The Tsarist Army of 1914, Part One
By Robert D. Williams
Peter the Great, as part of his program of modernizing and westernizing Russia, endeavored to curb the power of the old, anti-western nobility, or boyars, by changing all military and civil posts from hereditary offices to appointments based on merit, allowing even commoners to advance to high office. The new system was formalized in the Table of Ranks (Tabel’ o rangakh), created in 1722. This system, modified several times in the two centuries between the reigns of Peter I and Nicholas II, remained until the fall of the monarchy the basis of all rank, both civil and military, in the Russian Empire. In the same manner that the modern US military has a unified system of ranks across all four services, so the Russians had a unified system of ranks not only for the Army, the Navy, and the Imperial Guard, but also for the Civil Service and Court offices, so that, for example, a nadvorny sovetnik (court counsellor) at Class 7 was equal in rank to a captain or rotmistr in the Imperial Guard, a lieutenant colonel or voyskovoy starshina in the line, or a captain second rank in the Navy.
Officer ranks in 1914 were roughly equivalent to those in the current US military, but there were far fewer enlisted ranks. As can be seen from the example given above, the same rank differed in name not only between the services, but often also between the combat branches of the Army. A private was a ryadovoy in the infantry and cavalry, a kanonir in the artillery, and a kazak in the cossacks. A corporal was a yefreitor in the infantry and cavalry, a bombardir in the artillery, and a prikazny in the cossacks. The next rank, junior sergeant, was mladshi unter-ofitser in the infantry and cavalry, mladshi feyerverker in the artillery, and mladshi uryadnik in the cossacks. The rank of senior sergeant varied the same way: starshi unter-ofitser, starshi feyerverker, and starshi uryadnik. The next rank was that of first sergeant: fel’dfebel’ in the infantry and artillery, vakhmistr in the cavalry, horse artillery, and cossacks. Above first sergeant was the rank of podpraporshchik (infantry, cavalry, and artillery) or podkhorunzhi (cossacks). This may be considered as roughly equivalent to a warrant officer in the modern US Army—though the Russian podpraporshchik was closer to being an NCO than is the American warrant officer.
Thus, there were six enlisted ranks: private, corporal, junior sergeant, senior sergeant, first sergeant, and warrant officer.
The lowest officer rank was that of ensign (praporshchik), which existed only in the line infantry and only during wartime. Otherwise, the most junior commissioned rank (Class 12) was that of second lieutenant: podporuchik in the infantry and artillery, kornet in the cavalry, khorunzhi in the cossacks. A first lieutenant (Class 10) was a poruchik in the infantry, artillery, and cavalry, and a sotnik in the cossacks. Class 9 was the rank of staff-captain (shtabs-kapitan in the infantry and artillery, shtabs-rotmistr in the cavalry, podyesaul in the cossacks); a captain (kapitan, rotmistr, yesaul), Class 8, was generally the officer in command of a company, squadron, or artillery section. Class 7 was lieutenant colonel (podpolkovnik in the infantry, artillery, and cavalry, voyskovoy starshina in the cossacks); Class 6 colonel (polkovnik in all branches).
There were four ranks of general officers: major general (general-mayor), lieutenant general (general-leytenant or general-poruchik in the artillery and engineers), full general (polny general), and field marshal (general-fel’dmarshal). Full generals were further distinguished (as in the German Army) by their branch of service: general ot infanterii, general ot artillerii, general ot kavalerii, general-inzhener.
Ranks in the Imperial Guard were considered to be one level higher than their line equivalents. Thus, a shtabs-kapitan of the Guard was ranked as Class 8 rather than Class 9, and the rank of lieutenant colonel did not exist in the Guard, officers being promoted directly from captain to colonel.
Note that Classes V, XI, and XIV are empty. These classes contained only Imperial Guard, Civil Service, or Court ranks.
The Russian Army in 1914 generally used a “square” organization; that is, four subunits composed a unit. During the course of the war, a triangular organization was gradually introduced.
The smallest infantry subunit was the squad (otdeleniye). Four squads made up a platoon (vzvod), four platoons, a company (rota). A company on a wartime establishment had 235 enlisted men: one first sergeant, one quartermaster sergeant (kaptenarmus—a position, not a rank), four senior sergeants, 14 junior sergeants, 20 corporals, 180 privates, and 15 non-combatant personnel (orderlies, accountants, bakers, cooks, grooms, and company clerks). The company was usually commanded by a captain with two to three junior officers to assist him. These officers apparently usually commanded half-companies, but could sometimes function as platoon leaders. The positions of first sergeant and platoon leaders were usually filled by re-enlisted NCO’s with the rank of podpraporshchik, fel’dfebel’, or starshi unter-ofitser. The squad leaders were junior sergeants or corporals.
Four companies made up a battalion; four battalions a regiment. A battalion was usually commanded by a colonel or lieutenant colonel; regiments by colonels. The battalions in each regiment were numbered 1 – 4, the companies being numbered sequentially for the entire regiment, 1 – 16. Besides the 16 line companies, each infantry regiment also had a machine gun detachment, a reconnaissance detachment, a communications detachment, and a non-combatant company. The communications detachment and the reconnaissance detachment were composed of men drafted from the line companies.
The regimental machine gun detachment (komanda) consisted of four sections (vzvody), each of two guns, with a strength of approximately 84 men: the detachment commander, two to four junior officers, a first sergeant, four senior sergeants, six junior sergeants, eight corporals, 52 privates, six transport privates, and two workmen. A machine gun crew consisted of one commander, one gunner, one assistant gunner, two ammo-bearers, and one driver.
Rifle regiments contained only two battalions, except for the Siberian rifle regiments, which, like the infantry regiments, contained four battalions. Otherwise, a rifle regiment did not differ from an infantry regiment in either equipment or organization.
Four regiments made up a division (commanded by a lieutenant general), the regiments being permanently assigned to a particular division in numeric order. Thus, the 16th Division was composed of the 61st, 62d, 63d, and 64th Regiments. Although the division was divided into two brigades, each consisting of two regiments, in practice, the division commander usually issued orders to the individual regiments directly, bypassing the brigade commander. Rifle regiments were usually organized into independent brigades consisting of four two-battalion regiments, but some rifle regiments, notably the Siberians, were organized into rifle divisions.
Each infantry or rifle division or independent rifle brigade had either a light artillery brigade (six eight-gun batteries) or a light artillery battalion (three eight-gun batteries) attached, which usually had the same number as the division or brigade to which it was assigned.
An infantry corps usually consisted of two infantry or rifle divisions or four rifle brigades with their attached artillery, a battalion (divizion) of howitzer artillery, a sapper battalion, and an aviation detachment of six aircraft.
A cavalry squadron was composed of four troops (vzvody) and consisted of five officers (a squadron commander and up to four junior officers) and 144 enlisted men: one first sergeant (vakhmistr), four senior and seven junior sergeants, one quartermaster sergeant, three trumpeters, eight corporals, and 120 privates. The squadron commander would be a captain (rotmistr). Junior officers could command half-squadrons or troops.
Three squadrons formed a battalion (divizion), two battalions a regiment. The Life-Guard Horse and the two Guard Cuirassier Regiments of the 1st Guard Cavalry Regiment, however, had only four squadrons. Two cavalry regiments formed a brigade, two brigades a division. Each cavalry division contained one dragoon, one uhlan, one hussar, and one first-line cossack regiment. Each division contained a regiment of each type with the same number as the division: for example, the 5th Cavalry Division contained the 5th Dragoons, the 5th Uhlans, the 5th Hussars, and the 5th Don Cossacks. The dragoon and uhlan regiments formed the 1st Brigade, the hussars and cossacks the 2d. (the various designations of dragoon, hussar, and uhlan were purely formal, there being no difference in training, tactics, equipment, etc.). A cavalry division also contained one horse artillery battalion (divizion) of two six-gun batteries and a machine gun detachment, the latter organized the same as an infantry machine gun detachment.
Cavalry divisions could be assigned to armies or to infantry corps or organized into cavalry corps for conducting special operations, such as raids.
Artillery was divided into light, mountain, howitzer, and heavy field. Light and mountain units were further divided into foot and horse. Batteries were divided into two-gun sections (vzvody) and grouped into battalions (diviziony), which were further grouped into brigades.
Light artillery was composed of three-inch (76mm) guns, Model 1902, in eight-gun batteries. Three batteries made up a battalion, and two battalions a brigade. Batteries assigned to rifle brigades or divisions were called “rifle artillery.” Horse artillery batteries contained six guns and were grouped into battalions of two batteries. Mountain batteries had the three-inch (76-mm) mountain gun, Model 1909, which was lighter and could be disassembled and packed on horses. Foot mountain artillery battalions consisted of two eight-gun batteries; horse mountain artillery battalions of two six-gun batteries. All these various light artillery units were intended for direct fire.
Corps and army-level artillery was intended for indirect fire. Corps artillery consisted of one battalion of twelve 48-line (122mm) light field howitzers, Model 1909 or 1910, organized into two six-gun batteries. Each army was assigned one battalion of heavy field artillery consisting of two batteries of six-inch (152mm) howitzers, Model 1910, and one battery of 42-line (107mm) guns, each battery containing four guns.
Artillery batteries were organized somewhat differently depending on their guns and type, but all batteries had about five or six officers: the battery commander (lieutenant colonel), two senior officers (captains), and two to three junior officers (podporuchiki to shtabs-kapitany), who performed the duties of assistant battery commander and section commanders.
A light field artillery battery in wartime had a battery first sergeant, 48 gun crewmen, 24 drivers, eight transport NCO’s with the rank of sergeant, 24 caisson crewmen, and 36 caisson drivers. In addition, a battery had three quartermaster sergeants, two to three trumpeters, a transport sergeant, a reconnaissance section, observers, telephone operators, and riding masters, plus the usual non-combat personnel.
The cossacks were organized somewhat differently than the regular line cavalry and also varied slightly between the different “hosts” (voyska)—Don, Kuban, Terek, Astrakhan, etc.—however, in general, a cossack regiment consisted of six companies (sotni), grouped into two battalions (diviziony) of three companies. The cossacks also had their own reserve system, in which only the first-line regiments were maintained in peacetime (for example, 17 regiments of Don Cossacks), but upon mobilization the men forming the second and third-line regiments would be called up, effectively tripling the size of the peacetime host.
A Don Cossack regiment consisted of a commander (a colonel), two assistant commanders (lieutenant colonels), six company commanders (yesauly), six junior officers in each company (khorunzhi to podyesaul), one first sergeant per company (usually a podkhorunzhi), 40 senior and 40 junior sergeants per per regiment, 18 trumpeters, 18 corporals, and 750 privates.
The story continues in Part Two.
Take the Russian Army to war in Infantry Attacks: August 1914