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Book Reviews - General (8)

David R. Stone, The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front 1914-1917

Lawrence, Kansas University Press, 2015, vii, 359 pages
Karen Petrone
Bibliographical reference

The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front 1914-1917, Lawrence, Kansas University Press, 2015, vii, 359 pages

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Full text is grateful to Kevin Roberts who edited this book review

1David R. Stone’s The Russian Army in the Great War is impressive on many “fronts.” The jacket cover promises that the book is “thorough and thoroughly readable” and Stone delivers on these promises. Stone presents the military campaigns on the Eastern Front very effectively in compelling prose and in political and social context, integrating the winning and losing battles into the larger narrative of Russia’s overall performance during the war. He succeeds admirably in his “primary goal” of presenting “a clear and brief synthesis of scholarly research on Russia’s experience in fighting the First World War” the inclusion of these numerical citations a bit confusing. Nine chapters provide a chronological narrative of the military history of the war from the East Prussian campaigns during the early days of 1914 to the last battles before the Bolshevik Revolution in the Gulf of Riga. They explore both well-know campaigns like the Great Retreat and the Brusilov Offensive together with less well-known battles in the Caucasus and Romania. These chapters provide a detailed account of how each battle unfolded operationally and why it was won or lost. The remaining three chapters and the conclusion provide crucial context for these military operations by exploring diplomacy and the origins of the war, military reform and planning, an overview of Russian society at war, the political collapse in 1917, and the outbreak of the Russian Civil War. Questions of occupation, army-civilian relations, and soldiers’ daily life are only very briefly touched upon.

2Stone’s comprehensive narrative draws on the most recent scholarly research in Russian and English, and also engages with the memoirs of World War I participants and the scholarship conducted in the first decades after the war by former Russian officers. His work reflects and augments the “revisionist” interpretation of the Eastern Front, calling into question the idea that Russia’s World War I was “unrelieved catastrophe culminating in ignominious collapse”. His comparative examination of the crises experienced by both the Allies and the Central Powers and of the collapse of all four Central and East European empires demonstrates that while Russia could not win the First World War, its struggles were very similar to those faced by the other major powers. While the Russian Empire was the first to fall, it “was not the only great power to collapse under the strains of war”. None of the other powers was a match for the German Army in operations, tactics, and speed of reaction. . All armies suffered shortages of ammunition and counted incompetent generals in their ranks. Poor leadership led to needless slaughter and the ineffective use of new technologies like radio. There were food shortages on many home fronts, and soldiers widely mutinied in France as well as in Russia in 1917. While it rarely could defeat the German Army, the Russian Army remained intact throughout the war and scored significant victories over the Austro-Hungarians and Ottomans.

3Stone emphasizes contingency in considering the outcome of the war, pointing out that there were numerous crucial turning points that could have dramatically altered the course of the war. While admitting that historians are uncomfortable with counterfactual thinking, Stone reminds readers that, for example, “in more skilled hands,” the Russian invasion of East Prussia at the beginning of the war could have “produced a real political crisis for the German government,” or if they had been able to complete their encirclement of the Russian Armies at Łódź in November 1914, the Germans might have dealt the Russians a blow from which they could not have recovered. Hence the outcome of the war was far from predetermined, and events could have turned out quite differently –- with Russia among the winners or with Germany among the winners. In his conclusion, Stone points out that despite the general Russian collapse of 1917, the Germans still had a substantial number of divisions stationed in the East; had the war on the Eastern Front ended earlier, the Germans might have been able to defeat the British and French in the Spring of 1918 before American forces arrived.

4 The Russian Army in the Great War is an extremely useful book for general readers, students, and specialists alike. While Stone points out that the book is not intended for his “fellow specialists on Russian military history”, I think that they will find his comprehensive approach useful. I would recommend this book for specialists on the Western Front as well; as Stone’s comparative approach opens up new ways of thinking about the war as a whole.

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Electronic reference

Karen Petrone, « David R. Stone, The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front 1914-1917 », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 18 | 2017, Online since 15 October 2017, connection on 30 November 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Karen Petrone

University of Kentucky

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