Aug 04 2011
Part 1: The Russian infantry
Coat of arms of the Russian Empire, 1800
From the Royal Military Chronicle, vol1, p 267:
At the time that the Russian army was described by a contributor to the Royal Military Chronicle as ‘the best hope of England and Europe’ (in 1810) Russia and France were in alliance. Nevertheless, the writer speculated with confidence that ‘The time will inevitably come, nor is it far distant, when the battle of Europe will be again fought on the banks of the Aller and the Vistula. What with Turkey as a cause of jealousy for one party, and Finland for the other, there is scarcely a possibility but that their hostility must be awakened.’1
Less than two years later the writer’s prediction was realised when Napoleon took his Grande Armee to Russia. By stirring up the Russian bear, which might otherwise have pursued ambitions that looked to the south and the Ottoman Empire rather than two the west, Napoleon put a significant nail in his coffin.
Mikhail Kutusov, Russian commander, who is commemorated by a statue in front of the cathedral in St. Petersburg
The contributor to the R.M.C., having established the probability of the Franco-Russian accord being of short duration, recognised that the crucial question was, ‘how far Russia may become an equal enemy of France’, a significant point because ‘the effort of Russia in the last [Revolutionary] war did certainly not correspond with her reputation.’2
The character of the Russian soldier, particularly the infantryman, certainly earned the respect of western commentators. Sir Robert Wilson used his first-hand experience to describe them as ‘athletic men, between the ages of eighteen and forty, endowed with great bodily strength, but generally of short stature, with martial countenance and complexion; inured to the extremes of weather and hardships; to the worst and scantiest food; to march for days and nights of four hours repose and six hours progress, accustomed to laborious toils and the carriage of heavy burthens; ferocious but disciplined; obstinately brave and susceptible of enthusiastic excitements; devoted to their sovereign, their chief, and their country; religious without a pernicious superstition; patient docile and obedient.’3
Another characteristic of the Russian infantryman was his ability to serve in the ranks for much longer than his western contemporaries. Men in their fifties and sixties were commonplace, having been strengthened by their northern climate to retain their bodily strength almost until they died. This meant, in practice, that the Tsar had many more men available for military service that his western counterparts.
There was a weakness, however, reminiscent perhaps of the British soldier. He was unmanageable in a retreat. He would rather perish in a final act of suicidal defiance than withdraw. Offer him battle, however, and he would fight to the last man.
Like the French army, the Russians used a system of conscription, as absolutist as the French, but definitely not as efficient. Instead of the thorough bureaucracy which distinguished the French system, and made sure that all classes of men served in the ranks, the Russians relied on local magistrates to ‘appoint a day, in which all inhabitants of the town and its vicinity are ordered to appear before them in the town-court. On the day of this meeting, the magistrates, merely upon their own discretion, and without any other rule for their guidance but their own will, and their supposed knowledge of the circumstances of the different families, make their selection, and this nomination is, ipso facto, the inlistment [sic] of the persons so designated.’4
Needless to say, such a system was open to bribery and favouritism, and the upper and middle classes were not to be found in the ranks.
Once a man was in the ranks he found himself (to British eyes) inadequately equipped. His uniform was made of the cheapest materials. His accoutrements were cumbersome. And his musket was heavy and poorly made. Yet with the musket and bayonet he could both give and receive fire, while his drill, skilfully simplified, enabled him to form column and square, if not as well as the French, certainly as well as their neighbours, the Austrians.
The man was also expected to endure the most extreme conditions with stoicism. There were no tents. In the coldest weather the infantrymen relied on their ragged great coats to keep them warm. Nor was he well fed, but he was prepared to eat with relish whatever was served to him. Yet this trencherman would also be able to survive for long periods without food.
Hardy Russian troops in retreat, 1812
For these harsh conditions, the infantryman was paid a princely half a guinea a year!
[Next month: regular and irregular cavalry, and artillery]
- Royal Military Chronicle, Vol.I, p.267
- Ibid p.268
- Ibid p.270