German 1914 Military Evaluation of Imperial Russia

Clockwise from top left: soldiers stationed in the Carpathian Mountains, 1915; German soldiers in Kiev, March 1918; the Russian ship Slava, October 1917; Russian infantry, 1914; Romanian infantry

German 1914 Evaluation of Russian Training

The German army published a final evaluation of Russian training on 25 March 1914. European armies strove to conduct their summer training at Major Training Areas (MTA). The German MTAs were the best of any army: each corps had its own MTA, generally about 8 x 8km in size (64 square km), which allowed live-fire with minimum safety restrictions and manoeuvre for large (brigade- and division-sized) units. Russian MTAs were of widely varying size, but often considerably smaller than the German. Finding suitable areas in Russia’s vast swamps and forests was not easy. So while the Russian artillery MTA at Rembertow, near Warsaw, was 57 square km, where seventy batteries exercised at once (still pretty crowded), the X Corps MTA was only 12 square km, in which two infantry divisions and two artillery brigades tried to manoeuvre simultaneously – a virtual impossibility. The Wilna MTA was only 3 square km. The Russian war ministry had been trying to increase the size of the MTA since 1911, to no effect.

Russian infantry training was centralised at the regimental level; the regimental commander specified the training schedules for the battalions and companies. Every company conducted the same training at the same time. The company commander had very little influence on training, and therefore had little enthusiasm for it. This did not trouble him, for professional satisfaction and pride in personal accomplishments were unknown to Russian officers. Such stereotyped training and over-centralisation were ill-suited to developing a sense of personal responsibility, independence and initiative. The consequences were plain in larger exercises and later in combat.

The time available for field training at the MTA was poorly used. The duty day began late and training lasted only about two hours. Training was always conducted in the same spot directly behind the tents, with no attempt being made to find different terrain or to gradually increase the difficulty of the marches.

Artillery batteries were to live-fire fifteen times at the MTA. Due to the shortage of firing positions and inadequate training facilities they were rarely able to do so. In one case, during eight weeks at the MTA a battery fired seven times. Since each battery of eight guns was only allocated 600 shells, the fire mission was always terminated when the battery had adjusted on to the target: the battery had only one opportunity each year to fire for effect.

Kaiser Wilhelm is always criticised for conducting cavalry charges during the Kaisermanöver. He was not alone. In the 1913 manoeuvre of the Guard Corps, a cavalry brigade conducted a charge against the fully deployed enemy advanced guard and, ‘aided by the favourable terrain’, overran the infantry and penetrated as far as the ‘surprised’ artillery. On the other hand, the intelligence report noted that the charge against such strong unbroken infantry could just as well have ended in failure.

In any case, the 1913 Guard Corps exercise was ‘canned’: the tactical course of the exercise was established in advance and the leaders were not required to arrive at independent decisions. Reconnaissance was poor. The senior leadership was unequal to the requirements of their positions, was unable to co-ordinate unit operations and movement, to correctly evaluate the situation or to write effective orders. It also showed a serious lack of initiative.

The infantry attack at this exercise showed serious deficiencies in conducting the fire fight, moving reinforcements forward, gaining fire superiority and making the assault. Use of the terrain was good, but reconnaissance often failed completely.

The Guard Cavalry Division exercise was a pure parade manoeuvre. The intelligence report guessed that its purpose was to allow Grand Duke Nicholas, the presumptive commander-in-chief, the opportunity to show himself to his French guests at the head of a mass of cavalry.

The field training exercise at Krasnoje Selo, the imperial headquarters, constituted the highest level of training in the Russian army. It had been well known for decades that the point of the exercise was always to attack or defend the high ground in the manoeuvre area. Leaders at all levels displayed an indifference towards the conduct of the manoeuvre, as well as complete passivity and lack of initiative. Movements were executed slowly, probably because of late receipt of orders. Meeting engagements were seldom practised, and when they were, the leadership showed itself to be incapable of acting decisively in uncertain situations, but continually waited for further reports and information and finally slid into a passive defence.

The Russian defence was built around the counter-attack, with half the forces holding a thin front while the other half held in reserve. Preference for the defence was natural for the Russians – the product of their national character and years of practice.

Units also deployed on too broad a front. While the doctrinal divisional frontage in the attack was 3km, one division in the attack deployed on a 9–10km front. At another point, a regiment in the attack spread out on a 2.5km front. This was also true in the defence: in one over-extended position, 1.5km of front was held by twelve guns and an infantry company.

The German intelligence report clearly believed that, unit for unit, the German army was massively superior to the Russian. This was the sole consolation that the Germans would have in the east. The war there would not be fought under conditions of numerical parity: the Russians would begin with at least a 2:1 superiority and would bring up wave after wave of reinforcements.

But the real Achilles heel of the Central Powers was the Austrian army. Bad as the Russians were, the Austrians were probably worse. Whatever masterpieces the Germans could contrive from their superior manoeuvrability and combat power, they would at best balance out Austrian defeats. The Austrians would be outnumbered by the Russians, had inferior equipment (and less of it) and many of the minorities were unreliable. Unit for unit, they were probably inferior to the Russians.

German 1914 Evaluation of Russia’s Readiness for War

In February 1914 the 1st (Russian) Department issued a special intelligence estimate, Die Kriegsbereitschaft Russlands (Russian Military Readiness). This was a warning to the German army that, whatever the Russian deficiencies, the Russians were not to be taken lightly. Quantity had a quality of its own. The estimate listed seven pages of improvements in the Russian army since the Russo-Japanese War. All the material deficiencies caused by the war had been made up by 1911. The military budget had increased from 351 million roubles in 1903 to 518 million in 1908, to 635 million in 1913. The transportation budget had increased from 542 million roubles in 1908 to 649 million in 1913. The size of the army had been increased by six corps. The units deployed on the border had been strengthened (infantry companies up from 116 men to 158), permitting quicker combat-readiness. The number of officers had increased, and their pay and training improved.

Cadres had been created in the interior to facilitate the mobilisation of reserve units. Refresher training for reservists had increased from 320,000 men in 1911 to 368,000 in 1912, 422,349 in 1913 and 490,000 scheduled for 1914. The refresher training period had been increased from four to six weeks.

The rail net had been developed through incremental upgrades and not through new railway construction. Existing track and installations had been improved. The quantity of rolling stock had been increased, as had the quantity of fuel. More personnel had been added. District rail committees provided for better use of the rail net.

The speed of mobilisation had increased greatly. The 1910 reform, which provided for territorial mobilisation, improved radio, telegraph and telephone nets and practice mobilisations, contributed to the fact that the line troops were now ready to move on the fifth day of mobilisation, the reserve troops by the eighth day, which was as fast as the Germans and the French; only the greater distances that the Russians had to move those troops made the deployment slower.

The speed of the mobilisation was further accelerated by the official introduction of a ‘period preparatory to war’ (Kriegsvorbereitungsperiode) in 1913. This was in fact a secret mobilisation. These alert measures included the disguised call-up of reservists, horse purchases and the uploading of ammunition, rations and animal fodder. German intelligence was especially sensitive to the Russian use of secret mobilisation because it had detected unmistakable signs that the Russians had conducted one such during the Balkan crisis in the winter of 1912/13. At that time the Russians had retained conscripts in the army who ought to have been discharged, while simultaneously calling up the next conscript class, which increased the peacetime strength of the Russian army by 400,000 men. The Russians had also conducted an unusual number of practice mobilisations and reserve exercises, prepared the railway system for troop movements and massed troops on the Austrian border. Both in 1912/13 and in 1914 the German general staff would exercise great restraint in the face of the secret Russian mobilisation. Nevertheless, the Russian army was obviously trying to steal a march on the Germans – an enormously destabilising factor in times of international tension.

In summary, the estimate said that Russian readiness had made ‘immense progress’ and had reached hitherto unattained levels. In some areas Russian readiness exceeded that of the other Great Powers, including Germany; in particular the higher state of readiness in the winter, the frequent practice mobilisations and ‘the extraordinary increase in the speed of mobilization provided by the “period preparatory to war”’.

There is no evidence, as has often been contended, that the Germans expected that the Russians would not be ready to attack until the thirtieth or even the forty-fifth day of mobilisation, and that this would have given them time to implement the Schlieffen plan. From 1909 onwards, the German intelligence estimates warned in ever more emphatic terms that the Russians were getting stronger and their mobilisation and deployment were getting faster. From all the evidence, it appears that the Germans thought the Russians would attack by the twentieth day of mobilisation at the latest.

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