The various wars fought in the period between 1803-1815 are referred to largely as the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon, as leader of France, led his country in a number of conflicts against other European nations following the French revolution. Russia, being a powerful European state, was involved in a number of conflicts and thus mobilised a large army by calling up its peasants to fight.
Life for the average Russian was hard. Serfdom was widely used in Russian society where peasants worked for their landlords with little opportunity of breaking free from this rural life of agricultural labour. But the Napoleonic wars led to the Russian leaders drafting more and more serfs to serve in their armies and life there was even worse…
The average Russian soldier was drafted into the army as a conscript, but whereas in other nations troops were drafted for a period of time and then often released after the war was over, the Russian soldiers were forced to serve for 25 years. In the Russian army, this effectively meant they were a soldier for life. When a man was called up to do his military service, his family and friends knew they would most likely never see him again, even if they did, the man would return a complete stranger as the writing of letters home and leave for soldiers to visit families was not allowed.
In order to return home, the soldier had to live through tremendous difficulties such as the incessant beatings that they received, surviving diseases and of course making it through the military campaigns. It was not surprising that during these times no more than 10% of soldiers survived their military service. But if against all the odds they did manage to return home, they would no longer be a serf and thus could not work in agriculture. When faced with this problem, many either returned back into the army or went to the cities in search of work.
Whilst the soldier was in the army, he was set upon the path of being turned into an unquestioning loyal soldier. He was beaten regularly, forced to live in dreadful conditions and even had to face the dreaded gauntlet where he would run in between a line of comrades as each of them beat him. During peace times the soldiers would offer their labour to locals in return for pay, but most of the time this money went straight into the officers pockets.
When in training discipline was incredibly strict. A soldier would face immediate execution if he displayed cowardice in battle, this even went to an extent where a soldier would be caned if he moved out of the way of an oncoming cannonball! The soldiers were taught to rely on the bayonet rather than the musket and any semblance of initiative or intelligence was beaten out of him during this rigorous training until they followed orders without question. It was not surprising that as the Russian armies moved westwards, many deserted.
The differences between the soldiers in the ranks and the officers were immeasurable. Most probably know that in those days there was a clear divide between the nobility and the peasants, but in Russia it was as if there were two different nationalities in one nation. The Russian officers were comprised solely from the nobility, promotion for ordinary soldiers into officers just did not happen. For the nobility French culture dominated their society. Young nobles were raised by French tutors who taught French culture and literature. The nobility spoke French amongst themselves, knowing only enough Russian to give orders to servants. For a career in the army or administration of the country, fluency in French was compulsory. All commands given in the army by officers or generals were given in French which made clear the stark difference between themselves and the Russian speaking soldiers. Whilst it was a Russian army, there were in actual fact a large number of different nationalities. It consisted of Italians, Swiss, Germans, Swedes, Poles, Georgians and a large number of French aristocrats who had fled their home following the French revolution.
The only real advantage in being a Russian soldier during this time was the uniforms which were green in colour, much more practical than the French blue or British red, made of good quality and allowed movement more easily. Even with this though, army life for a Russian was certainly full of misery, pain and a constant reminder that Russia was controlled by the ruling elite who held little in common with the Russian people.
Written by Jonny Morris.