"Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side."
—Lowell (The Present Crisis).
So far, only the fighting between France, Great Britain, and Belgium against Germany and Austria-Hungary has been mentioned.
But Russia was one of the Allies also ranged against the "Central Powers," and until the great tragedy occurred that broke up her immense Empire, she played her part in the world war.
Her reasons for declaring war have already been told. The war was popular. Up to this time the great country had been divided; it was hopelessly divided again later on; there was the Russia of the Tsar and Government and the Russia of the people.
With the bursting of the war-cloud, Russia was united, and her enthusiasm uplifted the land with an almost religious fervour. Great enthusiasm greeted the appointment of the Grand Duke Nicholas as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army. He was the Tsar's uncle, a man of iron will, standing 6 feet 3 inches in height. His orders were to "force his way to Berlin at the earliest possible moment and at any cost."
By the third week in August 1914, some two million Russian soldiers were under arms, and as the gigantic battles in Northern France developed, the Allies looked to Russia to invade Germany, and compel her to turn her attention to the East instead of the Western Front.
There was an idea that the great Russian army —the "Russian steam-roller," as it was called—would sweep like some tidal wave toward Berlin, and so relieve the very critical situation.
Now, to invade Germany, two tasks lay before the Grand Duke Nicholas. He must drive the Germans out of East Prussia on the north and the Austrians from Galicia on the south, for in between lay Poland, and Poland at this time was every man's land.
Part of her was Russian, part German, part Austrian. And one of the most tragic features of the whole tragic struggle was that Poland—once a first-class European Power—was now divided against herself. True, soon after the outbreak of war, Russia made a bid for Poland.
"Poles," ran her famous declaration, "the time has come when the dream of your fathers and forefathers will at length be realised. The time has come for the resurrection of the Polish nation and its fraternal union with Russia. May the frontiers which have divided the Polish people be broken down. May it once more be united under the sceptre of the Russian Emperor. With open heart, with hand fraternally outstretched, great Russia comes to you. The morning star of a new life is rising for Poland."
But this ambition was never realised, for just a year later, the Germans marched into Poland's capital, Warsaw, and there was no more any talk of a Russian Poland.
The route planned by the Grand Duke Nicholas was the northern one by East Prussia. For the first ten days or so, the Russian army marched on towards Berlin with entire success, driving back the Prussian inhabitants of the country.
With the news brought back by fugitives that East Prussia was in the grip of the Russian foe, the Germans became alarmed. Was not East Prussia the seat of the old Prussian kings, and Konigsberg the capital, in the far-away days when Berlin was but a fishing village? Hastily the Kaiser appointed General von Hindenburg, an old soldier sixty-seven years of age, now living in retirement, to command this region. He knew this part of the country well, and might be trusted to baffle the Russians in a land unknown to them. There was no time to be lost. The situation was critical. Skillfully the old General laid his plans. While one Russian division was marching due east toward Berlin, another was marching in a northerly direction to meet it. Hindenburg now planned to prevent a meeting.
At the right moment, when the Russians were marching carelessly forward confident of success, Hindenburg turned them and drove them back into the woods of Tannenberg, back into unknown country full of swamps and lakes and marshes of black mud. There was no way of escape in that trackless land, and soon regiment after regiment became engulfed in treacherous swamps. Men, horses, guns were sucked down into the abyss. For days the agony continued, till on 26th August some 90,000 prisoners fell into the hands of the Germans, with guns, horses, ammunition, and all that had escaped from the waters of the lakes about Tannenberg.
The German victory was complete. Hindenburg was the hero of the hour, and Berlin was wild with joy. The Kaiser raised him to the rank of Field-Marshal, a stepping-stone to the near future, when he should become Commander-in-Chief of the whole German army in the East.
But though disaster had ended the Russian advance to Berlin, and the £20,000 raised in Russia for the first soldier to enter Berlin was never won, yet there still remained other openings for a Russian advance.
The invasion of Austria proved an easier task, for the Russian troops were now advancing across the frontier into Galicia—a vast plain stretching to the Carpathians, with its two great fortresses of Przemysl and Lemberg—both vital to the defenders of Austria. It was at Lemberg on 1st September, while yet Berlin was rejoicing and Russia mourning over the battle of Tannenberg, that Austrians and Russians met, and the critical battle of Lemberg was fought and won by the Russian troops, who captured great quantities of stores and a large number of Austrian prisoners, and entered the city in triumph.
The Grand Duke Nicholas telegraphed the good news to the Tsar, and all over Russia solemn thanksgiving services took place. People spoke of their "invincible Russian armies," and expected daily to hear that the Russians were in possession of Vienna!
As September advanced, the Russians invested the great fortress of Przemysl, and Russian armies were threatening Cracow—the capital of Galicia. The Kaiser again became seriously alarmed, for was not Cracow the very gateway to Vienna and Berlin?
Hindenburg was again to the fore. The situation demanded a master mind, for the Austrians in Galicia were hard hit. He decided on a counter-stroke. Warsaw should be attacked to save Cracow. Now Warsaw, the capital of the Russian province of Poland, lay on the banks of the river Vistula. All through the shortening days of October desperate fighting took place. Driven back once, the Germans again advanced with redoubled vigour. Hindenburg wanted the Polish city as a Christmas present for his Kaiser, but the Russian defence was too strong for him. Christmas found Russians and Austrians entrenched in untakable trenches much as Germans and French had met in a deadlock on the Western Front.
"The winter stalemate, long delayed in the East, had at last arrived."