General Kutepov: A Collection of Essays (IV)
A. P. Kutepov in the Lifeguard Preobrazhenskii Regiment
During the several months I spent in the Instructional Detachment, I not only learned a deep respect for my commander, but also sincerely admired him. Always even tempered, strict without being reproachful, attentive and warmly responsive to the needs of all of his subordinates, he could not fail to produce the deepest of impressions on them through his impeccable knowledge of military affairs, exceptional clarity, and interesting and intelligible commentary on both theory and practice. Better than anyone, Kutepov would make a display of teaching. Moreover, being a veteran of the Japanese war (in the 85th Viborgskii regiment), A. P. impressed us with his combat experience, and his examples drawn from personal involvement served as a dynamic illustration regarding the study of Field Regulations.
What most clearly impressed the minds of his subordinates was that A. P. would do everything that he himself demanded from us, whether it was the most difficult gymnastic exercises or rifle maintenance, long-distance firing, or hand-to hand combat with rifles. This quality could not fail to make a great impression on the lower ranks, who had recently arrived from the countryside and who instinctively viewed an officer as being a "gentleman" or a "shirker". A. P. presented himself as an example of a Russian officer in the best meaning of the word, and this explains the mood of joyful, friendly and comradely competition, which held sway in the Detachment and made it a model within the entire Guard both in regards outward bearing as well as in the development of personal abilities, efficiency and high levels of military knowledge among its pupils.
When, upon graduating from the Detachment, I submitted my application and was accepted into the regiment, A. P. provided me significant assistance in preparation for the officer's examination, especially with tactical exercises, where he repeatedly reviewed and corrected my decisions. His ability to present these exercises in their simplest and most understandable aspect was for me an enormous help, not only during the examinations, but also afterward, during the war, when I commanded His Imperial Highness' 13th and 14th companies in 1914 and 1915.
On 6 August 1913, the day of the regimental fete at the Imperial review, I was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and one of the first to embrace and congratulate me was Kutepov. His greeting was something exceptionally joyful for me. I was proud to wear the uniform of the oldest Russian regiment and gratified that I, a pupil of A. P., did not make a 'mess of things': the only prescribed expression he would employ towards pupils of his who were at fault.
Then came the summer of 1914. On 19 July (August 1) 1914, Russia accepted the challenge from Austro-Hungary and Germany.
According to the mobilization regulations, the Head of the Instructional Detachment was to remain in St. Petersburg as the commander of the reserve battalion. But as respectable was the activity of those who readied soldiers in the rear, each of us clearly dreamed about taking to the field with the regiment. Dismissing the thought that he could remain in the rear, A. P. immediately made a corresponding petition to the commander of the regiment and was appointed the commander of the 4th company. Leading this company in an encounter with the Austrians near the village of Vladislavov on 20 August 1914, the enemy was overrun in hand to hand fighting and A. P. was seriously wounded. Having barely recovered from these wounds, A. P. returned to active service and once again took command of the 4th company, leading it in the Lomzhin and Kholm operations in the spring and summer of 1915. During the latter operation A. P. was seriously wounded a second time.
In 1916, A. P. was appointed commander of the 2nd battalion and promoted to colonel.
1916 was the year which saw the spirit of the Russian army restored. The heaving fighting in the fall of 1915, when the depletion of ammunition, rifles and ordnance allowed the Germans to push our front back beyond the borders of Tsarist Poland, up to the Dvina and Bug rivers, could not but have a depressive influence on the military. Indeed, it was no longer the same military as before; a large number of the officers and soldiers, trained during peacetime, had fallen on the field of battle or been discharged from the service, and the hastily conscripted replacements, no less valorous in spirit than their predecessors, possessed neither the same training nor the same endurance as the soldiers of 1914. Thus the tasks of the commanders became all the more difficult and crucial. In this regard, A. P. displayed his exceptional ability to rally his subordinates and rouse their collective spirit and morale. This was especially noticeable during the heavy fighting in the summer of 1916.
At the beginning of July 1916, the Guard, transferred from the Supreme Command reserve at placed at the disposal of Adjutant-General Brusilov, was sent to the front on the Stokhod river. The positions occupied by the enemy on the western bank of the river were continuous and reinforced by strong bridgeheads on the open and marshy eastern bank. The Stokhod marshes were no less than half a verst in width in the Guards' sector and on the left flank (in the sector of the 3rd Guards infantry division) reached up to the same distance.
On July 15, the regiment was assigned the task of attacking the bridgehead at the village of Raimesto, which it managed to capture by the evening of the 15th with heavy losses due to the absolutely open terrain and the impossibility of digging in the marsh: the ranks sank knee-deep in the bog. Prisoners were taken along with machine guns and two cannon.
The 2nd battalion distinguished itself during the attack on the southern outskirts of the village, which it held despite determined attempts by the enemy to drive from off.
An especially splendid battle was fought by the 2nd battalion under the command of A. P. in capturing the forest near Svinyukhin on 7 September 1916.
On this day, the regiment was located in the corps reserve, behind the right flank of the division. The first line consisted of the Life-Guard Semenovskii and Life-Guard Izmailovskii regiments. The Life-Guard Jägerskii regiment was located in the devisional reserve and occupied a position behind the Life-Guard Izmailovskii regiment.
After a heavy artillery bombardment, which lasted the entire day of September 6th until the morning of the 7th, the Semenovtsi and the Izmailovtsi launched their attack at 5 am on the 7th. They pushed the enemy back from several reinforced lines and occupied in turn the "pear-shaped" height (an enemy strong point) and then part of the forest near Svinyukhin and trenches west of Korytnitsa. However, the right flank of the Semenovtsi lacked support from neighbouring units and what is more, a significant breach had opened up between them and the Izmailovtsi. The enemy attempted to restore the situation with two vigorous counter-attacks: one from north from behind the Kukhar forest on the right flank of the Semenovtsi, the other from the south on the left flank of the Izmailovtsi.
The attack upon the Semenovtsi was turned back by their own reserves and by the advance of the 1st and 3rd battalions which lay in echelon behind their right flank. In eliminating the southern counter-attack, the entire Life-Guard Jägerskii regiment was employed, which saw both the Izmailovtsi and the Jägers moving towards the southern edges of the forest near Svinyukhin. At this time, a third German counter-attack took along the northern edge of this forest, against the flank and rear of the Izmailovtsi and the Jägers.
Our remaining reserves in this sector comprised two battalions - the 2nd and the 4th. The latter, which had taken part in attacks on the front line on September 3rd, consisted of hardly more than 400 men. The 2nd battalion was given the order to eliminate the German offensive.
During all my years in the war, I never saw anything similar to the advance of the 2nd battalion and its headlong attack, which swept the German lines before it. As soon as its foremost ranks appeared on the horizon, the enemy opened up a barrage of defensive fire from 5 heavy and numerous light batteries. The lines moved forward like an avalanche, the ranks neither halting nor wavering under the fire of the artillery. Witnessed from the command post, the battalion "navigated" their way through the enemy fire, as if they were "on maneuvers." Under the skillful and intrepid leadership of A. P., who marched amid the linked formations, the battalion covered a distance of one verst between its starting positions and the foremost lines, without incurring any significant loss.
With the German lines advancing into the gap between the "pear-shaped" height and the Sinyukhin forest, the distance between them and the 2nd battalion quickly diminished and the enemy fire slackened and then abated, when the companies of the 2nd battalion fell upon the German flank with a cry of urrah! The attack was so swift and unexpected, that almost no resistance was rendered, and the Germans streamed back, leaving numerous prisoners and machine guns in our hands. The entire sector from the "pear-shaped" height to the western edges of the Svinyukhin forest fell into our hands.
Following upon this success, A. P. dislodged the remnants of the enemy forces from this forest and completed the breakthrough of the enemy front.
By order of the Corps commandant, A. P. was appointed commander of the entire forest sector with all units located therein being subordinated to him. Having brought together the separate companies of Izmailovtsi and Jägers, A. P. immediately set about securing the forest behind us and continued to clear the approaches to the Bug river with strong reconnaissance parties. Reconnaissance discovered no enemy forces, but did capture many prisoners from dispersed German units.
The impression this battle made upon the enemy may be judged by the fact that by evening the bridges over the Bug river had been blown up, warehouses set ablaze and stockpiles of ammunition set off. Our aerial reconnaissance disclosed that enemy transports were hurriedly retreating to the west.
Unfortunately, the victory gained by the 1st Guards infantry division, crowned so brilliantly by the 2nd battalion under A. P. Kutepov, was not exploited by the Army Command. By the evening of the 7th, our 4th battalion had been sent to assist the 2nd battalion in the Svinyukhin forest, after which the entire Corps reserves had been exhausted. Ony by evening of the following day did the 10th Siberian division appear and relieve the units in the forest under Kutepov's command. Only on September 7th [sic - 9th] was the offensive renewed in this sector. During those 48 hours, the enemy managed to bring up reserves (2 German divisions, according to reports from our aerial reconnaissance) and organize a defense. Except for the capture of several strong points, our attack on the 9th was a failure. For the battle on September 7, A. P. was awarded with the St. George's Weapon. He had already received the St. George's Cross for fighting on 27 July 1915 at the village of Petrilov (Kholm operation), in which he was seriously wounded while leading his men in a counter-attack.
The Revolution of 1917 found the regiment occupying positions in Volhynsk province (Kovel' offensive). The fateful disintegration of the army began only slowly, penetrating from the rear into the front line troops, and with no little assistance exerted by revolutionaries and traitors, who desired to shake the stability, loyalty and discipline of the Preobrazhentsi. Disintegration only touched upon our regiment in July, when four reinforcement companies consisting almost exclusively of workers and men unfit for service, and imbued with "revolutionary" propaganda, were sent to the regiment on orders from the Soviet of Workers' Deputies. These regiments had their own well-organized propaganda staff ruled by the Bolshevik Chudnovskii (subsequently Military Commissar in the Bolshevik Government).
On 2 April 1917, A. P. Kutepov was appointed commander of the regiment after His Imperial Highness Major-General Drentel'n was transferred to the reserves. This appointment, which had been dreamed about by all the officers, was far from easy under the revolutionary circumstances. Kutepov's devotion to both the Sovereign and the Monarchy was well-known by all. Moreover, during the February days in Petersburg, A. P. had taken part in street fighting against the revolutionaries and was on the few who remained calm and carried out his responsibilities up to the end. Kutepov's loyalty to the "revolutionary" court was even questioned in the Soviet of Workers' Deputies as an "enemy of the people".
Further, the new company, battalion and regimental soldiers' councils, introduced as a result of the weakness of the Provisional Government, although limited on paper to the discussion of administrative and internal matters, in practice interfered in everything. Led by Chudnovskii, these councils resulted in an endless number of incidents and altercations, and undermined military discipline. An especially heavy blow was dealt to discipline - or the remnants thereof - by the visit of A. P. Kerenskii to the front, when an inspection by the War Minister turned into an undisciplined and unruly mass meeting. It seems to me, that Kerenskii was unaware of the harm which his front line meetings had caused. In his person, authority seemed both pathetic and insignificant. The Red commanders, despite all of their revolutionary ardour, splendidly took this into account and quickly and decisively put an end to the disordered military meetings, which they considered a legacy of the "bourgeois revolution" and which were intolerable in the most democratic army.
One should also mention that thinly veiled mistrust on the part of the Provisional Government towards the officer corps, not reckoning on the latter's undoubted patriotism and loyalty to the Fatherland on the one hand, nor the demoralizing impression this made on the bulk of the army on the other. It often appeared even among the older commanders, who either candidly or through adaptation towards the new trends, ruined the trust of the soldiers toward the front line officers.
These were the circumstances under which A. P Kutepov happened to take command of the regiment... Yet, despite everything, his charisma, example, courage and loyalty performed miracles. During the shameful days of the Tarnopol' breakthrough, which immediately followed upon the 'Kerenskii offensive,' at least one of Peter the Great's old brigades - the Life-Guard regiments Preobrazhenskii and Semenovskii and the 1st Guards artillery brigade - failed to dishonour the Russian flag.
Stubbornly defending its positions step by step, the brigade fell back under enemy pressure, without the support of the other elements of the XIth Army, which had lost the both the spirit and the appearance of being soldiers.
During these days of July 1917, A. P. Kutepov rose to the challenge. With profound anguish in his heart, and burning with anger against the cowards and traitors who had destroyed Russia, he presented to all an example of a Russian soldier, who is not afraid of death and who, in the moment of despair, achieves the highest level of spiritual effort.
One cannot describe in a short article everything that we experienced during those days. As part of the brigade, the regiment fell back amidst a sea of depraved soldiers, who plundered their own rear, who fled at the slightest sign of the enemy or even upon the sound of artillery fire, who murdered their own officers, and tossed the wounded out from the ambulances and the trains in order to hasten their escape. All efforts to suppress this on the part of the cavalry and several shock units were to no avail, and how our brigade, maintaining contact with the enemy every day, emerged from this hell, I believe no one now would be able to explain.
In this operation we lost more than 1000 guns and two billion roubles of military equipment. Not surprising, the number of prisoners taken was not comparatively great, so quickly did they retreat, that they abandoned the soldiers who had been "liberated from the yoke of Autocracy".
The further history of A. P. Kutepov's command of the regiment presents little of military interest. Slowly but surely, despite belated measures on the part of the Provisional Government to restore discipline in the forces, the last remnants of the appearance and spirit of an army were lost. The Bolshevik revolution found the regiment manning a picket position west of Volochiska and made no immediate impression. It was only dimly understood and disorder in the rear no longer surprised anyone. The general mood became hopeless. Interestingly enough, when an order finally arrived from the Bolshevik War Minister through the Revolutionary Military Council on 1 December 1917 to conduct a vote "for or against" the Soviet Government, the regiment declared itself "neutral"...
"Swine to a man," remarked one of the older reservists of the regimental committee, "all the more quicker we're allowed to go home." This phrase could sum up the entire mentality of the mass of soldiers....
After this, the order arrived regarding the removal of rank insignia and the election of commanders. Kutepov, "rejected" by the regimental committee, left for the Don.
I will not describe A. P. Kutepov's subsequent activity in Southern Russia or after emigration, as we met only occasionally after 1917. But faithful until death, I will preserve the memory of Alexander Pavlovich: a fair and fearless Russian soldier in the best meaning of the word, chivalrous without fear and reproach, and a warmly loved friend, mentor and commander.