Sir Alfred Knox on the Russian army before 1914 (1921)




Major-General Sir Alfred Knox (1870-1964) was a career officer in the British Army. Born in Northern Ireland, he enlisted in the army as a teenager and spent several years serving in India. Knox spoke fluent Russian so in 1911 was posted as a military attaché to Saint Petersburg. He remained in this role until after the Bolshevik Revolution. In his 1921 book With the Russian Army: 1914-17, Knox reflected on the state of Russia’s armed forces prior to World War I. He identified three significant problems: a lack of modern equipment and weaponry, a shortage of experienced or capable officers and the casual attitude of private soldiers:



“A writer in Danzer’s Armee Zeitung in November 1909 compared the Russian army of that day to a heavyweight muscle-bound prizefighter who, because of his enormous bulk, lacked activity and quickness, and would therefore be at the mercy of a lighter but more wiry and intelligent opponent.

The comparison was extraordinarily true, but the ineffectiveness and lack of mobility of the army arose more from the want of modern equipment and from inherent national characteristics than from merely bad leading and insufficient training.

Generally speaking, the teaching of the General Staff in the period from 1905 to 1914 had been devoted to the… spirit of the offensive. All the instruction manuals and all the memoranda issued by the 12 District Commanders breathed this spirit. Personal initiative was encouraged…

The war in Manchuria [the Russo-Japanese War] had revealed many shortcomings in the officer class, both educational and moral, and the task of raising the general level was rendered doubly difficult after the war by the large number of resignations among the better educated [officers]. In January 1910 there was a shortage of no less than 5,123 officers.

The military administration did what it could to combat the evil by a series of measures for improving the position of the officer and increasing his professional qualifications. The pay of all officers up to and including the rank of lieutenant-colonel was raised by amounts varying from 25 percent to 35 percent. Their pensions were raised. The flow of promotion was accelerated by fixing an age limit for compulsory retirement. In a little over one year, 341 generals and 400 colonels were retired as inefficient…

These reforms required time to produce their full effect. Meanwhile, the bulk of the regimental officers of the Russian army suffered from the national faults. If not actually lazy, they were inclined to neglect their duties unless constantly supervised. They hated the irksome round of everyday training. Unlike our officers, they had no taste for outdoor amusements, and they were too prone to spend a holiday in eating rather more and in sleeping much more… In the matter of non-commissioned officers, the Russian army was still more hopelessly behind its enemies…

Previous to the war, observers had reason to hope that the rank and file of the Russian army might possess certain valuable qualities non-existent in other armies… Owing to the rigour of the climate and the lower general civilisation, the Russian soldier was more fitted to stand privation [and] more fitted to stand nerve strain than the men of Central Europe. The relations between officers and men were far better than in Germany. The simple faith of the Russian soldier in God and the Emperor [Tsar] seemed to provide an overwhelming asset…

[But] the men had the faults of their race. They were lazy and happy-go-lucky, doing nothing thoroughly unless driven to it. The bulk of them went willingly to the war in the first instance, chiefly because they had little idea what war meant. They lacked the intelligent knowledge of the objects they were fighting for and the thinking patriotism to [shoulder] the effects of heavy loss – and heavy loss resulted from unintelligent leading and lack of proper equipment.”

russian army
Russian army officers, photographed circa 1910
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