Category Archives: Russia

Naval Competition in the Pacific, 1914

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 226-281:

Apart from the East Asiatic Squadron, the Germans had maintained a small fleet to keep peace and show the flag around the islands of the South Pacific, and to patrol the Chinese rivers. This fleet included the survey ship Planet (which was at Yap in the Carolines at this time) and two gunboats of considerable vintage. One of these gunboats had already finished her tour of duty and was on her way back to Germany. The other, the Cormoran, had been in dry dock at Tsingtao undergoing a refit (and would also later be scuttled along with the Austrian cruiser). This refit, incidentally, involved the dismantling of the ship’s engines, which supports the claim that the Germans in China were taken by surprise by the timing of war. This is even further borne out by the fact that just two months previously, the commander of the British China Squadron itself, Vice-Admiral Sir Martyn Jerram, had paid a courtesy call at Tsingtao.

Cormoran’s crew, enjoying a long shore leave, had been joined by the crews of the Yangtze River gunboats Otter, Vaterland and Tsingtao who had been instructed in July to disarm and abandon their vessels and travel overland to the German colony.

The capture of the Rjasan solved the problem for the Germans of what to do with these surplus crews. The commander of the disabled Cormoran, Korvettenkapitan Adalbert Zuckschwerdt, had decided in von Müller’s absence to mount guns on the luxury liner Prinz Eitel Friedrich and man the ship with some of his surplus sailors. Now, with the Emden’s prize, he had two auxiliary cruisers at his disposal.

The Rjasan had been a member of the Russian Volunteer Fleet and had clearly been designed to be converted to an auxiliary cruiser. Von Müller decided she could well fit this role in the cause of Imperial Germany, with Zuckschwerdt and his men to be her crew. The former Russian ship was moored alongside the disabled Cormoran. The first task was to clean her up, Russian standards of cleanliness at sea being far removed from Teutonic hygiene requirements. On shore, meanwhile, frantic preparations were being made for the defence of Tsingtao itself. The harbour was mined and gun emplacements set up along the waterfront. Small ships were being loaded ready to act as colliers to the German fleet.

Within two days they had the Rjasan ready to sail. She was now re-named Cormoran in place of the shell of a ship still lying at the dock. The main problem for Zuckschwerdt was fuel capacity. The question of coaling the surface raiders is a recurring one throughout this book: not only were commanders constantly concerned where the next supply of coal was coming from, but, when coal was available, getting it aboard ship was a backbreaking and filthy job. Away from ports there was inevitably no crane to help, only the crew working with shovels and buckets. Raiders of World War I, while charged with sinking Allied shipping in order to starve Britain of supplies, eyed many possible victims with the single thought of how much coal they might be carrying. As will be seen later, German colonies were justified in Berlin on the sole grounds of their potential as coaling stations for the Imperial Navy.

In the case of the newly re-named Cormoran the solution to the problem of limited fuel capacity was to move the crew on to the deck and use the ship’s accommodation as extra coal bunkers. By this means Zuckschwerdt gave his ship an additional 16,000 kilometre range. He sailed out of Tsingtao on 10 August 1914. Four months later he and his crew were to be interned by the Americans at Guam, but a great deal would happen to the Cormoran before then.

Meanwhile the might of the British Empire was preparing to expel Germany once and for all from the Pacific. She had not been wanted there in the first place. To the British and Germans the Pacific was a sideshow at a time of momentous events on the European continent. Indeed, many histories of World War I scarcely mention the events taking place so far away from London, Paris, Berlin and St Petersburg. The Germans and the British knew that the question of naval supremacy would be settled in the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The wider questions of strategy and planning will be dealt with in the next chapter, but it is clear from contemporary accounts that the people of Australia and New Zealand had a considerable fear of a German presence in the Pacific Ocean. There had been a number of Russian ‘scares’ in the late nineteenth century and, particularly in New Zealand, defensive installations had been undertaken at some harbours in anticipation of the Tsar’s warships suddenly appearing on the horizon. Australia was not quite so hysterical: in 1909 the Australian government noted that the term ‘defended port’ was an empty one, those ports so designated (Sydney, Adelaide, Newcastle, Port Phillip, for example) either had no guns, or if they did, had no trained gunnery officers, searchlights for night firing or supplies for the crews.

But by the outbreak of war, the scare was really on in both countries. On 10 August, the New Zealand Herald reported the Australians were worried about ‘the great naval base of Simpsonhafen (now Rabaul) in Kaiser Wilhelm land (now part of Papua New Guinea) which had allegedly been built at a cost of ‘thousands of pounds’. The newspaper which, despite hostilities, was still printing daily summaries of local shipping movements, warned that the German naval base had been built under the guise of mercantile expansion within striking distance of the Torres Strait, where all the shipping routes between Australia and the Far East converged. It reported that the wharf at Simpsonhafen was 300 metres long with spacious warehouses worth £40,000; if these had existed, this imaginary wharf would have been longer than any other in Australasia and equal to the needs of a city of 100,000 people. The report of this ‘great naval base’ would have been news to the Imperial German Navy, too.

At the outbreak of war, the East Asiatic Squadron faced a superior British and Allied presence and the squadron commander, Vice-Admiral Maximilian Count von Spee, knew that only too well. Apart from the Russian fleet at Vladivostok and the two French cruisers, Dupleix and Montcalm, there was the British China squadron based at Weihaiwei and Hong Kong, the East Indies station at Colombo, and the Australian squadron.

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German Ships in the Pacific, August 1914

From German Raiders of the South Seas, by Robin Bromby (Highgate, 2012), Kindle Loc. 52-108:

ON 31 JULY 1914 as the shadows of war rolled in, the German cruiser SMS Emden slipped its moorings at the port of Tsingtao in northern China. The previous day had seen Austria-Hungary declare war on Serbia following the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Germany followed with declarations against France and Russia, and Britain and its empire would join in on 4 August.

Emden’s captain, Karl von Müller, was anxious to avoid being bottled up in the harbour by the British naval squadron should war be declared. The Royal Navy was based not far away at Weihaiwei — the British territory on the North China coast which had been leased in 1898 for a coaling station (and would be returned to China in 1930). Although the Germans in China were aware that war was threatening, the timing of its declaration seems to have caught them by surprise; the main force of the East Asiatic Squadron was away on a three-month cruise of the Pacific to show the flag along the impressive string of German territories that spread as far as Samoa.

In 1884, the Emperor had proclaimed his sovereignty over the northern part of New Guinea. In 1897 the murder of two German missionaries in China had provided the pretext for the Germans to seize Kiaochow and extract a ninety-nine year lease on the bay at Tsingtao along with extensive railway and mining concessions in Shantung province from the beleaguered Chinese government. Kiaochow, while a German colony, was administered by the Reichsmarineamt and the governor of the territory was not a ministry official from Berlin but the commanding naval officer. Following the murder of the missionaries, Germany had sent a naval force and forced the weak Chinese government to accede to a 99-year lease on the territory; moreover, Germany was given the right to construct two railway lines into Chinese territory and have the rights to any minerals over a 30km-wide corridor through which those lines would run. The German victory set off another round of territorial claims for pieces of China: the Russians took over Port Arthur, France demand Kwangchow and Britain both expanded its land area at Hong Kong with a 99-year lease over what would be known as the New Territories and also took control at Weihaiwei in the north of China.

Meanwhile, in 1899 the Germans bought Marshall and Caroline Islands (now separately the countries of Palau and Federated States of Micronesia) from Spain and then Western Samoa was wrung from the British to complete the new and what would be a short-lived German empire in the east.

Nevertheless, the imperatives of the European situation were such that Germany could give only scant attention to its Pacific possessions. This may explain why the German fleet was scattered at the beginning of August. The armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, each of 11,832 tons and launched in 1907 and 1908 respectively, were on the flag-showing cruise and the Emden was in Tsingtao, along with the armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich and several colliers. The light cruiser Nurnberg was steaming from North America and due to meet up with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Apia in Samoa, while the other light cruiser, Leipzig, was en route to Mexico.

([Photo caption:] When the Nürnberg was ordered to rejoin the East Asiatic Squadron at the outbreak of war, one of her first jobs was to cut the cable at Fanning Island, a relay station for the vital Pacific cable. On 7 September 1914 the cruiser landed a party of sailors, the Germans smashing the operating room, dynamiting the generating plant, dredging up the cable and cutting it. [Paul Schmalenbach Collection])

Impressive though it was, Germany’s naval squadron in the Pacific was dwarfed in size there by the country’s merchant fleet operating in that vast ocean. At this time, Germany was second only to Britain in merchant tonnage there. In the Pacific the presence of the German territories as well as the normal international trade meant that German merchant ships were frequent visitors to British empire ports; many of the supplies needed by the German settlers in New Guinea came from Australia, and it was the German shipping companies which provided the transport for those supplies. The merchant ships, at least those with radios, could keep in contact with Berlin. In the early years of the twentieth century the Germans installed a network of wireless stations to link their possessions and their ships, the main stations being at Yap, New Guinea and Samoa. In 1908 all German merchant captains had received instructions that in time of war they were to head immediately for a German possession or a neutral port. In February 1914 all German ships equipped with wireless were told to listen to German stations at 0700, 1300 and 2310 each day.

On 3 August 1914, literally the eve of war, there were many German merchant ships around the coast of Australia. The Seydlitz, a Norddeutscher-Lloyd (NDL) mail steamer, was berthed at Sydney’s Circular Quay. Also in Sydney that night were other NDL steamers: the Elsass at what was then the NDL wharf, the Melbourne at Garden Island and the Osnabruck at Woolloomooloo. The Sumatra had arrived from Hamburg the previous day, while the Germania was just in from the Caroline Islands. The Stolberg was docked at Fremantle and the Scharzfels and the Iserlohn had berthed at Adelaide, with the Cannstadt tieing up at Brisbane. The Pommern was at sea between Brisbane and Sydney.

From 3 August the Port of Sydney was closed at night. Three minutes after midnight on the previous day, at the other main port in New South Wales, Newcastle, the collier Luneberg had slipped out of that harbour with empty holds while the captain on the Ulm was so anxious to leave Newcastle he left two-thirds of his cargo on the wharf. The Australian authorities had already instructed the Navy to examine all ships entering or leaving defended ports.

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Minna Weizmann, Chaim’s Invisible Sister

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2584-2610, 10153-10155:

The spymaster [Curt Prüfer] clearly took his new enterprise very seriously and as a true patriot was ready to let whatever affections he felt for Minna Weizmann be trumped by those he held for the kaiser. In early May 1915, Weizmann made the crossing to Egypt as the newest member of Prüfer’s spy ring. She probably needed little in the way of persuading; as both a Jew and a socialist, she might as well have been wearing a czarist bull’s-eye on her back, and here was the chance for both adventure and revenge.

Initially, Weizmann did very well in her new vocation, her hospital work and the novelty of being a female physician giving her entrée to the upper echelons of British Cairo society. Her luck didn’t hold, however. Under the cover of accompanying a badly wounded French soldier home, she managed to reach Italy, but there was observed meeting with the German ambassador in Rome. Unmasked, she was hauled back to Egypt, where she faced a decidedly grim future: internment in a British prisoner-of-war camp at the very least, and possibly execution. Instead, Weizmann’s considerable charms combined with old-fashioned chivalry produced a far more pleasant outcome. As related by a Swiss woman who crossed paths with Minna that August and heard her story, “she was so beloved in Cairo and Alexandria, and held in such respect that people gave her unwavering denial [of being a spy] credence.” Ironically, even the czar’s consul in Cairo vouched for Minna’s innocence and arranged for her safe passage back to Russia. It was while staying at a hotel in Romania, in transit to the homeland she had escaped from two years earlier, that Weizmann desperately reached out to the Swiss woman.

“She revealed everything to me,” Hilla Steinbach-Schuh explained to a German official, “and fervently begged me to inform the German embassy in Constantinople of her deportation, especially that Herr Prüfer should be advised of this.”

But the remarkably tender treatment shown Minna Weizmann—she would not only survive the war, but eventually return to Palestine to work for the medical service of the Zionist women’s organization, Hadassah—may have also stemmed from her lineage. Her older brother was Chaim Weizmann, a renowned chemist who had immigrated to Great Britain in 1904 and who in 1915 was already working closely with the British munitions industry to improve their war-making capability; Chaim would go on to become the first president of the state of Israel, while Minna’s nephew Ezer would serve as its seventh. That lineage may also explain why Minna has been largely excised from the history books, and even from the Weizmann family’s memory (Chaim made not a single reference to his sister in his memoirs); for “the first family of Israel” to count among its members someone who not only spied for Germany but whose spymaster lover went on to become a senior Nazi diplomat is surely one of those awkward family stories best left untold.

Even before learning of Minna Weizmann’s fate, however, Curt Prüfer had seen his fledgling Egyptian spy ring largely shut down, a result of Italy’s joining the Triple Entente in May and the consequent severing of the German embassy “ratline.” Still, Prüfer’s bold initiative had greatly impressed his superiors in both the military and intelligence spheres. As Lieutenant Colonel Kress von Kressenstein, the commander of German forces in Palestine, informed Berlin, “Curt Prüfer is indispensable as the leader of the intelligence service.”

For her services to the Central Powers war effort, Minna was included in a prisoner exchange between Germany and Russia in the last days of World War I. Managing yet another escape, this time from the chaos of postwar Germany, she returned to Jerusalem, where she worked for the health service of the Zionist women’s organization, Hadassah.

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The Tsar’s Army of Chaos, 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 5654-5669:

The long columns plodding forward into German territory filled observers with wonder at their exotic character and mingling of modern and primitive equipment. Many of the infantry lacked high boots. Supply arrangements were chaotic and inadequate, hampered by poor roads and few railways in their rear. The Russian army rejected howitzers as a ‘cowards’ weapon’, because they could be fired by men beyond sight of their enemies; for artillery support, they relied exclusively upon field guns. Communications were hampered by a shortage of radios, and commanders were obliged to signal in plain language, because each corps used a different cipher. The invaders owned a total of just twenty-five telephones and eighty miles of wire. The cavalry were trained to act chiefly as mounted infantry, filling gaps between corps, and made little attempt to fulfil the vital reconnaissance role. Most of Russia’s few available aircraft had been sent to Galicia, and those in East Prussia were temporarily grounded for lack of fuel.

In 1910 German writer Heino von Basedow described his impressions of the Tsar’s army in terms which reflected widespread foreign opinion: ‘The Russian soldier is impulsive as a child. He is easily excited by rabble-rousers (towards revolt) but equally readily restored to submission.’ Basedow was amazed by the careless culture of the Tsar’s soldiers, symbolised by the rakish angle at which each man wore his cap. An NCO calling ‘ras-dwa’ at the front of a marching column in hopes of maintaining its step and precision could not prevent a man in the rear rank from casually munching an apple. Soldiers supposedly marching at attention would nonetheless raise an unfailing hand to cross themselves when they passed a church or roadside icon. Meanwhile a grenadier might seat himself on a roadside marker and hawk his platoon’s bread to all comers. Such a way of soldiering did not inspire German respect. Alfred Knox noted the same casualness on the battlefield, where he was astonished to see Russian artillerymen sleeping huddled against their gunshields, minutes before they were due to open fire.

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Antarctic Cuisine: Aerovodka and Gristle

From Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, by Jason C. Anthony (U. Nebraska Press, 2012), pp. 146-148:

One of the exchange scientists who spent a year on a Soviet base [in Antarctica] was glaciologist Charles Swithinbank. At Novolazarevskaya with the 1963–65 Ninth Soviet Antarctic Expedition, he lived a very different life than he used to in England. As Swithinbank relates in Vodka on Ice, he learned while sailing south on a Soviet ship that his diet would be impoverished in both quality and variety. “Apart from feast days,” he wrote bluntly, “the food was not good.” Cabbage soup (borscht or shchi, depending on the type of cabbage), ragout, and compote (“an insipid rust-colored liquid with a faint taste of boiled apples”) became distressingly familiar. The quality of the beef was quite poor, all gristle and bone. Soviet cattle, he learned, fed on sparse grass.

Although the meat was poor, the butter was excellent. So was the black bread. And those feast days really were exceptional. Swithinbank sobered up after a New Year’s celebration full of black and red caviar, pickled herring, pickled mushrooms, sausage, crabmeat, and more. A May Day feast included roast chicken, crab salad, ham, salmon, smoked salmon and sturgeon caviar, apples, oranges, champagne, brandy, and orange juice stoked with airplane de-icing fluid.

Toasts drunk with de-icing fluid, called “aerovodka” by the Russians, were not restricted to holidays. At Molodezhnaya base, where Swithinbank visited en route to Novolazarevskaya, he noted that there was a more frequent aviator’s tradition: “On landing back at base after a long flight, it was the duty of the navigator to drain a litre of fluid from the aircraft’s de-icing system. Unlike some de-icing fluids, this was pure alcohol (ethanol). Once indoors, it was served to the aircrew and passengers.” One observer of a similar U.S. Antartic Program habit—drinking a rocket fuel known as JATO (jet-fuel assisted take-off)—equated the practice to that of a “warrior culture drinking blood.”

At Novolazarevskaya, the dining room was the community social center. One long table fit them all. Here he spent his year of good company, good science, and terrible food. The cook, Ivan Miximovish Sharikov, had spent over thirteen years in the polar regions as a weather observer. “The oldest, tallest, baldest, and humblest man” on staff, Ivan took on the cook’s role at Novolazerevskaya when no weather job was available. For him, as for all Soviet Antarctic staff, the pay was irresistible, since he earned five times what he might make in Russia. Ivan was not much of a cook, though to be fair he had little to work with—much of the better meat left by the previous year’s crew had gone to rot. Ivan was stuck making borcht, shchi, fish soup with bones, boiled potatoes, and lots of ragout, to Swithinbank’s dismay. Ivan’s ragout, he wrote, consisted “of stewed gristle with chips of bone, generally served with macaroni. Aside from the gristle, far, and bone, the amount of lean meat remaining could be held on a teaspoon.”

Ivan at least made a reliable porridge to swallow with the bread and butter each morning. Occasional treats included caviar, sauerkraut, and cheese. Cucumbers and tomatoes grew in window boxes, and ice cream was made from milk powder and freshly drifted snow. Each Russian expedition member also received a monthly five-hundred-gram chocolate ration but married men saved it for their wives, whom they had left behind for a very long time.

After an end-of-year inventory revealed more than one hundred missing bottles of vodka, champagne, and eau de cologne from Novolazarevskaya’s liquor stock, Ivan the cook confessed. He had a habit of taking walks alone after dinner, but Swithinbank “had assumed that it was to get a breath of fresh air as an antidote to the heat of the kitchen.” The eau de cologne was, for some Russians, an “esteemed substitute” when they ran out of vodka.

When Swithinbank returned to England, he had trouble adjusting back to his old diet. Meat, fish, and cheese made him ill. He eventually found a doctor with a good memory of World War II who diagnosed him with prisoner-of-war syndrome. After a year of high-carb meals garnished with stringy meat, Swithinbank’s body could no longer absorb high-protein English food. “The solution,” he wrote, “was simply to wean me slowly from the Russian diet.”

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Russian Economic Success before 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 757-815:

Russia boomed in the last years before Armageddon, to the dismay of its German and Austrian enemies. After 1917, its new Bolshevik rulers forged a myth of Tsarist industrial failure. In reality, the Russian economy had become the fourth largest in the world, growing at almost 10 per cent annually. The country’s 1913 national income was almost as large as that of Britain, 171 per cent of France’s, 83.5 per cent of Germany’s, albeit distributed among a much larger population – the Tsar ruled two hundred million people to the Kaiser’s sixty-five million.Russia had the largest agricultural production in Europe, growing as much grain as Britain, France and Germany combined. After several good harvests, the state’s revenues were soaring. In 1910, European Russia had only one-tenth the railway density of Britain or Germany, but thereafter this increased rapidly, funded by French loans. Russian production of iron, steel, coal and cotton goods matched that of France, though still lagging far behind Germany’s and Britain’s.

Most Russians were conspicuously better off than they had been at the end of the previous century: per-capita incomes rose 56 per cent between 1898 and 1913. With an expansion of schools, literacy doubled in the same period, to something near 40 per cent, while infant mortality and the overall death rate fell steeply. There was a growing business class, though this had little influence on government, still dominated by the landowning aristocracy. Russian high life exercised a fascination for Western Europeans. That genteel British magazine The Lady portrayed Nicholas II’s empire in romantic and even gushing terms: ‘this vast country with its great cities and arid steppes and extremes of riches and poverty, captures the imagination. Not a few Englishmen and Englishwomen have succumbed to its fascinations and made it their home, and English people, generally speaking, are liked and welcomed by Russians. One learns that the girls of the richer classes are brought up very carefully. They are kept under strict control in the nursery and the schoolroom, live a simple, healthy life, are well taught several languages including English and French … with the result that they are well-educated, interesting, graceful, and have a pleasing, reposeful manner.’

It was certainly true that Europe’s other royal and noble fraternities mingled on easy terms with their Russian counterparts, who were as much at home in Paris, Biarritz and London as in St Petersburg. But the Tsarist regime, and the supremely hedonistic aristocracy behind it, faced acute domestic tensions. Whatever the Hapsburg Empire’s difficulties in managing its ethnic minorities, the Romanov Empire’s were worse: enforced Russification, especially of language, was bitterly resisted in Finland, Poland, the Baltic states and Muslim regions of the Caucasus. Moreover Russia faced massive turmoil created by disaffected industrial workers. In 1910 the country suffered just 222 stoppages, all attributed by the police to economic rather than political factors. By 1913 this tally had swelled to 2,404 strikes, 1,034 of them branded as political; in the following year there were 3,534, of which 2,565 were deemed political. Baron Nikolai Wrangel observed presciently: ‘We are on the verge of events, the like of which the world has not seen since the time of the barbarian invasions. Soon everything that constitutes our lives will strike the world as useless. A period of barbarism is about to begin and it will last for decades.’

Nicholas II was a sensitive man, more rational than the Kaiser if no more intelligent. Having seen the 1905 Russo-Japanese war – which Wilhelm incited him to fight – provoke a revolution at home, the Tsar understood that a general European conflict would be disastrous for most, if not all, of the participants. But he cherished a naïve faith in the common interests of the emperors’ trade union, supposing that he and Wilhelm enjoyed a personal understanding, and were alike committed to peace. He was contradictorily influenced, however, by Russia’s recent humiliations – in 1905 by Japan’s forces, in 1908 by Austrian diplomacy when the Hapsburgs summarily annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. The latter especially rankled. In January 1914 the Tsar sternly declared to former French foreign minister Théophile Delcassé: ‘We shall not let ourselves be trampled upon.’

A conscientious ruler, Nicholas saw all foreign dispatches and telegrams; many military intelligence reports bear his personal mark. But his imagination was limited: he existed in an almost divine seclusion from his people, served by ministers of varying degrees of incompetence, committed to sustaining authoritarian rule. An assured paternalist, on rural visits he was deluded about the monarchy’s popularity by glimpses of cheering peasantry, with whom he never seriously engaged. He believed that revolutionary and even reformist sentiment was confined to Jews, students, landless peasants and some industrial workers. The Kaiser would not have dared to act as arbitrarily as did the tsar in scorning the will of the people: when the Duma voted against funding four battleships for the Baltic Fleet, Nicholas shrugged and ordered that they should be built anyway. Even the views of the 215-member State Council, dominated by the nobility and landowners, carried limited weight.

If no European government displayed much cohesion in 1914, Nicholas II’s administration was conspicuously ramshackle. Lord Lansdowne observed caustically of the ruler’s weak character: ‘the only way to deal with the Tsar is to be the last to leave his room’. Nicholas’s most important political counsellor was Sergei Sazonov, the foreign minister. Fifty-three years old and a member of the minor nobility, he had travelled widely in Europe, serving in Russia’s London embassy, where he developed a morbid suspiciousness about British designs. He had now led the foreign ministry for four years. His department – known for its location as the Choristers’ Bridge, just as its French counterpart was the Quai d’Orsay – spoke scarcely at all to the Ministry of War or to its chief, Vladimir Sukhomlinov; meanwhile the latter knew almost nothing about international affairs.

Russian statesmen were divided between easterners and westerners. Some favoured a new emphasis on Russian Asia and exploitation of its mineral resources. The diplomat Baron Rosen urged the Tsar that his empire had no interests in Europe save its borders, and certainly none worth a war. But Rosen was mocked by other royal advisers as ‘not a proper Russian’. Nicholas’s personal respect and even sympathy for Germany caused him to direct most of his emotional hostility towards Austria-Hungary. Though not committed to pan-Slavism, he was determined to assert the legitimacy of Russian influence in the Balkans. It remains a focus of keen dispute how far such an assumption was morally or politically justifiable.

Russia’s intelligentsia as a matter of course detested and despised the imperial regime. Captain Langlois, a French expert on the Tsarist Empire, wrote in 1913 that ‘Russian youth, unfortunately supported or even incited by its teachers, adopted anti-military and even anti-patriotic sentiments which we can scarcely imagine.’ When war came, the cynicism of the educated class was evidenced by its many sons who evaded military service. Russian literature produced no Kipling to sing the praises of empire. Lack of self-belief, coupled to nationalistic aggressiveness, has always been a prominent contradiction in the Russian character. Nicholas’s thoughtful subjects were conscious of their country’s repeated failures in wars – against the British, French, Turks, Japanese. The last represented the first occasion in modern history when a European nation was defeated by an Asiatic one, which worsened the humiliation. In 1876 the foreign minister Prince Gorchakov told a colleague gloomily: ‘we are a great, powerless country’.

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South Slavic Nationalism before 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 838-871:

The south Slavs lived in four different states – the Hapsburg Empire, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria – under eight different systems of government. Their impassioned nationalism imposed a dreadful blood forfeit: about 16 per cent of the entire population, almost two million men, women and children, perished violently in the six years of struggle that preceded Armistice Day 1918. Serbia fought two Balkan wars, in 1912 and 1913, to increase its size and power by seizing loose fragments of the Ottoman Empire. In 1912 the Russian foreign minister declared that a Serb–Bulgarian triumph over the Turks would be the worst outcome of the First Balkan War, because it would empower the local states to turn their aggressive instincts from Islamism, against Germanism: ‘In this event one … must prepare for a great and decisive general European war.’ Yet the Serbs and Bulgarians indeed triumphed in that conflict; a subsequent Serb–Romanian victory in the Second Balkan War – a squabble over the spoils of the First – made matters worse. Serbia doubled its territory by incorporating Macedonia and Kosovo. Serbians burst with pride, ambition and over-confidence. Wars seemed to work well for them.

In June 1914 the Russian minister in Belgrade, the dedicated pan-Slavist Nikolai Hartwig, was believed actively to desire an armed clash between Serbia and Austria, though St Petersburg almost certainly did not. The Russian ambassador in Constantinople complained that Hartwig, a former newspaper columnist, ‘shows the activity of an irresponsible journalist’. Serbia was a young country wrested from the Ottoman Empire only in 1878, which now clung to the south-eastern frontier of the Hapsburg Empire like some malevolent growth. Western statesmen regarded the place with impatience and suspicion. Its self-assertiveness, its popular catchphrase ‘Where a Serb dwells, there is Serbia,’ estabilised the Balkans. Europe’s chancelleries were irritated by its ‘little Serbia’, proud-victim culture. Serbs treated their own minority subjects, especially Muslims, with conspicuous and often murderous brutality. Every continental power recognised that the Serbs could achieve their ambition to enfold in their own polity two million brethren still under Hapsburg rule only at the cost of bringing down Franz Joseph’s empire.

Just four and a half million Serbs occupied 87,300 square kilometres of rich rural regions and barren mountains, a smaller country than Romania or Greece. Four-fifths of them lived off the land, and the country retained an exotic oriental legacy from its long subjection to the Ottomans. Such industries as it had were agriculturally based – flour and sawmills, sugar refineries, tobacco. ‘Within little more than two days’ rail from [London],’ wrote an enthusiastic pre-war British traveller, ‘there lies an undeveloped country of extraordinary fertility and potential wealth, possessing a history more wonderful than any fairy tale, and a race of heroes and patriots who may one day set Europe by the ears … I know no country which can offer so general an impression of beauty, so decided an aroma of the Middle Ages. The whole atmosphere is that of a thrilling romance. Conversation is larded with accounts of hairbreadth ’scapes and deeds of chivalry … Every stranger is welcome, and an Englishman more than any.’

Others saw Serbia in much less roseate hues: the country exemplified the Balkan tradition of domestic violence, regime change by murder. On the night of 11 June 1903, a group of young Serb officers fell upon the tyrannical King Alexander and his hated Queen Draga by candlelight in the private apartments of their palace: the bodies were later found in the garden, riddled with bullets and mutilated. Among the assassins was Dragutin Dimitrijević, who became the ‘Apis’ of the Sarajevo conspiracy: he was wounded in a clash with the royal guards, which earned him the status of a national hero. When King Peter returned from a long exile in Switzerland to take the throne of a notional constitutional monarchy, Serbia continued to seethe with factionalism. Peter had two sons: the elder, Djordje, educated in Russia, was a violent playboy who was forced to relinquish his claim to the throne after a 1908 scandal in which he kicked his butler to death. His brother Alexander, who became the royal heir, was suspected of attempting to poison Djordje. The Serb royal family provided no template for peaceful co-existence, and the army wielded as much power as that of a modern African statelet.

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Rapid Change before 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 554-577:

It is a conceit of our own times to suppose that we are obliged to live, and national leaderships to make decisions, amid unprecedentedly rapid change. Yet between 1900 and 1914, technological, social and political advances swept Europe and America on a scale unknown in any such previous timespan, the blink of an eye in human experience. Einstein promulgated his special theory of relativity. Marie Curie isolated radium and Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first synthetic polymer. Telephones, gramophones, motor vehicles, cinema performances and electrified homes became commonplace among affluent people in the world’s richer societies. Mass-circulation newspapers soared to unprecedented social influence and political power.

In 1903 man first achieved powered flight; five years later, Ferdinand Count Zeppelin lyricised the mission to secure unrestricted passage across the skies, an increasingly plausible prospect: ‘Only therewith can the divine ancient command be fulfilled … [that] creation should be subjugated by mankind.’ At sea, following the 1906 launch of the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought, all capital ships lacking its heavy ordnance mounted in power-driven turrets became obsolete, unfit to join a fleet line of battle. The range at which squadrons expected to exchange fire, a few thousand yards when admirals were cadets, now stretched to tens of miles. Submarines were recognised as potent weapons. Ashore, while the American Civil War and not the First World War was the first great conflict of the industrial age, in the interval between the two the technology of destruction made dramatic advances: machine-guns achieved reliability and efficiency, artillery increased its killing power. It was realised that barbed wire could be employed to check the movements of soldiers as effectively as those of beasts. Much speculation about the future character of war was nonetheless mistaken. An anonymous 1908 article in the German publication Militär-Wochenblatt asserted that the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese experience in Manchuria ‘proved that even well-defended fortifications and entrenchments can be taken, even across open ground, by courage and cunning exploitation of terrain … The concept of states waging war to the point of absolute exhaustion is beyond the European cultural experience.’

Socialism became a major force in every continental state, while Liberalism entered historic decline. The revolt of women against statutory subjection emerged as a significant issue, especially in Britain. Across Europe real wages rose almost 50 per cent between 1890 and 1912, child mortality declined and nutrition greatly improved. But despite such advances – or, in accordance with de Tocqueville’s view that misery becomes less acceptable when no longer absolute, because of them – tens of millions of workers recoiled from the inequalities of society. Industries in Russia, France, Germany and Britain were convulsed by strikes, sometimes violent, which spread alarm and even terror among the ruling classes. In 1905 Russia experienced its first major revolution. Germany displaced France and Russia as the British Empire’s most plausible enemy. Britain, which had been the world’s first industrialised nation, saw its share of global manufacturing fall from one-third in 1870 to one-seventh in 1913.

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Comparing the Russian and Turkish Revolutions

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), p. 284:

During all these years there were remarkable parallels between those two arch-enemies of the past, Turkey and Russia. The Russian revolution in 1905, the Young Turks in 1908, had both sprung from the same original passions – a deeply rooted desire for democratic government at a time when the equivalent of Britain’s Industrial Revolution was changing the face of the two empires, each half European, half Asian. Each had reached a moment of destiny after losing a succession of wars. The parallels went further. Both separated Church from State. And while Constantinople became Istanbul, and a new capital was built out of a primitive village on the steppes, St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad and the capital was moved to Moscow. In both cases the move was symbolic, the sign not only that each country wanted to blot out its tarnished history but wanted also to signalise to the world that it was making a fresh start.

There was, however, one vital difference between the two countries. A massive ideology underlay the tremendous events in Russia, often paralysing the Bolshevik attempts to introduce reforms, to get things done. By contrast Musatafa Kemal, as he Europeanised Turkey, unceremoniously nationalising banks, introducing rural electrification, was never hampered by mystical theories which had to be earnestly debated. Since the basis of Mustafa Kemal’s ideology was to produce a modern, Westernised Turkey, he could bulldoze any measures, however startling, through Parliament simply because reform was the only creed he preached.

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The Turkish Defeat at Plevna, 1877

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 189-191:

The breakout was, of course, doomed from the start. And yet Osman Pasha all but brought off another miracle. Security in Plevna had been so strict that the Russians were quite unaware of the plans until a Polish spy woke up Skobeleff at 4 a.m. on the day. The Russian troops had hardly assembled before masses of Turkish troops started streaming across the snowy plain west of the town. At their head rode Osman Pasha on a chestnut stallion. Behind them rumbled thousands of wagons. Without wavering 2000 picked Turkish troops, with bands blazing and banners unfurled, charged the Russian trenches. By 8.30 a.m. they had annihilated one Russian regiment and broken the first links in the iron ring.

Without hesitation Osman charged into the attack on the inner Russian defence line, but here the opposition was stiffer as nearly 50,000 Turks and Russians fought hand to hand. Yet the Turks were holding their own against heavy odds and might well have succeeded, but for a catastrophe. A stray bullet wounded Osman Pasha. Those around him saw him lurch, then fall from his horse. In fact he was only wounded in the leg, but in a matter of moments the rumour galloped through the Turkish ranks that he had been killed. It was more than the half-starved, half-sick men could bear, and in a panic they streamed away from the Russian defences. By the time they had been regrouped, it was too late, and the Russians had occupied the Turkish redoubts, cutting off any hope of reaching a temporary sanctuary there. By one o’clock, the last shot was fired in a siege that had lasted 143 days, and from a house near the bridge, where the wounded Osman had taken refuge, a white flag fluttered.

Osman Pasha was treated as a hero by the Russians. When the Grand Duke Nicholas finally came face to face with him, he shook his hand and cried, ‘I compliment you on your defence of Plevna. It is one of the most splendid exploits in history.’ The immaculately booted Russian officers echoed, ‘Bravo!’ And when Osman Pasha first met the general in white uniform and realised it was Skobeleff, he took his hand and said to him, ‘One day you will be commander-in-chief of the Russian Army.’

The Czar invited Osman Pasha to luncheon, and when Osman removed his sword the Czar returned it to him. As Osman prepared to leave for internment in Kharkov, a member of the Czar’s staff offered him a sprig of myrtle – a traditional Russian sign that he was no longer their enemy.

A very different fate was reserved for the soldiers of the line. Despite repeated Russian promises that prisoners would be well treated, nearly 45,000 Turks were kept in the bitterly cold open air of Plevna for two weeks. They received virtually no food, drugs, medical aid; nor could then even drink the water of the River Vid which was contaminated by hundreds of corpses. Three thousand men died before the rest set off in the snow to various interment camps. Of the 42,000 men who started, often barefoot, on the long march to prison, barely 15,000 reached Russia. A fate as terrible awaited the seriously wounded left behind by Osman. The Bulgarians, conveniently ignoring their promises, dragged them from the hospitals and massacred every man.

One last and gruesome echo of the heroic siege of Plevna appeared in, of all places, a Bristol newspaper. It consisted of one paragraph that escaped general notice in England. In an article dealing with fertilizers, it read simply: ‘Thirty tons of human bones, comprising thirty thousand skeletons, have just been landed at Bristol from Plevna.’

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