August 1914, Fall of Empires:
The Tsarist Army of 1914
By Robert D. Williams
January 2021

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 podpraporshchikfel’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 (76.2mm) 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 (76.2mm) 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.

In 1914 the Russian Army was still absorbing the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, so many of the faults discovered in that conflict had not yet been corrected. In addition, despite the tremendous increase in firepower over the course of the nineteenth century, Russian tactical doctrine still relied too heavily on shock instead of fire combat, still adhering to the maxim of Catherine the Great’s General Suvorov that “the bullet’s a fool, but the bayonet’s a fine fellow.”

An infantry company could be drawn up in close order, open order, or extended order, but no fixed interval was prescribed for open and extended order, other than that the men should be at least one pace (28–35 inches) apart. In combat the company was usually formed with the men at intervals of two to four yards, the 1st and 2d platoons in line forming the first line, the 3d and 4th the second line, with intervals and distances of about 30–40 yards between platoons. However, the company commander might designate one or more platoons as a reserve and form the remainder of the troops in a different manner. Depending on its formation, the usual frontage of a company in combat was between 200 and 300 yards.

A battalion would be formed up with one to four companies forward and the remainder in reserve; thus a battalion’s frontage would vary between 200 and 1,200 yards, depending on the number of companies in line.

At about 2,500 to 3,000 yards from the enemy, the companies would deploy into their attack formations and would open fire at about 800 yards. One company or battalion, designated as the “rifle battery” (ruzheynaya batareya) would occupy a position on the flank and slightly in front to lay down a heavy fire until masked. Volleys were still used down to 1,400 yards and occasionally at closer ranges. At 40–50 yards the bayonet attack was launched, with the men shouting “hurrah!” (“urá!”) and firing on the run.

On the defensive, Russian troops were trained to counter-attack when the enemy had approached to within 50 yards of their position.

Machine guns were always deployed in two-gun sections, with one section being allotted to each battalion in the regiment. In the attack they were supposed to be pushed well forward.

A cavalry squadron generally formed for combat with two to three troops forward in line and one or more in reserve. To attack enemy horse, the cavalry would start at the trot in extended order. At 400 yards they would go to the gallop, at 100 yards to the charge and close ranks. When attacking infantry, the first echelons would be in a single rank in extended order, the rear echelons in one or two ranks in open order. If attacking artillery, they formed in two extended lines about 300 yards apart, with the first line in a single rank, the second in two.

Cavalry could also employ the lava, an offensive tactic formerly used only by the cossacks. This was usually conducted by individual squadrons formed with two to three troops in widely extended order, often in a crescent formation, with the reserve squadron about 75–200 yards to the rear, and was intended as a harassing tactic to disrupt the enemy prior to an attack, to screen a maneuver, or delay his advance. Part of the lava could be dismounted to conduct fire.

Russian cavalry doctrine since the 1870’s had encouraged dismounted combat under certain circumstances. Cavalry could dismount “normally” or “reinforced.” In the first, two-thirds of the men would dismount, with the remainder acting as horse-holders; in the second, only one man in six remained mounted. Cossack cavalry could dismount all but one man per troop. Dismounted fire was conducted by individual troops occupying a frontage of 35 to 70 yards. Individual aimed fire at close range was the normal tactic, but volley fire could also be employed, and on the defensive, long-range fire could be used to force an enemy to deploy sooner.

Each artillery battery was provided with 11 mounted and 18 dismounted scouts, observers, and signalers. These were formed into advance parties of 6–8 men who moved with the advance guard in order to locate and occupy good observation positions. Artillery commanders received precise instructions concerning mission, location, when firing is to commence, further locations to be occupied if required, etc. Guns would also be detailed to accompany the advancing infantry to engage enemy artillery and machine guns and destroy any obstacles blocking the advance. Artillery observers accompanied the infantry to report when the infantry were about to be endangered by friendly artillery fire, and the infantry was supposed to signal their position with flags or some other method.

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, wasmladshi 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-ofitserstarshi feyerverker, andstarshi 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: podporuchikin the infantry and artillery, kornet in the cavalry, khorunzhi in the cossacks. A first lieutenant (Class 10) was aporuchik 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 (kapitanrotmistryesaul), 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-leytenantor 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.

The Russian Army in 1914 did not greatly differ in its organization and doctrine from the other major European armies of the time. Ranks, despite some uniquely Russian nomenclature, were generally the same as those found in other armies of the time period. The Russians had “fronts” above the army level, a term not used in the same fashion in the West, and usually called battalions “diviziony,” but otherwise used the same organization as other armies: platoons, companies, battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, corps, and armies. Infantry doctrine placed too much emphasis on the bayonet attack (though, in fact, this was no more mistaken a doctrine than the French belief in the supremacy of the attack), but cavalry tactics relied more heavily on dismounted combat than those of any other European power—a lesson the Russians alone among the European powers had learned from the American Civil War. The Russians’ greatest weakness—aside from the often astounding incompetence of their senior commanders—was their artillery, which was less numerous and less powerful than that of their enemies—a debility the Russians would find it almost impossible to rectify, due to their inadequate industrial production and the general incompetence of the government bodies controling industrial output. In common with the other belligerents of 1914, the Russians expected a short, victorious war and had not planned adequately for the mobilization of human replacements, the production of material replacements, or the enormous ammunition consumption that would ensue in 1915. Unlike the others, however, Russia had neither the industrial capacity to produce the materiel or the state mechanisms to channel that production efficiently. The result, in combination with the incompetence of many of the senior Russian commanders, would be dire shortages in arms, ammunition, and supplies throughout the war, and the eventual collapse of the war effort in 1917.


This article has been based principally upon two works:

Markov, O. D., Russkaya Armiya, 1914–1917 gg., Izdatel’stvo “Galeya Print”, St. Petersburg, 2001.

General Staff, War Office, Handbook of the Russian Army. Sixth Edition. 1914, The Imperial War Museum, Department of Printed Books in association with the Battery Press, Nashville, and Articles of War, Skokie, 1996.

Also consulted was:

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