May 6, 2016

A Testament in Military Science

Publishing Nikolai Reek’s (1890–1942) works on military science in the series on the history of Estonian thought is a worthwhile project since it is the first time that a professional member of the armed forces writing about military subjects has been placed on the same level as other Estonian thinkers. This book will therefore hopefully help more people to understand that being a serviceman is about more than just shooting and digging ditches—which are still necessary—and that the position is also a serious science, depending on one’s rank and specific duties.

This publication may therefore help the Estonian Defence Forces to achieve their purpose in raising military science as an academic discipline on the same level as psychology or mathematics. Although we may claim that there are no military matters that could not be solved within the framework of existing disciplines, and that “military science” is as absurd as “the science of peace”, it is still reasonable to define a specialist field dedicated to military issues (tactics, the art of operations, military leadership). Apropos, it is worth mentioning that the Estonian National Defence College (KVÜÕA) decided to rename its journal KVÜÕA Toimetised (“ENDC Proceedings”) as Sõjateadlane (“Military Scientist”)—a bow to a journal with the same name that was published on the initiative of Lieutenant General Nikolai Reek in 1925 and from 1938 to 1940.1
I hope that this Sõjateadlane fares better than the pre-war journal. Nikolai Reek noted in 1936 that Estonian military science was in poor shape since the journal’s readership consisted only of active officers, which is why the income received from research did not cover the cost of publication. Despite this, he underlined the importance of original Estonian military science because he considered it the only means of adapting the technical and tactical changes and operational concepts of the era to Estonian circumstances so as to develop a military doctrine suitable for the country (p. 430).
These ideas sound quite modern. Our Defence Forces have also struggled with fusing the differing approaches to military science adopted by officers of different “schools of thought”, i.e. servicemen trained in various military academies in Finland, the US and other countries, and adapting the knowledge learnt abroad to the Estonian context. Even though these problems are said to be irrelevant today, the Estonian Defence Forces do not have a single publicly available battle doctrine (such as the US’s field manual FM 100–5, which is periodically updated) that would explain to mere mortals and privates how we are planning to fight.
Writing about this in 1936, Nikolai Reek said: “We cannot develop a doctrine that is suitable for our situation based on foreign literature alone. … A ‘vinegret’ [he meant a salad popular in Russian cuisine—KP] of understandings may develop over the question of the doctrine. Russians faced this threat a while back. One person read one source, another person read a different one, the first understood the text in one way, the second differently, and the result was a confusion of terms and understandings!” (p. 431). The fact that servicemen, especially high-ranking officers who were educators, should perform research was self-evident for Reek. In an address to the officers of the Estonian Higher Military School, he said that their professional activity and field of operation should be based on performing research on questions in their field that had been entrusted to them, besides practical work in units and staff. (p. 434).
Discovering and analysing Estonia’s own treasury—or, as Captain-major Liivo Laanetu recently put it,2 “goldmine”—of military science publications is mostly something for the future. This book grants us access to a lot of material that could be analysed in the context of the era’s military ideas as part of a special research project. Today, the state of military research being what it is, we know little of the development of military thought in Estonia in the inter-war period. We are quite familiar with the topics of planning national defence and purchasing arms but we do not know precisely how the high command of the Estonian army planned to fight against enemies on the tactical and operational level. Unlike Poland, France or our close neighbour Finland, we cannot analyse this on the basis of battles that actually took place. The resources we do have and can study are military literature, army regulations and material on exercises where scenarios were prepared, tasks were set and, in the best cases, participating units received an assessment.
Nikolai Reek’s influence on military tactics was undoubtedly great, since he was a division commander, editor of the journal Soldier (“Sõdur”), head of the general staff’s courses, inspector of military educational institutions, and, from 1934, head of the general staff and Johan Laidoner’s [commander-in-chief] closest colleague. It is worth noting that he was a strong-willed serviceman with many talents and a proud nature (according to Voldemar Kures), who was given the moniker “Napoleon”. Reek was a controversial person and people sometimes also recall his negative aspects. His derision of Latvians, for example, is noteworthy—as long as Reek was in office, it was no use talking about a working military alliance with them—but in this review let us focus, rather, on his publications in the field of military science. His handbook Instructions on Waging Battle (Lahingu juhatus) published in 1920—which has not, unfortunately, been included in this collection—was approved as the official instruction for teaching tactics by directive of the Minister of War (p. 17). His later writings, such as Decision of a Leader and How It Is formed (Juhi otsus ja selle kujunemine), which was amended in 1937, were also approved as official regulations.
Andres Seene correctly notes that the traditional Russian strike tactics were replaced in Reek’s writings with fire tactics (p. 17). Emphasis on the impact of new firearms, especially automatic weapons, was based on experience of position warfare characteristic of the Western Front in World War I. Reek, who was the first Estonian serviceman to study at the French Higher Military School from 1923 to 1925, modified the ideas of the French school for Estonia. The keywords of the French doctrine were “fire kills” and “methodical battle” characterised by subjecting the activities of manoeuvrable units to the requirements of a “fire plan” prepared by higher levels of decision-making. Subunits had little freedom to act since everything was to be coordinated with the high command of an operation and “synchronised” with other activities. This contrasted sharply with the idea of manoeuvre warfare developed in Germany, and the results very clearly did not benefit France in 1940.3
Naturally, it might not be true that all bad developments were adopted from France. For example, Reek emphasised many times that “the virtue of a written order is its brevity” (p. 315)—a statement that it would be beneficial to remember in the Estonian Defence Forces as well—and underlined the importance of initiative (p. 311). Still, firepower takes centre stage. Even in 1937 he postulated that “fire is the most important factor in a battle. Attack is fire that moves forward; defence is fire that forces the opponent to stop” and, a few pages later, “the main type of armament in a battle is the infantry”. While Reek dedicated eight pages to analysing landscapes from the point of view of using automatic weapons, he spent less than a page exploring the same subject from the perspective of armoured fighting vehicles, and paid even less attention to anti-tank protection (p. 289). This was an extremely flippant attitude if we consider who were to be Estonia’s opponents.
As mentioned above, research should be undertaken to compare Reek’s works with the battle regulations of other countries and to analyse the various strata of the texts. All in all, this publication offers plenty of food for thought about past and contemporary military issues, so it would make fascinating reading for both historians and military enthusiasts. Lieutenant General Nikolai Reek’s writings, which were scattered among various sources, have now been published in one book and equipped with a sound and competent foreword. We can only hope there will be more publications like this.
1 Andres Saumets and Sten Allik, “KVÜÕA toimetistest sõjateadlaseks” – Sõjateadlane 1, 2016, pp. 7–10.
2 Liivo Laanetu, “Eesti meresõjalise mõtte kullafond” – ENDC Occasional Papers 3, 2015, pp. 9–95.
3 See, e.g., Robert A. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919–1939, Archon Books/The Shoe String Press, 1985.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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