army was taking place. The soldiers of the Vincennes regiment compelled their officers to eat with them. The fleet drove out their officers. Twenty regiments did various deeds of violence upon their officers. At Nancy three regiments locked their highest officers in prison. Beginning with 1790 the leaders of the French revolution never tire of repeating on the subject of soldier excesses: “The executive power is, guilty, because it has not removed officers hostile to the revolution.” It is remarkable that both Mirabeau and Robespierre spoke in favour of dismissing the entire old corps of officers. The former was trying the more quickly to establish a firm discipline, the latter wanted to disarm the counter-revolution. But both understood that the old army could not survive.

To be sure, the Russian revolution, in contrast with the French, took place in a time of war. But you cannot infer from this an exception to the historic law noted by Engels. On the contrary, conditions of prolonged and unsuccessful war could only hasten and sharpen the process of revolutionary disintegration of the army. That miserable and criminal offensive of the democrats did the rest. The soldiers were now saying, to the last man “Enough of bloodshed! What good are land and freedom if we are not here?” When enlightened pacifists try to abolish war by rationalistic arguments they are merely ridiculous, but when the armed masses themselves bring weapons of reason into action against a war, that means that the war is about over.

L.D. Trotsky, “The Offensive,” The History of the Russian Revolution

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