Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

The Last Efforts of Russia

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."


Although the year 1915 opened brightly for Russia, the great cloud which was soon to engulf her was already beginning to spread over the land. The stalemate was over, and the great fortress of Przemysl—the stronghold of Galicia,—besieged by them since September, fell into the hands of the Russians. Immense joy spread over the country, for had not the fortress been declared impregnable? The Tsar hurried to take possession of his new conquest. He drove through the conquered city of Lemberg, and on his return he sent a sword with a handle set in diamonds, inscribed: "To the conqueror of Galicia"—the Grand Duke Nicholas.

Two months later Galicia was reconquered by the Austrians. The Russian Army, short of munitions from the beginning, was now in desperate need of supply. Indeed many of the soldiers were armed only with sticks. Boots and clothing were also quite inadequate.

"The army cannot go on fighting without rifles or boots," pleaded their officers. "Without arms we must surrender all that we have won."

Such, then, was their unhappy condition, when a great offensive was begun by united German and Austrian forces under General Mackensen and the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. They chose Galicia for their attack, and by May they had driven the ill-equipped Russians towards Przemysl.

With an overwhelming supply of heavy guns they bombarded the stronghold. Stubbornly, heroically the Russians fought, but they were unequal to the task. The fortress fell into German hands. Three weeks later Lemberg was restored to the Austrians, and the Russians were in full retreat. Soon the conquest of Galicia was complete, and the great victorious armies of Germany and Austria turned to the invasion of Poland. Enormous forces of Russians guarded the main line of the railway from Warsaw to Petrograd, and soon it was known that the city—the capital of Poland and one of the most precious gems in the Russian Crown—was in danger. Even now great armies were advancing, and the Russians were not in a fit state to defend it.

It was 15th July when the Grand Duke Nicholas decided that he could not stay, and further retreat was necessary. He knew but too well the terrible impression the evacuation was bound to produce at home, but he was powerless. The garrison, hospitals, post-offices, banks were all withdrawn, and Warsaw was isolated from the outside world before the Russians left.

Then on 4th August the news spread that Warsaw had been entered by a German Prince at the head of a German Army, and the Russians were everywhere in retreat. A fortnight later Kovno, a great Russian fortress, fell into the enemy's hands with immense quantities of war material, which were now being accumulated there. It was not till October 1915 that the Russian retreat ended, and enemy troops under Mackensen were secretly withdrawn for the invasion of Serbia. A deep impression had been created throughout Russia by the retreat, and after the fall of Kovno reproaches were heaped on the Grand Duke Nicholas as Commander-in-Chief of the Armies.

The Tsar was now persuaded to remove the Grand Duke, and take over the command of his armies himself. This was the work of the so-called monk Rasputin, who had great influence over the Tsar and Tsarina at this time. The whole nation, said Rasputin, wished for their Tsar and no one else to take command of the army in the field. A month later an Imperial order told the world that the Grand Duke Nicholas had been given a command in the Caucasus. Thither an Imperial train took him from the little field station, the headquarters of the Russian army, to Tiflis. The Tsar came to wish him good-bye, and watched till the commanding figure of Nicholas, his hand raised at the salute, was carried out of sight. How well he did in his new quarters is a matter of history. He launched a sudden new offensive movement on the Caucasus front, which, directed against the Turks, led to the Russian conquest of Armenia.

Meanwhile the Tsar made a journey all along the northern front, accompanied for the first time by his young heir Alexis, the Tsarevitch, now a delicate boy of eleven, to be presented to the soldiers. Right up to Riga, the old Baltic capital, now being attacked by the Germans, they drove, even to the advanced lines held by Russian troops. Amid the deafening roar of the big guns, with Russian aeroplanes overhead, the Tsar, dressed in the grey overcoat worn by the Russian soldiers, walked along the lines with measured steps, holding his little son by the hand. The following day brought news of the successful defence of Riga. Amid scenes of great enthusiasm and the singing of the Russian national anthem, the Tsar addressed his troops. "The whole of Russia rejoices together with me and my son at your successes. I feel proud to stand at your head. Let me thank you for your heroic conduct to-day."

For the moment the Tsar of all the Russias and his young son Alexis were as popular as any monarch in Europe.

Two years later he was to be shot, with his son in his arms, by order of those who had once cheered him.

Meanwhile the spirit of Russia rose, and a grim determination to win the war characterised her every action. All through the winter 1915-16 great preparations were made for a new offensive. Fresh guns were provided, ammunition was plentiful, and the army could pour forth a very "hurricane of fire" which must win for them fresh victories. Toward the Rumanian frontier the Russians moved. By June they were ready with a well-planned offensive against Austria, which succeeded beyond all expectation. After a fortnight's hard fighting the Austrian armies were broken and retreating, while an enormous number of officers, men, and guns fell into Russian hands. An advance of fifty miles had been made—Galicia had been re-entered.

It seemed as if General Brussilov, one of the most famous of the Russian commanders, might still lead his armies to victory. German reinforcements now appeared, only to receive a "baptism of fire that had scarcely been equaled in the campaign. All the bitterness, the sufferings, with which was strewn the long path of our retreat, were poured out in this fire."

The early days of July still found the Russians pressing forward. "Nothing stayed their remorseless progress."

By August their victories were at an end. Russia's flood-mark had been reached and was never to be reached again.

The fortunes of war were still undecided when the news ran over Europe: "Rumania has entered the war on the side of Russia and the Allies."

It was the end of August 1916. King Carol, the maker of Rumania, had died early in the war of a broken heart. Once an officer in the Prussian Guard, his sympathies had always been with Germany, and he had concluded a secret treaty with the Central Powers without the consent of the Rumanian people. His nephew and successor Prince Ferdinand had married an English Princess, Marie, daughter of the Duke of Edinburgh, who made no secret of her sympathy with the Allies. For two years Rumania had remained neutral. Now, Russia was pressing her to enter the war and to help in Brussilov's successful advance toward Galicia.

"The Central Powers have flung the world into the melting-pot, and old treaties have disappeared along with more valuable things." War was declared, and the Rumanian army crossed the northern passes of the South Carpathians.

Disaster, not victory, crowned their efforts. That same day, 28th August, the Kaiser sent for Hindenburg. He had saved Germany at Tannenberg. He was to save her again. On 5th December 1916, Bucharest, Rumania's capital, was entered by the triumphant Germans. Rumania had collapsed.

The Kaiser himself now intervened.

"A ruler is wanted," he declared, "with a conscience, who is inspired by a desire to deliver the world from sufferings. I have the courage to do it."

In December a note was addressed to the Allies, emphasising the "indestructible strength of Germany and her Allies—Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria.

"To-day we raise the question of peace, which is a question of humanity. If our enemies decline we can proceed on our way. We are ready for war, and we are ready for peace."

The reply of the Allies—signed by Russia, France, Great Britain, Italy, Serbia, Belgium, Montenegro, Rumania and others—was firm and decided.

"Once again the Allies declare that no peace is possible which does not guarantee the future security of the world."

It was followed by a manifesto by the Kaiser to the German army. "Our enemies have declined our suggestion. They desire the destruction of Germany. They must bear the heavy responsibility for the further terrible sacrifice which I desired to spare you."

Men remembered Great Britain's pact in the autumn of 1914. "We shall never sheathe the sword which we have not lightly drawn until Belgium and Serbia recover in full measure all and more than they have sacrificed, until France is secured against the menace of aggression, and until the military domination of Prussia is wholly and finally destroyed."

That the German peace terms included her annexation of Belgium was well known.

"'Fight on, my men,' said Sir Andrew Barton,

'I am hurt, but I am not slain;

I'll lie me down to rest awhile,

And then I'll rise and fight again.'"

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