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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.’
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.
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.