The Eastern Front
The series of battles that raged in the Ukraine during October and November 1914 might very well have turned into a Russian moral victory without the energetic actions of General von Francois in traversing the Pripet Marshes to close a noose around Ruzskis Third Army at Rovno. The escape of Third Army, alongside von Plehves Fifth Army and Brusilovs Eighth Army, would have preserved a stronger core of Russian regular forces for the battles of 1915, and perhaps might have allowed the Russians to stop the Austrian advance short of Zhitomer. Ruzskis defense of the pocket until November 17th bought his fellow commanders time to evacuate and reform their armies, which proved decisive to Russias ability to wage war into 1915. His surrender was controversially addressed to von Francois rather than the senior Austro-Hungarian commander of the KuK Second Army, General Bohm-Ermolli. Von Francois acceptance did nothing to further warm relations between the Austro-Hungarian and German high commands, though Bohm-Ermolli was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal in December 1914.
The Germans were unambiguously capable of winning their own battles, and delivered a death-blow to Northwest Front in an even grander encirclement battle that raged to the east of Brest-Litovsk. The retreating Second Army under Samsonov interposed itself between the Austro-Hungarian First Army and Kovno, supporting the escape of Phleves Fifth Army and was finally overrun. Samsonov and his command staff were taken prisoner after the final collapse, only a few thousand Russians escaped without weapons into the marshes, and von Dankl was likewise promoted to Field Marshal in December 1914.
The real Russian forces in the north were the garrison of Brest-Litovsk and Ninth Army assigned to support it, and both were placed in the bag by German forces. First Army under Colonel-General von Kluck pressed the Brest-Litovsk defenses from the west even as other German forces swept east and south behind the main Russian line of defense. The penetration of the marshes by von Francois doomed Ninth Army and Brest-Litovsk as well, with the final fighting over in January with the surrender of the main fortress complex. The cold weather and stiffening Russian resolve cost the Germans casualties, but the only success the Russians could boast of was in managing to station enough militia units and hastily raised forces in the fortifications of Riga to stave off an attempt by German Ninth Army to storm that city. Several thousand Russian soldiers who had just been mobilized from the local population in northwestern Courland were cut off, however, and forced to surrender after the Germans landed a regiment on the peninsula. At the same time, before the Baltic froze, the Germans conducted with their fleet the seizure of the Baltic islands, threatening the Russian flank along the Gulf of Riga.
The invasion of Bessarabia by Rumania in November 1914 found the Russians with little in place to defend the province and ended efforts by Stavka to organize the occupation of Austrian Bukovina. The Rumanian goal of reaching the Dniester faced resistance only by hastily organized militia and redirected Cossack divisions, which lacked the ability to stand up to the mass of Rumanian infantry. Indeed, the Russian defenders were far more effective at carrying out pogroms among the local Jewish populations than at stopping the Rumanian advance, though the Rumanians themselves often proved to be no more civilized. The scorched-earth policy of the retreating Russians within ethnic Rumanian districts embittered the war to an extent, though it resembled and often enough was simply looting and plundering rather than a systematic program. The Rumanian front was connected to the broader effort on the thin pivot of the Austro-Hungarian Seventh Army under General Pflanzer-Baltin, hastily organized and given conflicting orders to advance as quickly as possible into the Ukraine and to maintain physical contact with the Rumanians.
The entry of Bulgaria into the war was something of a blow to the morale of the Russian population, much as the earlier Rumanian entry. Though Bulgarian troops were not involved fighting Russia their alliance with Germany and Austria and critical role in defeating Serbia undermined pan-Slavic rationales for continuing the war. Over the winter Russian and German diplomats in Sweden and Switzerland met to open up channels to discuss a negotiated end to the war. However, the Germans were buoyed by the great success of their victories and the temporary check of the French advance in the West and overplayed their hand, demanding that the Russians surrender Lithuania and Courland as well as Poland and accept the reordering of the Balkans. The Russians instead played for time as winter shut down Austro-German offensive operations, and made efforts to rally the population in a new Patriotic War. Parallels to 1812 abounded in Russian propaganda, and efforts to mobilize the enormous manpower reserves available to the Tsar brought millions of recruits to the colors.
Arming and equipping those recruits proved far more of a challenge, but by Spring 1915 the Russian Army was the largest military force ever assembled. It was also firmly under the command of a centralized Stavka headed by Grand Duke Nicholas and had been purged of the most egregiously incompetent officers. The Russians used some considerable ingenuity in making up for their lack of modern arms, such as cutting down elderly muzzle-loading artillery to be used as mortars in special sledge mounts and issuing civilian shotguns and even old muskets to assault units with a single load of buckshot, on the theory that such personnel would only need to fire their weapon once at close range before resorting to bayonet, shovel, and grenade. Many other units, however, found themselves armed with old single-shot rifles. Carbines tended to be provided to infantry, reducing the cavalry, except for the crucial skirmishers, to swords and lances, and all non-frontline-infantry was more or less unarmed. Despite these desperate measures the disparities grew through the war until it was very common for infantry units to be only half-armed with rifles and two-thirds armed overall, though the situation was not initially this severe.
While Russia organized new armies and reformed its command apparatus in anticipation of further struggle in 1915, the peace negotiations drew other powers into joining the war against her. Italy entered the war in January as rumors swirled around Rome about the immanent surrender of Russia, leading the King and Prime Minister Sonino to suddenly realize that Austria and Germany were fighting a defensive war after all. The Chinese regime of Marshal Yuan Shi-Kai had all the justification it needed in decades of French and Russian bullying. The initial Chinese thrust (including four German divisions, one of local troops and volunteers, two regular, and one of student volunteers from Germany), commanded by seconded German Field Marshal von Hindenberg and his chief-of-staff Erich Ludendorff, aimed at isolating Vladivostok. With much of the Siberian army recalled to provide a core of regular soldiers for the newly forming armies opposite the Germans, the threat to the Russian Pacific port and the Trans-Siberian Railroad was not negligible through most of 1915, though it considerably, and ultimately completely, abated with the Japanese entry into the war. The involvement of China led to a confused and intricate war in the Pacific Theater to be covered elsewhere. It would be the arrival of large numbers of German troops down the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1920 that saved Yuan Shi-Kai from having to answer fully for his egregious folly in joining the war and elevated China to the status of a victor.
The most important development came in March 1915, however, with the formal alliance between Germany and the Ottoman Empire and the declaration of war by the Turks upon Russia. A major Ottoman offensive against Kars and Batum taxed the small Russian army left defending the Caucasus region due to the exigencies of the main front, despite substantial mobilization of local militias and an uprising in Ottoman Armenia. However the Ottoman entry into the war did have a bright spot for Russia, as the closing of the straits by the Turks led to the entry of the British Empire into the war. Buoyed by that piece of diplomatic news, Russian morale was significantly improved from the nadir of late 1914 by the time the great spring offensives began on the Eastern Front. With Britain in the war the strategic situation of Germany and its allies deteriorated significantly and encouraged large parts of the Russian government that victory could be won if the Russian army could only hang in long enough. The patriotic mystique of Russian mobilization around Petrograd and Moscow had impressed the Tsar and his court with the determination of the people to resist the German invaders, and had blinded them to the absence of adequate armaments, ammunition, or training for the new armies. The influential generals around Grand Duke Nicholas had no such illusions, but were prepared to gamble on slowing down the German juggernaught with sheer mass while a decisive strike was made elsewhere.
The German spring offensive was aimed at ending the war with advance up the Baltic coast towards the capital, with a secondary offensive into Byelorussia to protect the flanks of the invasion. South of the Pripet Marshes the Austro-Hungarian Army planned its own offensive to conquer Kiev and reach the Dnepr. The Rumanians further south were focused on investing and securing Odessa but were also committed to an advance to protect the flanks of the KuK Armee. Ottoman offensives in the Caucasus continued against weakened Russian resistance, though the terrain of the region rendered the prospect of a breakthrough unlikely enough that Stavka gave the theater a low priority. The loss of the Ukrainian breadbasket was the most immediate threat facing the Russians and Stavka planned accordingly, concentrating their most reliable commanders and surviving regular formations in that theater while they employed masses of conscripted cannon fodder in defensive operations against the Germans. The Russian counterattack would come against the vulnerable juncture of the Rumanian and Austro-Hungarian armies around Vynnitsa, and would be spearheaded by Brusilovs Eighth Army, Plehves Fifth Army, and Martovs Twelfth Army, a new formation but one largely filled with regulars and experienced personnel with a skilled young commander.
Brusilovs offensive hit in mid-May, the Rumanian focus on Odessa and the pressure on Pflanzer-Baltin by Conrad led to an increasingly tenuous connection between the armies. Eighth Army hit Pflanzer-Baltins flank east of Vynnitsa, sending it recoiling to the west after two days of heavy combat. Plehves Fifth Army ripped into the resulting breach, striking deep behind Rumanian lines in a move that threatened to cut off an entire Rumanian army engaged by Martovs command. The offensive was a wild success the led to the near collapse of the First Rumanian Army Group and sent the entire front rolling back to the Dniester. Tens of thousands of Rumanian prisoners were taken, and the need to rush reinforcements to Pflanzer-Baltin took Austro-Hungarian pressure off of Kiev. Restoring the situation ultimately required the creation of a new Austro-German army to stiffen the fleeing Rumanians and halt Plehves advance towards the Dniester. With the success of the BEF in a trans-Rhine crossing, the rollup of Italian colonies and reverses to China in the Orient, momentum seemed to shift back to the Entente. The bloody toll exacted by the German advance in the face of ill-prepared Russian conscripts as the war advanced towards Petrograd--including the seizure of the whole of the Baltic states--was balanced by the success against the Rumanians and Austro-Hungarians.
The Germans had nonetheless advanced to take the cities of Luga and Batetskiy and by the middle of June had come within artillery range of the city of Gatchina, only fifteen miles south of Tsarskoe Selo and thirty miles from Petersburg. An immense attack on Gatchina followed in which the Russians threw every single unit available, regardless of training, into the desperate effort to hold the town. Several times the Germans fought their way into the city just to be driven out by desperate, massed Russian counterattacks. The fighting continues for one of the bloodiest months in the war with hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides. The Battle of Gatchina alone saw 95,000 German and 140,000 Russian casualties. It ended with the Germans in control of the 100% destroyed town but having suffered to great of a blow to continue the offensive against Petersburg. Consequently, the originator of the plan to seize Petersburg in the offensive, Moltke the Younger himself, was removed from command and sacked.
The replacement of Moltke as head of the High Command by Field Marshal von Falkenhayn led to an end of the German drive on Petersburg by July 1915, and a withdrawal to a consolidated defensive front on a large scale in preparation for the transfer of several armies for an offensive in the West. The Austro-Hungarian Army, having expanded since late 1914, took over the entire Pripet Marshes front while continuing its own slow drive to Kiev. The Rumanians took several months to collect themselves and take up their share of the front, and were buoyed permanently by several German and Austrian divisions. Ottoman pressure slacked off as well as British entry attracted Turkish attention southwards and sieges of Batum and Kars rendered the front static. The entry of Japan into the war likewise gave the Chinese a great deal more to concern themselves with, relieving the lingering threat to Siberia. Under the circumstances Stavka found itself with the time and freedom to prepare for another gamble, a winter offensive aimed against the Germans. This was rendered all the more imperative after August, when the German offensive in the West struck like a lightening bolt through the Low Countries and into Northern France, leaving the British and French pleading for aid with Paris having been briefly encircled before British reinforcements diverted from Sicily to Marsaillaise managed to arrive by the railroad system to launch a counterattack before the German cavalry squadrons could be reinforced. The increasing strain of the war on the Russian economy and people also argued for an effort to make a decisive stroke lest the Empire fall down around Stavka, which under the circumstances had little other choice.
By now something of a hero, Brusilov was invested with responsibility for planning the greater winter offensive. Shells were carefully stockpiled and Russias remaining modern artillery concentrated with the veteran Fifth, Eighth, and Twelfth armies, now organized together as the Brusilov Army Group. The battered and bloodied conscript formations thrown at the Germans were combed for units that had distinguished themselves, which were provided with more equipment and organized into ersatz assault formations. Other new units, largely devoid of modern arms, were reassigned by Brusilov to non-combat support tasks, particularly as labor to construct elaborate defenses or to support the logistics of his Army Group. The Germans had become accustomed to underestimating the Russians and so felt little or no alarm at developments opposite them, falling entirely for the Russian efforts to disguise the buildup. When Brusilov opened his offensive with the largest bombardment the Russian Army had mounted since August 1914, the Germans were caught entirely by surprise. However, Brusilov lacked the ammunition reserves to sustain the bombardment for more than a few hours, which proved to be a happy circumstance as the Germans did not expect attacks to follow so rapidly. The hand-picked assault units were used to closing to close quarters with the Germans and proved adept at breaking into the trenchlines and creating penetrations for following on conscript hordes.
The winter offensive was aimed at cutting off a segment of the German Army against the Baltic Sea, and briefly achieved that objective once the Brusilov Army Group was released to take advantage of the success of the initial attacks by executing a daring crossing of the ice over the frozen Lake Pskov and completely outflanking the shattered and retreating German lines to the south, rendering the retreat as close to a rout as had ever been achieved against the Germans in the war, but crucially, not quite one. The situation alarmed Berlin and put Falkenhayn under severe pressure to return his attention back to the Eastern Front. It certainly guaranteed that in 1916 the Germans would direct their full attention to taking Russia out of the war. Brusilovs success was still immensely costly, and the daring thrust of the offensive also rendered Russias most capable armies vulnerable to counterattack, which is what materialized. The German Army, though it was a near run thing, failed to collapse in the face of the serious blow, and instead retreated in a hurried but orderly fashion while the forces cut off in Estonia put up a tenacious defense of their positions. The Russians nonetheless advanced from the Velikaya, the line which the Germans had held after retreating in 1915 in preparation for the western front operations, to the Daugava, the whole line from Vitsyebsk to Pskov having been recoiled.
By two weeks in the Germans had reorganized sufficiently to mount a major counteroffensive of their own, including a major flanking effort around Vitsyebsk, and in a series of mobile battles in the swirling winter wore down the Brusilov Army Group. Absent sufficient artillery ammunition and with the defense of Petrograd at stake the Russians pulled back from their furthest penetrations into a viable defensive line roughly from Wenden - Rositten - Pustoshka - Nevel, though the Estonia pocket remained cut off from the rest of the German Army and in desperate straights through the winter with the difficulties of resupply via the frozen Baltic. This left the Germans no choice other than to focus entirely upon Russia in the new year while remaining strictly on the defensive in the west.
Spring 1916 saw the Central Powers determined to end the war with Russia once and for all. Preparations began in late 1915 with the seizure of the Aaland Islands, which were used as a base to foment a revolt in Finland. The beginning of the revolution in Helsinki and its rapid reinforcement by the Finnish Jaeger battalion in Prussian service quickly drew in a final power. Swedens relations with the Allies had deteriorated since 1915 amid a general wave of anti-British sentiment in Scandinavia following the bullying of Denmark in the Queen Mary incident. Support for the Finnish Revolution and hostility towards Russia gave sufficient strength to pro-interventionist elements around the King to allow the appointment of a war ministry. Swedish forces crossed into Finland in April 1916 even as the great Petrograd offensive was begun by the Germans. With the first documented uses of Bruchmueller artillery tactics and the experimental use of early, initial stosstruppen squads, the badly weakened Russian lines were demolished and the Germans rapidly regained the Velikaya and restored contact between the German Army of Estonia and the rest of the German Armies in the East. From Ostrov to Pustoshka further rolling offensives broke the back of the Russian line, crossed the Velikaya at all points, and easily reached Sushchevo, marching north under light opposition to easily retake Dno and Pskov.
The Ottomans were launching their own offensive to penetrate into Georgia and Armenia, and even began planning for landings in the Crimea. The Austro-Hungarian and Rumanian armies were once again tasked with reaching the Dnepr, but with Kiev already within range of Austrian heavy artillery their prospects were much brighter than last year. A last Russian attempt to hold a line from Gdov following a line to the south of Luga and Batetskiy to the Ozero Il'man proved a failure, and once again German armies stood before Gatchina as the Estonian Army of Germany broke through at Narva. The presence of the Tsar in Petrograd made the defense of the capital the utmost priority for Stavka. Once again, Brusilov was entrusted by Grand Duke Nicholas as the primary field commander, and he placed his trust in the surviving veterans of 1914, using them to anchor an elaborate defensive line designed to minimize the German advantages in artillery and maneuver. This time, the Germans attacked to the east of Gatchina, trying to outflank the heavy Russian defences and reach the shores of Lake Ladoga to cut Petersburg off from the rest of Russia, which combined with the combined German-Swede-Finn armies in the north having come to the gates of Vyborg left the capital in desperate straits.
Unfortunately for Russia, at this critical juncture the malignant Rasputin convinced Tsar Nicholas II that only his direct command could inspire the Russian conscripts to give their utmost in this last effort to save Russia. Most of the professional commanders and staff officers around Stavka were violently opposed to the influence of the monk, and so he bent the Tsar towards dismissing their efforts and advice with catastrophic results. The initial German offensives from the Narva area along the coast forced a headlong retreat on the part of the Russian armies towards Petrograd. The Tsar assigned the Brusilov Group to the front of the defensive positions around Gatchina to the sea, halting the Germans there once again, but leaving no capable central reserve available to counter a German thrust north towards Lake Ladoga from the area to the northeast of Batetskiy. Efforts to throw the available conscript armies at the way of the Germans simply racked up enormous casualties for little gain, and rendered the campaign anti-climatic. German armies converged on Petrograd from two directions, dispersed much of the remaining Russian Army along the way, and pocketed the best Russian armies in Petersburg and the Karelian Isthmus as the victorious Germans in the south watered their horses in Lake Ladoga.
The Tsar, again under Rasputins council, refused to leave the capital for Moscow via boat across the great lake, and was present to surrender the city after almost two months of the steady reduction of the remaining pocket rather than face a prolonged siege and punishing bombardment by heavy German artillery, with the populace already up in arms at the lack of food and conditions of starvation rapidly setting in. He was made to sign a harsh armistice by the Germans in the halls of his own family's retreats at the occupied (and untouched by his own order) Tsarskoe Selo, ceding vast parts of the Russian Empire to various new national governments and accepting an enormous indemnity, and allowing the occupation of Petrograd and use of Russias industrial resources under German management against the rest of the Entente for the duration of the war and five years beyond that to aide German recovery efforts. The immensity of the losses that resulted from the Capitulation of Tsarskoe Selo, however, brought about much popular discontent in Russia, enormous hatred for the Tsar, and some stomach for the continuation of the war.
A provisional government was therefore proclaimed by liberal and Menshevik elements of the Duma in Moscow on July 29th, which repudiated the Tsars surrender and appealed for British and French support to continue the war. There was, however, little prospect of foreign support and the military situation was already irretrievably against the Russians. Only the prospect of having to march on Moscow and subdue the entire country gave the Germans pause. After delivering several sharp defeats to the hastily organized armies of the Republic the Germans indicated a willingness to tone down terms in exchange for an end to the fighting. Without recognizing the Moscow Government the Germans conceded a division of the Ukraine and Byelorussia and temporarily put the indemnity aside; fearing revolution if the war continued, the Duma voted to accept an armistice with the Germans and fighting between the Germans and the Russian state formally ended. The aftereffects of the fighting and spiraling chaos in the Russian countryside contributed to a spiral of instability outside the German-occupied territory, leading eventually to a Civil War between radical and liberal elements in the Russian Republic.
The emergence of a Bolshevik revolutionary commune in Moscow and its consolidation of strength in the countryside in early 1917 prompted a revolutionary turn among mutinying French military forces and a socialist uprising in Paris that led to upheaval throughout Europe and speeded the end of the war. The experience of narrowly averted revolution also led to German intervention in the Russian Civil War following the conclusion of peace in the West, restoring the Romanov dynasty to power in the Russian Empire after more than two years of fighting against the Moscow Commune and numerous other forces of countless ideological stripes inside of Russia using elite and lavishly equipped volunteer divisions while the rest of the German Army was demobilized. The operation was justified on the grounds that it was necessary to allow German troops to reach China, where the survivors of four German divisions (with Austrian components) were forced by necessity to continue fighting on in the service of Yuan Shikai in an indefinitely continuing war against Japan. The obvious propaganda effort justifying the intervention as needed to 'bring the last of the boys home' and the use of all-volunteer units staved off further civil disorder in Germany over continued fighting.
Territorial changes in the east were extensive and drastic. Finland, liberated by revolution and Swedish invasion, was united in personal union to Sweden, reversing the Russian conquest of 1809, and including extensive parts of Karelia. Courland was incorporated into the Kingdom of Prussia as a holding of the Kaiser, while Lithuania--including Minsk, due to the partition of Byelorussia--became a Grand Duchy and member state of the German Empire under a German prince. The Duchy of Baltikum was formed out of Livonia, also as a member state of the German Empire. An area of Russia proper above the Daugava west of Polatsk, on a line to the Velikaya west of Pustoshka, and then north to Lake Pskov, was also annexed to Prussia as the Prussian Province of Neu Ostmark. Estonia was, with some regret, given to the Swedes as a part of Finland due to ethnic and political considerations. Russian Poland (excepting 90% of Suwalki province, integrated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) was reunited with regions including Chlemno, Brest-Litovsk, Grodno and most of Galicia as the Kingdom of Poland, with seven years of negotiation between factions and occupying powers finally resulting in union with Austria-Hungary, which meanwhile had undergone serious internal changes since the accession of Emperor Karl in February 1915.
The Ukraine was split into Left-Bank and Right-Bank sections, with Kiev and the Right Bank plus Galicia east of Lemburg attached to Poland as a semi-autonomous Grand Duchy of Ruthenia. Rumania, true to the agreements that had brought her into the war, gained Bessarabia as well as the major port of Odessa, though most of the rest of Kherson province, Taurida exclusive of the Crimean peninsula, and some of right-bank Ekaterinoslav remained Russian. The Turks obtained Batumi and Kars as well as the Georgia coast, and the Crimea besides. Russian Armenia and the Georgian heartlands along with many of the small Caucasus territories became a new Kingdom of Georgia under the Bagrations. Further revisions took place in Central Asia and the Far East. Critics of the peace noted at the time that the settlement probably raised more trouble than it resolved, and given subsequent developments they may very well have been right.