The forgotten war, 100 years on: WWI in the letters of Russian soldiers

Russian soldiers inside first-line trenches near Panevezis railroad on the Dvina Front. This 1914-1918 photo reproduced by N. Pashin in 1963. Source: RIA Novosti

Russian soldiers inside first-line trenches near Panevezis railroad on the Dvina Front. This 1914-1918 photo reproduced by N. Pashin in 1963. Source: RIA Novosti

A century has passed since the beginning of the First World War, and now only the letters from men serving in the Tsar’s army on the eastern front allow us to fully feel the terror of the men that were involved in it.

Unlike in other European countries, in Russia the First World War has remained in some ways a forgotten conflict, overshadowed by the sheer effort and cost imposed upon the nation by the victory in WWII. Yet for three years Russian troops were in action against Austro-Hungarian and Prussian troops on the eastern front, suffering huge casualties before the Bolshevik Revolution ended the country’s participation in the war.

With the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Russia implemented the Provisional Regulations on Military Censorship, which allowed the government to review and seize any letters from the front if they contained any secret information.

Thanks to this regulation, we can now read these letters, which are located in the archives, especially in the Russian State Military Historical Archive, where several volumes of letters from the front have been preserved.

Unbearable battle horrors

At the initial stage of the war, many were full of illusions. “Of course, this is a tough enemy, but nothing that we can’t handle – and all fully believed in our final victory,” wrote Colonel Samsonov to his wife. Everyone sympathizes with this war, and all are going hunting for Germans.” The thoughts of the coming victory were voiced in many letters of this period.

However, soon the battlefields were covered with bodies of the fallen, and their families began to receive letters of condolence. And then came the realization of the war as a personal catastrophe, and an awareness of the irreversibility of terrible events began to penetrate into the hearts of people.

“Heavy battles are taking place on all fronts daily,” wrote one Russian officer. “Many have fallen on the battlefield, and many more will fall. And who will return unscathed? All fields where there were battles are strewn with the killed and those dying from their wounds – our soldiers and the Germans. And how many more will fall? War... What a horror! Death and destruction all around.”

The lines in a letter by another Russian officer already sound as an antiwar appeal, as a desperate incantation: “Every person who ever was in a war, who participated in it, comes to understand what a great evil this is. People should strive to eliminate wars.”


Other letters relate the brutality of events in unflinching detail, documenting how battles became a slaughterhouse.

“We are defending a bridge,” writes one soldier. “Yesterday the Germans wanted to cross over to our side, but, after letting them come up to the middle of the bridge, we opened such hellish fire that the Germans were forced to run like mad. Piled on the bridge were literally mountains of corpses.

“Today they again wanted to cross, or to remove the corpses of their men. Our artillery with its accurate fire instantly cleared the bridge of the red-faced pork-butchers. To the right of us, they wanted to cross at any cost. They rushed neck-deep into the water, but our machine gunners and riflemen did not even let them reach the middle of the river.

“After the battle, they say that the river water turned pink. Yes, that is as it should be, since they sent here at least 5,000-6,000 men, and all of them remained in the river.”

Another soldier wrote about similar battles, unprecedented in their cruelty, recalling them with internal horror and a fluttering heart:

“We were in the trenches, and repulsed the attacks of the Germans, who never came closer than 400 steps, being forced to turn back and leave. Four times they came towards our trenches (we could clearly see their faces), but could not withstand our fire and turned back.

“Sazonov and I lay next to each other in the trench, shooting at their officers and selecting the bigger soldiers. Well, we dropped those damned ones! They walked in silence, without firing a shot, in a wall formation. We allowed them to come close to us, to the best shooting distance, and then opened up with a terrible barrage.

“The ones in the front dropped like rocks, and the ones behind them turned and ran back. Frost bit at our skins, and the hair on our heads stood on end. I think Sazonov, the sergeant and I, sent a decent number of Germans to the other world. Painfully close they came. Their faces were pale, when they came at us. It was terrifying. God forbid that this ever happen again! “

Shell shock

There was probably nothing more horrible than a massive artillery ‘preparation’. When absolutely nothing depends on the man, he just hugs the ground, waiting for the barrage to stop, but it goes on, and on.

The intensity of such attacks reached such a level that, as one artillery officer wrote, “artillery shots merged into a general howl, the sun was darkened, and one could see no more than five steps ahead in the smoke that was created.”

Sometimes, the nerves of a person coming under such fire would give out, and then, as one officer wrote, “I wanted to cry.” Afterwards many were never able to hear the howl of shells without starting to sob at the next shelling:

“This incessant roar of guns and exploding shells, from which there is no peace, finally breaks the nerves. Our Colonel Zhelenin even started to cry, like a little boy, his nerves could not stand it. Rossolyuk also roars like an ox.”

Going over the top

However, even in this sheer hell of war, soldiers retained their clarity of mind and self-control, running out of the trenches and pressing on with their attacks under a swarm of bullets. Here is how these inexorably draining moments before an attack were described by a Russian officer:

“Finally, the word was passed down the line: ‘Prepare to attack.’ Literally, an electric current passed through us; some started to adjust their ammunition, some, removing their caps, devoutly crossed themselves, involuntarily feeling the approach of the great moment; but already down the line flies the new order ‘forward’; men crossing themselves, pop out of the trenches, with the words: ‘Brothers! To the attack, forward.’

“Literally like ants, people began to jump out of the trenches, with eyes to the right, marching together, looking death right in the face.”

Deprivation, blood, trench dirt, and the deaths of comrades – that is what the First World War looked like to the ordinary Russian soldier, a conflict unprecedented for humanity at beginning of the twentieth century in its scale and the number of war dead.

First published in Russian in Expert.

Read more: WWI: The war that ended peace>>>

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