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.