A Nurse Witnesses the Disintegration of the Armies of the Tsar; History in the Raw

Sometimes you really need to look at the source material yourself if you want to understand historical events.  The quality of historians in our day runs from the ridiculous to the sublime, with journalists at the bottom of the list.  I’ve always found their attempts to write “history” more or less worthless because they are determined to make sure the rest of us know who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are.  They insist on turning history into a morality play.  Fortunately, there are good historians out there as well, but none of them are truly objective, and their personal ideologies must inevitably color their work to a greater or lesser extent.  They can point you in the right direction, but, if you really want to approach the truth, you will have to dig for it yourself. 


I had never been able to grasp how one historical event with devastating consequences actually happened.  I refer to the collapse of the Russian Army in World War I.  Historians always seem to describe it tersely.  It happened because this person did that, or the situation at the front changed in this way or that.  It seemed that similar things had happened many times over at different times and places, without setting off the train of events that led to the mass desertion of the Russian armies.  I’ve just read the diary of a simple English nurse, Florence Farmborough, who served at the front with the armies of the Tsar from 1914 through the revolution of February 1917, the collapse of the armies, and the seizure of power of the Bolsheviks.  She brings the actual events into focus better than any professional historian I have ever read.  Let her tell the story in her own words:


Early May, 1917

“Kerensky was taking it into his own hands to bring about drastic reforms in the army.  He had declared that army discipline was too rigid, that the soldiers should be treated in a more liberal, friendly manner by their officers.  As an instance of the new attitude which he desired to see he had abolished the use of the condescending, patronizing ‘thou’, employed to those of inferior rank.  An officer, when addressing the rank-and-file, would now be obliged to use the more polite ‘you’.  This order had, naturally, caused dismay among all officers, for they feared – and not without reason – that it would lessen the authority of officers over soldiers in the ranks.  …It would be the end of discipline.”


11th May, 1917

“The reforms initiated by Kerensky are meeting with little success.  They were intended to create a closer relationship, a more friendly atmosphere; they seem, however, to be doing exactly the reverse.  Strangely enough, it is the soldiers who appear disgruntled; they are moody, even morose, and often astonish their officers by pertness and effrontery.”


13th May, 1917

“And still no Orders come and army officers look at each other blankly and ask the same question:  ‘What, in God’s name, is happening?’  Criticism of Kerensky and of his ruling respecting army reforms becomes more frequent and sharp.  The majority of officers agree that he had overstepped his bounds.  Discipline is tottering in the trenches.”


25th June, 1917


“One battalion captain had sent in a report to the effect that if the Generals would not allow his men to launch an attack soon, he could not answer for the success of the Offensive in his sector of the Front.  When at last his men were told that an advance was about to begin, they had jumped out of their trenches some minutes before the given time.  In most cases, the officers would go first, leading their men.  But there were instances when the officers had met with defiance, soldiers had shown great unwillingness to leave the trenches, and officers had been obliged to beg the men to attack.”


28th June, 1917

“We were told that a komanda (body of troops) was holding a meeting and decided to go and hear what it was all about.  It was a strange, depressing experience.  The speeches of two officers were genial and optimistic; but when we saw the faces of the soldiers, we realized something had gone wrong.  They were sullen and ill-humored.”


29th June, 1917

“…We heard that many soldiers of the 91st Regiment had refused to return to the trenches; some of them had left their regiment and were making their way eastwards towards Russia.  Motors with maxim-guns were being sent after them, with orders to force them to return, or to fire at them on the road.  It was said that certain regiments had refused to take runaways back into their ranks; and one regiment, in reserve and awaiting reinforcements, had refused point blank to accept any new recruits.”


6th July, 1917

“Before dinner, one of our doctors told us that the 90th Regiment has refused to remain in the Front Line and nearly two versts of trenches are completely unguarded.  His voice was thick and unsteady.  ‘What can that mean?’ someone asked.  ‘Mean?’ he repeated heatedly.  ‘Why, any fool can see what that means!  The enemy will occupy the empty trenches, and our troops on either side will be obliged to retreat.”


11 July, 1917

“We saw the Markovtse railway-station and heard that trains were no longer running to Tarnopol.  We met a young doctor, who told us that whole regiments had withdrawn from the trenches.”


12th July, 1917

“Now and then when the soldiers saw us in our open transport-van, they called out and some of their remarks were far from agreeable.  It was the first time in three years of war work that we had met rudeness from our own men; we felt dismayed and humiliated.”


Nurse Farmborough experienced the early effects of the Bolshevik revolution in Moscow, and managed to escape via Vladivostok as the Russian she had known collapsed about her.  Her book includes a great deal more detail about the events of 1917. 



In retrospect, it is quite clear why secret police chief Beria’s men were stationed behind the Red Army’s front line units in World War II, armed with machine guns, ready to shoot deserters and stragglers.  The Communists had been careful students of the effects of Kerensky’s “reforms.”  They were determined to make sure nothing similar would happen the second time around.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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