J. V. Stalin

The Causes of the July Defeat at the Front

August 18, 1917

Source : Works, Vol. 3, March - October, 1917
Publisher : Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1954
Transcription/Markup : Salil Sen for MIA, 2008
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

Everyone remembers the malicious allegations and baseless charges levelled against the Bolsheviks of being responsible for the defeat at the front. The bourgeois press and Delo Naroda, the provocateurs of Birzhovka and Rabochaya Gazeta, the former tsarist flunkeys of Novoye Vremya, and Izvestia all joined in fulminating against the Bolsheviks, whom they blamed for the defeat.

It now transpires that it is not among the Bolsheviks that the culprits are to be sought, but among those who sent out the "mysterious automobiles" whose occupants called for retreat and sowed panic among the soldiers (see Delo Naroda, August 16).

What "automobiles" they were, and what the commanders were doing who permitted these mysterious automobiles to run about loose, Delo Naroda's correspondent, unfortunately, does not say.

It now transpires that it is not in Bolshevism that the reason for the defeat must be sought, but in "pro-founder causes," in the fact that offensive tactics are unsuitable for us, in our unpreparedness for an offensive, in the "rawness of our generals" and so on (see Novoye Vremya, August 15).

Let the workers and soldiers read and re-read these issues of Delo Naroda and Novoye Vremya. Let them do so, and they will understand :

1) How right the Bolsheviks were when they warned against an offensive at the front as far back as the end of May (see the Pravda issues);

2) How criminal was the behaviour of the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary leaders who agitated for an offensive and at the Congress of Soviets in the early part of June voted down the Bolshevik resolution against an offensive;

3) That the responsibility for the July defeat rests primarily on the Milyukovs and Maklakovs, the Shul-gins and Rodzyankos, who, in the name of the State Duma, were already "demanding" an "immediate offensive" in the early part of June.

Here are some excerpts from the articles mentioned: 1) Excerpt from Arseny Merich's communication (Delo Naroda, August 16) :

"Why? Why did this disaster befall us, almost simultaneously on two sides—at Tarnopol and Czernowitz? Why did the regiments there suddenly lose heart? What happened? What was the cause of this sudden change of mood?

"Officers and soldiers readily give the answer. And their replies coincide almost verbally, each adding some vivid stroke to the ghastly picture. . . .

"The men at the front consider that those chiefly responsible for the panic, for the stampede from the front lines, were the former policemen and gendarmes.

"Were they acting concertedly?

"'It is hard to say,' replied an intelligent-looking ensign, formerly a peasant, member of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and of the Executive Committee of the local Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. 'But in every instance it was ascertained that the panic was sown, that the absurd rumours about the proximity and strength of the enemy and about the expected release of poison gas within an hour or two were circulated only by former "narks." . . .

Many of us believe that the former policemen and gendarmes were not even deliberate traitors, but just "rabbits," cowards. But the elusive spies and provocateurs have a special instinct for finding loyal henchmen in men like that.' . . .

"Here is how intelligent and observant men describe the circumstances of our army's shameful retreat. . . .

"Companies are marching along a broad road . . . with short intervals between them. . . .

"Suddenly clouds of dust are seen. . . . There is a jam somewhere ahead, nobody knows why. . . . The companies halt, the men huddle together, exchange remarks. . . . Heads are stretched forward to see what is going on ahead, what is concealed in the approaching clouds of dust. . . . Then automobiles are seen, speeding full tilt and sounding their horns. They are now quite close, and shouts are heard: 'Back . . . back . . . the Austrians!' One cannot make out who is shouting, who is in the cars—they rush a past so quickly. Sometimes one does catch a glimpse of a tunic, or epaulettes of some sort, but mostly one can distinguish nothing at all. . . . And then it starts. Nobody has any idea where the Aus-trians are, who is uttering the warning, but the stampede begins. . . . Before the men can recover their wits another car swishes by, and again the cry: 'The Austrians! The Austrians! The positions have been surrendered. . . . Gas! Quick, quick, back, back!'

"It was a panic, infecting everyone like a lightning epidemic. . . . Treachery perpetrated according to the book, with amazing astuteness, obviously in accordance with a deliberate and premeditated plan . . . We counted more than twenty of these cars without number plates. . . . Seven of them we detained, and of course we found that the occupants were strangers, totally unconnected with our regiments. . . . But about eighteen of them got away. The companies, stunned by the warning cries and by the recoiling of the companies ahead, turned and fled. . . . The Austrians entered a deserted town, deserted suburbs, and advanced deeper and deeper into our positions as if they were on a Sunday promenade—there was nobody to hinder them. . . .

"The other group is joined by soldier after soldier who had been at Tarnopol, two or three of them wearing university badges. And each supplements the picture of the provoked retreat with some new detail. The heroes of the retreat were rogues, spies, traitors. . . . Who are they? The near future will give the answer. But where are the others, who have not yet been caught or tracked down? Under what guise are they operating? What cries are they using to cover up their criminal activities? The men who witnessed the horrors of the Tarnopol retreat, the men at the front, believe that soon everything which until now has been secret will come to light, and that the revelation of this shameful secret will wipe the shameful stigma from the army that operated at Tarnopol, the victim of the most infamous treachery and deceit."

2) Excerpt from Borisov's article "Bolshevism and Our Defeat" (Novoye Vremya, August 15) :

"We want to acquit Bolshevism of the baseless charge of being responsible for our defeat. We want to find out the real causes of our defeat, for only then will we be able to avoid a repetition of the disaster. Nothing is more fatal to the art of war than to seek for the causes of a military disaster where they do not lie. The July defeat was not due to Bolshevism alone; it was due to far more complicated causes, for otherwise the immensity of the defeat would indicate that Bolshevik ideas have an enormous, an extraordinary influence in the army, which, of course, is not and cannot be the case. In all probability the Bolsheviks themselves were astonished at the far-reaching consequences of their propaganda. But the misfortunes of the Russian army could be considered as being at an end if the trouble lay only with the Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, the nature of the defeat is much more complex; it was already foreseen by military experts before the offensive of June 18; in the 'exalted' talk of June 18 about 'revolutionary' regiments, in the 'red' flags, etc., there lurked a mortal danger.

"When dispatches were received at General Headquarters reporting the supposedly brilliant achievements of June 18, we — realizing that nothing particularly brilliant had occurred, for we had only captured a number of fortified positions which under present battle conditions the enemy had to sacrifice in order to ensure his own victory — said that, 'we shall be very lucky if the Germans do not launch a counterblow.' But the counterblow was launched, and the Russian army, like the French in 1815, was at once transformed into a panic-stricken mob. Clearly, the catastrophe was not due to Bolshevism alone, but to something deep-seated in the army organism, which the higher command was unable to divine or understand. It is this cause of our defeat, much graver than Bolshevism, that we want to discuss, as far as it is possible in a newspaper article, because time is short :

"German 'militarism' has established a rule of military science: The strongest form of action is the offensive.' This German rule proved unsuitable for us from the very beginning of the war (the disastrous defeats of Samsonov and Rennenkampf): the only thing possible for raw generals and raw soldiers is defence with protected flanks. With the natural losses incurred in the war, the standard of our generals, officers and lower ranks deteriorated, and defence became for us the most advantageous form of action. If to this we add the development of a war of positions and the crying inadequacy of our equipment, then one does not have to be a Bolshevik, but only to have an understanding of the nature of things, to be very chary of 'offensives'! Narodnoye Slovo reports B. V. Savinkov as saying that, under the influence of Bolshevik propaganda, the mass of the soldiers began to believe that deserters were not traitors to their country but followers of 'international socialism.' Every old officer, who knows our soldiers better than the 'Committees' do, will tell you that to think like that is to underrate our gallant and very sensible lower ranks. These men are imbued with sound common sense; they have a full and definite understanding of what the state is; they fully realize that generals and officers are also soldiers; they laugh. at the novel (and senseless) substitution of the general term 'soldier' for 'lower ranks,' which has degraded that honourable title, for today even regimental tailors far back in the rear are also called 'soldiers'; and they fully understand that a 'deserter' is a deserter, i.e., a contemptible fugitive. And if the idea of 'refusing to take the offensive' advocated by the Bolsheviks began to be espoused by these sensible men of our army, it is only because, it logically followed from the nature of things, from all our experience in the war. An offensive means one thing to an Englishman or Frenchman; it means another thing to a Russian. The former are installed in excellent dugouts and enjoy every comfort; they wait for their powerful artillery to sweep everything away, and only then does the infantry go into action. We, however, have always and everywhere fought with human masses, allowing our finest regiments to be annihilated. Where are our Guards, where are our riflemen? A regiment which has been wiped out two or three times and as many times brought up to strength again, even if replenished with better elements than is actually the case, will hardly consider that 'the strongest form of action is the offensive,' particularly if we add that these enormous losses were not justified by the results. On the basis of this experience, the former high command agreed to strike only when it was absolutely necessary. It was in such a situation that Brusilov was allowed to strike his blow in Galicia in May 1916. Its feeble results only confirmed the deductions from experience. It is quite possible that if the former high command had still existed the 'offensive' would have figured in the directives only as an idea that conduced to raise the fighting spirit of the troops, but would never have been put into practice. But suddenly something happened which is extraneous to the art of war: 'dilettantism' took over the reins, and everybody began to shout for an 'offensive,' urging that it was absolutely necessary and placing faith in what sound military theory rejects, namely, special 'revolutionary' battalions, 'death' battalions, 'shock' battalions, failing to understand that all this was extremely raw material and, moreover, would perhaps be withdrawing the most spirited men from the other regiments, which would then be entirely transformed into 'offscourings and replacements.' We shall be told that the Allies demanded an 'offensive,' that they called us 'traitors.' We hold too high an opinion of the competent and efficient French General Staff to believe that their opinion coincided with the so-called public opinion of dilettantes in the art of war. Of course, in circumstances where the enemy is in the centre and we and our allies on the circumference, every blow struck at the enemy, even when it entails for us enormous casualties incommensurate with the results obtained, will always be advantageous to our allies, for it diverts enemy forces from them. This is in the nature of things, and it is not due to the hardheartedness of our allies. But we must consider these things reasonably, with a sense of proportion, and not rush to have our people exterminated simply because an ally demands it. The art of war does not tolerate fantasies and it responds with immediate retribution. The enemy, who has a well-trained general staff, sees to that."


Proletary, No. 5, August 18, 1917