In July 1914 Austria-Hungary moved towards war against Serbia for reasons discussed elsewhere.
The Tsar felt honour-bound to assist the Serbs. He had organised the Balkan League to push the Ottomans out of the region but had not contributed a single bullet to this enterprise. He had stood by and watched Austria-Hungary annex Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. This was a territory that the Serbs viewed as theirs. He must help them now. There was a popular demand in Russia for the nation to lift the sword in defence of little Serbia.
The Tsar mobilised his armed forces. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany wrote to him asking him not to calling on ”the tender friendship” that united them. The Kaiser was a second cousin of Nicholas II and a first cousin of the Tsarina.
Nicholas II could not consent to demobilise. He refused a German demand that he do so or face war.
On 1 August 1914 Germany declared war on Russia.
Huge crowds gathered in front of the palace in St Petersburg to shout their fervent support for the Tsar and Holy Russia in this righteous war against the oppressive Teuton. Russia would rescue her brother Slavs from the cruel yoke of Austria. Nicholas II appeared on the balcony of his palace to acknowledge the joyous masses. Time and again he was called back to nod to the elated people.
Immediately war measures were announced. Alcohol was banned. Russia could not waste grain on vodka. Many farmers and their horses would be going to war so there would be no grain to spare.Plus the government did not want soldiers to be drunk on duty or to get drunk and blurt out military secrets. This was no time for parties but for fighting.
Alcohol was a state monopoly so this was a key source of revenue that was now gone. Of course people still made vodka but illegally and tax-free. This move was unpopular.
Men who had completed military service were called back.
The Duma voted to dissolve itself and called for total unity behind the Tsar. Russia could not have bickering in time of war nor any wrangles over limitations to the power of the executive.
St Petersburg had its name changed as the city’s name seemed too Germanic. The new name was Petrograd. This article will use the old name to minimise confusion.
The Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich
The Tsar had his first cousin once removed in charge of the army – the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaivitch.
Russian troops moved to the front. They poured over the border into East Prussia under the command of General Samsonov. The Germans were alarmed at the pace of Russian advance.
In August 1914 Russia suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg. Basic insecurity in communication had led to this catastrophe. The Russian commander there, General Samsonov, committed suicide. One of the Russian general was Paul von Rennenkampf. As his name hints he was of German ancestry. Some muttered that he must be a traitor. Such calumny was to be depressingly widespread.
Russian industry could not produce enough weapons to serve the needs of the army. Over time war production picked up remarkably. However, this did little good as the commissariat was so poorly organised and the transport system was so inadequate that munitions seldom reached the front in good time.
Russia was bombarded on the Black Sea but Ottoman warships and was soon at war against her too. The Russians fought the Ottomans in the Caucasus Mountains. This was the only front on which Russia made gains that were held. However, dramatic advances were impossible in such rough terrain. Even if Russia were to break through to Anatolia the topography placed every advantage at the disposal of the defender.
By 1915 people were beginning to feel significant hardship in Russia – hardship beyond that a lifetime of poverty had accustomed them to. Food and coal shortages in the cities forced people to queue for rations of comestibles and fuel. In the biting cold of a Russian winter people needed more calories than normal to heat themselves. There was an insufficiency of these to be had. Prices rose twice as much as wages. In the queues people began to grumble and their minds turned to politics.
In the army lives seemed to be squandered on fruitless attacks. Not enough ammunition was delivered to the front. in places artillery was limited to firing two shells per day. this was not enough to answer the Central Powers artillery. Men were sent into action without rifles. General Brusilov said that his men fought like tigers but were let down by lack of munitions. Russian troops were driven back to within their own territory by well-coordinated attacks from the Germans and Austro-Hungarians.
Russian Poland was soon fully in German hands. The German High Command actively encouraged Polish nationalism. Admittedly this had been mostly for reasons of state and the German leadership had no heartfelt commitment to this cause. For most Polish nationalists the real enemy was Russian. Russia was the most dictatorial of the three powers that ruled Poland. Russia stifled the Polish language and identity the most severely. Indeed, some of those who had been involved in the assassination of Alexander II had been Polish separatists.
Josef Pilsudski was a Pole who had grown up in Russian Poland. He had joined a Russian left wing revolutionary group. However, his main aim was not socialism but Polish independence. Russia was not prepared to flirt with notions of autonomy for any section of her empire even cynically. However, Germany would not explicitly endorse the idea of a sovereign Poland. The German establishment spoke of Poland being independent within the German Empire. Independent within the German Empire was not independent at all thought Polish nationalists. Pilsudski raise Polish regiments to fight on the side of the Central Powers as he saw the defeat of Russia being absolutely crucial to the re-establishment of Poland as a nation-state. This galled in France and many Frenchmen were sympathetic to the cause of an independent Poland. The trouble was that France had never used her leverage with Russia to try to get anything done about this. Eastern Poland was too vital to the defence of Russia for this to be an issue that France was willing to pressurise Russia about.
Vicious and bogus rumours circulated that the Tsarina was a German spy as she was German-born. Cartoons were disseminated saying that she was having an affair with Rasputin.
Rasputin said that Russia would only be blessed with triumph when His Imperial Majesty assumed personal command of the armed forces. In 1915 Nicholas II responded to the widespread disenchantment with his hapless cousin Nikolai Nikolaivitch. He was relieved of his command. Nicholas II took over personal command. He spent most of his time in Mogilev. He was therefore absent from St Petersburg. The Tsarina was left behind in the capital to direct the affairs of state. She was profoundly influenced by Rasputin. She always spoke of him as ”our friend” and frequently cited his guidance when corresponding with her husband.
Nicholas II taking over personal command of the armed forces did nothing to enhance their operational effectiveness. Of course now he could not be so insulated from criticism about the mismanagement of the military.
In April 1915 Italy entered the war. This compelled Austria-Hungary to send a considerable number of troops to guard her frontier there. This allowed Russia a temporary breathing space.
War production stepped up greatly. However, transport became an increasing problem. The roads in Russia were always bad. They were impassable due to snow and mud for much of the year. The men who were supposed to repair them were mostly at the front and so they were in an even worse state than before. Further, materials and money for this work were in very short supply. Much the same was true of the railways. This led to ammunition being delivered too late for offensives, to reinforcements not reaching a defensive position before it was breached and to food going off before it got to market.
In 1916 Germany was preoccupied building up for her massive offensive in the west – Verdun. The Eastern Front was too long and too mobile to have many trenches. It spanned mountains and forests. Forces could not be so densely concentrated as to make trench warfare viable.
The Allies in the west were under enormous pressure. There was a high chance that the French would be broken at Verdun. If that happened the war was lost. The British were planning a major attack astride the River Somme. That was scheduled to start in late June. In fact it was delayed till 1 July. The Western Allies pleaded with the Russians to start a major attack at this time so that the Germans would be obliged to send some men east. This would take the heat off the embattled Allies in the west. J Enoch Powell considered that the Russians saved the United Kingdom in 1916 just as they had done in 1812 and did again in 1941.
Russia prepared for the Brusilov Offensive. It was so named as it was led by General Brusilov. Russia was ill-prepared in that it did not have enough well-armed, well-trained, well-fed, well-shod and well-motivated troops in position in time. On the other hand it was good to take the initiative while the Central Powers had been forces to divert troops to other theatres of war. It kept up morale to be seen to be going forward. This was an opportunity which may not present itself again. In June 1916 the Brusilov Offensive kicked off.
The Brusilov steam roller moved west through the Carpathians in what we would now call the Ukraine and Slovakia. Russia made considerable ground. Romania was actively deliberating whether or not to throw in its lot with the Allies, the Central Powers or even to remain neutral. Seeing that the Brusilov Offensive was being crowned with laurels Romania chose to make war on the Central Powers.
However, Romania chose to do so at the wrong time. By August 27, when she declared war, the Brusilov Offensive had run out of steam. Russian supply lines had been stretched beyond breaking point. Soldiers without ammunition or rations were being driven back or were surrendering in droves. This was to be the last time that Russia took enemy territory in the war.
The Central Powers were able to send enough soldiers to face the Romanian Army and to prevent them from making notable gains. If only Romania had put her weight behind Russia two months earlier then the entire course of the war may well have been altered. The Central Powers in the Carpathians would have been caught in a pincer movement and very probably defeated. The wait and see attitude led to the eventual defeat of the Brusilov Offensive.
Russia was now fighting deep in her own territory. The German Army made particular gains in the north – in Lithuania and Latvia. She held them and set up administrations there – endorsing the separatist causes of these two countries.
In Poland the German authorities declared the Kingdom of Poland. This was territory carved out of what was formerly the Russian Empire. Germany did not intend to hand over an inch of pre-war Germany. Besides, the Polish speaking area of Germany was East Prussia. It was to be a Kingdom within the German Empire – that was the German plan. However, the German High Command did not say this publicly at the time. But a king needed to be found. In the mean time a regent would hold the Throne. The Archbishop of Warsaw was made regent of Poland in 1916. Pilsudski kept pressing the Kaiser for a public and clear promise that Poland would be sovereign after the war. This the Kaiser would not do. In fact Wilhelm II asked that Pilsudski swear an oath of loyalty to him. Pilsudski refused and in 1918 he was imprisoned.
In that autumn of 1916 many in Russia became deeply despondent. Those who had theretofore been stalwarts of the Tsarist cause turned against him. Conspiracies to oust the Tsar spread. The aim was not just to rid Russia of the ill-starred Nicholas II but to rid Russia of Tsars for all time. The secret police came to hear of such plots and did not even decide to arrest the conspirators. Nicholas II had few friends indeed. By this time Russia had already suffered 5,000,000 casualties. These were those taken prisoner, wounded, killed and missing. Some were so badly injured that they could never fight again. Of those who were missing some were killed, some were in the chaotic Russian military hospital network – one may hardly term it a ‘system’. Many more men died than need to have done not only due to some poor tactical decisions and for want of munitions. The military doctors were too few and had not enough drugs and bandages. Of the casualties about 1 000 000 were on the missing list. it is probable that a considerable minority were deserters. In a country as gigantic as Russia it was easy enough to simply swap one’s clothes for civilian clothes and blend into society. The Russian military said it had 34 000 deserters a month. The real figure must be somewhat higher.
The Russian manpower decision was so bad that the government was compelled to reconsider one of its few level-headed policies. Muslims had been exempt from military service. The reasons for this were not actuated by generosity. Tsarist government was particulalrly feeble in the burning-freezing wastes of Central Asia. As the Tsarist state extolled its Christian character it could hardly expect to appeal to the loyalty of Muslims. The Mohammedans of Central Asia were linked to the Ottoman Turks by ties of history, of trade, of kinship of language and of empathy. For them the Ottoman Empire was a potential liberator and not an aggressor. Rather they saw Russia as an alien and even an enemy country. So long as the pastoralists were permitted to move with their flocks and herds across the vastness of the steppe unmolested than the Tsarist state would not encounter much trouble from them. Leave them to their own devices. The government had long realised that it would be very foolhardy to put a gun into the hands of its Muslim subjects. Such weapons would be more likely to be used against Russia than for her. However, in 1916 all that changed. Petrograd decided to extend military service to the Muslim subjects.
The Central Asian Revolt was a factor in the failure of the Brusilov Offensive. Just as the offensive was making progress men had to be diverted thousands if kilometres to the rear to crush this insurrection.
The Central Asian Revolt of 1916 was a reaction against the announcement that Muslims would be conscripted to fight for Holy (Christian) Russia. Of course instead of adding men to the Eastern Front this policy of imposing conscription on a people deeply hostile to serving in the Russian Army took away men from the Easter Front. Russia had to call away troops from contending with Austria-Hungary and Germany and send them to Central Asia. This enormous and almost roadless desert was virtually ungovernable outside the main cities even at the best of times – and these were the worst of times. However strained the manpower situation had been before the attempted introduction of conscription for Muslims it was much worse afterwards. The Ottoman Empire actively encouraged this revolt. This was a revolt they supported not just out of expediency but they were genuinely enthusiastic about. They sent agents to help agents to help direct the revolt. The Central Powers tried to pose as a friend of Islam. Of course the Ottoman Empire had Islam as its state religion. The Sultan was the Caliph of Sunni Islam. The Kaiser hoped to rouse Muslims across the British Empire – especially in India – to rise up against British rule. This met with little response. In fact there were plenty of Muslims on the Allied side such as Arab nationalists 90% of whom were Muslims.
Prince Felix Yusupov was typical of the dissolute glitterati who formed the charmed circle in Russia at the time. He was styled ‘prince’ on account of his descent from Rurik – a Viking leader of nine hundred years before. The Oxford educated Yusupov was the wealthiest man in Russia. As a teenager he had spent his evenings trawling the nightclubs of St Petersburg dressed as a lady. Many blamed the self-indulgence of his fast set for the ills of Russia. He and those of his ilk spent their time in debauched luxury. They cared not a fig for the sacrifices made by their less fortunate countrymen.
Yusupov and other upper class Tsarists blamed all Russia’s woes on Rasputin. He had the ear of the Tsar and more especially of the Tsarina. The influence of this counterfeit monk was much exaggerated. It was exaggerated especially by himself. He was a self-publicist. He wanted people to believe that he could make or unmake anyone’s career so they ought to hand him hefty bribes. If only Rasputin could be eliminated than victory would be Russia’s. This was of course a specious line of reasoning but it was alluring to those who searched in vain for a scapegoat. These people could not bear to face the fact that the Tsar was not fit for purpose and indeed the whole system of Tsarism was flawed.
In late 1916 Yusupov and his chums hatched a plot to do away with Rasputin. Rasputin was invited to a party at Yusupov’s house. This man of God was not known for his self-denial. It was 16 December 1916. Rasputin was served poisoned wine. Rasputin happily downed it and asked for more. He was then offered poisoned buns. He munched them avidly. Far from coming over all queasy he was bounding with energy. He got to his feet and danced about the room. Yusupov and his friends became deeply worried. Eventually they summoned Rasputin out to a courtyard and shot him. Rasputin did not do down easily. He had to be shot several times but still he staggered forward to grapple with his killers. Finally he had to be bludgeoned. He was thrown into the boot of a car and driven to the frozen River. There the unfortunate Rasputin was taken out of the car. He was alive! They threw him into the river. The assassins later realised their mistake in failing to weigh him down. His dead body was discovered some days later. Rasputin had tried to climb out of the river and had died of exposure. Rumours circulated that the assassins had amputated Rasputin’s penis which was reputed to be preternaturally large.
Some believe that the British secret service had a hand in the assassination. They were desperate to keep Russia in the war. Anything that would further this aim was seen as commendable. The revolver that shot Rasputin was British issue. There are discrepancies in accounts about his killing. Prince Yusupov never tired of recounting how he killed Rasputin. He varied in his bragging of the slaying. This lead to many thinking that all was not as it seemed. The inconsistencies in Prince Yusupov boastful reminiscences only added to the conjecture that the British secret service either put him up to it or else did it themselves and allowed Yusupov to take the credit.
Prince Yusupov was never arrested in connection to this crime despite his involvement being public knowledge. However much the Tsarina felt for the mad monk it seemed that Prince Felix Yusupov was untouchable. In his later life the said prince lived in exile and wrote of pre-revolutionary Russia in a book that was an elegy of that vanished world of opulence, ”Lost Splendour.”