Tag Archives: First World War

The final casualty

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the end of fighting in the First World War.

A few miles from my family home in south Wales is a small village with the seemingly unpronounceable name of Kilgwrrwg. Just outside the village is a tiny church. You can’t reach it by road, but have to brave the sheep and molehills and trudge several hundred yards through a typically wet and muddy Welsh field to get there. When you do, you find a little piece of British history. For outside the church is the grave of Able Seaman Richard Morgan, who died 100 years ago today on the morning of 11 November 1918.


We know little of Richard Morgan, other than that he was a woodcutter who volunteered for service in 1916. No photograph of him survives. He drowned after the small boat he was on capsized. It is believed that he was the last British serviceman to die prior to the armistice which brought fighting in the First World War to an end. He was, therefore, the final casualty in what most now believe was an utterly futile war. So, if you’re ever in the region, perhaps consider taking a short hike across the fields to Kilgwrrwg church, pay homage to Richard Morgan, and contemplate the folly of man.

Kilgwrrwg church



The popular Romanov

Today is the 100th anniversary of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Given the subsequent triumph of the Bolsheviks it is easy to see the February/March revolution which overthrew the Tsar as founded on the Russian people’s desire for ‘peace, land, and bread’. But this is to confuse one revolution with another. It is not even clear that in February/March 1917 Russians were rejecting the Romanov dynasty. Certainly, this was the demand of the more extreme elements who led the way in the capital Petrograd, but elsewhere in the country the situation was not the same. To understand this, it is worth looking at what happened to another Romanov in this period – Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

The Grand Duke had been Supreme Commander of the Russian Army until August 1915, when he was dismissed and sent packing to the Caucasus to be Viceroy. In one of his very last acts as Tsar, Nicholas II reappointed Nikolai Nikolaevich as Supreme Commander. In Petrograd, the appointment caused outrage among the more radical socialists who dominated the revolutionary mob. Elsewhere, though, the reaction was very different.

NN hermitage 1910s
Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

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The announcement that the Russian air force has begun to use the Hamadan airfield in Iran to bomb targets in Syria makes me wonder if somebody in the Russian Ministry of Defence has a sense of history. It is 100 years to the week since the Russian Army abandoned Hamadan to Ottoman forces during the First World War.

The Russian Expeditionary Corps under General N. N. Baratov occupied Hamadan in December 1915 as part of a campaign to prevent pro-German forces from seizing control of Persia. In spring 1916, Baratov advanced into Iraq in an effort to relieve British forces surrounded by the Ottomans at Kut. After the British surrendered in April 1916, Baratov retreated back into Persia and concentrated his forces at Hamadan. On 3 August 1916, the Ottoman 13th Corps under Ali Ihsan Bey commenced offensive operations in Persia, and on the night of 9-10 August, Baratov abandoned Hamadan, never to return.

cossacks in persia
Cossacks in Persia, First World War

Friday Book #7: WWI in the Middle East

Given that this week is the 100th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Turkey at Erzerum, it is a happy coincidence that this Friday’s book is Roger Ford’s 2010 work Eden to Armageddon: World War I in the Middle East. This is popular rather than scholarly history, which is to say that it is based entirely on secondary sources. But whereas most histories of WWI in the Middle East (very broadly defined as meaning the territories of the Ottoman Empire) focus almost exclusively on the clash between the British and the Ottoman Empires, Ford also devotes considerable space (about 80 pages) to the Russo-Turkish front. If you are looking for an introduction to Russia’s war against Turkey, these 80 pages are as good a starting point as any.


Victory anniversary

Today is the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest Russian victories of the First World War – the capture of the Ottoman fortress of Erzerum on 16 February 1916.

The Erzerum complex, consisting of a core of 11 forts and batteries with two more forts on each flank, and with a garrison of 50,000 men and 300-400 guns, was the centrepiece of the Ottoman line in Anatolia, Eastern Turkey. Against it were 80,000 troops of the Caucasus Army of the Russian Empire. Thus, although the Russians had an advantage in numbers, it was not at all the 3-1 majority normally considered necessary for a successful attack, let alone an attack against such a powerful objective.

The Caucasus Army had begun an offensive against the Turkish defences in Anatolia on 10 January 1916. The idea was to inflict a serious defeat on the Turks before reinforcements could arrive from Gallipoli, which had recently been abandoned by the British. Six days after the offensive began, the Turks abandoned their positions and withdrew towards the protection of Erzerum. On 19 January, the Chief of Staff of the Russian First Caucasian Army Corps, Major General V.G. Lastochkin, telegraphed the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, asking for permission to assault Erzerum on the run with the forward elements of his corps before the Turks could organize their defences. The Grand Duke rejected the proposal, considering it too dangerous, and the Russians waited until they had brought up all their forces before preparing their next move.

At the end of January, the Commander of the Caucasus Army, General N.N. Iudenich, decided to risk an all-out assault on the fortress. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich was reluctant to give his approval, but eventually relented and on or around 1 February gave Iudenich permission to proceed. On 11 February 1916, the assault began.

The Russian point of main effort was an attack across the Kargapazar ridge north of the fortress. The Turks had left this mostly undefended due to the mountainous terrain and the harsh winter conditions, which they felt made the ridge impassable. The Russian soldiers were, however, able to cross the ridge in force, and by 14 February had outflanked most of the fortress’ defences. The next day, the Turks began to abandon Erzerum, and on 16 February the Russians entered the city. “The Lord God has given such great help to the super-valiant forces of the Caucasus Army that after an unprecedented five-day storm Erzerum has been taken,’ the Grand Duke telegraphed to the Tsar, adding that his army had taken 14,000 prisoners.

After Erzerum the Caucasus Army continued to advance westwards into Anatolia. The Ottoman Army never fully recovered. Had the revolution of 1917 not intervened, total Russian victory over Turkey would have been assured.

Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich reviews Ottoman flags captured at Erzerum
Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich reviews Ottoman flags captured at Erzerum
The Grand Duke reviews Russian troops at Erzerum.



Russia invades Iran and Iraq

This month, the attention of the world is on Russian military operations in Syria. But this is not the first time that Russian forces have intervened in the Middle East. One hundred years ago today (10 November 1915), troops of the Russian Expeditionary Corps under General N. N. Baratov landed at the northern Persian port of Enzeli at the start of a campaign which eventually saw some of them enter Iraq. Generally ignored by histories of the First World War, the Russian invasion was part of a series of events which eventually resulted in Persia possibly losing a greater percentage of its population than any other country during the war (in large part due to famine in 1917-19).

General N. N. Baratov
General N. N. Baratov

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Change of command

Today, 5 September (new style), marks the 100th anniversary of a turning point in Russian history. On this day in 1915 Tsar Nicholas II assumed command of the Russian Army, which until that point had been led by his first cousin once removed, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

The Tsar’s decision to take over from the Grand Duke was in large part a product of the series of defeats suffered by the Russian Army in summer 1915. Driven by a strong sense of duty, Nicholas felt that in a time of crisis he should be at the head of his troops. On 19 August 1915, he wrote to the Grand Duke to tell him: ‘Now that a year has passed and the enemy occupies a large expanse of our land, I have decided to take supreme command of the army. … I thank you from all my heart for your efforts, and all the torments and sufferings which you have experienced during the year of war because of the heavy responsibility lying on your shoulders. If there were any mistakes … then I sincerely forgive them.’

Nicholas II and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich
Nicholas II and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich

It took some time for the change of command to occur. In the meantime, the decision met serious opposition from the Tsar’s ministers, who on 3 September wrote to Nicholas urging him to change his mind. ‘We dare once again to tell You, Sovereign’, they wrote, ‘that the decision you have taken, according to our most thoughtful consideration, threatens Russia, You, and Your dynasty with the direst consequences … Finding ourselves in such circumstances, we are losing our faith in the possibility of serving You and the Motherland with any consciousness of utility.’ The Tsar refused to change his mind, and on 5 September he arrived at the Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) in the town of Mogilev.

The Grand Duke blamed the Tsar’s wife and Rasputin for his dismissal, telling his chaplain: ‘I did not lift a finger for my popularity. It grew against my will and desire, it grew among the troops and the people. This worried, excited and angered the Empress, who greatly feared that my glory, if you can call the people’s love for me that, would eclipse that of her husband. To this one must add the matter of Rasputin. Knowing my hatred of him, Rasputin exerted all his strength to rouse the imperial family against me.’

Nevertheless, the Grand Duke outwardly accepted his fate with good grace, and issued a final order to his troops, telling them:

Today, valiant Army and Fleet, the Sovereign Supreme Leader Emperor has become your chief. Bowing before your heroism for over a year of war, I send you My sincere, heartfelt, fervent thanks. I firmly believe that, knowing the Tsar to whom you have sworn oaths is leading you, you will accomplish new unprecedented deeds, and will help your Anointed achieve victory. General-Adjutant Nikolai.

These hopes of victory were not to be fulfilled. In addition, ensconced in remote Mogilev, the Tsar was cut off from the Empire’s centre of power in Petrograd. Control of the country slipped out of his hands as revolution approached. Unfortunately for Russia, the ministers’ warning proved all too prescient.

‘On the liberation of Galicia’

One hundred years ago today (22 April 1915 new style, 9 April 1915 old style), Tsar Nicholas II visited Lvov, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. The Russian Army had seized the city in summer 1914 in the early stages of the First World War. The capture of the Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemysl in March 1915 finalized the Russian conquest of Galicia, and the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, persuaded the Tsar to visit Lvov to mark this achievement. According to the chief of the Tsar’s personal guard, Aleksandr Spiridovich, the local population gave Nicholas a warm reception. On arrival in Lvov, the Tsar inspected a guard of honour and met his sisters, Grand Duchesses Olga and Ksenia, the first of whom was working in the city as a nurse.

Nicholas II and Grand Duchesses Olga and Ksenia, Lvov
Nicholas II and Grand Duchesses Olga and Ksenia, Lvov

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Si vis pacem …

My course on irrationality and foreign policy is now wrapping up with a couple of case studies, one of which is the First World War. Tsar Nicholas II’s decision to order a full mobilization of his army in July 1914, turning a local conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia into a Europe-wide war, was such a bad one that it defies easy explanation.

The Russians ended up in a war they did not want mainly because once they had decided that war was possible they were more concerned with not being at a disadvantage than with preventing it. As Christopher Clark has shown in his book The Sleepwalkers, European leaders were well aware of the scenario in which troubles in the Balkans could lead to a wider European war. Because Russian leaders knew that an Austrian attack on Serbia could escalate into an Austro-Russian war and from there into a broader European conflict, when they heard that Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia they assumed that Austria wanted such a conflict. From this point on, Russian leaders were in what psychologists call an ‘instrumental’ mindset: that is to say they were no longer concerned with whether their policy was a good one, but rather with how best to implement it.

Russian intelligence had obtained Austria’s war plans, and was aware that if Austria mobilized against Serbia, it would also secretly mobilize its forces on the Russian border. Austrian actions therefore meant that Russia had to mobilize as well, lest it be taken by surprise. The Russian Council of Ministers thus began the countdown to war by recommending to the Tsar that he order a partial mobilization of the army to cover those districts close to the Austrian border.

An important assumption at this point was that Austria would not act without German permission. If Austria had declared war on Serbia, that must mean that Germany was seeking war with Russia. This required a robust response if Russia was to be kept safe. The Russian General Staff insisted that a partial mobilization was impractical. If there was to be war, Russia had to be fully ready. The Quartermaster General of the Russian Army, General Danilov, pressured the Chief of the General Staff, General Ianushkevich, to persuade the Tsar to order a general mobilization. Eventually, and with great reluctance, the Tsar conceded.

What was wrong with this logic was that Germany didn’t in fact want to fight Russia. But a Russian mobilization meant that Germany had to mobilize too, and once it mobilized, its plans required it to attack France. In this way, the Russian decision ensured that the trouble in the Balkans would not be localized. By acting to maximize its advantages in the case of war, Russia made war certain.

The Roman strategist Vegetius famously remarked: ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum’ – ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ This advice is much loved by modern-day foreign policy hawks, who endlessly stress the need for high defence spending, and robust policies. The Russian experience in July 1914 proves Vegetius wrong: if you prepare for war, war is what you will get.

Russian victory

Today (9 March) is the hundredth anniversary of one of the biggest victories ever achieved by the Russian Army – the capture of the Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemsyl.

The history of the Eastern Front in the First World War is little known, even in Russia. If people have some knowledge of it, they have probably heard only of the catastrophic defeat at Tannenberg in August 1914, in which General Samsonov’s Second Army was surrounded and destroyed. Yet the Russian victory at Przemysl was on the same scale as the German one at Tannenberg.

Nicholas II, far right, visits Przemysl, April 1915
Nicholas II, far right, visits Przemysl, April 1915

The importance of Przemysl lay in its location astride the route westwards out of Galicia and into the Carpathian Mountains. The Russians first surrounded it in the summer of 1914 during their successful Galician offensive, only for the Austro-Hungarian Army to relieve it a short while later. After the Russians encircled it a second time in autumn 1914, the Austro-Hungarians made repeated efforts to relieve it again, but all such attempts foundered in the winter snows of the Carpathians. Deprived of supplies, the Przemysl garrison eventually had to surrender.

News of the victory reached the Russian Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) while Tsar Nicholas II was there. The Supreme Commander, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, rushed to give him the news, ‘out of breath and with tears in his eyes’, the Tsar told the Tsarina. The two men celebrated with champagne and a mass at the Stavka church. The Tsar then awarded the Grand Duke the Cross of St. George Second Class.

The Russians took 130,000 prisoners and captured 1,000 guns at Przemysl. It was possibly the most successful day any army ever had in the First World War.