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Scorched Earth – Russia’s retreat goes up in flames! l THE GREAT WAR Week 52

Scorched Earth – Russia’s retreat goes up in flames! l THE GREAT WAR Week 52


Russia had been in retreat from the German
and Austro-Hungarian armies for nearly three months, losing huge areas of land and hundreds
of thousands of prisoners, but what could she do to prevent the invaders from making
use of their gains? Well, Russia adopted a scorched earth policy. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. The big news last week was a new German Offensive
that was designed to sweep from the Baltic down to Bukovina. The ongoing Gorlice-Tarnow
Offensive was gaining new ground further south. The British and French made small gains at
Gallipoli but at a big cost in men, and the stalemate continued in the West as the Germans
again failed to cross the Yser Canal. Here’s what happened next. The German phalanx under General August von
Mackensen moved inexorably onward. There was heavy fighting this week between
the Bug and Vistula rivers, but the Russians still stubbornly defended the Lublin-Chelm
railway line even as they retreated along the entire line. Things were really looking
grim over in the Polish salient where the Germans attacked both North and South of Warsaw
on the 19th. The Germans also stormed the fortresses of Rojan and Pultusk and crossed
the Narev River. But as the Germans advanced in Poland, a lot
of people weren’t sticking around to see how things would turn out. The Russian high command received reports
of large-scale systematic depopulation of the Plotsk district, northwest of Warsaw,
where Russian units had uprooted 22,000 of 25,000 inhabitants and torched their villages
in a scorched earth policy. Actually, all Russian controlled areas subject
to the threat of invasion came under military administration, and the principal thought
concerning Nikolay Yanushkevich, chief of the general staff, was to scorch the earth
and leave the invaders nothing but wilderness. Thing is, the effect of this was really terrible
for industry in any cities under threat, as Warsaw was now for example, but think of the
effect on the civilian population. Peter Gatrell’s book about Russian refugees during the war
has this first person experience, “We were forced to burn our homes and crops, we weren’t
allowed to take our cattle with us, we weren’t even allowed to return to our homes to get
some money.” By the end of 1915- yeah, I know it’s jumping
ahead, but so what- there would be 3.3 million refugees in Russia. You had families that
ran successful farms, who were totally impoverished, industrial cities would lose their entire
workforce. In Warsaw, the whole population was eventually told to leave because it was
worried that the Poles really supported Austria-Hungary. Refugees also carried disease, like typhus
or cholera, and since they had nothing, they would often have to resort to looting to survive. So the army, on its great retreat, while admittedly
leaving little of use for the Germans or Austrians, was making things a lot more difficult for
itself, particularly clogging what was already a totally inadequate system of transportation.
To make things even worse, Yanushkevich was so anti-Semitic, that it pissed off Russian
public opinion, and considering the thousands of Jews killed in Russia during pogroms of
the past couple of decades, that’s pretty serious. So certain areas were “cleansed”
of supposedly unreliable elements, like those of German ancestry or Jews. Having said that, there was a positive side
for Russian Jews as well. Until mid 1915, they had been mostly limited to living in
cities and towns in the Pale of Settlement (show on map), since the time of Catherine
the Great, 120 years earlier, but the Pale would soon be abolished as the Great Exodus
continued and Jews would be allowed to relocate further east and also to settle in the countryside
instead of only the towns. I mentioned disease briefly, and now I’m
going to talk about it a little more deeply, but far to the south, at Gallipoli. This week at Gallipoli was fairly quiet, compared
to all the action so far in June and July, but here’s something there I haven’t talked
about yet, sanitation. Now, corpses were left to rot in no mans land at Gallipoli since
the whole area was covered by fire, and with the rotting corpses and the summer heat came
the flies, millions of flies. These were more than just an irritation because they were
feeding on the liquid feces that filled the open latrines. Peter Hart says that one medical
handbook claims one female fly could originate nearly 5 trillion, 600 million flies in six
months, so when I say “millions of flies”, I mean it. Now, latrine discipline was theoretically
of major importance and all latrines were to be covered and fly proof, but, you know,
this wasn’t a camp, it was a battlefield and the whole place was- again- under fire,
so there was neither the wood, the space, the disinfectants, or even the time to begin
to cope with sanitary issues. Toilet paper was a highly prized luxury and hygiene by
this time was pretty much non-existent. So the millions of flies carried a cocktail
of infections, such as dysentery. Thousands of men suffered intense abdominal pain, and
a lot of them didn’t even have the strength to make it to the latrines, which made things
worse. Water shortages made dehydration a huge issue too. Paratyphoid came with the
dysentery so a lot of men suffered from both, and symptoms included, but were not limited
to fever, headache, stomach ache, vomiting, shivering fits, bronchial coughs, diarrhea,
vertigo, deafness, aching joints, and rashes, and if you managed to avoid getting sick,
you still had to deal with the lice, which affected pretty much everyone. At least on
the western front there were delousing centers; there was no such luxury at Gallipoli. One other common problem was “soldier’s
heart”, which is when you’d become so weak from disease that some of your bodily
functions would begin shutting down and you would be totally breathless after even the
slightest exertion. The strength of the troops was literally wasting away. And in the British
House of Commons on the 19th, total Dardanelles casualties thru June 30th were announced as
42,344. And the stalemate there continued. And another
front that seemed to also be turning into a stalemate was the newest on- the Italian
front. Now, the Italians had actually made some small
advances against the numerically inferior Austro-Hungarian defenses but by this week,
which saw the Second Battle of the Isonzo, you could pretty well see the emerging pattern.
The Italians used simple frontal attacks, relying on force of numbers and courage to
carry the day over the Austrians, and in this they were to be disappointed again and again
and again. Italian Army Chief of Staff Luigi Cadorna was completely inflexible and seemingly
without imagination, but he had unshakable self-confidence and learned nothing from repeated
setbacks when he used the same tactics over and over. He even believed that the failures
were only caused by a lack of determination by his men. Thing is, though he had managed to scrape
together any and all guns from all over Italy, it was nowhere near enough guns, gunners,
or shells, to take out the Austrian strongpoints, so even when managing to take somewhere like
Mont San Michele, which his troops took the 19th after bloody fighting, they would just
lose it to counter attacks. There was also foreshadowing this week of
what could possibly become yet another front. On July 17th, a secret treaty was signed between
the three central powers and Bulgaria under which Bulgaria would get 600 square miles
of Turkish territory in Thrace. The next day, the German ambassador at Constantinople was
received in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. However, the day after that, Bulgaria once again publicly
declared her neutrality. And here are some notes to round out the week.
The Serbs evacuated the Albanian capital of Durazzo by Italian request the 17th. On the
22nd, 30 Turkish officers with a cargo of arms sailed for Tripoli, which was controlled
by Italy in a hostile Libya. Many Italians would demand war against the Ottoman Empire
for this blatant attempt to arm rebels. So another week, the 51st of the war, ends
with the Russians still in retreat, still losing thousands of prisoners, and destroying
their own territory to confound the attackers. The Western Front was quiet, but that just
meant thousands of casualties instead of tens of thousands. Gallipoli too was quiet, but
the nightmare there continued while the Italians tangled again with Austria. So the Russian were scorching the earth. Perhaps
it was essential, for if places like Warsaw were to fall, with all of their factories,
railway lines, and military equipment, what a huge boon that would be for the conquerors,
but still, what a manmade hell it was for the civilians, the refugees who numbered in
the millions. Imagine that, say you have a farm in Poland; you’re too old to fight,
but your sons go to war, perhaps one or more even survive the first year, and then you,
your family, in spite of doing your patriotic duty, are ordered to leave your home, your
possessions, your dignity, and relocate God know where and God knows how, maybe turning
to crime to survive and being jailed or killed in consequence. The tragedies of this war
are never ending. And the tragedies were everywhere. Sure, the
men were in the trenches fighting and dying for whatever reason the generals just came
up with. But the women at home had their bundle to carry too. We made a special episode about
the duties of women in World War 1 which you can check out right here. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Matthew
Fritz! Help us reach our milestones on Patreon so, that we can start to shoot on original
locations of WW1. Follow us on Instagram for more facts and
pictures from World War 1 and don’t forget to subscribe.

18 comments on “Scorched Earth – Russia’s retreat goes up in flames! l THE GREAT WAR Week 52

  1. Yanushkevich was dismissed after the February Revolution. He was arrested at the start of 1918 and was ordered to be sent to Petrograd but on the way his guards killed him.

  2. Isnt it funny how not one of these countries wanted out. They all were down killing all their young men for nothing. Most pointless war. France for their 2 little provinces back which belongs to Germany historically anyway. France and Britain just couldn't stand Germany being a world power along side themselves. Pathetic so fck

  3. Poles conscripted to the Russian army were not doing their patriotic duty because Poland was partitioned (occupied). And so the Russians did not scorch their land, they scorched Polish land.
    At 1:16 when talking about fighting in occupied Poland you show some village with minaretes. What the ef?
    This episode is pretty annoying. Still, the whole series is a great job.

  4. is there a reference for "Soldier's heart". During Barbarossa in 41, the Germans were mystified to find that otherwise healthy Soviets soldiers in pockets cutoff, just died for no apparent reason, sending coroners to investigate, then forgetting about it. By the time of Stalingrad, they notice their own soldiers dying for no apparent reason, aside from the stress, and being surrounded with no hope.

  5. PALE?? Now that's weird. Pale was also a term used in England back-in-the-day to describe the demarcation between English-Ireland and the rest. How is it that the same word, in a vastly different language-tree, is used for a different type of demarcation?

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