Tag Archives: Nicholas II

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.


Friday Object Lesson #29: Cup of Sorrows

Today’s object is a ‘cup of sorrows’. Its name derives from the tragic events which occurred this week 119 years ago, on Khodynka Field in Moscow on 18 May 1896. In expectation of free food and drink and souvenirs, including commemorative mugs, a crowd of about 500,000 assembled at the field to celebrate the forthcoming coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. Rumours that there was a shortage of freebies and that the mugs contained gold coins set off a stampede, which left over 1,000 Muscovites dead. In light of the disaster, the mugs acquired the title ‘cups of sorrows’. The letters ‘N’ and ‘A’ under the crown on the cup stand for Nicholas and Alexandra.

cup of sorrow

‘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

Continue reading ‘On the liberation of Galicia’

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.