Thursday, 29 June 2017

Russian Sons of Péchot




 Think of the Péchot System and we always think of the Western Front but a version was also used by the Russians in the easty. Photographs show well-engineered prefabricated 60cm gauge track in the Russian sector of the Bukovina Front in the summer of 1917. The British sent their Allies some armoured troops, as is recorded in the newspapers of the time and, clearly also some military railways. This story affected my own family. My grandfather spent some time in Russia as a military transport adviser – more of him later.
The background to the Russian story is as sad as anything during the 1914-18 War. In 1917, the air was heavy with anger and politics. The conscripts had been let down by the politicians and their generals. News from home was terrible; the best hope offered seemed to be Revolution. Allies of the Russians were melting away like snow. How had it come to this?


General Brusilov is on the right. He was the  commander of the southern Russian Army until 1917. The smaller man is General Gorko. Picture from 'Illustration' magazine, courtesy M.D. Wright
All things considered, the Russians did well. In June 1916, their Front stretched from the highland headwaters of the Goryn river, flowing northwards, and the Dneiper, southwards. The main town of this northern sector was Pinsk and the enemy they faced were the Germans. From there, the Front went south-east to the Rumanian border and they faced the Austrians. Brusilov realised that the Austrians had simply garrisoned the line with no strategic reserve. His attack was unsubtle but effective; by August 1916, the Russians had advanced up to 180 kilometres, a handsome rectangle of Austria (now in Slovakia and Poland).
Early 20th century Russian transport was reckoned to be old-fashioned; events were to prove that often the Russians knew better what they were doing than their allies. Photo courtesy Margaret Jean Jackson
On August 27th, 1916, the Rumanians declared for the Allied side. Their motives were not entirely pure. In the event of victory, they expected to gain the territory of Transylvania (Erdely to the Hungarians, Siebenburgen to the Germans).
The Allied plan was to attack Bulgaria from Greece with a Franco-British force under General Sarrail. Concerted thrusts from Rumania and the Russians to the east would surround Bulgaria and the route to the fourth Central Power, Turkey. Italy, attacking Austria over the Alps, could do with the diversion.
Whatever could go wrong went wrong. In Greece, the French were stopped by the mountains. The British were bogged down in the marshes of the Struma river. For two years, their expedition achieved nothing much except annoying the Greeks. Matters in Rumania were worse. While the Rumanians were attacking Austrian territory (modern Transylvania) to the west, a Bulgarian/German force attacked them from the south-east. They lost their capital, Bucharest, in December 1916 and soon ‘free Rumania’ consisted of nothing more than the north-east of the country. As remarked above, the Russians had done the best.
Which way? On the Galician Front, a motor  transport is being turned around to face the Front. A British officer strides across.At the right can be glimsed some prefabricated track. Picture from Illustration magazine courtesy MD Wright
The Allies put forward a plan for 1917. They would now divert the Germans by new attacks on the Western Front while the Russians under Brusilov would advance over the Dneiper river to hammer the Austrians. In the meantime, the armies of Free Rumania would protect the Russian left flank.
This did not happen. The Allies on the western front were commanded by Nivelle; his offensive ended with French troops in mutiny. British losses were sickening. The Italians were at their last gasp. Until July 19th, the Russians put up the best fight.   
Kerensky taking the salute. In early summer 1917, he toured the Russian Front, making patriotic speeches. When his troops went over the top on July 1st 1917, he he led the way, revolver in his hand, Illustration magazine reported. Picture courtesy of M.D. Wright from Illustration magazine
Back in April 1917, the Germans had attacked near Pinsk in the northern sector, using poison gas and heavy bombardments. They did not follow up this atack. I believe that they thought a brief show of force would frighten the Russians into suing for peace. Their intelligence had told of near revolution and régime change in Petrograd (modern St Petersburg) the then Russian capital. The offer of an armistice was radioed directly to the Russian people. 
If they believed Russia was near surrender, they were wrong. The Russian Miniister of Defence, Kerensky urged the Army to resist the invaders, to go on the attack for the sake of Mother Russia, to avenge the insult. Brusilov was to attack once more, but with new generals. They picked on the Austrians once more -  what is now south-east Poland – the Galician Front. On July 1st, the Russian Army attacked. At first, all went well.
We have photographs showing showing prefabricated railways on this part of the Russian Front. These were taken in the period of retreat, with British officers waving their revolvers at the fleeing troops. In the background is prefabricated railway though no sign of rolling stock. In the circumstances, it is likely that it has already been taken to the rear. Thousands of miles of prefabricated rail was made for the Western Front, at first in France, then in British factories and then also in the USA. The route it took was circuitous, probably via the North; the Russians built the Murmansk Railway to get supplies south.
The original Péchot design of prefabricated track, useful for transporting food, ammunition, pretty well everything in the field. Several hundred kilometres of this track was made for the French Army in 1888, many THOUSANDS of kilometres in the 14-18 war by both sides; the Germans copied and  improved the Péchot system. Photo courtesy Jim Hawkesworth

Various styles of prefabricated track photographed by M.D. Wright early this century. Such track was laid and relaid many times in the previous hundred years. The original Péchot design is the neat track with curved edges to the sleepers. It required good quality press tools to make and other designs were tried. Prefabricated track appears in the photo above.
 
For the first week, the Russians advanced, taking thousands of prisoners, but by July 12th, the Austrians, reinforced by Germans, replied with heavy artillery. By 19th July, the Germans had rushed in a strategic reserve.  The Russian line was broken in at least three places. Soon it was not so much retreat as rout, on the Front and Home Front simultaneously.
On July 16th Petrograd was in open revolt.  A few months after came the October Revolution and the new Soviet administration which did indeed sue for peace. Russia descended into civil war with the Soviets on one side, the White Russians on the other.
If you want to know more, Professor Tony Heyward of Aberdeen University has researched Russian transport of the period.
Here is a family recollection. My grandfather, a Captain in the Royal Engineers, went to Russia as a transport adviser. His experiences in Murmansk 1918 must have been broadly similar to the experiences of the officers on the Galician Front.
Captain CVS Jackson of the Royal Engineers, my grandfather. His horse is called Charlie. Jackson spent the First World War  in West Africa, the Somme and Russia.
Here are some reminiscences later written down by my grandmother:
‘The White Russians though outwardly friendly and charming proved disappointing allies, torn as they were with jealousies and intrigues. They soon started plotting against the British who had been sent to help them. Their intrigues were not taken seriously as the plotters discussed their plans in loud voices in public places. At one time a plan was developed to invite all the British officers to a dinner party and blow them up. Everyone was much interested and went to the party to see what would happen. In the middle of the feast, a drunken reveller descending the staircase fell over an empty barrel. This clattered down the stairs bringing a host of other barrels with it, causing a furore in which Russian ladies fainted into the arms of their boy-friends and the meeting broke up in confusion.
Another time when a revolution was planned, two young British officers, driving back to their quarters after a party remarked to each other –
Isn’t this the night of the Revolution?
Let’s start it!
They drove wildly round the town shooting off their revolvers.
Cecil got on well with the Russian peasants and workmen once he had broken through their natural distrust of authority. When the British withdrew, he was ordered to harangue his workmen and persuade them to work for the White Russian authorities. To this they replied that they did not mind working for him or the other British officers but to put themselves under those unmitigated scoundrels their former masters they would not. They then departed to their homes”
It was a harrowing experience for my grandfather, who had a couple of months of sick leave on his return to Britain. What it was like for the ordinary Russian, we can only imagine.

1 comment: