War, the Wounded and Politics

Russia’s armed forces numbered 1.4 million men at the outbreak of the First World War, but the process of mobilisation drew a further 5.75 million men into the army and navy during the second half of 1914 alone. During the following year, a further 5.64 million men were conscripted, with 3.09 million more troops in 1916 and 2.7 million in 1917. In total, more than 18.5 million men served in the Russian armed forces during the war.

Russia paid a very high price for its participation in the conflict. Almost 700,000 men died on the battlefield between 1914 and 1917, with a further 2.6 million men being wounded. Nearly a million of those men died later from their wounds. Some 2.5 million soldiers contracted disease during their service in the armed forces of whom 155,000 died. Russian military casualties represented about 5 per cent of Russia’s male working-age population, a proportion roughly similar to the losses sustained by British troops, but significantly less than France and Germany suffered. 1916 was the peak year for both deaths in action and the number of men wounded, with 269,000 men killed and almost a million wounded. The numbers falling ill with disease increased steadily as the war progressed, rising from 83,000 men in 1914 to 423,000 in 1915 and 629,000 the following year. But, in 1917, as the rigours of the war took their full toll upon Russia’s soldiers, more than 1.29 million men became ill.

The Russian army’s plans for war proved inadequate to cope with the flood of casualties that it suffered during the first few weeks of fighting. The army was faced with hundreds of thousands of wounded men. As a result, the great majority of the military hospitals located close to the front simply became transfer stations, readying the wounded for transport to the rear. But even there, hospitals were unprepared to receive casualties. The head of the Russian General Staff evacuation section wrote on 10 August 1914 that:

‘The internal evacuation organisation is totally unprepared for the reception and allocation of the wounded and sick: distribution points have not been organised; field hospitals have not been despatched; medical and other staff for the hospitals have not been selected or sent to take up their duties; there are no hospital places for the permanent care of the wounded in the control of the war ministry and the mobilisation plan makes no provision for the opening or staffing of such hospitals. It is obvious that in these conditions the organisations in the rear are unable to receive the wounded or to make arrangements for their treatment’.1

The central government’s inability to deal with Russia’s wounded soldiers was very obvious and could not be concealed from the wider public. The first train carrying wounded soldiers from the front arrived in Moscow just a little more than two weeks after the declaration of war At the start of the war, the army simply loaded wounded men into freight wagons without any proper facilities. Trains filled with the wounded arrived in Moscow – the railway hub of the Russian Empire – without any warning. The men were just offloaded onto railway platforms, so that the stations were quickly overwhelmed by the numbers of the wounded. It was clear that the Ministry of War was incapable of organising the transport and treatment of casualties on its own and that it was unlikely that it would be able to improve the situation quickly. In these circumstances, Russia’s local councils stepped in to offer assistance to the military. On July 25 (Old Style), less than ten days after the beginning of the war, the Moscow zemstvo held a special meeting at which it received a report from its executive board. The report declared that Russia was now united in its struggle against the enemy, but that

‘it is impossible…to forget that, with the first rumblings of the coming storm, and simultaneously with the shouts of victory, there will also be heard the groans of thousands and scores of thousands of men wounded and dying on the battlefield. It becomes, therefore, the duty of those who remain at home to strain every effort to render them timely aid. Those left at home should take up positions in regular battle array, so as to be ready to carry out quickly, promptly and efficiently the task of aiding the sick and wounded that will confront them and will probably assume gigantic proportions. Who, if not public institutions whose business is to provide for the needs of the people and who have had many years of practical experience in caring for the sick, with organised forces at their command, should undertake the task of uniting the isolated forces in this great work, which demands such an immense organisation?’2

While this was a heartfelt sentiment, there was also an important element of political manoeuvring in the zemstvo’s plea. Relations between central government and the zemstvo had been uneasy for much of the half-century since the establishment of the new councils. The outbreak of war in 1914 and the immediate stresses that this placed upon the Russian state were to give a renewed impetus to zemstvo attempts to gain political influence.

Peter Waldron, University of East Anglia (UK)

  • 1 A. B. Astashov, ‘Soiuzy zemstv i gorodov i pomoshch’ ranenym v pervuiu mirovuiu voinu’, Otechestvennaia istoriia, 1992, no. 6, p. 170.
  • 2 T. J. Polner, Russian local government during the war and the Union of zemstvos, New Haven 1930, p. 55.

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