Book Review: The Eastern Front

The Eastern Front, 1914-1917
by Norman Stone
Macmillan, 1976

In the West, World War I is remembered for the futility of trench warfare, as men died in the tens of thousands for gains of a few hundred yards. In an attempt to break that stalemate, the most industrially- advanced nations of the world applied their ingenuity towards developing industrial ways of killing on the battlefield. Men were asphyxiated by poison gas, burned alive by flamethrowers, and finally, crushed by tanks. Yet another First World War was also fought alongside the war in the trenches -- a war of movement, in which victorious campaigns led to advances of tens, even hundreds of miles. That was the war on the Eastern front -- a war forgotten by a Western Europe that was preoccupied with its own tragedies, a war whose results were overturned by later events, a war that ended up overshadowed by revolution, a war that Winston Churchill dubbed "the unknown war".

Decades after it was written in 1976, Norman Stone's meticulously researched book remains the most complete English-language account of the Eastern front of World War I. In the introduction, Stone summarizes the existing English- language literature as consisting of essentially two books, one of them being Churchill's book from 1931! Of course, by the time Stone was writing his book, the Eastern front of World War I had long since been overshadowed by the Eastern front of World War II, which saw the fiercest fighting of the war and ultimately decided its outcome. The same cannot be said of the Eastern front of World War I.

Stone covers the events and conditions thoroughly, drawing on the Russian-language literature and on archival sources -- including the Austrian war archives, which survived World War II largely intact, unlike much of the German archives. About half the book consists of straightforward military chronicling. The story is told at a high level (corps and divisions), so the immediacy of combat is largely absent, but it goes by quickly enough. In a book that covers three years of war in just 300 pages, the author can spare only a few pages for each battle — 17 pages for the entire Romanian campaign.

Stone's analysis turns out to be much more interesting than the chronicling of battles, which can be found elsewhere. Stone describes the organization, industry, and economics of warfare, supplying many numbers and interesting details. He demonstrates, for example, that the Russian armaments industry got off to a very slow start, taking essentially two years to get production on a full war footing. Meanwhile, Russian orders of armaments from Britain and America were slow to arrive, and when they did, it took forever for the supplies to make their way through the inadequate railway system. Some supplies that landed at ports on the White Sea were even hauled by Finnish sleds, under pain of harsh treatment from their Russian overlords if they refused to comply.

Myths about the Eastern Front

In this way, Stone convincingly demolishes several myths that have sprung up about the Eastern front. The foremost misconception, according to Stone, is that the Russian front could have been saved had she received more supplies from the Western Allies. Stone asserts that "shell shortage" was largely an invention, an excuse seized upon by bumbling tsarist commanders to explain their failure in battle. After the slow start to production, shell stocks from Russian sources turned out to be ample, and almost always superior to those available to the Central Powers.

Similarly, the poor Russian railway network is often blamed for the inadequate supply of Russian forces. But as Stone points out, German railroaders managed just fine with those same railroad lines, moving supplies and reserves essentially at will. Digging deeper into the causes of this disparity, Stone tracks the cause of the Russian problems to poor railroad management. In particular, a great deal of Russian railroad capacity was tied up by the movement of fodder for cavalry horses. The Germans gave up on cavalry early on and thus freed up substantial capacity for more important uses.

Indeed, the Russians were not the only combatant to experience great problems in administration and leadership. The Austro-Hungarian army was also poorly-led, frittering away its strength on ill-conceived campaigns while being riven with ethnic tensions. Czech troops found themselves treated like peasants by their Austrian commanders, despite the fact that Bohemia was one of the most industrialized areas in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to Stone, Czech and Ruthenian troops instantly "improved" in quality once the Austrian officers were replaced with Prussians. Ultimately, the Germans would seize direct control of the Austro-Hungarian army, injecting German troops into Austro-Hungarian formations at a very granular level. Indeed, Erwin Rommel remembers leading his German company into battle right alongside other German and Austro-Hungarian companies [read review of Infantry Attacks]. To be integrated company-by-company — that is indeed a thoroughly mixed army of the Central Powers.

After revealing the truth behind excuses for Russian failure, Stone tackles the larger question of German defeat in the First World War. He does not believe that the First World War could have been won on the Eastern front. Victories there were to be had, but victories were also fleeting. A few months after the decisive German victories at Tannenburg and the First Masurian Lakes, the Russians were back in East Prussia. And the Russians always had a commanding manpower advantage that the Germans could never match. The great territorial gains of 1915 were achieved not through Ludendorff's brilliance, but as a result of an orderly Russian withdrawal, intentionally evacuating the entire Polish salient in order to consolidate their defenses and shorten their lines of communications. Stone prefers to see the victories of the Eastern front as successes resulting from limited offensives for limited goals.

Stone also attributes the Russian Revolution not to the failure of Russia to adapt to modernity, but rather, to the stresses introduced by her successful industrialization for war. For example, wartime production led to inflation, which ate away at fixed incomes and returned peasants to a subsistence economy, since middlemen made it impossible for them to share in the higher prices of grain. But I consider this argument to be a matter of semantics — if the government bureaucracy could not keep up, then it did indeed fail to adapt to modernity. With fewer natural resources, and under a starvation blockade by the British, Germany managed to stay together until its armies were finally overwhelmed by American manpower.

The main takeaway lesson is that competence in administration and leadership can make up for great numerical disadvantages. The Allies placed great hopes on Romanian entry into the war, thinking that it would tip the balance. But the Romanian army was brushed aside quickly and with little difficulty. If Russia's millions could not tip the balance for the Allies in the face of German superiority and Austria-Hungary's stubborn refusal to collapse, then what could Romania do with hundreds of thousands? And Russia maintained its logistical failures throughout, until internal tensions finally exploded and took it out of the war. The imperial eagles of Europe all fell as a result of World War I, but they fell in exactly the order that one would have predicted: first Russia, then Austria-Hungary, and finally Germany.


As the Austro-Hungarian army marched into Russia in the early days of the war, the soldiers received orders to treat the local population severely — Jews excepted. Apparently it was felt that the Jews would remember the pogroms that the Russians had inflicted on them and wouldn't need any prodding to be helpful to their Austro-Hungarian liberators. Later, during Hindenburg's presidency of the German Republic, Jewish veterans compiled a list of 12,000 German Jews who had died for the Fatherland in the First World War. Indeed, when Albert Einstein made his visit to Britain in the 1920s, newspapers remarked how great it was that a German scientist could finally be welcomed without rancor.

In World War II, the Eastern front saw some of the fiercest fighting, while it was spared many of the horrors of trench warfare in World War I due to the wide-open spaces and the corresponding war of maneuver. In World War II, prisoners on the Eastern front were treated viciously on both sides, but prisoners were generally treated decently in World War I. The Western front was the decisive theater in World War I; the Eastern front was the decisive theater in World War II. American manpower tipped the balance to the Allies in World War I; American manpower was deliberately limited in World War II (the "90-division gamble") in order to keep its industries running at maximum production and keep supplies flowing to Britain and the Soviet Union.

What's fascinating about the Eastern front of World War I is how, in many ways, it was the mirror image of the same front during World War II. One wing of my high school was once nicknamed the "Polish corridor," since it was the history wing and many of the history teachers had Polish names. One of them told of how his family home in Poland had been requisitioned as staff quarters by both Russian and German officers. As his family's oral history had recorded it, "The German officers were nicer."