The Russian Army. To the editor of The Daily News (April 1854)

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written April 1854

Written between April 3 and 12, 1854
First published in: Marx and Engels, Works, Second Russian Edition, Vol. 44, Moscow, 1977
Printed from the original proofs
Published in English for the first time in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.123-128), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Keywords : Russia, Crimean War, Army

With the outbreak of the Crimean war Engels offered his services as military commentator to the liberal London Daily News and sent to the editors his article "The Fortress of Kronstadt" (see Note 84↓) on March 30, and after April 3, 1854, on the request of the editors, the article "The Russian Army" which was to open a series of articles on the Russian land and naval forces. The article was set and Engels probably received the proofs on April 12, 1854 together with a letter by the editor H. J. Lincoln, who asked Engels about his terms. Engels pinned great hopes on this collaboration, believing that permanent work on the newspaper would enable him to give up his commercial activity and move to London. However, as can be judged from Engels' letter to Marx of April 20, 1854, Lincoln cancelled the previous contract when he found out about Engels' political views. Some of the propositions formulated in the article "The Russian Army" were elaborated in "The Military Power of Russia" and "The Armies of Europe" published in the New York Daily Tribune and Putnam's Monthly.

Sir,— It is getting high time that we should look our enemy straight in the face, to see what sort of an opponent he may turn out to be. The most contradictory opinions are afloat as to the real military strength and capabilities of Russia. Overrated by some, underrated by others, the reality appears still to be hidden by a veil, removable, not by any "Revelations of Russia,"[1] but by the actual events of war only.Yet there exists a good deal of valuable matter in our western literatures which requires nothing but sifting and combining. Russia herself has contributed plenty of such matter. For Russian military literature makes as much, if not more, use of the French and German languages than of its own. Witness Major Smitt's valuable work on the Polish campaign of 1831, and Col. Tolstoi's account of the invasion of Hungary. The military works written in Russian are decidedly inferior to those written in foreign languages by officers of the Russian army. Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky's and Buturlin's Campaigns of 1812, Lukianovich's Campaign of 1828-29, and similar works, too much resemble the accounts of campaigns which we generally meet with in second-rate French historical works. The sobriety of facts is drowned in floods of inflated bombast, events are distorted according to the exigencies of national vanity, the victories achieved on the field of battle are put into the shade by greater victories achieved on paper by the authors, and detraction from the character of the enemy, whoever he be, predominates from beginning to end. There is little of that soldierly feeling which knows that there is more merit in defeating a brave than a cowardly enemy, and which makes, for instance, Sir W. Napier's Peninsular War so pre-eminently the production, not only of an "officer," but of a "gentleman" also. The necessity of keeping up warlike ardour amongst the Russian population may explain the existence of such a style of writing history. But as soon as a western language is chosen, the thing is different. Europe, then, is to judge, and the publicity of the west would soon scatter to the winds assertions which, in Russia, pass off for gospel truth, because there the opponent has not the right of reply. The tendency to glorify Holy Russia and her Czar remains the same, but the choice of means becomes more limited. Accuracy of fact must be more strictly adhered to; a more sedate and businesslike diction is adopted; and in spite of attempts at distortion which generally betray themselves soon enough, there remains at least enough of positive information to make such a book in many cases an important historical document. If, besides, it should happen to have been written by a man in a relatively independent position, it may even be excellent as a military history, and this is actually the case with Smitt's History of the Polish War.

The composition and organisation of the Russian army is known well enough to military men all over Europe. The extreme simplicity of this organisation, as far at least as the "army of operation" is concerned, makes it easy to understand it. The actual difficulty is merely to know how far this organisation has been really carried out, how much of this army exists not merely on paper but can be brought forward against a foreign foe. It is on this point that these Russian military writings in western languages are principally important. National pride prevents their authors, wherever the enemy has been partially successful and offered a lively resistance, from overrating the numbers of combatants on the Russian side. In order to guard the honour of the Russian arms, they must unveil the differences between the real and nominal strength of Russian armies. Smitt's work, which gives the official muster-rolls, is particularly useful for this purpose. Tolstoi's Hungarian Campaign, on the contrary, quite in harmony with the proceedings of the Russians in that country, appears to be intended to show off not so much the valour as the formidable and overwhelming numbers of the Russian armies, ready to be launched upon the revolutionary west.

But if we can arrive at something like certainty regarding that part at least of the Russian army which more directly menaces the rest of Europe, it is far more difficult to ascertain the real state of the fleet. We shall, later on, collect whatever information we have met with, but must wait for something more definite until "Charley"[2] gives a better account of it, or sends a few specimens over for home inspection.

The fortificatory system, the preliminary preparation of the theatre of war for defence and attack, is of course very difficult of access in a country like Russia. The coast defences are to a certain degree delineated in charts and plans, and cannot, from their very nature, be kept entirely hidden. Kronstadt and Sevastopol, although many details of military importance are not well known, are yet not half as mysterious places as they appear to some parties. But of the fortifications of Poland, of that very group of fortresses the very existence of which proclaims intentions of offensive war and of conquest, very little is known besides the spots upon which they have been built[3]. Some European war offices may have obtained, by dint of gold, plans of these fortresses from Russian employés; if so, they have kept the information for themselves. If the Polish Emigration could procure such plans, which to them should not be impossible, they might, by publishing them, do to Russia a great deal more harm than ever they did.

The Russian army is made up of four great divisions: the great army of operation, the reserves for it, the special and local corps, the Cossacks (amongst which are here comprised all irregular troops, whatever be their origin).[4]

The peculiar circumstances in which Russia is placed require a military organisation totally different from that of all other European countries. While on the south-east, from the Pacific to the Caspian Sea, her frontiers, guarded by deserts and steppes, are exposed to no other irruptions but those of nomadic robber tribes, who on such ground are best met by troops somewhat similar to themselves; while on the Caucasus she has to struggle against a hardy race of mountaineers, best combated by a judicious mixture of regular and irregular forces; her south-western and western frontiers require the immediate presence of a large army organised upon the most regular European footing and equipped with arms equal to those of the western armies it may have to fight. But as it is impossible to maintain permanently upon the war footing such an army in a country the resources of which are only very partially developed, part of the soldiers have to be dismissed on furlough, to form a reserve for the war. Thus arise the four great divisions of the Russian army.

This organisation of the Russian army, the origin of which may be traced back as far as the first partition of Poland[5], has been successively developed by the succeeding partitions of that country, the conquests on the Black Sea, the great wars with France; it has been brought to its present state of perfection after the Polish revolution of 1830.

The Great Army of Operation, which is almost exclusively stationed on the European frontier of Russia, is more especially a production of the partition of Poland, the wars with France, and the Polish revolution. Its object is twofold to maintain in subjection the western, more civilised, and non-Russian portions of the empire, and to hang like a threatening cloud over the west of Europe, ready to come down upon it with thunder and lightning at a moment's notice. How far this object has been, or rather has not been, obtained during the past, is a matter of notoriety. How far it may in the present war be carried out, we shall have to consider by and by.

The grand army of operations or active army (deistvuyushtsheye voisko) consists of eleven corps d'armée, the corps of guards, the corps of grenadiers, six corps of infantry, and three corps of cavalry of reserve.

This whole organisation is imitated from the system introduced by Napoleon. The eight first named corps correspond exactly to the- army corps of the French during the great war. The guards and grenadiers appear specially destined to form the general reserves of the army, while the cavalry corps are expected to produce those special decisive effects for which Napoleon always kept in reserve large masses of that arm and of artillery. Thus all the first named eight corps, although called infantry corps, are provided by their very organisation with cavalry and a numerous artillery. They have each a complete staff, engineers, pontoon and ammunition trains, parks of artillery, and every other requisite of an army destined to act independently. The guards and grenadiers are rather weaker in infantry than the other corps, their regiments having each three battalions only instead of four. The guards are, on the other hand, considerably stronger in cavalry and artillery; but it may be expected that in order of battle the greater part of this will be joined to the general cavalry and artillery reserve. The first and second cavalry corps consist of heavy cavalry and horse artillery exclusively (the light regular cavalry is attached to the infantry corps); the third cavalry or dragoon corps has an especial organisation, as these dragoons are intended, same as was the fashion formerly, to fight both as infantry and cavalry, and thus to form a corps of reserve of all arms, having at the same time the mobility and rapidity of locomotion exclusively possessed by cavalry. Whether this will have been attained remains to be seen; the experience of all other armies, resulting in the almost complete and general conversion of dragoons into simple cavalry, is of no very favourable augury. This idea has even been carried to the extent of attaching both to the dragoon corps and to the guards battalions of mounted sappers, miners, and pontonniers—an institution highly lauded by the admirers of the Russian system, but equally wanting, as yet, the test of actual experience.

It may be added that this organisation in eleven corps, with their divisions, brigades, regiments composing each, does not merely exist on paper or for mere administrative purposes. On the contrary, the last Turkish war[6], the Polish campaign, the Hungarian invasion, and the present Turkish war have shown the dispositions prevailing during peace to be so entirely calculated for war that no division, brigade, or regiment has to be separated from its corps, and to be attached to another whenever the movement towards the frontier begins. This is a great military advantage, resulting from the almost constant state of impending war in which Russia is accustomed to find herself. Other more peaceable states find, on a war approaching, every wheel and pulley of their war-machinery covered with rust, and the whole gearing out of trim; the organisation of army corps, divisions, brigades, complete as it may appear, has to be revolutionised in order to bring troops quick enough to the menaced frontiers; commanders, generals, and staffs are appointed afresh, regiments are shifted from brigade to brigade, from corps to corps, until, when the army is assembled for active operations, you have a motley reunion of commanders more or less unknown to each other, to their superiors, and to their troops; most of them, perhaps, big with a good deal of wounded vanity; and yet you must rely upon this brand-new machinery working well together. The disadvantage is undeniable, although in an army like those of the West it has far less importance than in a Russian one. It is a disadvantage not to be avoided except in an army on a permanent war footing (such as the Austrian army has been since 1848, in consequence of which its corps are also pretty firmly organised); but for all that the higher degree of industrial perfection existing in western countries makes up, even in a merely military point of view, for this and any other disadvantage which the exigencies of their civilisation may impose upon them.

  1. Ch. F. Hennigsen, Revelations of Russia, Vols. I-II, London, 1844.—Ed.
  2. Charles Napier.—Ed.
  3. For details see The Military Power of Russia —Ed.
  4. For details see Austria and the War.—Ed.
  5. The proposal to partition Poland was made by Heinrich of Prussia in 1770 during a visit to St. Petersburg. Initially the tsarist government, wishing to retain its influence over the whole of Poland, opposed this plan, but when Prussia and Austria drew closer to each other, Catherine II was compelled in 1772 to conclude a convention with them on the partition of part of Polish territory between the three powers (the first partition of Poland).
  6. This refers to the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29.