By Francis Lee for the Saker Blog
Seven Roads to Moscow is an intriguing book written by that strange animal, a British soldier intellectual.
MC, BA, R.E.
Instructor, Royal Military Academy,
I read this book when I was only 17 and at the time it made a great impression on me. The stories of the seven invasions of Russia have now passed into history. In order of invasions Russia’s uninvited guests were the Vikings, Huns, Swedes, French, and Germans. Each in their turn marched through forest, marsh, and Steppe into the heart of the Russian lands. The impression which these invaders left behind, however, is one of abject failure. All the invaders sooner or later had to succumb to the vastness of the Russian lands and the fortitude and genius of the Russian people.
The only partial success was with Rurik in the rise and fall of Kiev Russia, 862-1228. Rurik is said to have arrived in Novgorod in 862 and gradually established his sovereignty over the native Slavs. From the military point of view Rurik’s invasion is unique in Russian history. It was the first and only invasion which has been largely successful. The tactical methods of Rurik lie shrouded in the mists of early Russian history. For the invaders the military problems of invading Russia do not appear in tangible form until the days of the Swedish King Charles’ XII ill-fated (1707-1709) invasion and no more successful than the much larger and later expeditions by Napoleon and Hitler.
The sole aim of these armies who marched eastwards all had the same objective: to destroy the Russian armies. Moreover, each was faced with the same military problems: namely how could they defeat the Russian armies before they withdrew into the vastness of the Russian interior. If they failed to defeat the Russian armies in the early period of the campaign, how could they prevent the Russians recruiting new levies and returning to counter-attack with overwhelming strength? And how could the invaders manage to keep their armies supplied and reinforced once they had advanced deep into the Russian lands?
Charles XII had the simplest method of all – namely to outmarch and outfight his opponent. He relied on the superior marching and tactical skills of his soldiers to achieve results. But Tsar Peter the Great was a wily old fox who was determined to outwit his opponent and avoid a decisive action. The policy of scorched earth and withdrawal found the Swedes weak, ill-nourished and a long way from home. Charles had failed because he turned away from his primary objective and allowed himself to be cut-off from his base for the uncertain advantage of rallying the somewhat unstable Cossacks of the Ukraine to his banner. He was unable to stem the steady wastage of his best Swedish soldiers. The Cossacks and Kalmuks and other peoples of southern Russia whom he was forced to recruit as reinforcements, were no better than Peter’s reinforcements. The Battle of Poltava (8 July 1709) was the decisive victory for Peter the Great of Russia over Charles XII of Sweden in the Great Northern War. The battle ended Sweden’s status as a major power and marked the beginning of Russian supremacy in eastern Europe. This was the inevitable defeat of trying to achieve too much with too little.
Napoleon did not fare any better. The Grand Army some 600,000 strong marched into Russia in 1812. When the French Revolution had broken out (1789) there was little to indicate that within 23 years a Napoleonic Army would be treading the French Road to Moscow. In what was to become inevitable the West moved East. Thus, the die was cast. Napoleon obviously believed that he was invincible, and the Grand Army outmatched any other fighting force in Europe. But as the Scottish poet Robbie Burns reminds us – ‘’The best laid plans of mice and men oft gang aglay.’’ (Translation from the Scottish Celtic – ‘go awry’)
Napoleon tried 3 methods to bring Tsar Alexander to terms. His first plan was to win a quick military victory in these western lands by breaking through the Russian front using overwhelming force at the point of attack. He then hoped in crushing in turn each half of his opponent’s army. This plan failed because the Russians withdrew too soon.
When Napoleon appreciated that his first plan had failed, he reoriented his strategy. His next step was to lure the Russian forces in attempting to give battle, but the Russians made a tactical retreat further and further into the inhospitable wilderness of marshes and forests of the older Russian lands. If the Russians would only stand and fight, he might well crush them. After all no enemy had ever survived Napoleons military and tactical genius in his set-piece battles. Be that as it may he was unable to persuade the Russians too accept such a battle until it was too late.
From his arrival until the fall of Moscow Napoleon tried every stratagem to entice the Russians to give battle. In threatening the city of Smolensk and eventually Moscow the Russians did stand and fight in the Battle of Borodino in front of Moscow, but the unexpected toughness of the Russian armies prevented an outright victory for Napoleon.
Moreover, things were now beginning to move against the Grand Army; they were no longer possessed of sufficient numerical superiority, and Napoleon was now too far from home to use the Imperial Guard, his last reserve, to snatch a victory. The Russian army remained intact, but Moscow, Russia’s ancient capital, fell into French hands.
Now the problems for the French military began to mount as had the Swedish during their earlier debacle. In front of the Grand Army villagers abandoned their villages and set them ablaze, burning or hiding their supplies. Marauders and guerilla bands started to take a toll of all that passed along the slender French supply routes. The French needed to leave garrisons in every town along the Moscow highway, and the necessity of providing guards for all convoys sapped at the morale, sickness and fatigue caused by constant disease, dust, and intolerable heat. By the time that Kutuzov, the Russian commander-in-chief, offered battle at Borodino, it was too late for Napoleon to win a decisive victory. However, it was too early to stop the Russians to prevent the French capture of Moscow – the Russian army was not yet strong enough, but the wind was getting into their sails. So, all was not over for Napoleon yet.
However, the fall of Moscow was not the be all and end-all of Napoleon’s campaign. In all his previous campaigns the fall of the enemy’s capital had brought about a decision – that is, a surrender. But the Russians were, however, playing from a different game-plan and did not react in the way that other European nations generally reacted, and they were quite prepared to withstand the loss of Moscow. The great conflagration which followed the French entry into the city only served to harden the will of every Russian to resist. The fall of Moscow was in fact the decisive finish to Napoleon’s campaign.
The invasion and defeat of Russia was predicated on three main approaches. 1. Initially a quick victory in the opening stages of the campaign using overwhelming force. 2 A deliberate set-piece pitched battle, 3. And finally the capture of Moscow.
In the first two methods he was defeated by the immense space of the Russian landscape and by the rugged determination of the Russian soldier, and in the third method by his failure to appreciate the determination of the Russian people.
Now Napoleon’s options had come to naught there was only the long retreat from Moscow for the Grand Army which piece by piece was to fall apart in a rendezvous with its total demise.
In 1941 Hitler and the German General Staff launched the invasion of the USSR which had been meticulously planned and prepared. Hitler was fully aware of the reasons for Charles’ and Napoleon’s failures. This was above all a political/ideological war and Hitler was filled with contempt for the Russian Army and the Russian population that his predecessors possessed in abundance.
In the replay of Napoleon’s tactical demise and the rout of the Grand Army, Hitler’s Wehrmacht had defeated the Western European armies, with ruthless efficiency – the French and the low countries were forced to surrender, and the British chased out of the European continent only because they had a bigger navy than Germany as well as the Royal Air Force with the Spitfire being the most advanced fighter plane. Like Napoleon before him Hitler realized the key to success lay in the destruction of Stalin’s frontier armies before its slow mobilization could be completed. The German military concept of Blitzkreig i.e. ‘lightning war’ was a very different animal to the pitched battles of WW1 which in military terms had become archaic in this new approach to warfare.
Now new technologies had mobilized warfare with the advent of railways, motor transport and aircraft. The wireless would make possible the efficient control of vast armies across the whole breadth of the Soviet Union (as it then was).
Hitler’s initial strategy was both military and political. He needed firstly to destroy the Red Army and Communism, so that the military and political objectives were coordinated. The next step was the seizure of the unlimited Russian abundance of economic resources. But in purely military terms there was a certain sense of Déjà vu. In this context with the Soviet Army, Hitler, like Napoleon before, him made significant inroads into Russian space very quickly, but despite capturing large numbers of Russian POWs he failed to trap and destroy the main body before it was reinforced by the slowly mobilizing reserves from deep inside of Russia beyond the Urals. In addition, his endeavour to capture the centres of Soviet resistance was no more successful. Only Kiev and Kharkov fell into his hands, but Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad never succumbed.
In this earlier period of the war the Wehrmacht was seemingly irresistible; but it became like Napoleon’s initial success, only to be locked into what was to become the usual pattern of invasion into Russia. In his drive for the acquisition of Russia’s economic resources Hitler did seize the industrial and grain producing areas of Ukraine, but by his efforts to seize the oil of the Caucasus he lay himself open to the first counter offensive by the fully mobilized Red Army.
Hitler’s solution to this strategic problem showed a characteristic under-estimate of the strength of the Russian Army and an overestimation of his own resources. ‘’He decided to hold the Army groups North and Centre on the defensive whilst he deployed all his strength in the sector of Army Group South. Using the great bend of the Don to protect his northern flank between the Don and the Volga near Stalingrad. From here he could either attack southwards into the Caucasus, and possibly into the middle east to join hands with Rommel.’’ (Seven Roads to Moscow – p.290) But this was rather wishful thinking since by this time the Anglo-American forces were in North Africa as well as their navies in the Atlantic and Pacific this in addition to the US/UK bombing offensive which had started in earnest against German cities.
The German 6th Army had advanced in the southern part of the Ukraine and had crossed 3 rivers, the Dnieper, the Don, and the Volga, it had arrived in Stalingrad in the shape of the 6th Army, in the same way as it had when it entered Paris in 1940. But the outcome was rather different. By 1942 the German offensive had stalled in Stalingrad.
In the bitter fighting in the city, the Wehrmacht was halted in its tracks and unable to move forward but its flanks were exposed and vulnerable to a Russian counterattack. The line of defence was manned by Romanian and Hungarian forces of dubious quality and loyalty. The Russian counterattack became inevitable and so it worked out when the Russians broke through the Romanian defences and completed the encirclement (or Cauldron) as the Russians now call them.
This changed the whole character of WW2. The Red Army battled all the way to Berlin as well as hooking up with British and American forces coming from the other direction. The war was, apart from the American Japanese conflict in the Pacific and the British-Japanese conflict in Malaya and Burma, was effectively over.
‘’Post-war vital economic objectives for Russia were equally hard to choose, since Russia’s bitter experiences of invasions from the West had taught her to move and develop her industries further and further eastwards as the ranges of western European Armies had increased. The gradual move to the East started with Five Year Plans before the German invasion. Hitler’s attack only accelerated this process. Industrial plants in areas which were overrun by the Nazis, were often dismantled before the Germans could capture them. The dismantled machinery was then to be re-erected beyond the Urals.’’ (Seven Roads to Moscow p.315)
The only lasting road to Moscow was the Viking Road of Rurik that provided the constructive services which the Russian people themselves wanted and for which they themselves asked.
‘’Let us hope that no-one will ever be tempted to emulate Charles, Napoleon, and Hitler in imposing a military solution of a kind of which history has shown must fail, and which will bring nuclear annihilation to mankind.’’ (Jackson – Seven Roads to Moscow – p.319)
In the Greek fable of Pandora’s Box, Pandora could not resist opening the box, but she opened the box, and several evil entities started flying out of it. These included hatred, envy, greed, disease, poverty, pain, death, and war. All these miseries of human life escaped the box and entered the real world. By the time Pandora slammed back the box’s lid, all the evils had escaped except for ‘hope’.
I begin to wonder if we have in fact opened the box?