The Invention of Tradition, or How Military History Was NOT Written

Every few years, military historians in the United States engage in a bout of handwringing about the state of the field. Practitioners argue about whether military history in the academy is threatened, who or what is doing the threatening, and what to do about it.  Whatever else one can say about this debate, I think we can safely say that part of the issue has been that for decades now, folks in other historical subfields have claimed to be doing something different than the “traditional” fields of diplomatic, political, or military history.  Some of those bewailing the current state of historical scholarship agree with this assessment, seeing a decline or “undermining” of military history in recent years. In Victor David Hanson’s words, “military history took a beating in the 1960s and 1970s.” A certain number from each party agree that at one time, many historians did military history, and that now far fewer do.

I do not intend to engage here with the topic of the vibrancy of military history on campuses today. My colleague David Stone has done so far more effectively elsewhere. Instead, I’m doing so to question the basis of many of the most strident critics and defenders of military history: that once upon a time working historians filled our shelves with “traditional military history.”  I also won’t comment on whether this actually occurred with the American Civil War or the Peloponnesian War – I’m not an expert in the historiographies of those subjects – but it certainly isn’t the case for Russia in World War I.

I’m at the point in the writing of my manuscript where I’m drafting sections on the Russian campaigns of 1916. This was a busy year for the armed forces.  After a year of disastrous retreat, Russians fought up and down their fronts all year long, in many cases successfully, from the Baltic to Persia. So I’ve been scouring the shelves (and WorldCat) for “traditional” military histories of these episodes of combat. Somewhat to my surprise, I haven’t found much. I say this not to be critical. I haven’t done much “traditional” military history in the past either. Both my first book and the bulk of my research for my current project concern the intersection of the military and civilian “spheres.” My first book was on conscription, and this one is largely based on archival research related to the impact of war on a variety of groups: soldiers yes, but also doctors, nurses, refugees, civilians, workers, and prisoners of war.  In my original project plans, I had hoped to integrate my own archival findings with rich analytical treatments of the military operations that shaped the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. But those works are difficult to find.

There were two initial waves of publications on Russia’s war effort. The first took place in the decade or so after the end of the war.  These books, whether memoirs by men like A. A.  Brusilov or histories written by key participants such as N. N. Golovin, A. M. Zaionchkovskii, or E. V. Maslovskii (or for that matter Winston Churchill), were extremely valuable.  They were also very problematic. Many of the authors, deprived of the ability to conduct archival research by their condition of exile, made use of their personal papers or their memories, and they often settled old scores in their texts. The second wave, sponsored by the Red Army, came at the end of the 1930s. As a new war with Germany loomed, there was incentive to learn about the operations that occurred in the same territory a generation before. Most of these publications were document collections, such as the tremendously useful Nastuplenie iugo-zapadnogo fronta v mae-iiune 1916 goda (Moscow: Voenizdat, 1940).  Others were military histories proper, such as N. E. Podorozhnyi’s Narochskaia operatsiia v marte 1916 g. na Russkom fronte mirovoi voiny (Moscow: Gosizdat, 1938). Podorozhnyi used archival sources liberally, narrated the events ably, and drew conclusions from his narration, but his short book was [and is] literally the only text on the massive Naroch operation in print. Only four university libraries in the United States own it: Harvard, Cal, Cornell, and Columbia.

What of after World War II? If we take the roughly thirty years between the end of the Good War and the 60th anniversary of the Great War in 1974, and we do a WorldCat search for campaigns on the Eastern Front, the results are underwhelming.  There are more memoirs, some of them translations of earlier works. There are straight reprints (such as of Churchill’s work).  There are illustrated volumes and books for juvenile audiences. But the rest, such as Allen and Muratoff’s useful but mostly unsourced Caucasian Battlefields, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Indeed, it was only after the moment when military history supposedly declined (“in the 1960s and 1970s”) that we began to see more works appear. In the mid-1970s the two works that remain the standard texts for the military history of Russia’s efforts in the war – Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 (1975) and I. I. Rostunov’s Russkii front pervoi mirovoi voiny (1976) – were published. Rostunov had archival access and used it judiciously.  Stone wrote his highly influential book largely by reading the Soviet document collections and carefully gathered materials from western archives against the grain of the early émigré accounts.  The result was both entertaining and convincing to many readers, including this one. But then, for another generation, not much happened. The handful of later histories, like W. Bruce Lincoln’s Passage Through Armageddon (1986), mostly relied on Stone or other sources utilized by Stone in his work.

In 1997, more than twenty years after publishing his book, Stone bemusedly wrote that he was still expecting a “proper history” of the war and that he was “interested to see whether my accounts of some of the battles – sometimes ‘hunches’ – stand up.” (Preface to the Penguin edition, pp. 7-8).  That history has still not appeared. There is no up-to-date military history of the war on the Eastern Front that uses Russian archival sources. The situation is somewhat different when it comes to specific military operations. For instance, we have two recent monographs by Timothy Dowling (The Brusilov Offensive- 2008)) and M. V. Os’kin (Brusilovskii proryv – 2010) on the Brusilov Offensive. But even these have largely replicated the work of earlier scholars. Dowling provides new evidence from Austrian archives but does not utilize Russian ones (another work, Richard diNardo’s book Breakthrough (2010), on the Gorlice campaign in 1915, is also mainly focused on the German/Austrian side). Os’kin, for his part, relies largely on the earlier document publications and other long-published works, including only a smattering of other archival references. And the Brusilov Offensive is far the best known and most studied of any of the battles on the Eastern Front, with the exception of the very first set of battles near Tannenberg, which does have an excellent study written on it: Dennis Showalter’s Tannenberg: Clash of Empires (1991).

Ну, и что? What if there isn’t much more to learn about the military history of the war, or what if Stone’s “hunches” were basically right?  Would learning more contribute more to considerations of the era of war and revolution more generally? It’s hard to say without knowing what we might find in those archives, but I certainly find myself asking questions that are still not yet fully answered to my satisfaction.  There are many of these, but here’s just one.  Was the Russian war effort futile in principle? Were all of those soldiers and civilians killed for nothing, destroyed like the “lions led by donkeys” of British lore? If it was futile, did any influential military figure recognize this and adjust his behavior accordingly?

This is a question that the battles of 1916 might shed some light on. Early in that year, the Russians finally had the opportunity to launch a classic World War I offensive in March at Lake Naroch, where they had overwhelming superiority over their German opponents in guns, shells, and men. The commander of the Western Front, General Evert, was eager to attack in order to relieve pressure on their allies in the west, where the Battle of Verdun had recently begun.  The assault was an unmitigated disaster. Two months later, Evert was asked to launch a similar attack for similar reasons on more or less the same ground, and he stalled, demanding more shells, more men, and more time.  Even when Brusilov achieved a breakthrough using new tactics to his south, Evert still delayed. This inaction led to the ruination of Evert’s reputation, not only at the time (when Brusilov’s troops and staff officers began murmuring of treason by the “German” Evert), but later among historians too. It is safe to say that Brusilov’s interpretation has been accepted by nearly everyone – that Evert was unimaginative and “pusillanimous,” (Stone, 257), that he “feared attacking” (Os’kin, 192) and that he was the main “guilty party” in the collapse of the offensive. (Os’kin, 404).  One line of this interpretation stresses Evert’s personal qualities and condemns Evert’s superiors, especially the tsar, for putting a flinching servitor in a position of such great authority.  This line ignores Evert’s eagerness prior to Naroch, but is in line somewhat with his conservative approach earlier in the war. The other interpretation, which also pops up as a possibility in most of these works, is that Evert’s caution was understandable given the experience of the Naroch battle. For postwar Soviet writers like Svechin, the key issue was that Evert simply didn’t believe that an attack like Brusilov’s could work. And the fact is, though Brusilov had significant early success, it is far from clear the offensive could have been developed further even if Evert had attacked when and how he should have. I suspect that a diligent historian who combs through not only Brusilov’s papers but also those of Evert, Kuropatkin, and Alekseev, might be able to resolve this question much more sataisfactorily than anyone has done heretofore. I doubt that we will find that Evert had decided that the war effort as a whole was futile, but we may find that the reasons for Evert’s caution were something other than cowardice.

So what of the future? Is this research being conducted as we speak?  It very well may be.  The centennial of the war is stimulating all kinds of research in many countries, and part of the Russia’s Great War and Revolution project is a significant chunk on the operational history of the war. I imagine that the next few years will be exciting ones.  Indeed, as strange as it may sound, it may be the case that a “proper” military history of the war had to wait until after the supposed decline of the field lo those many years ago.

About Joshua Sanborn

Professor and Head, Department of History Chair, Russian and East European Studies Program Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)
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