Workers’ Republic, 29 May 1915.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
In the year 1905, the fires of revolution were burning very brightly in Russia. Starting with a parade of unarmed men and women to the palace of the Tsar, the flames of insurrection spread all over the land. The peaceful parades were met with volleys of shrapnel and rifle fire, charged by mounted Cossacks, and cut down remorselessly by cavalry of the line, and in answer to this attack, general strikes broke out all over Russia. From strikes the people proceeded to revolutionary uprisings, soldiers revolted and joined the people in some cases, and in others the sailors of the navy seized the ironclads of the Tsar’s fleet and hoisted revolutionary colours. One incident in this outburst was the attempted revolution in Moscow. We take it as our task this week because, in it, the soldiers remained loyal to the Tsar, and therefore it resolved itself into a clean-cut fight between a revolutionary force and a government force. Thus we are able to study the tactics of (a) a regular army in attacking a city defended by barricades, and (b) a revolutionary force holding a city against a regular army.
Fortunately for our task as historians, there was upon the spot an English journalist of unquestioned ability and clearsightedness, as well as of unrivalled experience as a spectator in warfare. This was H.W. Nevinson, the famous war-correspondent. From his book The Dawn of Russia as well as from a close intimacy with many refugees who took part in the revolution, this description is built up.
The revolutionists of Moscow had intended to postpone action until a much later date in the hope of securing the co-operation of the peasantry, but the active measures of the government precipitated matters. Whilst the question of “Insurrection” or “No Insurrection yet” was being discussed at a certain house in the city, the troops were quietly surrounding the building and the first intimation of their presence received by the revolutionists was the artillery opening fire on the building at point-blank range. A large number of the leaders were killed or arrested, but next morning the city was in insurrection.
Of the numbers engaged on the side of the revolutionists, there is considerable conflict of testimony. The government estimate, anxious to applaud the performance of the troops, is 15,000. The revolutionary estimate, on the other hand, is only 500. Mr Nevinson states that a careful investigator friendly to the revolutionists, and with every facility for knowing, gave the number as approximately 1,500. The deductions we were able to make from the stories of the refugees aforementioned makes the latter number seem the most probable. The equipment of the revolutionists was miserable in the extreme. Among the 1,500 there was only a total of 80 rifles, and a meagre supply of ammunition for same. The only other weapons were revolvers and automatic pistols, chiefly Brownings. Of these latter a goodly supply seems to have been on hand as at one period of the fighting the revolutionists advertised for volunteers, and named Browning pistols as part of the “pay” for all recruits.
Against this force, so pitifully armed, the government possessed in the city, 18,000 seasoned troops, armed with magazine rifles, and a great number of batteries of field artillery.
The actual fighting which lasted nine days, during which time the government troops made practically no progress, is thus described by the author we have already quoted.
Of the barricades, he says that they were erected everywhere, even the little boys and girls throwing them up in the most out-of-the-way places, so that it was impossible to tell which was a barricade with insurgents to defend it and which was a mock barricade, a circumstance which greatly hindered the progress of the troops, who had always to spend a considerable period in finding out the real nature of the obstruction before they dared to pass it.
The very multitude of these barricades (early next morning I counted one hundred and thirty of them, and I had not seen half) made it difficult to understand the main purpose of all the fighting.
As far as they had any definite plan at all, their idea seems to have been to drive a wedge into the heart of the city, supporting the advance by barricades on each side so as to hamper the approach of troops.
The four arms of the cross roads were blocked with double or even treble barricades about ten yards apart. As far as I could see along the curve of the Sadavoya, on both sides, barricade succeeded barricade, and the whole road was covered with telegraph wire, some of it lying loose, some tied across like netting. The barricades enclosing the centre of the cross roads like a fort were careful constructions of telegraph poles or the iron supports to the overhead wires of electric trams, closely covered over with doors, railings and advertising boards, and lashed together with wire. Here and there a tramcar was built in to give solidity, and on the top of every barricade waved a little red flag.
Men and women were throwing them (the barricades) up with devoted zeal, sawing telegraph poles, wrenching iron railings from their sockets, and dragging out the planks from builders’ yards.
Noteworthy as an illustration of how all things, even popular revolutions, change their character as the conditions change in which they operate, is the fact that no barricade was defended in the style of the earlier French or Belgian revolutions.
Mr Nevinson says:
But it was not from the barricades themselves that the real opposition came. From first to last no barricade was “fought” in the old sense of the word. The revolutionary methods were far more terrible and effective. By the side-street barricades, and wire entanglements they had rid themselves of the fear of cavalry. By the barricades across the main streets, they had rendered the approach of troops necessarily slow. To the soldiers, the horrible part of the street fighting was that they could never see the real enemy. On coming near a barricade or the entrance to a side street, a few scouts would be advanced a short distance before the guns. As they crept forward, firing as they always did, into the empty barricades in front, they might suddenly find themselves exposed to a terrible revolver fire, at about fifteen paces range, from both sides of the street. It was useless to reply, for there was nothing visible to aim at. All they could do was to fire blindly in almost any direction. Then the revolver fire would suddenly cease, the guns would trundle up and wreck the houses on both sides. Windows fell crashing on the pavement, case-shot burst into the bedrooms, and round-shot made holes through three or four walls. It was bad for furniture, but the revolutionists had long ago escaped through a labyrinth of courts at the back, and were already preparing a similar attack on another street.
The troops did not succeed in overcoming the resistance of the insurgents but the insurrection rather melted away as suddenly as it had taken form. The main reason for this sudden dissolution lay in receipt of discouraging news from St Petersburg from which quarter help had been expected, and was not forthcoming, and in the rumoured advance of a hostile body of peasantry eager to co-operate with the soldiery against the people who were “hindering the sale of agricultural produce in the Moscow market”.
The action of the soldiery in bringing field-guns, or indeed any kind of artillery, into the close quarters of street fighting was against all the teaching of military science, and would infallibly have resulted in the loss of the guns had it not been for the miserable equipment of the insurgents. Had any body of the latter been armed with a reasonable supply of ammunition the government could only have taken Moscow from the insurgents at the cost of an appalling loss of life.
A regular bombardment of the city would only have been possible if the whole loyalist population had withdrawn outside the insurgent lines, and apart from the social reasons against such an abandonment of their business and property, the moral effect of such a desertion of Moscow would have been of immense military value in strengthening the hands of the insurgents and bringing recruits to their ranks. As the military were thus compelled to fight in the city and against a force so badly equipped, not much fault can be found with their tactics.
Of the insurgents also it must be said that they made splendid use of their material. It was a wise policy not to man the barricades and an equally wise policy not to open fire at long range where the superior weapons of the enemy would have been able with impunity to crush them, but to wait before betraying their whereabouts until the military had come within easy range of their inferior weapons.
Lacking the co-operation of the other Russian cities, and opposed by the ignorant peasantry, the defeat of the insurrection was inevitable, but it succeeded in establishing the fact that even under modern conditions the professional soldier is, in a city, badly handicapped in a fight against really determined civilian revolutionaries.
Last updated on 15.8.2003