This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers shown below refer to Vladimir Littauer’s
Russian Hussar, Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing, 1993.
On July 24, 1915, somewhere in Latvia, German forces advanced against a Siberian infantry regiment. The Russian commander ordered in a cavalry division to support the exhausted Siberians. The division consisted of Dragoons, Cossacks, Uhlans, and Hussars.* Vladimir Littauer of the Sumsky Hussars recalled: “The Hussars’ squadrons were assembling at a gallop and opening formation, with my unit on the left flank. Some 1,600 horses drawn up in four rows with hundreds of lowered lances formed a beautiful and menacing sight. The scene was dramatically lighted by the setting sun. Our battery opened fire to soften the Germans while the regiments moved ahead. The Germans ran even before our charge started…. It seemed to us that the threat of a large cavalry attack had decided the outcome of the battle.” (192)
A body of cavalry moving in orderly formation in the heat of battle: that achievement of discipline must have been impressive to see. As also, for instance, the limbering of the guns in an earlier battle, East Prussia: “The horses galloped to their guns. With great skill and seemingly without halting their horses, the artillerymen hooked the guns to the limbers and pulled away. This was the result of endless drills.” (160)
Or, soon thereafter, when the Germans had nearly surrounded them: “I imagine they already considered us their prisoners…. Then Gourko galloped forward and, as if on parade, gave the command: ‘The division, from the right, by regiment, at regimental distances, forward, walk, march,’ and pointed east with his sword to indicate the direction. The thick column moved forward; almost immediately orders to trot, and then to canter, were given.” (161) The Germans were so surprised that they delayed opening fire, and the Russians escaped.
Littauer’s Hussars were part of the Russian 1st Army under General Rennenkampf. The 2nd Army under General Samsonov had just suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the Battle of Tannenberg, August 26-30, 1914. Samsonov committed suicide immediately afterward, shooting himself in the head rather than face the wrath of the Tsar.
But Littauer’s book is not the place to learn about major events in the war, as he tells us himself: as an “unimportant officer,” he can offer only small details of the “great strategic operations.” (8) In his typical way, he gives the humorous example of a low-ranking officer in Napoleon’s army who for weeks told everyone of participating in an engagement near a certain village. Only after considerable time did he discover that it was the Battle of Austerlitz in which he’d fought.
Instead, the book offers the opportunity to sit down comfortably with a man of remarkable experience, a top-notch raconteur, and listen to his astonishing stories. Pretend that you are dining with him at an elegant establishment—let’s even pretend it resembles the best Moscow restaurant of the pre-Revolution era, the “Yar”—and that over much good food and fine wine, he is telling you tales of his life that span the years from cavalry school to regimental life in Moscow to the war, the Revolution, the Whites against the Reds, and finally his exile from his country. You are in a large Empire-style room with ornate green columns and a stage where a gypsy chorus will perform late in the evening. Through large panels of glass, you can see chefs in the spic-and-span kitchen preparing meals in gleaming copper pans.
To be an officer in the Sumsky Hussars, one needed wealth. When in Moscow, officers lunched at their club together, at a long table where the men sat strictly in order of rank. Before sitting down to eat one might stand at the bar and consume varieties of smoked fish while knocking back a few glasses of vodka. A bill was presented at the end of the month.
One always dined out. Those feeling especially flush might invite a female companion to a private room at the Yar and hire the gypsy chorus to perform for the two of them. Even the most junior officers seldom dined alone at the club. Sometimes several of the younger men would pool resources for a supper and hire singers and the regiment’s off-duty trumpeters for entertainment. The official regimental personnel included 16 trumpeters as well as the transport and communications units, the machine gun unit, and the clerks.
Wealth was also necessary for social cohesion. Littauer often speaks of the regiment as a “family.” Officers who did not share the others’ habits and values were driven out—a rare happening, since an intensive weeding-out process had already occurred in cavalry school. But a certain lieutenant from an aristocratic background who secretly married a beautiful gypsy girl was forced to leave. Any marriage required the permission of the commander and, just as importantly, the informal approval of one’s fellow officers. The regiment was so central to the men’s lives that few did take a wife. They satisfied themselves with what the regiment called “the ladies of our circle.” Littauer explains, “These were not prostitutes, but just ladies of easy virtue, and quite a few of them were amusing, besides being pretty and perhaps even chic.” (87)
In cavalry school, the boys were subjected to a regimen of demanding athletic accomplishments. Purely academic subjects such as Russian literature were scorned, and the professor of that subject was reduced to bargaining with his students about their grades. Naturally, everything revolved around horsemanship. The boys were drilled incessantly in a large ring until they could pull off such stunts as “Scythian riding” over low fences without either saddle or bridle.
I did a fair amount of riding when I was growing up, and I expected to find considerable detail about horsemanship in this book, especially since Littauer founded the famous “Boots and Saddles” riding school after he emigrated to the US. But perhaps because he’s written about the subject elsewhere, he doesn’t give it that much attention here. I learned that the Russian cavalry rode in the “manege” or dressage style, with long stirrups and upright posture, inducing the horse to make tight, controlled movements—arched neck, vertical head. In Littauer’s time, some of the younger officers advocated a newer style with shorter stirrups, the rider leaning forward out of the saddle at a gallop or a jump, the horse allowed extension in its movements. But the traditionalists would have none of that. In the field, the formal style often proved impractical. Littauer mentions that as the war went on, they replaced their curb bits with snaffles. The curb puts a lot of leverage on the horse’s mouth, while the snaffle is gentler and better suited to long cross-country rides.
Littauer’s experience of war
The picture presented in Russian Hussar could hardly be more different than the one described in the last book in this blog series, The Notebooks of Louis Barthas. For that matter, it bears no resemblance to any of the Western Front narratives. Of course, we’re on the Eastern Front here, and we’re dealing with cavalry rather than infantry. But it is the social world of the officers that makes the critical difference.
The Sumsky Hussars originated in 1651 as a Cossack regiment from the town of Sumy on the southern Russian plains. It was one of several bodies of Cossacks turned into regular cavalry, and one of four created the same year who all claimed to be the oldest Russian cavalry regiment.
Its officers either came from nobility or (as in Littauer’s case) from very wealthy families. As “younkers” in the Nicholas Cavalry School, they performed for the Tsar and not infrequently met with him personally. The officers’ club had on display such relics as a giant silver punch bowl presented by the town of Sumy on the regiment’s 250th anniversary, and a painting measuring six feet by ten feet depicting an attack by the regiment in the Napoleonic wars. Against this background, behavior was governed by intricate historical tradition.
Littauer’s stories nearly all concern other commissioned officers (he entered the regiment as a cornet, or 2nd lieutenant), or the occasional corporal, sergeant, or adjutant. The regular enlisted man doesn’t make much of an appearance. I don’t believe Littauer lacked human concern for his men. He did appreciate the courage of individuals, as when he describes seeing a dead soldier with a heap of spent cartridges by his side, indicating that he’d remained on the spot for a long time—far ahead of his company’s firing line—shooting until he was killed. “Since then I have seen and forgotten thousands of dead bodies, but this one I remember as though I saw it only yesterday.” (141)
But if Littauer ever felt any sense of horror or meaninglessness, he does not express it. This is in keeping with his personal code: “To make light of what was either boredom, danger, or tragedy, to speak freely of one’s failures, barely to mention one’s acts of bravery, and to joke about both.” (9)
Because he was an officer, he naturally avoided many of the discomforts experienced by his men. He and his fellows were billeted in the nicest houses in the villages they occupied, while the common soldiers slept on hay in the barns. He had better food and drink. Those things would make quite a difference in one’s experience of war.
As part of Russia’s 1st Army, he escaped the 2nd Army’s destruction at Tannenberg. The lack of coordination between the two armies is said to have derived from personal animosity between Rennenkampf and Samsonov that dated back to the Battle of Mukden in the Russo-Japanese War. The 1st Army should have gone to the support of the 2nd, but instead continued marching in a straight line under the willful Rennenkampf. And so, because of a trivial personality clash, Littauer’s regiment avoided going into the maelstrom.
The 1st Army was pursued by the Germans out of East Prussia, fighting fierce battles and experiencing heavy losses, especially in the period January to March 1915. This is probably the most severe combat Littauer experienced, and he describes seeing bodies stacked like cords of firewood and fields carpeted with the dead: those all-too-familiar images of battle. Thereafter the intensity abated, and eventually the regiment joined the army reserve in trenches along the bank of the Dvina (Daugavec) in east Latvia. But with the small numbers involved, these trenches bore little resemblance to the ones in Flanders and France.
It was while they occupied those trenches that they had word of the Revolution, March 1917. It took them completely by surprise. When Littauer heard that the Tsar was expected to abdicate, “This all sounded so preposterous that we could not believe it.” (229) Before long the men of the regiment requested to form a soldiers’ council, in keeping with the new democratic order. The Sumsky Hussars managed to hold together, with considerable internal tensions, but eventually Littauer quarreled with a platoon sergeant, and the soldiers’ council took Littauer’s squadron away from him. At that point he deserted and went home to St. Petersburg.
His odyssey thereafter is too long to detail here. He joined the White Army, eventually realized it was a lost cause, and after many harrowing adventures and narrow escapes managed to leave Russia with his father, his sister, and a family servant.
The other reason why Littauer’s book lacks deep introspection and reflections on the nature of war is that it is largely based on anecdotes, the sort, as mentioned earlier, that would be told among friends over good food and drink. But these anecdotes are exceedingly valuable. Not only do they entertain and provide notes of humor, they give a remarkable description of a world that has entirely disappeared.
* Dragoons = mounted infantry; Uhlans = lancers; Hussars = light cavalry; Cossacks are their own category.