Category Archives: Russia

7 FEBRUARY, 1915: Breaking Bad

Poppycock doesn’t subscribe to the laddish theory that bad generals were to blame for battlefield carnage during the First World War. The generals were of their time, socially and technologically, and it was a very bad time to fight a major war. Most belligerent armed forces produced a few excellent and innovative commanders, and the worst you can call the majority is mediocre. Mediocre isn’t such a terrible score when you consider the unprecedented number of generals needed to command such a vast conflict, and that the advent of million-man armies had the main belligerents scraping the command barrel from the very start of the War.

That said, there were some really bad generals around, and the centenary of 1915’s first big offensive on the Eastern Front – the German attack in East Prussia known as the Winter Battle, or the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes – provides a good opportunity to bad-mouth one of the very worst of them. I’m talking about the man responsible for the offensive, General Erich Ludendorff.

The charge against Ludendorff is nothing so simple as straight incompetence. He was a successful and energetic field commander and tactician, particularly talented when it came to military logistics, who came through the War with an enormous, if largely self-generated reputation based on his version of the German campaign on the Eastern Front. On the down side – and quite apart from a personality built on virulently anti-Semitic, extreme right-wing nationalism – he was guilty of overweening self-belief, vaunting ambition, cynical self-promotion and enormous strategic errors, a catalogue of failings that would have momentous consequences for Germany and the world. Destined to achieve far too much power, he was still a rising star in February 1915, a successful field commander, a popular celebrity and a strident voice in favour of ambitious offensive warfare.

He had first made a name for himself in Belgium, leading a brigade into Liège on 6 August 1914 to threaten its fortresses from within. Promoted chief of staff to the new commander in East Prussia, General Hindenburg, he cemented his fame with a striking (if ultimately indecisive) victory at the Battle of Tannenberg, and although public adulation was focused on the elderly and rather inert Hindenburg, Ludendorff was careful to ensure that he received credit for the campaign in military circles. After the same team was given overall command of the Eastern Front in November 1914, Ludendorff again sought and won admiration for the rapid mobilization and concentration that overtrumped Russian offensives around Poland.

Already in the habit of using contacts on the far right of German politics to help exaggerate his successes, and with Hindenburg as his puppet-like figurehead, Ludendorff had turned his personal propaganda machine against overall Army chief of staff Falkenhayn by early 1915. Popular and military orthodoxy accepted the (entirely spurious) argument that only Falkenhayn’s lack of ambition had deprived Ludendorff of decisive victory in the east. Despite the Supreme Command’s reluctance to commit resources to the campaign against Russia, Ludendorff’s pressure (along with the need to impress potential allies in the Balkans) pushed Falkenhayn into authorising and supplying a major offensive in the east.  It was to be spearheaded by an attack in the northern sector, around the Masurian Lakes, that Ludendorff claimed would outflank Russian positions in Poland to force a general retreat beyond the River Vistula.

Ludendorff’s genuine talent was for concentrating his strength quickly and attacking before the enemy was ready. His great weakness lay in believing, time and again, that initial success was the prelude to complete triumph and acting accordingly. So it was with the Winter Battle.

By early February some 150,000 German troops faced a similar number of Russians along a broad front west and east of the Lakes. The Germans enjoyed a slight superiority in artillery, but their great advantage lay in Russian attempts to concentrate for an offensive further south, which had left defences stretched in the Lakes sector. The southern wing of those defences crumbled when the German attack opened on 7 February, and an attack on the northern wing had the same effect two days later. Despite chaotic Russian attempts to relieve the centre, a general retreat began on 14 February, and 12,000 survivors of the central corps, surrounded in the Forest of Augustovo, were forced to surrender on 21 February.

So far, so good for Ludendorff’s grand schemes for a decisive breakthrough, but not for the first or last time exploitation of the initial victory proved impossible. Attempts to advance southeast ran up against strong Russian forces still gathering for their own offensive, the northern prong of the German advance got bogged down in a failed attempt to take the well-defended fortress at Osoweic, and the whole German force retired to the frontier in early March as more and more Russian troops poured into the theatre.

The campaign ended with both sides roughly where they had started, and although at least 60,000 Russian troops had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner, manpower shortages were the least of Russia’s worries. In short, Ludendorff had achieved nothing, but that didn’t stop him massively exaggerating Russian casualty figures and claiming a vital strategic victory.

With the Hindenburg/Ludendorff dream team’s reputation as national heroes undiminished, Ludendorff would go on to repeat the trick of portraying short-lived tactical success as strategic triumph, and continue to blame the Supreme Command for denying him the tools to win total victory in the east. As such he could be dismissed as just another stubborn general unable, like so many on the Western Front, to bridge the gap between military techniques and military technology – but the tragedy is that Ludendorff’s star would continue to rise until he became Germany’s effective ruler in the latter stages of the War, when his one-eyed pursuit of the elusive total victory would lay waste to Eastern Europe and reduce Germany to chaos.

At the end of the War he would escape into exile to promote the myth of his own rectitude, the more dangerous myth that an undefeated Germany had been betrayed from within, and the growth of extreme right-wing groups inside Germany. Now that’s what I call a bad general.

18 NOVEMBER, 1914: The Forgotten Front

A hundred years ago today, an Ottoman army began advancing eastward from the Anatolian city of Erzurum.  This was the opening move of a six-year war on what is known as the Caucasian Front, initially fought between the Ottoman and Russian Empires for control of the region.

Unless you’ve studied the First World War in some detail, or spent time in the area now covered by Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, you may not have heard of the Caucasian Front.  And I’m guessing the British heritage media aren’t planning to make it a big part of the commemoration extravaganza, so here’s a beginners’ guide to where it was and why it was a war zone.

The area known as the Caucasus is the strip of land, south and west of the Caucasian Mountains, that separates the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea.  Some 400 kilometres across, it has obvious strategic value as a trade route and is rich in natural resources, particularly oil. Like that other great international through-route, the Balkans, the Caucasus began the twentieth century as a patchwork of ethnic groupings and would-be independent states under the control of wider empires, in this case the Russian Empire to the north and east, the Ottoman to the south and west.  In 1914 this frontier zone represented the least complicated opportunity for either empire to indulge in territorial expansion.  Here’s a map, not perfect but the best I could steal at short notice and, of course, removable on request.


From a Russian perspective, control of the Caucasus was a necessary first step towards the Empire’s ultimate aim of controlling the Dardanelles Straits and entering the Mediterranean.  Since Russia’s defeat by Japan in the war of 1904–05, expansion into western Europe had been the watchword in St. Petersburg.  Although strategic thinking was principally focused on the prospect of war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, and care was taken to maintain reasonably good relations with Constantinople, plans had been laid by 1914 for a land invasion of the Caucasus in conjunction with a naval offensive in the Black Sea.  Advanced army bases on the frontier had been established at Kars and Ardahan, while Russian agents were busy across the border, equipping Armenian nationalists for revolt against Ottoman rule.

In Constantinople, the ambitious, militarist Young Turk government had been in power since 1909, promoting a pan-Turkish movement that demanded territorial expansion.  This was hardly feasible in the Balkans or the Middle East, where the Ottoman Empire was crumbling rather than growing, and that just left the land south of the Caucasian Mountains.  By 1914 pan-Turkish expansionism had found expression in a rising tide of hostility towards Armenians and a wealth of contacts with ethnic Turkish groups living inside the Russian Empire.

The outbreak of war between the empires in late October 1914 triggered border skirmishes during the following days, but Turkish frontline troops soon retreated into the hills while war minister Enver Pasha prepared an ‘Eastern Army’ for a major offensive from Erzurum, a task slowed by the lack of a railway system in the region. Russian forces, smaller and denied major reinforcement by the demands of the Polish campaign further north, restricted offensive operations to providing support for an Armenian rebel division that crossed the frontier in mid-November.  As the Turkish invasion force began its advance on 18 November, under Enver’s personal command, the rebel division exploited the lack of troops left behind to embark on a campaign of raids against non-Armenians and slaughter an estimated 120,000 civilians during the months that followed.

The Turkish invasion, aimed at Kars and Ardahan, achieved its initial objective by forcing the Russians to come out of and fight, but that was all.  In worsening weather conditions, compelled to use predetermined routes through passable valleys, short of ammunition and supplies (most of which were delivered by peasant women on foot), and distracted by rebel activities to their rear, Enver’s two armies inched forward.  The force attacking Ardahan became hopelessly bogged down and never reached its target, and although the southern wing was approaching Kars by Christmas it was routed by defenders around the eastern Anatolian town of Sarikamish and forced into retreat.  The Russians, still too weak to mount a serious counter-invasion, edged their way into forward positions across the frontier, and the Caucasian Front’s opening campaign petered out into stalemate.

Offensives and counter-offensives would crisscross the region until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, and rebel activity inside Turkish Armenia would be answered by genocidal Ottoman countermeasures known to the world as the Armenian Massacres. After 1917, a power vacuum would leave the region in turmoil, as Armenian, Georgian and Azerbiajani nationalists sought to establish an independent republic of Transcaucasia, only to descend into border disputes of their own.  Fighting continued to plague the front as post-War Turkish and Soviet regimes continued to press their claims, and finally came to a stop in 1920, when they partitioned the region between them.

So, millions died and a geopolitical hotspot was devastated, violently reshuffled in ways that still trouble us today.  The Caucasian Front may be forgotten by most westerners and ignored by their commemorative industries, but it mattered and made a real difference, not just to the peoples it scarred at the time but to the wider world we live in now.  Let’s keep an eye on it for the next few years.

11 NOVEMBER, 1914: Remember Poland?

It’s Armistice Day, 2014, and something with a Last Post atmosphere seems appropriate.  In 1914, 11 November marked the beginning of a German offensive against Russian positions around the Polish city of Łódź, so today let’s spare a little commemoration for Poland’s suffering during the First World War.

During the last 250 years or so, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a European country more mistreated by war than Poland, or a people more martially abused than the Poles. Since the latter part of the seventeenth century – at which point it was a reasonably successful sovereign state, joined to neighbouring Lithuania by a shared monarchy – Poland has been a prime battleground of choice for anyone going to war in central or Eastern Europe. Time and again the armies of empires have invaded, fought over, occupied and partitioned Poland. Time and again the Poles have been conquered, annexed, suppressed and slaughtered.

There’s a long, sad story to be told about the decline of Poland in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I’ll try to keep it brief.  The country was partitioned three times between 1772 and 1795 as Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia got into the habit of invading, putting down nationalist uprisings as they went, and coming to mutual agreement about which parts to keep for themselves. The last of these partitions removed independent Poland from the map altogether, with mineral-rich Silesia in the northwest becoming part of Prussia, the southern region around Krakow falling under Austro-Hungarian rule and the rest becoming part of the Russian Tsar’s empire.

This was roughly the situation in 1914, despite Napoleon’s temporary occupation of the region early in the nineteenth century and further territorial adjustments in the 1803s, 1840s and 1860s, when the usual suspects intervened to put down nationalist or political uprisings. Here’s a map, lifted from net as ever and instantly removable if anyone minds.


The First World War conformed to the pattern of modern warfare by devastating Poland.  By late in 1914 the country had become the main focus of fighting between Russia and the Central Powers on the Eastern Front, and an estimated 3.5 million Poles were conscripted into the armed forces of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary during the next four years. A few Poles also fought with the French army as an independent unit, and hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians died as collateral damage. Though accurate casualty figures are impossible to establish, estimates of Polish deaths during the First World War vary between about 700,000 and one million.

The German offensive around the Silesian city of Łódź in mid-November enjoyed initial success against ill-prepared Russian forces and inflicted serious casualties, but was halted once the Russians abandoned their own plans to attack into Silesia and concentrated for defence. Heavily outnumbered, but committed to repeated attacks by front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the German Ninth Army did eventually take Łódź after a Russian withdrawal on 6 December, but despite Hindenburg’s claims of a great strategic victory no decisive breakthrough was achieved. German attempts to push further east slackened after 13 December, by which time both sides had lost around 100,000 men, leaving the central sector of the Eastern Front in a state of entrenched stalemate west of Warsaw by the end of the year. Poland’s suffering was just beginning.

This has been a sketchy post, delivered late. My apologies to anyone reading the blog in real time, but every now and then real life takes over and prevents me from playing historian for a few days. Never mind, the point I’m trying to make is fairly simple: the First World War wasn’t only, or even largely about Britain. Ask any Pole.

21 OCTOBER, 1914: Clear Heads?

Today’s the day the Russian government’s ban on the sale and manufacture of alcohol, originally imposed in August for the army’s mobilisation period, was extended for the duration of the War. Prohibition would be gradually relaxed to allow legal consumption of beer and wine during the War years, but a ban on vodka would remain in place until 1925. Although many observers at the time considered the ban an enlightened step, historians have generally regarded it as eccentric, bordering on the bonkers.

On the enlightened side, contemporary social studies claimed immediate benefits to the morale, work rate and health of Russia’s largely peasant population, accustomed as it was to binge-drinking vodka on a fairly regular basis. On the bonkers side, vast numbers of Russians took to making powerful and dangerous hooch, riots around bars and booze warehouses became a regular feature of wartime Russian life, troop morale could not be said to benefit from abstinence, and consumption of alternative substances, anything from nail varnish to heroin, rocketed off the scale. Oh, and the ban wiped out a third of the Russian government’s tax revenue at a stroke.

It remains quite impressive that Russia could enter a major war, let alone sustain one, while simultaneously hobbling its internal finances, but the largely forgotten experiment of wartime prohibition also serves as a useful reminder that in 1914 the world was already too complex for people running big countries to anticipate the full consequences of their actions.

There were of course leaders much more in touch with sociopolitical reality than the largely aristocratic, hopelessly insular Russian ruling class, of whom more at a later date, but the Tsarist regime’s well-meaning but daft decision in October 1914 was by no means the only wartime example of statesmanly folly, and even the most tuned-in political chiefs were trying to run the world on increasingly desperate guesswork.  As the War solidifies and politicians’ need for new ideas becomes more urgent, watch this space to keep up with statesmen making the kind of wacky blunders for which popular folklore so readily mocks the generals.

17 AUGUST, 1914:  Eastern Front (part one)

A hundred years ago today, German and Russian forces fought the first engagement of the War on the Eastern Front.  The fight took place at Stallupönen, a German village near the frontier between the two empires.  It wasn’t much of a battle, an unauthorised attack by a small portion of the regionally-based German army against the southern flank of an invading Russian army that forced a division (about 10,000 men) of Russian troops to retreat and took some 3,000 prisoners – but it was the start of a long and vastly important campaign that changed the world, changed the War and is almost completely forgotten by the heritage version as seen from the West.

I’ll be checking into the Eastern Front on a regular basis during the next few years, but for now here’s the start-up picture of a theatre of war that raged for more than four years and ultimately stretched all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Given that an alliance dating back to 1892 committed Russia to fighting in support of France, and that Germany was tied to Austria-Hungary by defensive alliance, a glance at a basic map of Europe in 1914 makes the opening battle lines fairly clear.  I’ve pinched the one below from the net, and I’ll be glad to remove it if anyone minds.


The Russian and German Empires faced each other along the borders of East Prussia to the north.  Austria-Hungary lined up along a disputed frontier with Russia further south, across the then Russian (now Ukrainian) province of Galicia, and all three empires were clustered hungrily round Poland, then ruled by Russia as a semi-autonomous and very turbulent province.  Still further south, the independent kingdoms of Romania and Bulgaria remained neutral for now, but both were looking to expand and both would enter the fighting once they’d juggled inducements from both sides and decided which represented the man chance.

All three main protagonists had plans in place for the outbreak of war.  Germany had left an army on its eastern frontier as part of the wider Schlieffen Plan, expecting to have beaten France and sent reinforcements during the anticipated six-week delay while Russian forces got organised.  Austria-Hungary’s battle plan defied both logistical realities (like most plans conjured up in Vienna) and the demands of war against Serbia on its southern frontiers to call for an immediate invasion of Galicia.  The latest of many Russian plans, known as Plan 19, was equally ambitious and smacked of autocratic fantasy.  Originally conceived as a simple, massed attack against the relatively small German force defending East Prussia (the eastern spur of Germany stretching up to what became the Lithuanian border), it was repeatedly doctored to satisfy squabbling court factions until it encompassed a smaller attack on East Prussia, a major attack on Austro-Hungarian lines in Galicia and the maintenance of strongly defended fortresses inside the frontiers.

Nothing went according to plan for any of them.

From a German viewpoint, the big surprise was that two Russian armies invaded East Prussia as early as 15 August.  They didn’t get far, not least because although Russia possessed hordes of troops – perhaps 25 million men of military age to call upon – and had performed miracles to get men to battle so quickly, its retarded industrial condition meant that uniforms and equipment were an altogether different matter.  The preliminary battle at Stallupönen set a pattern of well-equipped and well-trained German forces routing their more numerous opponents, but that didn’t prevent a certain amount of initial panic in Berlin at this unexpectedly early development.  Reinforcements under the newly paired team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff were diverted from the west to meet the situation, a move that had momentous consequences for the Western Front and opened floodgates to a campaign that would absorb more and more German attention and resources during the next four years.  A comprehensive German victory against superior numbers at Tannenberg on 26 August then forced the Russians to fall back and reinforce, bringing the invasion to an end.

Russian attacks in Galicia took longer to get going but met greater success against 10 shambolic Austro-Hungarian forces that were neither up to strength nor ready for operations, but which were carrying out their own planned invasion anyway.  The Austrians won the first skirmish, and forced the Russians back across their frontier when the two armies, each about half a million strong, collided in late August along a line centred on the small (now Ukrainian) town of Komarov.  Austrian optimism, never remotely justified by the performance of its armies in 1914, brought immediate attempts to push further east, but they collapsed against defensive positions and turned into a full-scale retreat, first to the city of Lvov and then into the sanctuary of the Carpathian Mountains.

As autumn began, the Germans were preparing an advance against the Russians in the north while the Russians planned an attack into the Carpathians, but deteriorating weather and the strength of defensive positions brought temporary stalemate to both fronts, and for the rest of the year all three empires focused their campaigns on the cherry in the middle, Poland.

That was just an outline sketch of the opening phase of the War on the Eastern Front.  Much, much more was to come.  For long periods, the Front achieved its own forms of gruesome stagnation, sometimes locked into trench warfare around strong defensive positions, sometimes involving huge advances by either side that moved the lines hundreds of miles across vast wildernesses without inflicting any sort of knockout blow.  Like the Western Front, the Eastern Front would see strategists and field commanders struggling and failing to find ways of making offensive land warfare actually work, and losing millions of lives in the process.

The total numbers killed in the theatre defy accurate calculation – Russian figures were often guesses and Austrian records were lost when its empire collapsed, to name just two of the problems faced by historians – but estimates of military deaths start above three million, and in most of the regions involved nobody bothered counting civilian deaths after about 1915.  Even by the standards we understand from the Western Front, fighting conditions were unspeakably horrible, with whole units freezing to death overnight amid desperate shortages of basic equipment and medicines, especially on the Russian side but also among multiracial Austro-Hungarian forces.

Unlike the Western Front, the War in the east did have immediate and long-lasting effects on the state of the world at large.  Russian involvement ended with the collapse of the regime to Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution; Austria-Hungary’s unproductive effort drained and eventually helped destroy its empire; Germany filled the void, took control over great swathes of territory, and then propelled its overall war effort towards disaster by attempting to administer them and exploit their economies.  And although a host of newly independent states sprang into existence all across the theatre in the War’s aftermath, many of them still faced prolonged struggles for survival as revolutions and civil wars raged across the region.  One way or another every part of the Eastern Front remained at war until the 1920s.

Even slammed together in a few paragraphs the Eastern Front makes quite a story, worth remembering as a human tragedy in itself and because it gave birth to so much of modern Europe.  You won’t hear much about it from the heritage industries in the West, and that’s a shame, because attempting to tell the story of the First World War without it can only be poppycock.