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050 Nicholas Nikolaevich and the revenge on his dogs

Nicholas Nikolaevich

Nicholas Nikolaevich

The Russian steamroller is faltering 

It is Sunday 6 June 1915. It is the 50th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

In his monoplane British pilot Reginald Warneford shoots down Zeppelin LZ-37 over Ghent, after which the burning airship crashes against the convent of Our Lady Visitation.

In Berlin the government orders U-boat commanders not to torpedo passenger ships any longer.

In the Cameroon jungle the allies are facing both German resistance and heavy rainfall.

America’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, William Jennings Bryan, resigns because he thinks president Woodrow Wilson has railed too fiercely against Germany after the sinking of Lusitania.

French and British launch another attack on Gallipoli.

The French struggle on in the area around Arras in northern France.

The Canadian government announces that they intend to send another 35,000 men to the war. 

On the eastern front Austrians and Germans succeed in crossing the river Dniester. 

The Italians try to build a bridgehead between Gorizia and Tolmin. 

And on the Galician front in the east pressure on the Russians becomes untenable, which eventually also applies to the position of commander-in-chief Nicholas Nikolaevich.

With its tall legs and long hair the borzói is a proud Russian greyhound. But the leftist revolutionaries of 1917 hated it so much that they could easily kill it. The borzói was the reactionary symbol of the nobility, that had used it to hunt for wolves, while the people impoverished. The revenge of the reds was satisfying: borzóis were tracked down and killed on a large scale. If Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich had not given so many borzóis as presents to European friends in the years before the Great War, the breed could very well have disappeared from the face of the earth. Nicholas was a fervent hunter, but his dogs did the heavy work. He only got off his horse to cut a wolf’s throat, after it had been cornered by the dogs.

The cavalry was his craft in the army. In the Russian-Japanese War Nicholas did not move into action, but during the rebellion that broke out after the defeat a star role lay ahead. Tsar Nicholas II did not want to undertake reforms and relied on his namesake, the Grand Duke. Would he, please, tighten the reins as military dictator? Nicholas Nikolaevich refused to do this job in a grand manner. He spoke to a minister and said: ‘Do you see this gun? I will now go to the tsar and I will beg him to sign. Either he will comply, or I will shoot myself.’ After which the reluctant tsar signd the reform papers after all.

Nicholas Nikolaevich was an uncle of Nicholas II. Their family lines came together at Nicholas I. He was the Romanov, whose empire from the first half of the nineteenth century was described by the writer Ivan Turgenev as ‘a mixture of light and darkness, of European civilization and Asian barbarousness’. The first Nicholas, the two Alexanders after him and finally the second Nicholas, all four Romanov tsars held on to their conservatism for a century, each in his own way. Oppression of the people was at the heart of this. The abolition of servitude in 1861 had got Alexander II the title ‘Liberator of Russia’, but he was not really such an idealist. They were purely economic motives that had made him decide to create a big class of free farmers. The muzjiks of the immense countryside were an inexhaustible source for the Russian army, which derived its reputation of steamroller from this. The tsar had the support of 170 million people. That reservoir of flesh and blood would have to pay off on the battlefield. But in practice it would not work out like this.

In the first place personal preponderance had to be put in perspective. Large groups of the population, notably the non-Russians, were exempt from military service. Many of those who qualified for the army could neither read nor write. All these illiterate soldiers had to be trained for a long period of time in order to be fully prepared. There was quite a shortage of highly trained officers and non-commissioned officers. The enemy considerably reduced the scarce elite of the Russians already in the first year of the Great War. And what was then replenished from below not only lacked fighting strength but also political reliability. This applied especially to workers and intellectuals, who wanted to have nothing to do with old-fashioned army discipline and corporal punishment.

Then the equipment of the army remained appalling throughout the war. Russian industry could not provide the men with the guns and the artillery they needed. Against the 381 heavy batteries the Germans put up on the eastern front in 1914, there were only 80 on the Russian side.

Moreover, the Russians were also in two minds tactically and strategically. For a long time defending had been the slogan, but the friendly French wanted a frontal attack in the back of the Germans. And apart from being loyal allies, the French were also important money lenders of the Russian army. Meanwhile also the Serbian bloodbrothers, because of whom the whole conflict had actually started, had to be helped. As a result the Russians overplayed their hand in the opening stage by both acting against Germany in East Prussia and dealing with the Austrians in Galicia. A clear choice for plan A (Austria) or plan G (Germany) would have offered a better chance of success.

When looking at the pre-war map, one could see Russian Poland appear between East Prussia and Galicia as a small bulge of the colossal tsarist empire. In military terms Poland was an enormous salient. Because of that vulnerable position the Russians had neglected to tackle Poland infrastructurally. After all it could easily fall into the hands of the enemy. The downside was that the troops going westward could hardly be stocked up because there were not enough railway lines.

It was the same problem with communication. Artillery fire usually had to be aimed using the human eye. The Russians did not have a decent network for the telegraph and the telephone. Wireless messages could quite easily be deciphered by the Germans. All in all the high command, the Stavka, was barely in control of the movements at the front.

The court loved to interfere in the appointment of commanding officers, which usually did not work out all too well. Between 1908 and 1914 four chiefs of the general staff  took turns. After the mobilization the envy continued to fester among the army leaders, who were also subordinate to a quarrelsome and corrupt minister of war, Vladimir Sukhomlinov. Incidentally, there are also historians who correct the ‘bad press’ of this minister. After the humiliation by Japan, Sukhomlinov, is said to have tried to free the Russian army from obsolete tactics and to supply them with sufficient resources. Yet in spring he is blamed for the substandard condition of the Russian army. In June 1915 Sukhomlinov has to step down after a bribes affair. Moreover, staff from his immediate surroundings are convicted of espionage.

In 1914 Nicholas Nikolaevich had positioned himself at the head of this slow and shady army. He has never commanded any troops in the field, but as commander-in-chief he now leads the biggest army the world has ever seen. Around 6.5 million soldiers are serving Nicholas Nikolaevich at the end of 1914.

He does not lack optimism. He is not unpopular with his men either. And as a Christian he shows enough religious zeal. There is prayer every day. But military historians have not observed any vision and diligence in his case. Eventually the setbacks he had on the extended war front are held against him.

Already in September 1914 the Russians have to withdraw from invaded East Prussia. And when finally the Germans come to the rescue of their Austrian ally in Galicia and Poland, Nicholas Nikolaevich also loses ground there. In August 1915 the Russians are on the brink of a breakdown. Brest-Litovsk falls. Its defenders will have to get away from a burning city in a hurry. The Grand Duke uses all his energy to close the gaps and to prevent the retreat from derailing into an uncontrolled flight. The fighting subsides because the Germans are also at the end of their tether. The Russian army is not at all defeated at the end of 1915, but it is no longer a threat to Germany.

Nicholas Nikolaevich’s days are numbered. The tsar decides that he had better take the helm himself in this hour of greatest danger. It is Rasputin the intriguer who, together with the tsarina, has urged Nicholas II to do so. This is not at all strange, as the relationship between the dark monk at the court and the tall grand duke at the front was downright hostile. At the beginning of the war Rasputin wanted to bless the Russian soldiers at the front, but Nicholas Nikolaevich responded as follows: ‘Please, come. I will have you hanged immediately.’

Then Nikolaevich leaves for the Caucasus, where fighting the Turks will become his  consolation prize. He is going to improve the equipment and the provisioning of the Russian army, but on this side stage of the Great War it is General Nikolai Yudenich who will grow into the number one Russian daredevil. In January 1916 a Russian offensive is unleashed under Yudenich’s command.

As Vice King of Transcaucasia Nicholas is still busy planning a railway line from Georgia in 1917. But the revolution at home draws a straight line through that plan.

On the day that Tsar Nicholas II abdicates, once more an appeal is made on his uncle. Nikolaevich again takes over command, but the new government reversed that decision within twenty-four hours. When the tsar and his family have been assassinated and a fierce civil war between the Reds and the Whites is raging, Nicholas Nikolaevich spends his days on the Crimean with his wife, who has a mystic penchant. They manage to flee for the Bolsheviks in the nick of time on board a British battleship.

First his brother-in-law, the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, gave him shelter. They are both married to a daughter of the Montenegrin king. In 1922 a White general will proclaim Nicholas the new tsar of Russia, but the Grand Duke must have realized by then that he is involved in a rearguard action. The days of the Romanovs in Russia are definitely over. As an exile in France, Nicholas, who is considered the last hope of reactionary Russia, becomes a prominent target of Soviet spies. However, in 1929 he dies a natural death on the French Riviera.

After Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich there has not been a Romanov who could claim a serious right to the throne of Mother Russia. And little has been heard of the borzóis who went hunting for wolves with the nobles.

Next week: Kick Schröder

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)





008 Alexander Samsonov and the silence of the pine wood

Alexander Samsonov

Alexander Samsonov

Germans push back Russians in East Prussia

It is Sunday 16 August 1914. It is the eighth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans give battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau to the Turkish fleet, two warships that escaped the British in the Mediterranean.

The Turks certainly appreciate this present.

Austria-Hungary is defeated by the Serbs in the Battle of the Jadar near Belgrade.

The Germans move their Oberste Heeresleitung, their headquarters, from Berlin to Koblenz, which is closer to the western front.

The Belgians are forced to surrender their capital Brussels and withdraw to Antwerp.

War crimes are committed by the Germans in the small town of Aarschot, 168 civilians are rounded up and executed.

In Lorraine the First Army of the French receives blows, but also the Fifth Army has to retreat near the river Sambre.

John Parr, the first of a long row of British soldiers, is killed near the Belgian town of Mons.

 The Russian government prohibits the sale of alcohol during the war by imperial decree.

And two Russian armies try to liaise in East Prussia, one of them under the command of Alexander Samsonov.

In times of war it will be very useful when commanders get on well together on the battlefield. Well, during the first weeks of the Great War the Russians have a serious problem of incompatible characters at the top.

Two of their armies, consisting of five corpses, aim their arrows at East Prussia along different routes. It is their intention to join forces later. The first army is commanded by Paul von Rennenkampf,  the Russian general with the German name. Commander of the second army is Alexander Samsonov, veteran of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in China and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Samsonov is an old hoodlum who considers the Slavic race superior to the Teutonic Germans.

Rennenkampf and Samsonov share a history. Both fought in the Russo-Japanese war in which the czar was so disgracefully defeated. The white race getting licked by the yellow race was quite a surprise in the western world at the beginning of the century.

After the decisive Battle of Mukden in Manchuria Samsonov had seriously blamed Rennenkampf. He felt let down. At Mukden railway station Samsonov is said to have hit Rennenkampf to the ground. At least that is what a military observer who was on the scene maintained. This German officer we will meet again on the batlefields of East Prussia in 1914.

It is certain that Samsonov and Rennenkampf have not settled their dispute when the czar orders them to advance together in East Prussia. They leave separately. Once past the Masurian lakes they are supposed to join forces near Allenstein. Then it is onwards towards Berlin.

There are plenty of opportunities for the Russians on the Eastern Front, because the Germans put almost all their cards on a surprise attack in the west. This is laid down in the Schlieffen Plan. Count Alfred von Schlieffen himself has gone to meet his maker, but his strategy has been kept in store with the Germans for years. Von Schlieffen has worked it out in great detail. First roll up France in the west in a mighty sweep through Belgium and then go for the slowly mobilizing Russians in the east.

When the war starts, the Eighth army, commanded by 65-year-old Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron, is the only army the Germans have on the east side. Von Prittwitz also has to deal with one or two difficult comrades in arms. General Hermann von François for example likes to back out of Von Prittwitz’s orders. To the despair of his superior officer he follows his own plans of attack.

Immediately after the Russian attack the situation does not look too good for the Germans. They seem forced to give up East Prussia. This prospect is starting to frighten the Oberste Heeresleitung in far away Koblenz. East Prussia is of historic importance to the empire. In the 21st century it is divided between Poland, Russia and Lithuania, but its past belongs to Old Prussia and the Teutonic knights of the German Order. When the cradle of the empire crumbles, Berlin might easily be next. Here and there panic breaks out. ‘The Cossacks are coming!’

Von Prittwitz does not seem to be up to his job. After the lost Battle of Gumbinnen, Ausgust 20 1914, he wants to withdraw behind the river Vistula (Weichsel in German). In Koblenz the decision is then made to fortify the eastern front. Men will be moved by train from the west to the east. This means a weakening of the Von Schlieffen plan which according to some military historians would eventually lead to the Germans losing the war.

Von Prittwitz and his chief of staff are discharged. Three years later he is to die of the results of a heart attack. In August 1914 Paul von Hindenburg, Von Prittwitz’s senior by one year, takes over command at the eastern front. This is remarkable as Hindenburg, a pupil of Von Schlieffen, had already taken early retirement in 1911. Hindenburg is assisted by Erich Ludendorff, ‘the hero of Liège’. On the train on their way to the east it clicked immediately between the two. It will be like this for the rest of the war.

Now is the moment to mention the name Max Hoffmann, the German military observer at Mukden nine years earlier. This shrewd and equally cynical officer comes up with the plan which both Ludendorff and Hindenburg gratefully accept after they have arrived. Hoffmann realizes that it will be disastrous for the Germans if the two Russian armies manage to make the connection. If, however, they can deal with Samsonov first and then with Rennenkampf, there may be chances for Germany. This could easily be considered a small scale Von Schlieffen plan.

In an enormous frontal sweep, enabled by their excellent railway network, the Germans aim their entire battle force at Samsonov in the south. Ludendorff must have been scared out of his wits the day before. He realizes that now Rennenkampf has an open battlefield in front of him. But Hindenburg, calm as ever, decides that this risk is all part of the game.

It turns out perfectly for the Germans. With permission from above Rennenkampf focuses his attention on conquering Köningsberg, which is now Kaliningrad. In this way Samsonov will not get any backing. Communication between the two Russian armies is extremely lousy anyway. The Germans effortlessly intercept and decipher messages (if at all coded). Besides, Rennenkampf’s army is far ahead of Samsonov’s schedule. Samsonov has had to cope with far worse battleground conditions. Provisioning the troops of the advance guard has proved a logistic nightmare.

Poor Samsonov. Stubborn Von François also disregards Ludendorff’s instructions by choosing his own route of attack. So Samsonov in all his optimism seizes the opportunity to have his troops advance in the middle towards the Vistula. In doing so he enlarges the distance to both flanks. He has to pay dearly for Von François’  stubbornness. Slowly it is beginning to dawn on Samsonov that he is not chasing a retreating army, but actually about to face a concentration of troops.

Samsonov now hesitates, which is considered cowardice by Yakov Zhilinski, commander of the front in East Prussia. Zhilinski himself is not exactly a model of decisiveness. Samsonov is ordered to continue his offensive in East Prussia with unflagging zeal. After all Russia is committed to its ally France, however bad the supply lines and production of ammunition are in the country of the czar. Plenty of men, but especially their artillery loses out to the Germans. The optimism of the Russian army command in East Prussia is reflected in that of the Austrians in the south of Poland. They, too, assume to be on the heels of a defeated enemy, but they are in for a rude awakening.

Just as Hannibal had the Romans by the short hairs at Cannae, Samsonov’s army will share an equal fate in the Kesselschlacht at Tannenberg. A clash of hundreds of thousands takes place in the last days of August. Samsonov also gets involved in the battle. He witnesses how on both sides his army is rendered powerless. He is insufficiently familiar with the battlefield in order to bring about a change for the better. Samsonov is trapped. Rennenkampf will make an attempt to help his cursed colleague out, but he does not get any closer than 72 kilometers to the latter’s surrounded army.

Forced by the deadly artillery fire of the Germans, Samsonov gives the order to a full retreat on 28 August. He then gets on his horse, apparently to try to escape the trap he is in. The total number of casualties on the side of the Russians is over thirty thousand. Another ninety thousand are made prisoners of war. Samsonov is defeated. With the help of 400 seized guns the Germans have their hands free to engage in battle with Rennenkampf near the Masurian lakes from 9 September onwards. There, too, the Russians will have to bow their heads in a disorderly exodus from East Prussia, though this fiasco is not as catastrophic as that of Tannenberg. This absolutely spectacular victory has assumed mythical proportions in Germany. Hindenburg and Ludendorff owe their status of tactical genii to it. Max Hoffmann knew better. ‘Here general-field marshal Hindenburg slept before the Battle of Tannenberg, after the battle of Tannenberg, and between you and me, also during the battle of Tannenberg’, he said to a couple of friends he was showing around his  headquarters.

Samsonov’s tragedy was described by Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn in his novel August 1914. Barbara Tuchman also tells of Samsonov’s fate in The Guns of August, after he reached the small town of Willenberg near the Russian border. ‘The general and his group waited in the forest until nightfall and then, as it was impossible to proceed over the swampy ground in the dark on horseback, continued on foot. Matches gave out and they could no longer read their compass. Moving hand in hand to avoid losing each other in the dark, they stumbled on. Samsonov, who suffered from asthma, was visibly weakening. He kept repeating to Potovsky, his Chief of Staff: ‘The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?’ After covering six miles, they stopped for a rest. It was then 1:00 a.m.. Samsonov moved apart into the thicker darkness under the pines. A shot cracked the stillness of the night. Potovsky knew instantly what it meant. Earlier Samsonov had confided his intention of committing suicide but Potovsky thought he had argued him out of it. He was now sure the General was dead.’

Tuchman also writes that the Germans buried Samsonov’s body. His widow got permission to have the body transported to Russia in 1916 with the help of the Red Cross.

Paul von Rennenkampf led his First Army in the undecided Battle of Lodz, November 1914, but afterwards the general with the most luxuriant moustache of the entire eastern front was sent packing. When after the February Revolution a Provisional Government takes office, Rennenkampf is yet put in prison because of his inferior leadership in the beginning of the war. Under the Bolsheviks he is set free. He goes into hiding on the Azov Sea coast, where he passes off as a Greek. The Bolsheviks, however, manage to find him. They want him to join the Red Army as a commanding officer and fight in the Civil War. Rennenkampf refuses. He gets shot on 1 April 1918. Unlike Samsonov, he could not choose the bullet himself.

Next week: Arthur Machen

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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