Going Over The Top: The Death of Empire (Part 1 - Bozhe moi)

By David Flin

WWI proved to be either the end, or the beginning of the end, of several empires. The Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German, and Ottoman Empires were all dealt fatal blows by the war. The British and French Empires took blows that, while not immediately fatal, spelt the beginning of the end. It’s probable that many of these empires would not have survived for long.

The Ottoman Empire was already struggling, and had been almost entirely removed from Europe; the Austria-Hungarian Empire was riven with ethnic tensions, misrule, and diplomatic ineptitude; the Russian Empire had already had a revolution in 1905. The German Empire collapsed as a result of the war. The British Empire had already started to slowly loosen ties, introducing Dominion status for some countries in the Empire, and preparing the controversial Home Rule for Ireland.

The Empires were already under strain, and the cost of the war doomed them. There were far-reaching effects of the ending of the Empires had around the world. Arguably, the most significant on the rest of the world was the Russian Revolution.

The full story of the Russian Revolution is outside the scope of this series of articles, and is quite involved. Russian society had been in flux, and unrest was already in evidence before the start of WWI. There had been a revolution in 1905, and that hadn’t resulted in anything being resolved, merely patched over.

Unrest continued, and trouble was clearly brewing. Inevitably, Tsar Nicholas II had accepted some reforms, enough to give people a taste, and then largely overriding those reforms. As a consequence, when the threat of war loomed in 1914, the Tsar was happy to risk war as a means of restoring national prestige lost amid the fiasco that was the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. He also felt that a war against a common enemy would bring about a sense of national unity that had come under strain.

To be fair, it started off that way, but it did not last long. Russian forces generally did well when fighting troops from Austria-Hungary, but the shambolic nature of its military was exposed when facing the organised German forces. The Battle of Tannenberg on 26-30 August, 1914, set the tone. Around 30,000 Russian troops were killed or wounded, with 90,000 taken prisoner. By contrast, Germany suffered 12,000 casualties in the battle. A 10:1 ratio in losses is not sustainable.

In 1915, Germany put emphasis on the Eastern Front, and drove Russia out of gains made in Galicia against Austria-Hungary. The entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers closed the Dardanelles for supplies to Russia, leading to equipment shortages among the Russian forces. Soldiers went hungry, lacked boots, and by mid-1915, some men were being sent to the front with no weapons. It was expected that they would take weapons from casualties of either side. Unsurprisingly, morale suffered.

In Autumn 1915, Tsar Nicholas took over direct command of the army. Inevitably, that meant that the fortunes of the army would be directly linked with him.

The Germans refocused the direction of their attentions to the Western Front in 1916, and the name “Verdun” became indelibly remembered. With this shift, the pressure on the Russian armies reduced, and the situation stabilised. Nonetheless, by October 1916, Russia had taken around 1.8 million casualties, had 1 million soldiers missing, and 2 million were prisoners of war.

As a result, while the pressure had reduced, morale was still very shaky. Mutinies took place, there were reports of fraternisation with the enemy, and desertions steadily increased. Military fortunes had stabilised, but the very fact of war dragged morale down. There seemed to be no prospect of an end to the war, resulting in a feeling of despair that the slaughter would never end, and there would never be anything resembling victory.

Things were also bad on the home front. By the end of 1915, the economy was breaking down under the strain of war. Food shortages were biting, inflation was rampant, as was crime and corruption. The number of strikes increased, and civilian morale plummeted.

Members of the Fourth Duma 1912-1917

In October 1916, the St Petersburg branch of the security police warned the Tsar of: “The possibility in the near future of riots by the lower classes of the empire enraged by the burdens of daily existence.” In November 1916, the State Duma told Tsar Nicholas that a terrible disaster would befall the country unless a constitutional form of government was put in place.

Naturally, the Tsar ignored these warnings. The competition for the most out-of-touch and dangerously incompetent Emperor was fierce during WWI, but Tsar Nicholas II was a strong contender.

Come February 1917, and discontent grew into strikes; strikes grew into disturbances; disturbances grew into riots; and riots grew into revolution.

Obviously, when your army is falling apart at the front, and there are domestic disturbances in the rear, the clear solution is to try and use the army to put down the civilian disturbances.

It was at about this point that the Tsar suddenly discovered the problem with this particular plan. The soldiers had a lot in common with the civilian protesters, mostly coming from the same class, and in many cases, from the same families. They had more in common with the civilians than they did with the senior officers of the army. By and large, the army ignored orders to quell the riots, shot their officers, and went home.

And that was the start of the first Russian Revolution in 1917. The progress of the Revolution is beyond the scope of this series.

From an AH perspective, the interesting question at this point is: could the Russian Revolution be halted?

There are many things that could be changed to ease matters, but the Russian forces were operating with a severe handicap. They were badly trained, badly led, badly organised, with ethnic divisions and discontent ever-present, and still suffering from the demoralising effect of the fiasco of the Russo-Japan War of 1904-1905.

A successful Gallipoli campaign. The objective of the Gallipoli campaign was to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and reopen the Dardanelles to allow a secure route for supplies to get to Russia.

Russian forces were in desperate need of supplies, and an open Dardanelles would have enabled a secure flow of supplies to Russia. The trouble was that getting the supplies from the Black Sea to the front with Germany would have stretched the shambolic Russian infrastructure. The most probable outcome of complete success at Gallipoli would have been huge piles of equipment piling up in Russian Black Sea ports, with a lot of it going missing because of corruption, and the soldiers at the front still being short of everything from shells to shoes.

A better show at the Battle of Tannenberg.

The Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg. Note the communication between the top generals and the staff work being successfully carried out.

OTL, it was a Russian disaster. Anything that could go wrong, did. It wasn’t helped by the two Russian commanders, Samsonov and Rennenkampf, not having a good working relationship, messages between the two Russian armies were sent uncoded. This was because, while the Russians knew that the Germans had broken the code, and devised a new code, they hadn’t got around to providing the commands with new code books. The Russians outran their supplies, and lacked coordination. Their artillery had far too few shells; it was effective until it ran out of ammunition, and then useless.

Arranging a better Russian performance at Tannenberg is easy. The question that this brings about is: What then? The German plan had been to sit on the defensive in the east, and attack in the west. To disrupt this, Russia has to attack.

That means moving farther and farther from supply lines. The railway lines in Russia and the rest of Europe were of different gauge, and so moving supplies forward from the border would depend on captured locomotive stock. Given the Russian logistical capability, or rather, lack thereof, any advance would quickly grind down into immobility, and once they were bogged down in terrain too broad for trenches to cover all fronts and flanks, they would become isolated targets that could be picked off in detail by German forces.

A better show at Tannenberg delays the issue, but does nothing to resolve the problem. At best, and absent any other changes, it merely delays the inevitable.

No German attacks in 1915. This is likely to have an effect. In OTL, supply shortages were starting to bite, Russian troops were bundled out of Galicia and took severe casualties. Retreats were chaotic, and disrupted such organisation as there was, and the extent of the casualties meant that future troops would have few experienced troops to learn from. Inexperienced troops inevitably took heavier casualties than were necessary.

On the face of it, this would enable the Russians to solidify their lines, supply their forces, and even manage to train the newer troops.

However, if Germany is not attacking in the East, then it will be attacking in the West, placing pressure on the French armies. When this happened, the French tended to ask Russia to assist by attacking Germany in the East, and the Russians generally obliged, even when not really in a good position to do so. There is every likelihood that this would happen here, and Russian losses would be unsustainably heavy.

Tsar Nicholas doesn’t take direct control of the Russian army.

By taking direct control of the Russian army in the second half of 1915, Tsar Nicholas ensured that he would be the focus of credit or blame for good or bad performance. If he doesn’t do this, then when the army performed badly, he doesn’t take quite so much blame.

However, this does little to defuse the growing discontent. The economic problems aren’t going to go away, food shortages will remain, inflation will continue, the blood-letting will ensure that millions of men march off to war, never to return, with victory as far out of sight as ever, corruption will ensure that the inequalities between the aristocracy and the labouring classes grows ever wider.

By February 1917, the discontent was driven by the civilians finally reaching the point of having had enough. The army’s role was essentially to do nothing, and then join in.

Can Revolution be avoided? Once WWI has started, Russia has got problems brewing. The Revolution of 1905 had solved nothing, merely kicked the can further down the road for a bit. There’s still going to be major economic problems once the country has to supply armies at the front; there’s still going to be ethnic divisions; the shambolic state of the army is still going to result in very heavy casualties with few apparent gains; the stark difference between the ordinary people and the elite is still going to cause trouble, especially when it becomes clear that the cost of the war is being borne almost entirely by the ordinary people; there is still going to be food shortages as the transportation infrastructure starts to collapse under the strain.

War is going to place Russian society under increasing levels of strain, and the longer the war goes on, the worse this strain is going to get. Sooner or later, something is going to give, and unless the war ends before it does, Russia will go through a period of turmoil. How this turmoil will be resolved is uncertain. There could be many different outcomes. The only certainty is that when the turmoil comes, it will be chaotic.

Furthermore, the longer the war goes on, the more Germany will be looking to stir up domestic trouble in Russia. At some stage, someone in Germany is going to come up with the idea of helping things along by sending a sealed train to Russia.

Discuss this article

David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow