‘Fourth Army has actually been captured’, ran a telegram to Austrian headquarters in June 1916. An enterprising Russian general, Aleksei Brusilov, had worked out how the trench war could be won, using methods that were not adopted on the Western Front until two years later. His victory, however, was over an Austrian army that seemed to be full of weaknesses. It was made up mainly of Slav troops – largely Czechs and Ruthenes (the term used at the time for Ukrainians) – and they were said simply not to have fought. It was not as simple as that. The new method involved a short, hurricane bombardment that, in the dry Eastern European summer, levelled trenches and threw up clouds of dust. The Russian attackers were carefully concealed and told to move ahead fast, bypassing strong points. Between 266,000 and 400,000 bewildered soldiers from the Austrian army were marched off to prisoner-of-war camps. Was this defeat evidence of great disaffection on the part of the Habsburg army’s Slav troops, as Allied propaganda had it, or was it just the kind of collapse that stupid generals more or less invited?
Whatever the case, there were more than two million prisoners from the German and Austro-Hungarian armies in Russian camps by 1917 and they had some grounds for disaffection, the more so as conditions there were poor. The very well-meaning Countess Kinsky came on a Red Cross inspection, and enjoined loyalty