The Komneniad: Narrow Victories

Intuitively it seems strange to call the steppe front ‘narrow’; what could be wider than the broad, treeless plain? And it is true that there was no lack of room for the armies to maneuver; the steppe front never bogged down into grinding trench warfare as happened in the Caucasus. But sheer space was not the only reason for this elbow room; for the steppes were narrow in the sense that neither combatant could engage there with the full strength they were theoretically capable of putting in the field. Moreover, due to the existence and ‘neutrality’ of tiny Kokand, a tribal statelet which had for centuries maintained a nominal independence by a careful balance of public allegiance to the Czar, private reminders that the Khanate would be delighted to have additional allies, and having no resources worth annexing, there were actually two steppe fronts, one arctic and one subarctic. Both Rome and Russia considered violating its neutrality, but rejected the idea. In the first case this was because of the danger of bringing Germany, nominally a Russian ally, into the war; in the second case because the last thing the Russian high command needed was still another place to scrape up an army for, whatever the immediate tactical advantages.

For Russia, then, beset on four fronts and hard pressed everywhere, the steppe front was one of the few bright spots, or at least less dim than the deadly fighting in the Caucasus and Ukraine. The Khanate, on the other hand, found the situation immensely frustrating. Recruiting from wealthy Korea and populous China, the Legions had grown to an immense size, with peacetime ration strengths counted in millions. But what was the good of that, when the railroads to the fighting front could keep only a fraction of that strength supplied? The thirty years since the Russian War of 1893 had changed war immensely. The railroads, built originally to allow the scattered tribesmen to bring their herds to market in the east, were well enough, if slightly strained, for armies whose main weapon remained the bolt-action rifle. They were completely inadequate for a war of machine guns, heavy artillery, and armoured vehicles. The Komnenoi thus found themselves with the strongest army they had ever fielded, the hated Russians standing at bay with enemies on every side, and no way of bringing their full strength to bear!

The small part of the Khanate’s strength that could be supplied was, nonetheless, sufficient to drive the Russian front back over several hundred miles; but there was no rupture, no break in the Russian line of resistance through which a million men could drive for the Urals, as certainly would have happened if even half the Legions could have been brought to bear on the relatively weak Russian defenders. Indeed, even if there had been such a breach, it could not have been supplied.

Considered, then, as a war to finally bring the vengeance of Rome down on the hereditary enemy – and that was the way it had been sold to the public – the Caucasian War, as it became known after its most famous campaign, was something of a failure. The much vaunted Kataphrakts, as armoured vehicles were inevitably called in Greek, proved unreliable in steppe conditions: The distances defeated them in summer, and in winter they frequently would not even start without hours of being thawed over open fires. Much to their surprise, the Komnenoi found themselves calling up nomad allies mounted on sturdy ponies, which even if they weren’t armoured did at least retain mobility even in snow. The Russians were no better off; nobody had fought a modern war in Siberian winter, and everyone had all the lessons to learn. Lubricants that did not freeze, insulated engine blocks, wide tracks, electric heating coils – all this had to be thought of, engineered, manufactured, and brought to the front over railroads already inadequate to their task. Meanwhile the war was fought in the old way, with wide cavalry sweeps pinning the enemy until the infantry and heavy guns could be brought up. Against such armies as the Russians could spare for a fourth front, it sufficed. But there was no glory in it; and there were none of the sweeping advances and thousand-mile running battles that the theorists of the Εθνικής Ενότητας had spoken of before the war.

The peace treaty, when it came, also proved a disappointment. The border moved several hundred miles towards the Urals, and with the annexation of Kokand the last vestige of tribal independence was snuffed out. In earlier centuries, when the Czars had been driving for the Pacific and the Khanate had fought savagely merely to keep the crumbling frontier, such a treaty would have been hailed as a great victory. Now it was received almost as a defeat; there were riots in New Byzantium after the terms had been read. The National Unity party, widely seen as the architects of the war, were discredited and in consequence became all the more radicalised, in a classic case of evaporative heating. Conversely, the Party for Peace and Progress, led by Georgos Ioánnou, tripled the number of its Electors after what came to be called the Nika Election, reaching almost half the size it had had when it was called the Industry Party and did not advocate an unpopular pacifism.

These internal tensions, and their counterparts in Ethiopia, partly explain why the long-expected war against threatening German hegemony did not materialise in the twenties. The Kongolese might remonstrate and bluster, but they were no longer in a position to stand alone against the behemoth of Europe; and both Rome and Ethiopia were, in the opinions of their respective leaders, simply too divided to risk another great war so soon. In the absence of action, the painfully-built alliance fell into disuse; like any large-scale international structure, entropy was against it, and constant work required to maintain it – work which was not forthcoming, as two of its three major Powers turned isolationist after their expensive, narrow victories. The cynical calculation of the German government in not coming to the aid of their erstwhile ally was, thus, richly rewarded; while Russia, smarting from the loss of border areas but retaining its vital industries and major populations, sought its opportunity for revenge.

— From The Road to War: Eurasian Diplomacy 1921-1941,
Adam Tewksbury,
Deutsch-Anglische Informations-Presse, (C) 1967.

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