Military history


This third section is a collection of extracts about war in our own age, from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century. War in our century has been dominated bv the power of technology, that of machine-guns, heavy artillery and the tank on land, and of the armoured ship and the submarine at sea; in mid-century the aircraft, of which the first practicable example was flown by the Wright brothers in December 1903, became a significant weapon of war, against both land targets and, through the development of the aircraft carrier, targets at sea as well. Many of the extracts that follow testify to the power of military technology on the battlefields, on land, sea and in the air, of the twentieth century.

Yet, despite the encroaching dominance of the technological factor, the importance of the warrior spirit remains. Weapons do not bring victory unless there is the will to use them resolutely. In the face of superior technology, moreover, there is a human instinct to shift the focus of conflict to ground where ingenuity and evasion can nullify some or all of its effects. Hence the rise to importance of the guerrilla and of his strategy of subversion and delay. It has proved effective even in a world led by the logic of modern war to develop the ultimate instrument of destruction, the nuclear bomb.


How the News of War Came to a Village on the Chinese frontier

The most important military development in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century was the establishment of universal conscription, military training and reserve duty for all males in the Continent’s major states. The success and efficiency of the — largely conscript — Prussian army in the wars of 1866 against Austria and of 1870 — 1 against France, prompted those countries, but also Russia and Italy, to imitate its system. That required each fit male, at the age of about twenty, to report for two or more years of military duty, after which, on return to civilian life, he remained a member of the reserve, with the obligation to undergo refresher training in subsequent years and to return to the army on the declaration of mobilization for war.

This ‘Prussian’ system produced the enormous numbers of trained soldiers which filled the mobilization depots in August 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. The French army, with a strength of 600,000 in peacetime, recalled 3 million reservists, the German army, 800,000 strong, over 4 million. Russia, with a million men under arms, had the largest peacetime army, and recalled 4 million reservists also.

Among them were its Cossack ‘hosts’, whose mobilization is described here by the travel writer Stephen Graham. The Russian Empire had an unusual relationship with the Cossacks, the horse peoples of Russia’s frontier with the Central Asian steppe. Originally fugitives from serfdom who had made their way to the open land beyond the imperial government’s rule, their life was modelled on that of the Muslim nomads — Tartars, Turks, Mongols — who were the Tsar’s historic enemies. They kept large herds of horses, lived under arms and subsisted by freebooting. They remained, however, Christian and because of their skills in fighting the Tsar’s nomadic Muslim enemies, were gradually drawn back into his service. By the time of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 they were supplying large contingents of light cavalry to the imperial army — Captain Roeder describes (p. 155) their attacks against the Grand Army during its retreat to the Beresina — and by 1914 Cossacks formed several of its cavalry divisions.

Unlike the ordinary subjects of the Tsar, however, the Cossacks did not serve as individuals but as members of their particular community or ‘host’. It was the head (ataman) of a host who had the duty of mustering his Cossacks, with their horses, arms and equipment, and bringing them to the mobilization centre when called upon to do so. Stephen Graham was a witness to such a muster, in which echoes can be found of the preparation for war of Attila’s Huns, Genghis Khan’s Mongols and of the Turkish nomads who, between the battles of Wanzikert in 1071 and the siege of Constantinople in 1453, overthrew the last outpost of the Roman Empire.


I was staying in an Altai Cossack village on the frontier of Mongolia when the war broke out, 1,200 versts south of the [Trans-]Siberian railway, a most verdant resting-place with majestic fir forests, snow-crowned mountains range behind range, green and purple valleys deep in larkspur and monkshood. All the young men and women of the village were out on the grassy hills with scythes; the children gathered currants in the wood each day, old folks sat at home and sewed furs together, the pitch-boilers and charcoal-burners worked at their black fires with barrels and scoops, and athwart it all came the message of war.

At 4 a.m. on 31 July 1914 the first telegram came through; an order to mobilize and be prepared for active service. I was awakened that morning by an unusual commotion, and, going into the village street, saw the soldier population collected in groups, talking excitedly. My peasant hostess cried out to me, ‘Have you heard the news? There is war.’ A young man on a fine horse came galloping down the street, a great red flag hanging from his shoulders and flapping in the wind, and as he went he called out the news to each and every one, ‘War! War!’

Horses out, uniforms, swords! The village feldscher [headman] took his stand outside our one government building, the volostnoe pravlenie, and began to examine horses. The Tsar called on the Cossacks; they gave up their work without a regret and burned to fight the enemy.

Who was the enemy? Nobody knew. The telegram contained no indications. All the village population knew was that the same telegram had come as came ten years ago, when they were called to fight the Japanese [the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 — 5]. Rumours abounded. All the morning it was persisted that the yellow peril had matured, and that the war was with China. Russia had pushed too far into Mongolia, and China had declared war.

The village priest, who spoke Esperanto and claimed that he had never met anyone else in the world who spoke the language, came to me and said:

‘What think you of Kaiser William’s picture?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Why, the yellow peril!’

Then a rumour went round, ‘It is with England, with England.’ So far away these people lived they did not know that our old hostility had vanished. Only after four days did something like the truth come to us, and then nobody believed it.

‘An immense war,’ said a peasant to me. ‘Thirteen powers engaged - England, France, Russia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, against Germany, Austria, Italy, Romania, Turkey.’

Two days after the first telegram a second came, and this one called up every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-three. Astonishing that Russia should at the very outset begin to mobilize its reservists 5,000 versts from the scene of hostilities!

Flying messengers arrived on horses, breathless and steaming, and delivered packets into the hands of the Ataman, the head-man of the Cossacks — the secret instructions. Fresh horses were at once given them, and they were off again within five minutes of their arrival in the village. The great red flag was mounted on an immense pine-pole at the end of our one street, and at night it was taken down and a large red lantern was hung in its place. At the entrance of every village such a flag flew by day, such a lantern glowed by night.

The preparations for departure went on each day, and I spent much time watching the village vet certifying or rejecting mounts. A horse that could not go fifty miles a day was not passed. Each Cossack brought his horse up, plucked its lips apart to show the teeth, explained marks on the horse’s body, mounted it bare-back and showed its paces. The examination was strict; the Cossacks had a thousand miles to go to get to the railway at Omsk. It was necessary to have strong horses.

On the Saturday night there was a melancholy service in the wooden village church. The priest, in a long sermon, looked back over the history of Holy Russia, dwelling chiefly on the occasion when Napoleon defiled the churches of ‘Old Mother Moscow’, and was punished by God. ‘God is with us,’ said the priest. ‘Victory will be ours.’

Sunday was a holiday, and no preparations were made that day. On Monday the examination of horses went on. The Cossacks brought also their uniforms, swords, hats, half-shubas [groundsheets], overcoats, shirts, boots, belts — all that they were supposed to provide in the way of kit, and the Ataman checked and certified each soldier’s portion.

On Thursday, the day of setting out, there came a third telegram from St Petersburg. The vodka shop, which had been locked and sealed during the great temperance struggle which had been in progress in Russia, might be opened for one day only — the day of mobilization. After that day, however, it was to be closed again and remain closed until further orders.

What scenes there were that day!

All the men of the village had become soldiers and pranced on their horses. At eight o’clock in the morning the holy-water basin was taken from the church and placed with triple candles on the open, sun-blazed mountain side. The Cossacks met there as at a rendezvous, and all their women-folk, in multifarious bright cotton dresses and tear-stained faces, walked out to say a last religious goodbye.

The bare-headed, long-haired priest came out in vestments of violent blue, and behind him came the old men of the village carrying the icons and banners of the church; after them the village choir, singing as they marched. A strange mingling of sobbing and singing went up to heaven from the crowd outside the wooden village, this vast irregular collection of women on foot clustered about a long double line of stalwart horsemen.

The consecration service took place, and only then did we learn the almost incredible fact that the war was with Germany. It made the hour and the act and the place even more poignant. I at least understood what it meant to go to war against Germany, and the destiny that was in store.

‘God is with you,’ said the priest in his sermon, the tears running down his face the while. ‘God is with you; not a hair of your heads will be lost. Never turn your backs on the foes. Remember that if you do, you endanger the eternal welfare of your souls. Remember, too, that a letter, a postcard — one line — will be greedily read by all of us who remain behind ... God bless His faithful slaves!’

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