1812 – Russia’s War Machine I

Apart from the Romanovs, the greatest beneficiaries of eighteenth-century Russia’s growing wealth were the small group of families who dominated court, government and army in this era and formed the empire’s aristocratic elite. Some of these families were older than the Romanovs, others were of much more recent origin, but by Alexander I’s reign they formed a single aristocratic elite, united by wealth and a web of marriages. Their riches, social status and positions in government gave them great power. Their patron–client networks stretched throughout Russia’s government and armed forces. The Romanovs themselves came from this aristocratic milieu. Their imperial status had subsequently raised them far above mere aristocrats, and the monarchs were determined to preserve their autonomy and never allow themselves to be captured by any aristocratic clique. Nevertheless, like other European monarchs they regarded these aristocratic magnates as their natural allies and companions, as bulwarks of the natural order and hierarchy of a well-run society.

The aristocracy used a number of crafty ways to preserve their power. In the eighteenth century they enlisted their sons in Guards regiments in childhood. By the time they reached their twenties, these sprigs of the aristocracy used their years of ‘seniority’ and the privileged status of the Guards to jump into colonelcies in line regiments. Catherine the Great’s son, Paul I, who reigned from 1796 to 1801, stopped this trick but very many of the aristocrats in senior posts in 1812–14 had benefited from it. Even more significant was the use made by the aristocracy of positions at court. Though mostly honorific, these positions allowed young gentlemen of the bedchamber (Kammerjunker) and lords in waiting (Kammerherr) to transfer into senior positions in government of supposedly equivalent rank.

In the context of eighteenth-century Europe there was nothing particularly surprising about this. Young British aristocrats bought their way rapidly up the military hierarchy, sat in Parliament for their fathers’ pocket boroughs and sometimes inherited peerages at a tender age. Unlike the English, Russian aristocrats did not control government through their domination of Parliament. A monarch who bungled policy or annoyed the Petersburg elite too deeply could be overthrown and murdered, however. Paul I once remarked that there were no Grands Seigneurs in Russia save men who were talking to the emperor and even their status lasted only as long as the emperor deigned to continue the conversation. He was half correct: Russian magnates were more subservient and less autonomous than their equivalents in London or Vienna. But he was also half wrong and paid for his miscalculation with his life in 1801, when he was murdered by members of the aristocracy, outraged by his arbitrary behaviour, led by the governor-general of Petersburg, Count Peter von der Pahlen.

The Russian aristocracy and gentry made up the core of the empire’s ruling elite and officer corps. But the Romanovs ruled over a multi-ethnic empire. They allied themselves to their empire’s non-Russian aristocracies and drew them into their court and service. The most successful non-Russian aristocrats were the German landowning class in the Baltic provinces. By one conservative estimate 7 per cent of all Russian generals in 1812 were Baltic German nobles. The Balts partly owed their success to the fact that, thanks to the Lutheran Church and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in northern Europe, they were much better educated than the average Russian provincial noble.

There was nothing unusual at the time in an empire being ruled by diverse and alien elites. In its heyday, the Ottoman ruling elite was made up of converted Christian slaves. The Ching and Mughal empires were run by elites who came from beyond the borders of China or the subcontinent. By these standards, the empire of the Romanovs was very Russian. Even by European standards the Russian state was not unique. Very many of the Austrian Empire’s leading soldiers and statesmen came from outside the Habsburgs’ own territories. None of Prussia’s three greatest heroes in 1812–14 – Blücher, Scharnhorst or Gneisenau – was born a Prussian subject or began his career in the Prussian army.

It is true that there were probably more outsiders in the Russian army than in Austria or Prussia. European immigrants also stood out more sharply in Petersburg than in Berlin or Vienna. In the eighteenth century many European soldiers and officials had entered Russian service in search of better pay and career prospects. In Alexander’s reign they were joined by refugees fleeing the French Revolution or Napoleon. Above all, European immigrants filled the gap created by the slow development of professional education or a professional middle class in Russia. Doctors were one such group. Even in 1812 there were barely 800 doctors in the Russian army, many of them of German origin. Military engineers were also in short supply. In the eighteenth century Russian engineers had been the younger brothers of the artillery and came under its jurisdiction. Though they gained their independence under Alexander, there were still too few trained engineer officers trying to fulfil too diverse a range of duties and Russia remained in search of foreign experts whom it might lure into its service. On the eve of 1812 the two most senior Russian military engineers were the Dutchman Peter van Suchtelen and the German Karl Oppermann.

An even more important nest of foreigners was the quartermaster-general’s department, which provided the army’s general staff officers. Almost one in five of the ‘Russian’ staff officers at the battle of Borodino were not even subjects of the tsar. Fewer than half had Slav surnames. The general staff was partly descended from the bureau of cartography, a very specialized department which required a high level of mathematical skill. This ensured that it would be packed with foreigners and non-Russians. As armies grew in size and complexity in the Napoleonic era, the role of staffs became crucial. This made it all the more galling for many Russians that so large a proportion of their staff officers had non-Russian names. In addition, Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 set off a wave of xenophobia in Russia, which sometimes targeted ‘foreigners’ in the Russian army, without making much distinction between genuine foreigners and subjects of the tsar who were not ethnic Russians. Without its non-Russian staff officers the empire could never have triumphed in 1812–14, however. Moreover, most of these men were totally loyal to the Russian state, and their families usually in time assimilated into Russian society. These foreign engineers and staff officers also helped to train new generations of young Russian officers to take their places.

For the tsarist state, as for all the other great powers, the great challenge of the Napoleonic era was to mobilize resources for war. There were four key elements to what one might describe as the sinews of Russian power. They were people, horses, military industry and finance. Unless the basic strengths and limitations of each of these four elements is grasped it is not possible to understand how Russia fought these wars or why she won them.

Manpower was any state’s most obvious resource. At the death of Catherine II in 1797 the population of the Russian empire was roughly 40 million. This compared with 29 million French subjects on the eve of the Revolution and perhaps 22 million inhabitants of the Habsburgs’ lands at that time. The Prussian population was only 10.7 million even in 1806. The United Kingdom stood somewhere between Prussia and the larger continental powers. Its population, including the Irish, was roughly 15 million in 1815, though Indian manpower was just becoming a factor in British global might. By European standards, therefore, the Russian population was large but it was not yet vastly greater than that of its Old Regime rivals and it was much smaller than the human resources controlled by Napoleon. In 1812 the French Empire, in other words all territories directly ruled from Paris, had a population of 43.7 million. But Napoleon was also King of Italy, which had a population of 6.5 million, and Protector of the 14 million inhabitants of the Confederation of the Rhine. Some other territories were also his to command: most notably from the Russian perspective the Duchy of Warsaw, whose population of 3.8 million made a disproportionate contribution to his war effort in 1812–14. A mere listing of these numbers says something about the challenge faced by Russia in these years.

From the state’s perspective the great point about mobilizing the Russian population was that it was not merely numerous but also cheap. A private in Wellington’s army scarcely lived the life of a prince but his annual pay was eleven times that of his Russian equivalent even if the latter was paid in silver kopeks. In reality the Russian private in 1812 was far more likely to be paid in depreciating paper currency worth one-quarter of its face value. Comparisons of prices and incomes are always problematic because it is often unclear whether the Russian rubles cited are silver or paper, and in any case the cost of living differed greatly between Russia and foreign countries, above all Britain. A more realistic comparison is the fact that even in peacetime a British soldier received not just bread but also rice, meat, peas and cheese. A Russian private was given nothing but flour and groats, though in wartime these were supplemented by meat and vodka. The soldiers boiled their groats into a porridge which was their staple diet.

A Russian regiment was also sometimes provided not with uniforms and boots but with cloth and leather from which it made its own clothing and footwear. Powder, lead and paper were also delivered to the regiments for them to turn into cartridges. Nor was it just soldiers whose labour was used for free by the state. A small minority of conscripts were sent not to the army but to the mines. More importantly, when Peter the Great first established the ironworks which were the basis of Russian military industry he assigned whole villages to work in them in perpetuity. He did the same with some of the cloth factories set up to clothe his army. This assigned labour was all the cheaper because the workers’ families retained their farms, from which they were expected to feed themselves.

So long as all European armies were made up of long-serving professionals the Russian military system competed excellently. The system of annual recruit levies allowed the Russian army to be the largest and cheapest in Europe without putting unbearable pressure on the population. Between 1793 and 1815, however, changes began to occur, first in France and later in Prussia, which put a question mark against its long-term viability. Revolutionary France began to conscript whole ‘classes’ of young men in the expectation that once the war was over they would return to civilian life as citizens of the new republic. In 1798 this system was made permanent by the so-called Loi Jourdain, which established a norm of six years’ service. A state which conscripted an entire age group for a limited period could put more men in the ranks than Russia. In time it would also have a trained reserve of still relatively young men who had completed their military service. If Russia tried to copy this system its army would cease to be a separate estate of the realm and the whole nature of the tsarist state and society would have to change. A citizen army was barely compatible with a society based on serfdom. The army would become less reliable as a force to suppress internal rebellion. Noble landowners would face the prospect of a horde of young men returning to the countryside who (if existing laws remained) were no longer serfs and who had been trained in arms.

In fact the Napoleonic challenge came and went too quickly for the full implications of this threat to materialize. Temporary expedients sufficed to overcome the emergency. In 1807 and again in 1812–14 the regime raised a large hostilities-only militia despite the fears of some of its own leaders that this would be useless in military terms and might turn into a dangerous threat to the social order. When the idea of a militia was first mooted in the winter of 1806–7, Prince I. V. Lopukhin, one of Alexander’s most senior advisers, warned him that ‘at present in Russia the weakening of ties of subordination to the landowners is more dangerous than foreign invasion’. The emperor was willing to take this risk and his judgement proved correct. The mobilization of Russian manpower through a big increase in the regular army and the summoning of the militia just sufficed to defeat Napoleon without requiring fundamental changes in the Russian political order.

Next only to men as a military resource came horses, with which Russia was better endowed than any other country on earth. Immense herds dwelt in the steppe lands of southern Russia and Siberia. These horses were strong, swift and exceptionally resilient. They were also very cheap. One historian of the Russian horse industry calls these steppe horses ‘a huge and inexhaustible reserve’. The closest the Russian cavalry came to pure steppe horses was in its Cossack, Bashkir and Kalmyk irregular regiments. The Don Cossack horse was ugly, small, fast and very easy to manoeuvre. It could travel great distances in atrocious weather and across difficult terrain for days on end and with minimal forage in a way that was impossible for regular cavalry. At home the Cossack horse was always out to grass. In winter it would dig out a little trench with its front hoofs to expose roots and grasses hidden under the ice and snow. Cossacks provided their own horses when they joined the army, though in 1812–14 the government did subsidize them for animals lost on campaign. Superb as scouts and capable of finding their way across any terrain even in the dark, the Cossacks also spared the Russian regular light cavalry many of the duties which exhausted their equivalents in other armies: but the Russian hussar, lancer and mounted jaeger regiments also themselves had strong, resilient, cheap and speedy horses with a healthy admixture of steppe blood.

Traditionally the medium (dragoon) and heavy (cuirassier) horses had been a much bigger problem. In fact on the eve of the Seven Years War Russia had possessed no viable cuirassier regiments and even her dragoons had been in very poor shape. By 1812, however, much had changed, above all because of the huge expansion of the Russian horse-studs industry in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Two hundred and fifty private studs existed by 1800, almost all of which had been created in the last forty years. They provided some of the dragoon and most of the cuirassier horses. British officers who served alongside the Russians in 1812–14 agreed that the heavy cavalry was, in the words of Sir Charles Stewart, ‘undoubtedly very fine’. Sir Robert Wilson wrote that the Russian heavy cavalry ‘horses are matchless for an union of size, strength, activity and hardiness; whilst formed with the bulk of the British cart-horse, they have so much blood as never to be coarse, and withal are so supple as naturally to adapt themselves to the manege, and receive the highest degree of dressing’.

If there was a problem with the Russian cuirassier horse it was perhaps that it was too precious, at least in the eyes of Alexander I. Even officially these heavy cavalry horses cost two and a half times as much as a hussar’s mount, and the horses of the Guards cuirassiers – in other words the Chevaliers Gardes and Horse Guard regiments – cost a great deal more. Their feeding and upkeep were more expensive than that of the light cavalry horses and, as usual with larger mounts, they had less endurance and toughness. Since they came from studs they were also much harder to replace. Perhaps for these reasons, in 1813–14 the Russian cuirassiers were often kept in reserve and saw limited action. Alexander was furious when on one occasion an Austrian general used them for outpost duty and allowed them to sustain unnecessary casualties.

Russian military industry could usually rely on domestic sources for its raw materials with some key exceptions. Much saltpetre needed to be imported from overseas and so too did lead, which became an expensive and dangerous weakness in 1807–12 when the Continental System hamstrung Russian overseas trade. Wool for the army’s uniforms was also a problem, because Russia only produced four-fifths of the required amount. There were also not enough wool factories to meet military demand as the army expanded after 1807. The truly crucial raw materials were iron, copper and wood, however, and these Russia had in abundance. At the beginning of Alexander’s reign Russia was still the world’s leading iron producer and stood second only to Britain in copper. Peter the Great had established the first major Russian ironworks to exploit the enormous resources of iron ore and timber in the Urals region, on the borders of Europe and Siberia. Though Russian metallurgical technology was beginning to fall well behind Britain, it was still more than adequate to cover military needs in 1807–14. The Ural region was far from the main arms-manufacturing centres in Petersburg and in the city of Tula, 194 kilometres south of Moscow, but efficient waterways linked the three areas. Nevertheless, any arms or ammunition produced in the Urals works would not reach armies deployed in Russia’s western borderlands for over a year.

Arms production fell into two main categories: artillery and handheld weapons. The great majority of Russian iron cannon were manufactured in the Alexander Artillery Works in Petrozavodsk, a small town in Olonets province north-east of Petersburg. They were above all designed for fortresses and for the siege train. Most of the field artillery came from the St Petersburg arsenal: it produced 1,255 new guns between 1803 and 1818. The technology of production was up to date in both works. In the Petersburg Arsenal a steam-powered generator was introduced in 1811 which drove all its lathes and its drilling machinery. A smaller number of guns were produced and repaired in the big depots and workshops in Briansk, a city near the border of Russia and Belorussia. Russian guns and carriages were up to the best international standards once Aleksei Arakcheev’s reforms of the artillery were completed by 1805. The number of types of gun was reduced, equipment was standardized and lightened, and careful thought went into matching weapons and equipment to the tactical tasks they were intended to fulfil. The only possible weakness was the Russian howitzers, which could not be elevated to the same degree as the French model and therefore could not always reach their targets when engaged in duels with their French counterparts. On the other hand, thanks to the lightness of their carriages and the quality of their horses the Russian horse artillery was the most mobile and flexible on the battlefield by 1812–14.

The Russian Army of 1812

The Russian Army of 1812

Russian Artillery of the Napoleonic War