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The Shock of the Great War

Russia had between 4 and 5 million casualties in the Great War. When the Great War began, Russian patriotism at first compensated for the war's disruption and suffering. The government, however, proved incompetent in pursuing the war, and as war-weariness and revolutionary pressures increased, fewer and fewer defended autocracy.

In the summer of 1914 things were evidently approaching a crisis. In July 1914, all the large cities of Russia were in the throes of strikes and street demonstrations. Encounters between the police and the workers were taking place daily, and it seemed to many observers of Russian life that the country was entering upon a new phase of its revolutionary history. Things, however, quickly changed with the outbreak of the Great War of 1914. The whole people rallied at once to the support of the government. The Duma convened on July 26 and pledged its full support for the defense of the fatherland. The government was also bent on concessions and permitted the holding of conventions by the Union of Zemstvos and the Union of Cities for the purpose of organizing the service for the care of the wounded and for the relief of the population. The government also prohibited the sale of vodka, which, according to all expert opinion, was undermining the health and efficiency of the Russian population.

The onset of the Great War had a drastic effect on domestic policies and a weak regime. A show of national unity had accompanied Russia's entrance into the war, but military reversals and the government's incompetence soon soured the attitude of much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets. In addition, inept Russian preparations for war and ineffective economic policies hurt the country financially, logistically, and militarily. Inflation became a serious problem.

Because of inadequate materiel support for military operations, the War Industries Committee was formed to ensure that necessary supplies reached the front. But army officers quarreled with civilian leaders, seized administrative control of front areas, and would not work with the committee. The central government disliked independent support activities organized by zemstvos and various cities. The Duma quarreled with the bureaucracy, and center and center-left deputies eventually formed the Progressive Bloc, which was aimed at forming a genuinely constitutional government.

On 01 May 2015 Germany launched her own real main attack, the one for which she had been preparing all winter. It was directed against the Russian army on the Dunajec (doo'nah-jek) River, in Austria's province of Galicia just south of the Polish border: that is, about midway of the long Eastern battle line. It fairly wiped out the Russian forces who encountered it. The German infantry then moved forward, seized the Russian lines at Gorlice, and brought the great guns onward for another attack. This Battle of the Dunajec, or of Gorlice, was the beginning of the great German drive on Russia, "Von Mackensen's battering-ram," as it was called. The Russians could find no defense against it. None seemed possible.

The long Russian line was thus broken in the center. The victors to the southward in the battle of the Carpathian passes had to turn back from the Hungarian invasion, lest their line of supplies be broken and themselves entrapped. That was why Germany had been so willing that the Russians should expend their best blood in the Carpathians; she knew she could check that advance the moment Mackensen was ready. She had thus saved Austria a second time.

All through May and June that dreadful "battering-ram" kept on advancing through Galicia. Russian soldiers by the hundred thousands strove to bar its passage by the mere weight of human bodies. They perished in numbers uncounted and uncountable. Przemysl was recaptured by the advancing Germans and Austrians on June 3rd. Lemberg, the Galician capital, was regained June 22nd. It had fallen to the Russians in the great battle of the preceding September; and for almost a year they had retained over Galicia a rule more complete, and far more kindly, than that of the Germans over Belgium. By July 1st the great Mackensen drive seemed slowing up, but by that time practically all Galicia was once more in Austro-German hands, a restored province of the rapidly developing Mid-Europe Empire.

After Russian military reversals in 1915, Nicholas II went to the front to assume nominal leadership of the army. His German-born wife, Aleksandra, and Rasputin, a debauched faith healer, who was able to stop the bleeding of the hemophiliac heir to the throne, tried to dictate policy and make ministerial appointments. Although their true influence has been debated, they undoubtedly decreased the regime's prestige and credibility.

The setback which the Russian armies suffered in the summer of 1915 forced the government once more to look to the people for support. During a session of the Duma the government was subjected to the most scathing criticism on all sides. The heavy losses of the army, the inefficiency of the munitions service, and the disorganization in all branches of the military department aroused the Russian nation to a high pitch of indignation. The so-called Progressive Bloc, which was formed in the summer of 1915, was a combination of Octobrists, Constitutionalists, and Moderates on a programme of democratic reforms which are considered essential for the victory of the country. On July 20, 1915, these progressives introduced a resolution demanding a government responsible to the Duma. A campaign was begun for a national Ministry of Defense representing all parties.

While the central government was hampered by court intrigue, the strain of the war began to cause popular unrest. In 1916 high food prices and a lack of fuel caused strikes in some cities. Workers, who won for themselves separate representative sections of the War Industries Committee, used them as organs of political opposition.

The countryside was becoming restive. Soldiers, mainly newly recruited peasants who had been used as cannon fodder in the inept conduct of the war, were increasingly insubordinate. The situation continued to deteriorate. In an attempt to alleviate the morass at the tsar's court, a group of nobles murdered Rasputin in December 1916. But his death brought little change. In the winter of 1917, however, deteriorating rail transport caused acute food and fuel shortages, which resulted in riots and strikes.

Troops were summoned to quell the disorders. Although troops had fired on demonstrators and saved tsarism in 1905, in 1917 the troops in Petrograd (the name of St. Petersburg after 1914) turned their guns over to the angry crowds. Support for the tsarist regime simply evaporated in 1917, ending three centuries of Romanov rule.

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Page last modified: 18-11-2018 19:09:11 ZULU