Tsarist Russia made a dismal showing in World War I. Their ill-trained army lost nearly every battle they entered and were quickly brought to a halt after their invasion of Germany. Some 12 million Russian men were mobilized for World War I. Over six million Russians died. Three million Russians died of typhus.

Russia's large population enabled it to field a greater number of troops than Austria-Hungary and Germany combined, but its underdeveloped industrial base meant that its soldiers were as poorly armed as those of the Austro-Hungarian army. Russian forces were inferior to Germany's in every respect except numbers. In most engagements, the larger Russian armies defeated the Austro-Hungarians but suffered reverses against German forces. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russia's involvement in the Balkan pact that started the war made it a major force in the beginning of the war. However, humiliating defeats in Prussia were followed by German advances into Russia in 1915 and the capture of Poland, the Baltic coast, Belarus and the Ukraine. The only thing that kept them from advancing further was the trench war in France, which drew manpower away from the Russian front.

Many Russians were initially very enthusiastic about the war. But after the Russian armies were routed in Tannenburg (See Below) the war became unpopular. The war on the eastern front continued in fit and starts until the Bolshevik revolution caused the withdrawal of the Russian army in 1917.

Nicholas II and World War I

Nicholas II got Russia involved in World War I which proved be a disaster for himself and Russia. He disbanded the Duma and took personal control of the military effort. He didn't display much leadership on the battlefield or at home. The military was unable to make advances and was unable to implement rations.

In August 1914, around the same time that Germany was advancing on France, the ill-trained Russian army invaded German territory in East Prussia Nicholas II had ordered the offensive to help take the pressure off his French Allies. The attack took place on two fronts: from Russia in the west and from Poland in the south.

In 1915, when Nicholas moved to the army headquarters near the Polish border, he gave Alexandra the power to run Russia. She relied on Rasputin (see Below) for advise and both she, Rasputin and Nicholas resisted pleas by aides and advisors to appoint a more responsible government. Using his influence on the empress, Rasputin maneuvered ministers favorable to him into key positions and effectively ran the country for about a year and a half.

To get Nicholas to become more engaged, Alexandra wrote Nicholas On December 14, 1916, "Be Peter the Great, be Ivan the Terrible, be Emperor Paul—and smash the lot of them. Do not laugh...I am desperate to see you like this with these people who are trying to control you. Show them you fist. Prove yourself a sovereign." In 1917, while the Bolsheviks were taking St. Petersburg, Nicholas wrote in his diary from the army headquarters in Poland, "My mind is at rest here—no ministers and no tiresome questions."

Russian Foreign Policy Before World War I

Russia's earlier Far Eastern policy required holding Balkan issues in abeyance, a strategy Austria-Hungary also followed between 1897 and 1906. Japan's victory in 1905 had forced Russia to make deals with the British and the Japanese. In 1907 Russia's new foreign minister, Aleksandr Izvol'skiy, concluded agreements with both nations. To maintain its sphere of influence in northern Manchuria and northern Persia, Russia agreed to Japanese ascendancy in southern Manchuria and Korea, and to British ascendancy in southern Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. The logic of this policy demanded that Russia and Japan unite to prevent the United States from establishing a base in China by organizing a consortium to develop Chinese railroads. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

After China's republican revolution of 1911, Russia and Japan recognized each other's spheres of influence in Outer Mongolia. In an extension of this reasoning, Russia traded recognition of German economic interests in the Ottoman Empire and Persia for German recognition of various Russian security interests in the region. Russia also protected its strategic and financial position by entering the informal Triple Entente with Britain and France, without antagonizing Germany. *

Russia and the Balkans Before World War I

In spite of these careful measures, after the Russo-Japanese War Russia and Austria-Hungary resumed their Balkan rivalry, focusing on the Kingdom of Serbia and the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which Austria-Hungary had occupied since 1878. In 1881 Russia secretly had agreed in principle to Austria's future annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But in 1908, Izvol'skiy foolishly consented to support formal annexation in return for Austria's support for revision of the agreement on the neutrality of the Bosporus and Dardanelles — a change that would give Russia special navigational rights of passage. Britain stymied the Russian gambit by blocking the revision, but Austria proceeded with the annexation. Then, backed by German threats of war, Austria-Hungary exposed Russia's weakness by forcing Russia to disavow support for Serbia. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

After Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia became a major part of the increased tension and conflict in the Balkans. In 1912 Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro defeated the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, but the putative allies continued to quarrel among themselves. Then in 1913, the alliance split, and the Serbs, Greeks, and Romanians defeated Bulgaria in the Second Balkan War. Austria-Hungary became the patron of Bulgaria, which now was Serbia's territorial rival in the region, and Germany remained the Ottoman Empire's protector. Russia tied itself more closely to Serbia than it had previously. The complex system of alliances and Great Power support was extremely unstable; among the Balkan parties harboring resentments over past defeats, the Serbs maintained particular animosity toward the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. *

In June 1914, a Serbian terrorist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, which then held the Serbian government responsible. Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia, believing that the terms were too humiliating to accept. Although Serbia submitted to the ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared the response unsatisfactory and recalled its ambassador. Russia, fearing another humiliation in the Balkans, supported Serbia. Once the Serbian response was rejected, the system of alliances began to operate automatically, with Germany supporting Austria-Hungary and France backing Russia. When Germany invaded France through Belgium, the conflict escalated into a world war. *

Russia Enthusiasm at the Beginning of World War I

A show of national unity had accompanied Russia's entrance into the war, with defense of the Slavic Serbs the main battle cry. In the summer of 1914, the Duma and the zemstva expressed full support for the government's war effort. The initial conscription was well organized and peaceful, and the early phase of Russia's military buildup showed that the empire had learned lessons from the Russo-Japanese War. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

On August 1, 1914, Germany demanded that Russia demobilize and when Russia ignored the ultimatum, Germany declared war. Describing the excitement when the news of the declaration of war reached St. Petersburg in August 1914, Sergyei Kurnakove wrote: "Spontaneously the crowds starting singing the national anthem. The little pimply clerk who had pasted up the irrevocable announcement was still standing in the widow, enjoying his vicarious importance."

"I heard the phrase 'German Embassy' repeated several times. I walked slowly that way. The mob pulled an officer from his car and carried him in triumph...When I got to St Isaac Square [the site of the German Embassy]...the crowds were pressed around waiting for something to happen. I was watching a young naval officer being pawed by an over-patriotic group when the steady hammering of axes on metal made me look up at the Embassy roof, which was decorated with colossal figures if overfed German warriors."

"Several men were busy hammering at the feet of the of the Teutons. The very first stroked pitched the mob into a frenzy..The axes were hammering faster and faster. At last one warrior swayed, pitched forward and crashed on the pavement one hundred feet below. A tremendous howl went up."

"But obviously the destruction of the symbols was not enough. A quickly organized gang smashed a side door of the Embassy. I could see flashlights and torches moving inside, flitting to the upper stories. A big window opened and spat a great portrait of the Kaiser. When it reached the cobblestones, there was just about enough left to start a good bonfire. A rosewood grand piano followed, exploding like a bomb; the moan of the broken strings vibrated in the air for a second and was drowned; too many people were trying to outshout their own terror of the future."

"A woman tore her dress at the collar, fell on her knees with a shriek, and pressed her naked breasts against the dusty boots of a young officer in campaign uniform...'Take me! Right here, before these people! Poor will give your life...for God...for the Tsar...for Russia!'...Another shriek, and she fainted.”

Russia at War, 1914-16

In the initial phase of the war, Russia's offensives into East Prussia drew enough German troops from the western front to allow the French, Belgians, and British to stop the German advance. One of Russia's two invading armies was almost totally destroyed, however, at the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg — the same site at which Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian troops had defeated the German Teutonic Knights in 1410. Meanwhile, the Russians turned back an Austrian offensive and pushed into eastern Galicia, the northeastern region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Russians halted a combined German-Austrian winter counteroffensive into Russian Poland, and in early 1915 they pushed more deeply into Galicia. Then in the spring and summer of that year, a German-Austrian offensive drove the Russians out of Galicia and Poland and destroyed several Russian army corps. In 1916 the Germans planned to drive France out of the war with a large-scale attack in the Verdun area, but a new Russian offensive against Austria-Hungary once again drew German troops from the west. These actions left both major fronts stable and both Russia and Germany despairing of victory — Russia because of exhaustion, Germany because of its opponents' superior resources. Toward the end of 1916, Russia came to the rescue of Romania, which had just entered the war, and extended the eastern front south to the Black Sea. *

Wartime agreements among the Allies reflected the Triple Entente's imperialist aims and the Russian Empire's relative weakness outside Eastern Europe. Russia nonetheless expected impressive gains from a victory: territorial acquisitions in eastern Galicia from Austria, in East Prussia from Germany, and in Armenia from the Ottoman Empire, which joined the war on the German side; control of Constantinople and the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits; and territorial and political alteration of Austria-Hungary in the interests of Romania and the Slavic peoples of the region. Britain was to acquire the middle zone of Persia and share much of the Arab Middle East with France; Italy — not Russia's ally Serbia — was to acquire Dalmatia along the Adriatic coast; Japan, another ally of the entente, was to control more territory in China; and France was to regain Alsace-Lorraine, which it had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, and to have increased influence in western Germany. *

Battle of Tannenburg

In a typical example of Russian ineptitude Gen. Alexander Samsonov, a soldier with no front-line commanding experience, was placed in charge of the southern army. Samsonov had spent most of his military career working as a bureaucrat. Samsonov led the Russian Second Army into East Prussia near the village of Tannenberg without having an idea where the German army was. He completely lost control of his undisciplined army which was easily routed by the Germans

The Battle Tannenburg lasted from August 26 to August 30, 1914. After Samsonov entered East Prussia, German generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff wheeled their entire army from northwest Prussia to the south and concentrated their forces at the Russian flanks.

The Germans intercepted the Russians unencoded radio message and had a better idea where the Russian army was than Samsonov. On August 26, the Germans counterattacked with an assault on the Russian east flank, which was easily overwhelmed, allowing the Germans to attack the Russian rear. Within two days the west flank was overwhelmed and the Russian army was surrounded and smashed. More than 30,000 Russian soldiers died and 92,000 were taken prisoner. The German casualties: 13,000 killed or wounded. After failing in his effort to die at the front in battle, Samsonov shot himself in some woods near the battlefield. The Germans didn't celebrate their victory at Tannenburg for long. Around the same time they were defeated at Marne.

World War I Exposes Weaknesses in the Tsarist Government

The onset of World War I exposed the weakness of Nicholas II's government. Military reversals and the government's incompetence soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets. In addition, inept Russian preparations for war and ineffective economic policies hurt the country financially, logistically, and militarily. Inflation became a serious problem. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Because of inadequate matériel support for military operations, the War Industries Committee was formed to ensure that necessary supplies reached the front. But army officers quarreled with civilian leaders, seized administrative control of front areas, and refused to cooperate with the committee. The central government distrusted the independent war support activities that were organized by zemstva and cities. The Duma quarreled with the war bureaucracy of the government, and center and center-left deputies eventually formed the Progressive Bloc to create a genuinely constitutional government. *

After Russian military reversals in 1915, Nicholas II went to the front to assume nominal leadership of the army, leaving behind his German-born wife, Alexandra, and Rasputin, a member of her entourage, who exercised influence on policy and ministerial appointments. Rasputin was a debauched faith healer who initially impressed Alexandra because he was able to stop the bleeding of the royal couple's hemophiliac son and heir presumptive. Although their true influence has been debated, Alexandra and Rasputin undoubtedly decreased the regime's prestige and credibility. *

World War I and the Russian Revolution

World War I created a situation in which a revolution was almost inevitable. By 1917, Nicholas II had struggled for three years to keep the armies of Germany and Austria from sweeping over the Eastern front and the country was racked by inflation, hunger and desperation. Protests were put down with police bullets and perhaps a million men deserted from the army, many of them ending up in St. Petersburg, where they joined the growing revolutionary movement. "The terrible nature of war," wrote historian Jack Keegan, "not the terrible nature of industrial capitalism, exerted the push to revolution in Russia." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

While the central government was hampered by court intrigue, the strain of the war began to cause popular unrest. In 1916 high food prices and fuel shortages caused strikes in some cities. Workers, who had won the right to representation in sections of the War Industries Committee, used those sections as organs of political opposition. The countryside also was becoming restive. Soldiers were increasingly insubordinate, particularly the newly recruited peasants who faced the prospect of being used as cannon fodder in the inept conduct of the war.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The situation continued to deteriorate. In an attempt to alleviate the morass at the tsar's court, a group of nobles murdered Rasputin in December 1916. But the death of the mysterious "healer" brought little change. Increasing conflict between the tsar and the Duma weakened both parts of the government and increased the impression of incompetence. In early 1917, deteriorating rail transport caused acute food and fuel shortages, which resulted in riots and strikes. Authorities summoned troops to quell the disorders in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been called since 1914, to Russianize the Germanic name). In 1905 troops had fired on demonstrators and saved the monarchy, but in 1917 the troops turned their guns over to the angry crowds. Public support for the tsarist regime simply evaporated in 1917, ending three centuries of Romanov rule. *

Bolsheviks and the End of World War I

After the Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over Russia, the Soviet government, seeking to disengage Russia from World War I, called on the belligerent powers for an armistice and peace without annexations. The Allied Powers rejected this appeal, but Germany and its allies agreed to a cease-fire. Negotiations began in December 1917. After dictating harsh terms that the Soviet government would not accept, however, Germany resumed its offensive in February 1918, meeting scant resistance from disintegrating Russian armies. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Lenin, after bitter debate with leading Bolsheviks who favored prolonging the war in hopes of precipitating class warfare in Germany, persuaded a slim majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee that peace must be made at any cost. On March 3, Soviet government officials signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, relinquishing Poland, the Baltic lands, Finland, and Ukraine to German control and giving up a portion of the Caucasus region to Turkey. With the new border dangerously close to Petrograd, the government was soon transferred to Moscow. An enormous part of the population and resources of the Russian Empire was lost by this treaty, but Lenin understood that no other alternative could ensure the survival of the fledgling Soviet state. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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