Pomiecko on Stone, 'The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1918'

David R. Stone
Aleksandra Pomiecko

David R. Stone. The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1918. Modern War Studies Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Illustrations. vii + 359 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2095-1.

Reviewed by Aleksandra Pomiecko (University of Toronto) Published on H-War (May, 2016) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Throughout the years, and notably the last two with the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, scholarly debates focusing on the conflict have tended to center on the difficulties in providing an all-inclusive account of the war. Christopher Clark’s ambitious work, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2013), is one such example. Other studies have sought to ascribe blame to particular parties for the outbreak of the war. In The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917, David R. Stone’s goal is not to revolutionize our understanding of the war but rather to flesh out the Russian perspective through a study of Russia’s experience on the battlefield. The book’s focus on Russia certainly addresses one lacuna in the historiographical field, as coverage and literature of the eastern front lies in the shadow of its western counterpart. In fact, Norman Stone’s (unrelated to author in review) 1976 work, The Eastern Front 1914-1917, continues to be one of the few solid studies regarding this topic. Besides providing an updated and much-needed account of the eastern front that incorporates a larger available pool of Russian sources, it is the approach taken by David Stone, both by focusing on and contextualizing the Russian perspective, that contributes to the discussion in an interesting way. While Stone attributes Russia’s defeat in the war to both the viability of the social and economic system and the events at battle, he emphasizes the latter. Nevertheless, by highlighting the military narrative in the Russian perspective, Stone equally contributes to our understanding of the social and economic system, as the causes of defeat were not mutually exclusive. 

The notion of contingency is a consistent trope throughout the work. While some scholars (as Stone accurately states) see this as a potentially dangerous path toward counterfactual history, Stone does not abuse his emphasis on contingency but merely utilizes the idea as a way to explore different opportunities, angles, and perspectives. What we may call Russia’s “backwards” military, Stone perceives as one that was still in the process of rearmament and development. This leads to the idea that had the war not begun as early as it did, Russia’s military would have been better prepared. Again, though playing with contingency can be dangerous, Stone uses it to investigate various issues further and in doing so, provides an interesting yet professional narrative. This is best demonstrated through his focus on Russia, which he essentially does by comparing it and contextualizing it with the other Central and Eastern European Empires at that time: the German, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Ottoman. Rather than looking at Russia vis-à-vis the more “modernized” and “industrialized” West, Stone offers a refreshing and effective way of assessing Russia’s position during the war, that is, in comparison to empires that were in many ways just as weak or just as strong. 

The Russian experience is brought out simply yet effectively through the book’s organization. Focusing more than half of his work on the earlier years of the war (1914-16), Stone highlights the time period that had more of an impact on Russia. This is seen not only through the concentration of campaigns fought but also through the literature published by Russians after the war, which highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian military, from a lack of good reconnaissance and intelligence to Aleksei Brusilov’s successful offensive in 1916. In general, each chapter begins with a brief narrative of the situation within the Russian, as well as the German and Austro-Hungarian, Empire, as it relates to the topic in that section.

To begin his work, Stone offers a solid introductory chapter on the generally agreed-upon origins of the war. While this part is not revelational in any major way, it provides a good overview of the alliance system in 1914 and the ambitions and rivalries between states and coalitions, and concludes with the July Crisis. Stone then follows with a discussion of the Russian army, which includes a section on its composition (mostly peasants), the process of conscription, and the lack of education. While the Russian army was good at maneuvering larger formations, the lack of education and high peasant concentration resulted in a shortage of trained and competent officers, as well as in soldiers who could not use machinery. Rather than ascribe the “backwards” label, as has been done when describing the Russian army, Stone, while not necessarily denying it, deconstructs it and is able to explain the weaknesses. That being said, he is also able to show that these shortcomings were not any greater than those the other empires experienced. When looking at the overall structure of command, we see that while the German one was organized and centralized, the Austrian was decentralized and unorganized, and suffered from ethnic divides. Russia’s was comparatively somewhere in between.

The next four sections focus on the eastern campaigns, respectively: Galicia (1914), Poland (fall 1914), and the Masurian Lakes and the Carpathians (winter 1914-15). Stone provides a discussion of the major obstacles for each party involved in the battles, the logic in each commander’s thinking, and the weaknesses and strengths of the warring armies. In the Russian case, there seems to be a repeated pattern: lack of good intelligence and information; lack of infrastructure, which in turn affected communication and transportation; and timidity on behalf of some individuals to pursue the enemy after a successful operation. Stone then discusses the Great Retreat in 1915, at which point the Russian army was essentially driven East by the Germans, abandoning about three hundred thousand square kilometers (p. 146). While the chapter reflects the blowing loss to Russia, Stone argues for a German cyclical movement eastward through the repeated process of “preparation, attack, breakthrough, pursuit, exhaustion, and recovery” (p. 147). This deconstructed process exposes a more nuanced and complex German victory and Russian defeat. 

One of the work’s most interesting and enriching parts is the discussion on the Caucasus Campaign from 1914 to 1917. It is here that Stone provides background of the Ottoman Empire’s position going into the war, while mentioning previous conflicts that affected the empire’s performance and state of affairs. The geopolitical importance of the region is contextualized through the long-enduring Russo-Turkish struggle over control of the straits. Stone presents Russia’s involvement while comparing it with the Ottomans’ state of being at the time, using underdeveloped infrastructure as well as long and treacherous mountain frontiers to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of both empires. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the Armenian genocide, the landing of the Anglo-French forces in Gallipoli, and general Armenian sympathies for the Russian Empire. Although underdeveloped, this part shows the imminent tie between military campaigns and instances of violence, which are not mutually exclusive.

Stone then follows up with a discussion of Russian society during war, in which he includes analysis of the effects of the Great Retreat, manifested through an increasing number of deserters and refugees, and an increase in anti-Semitism. Stone continues by offering an assessment of the economic situation, equally as dismal, seeing as Russia faced shortages as it relied on foreign companies that prioritized their own national quotas over exports. Stone then switches back to the front by focusing the next section on the Brusilov offensive. Its goal, as he clearly explains, was essentially to gauge the weak point within the opposing army, by not concentrating large numbers of troops at one point, but instead by dividing them and attacking from different points. The initial effect that Brusilov’s strategy had against the Austro-Hungarians was tremendous: as reinforcements were called in to aid the Austro-Hungarians, the French at Verdun and Italians at Trentino were slightly relieved and could resupply and recover. This success, however, is paired with a shortcoming, as Stone states, “The brilliance of his tactical preparation was not matched by similar vision” (p. 256). As Brusilov made a name for himself on the field, he could not follow up in later higher-up command positions. Furthermore, even on the field, Brusilov resisted following and pursuing remaining troops, instead choosing to remain behind to recover and hold ground.

The next chapter is as valuable and interesting as that of the Caucasus Campaign, in that it discusses another little known part of the war: the Romanian front. After Brusilov’s successes, Romania decided to join the Allied side with its army of half a million. Its main motivation was acquiring Transylvania from a weakening Austro-Hungarian Empire. This effort was decidedly unsuccessful, as Romania became involved in a fight against the Habsburg Empire in Transylvania as well as from the south with Bulgaria and German troops under August von Mackensen. For Russia, Romania’s involvement resulted in more chaos, sacrifice, and defeat as its frontier stretched even more and it had to replenish and support the Romanians.

Stone’s work concludes with a chapter discussing the “collapse” in 1917. It seeks to draw together the political, diplomatic, and economic factors to better synthesize Russia’s position in the war that year. The political narrative of the revolution is, of course, not exhaustive and rather stands out from the rest of the book’s military focus. Nevertheless, Stone demonstrates how the political processes and changes in Russia affected and were also influenced by the military events and campaigns still occurring at this time.

Overall, Stone presents a narrative that is informative and interesting, by presenting information that is less known to those interested in the First World War. By including the Caucasus and Romanian campaigns, he furthers his contribution by filling an additional gap in the historiography. Nevertheless, his definition of the “Russian” perspective remains unclear. Throughout his book, he mentions military higher-ups, soldiers, and civilians, and therefore we assume these are all part of the Russian narrative. However, as Russians were not the only ones to fight for the Russian army, a discussion of the ethnic and national diversity would have demonstrated the complexity of what we may perceive to be the “Russian” view. There were many non-ethnic Russians who fought, some of whom Stone mentions, such as the prewar officer corps from the Muslim regions in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Moreover, a more deconstructed or nuanced explanation of “Russian” society would have contributed to the complexity and importance of the subject.

Stone achieves what he sets out to do, which is to provide the story of Russia during the First World War to a general audience. Additionally, through the inclusion of the Caucasus and Romanian fronts, his work is also important for those interested in the subject. Furthermore, Stone’s consistent comparison of Russia with the other Central and Eastern European empires at that time provides an appropriate angle through which to study this matter.

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Citation: Aleksandra Pomiecko. Review of Stone, David R., The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1918. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2016. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=45642

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