A Look at the State of Russian Forces in the Last War.

By N------.



(From Voennyi Sbornik, Volume 1, 1858, Section II, pages 1-15.)


The improvements made in the last decade to small arms, improvements which had been applied to field use during the last war, could not fail to be of interest to any military person. All governments are now taking the most active measures to equip their infantry with new weapons incorporating the latest advancements. Everywhere trials are being conducted and committees formed to consider issues involved in re-equipping and organizing their troops. Essays and journal articles constantly appear that deal with the various influences rifled weapons necessarily have on military operations. But nowhere do we see such impassioned opinions and such defensive tones in fault-finding for past events as with us. In the press these critiques appear but rarely since with us little is published regarding anything at all in military affairs. Nevertheless, in all the articles that have been printed on this subject, and especially in oral discussions, neither our previous regulations nor tactical rules have been spared. This ardor, although unjust and inflammatory, is for the most part entirely understandable and can be forgiven. It has been so long since Russia has had to yield to another country’s military strength! For such an equally long time the mere appearance of our armies in the theater of war deprived the enemy of the least hope of resistance and compelled an unconditional surrender! Grief stricken over our recent failure, we have not applied ourselves to finding the true reasons for our defeat and we ascribe all our enemies’ successes in the last war to their superior military organization, to their arms, and even to those unimportant details of drill and formations in which they differ from us. We have lost sight of the fact that the reasons for successes and failures in every war are always combinations of a multitude of circumstances, often imperceptible, often due to chance, and always very complicated. We neglect to remember that only events occurring several times under the same circumstances can be legitimately used to draw general conclusions.

For us the war ended unsuccessfully. But could it have ended otherwise? Could Russia alone have fought the combined forces of England, France, Turkey, and Sardinia, expecting any moment to also see opposing her Sweden and especially Austria, whose political influence and army’s threatening posture harmed us more than might have been the case in open war? Compare the populations of the powers fighting us with that of Russia, the sizes of their armies with ours, weigh their financial resources, match their naval strength against ours as well as their merchant fleets which were also at the service of their armies—and the result of the comparison will plainly show that the war could have had no other outcome without the help of some unpredictable chance events.

However serious Russia’s situation was in 1812, it was nonetheless not nearly as dangerous then as in the recent war. Napoleon’s might turned out to be more fearsome than in fact it really was. The disparate elements of which it was composed were united artificially by force, and therefore held together but weakly. In addition, at that time he had other enemies while we had allies. Lastly, he could strike at us in only one constrained direction—from our western border, so that for a counterblow all our forces could be brought to one point. It was completely different in the last war. Our enemies allied themselves not by compulsion but because they considered it to their advantage. They were supported by all the resources of almost all of Europe’s material interests and popular opinion. And if they did not have at the head of their armies such a military genius as Napoleon, we still had to defend, instead of just our western border, the entire length from Archangel to Aleksandrapol and from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka. Because of this, good fortune on one or the other fronts of the war could not change its overall outcome. Under such circumstances, which came about due to the course of events long before the war, could the army really have been expected to change the result of the conflict? Of course not.

Even those defeats which we experienced when clashing with the enemy on the Danube and in the Crimea cannot be blamed on the army. Could the battle at Oltenitsa have been different? Can our forces really be held responsible for having to carry out tasks that turned out to be impossible? Can our soldiers really be faulted for halting during an attack carried out on an open plain strewn with fire from enemy batteries on the Danube’s opposite bank? Should they have done otherwise than begin to withdraw before all had been conquered, when taking the enemy positions would have caused more harm than good? Are there any troops, even if drawn from volunteers from the ranks of the bravest of the brave, that could have done anything else?

The troops are even less to be blamed for the unsuccessful outcome of the affair at Cetati. On the contrary, those who took part in this battle earned great honor! Attacked by three times their number, they not only held their position and yielded no trophies to the enemy, but themselves captured four guns, and if a positive victory did not crown their courage, they themselves were not the cause of that.

To enumerate all the reasons for the failure of the siege of Silistria would take too long and, possibly, may not be opportune. Our enemies used to try to blame the siege’s long and atypical course on our engineers’ lack of skill, but apparently the siege of Sevastopol is sufficient to show this charge to be unjust.

Let us turn to operations in the Crimea. There we lost three big battles: at the Alma, Inkerman, and the Chernaya Stream. The Battle of the Alma was the first clash between our forces and the French and English. It was the first to cause doubts about the worth of our troops and show their weapons’ shortcomings, so we will dwell on it in somewhat more detail.

In this battle we had 34,000 men under arms[1] and the enemy—about 70,000.[2] Our thirty-five thousand-strong army occupied a position about four miles in length,[3] i.e. almost the same width as the position at Borodino which an army of 120,000 could barely occupy. Both flanks of this position were uncovered and the left flank was even exposed to bombardment from the enemy fleet. Because of the excessive length of the front, only 7 out of 42 battalions could be left in a general reserve (3 battalions of the Minsk Regiment and 4 battalions of the Volhynia). Under such conditions what troops would not have been forced to yield to the enemy?[4] Let us also recall that our foes in this battle had the flower of their armies: the French had their battalions of Chasseurs d’Vincennes and the best Algerian troops; the English had their Guards. On our side the troops were almost all from the 6th Infantry Corps and had never been under fire before. As is known, this corps acted as a recruit depot [rekrutskoe depo] for the active army and although it was well trained in drill, due to its mission it was our army’s least prepared formation for maneuvering and actual combat service. In spite of all this our forces fought stubbornly. They held their position for almost six hours and inflicted such heavy casualties on the enemy that he decided not to pursue. What more could be demanded from the army? To think that under such circumstances it could achieve victory means to reject all the principles underlying military thought. Napoleon I, it would appear, may serve as a sufficient authority in military affairs and here are his words:

“With the level of tactical training enjoyed by all European armies at this time, one cannot hope to beat an enemy having significantly superior numbers All the skill of a commander-in-chief must be focused on entering into battle after gathering at the point of contact more troops than his enemy is able to deploy.”

No riflemen, no marksmen could have changed the outcome of the Alma battle. That could only have been possible with a reserve of twenty or thirty thousand men striking a united blow on the French as they outflanked us or on the English when they were already disorganized by the fighting and ascending the Alma’s left bank. But there was nowhere to get such a reserve, and victory remained on the side with the greater numbers.

Our troops in the Battle of the Chernaya (4 August 1855) fought under even more disadvantageous circumstances. Not only was there a numerical inferiority but all advantages of terrain lay with the enemy.

In the whole course of the Crimean campaign there was only one case where we faced an enemy equal in strength that did not outnumber us—this was at Inkerman. But here the blame for defeat does not lie with the troops. If only the Chorgun column had not been limited to a hollow cannonade and had initiated a real battle with Bosquet’s division. If only General Soimonov had gone to the left of the Careening Ravine (Kilen-Balka), where he had been directed to go. If only... But enough, if only just these two unforgivable mistakes had not been made nothing would have saved the allies, and then those same tactical methods which were used by our troops, those same battlefield formations [boevye poryadki] against which so many now take up arms, might be gloriously famous, as they were praised after the war in Hungary.

In argument against what has been said, it is of course possible to set forth several individual failures for which the troops were indeed responsible. But these separate events, taken individually, are neither evidence for, nor refutation of, the general conclusion. They happen in every war, with all soldiers, even the most elite, and are therefore able to be used in evaluating the troops only when they are considered in conjunction with similar actions on the opposing side.

In reviewing the general course of all the battles of the recent war we can boldly say that throughout all, Russian soldiers and officers did all that was humanly possible. In the organization of our forces, even in their tactical training, there is much that does not deserve to be censured or even modified. The Russian soldier endured without a murmur the many hardships and deprivations that fell to his lot, quickly forgot failures, and awaited each new battle with heedless courage, just as much as in the our history’s most glorious victories and feats of arms. Even more than in previous wars officers were an example for their soldiers. As before, the Russian bayonet charge was frightful to the enemy and the Russian column marched just as magnificently under shot and bullets as at Leipzig and Paris. In a word, the principles bequeathed to our army by Peter the Great have not yet been extinguished. The army maintains so many outstanding qualities that it can boldly look into the mirror of criticism, unflinchingly listen to everything said in its reproach and openly acknowledge its shortcomings with the assurance that its qualities surpass its deficiencies.

Here are the main criticisms which our forces had to endure following the events of the last war:

Our infantry was badly armed.

The individual development of the soldier in the war was completely neglected.

The cavalry was unprepared for wartime service.

Our regulations did not answer to the contemporary demands of military science, and military formations constrained general officers in their dispositions.[5]

Each of these charges has its drop of truth, but much is exaggerated. In regards to armament, our infantry truly could not compare with either the French or the English. In our army of 35,000 that fought at the Alma there were no more than 2000 rifles while a third of the French and more than half the English troops in action already had rifled weapons, i.e. each of the two allies had almost 15,000 rifles or rifled muskets. But if we take into consideration the total number of rifled weapons that were in our entire army at that time, we see that they were only a little less then what the French army had. The only difference was that the French were conducting an offensive war and being secure at home could concentrate their best troops and best weapons where military operations would take place, while we had to disperse both one and the other.  

The war began at a time when the question of the best system for rifled weapons was by no means settled, and rearming the entire infantry was not at all under consideration. Even after the war, when the superiority of rifled arms was so sharply highlighted, even in France (where the advantages of rifles were well accepted) there arose among military men a rather heated and protracted argument over whether all infantrymen should be armed with rifles or just selected marksmen. A special commission was formed to decide this question and in its report the advantages of smoothbore muskets over rifles were defended, so much so that the emperor himself initially was on the side of those who spoke out against the general issuing of rifled firearms. Can we then be held unconditionally at fault for not making a final decision in this regard before the war but instead introducing the new weapons gradually while continuously evaluating their characteristics? If changing an army’s weapons was as easy as altering some movement in the manual of arms, then of course we would be guilty of inaction. But one must remember that to equip the Russian army required a million muskets, and it would take a long time to do that, with each weapon costing from 12 to 20 silver roubles in our own factories and even more when bought in other countries. Therefore changing an army’s weapon needs thorough consideration . It was easy for England, ten times richer than Russia, to give new weapons to all their troops in the Crimea. For that they needed a little more than 30,000, but for us even 300,000 would not be enough.

It is hard to object to the charge that the individual training of each soldier was deficient. In fact, all his training was only that needed for close-order formations [somknutyi stroi]. In dispersed order [razsypnyi stroi], especially in uneven terrain, the Russian soldier was always uncertain and needed constant prompting as to where to stand and where to go. Some ascribed this inability of our soldier to his social class’s lack of education, while others blamed the demands of our drill regulations. But in rebuttal to this it may be said that even if our recruits enter service less educated than in other European armies, they nevertheless serve so long, and possess such innate cleverness, that a deficiency in primary education can always be overcome by subsequent instruction. If this is not so, then the fault for our soldiers’ inability is not with the recruit but must be found in a bad educational system. On the other hand, one cannot agree with the view that everything in infantry training should be devoted exclusively to developing the men’s daring and their individual skill. Firstly, courage and initiative are not given by nature to all in equal measure, and where it is lacking it cannot be developed. Secondly, it is necessary that when teaching a soldier everything that he may need for individual or open-order movement, and even if selecting these to begin his training, one must not weaken those characteristics which are required for close-order formation, since these requirements serve as the best school for habituating a soldier to orderliness and that unconditional discipline which distinguishes regular forces from militia.

It must be remembered that during battle only a small part of an army can be in dispersed order and that its greater mass remains closed up. Personnel disperse from close order so that they can again form up, and if dispersed formations represent the arms of the battlefield deployment, then its chest or body consists of close-order formations. Therefore, in training men individually in all that war may require of them, one must not waver in demanding all that is necessary for close-order formations, it being understood that these demands would be in accordance with actual needs, not with the caprices of one’s own taste and not raising parade-ground marching and the manual of arms to the level of a precision art.


Our cavalry truly was not suitable for the tasks it had to carry out during the war. More than in any other arm of service, its military qualities were sacrificed to mere show and completely false preconceived ideas of what looks good. This was the main reason for all its deficiencies, many of which were so openly revealed by cavalrymen themselves in several articles published in Russkii Invalid. In spite of these deficiencies, when in open battle in a massed formation, shoulder to shoulder, our cavalry would not be second to any other if the late war had presented such a suitable occasion. The war of 1849 offers proof of this, when with these very same deficiencies our cavalry was not stopped by enemy squares nor by the famed Hungarian hussars in all the occasions that our commanders were able to employ our mounted arm.


A great many people represent our old tactical drill regulations [stroevye ustavy] as one of the factors detrimental to our troops. But the regulations can be unconditionally condemned only by someone not sufficiently acquainted with them and who has not compared them with those of other armies. Our drill regulations were not only not inferior to those of other armies, but one may boldly say that they were superior to most. If there were still some excessive aspects in them, some formations unsuited to battle, then in the regulations of other powers these were incomparably greater in number. I will not discuss the English regulations which include everything that imitators of Prussian tactics had already introduced in the previous century. And the French regulations themselves are little better. This is General Renard’s[6] opinion of them in his work Considérations sur la tactique de l’infanterie en Europe (1857):

The French regulations are not suited for those successes which were achieved already sixty years ago. On one hand it could be wished that its platoon and battalion exercises were improved and further developed in regard to the employment of riflemen, and on the other, that useless and obsolete sections were left out of these regulations, especially maneuvering in lines based on ideas now universally abandoned and requiring replacement by brigade and divisional exercises.

It is worth looking at directives for increasing maneuverability drawn up by the French General Schramm (former minister of war)[7] in order to be convinced just how far the French are from being in a position deserving imitation.

The issue is not the regulations but the ability to actually use them, the ability to deviate from its rules insofar as circumstances require. It is in this respect that we have much to learn. A regulation is not written to instruct us what to do. It only instructs how to act. Unfortunately, we lost sight of this and mistook form for substance. We not only went so far as to not want to know anything outside of the regulations, but also stressed those parts of the regulations which were deficient and placed therein without a combat purpose. Thus, our battlefield formations as set forth by the regulations as being general and normal considerations for a course of action, as a means of facilitating the command of troops, were taken to be carried out exactly (except for that part in the regulations which in fact explained how to use them). This gave one side reason to think a knowledge of battlefield formations was the limit of military sagacity, and another side the basis for believing battlefield formations to be entirely harmful. Yes, they truly can be harmful, but only as can anything which is misused. Are the regulations really at fault if they are being understood in a way they should not? How then were the French, whose regulations were incomparably inferior to ours, able to use them to a practical end and not be constrained by them? How many times have we happened to hear from supposedly experienced people something like:

“Praise God, I have been on many a campaign, seen many a battle, but not once in those times had to draw up in a battlefield formation.”

“So then, how did you maneuver? In a clump?”

“Well, they ordered us to stand in two or three lines, who in the first, who in the second, who in reserve, and that’s how we operated.”

How one can not convince the honored gentleman that this was itself a battlefield formation! No, in his mind the words “battlefield formation” immediately bring up a vision of a small diagram with all kinds of numbers and lines and all the jalonneur markers and other appurtenances.


Not the complexity of the regulations, not the recruit’s lack of education, not the poor quality of our weapons were our army’s weakest aspect. That was yet another deficiency, much more important, a deficiency under which even the best institutions could not develop and bear fruit. This deficiency consisted of a false understanding of true duty and service, in the consequent incorrect service requirements and a lack of concern regarding education. This evil grew in the army gradually and permeated everything so imperceptibly that neither the commander-in-chief nor corps commanders could even notice it across that distance which due to their breadth of responsibilities separated then from the usual everyday life in the forces. Desiring to bring their units to the highest possible perfection, these higher commanders inspected them wherever there was a suitable opportunity. But since each one had several divisions under his command, they could not go into the details of the training of every soldier and officer. They could not even thoroughly inspect every battalion and squadron. This was supposed to be the duty of divisional and regimental commanders, of every junior officer commanding a unit. But unfortunately this was not the reality. Diverted by a desire to earn the approbation of his higher commander and distinguish himself in front of him, each subordinate officer forgot that first of all he was obligated to fulfill his own duties and only then think of distinction. Each officer trained his unit only for what was viewed during inspections, for that which could be expected to earn an award or which threatened a rebuke and censure. The division commander only inspected what the corps commander might see; the regimental commander only made demands on that which had to be shown to the division commander, and so on down to the company commander and sergeant-major. The result was that in ceremonial marching, the manual of arms, and maneuvering in mass, our army was far superior to all others. Our divisions and entire corps (if commanded by a knowledgeable general) could execute any of the most complex evolutions with extraordinary speed on level training ground, where only a literal adherence to the regulations was required from battalion and company commanders, and from the soldiers alignment and a firm step. But in combat, when enemy actions wreck the orderliness of the regulations and adaptability is called for, neither the commanders in battlefield formation nor the men in a skirmish line can extract themselves, and the troops often incurred losses which could have been avoided and missed chances to achieve a possible victory.

Really, how could one demand from soldier initiative and adaptability when all his training had been only alignment, the manual of arms, and parade-ground marching [marshirovka], when their commanders were enamored of keeping step even in skirmish order, not to mention keeping the skirmish line perfectly even. Soldiers were taught to shoot only as a last priority, when there was no inspection foreseen and there was nothing else to train for, so that half a soldier’s service could go by without him once firing live ammunition. In his defense, there were many officers who alleged miserliness in the ammunition issued for training. Who does not know that of the three rounds formerly issued each year, many regiments did not fire them and often dumped their issued gunpowder into water. In vain did the regulations prescribe starting a recruit’s training with developing his understanding, teaching him from the first how to move in dispersed order, handle his weapon, and so on. This excellent direction was not carried out by anyone. From the first days of his arrival, the recruit was trained in standing in place and parade-ground marching. He was not legitimately taught, but rather prepared and dressed only for what was required for standing in formation and passing in ceremonial review before the commander. Afterwards he was taught anything else as a secondary subject. This is exactly how companies, battalions, and even whole divisions were trained and prepared.

If this trend had been limited only to the training of the soldier, the harm would not have been so great. Unfortunately, it also affected officers. Before receiving a company, officers were evaluated based only on external appearance and their ability to march on parade. A company commander was rated as to how his company performed a ceremonial march or conducted drill movements, and a squadron commander—in accordance with the squadron’s appearance when turned out or in the manège. If his unit was good, the officer was forgiven for all other deficiencies. Lack of ability, or complete ignorance, as demonstrated on maneuvers or on other occasions, incurred censure of the guilty officer by higher commanders only in the rare case that it was noticed by them. Immediate commanders remained completely unconcerned about this and even considered it not their responsibility to involve themselves as long as a battalion stepped out well.[8]

This egotistical point of view by commanders in regard to the true meaning of service extinguished in officers any striving for real military education and developed in them a want to please superiors, to the detriment of understanding duty. Our officers were little acquainted with the military sciences and even with those parts of the regulations written for war rather than for reviews. There were regiments in which the company commanders could not schedule their companies to take turns in manning outposts. And in the cavalry, of all the complex and difficult duties it has in wartime, both soldiers and officers knew only drill and equitation in the manège. Knowledge of outpost duty, patrol responsibilities, flying columns, and detached posts was absolutely untouched. Commanders considered these a matter of bookish theory and never trained their soldiers in them.

Peacetime service does not require special knowledge on the part of an infantry or cavalry officer as long as he is in a junior rank. But when he attains higher ranks he is so much grown unused to duty requirements that even with all his wishes to the contrary he cannot learn the basics of anything. Thus, if in army young officers are not encouraged to learn their duties, knowledgeable generals become rare. It is thus also necessary that commanders use all the means at their disposal to encourage officers to study military science. Alas, we have often witnessed the contrary. With many commanders military science not only did not find any sponsorship, but to the contrary met with harassment and derision. An officer studying the military arts was usually called learned, this sobriquet predominantly being applied when the officer happened to make some mistake. If such an officer expressed his view on something, he was immediately answered with, “That, my dear fellow, is your opinion. That is all theory and learning and no good in practice. Believe us. We have experience.”

Who would dispute that experience is useful and to be respected? But let those who think that experience alone can replace knowledge remember what another practiced person—Frederick the Great—said about such experienced people:

A quoi sert l’experience, quand elle n’est pas guidée par la reflexion? La pensée seule ou, pour mieux dire, la faculté de combiner les idées distingue l’homme de la bête de somme. Une mule ayant fait dix campagnes sous le prince Eugène, n’en serait devenue pour cela meilleur tacticien?[9]

With this in mind Frederick the Great himself, who demanded from his troops the pedantic precision in movement required by the tactics of that era, at the same time demanded a sense of understanding by his officers and not only sponsored learning but he himself wrote on various topics in military science.

Unfortunately, the above limited view of service up to now is still sustained by some of us. We still meet people among us who if not openly opposed to that system of training and directing troops that the government is trying to introduce, at least lack faith and only unwillingly accept any innovation. Persons can still be met who remember the training march step with nostalgia and do not believe that gymnastics and fencing are better exercises for the soldiers than the passive drawing out of limbs during the training march. They count as time lost the hours used for marksmanship instruction, and training in rough terrain as only accustoming the men to disorderliness.

However, we will hope that new and beneficial government institutions will root out the remnants of these weeds which stifle such good beginnings in our army, that these beginnings will grow and develop, and finally bear fruit. The steps taken thus far on the path to improvement give us the right to nourish this hope. In fact, already a third of our infantry has received new weapons The system of training soldiers has been improved. For marksmanship we receive—instead of 3 cartridges—50 for smoothbores and 225 for rifled muskets. In the cavalry all the penurious exactitude in manège equitation has been abandoned and the previous fattening of horses is no longer required. Our regulations are freed of excessive demands without practical application. Finally, in all parts of the army administration reforms which will improve the life of the troops have either been initiated or are being readied. It is only necessary that we, the officers of the army, do not hold ourselves aloof from this progressive movement, that we become convinced of the need to seriously study our military business, and that our writings support these convictions so that instead of pointed criticisms of the old tactical rules (with which, unfortunately, not all of us were well acquainted and very often we did not use) we calmly and in good conscience examine not only that which needs to be changed in military science, but also what these changes actually must consist of.  

[1] 42 battalions, 16 squadrons, 72 foot-artillery and 16 horse-artillery guns, and 2 cossack regiments.

[2] French: 38 battalions, 72 guns (32,000); English: 32 battalions, 10 squadrons, 24 guns (26,000); Turks 7,000.

[3] The distance from Tarkhanvar (on the right flank) to Alma-Tamak (on the left) was 4 miles in a straight line, and to the coastline itself was 5 miles.

[4] In reciting the disadvantages of the situation in which our forces had to act in the Battle of the Alma and identifying their totality as the reason for our failure, we are not thinking of finding fault with the person acting as commander. During wartime there are often circumstances in which a general recognizes all the disadvantages of his position yet is compelled to order an advance into battle. Failure is as little to be blamed on him as on the troops under him. Therefore, to accuse someone of operational mistakes one must know all the details—even the most trivial—of the situation in which that commander found himself.

[5] We leave aside administrative deficiencies and malfeasance and will only look at that which specifically relates to the battlefield (tactical) capability of the troops.

[6] The Belgian army’s chief-of-staff, that army having adopted the French regulations. (Additional note by M.C. - Bruno-Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Renard, 1804-1879. Chef d’état-major général de l’armée, 1854-1863.)

[7] (Note by M.C. - Jean-Paul, comte du Schramm, minister of war from 22 October 1850 to 9 January 1851.)

[8] Just how far some commanders were from knowing their real duties can be seen in Russkii Invalid where there was printed a justification by a divisional commander when his division proved unable to stand firm in battle for long. He said that the battalions were deployed most disadvantageously and that the skirmish line was in many places 40 paces from the column, as if it was not his direct responsibility to correct such clumsy deployments.

[9] “What use is experience if not guided by reflection? Only thought, or in better words—the ability to form ideas, distinguishes man from livestock. A mule who went through ten campaigns in Prince Eugene’s army did not come out of it a skilled tactician.”



Translated by Mark Conrad, 2004.