Monday, November 16, 2009

When 'History' and Eye-Witness Accounts Conflict

I had read about the Japanese sneak attack on Port Arthur in Manchuria that provided the excuse to launch the Russo-Japanese War, so I wasn’t surprised to see it described in the notebooks. But my grandfather also served under one of the key perpetrators of Russia’s defeat in the Battle of Mukden, one of the most critical battles of the war. This was none other than Alexi Kuropatkin, Russia’s Minister of War, whom Wikipedia says was held responsible for the disastrous decision described below by my grandfather.

"Toward dawn, a messenger from headquarters came riding up. We had been ordered to stop and make a stand.

"Our company commander was justly furious. Here the terrain was flat and almost indefensible. The ground was also icy and rocky. It was impossible for us to dig trenches. We had passed up far better positions to which it was now too late to return. But headquarters was adamant. The enemy was advancing too quickly. Time had to be gained to reinforce Mukden.

"Our commander ordered us to build ramparts out of frozen corpses, the only material that was in abundant supply…"

This was “one of the largest land battles to be fought before World War I,” according to Wikipedia, and in which Russia lost about one-quarter of its soldiers (Japan lost marginally fewer men), which is described in painful clarity:

"…With the first beams of sunlight, hordes of Japanese had risen out of the earth and, like a tidal wave, came rolling steadily toward us, accompanied by queer blasts on a bugle and a roar of voices raised in a single word, “Banzai!”

"Our company disintegrated before my eyes. We turned and ran, stumbling heedlessly over dead and wounded alike. Far behind us, from time to time, we heard a hideous shriek, which I assumed to be one of our wounded being sliced to death.

"I hadn’t yet forgotten our commander who, after a furious, pistol-waving attempt to rally us, was now running as fast as any man in the company. I had trouble catching up to him until suddenly he staggered. A bullet had tom his neck. He tried to keep running, which was a mistake, because he ran right into an explosion which tore off part of his leg."

And every once in a while I discover a contradiction with recorded history. In The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias, W Bruce Lincoln writes, The “Trans-Siberian Railway remained bisected by Lake Baikal , some 13,000 sq miles of water. …To save the expense of building the especially costly stretch of tracks around the lake’s southern tip, its planners had decided to ferry freight and passengers across it.”

In contrast, this is my grandfather talking about traveling by train from St. Petersburg through Siberia, to Manchuria, some 6000 miles away. This involved crossing Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world (said to contain one-quarter of all the fresh water on earth (, during the brutal Russian winter.

"The train had to cross Lake Baikal on rails laid over the ice, which at times suddenly cracked open into yawning rifts and crevices. To keep the cars from being too heavy, the officers were taken across by horse-drawn sledges, and the rest of us walked, our rifles with their eternally fixed bayonets resting on one shoulder. Forty miles across the windswept ice, with only brief pauses for hot soup from our mobile kitchens. By morning it turned out that a number of men had disappeared, probably drowned, and many more suffered from frostbite."

I don’t know why I continue to be surprised to discover that people and places that my grandfather referenced in his diaries were real people who actually existed. But each time I come across a new name, I feel a need to look it up, which is part of why this process is taking so long.


  1. Bryna,
    I read a National Geographic piece on Lake Baikal a few years ago which was the major story of this particular issue. It spent some time discussing how in Winter there in Siberia, the lake freezes so solidly and many feet thick that it can be driven across and that in winter, there is much traffic across it when it is strong enough to drive even the heaviest of vehicles over, directly across the lake. I believe that your Grandfather was traveling on temporary winter-time railroad tracks that Russia's "Army Corps of Engineers," as we call our own building experts in our military, who can do such things. Ever since our own Civil War doing such things has been extremely important to military success, and you can even find evidence of such massive construction going back millenia like with the Romans building a ramp at Masada, or Alexander the Great Constructing a land bridge out int the ocean to defeat an island kingdom. The military of Czar Nicholas would have been quite good at laying track over ice or building bridges, usually temporary like pontoon (small boats or barges) bridges with boards for a road laid across perpendicularly over open water. The Czar's army could quickly have laid down the forty miles, probably within a week. Unfortunately when it gets warmer in this case, as Jacob implies, these tracks became so unsafe on the heavily laden troop-train that his army officers rode on "horse drawn sledges" over the ice instead of on the train. Russia rivaled America at this time in its ability to lay down train tracks rapidly, many miles a day if you have enough men, which Russia did. It's Army surely would have been able to do so, as there'd be no impediments to a nice, level surface-the only drawback being the eventual seasonal thaw, which it sounds like was happening about this time. I can't remember what month this was from the book, but it reminds me of History Channel's "Ice Road Truckers" where it seems every Spring the weakened ice eventually causes someone to go through what was absolutely solid prior to the warm weather-and Human Nature seems to make people under pressure cross ice that might not be safe. I'd say you could find in some Russian Military Archive or one of their Army Engineer Instruction Manuals the information about the rapid construction of train tracks right across the frozen lake which would have been many feet thick in the midst of winter. That is where I think the seeming contradiction lies. I'll bet the necessity of war made the Russian Army ignore the risks and build the tracks right across the lake, and use them as long as they could until one of them went right through the thawing ice in warmer months. That's when I think the Generals would have said "Well, I guess we'd better go around now." But I think they'd already been beaten by Japan at that point.

  2. Thanks, Josh. What I don't understand is how the ice could still support the train's contents alongside the train. How thick would the ice had to have been to handle that much weight, even if it was not all in a single spot?