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Frederick the Great famously noted after the Battle of Zorndorf that "It's easier to kill the Russians than to win over them."

For that same battle the Russian commander (William Fermor) is noted as having drawn up his forces in front of a swamp, allegedly to deter his young conscripts from retreating away from Frederick's famous oblique attack.

Other contemporary sources note the frequency with which Russian infantry was drawn up with Cossacks so close behind that "the breath of the horses warmed the hair on the back of their necks".

Is there any consensus on the relative extent to which cultural, tactical, psychological and other factors contributed to the observed willingness of Russian soldiers to stand and die in exceptional numbers? The time period of interest would run from 1756 to 1815.

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1 Answer 1

It was Sun Tzu, in the Art of War, that advocated putting soldiers in death ground to make them fight.

"Put them in a spot where they have no place to go, and they will die before fleeing. If they are to die there, what can they not do? Warriors exert their full strength. When warriors are in great danger, then they have no fear. When there is nowhere to go they are firm, when they are deeply involved they stick to it. If they have no choice, they will fight."

That, in essence is what Fermor did at Zorndorf. He didn't exactly defeat the Prussians, but he inflicted a "Pyrrhic victory" that was only slightly less costly than their defeat at e.g. Kolin.

An American commander, Daniel Morgan, did a similar thing during the American Revolution at the Battle of Cowpens. Facing a young, aggressive British commander, he placed his army with its back to the Broad River. It was a battle plan that basically insured the destruction of either the American or British army (the British lost).

Russian soldiers weren't necessarily braver than others, but their commanders were more likely to put them in "death ground."

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Are any translations of Sun Tzu known to be available in mid-18th century Europe? Your answer seems to hinge on the premise that at least one was. –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 20 '13 at 5:25
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Pieter Geerkens: I would guess that more than one commander would have observed this phenomenon over the millenia. More to the point, Russia was the European country that sustained the longest invasion/occupation by the Mongols, who had also conquered China, so the knowledge could have come from the East. It may also help explain why only they (and not "European") commanders used this tactic. –  Tom Au Dec 20 '13 at 13:45
    
While this is interesting, it looks too much like a speculation to me. Is there any prove they deliberately use this tactic time and again? –  Lohoris Dec 20 '13 at 16:26
    
@Lohoris: The most obvious (but by no means unique, example), was the battle of Borodino en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Borodino. –  Tom Au Dec 21 '13 at 1:06

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