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Headlong into war

War in the east: 1914

Russia mobilizes rapidly in August 1914, in an attempt to relieve the German pressure on France. As a result early gains are made, with Russian armies advancing into east Prussia and into Galicia (the northeast corner of Austria-Hungary). This move has the desired short-term effect, causing the Germans to withdraw four divisions from Belgium for the eastern front. But events soon suggest that Russia has entered the field unprepared. Disaster strikes before the end of the month.

Several factors contribute. The large Russian army in east Prussia is ill-fed and exhausted. And Russian commanders incautiously send each other uncoded radio messages which are intercepted by the Germans.

The result is that a much smaller German force is able to effect a devastating pincer movement during August 26-8 to encircle the Russians at Tannenberg (the site also of a famous medieval battle). About half the Russian army is destroyed, including the capture of 92,000 men. The Russian general, Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Samsonov, shoots himself.

Further south the Russians have slightly more lasting success in their invasion of Austria-Hungary. At the end of 1914 much of Galicia is still in their hands. By this time the western front is already paralyzed in the stalemate of trench warfare. There will be more movement in the east, on the open plains between Germany and Russia. But the outcome at the end of the first calendar year of the war suggests that here too there will be no easy or quick victory.

The imperial family's war

In Russia, more traditional in attitude than the empires of Britain, Austria-Hungary and Germany, the royal family can still take a leading role in military campaigns. On the outbreak of war, in 1914, the emperor Nicholas II puts his cousin the grand duke Nikolai in supreme command of the imperial army.

After the heavy losses of the autumn campaign in 1914, followed by a winter of expensive stalemate, the grand duke finds himself confronted in 1915 by an energetic new thrust eastwards into Russia. Desperately short of supplies (some infantrymen in his armies lack even a rifle), he and his generals fall steadily back. But they contrive to prevent either a full German breakthrough or the encirclement of any of their armies.

Nevertheless, by the end of 1915, the Germans have advanced another 200 miles into Russian territory (passing Vilna but falling short of Minsk). They have also taken nearly a million prisoners. Meanwhile there has been a change of command.

On 5 September 1915 (NS/New Style Sept.18) the emperor takes the supreme command into his own hands, despatching his cousin to take charge of an already successful campaign in the south (through the Caucasus and into Turkey). Russian success in Turkey is matched during the summer of 1916 by an even more dramatic coup under the emperor's command on the western front. A sudden offensive in June, led by Aleksey Brusilov, penetrates the German and Austrian lines and inflicts massive casualties.

But there is a heavy price. If the enemy loses some 750,000 men, Russian losses are even higher - amounting closer to a million during the Brusilov campaign. And these are human costs borne by a nation which has never had much stomach for this incomprehensible conflict.

With the conduct of the war so firmly in the hands of the imperial family, the public mood has a clear target for its discontent.

Tensions in Petrograd

At the outbreak of war there has been in Russia, as in the other belligerent nations, a wave of patriotic hysteria. Large crowds, waving flags, greet the appearances of the emperor Nicholas II on the balcony of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The German embassy is attacked and ransacked. In keeping with this mood, the government changes the German-sounding name of the capital city to the more Russian Petrograd.

But as the war drags on, and hardships and tragedies accumulate, the mood changes. There develops a prevailing view that Russian setbacks on the battlefield can be blamed on incompetent aristocrats and courtiers appointed to high command by the emperor.

Moreover from September 1915, when Nicholas leaves Petrograd to take command at the imperial war headquarters in the forests of Belarus, there is another even more vulnerable member of the imperial family to become the target of criticism. During the emperor's absence the government of the nation is to an alarming extent in the hands of his empress, Alexandra.

Alexandra has tended to dominate her husband, frequently persuading him to make extremly unsuitable government appointments. Now she can make them for herself - or, even more damaging, she can make them at the behest of the man whose influence has come to rule her life. Since 1905 she has been obsessed with Grigory Rasputin, a charismatic charlatan posing as a holy man.

The source of Rasputin's power is Alexandra's belief that he can cure the haemophilia of her only son, the tsarevich Alexis. By doing so he will save the Romanov dynasty and Holy Russia from the threats posed by the revolutionaries. Rasputin's dissolute behaviour rapidly becomes a public scandal. But any official who criticizes him is moved from Petrograd to a distant post, while those recommended by Rasputin find themselves in positions of wealth or power.

Rumours about Alexandra fly around Petrograd. One is that Rasputin is her lover. Another is that she passes Russian military secrets to the Germans (she was a princess of the house of Hesse-Darmstadt). Both are untrue, but that does little to lessen the damage.

During 1916 there is widespread agreement in the capital that change is essential. At one extreme this involves feverish talk of revolution. At the other it is little more than plans for a palace coup, to bring to power a more enlightened group of insiders. One plot is successfully put into effect, though not without considerable difficulty. In December 1916 three members of the imperial family assassinate Rasputin.

But the eventual upheaval, cataclysmic in its effects, happens almost accidentally - and with surprising speed.

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