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A Quick Look at the Tsarist Army
on February 15, 2002
This Osprey Men-at-Arms title makes an attempt to fill the long-neglected gap in First World War history covering the Tsarist Army. While many books evoke the image of a huge faceless Russian steamroller, few provide much details on exactly what this army looked like. This title makes modest progress in that regard and as such, deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the First World War.
The Russian Army begins with an introduction covering Russia's strategic position and a chronology of the major events on the Eastern Front in 1914-1918. A 4 ½ page section covers the organization of the army, particularly infantry, cavalry, Cossack and artillery units. An interesting 3-page section covers elite units such as the Guards Corps, the St. George's Battalions, the "Death" Battalions and the "Savage" Division. A brief section also discusses non-Russian units. A rather dull 7-page section then covers uniforms and personal equipment. Tactics and weapons are discussed in the last 7 pages. As usual, the eight pages of color plates in the center of this thin volume are excellent. The same cannot be said for the photographs, which are rather bland posed shots.
Overall, this volume is decent but not great. There are nuggets of useful information, such as the belated Russian effort to form a heavy artillery corps - known by the Russian acronym TAON - in 1917. Since massed artillery was a Soviet specialty in the Second World War, it is interesting to see antecedents in the Tsarist army. The fact that the paucity of infantry training facilities caused the Tsarist army to station reserve battalions in the major urban areas like St Petersburg and that these under-utilized conscripts provided the fodder for Revolution in 1917 is also interesting. However, the sections on doctrine and tactics are far too short even for a volume this size (the chronology would have been a good place to make cuts). There is no real effort to address the pre-war doctrine and the author should have consulted Bruce W. Menning's excellent Bayonets before Bullets: the Imperial Russian Army, 1861-1914. The impact of the disastrous defeat in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War and the impetus for post-war reform is almost totally ignored. Once the war began, the author ignores the enforced doctrinal shift from maneuver warfare to positional warfare; how did the Russian army adapt to trench warfare? Nor are the big campaigns discussed much, except for the successful Brusilov offensive. Instead, the reader is presented with a fairly vapid account of the Tsarist army that scarcely touches upon the impact of early disasters like Tannenberg or the gradual rot from revolutionary ideology. Nor is there even an order of battle provided for any phase of the war or mention of casualties. One might think that the fact that Tsarist Russia mobilized about 12 million men and that 1.7 million died in the war would be far more interesting to readers than giving virtually useless information on cavalry breeches stripes or tunic piping and lace. The author introduces interesting information on the organization of the Guards units for example, and then says very little else about them. Certainly the biggest sin of this volume is its failure to address the disintegration of the Tsarist army in 1917, except in passing. Since this volume is a stand-alone coverage of the subject, unlike others in the Men-at-Arms series, these omissions will not be rectified in other following volumes.