In previous articles we have looked in detail at the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 and the shrewd diplomatic game played by the British government during the hot summer of 1914 designed to draw Germany and Russia into the Balkan conflict. The time has now come to open up some little known pages of this Great War which we may, quite rightly, call “The Odd War”…
The very beginning of the global conflict was unusual. Up until that time, whoever declared war would begin offensive action. In 1914 however, having declared war on Russia, Germany immediately went on the defensive. The actions of Berlin are worthy of surprise indeed, but even more surprising are the actions of the Austrians. Having started a war against Serbia, they did not seem to notice the Russian-German conflict begun on their account. In Vienna, they did not hear Germany’s declaration of war on France. Neither did they react to Britain’s entry into the war. They declared war on Russia on 6 August, 6 (!) days after Germany. Actual combat on the Russian-Austrian front did not begin until 12 August and on the Russian-German front it began even later on 13 August 1914.
It soon became clear that the German generals did not have a separate plan for the destruction of Russia. The German General Staff had plans in the event of a war with France, which Russia would support, but not against Russia! The German Army faced serious difficulties in trying to halt the powerful might of the Russian Army, which had been trying to force its way into the heart of Germany territory. It was forced to improvise as it went along, pulling new military units out of nowhere. It seems that Germany was not ready for a war with Russia.
And Russia’s military and political leadership knew this perfectly well, which is why the German Kaiser’s declaration of war surprised everybody in St. Petersburg beyond belief. Both his own and Russian soldiers were in a state of bewilderment. Even Tsar Nicholas II was filled with amazement. In his telegram to the King of England George V, sent the day after the German démarche and justifying his own mobilisation, Tsar Nicholas II gave vent to his feelings: “I am justified in acting as I have by Germany’s sudden declaration of war, which came as a complete surprise to me since I gave Kaiser Wilhelm the most categorical assurances that my armed forces would not move while mediation talks were in progress.”
A world war had begun. In the West, having completed the expansion of its army, the Germans delivered a devastating blow to France through the territory of Belgium. The Russian front, however, was silent. For the time being, the Russian army itself had not begun its offensive! It was at that point that Germany was also forced to open military operations on the Eastern front. As German Admiral Tirpitz stated: “Circumstances have forced us to strike blows at the front, which is not in keeping with our political interests.”
Let us ask ourselves a very simple question: in all seriousness, why did the Russian Army begin to attack the Germans? And why, afterwards, did it launch its offensive against Austria-Hungary?
The answer is rooted in the reasons and aims behind the skirmish engineered by the English. The Russian Army went on the offensive because it was asked to by its Entente “allies”. Or, rather, not so much asked as begged! And from Tsar Nicholas II’s point of view, they had the right to. As far as he was concerned, the sudden declaration of war was a sign of Germany’s disloyalty and aggressiveness, while France and England’s entry into the war, regardless of their desire to, was a display of their loyalty and commitment to their alliance with Russia. From then on, the Russian Tsar felt deeply indebted to Paris and London and as a result, Tsar Nicholas II was willing to help the French fight off Germany’s attack. Help to the detriment of himself, paid for with the blood of thousands of Russian soldiers.
At the very start of the war, England and France had two real problems which both had the same solution. The first was the possibility of a German-Russian reconciliation. Such a development of events had to be ruled out once and for all. The option of “a war without a war” mixed up all of England’s maps and brought their cunning manoeuvres to nothing. The blood of German and Russian soldiers was needed, a sea of blood, and then a reconciliation between the two adversaries would be impossible. The Germans and Austrians were not getting ready to attack, which meant that the Russian armies had to. France’s second problem was created by the German soldiers, who had smashed their way through Belgium surprisingly quickly and were heading towards Paris. The solution to both England and France’s problems, therefore, was to speed up the start of large-scale military operations on the Russian-German front.
The Russian offensive:
– put an end to the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the conflict once and for all;
– shifted the burden of the war from the Western to the Eastern front; and
– began to undermine the state system of the Russian Empire, since the Russian army was not ready to attack.
This is exactly why the “allied” states were trying to get the Russian army to attack from the very first day of the war. The French Minister of War, Adolphe Messimy, literally demanded it, while the French ambassador in Russia, Maurice Paléologue, “begged” Tsar Nicholas II “to order the attack” since otherwise, France would “inevitably be crushed”. General Brusilov, a hero of the First World War and creator of the renowned Brusilov Offensive, recalled: “At the beginning of the war, in order to save France, he (the Commander in Chief) decided to go against the war plan worked out earlier and quickly launch an offensive, without waiting for the concentration and expansion of armies to be completed.”
There were less than fifty kilometres left to Paris. The heat of the battle was such that the French command was seizing any opportunity to stop their enemy. At the beginning of September 1914, nearly 600 Parisian taxis, making several trips, ferried around 6,000 French soldiers to the front. And even this small reinforcement played a role: on the River Marne, the Germans suddenly got up and started moving back. Historians have called this the Miracle of the Marne. In reality, however, it was not miracles at all that saved Paris. Paris was saved by tens of thousands of slaughtered and imprisoned Russians. During the most acute battles for Paris, two Russian armies under the command of Generals Samsonov and Rennenkampf invaded the territory of East Prussia. After losing the Battle of Gumbinnen, the defeated Germans began to retreat, the High Command of the German Army having been forced to remove nearly 100,000 soldiers from their advance on Paris and redeploy them against the Russians. The result of this unprepared attack was the encirclement and destruction of an entire Russian army. Unable to bear the shame, General Samsonov shot himself.
The desire to draw as many German and Austrian troops as possible away to the Eastern front is a common thread which can be seen running through all the operations of the Russian army in 1914. At the same time as its attack on German troops, another section of the Russian army began an offensive against Austria in Galicia, this time to help the Serbians. Russian troops advanced without having mobilised and completely unprepared. There were a series of defeats initially, but the overall superiority of the Russian troops in terms of tactics, arms and morale did its bit. As a result of stubborn fighting, Austrian-Hungarian troops suffered a serious defeat.
Not comprehending the reasons and aims behind the world war that had broken out, the Russian leadership was not even able to assess correctly the possible ways that events could develop. In St. Petersburg, they were convinced that the war would not last very long, since Germany and Austria would surely not be able to withstand the combined power of the Entente. And in reality, Germany would have been destroyed quickly on the one condition that the aims of all members of the Entente were the same. However, Russia was fighting for the overall defeat of the enemy, while the British were fighting for the future organisation of the world, a world in which there was no room for the Russian Empire.
The English themselves took virtually no part in the massacre that was flaring up. As usual, they were fighting a war by proxy. To help France, the British Expeditionary Force of General French consisting of two corps and one cavalry brigade was dispatched to the continent, all in all a total of 70,000 people. The number of losses suffered by the Russian army in one operation was greater than the whole British Expeditionary corps! But why did the British Army have such small numbers in Europe?
After it ended, the First World War was called the Great War. The illusion that the war would be speedily concluded melted away literally after a few months, along with the reserves of shells. The warring powers quickly called up millions of reservists to fight for their country. Every country did this, expect for… Great Britain. The British army was still manning itself with volunteers. How long did that go on for? A very long time. General military service was introduced in the United Kingdom on 6 January 1916, 16 months after the start of the world conflict. All that time, the British army was unable to help its allies to the full extent of its powers. It stands to reason that this was completely accidental. When asked for help, the British were justifiably able to shrug their shoulders helplessly – there’s nothing we can do. Our army is so small you see, so small!
The Russian army was on the offensive, this time straining at Moravia and Silesia. Silesia has coal and was an important industrial region of Germany, therefore the Germans were obliged to once again shift their troops from the French front to the Russian. Heavy German artillery crushed the Russian infantry without response. The losses were atrocious. In just six months, the number of losses accounted for half of the overall number for the entire war! The war entered a positional phase – the enemy had exhausted the last of their prepared reserves and the Germans had no strength for a decisive victory. At issue was just a few seized kilometres of French territory. During complex moments of military operations, at the critical time of arms shortages, neither the English nor the French offered Russia any kind of support. General Bonch-Bruevich wrote the bitter truth: “Both England and France were lavish with their promises. But the promises remained promises. The huge sacrifices made by the Russian people in saving Paris from the German invasion turned out to be in vain. With rare cynicism, those same French and English virtually refused us any kind of help. To every suggestion that Russia be supplied with ammunition, the French and English Generals declared they had nothing to give.” In the meantime, the English themselves, according to the testimony of British Prime Minister Lloyd George, “was stockpiling shells as though they were gold and proudly pointing out their enormous reserves of shells ready to be sent to the front”. What’s more, when Russia paid for the manufacture of ammunition in American factories, the cargo, which was already ready for dispatch, was sent to… the English. They simply intercepted it and used it to their own needs. Further negotiations and correspondence on the issue led to nothing.
ORIENTAL REVIEW publishes exclusive translations from the book by the Russian historian Nikolay Starikov “Who Killed the Russian Empire?” (Moscow, 2006).