In 1914, Russia was badly prepared for a serious war having just nine years earlier been defeated in a war with against a tiny and a definitely non-European power in Japan. There was a revolution in 1905 that had shaken the Russian Empite to its core and the Tsar was forced to concede civil rights and a parliament to the Russian people. Reforms were put in place but they were half-hearted and incomplete by the time war started, however peasants eager to improve their lot rallied to their nations cause to fight against the Central Powers.
To keep the empire united a great victory was needed but early Russian hopes were immediately thwarted in The Great War. At Tannenberg and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, in 1914, Russia lost two entire armies of over 250,000 men.
Russia’s failed advance westwards into Germany had the result of disrupting the Schlieffen Plan and possibly saved Paris from falling under the German regime but for Russia itself it was the beginning of a long retreat which saw all of Poland, Lithuania and most of Latvia in German hands by the middle of 1915.
A programme was put in place to militarise vital industrial sectors but a breakdown of the system which brought foods from the countryside to the cities meant Russia entered a serious internal crisis.
By the middle of the war things had picked up for Russia and by 1916 they had improved the supply of rifles and artillery shells to the Eastern Front. June 1916 saw a great Russian victory over Austro-Hungary with the Brusilov Offensive which resulted in the capture of Galicia and the Bukovina as well as holding off the Ottomans in the Caucasus region.
Rumours began to spread that the Tsarina Alexandra and Rasputin were German spies and despite the rumours being totally unfounded, more and more senior Russians began asking whether their 1.7 million dead and 5 million wounded was due to treason as opposed to simple stupidity and the horrors of modern warfare.
As in Britain, the out-dated strategies of the Russian generals cost countless lives, unnecessarily so in many cases and to make things worse, the Tsar and his immediate circle didn’t seem to have any sympathy for the people.
After massive public demonstrations, food riots and a mutiny at the Petrograd Garrison in February 1917, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate as war continued to rage. A new and Provisional Government led by liberals and moderate socialists was proclaimed, and its leaders hoped now to pursue the war more effectively.
Tsar Nicholas and his family were put under house arrest in the Alexander Palace before later being relocated to a more remote location, supposedly for their own protection. Conditions for the Tsar were at first comfortable before things became stricter with the family being put on rations and be liable to offensive treatment from their protectors.
In April the family were moved to Yekaterinburg where the Bolsheviks wanted to put them on trial. However, the city was being threatened by the white Russians and the Bolsheviks were worried the Tsar would be restored to power or at least become a figurehead of resistance and when forces from Czechoslovakia neared the city who didn’t even know the Tsar was there, the Bolsheviks panicked and the Tsar with his family were shot and also bayoneted to death on 17th July 1918.
Following the 1917 revolution, power was went to the elected Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies group whilst Bolshevik and Anarchist movements did their best to remove the ability of the Russian army to fight.
Russian leaders half-heartedly campaigned for a general armistice without blame or territorial transfers, something that Germany obviously would never agree too given their strong position. With their planned counter-attack for the summer of 1917 withering on the vine due to the Bolshevik convictions now held by many of the men, radical anti-war leaders including Vladimir Lenin, were ferried home from exile in Switzerland in April 1917, courtesy of the German General Staff. Such was the fear of revolt all across Europe at this time that the Germans kept Lenin locked in a train cabin, guarded at all time and forbidden to speak to anyone lest he instrument a revolt in Germany! It must be said that for some time Germany had been doing its best to create disorder in Russia and by the end of 1917 is estimated to have spent 30 million in doing so.
The summer offensive was a disaster. Peasant soldiers deserted en masse to join the revolution, and fraternisation with the enemy became common leading the way open for the Lenin and his Bolsheviks to take power in the October Revolution of 1917 without any resistance.
After taking power, the Bolsheviks promised to deliver ‘Peace, Bread and Land’ to the beleaguered people of Russia. With regard to the first of these, a ‘Decree on Peace’ (26 October 1917) was signed off by Lenin, calling upon all belligerents to end the slaughter of World War One.
It is important not to think that Lenin was a pacifist, far from it and instead he hoped to create an international civil war as he suspected Imperial powers would continue to fight and reveal their true selves to the working class people of the empires and around the world.
Realising it would allow them the chance to bring their men and resources to the Western Front, the Central Powers agreed to a peace treaty in the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk. The Russian negotiator Trotsky tried to prevaricate which simply gave the Germans the chance to make further great advances for five days as the German soldiers did not revolt as Lenin had hoped and so Russia and the Central Powers signed Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3rd March 1918.
It was a very one-sided and punitive treaty which effectively handed over Russian Finland, Poland, the Baltic provinces, Ukraine and Transcaucasia to the Central Powers, together with one-third of the old empire’s population, one-third of its agricultural land and three-quarters of its industries.
Lest We Forget is available in Kindle and Paperback formats in all good on-line outlets and literary stores too. The Kindle version is published by Endeavour Press of London, one of the world’s leading digital publishers. The paperback version is available too for those folk like me who prefer an excellent book and the paperback includes a number of maps and archive photos as well as some personal photos of my family members who like millions of others, fought for our freedom only never to return home.
You can order Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War from Amazon.com in Kindle for $4.58and paperback for $9.99 and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle for £2.99 and paperback for £6.99 and other Amazons around the world.