The infantry formed the backbone of all armies in the Napoleonic Wars, but no army relied more on its humble private foot soldier than that of Imperial Russia.
Brave, stubborn and resilient they had to cope with poor conditions, worse supplies and a cadre of mostly incompetent officers. Whenever western observers spent time with the Russian army they were constantly amazed by the sheer tenacity and good humour of the average Russian infantryman in the face of adversity.
Many thousands of men were pushed through the Imperial war machine to take to the fields of Europe in defiance of Napoleon. Often they were on the receiving end of awful punishment but rarely wavered. French officers were in awe of their ability to withstand artillery fire, cavalry charges and the famous French attack columns. It was said that only when you bayonetted them could you be sure you were dealing with mere men.
The Russians did seem to make use of the bayonet more often than any other army; it suited their character to get stuck in. In addition, the Russian army was usually ill-equipped and the quality of their muskets was generally inferior to that of their enemies’. Bayonets were always reliable!
Contrary to opinion it was not fear of punishment or excessive alcohol consumption that drove these men to fight on when others may have crumbled rather an unwillingness to accept defeat.
Recruitment was never a problem for the Russian army. Many of the recruits came from an agricultural background of serfdom, little more than illiterate slaves. The army offered a steady income and regular meals. Any hardship they may suffer was an improvement for many so conscription was not usually seen as a curse. Service was for life, although this was reduced to 25 years after 1805 effectively still a life service in all but name. Upon conscription a man would depart his village as if he were already dead, with ceremonies to that effect such were the slim hopes he would ever return.