On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist in Sarajevo, who opposed Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The outbreak of war was not inevitable, but leaders, diplomats, and nineteenth-century alliances created a climate for large-scale conflict.
The concept of Pan-Slavism and shared religion created strong public sympathy between Russia and Serbia. The territorial conflict created rivalries between Germany and France and between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and as a consequence alliance networks developed across Europe.
The Triple Entente and Triple Alliance networks were set before the war.
Nicholas wanted neither to abandon Serbia to the ultimatum of Austria nor to provoke a general war.
In a series of letters exchanged with Wilhelm of Germany (the “Willy–Nicky correspondence”) the two proclaimed their desire for peace, and each attempted to get the other to back down.
Nicholas desired that Russia’s mobilization be only against Austria-Hungary, in the hopes of preventing war with Germany.
On 25 July 1914, at his council of ministers, Nicholas decided to intervene in the Austro-Serbian conflict, a step toward general war. He put the Russian army on “alert”
on 25 July. Although this was not general mobilization, it threatened the German and Austro-Hungarian borders and looked like military preparation for war.
However, his army had no contingency plans for a partial mobilization, and on 30 July 1914, Nicholas took the fateful step of confirming the order for general mobilization, despite being strongly counseled against it.
On 28 July, Austria-Hungary formally declared war against Serbia.
On 29 July 1914, Nicholas sent a telegram to Wilhelm with the suggestion to submit the Austro-Serbian problem to the Hague Conference (in Hague tribunal).
Wilhelm did not address the question of the Hague Conference in his subsequent reply.
Count Witte told the French Ambassador, Maurice Paléologue that from Russia’s point of view the war was madness, Slav solidarity was simply nonsense and Russia could hope for nothing from the war.
On 30 July, Russia ordered a general mobilization, but still maintained that it would not attack if peace talks were to begin. Germany, reacting to the discovery of partial mobilization ordered on 25 July, announced its own pre-mobilization posture, the Imminent Danger of War.
Germany requested that Russia demobilize within the next twelve hours.
In Saint Petersburg, at 7 pm, with the ultimatum to Russia having expired, the German ambassador to Russia met with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov, asked three times if Russia would reconsider, and then with shaking hands, delivered the note accepting Russia’s war challenge and declaring war on 1 August.
Less than a week later, on 6 August, Franz Joseph signed the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Russia.
The outbreak of war on 1 August 1914 found Russia grossly unprepared.
Russia and her allies placed their faith in her army, the famous ‘Russian steamroller’.
Its pre-war regular strength was 1,400,000; mobilization added 3,100,000 reserves and millions more stood ready behind them.
In every other respect, however, Russia was unprepared for war.
Germany had ten times as many railway tracks per square mile, and whereas Russian soldiers traveled an average of 1,290 kilometers (800 mi) to reach the front, German soldiers traveled less than a quarter of that distance.
Russian heavy industry was still too small to equip the massive armies the Tsar could raise, and her reserves of munitions were pitifully small; while the German army in 1914 was better equipped than any other, man-for-man, the Russians were severely short on artillery pieces, shells, motorized transports, and even boots.
With the Baltic Sea barred by German U-boats and the Dardanelles by the guns of Germany’s ally, the Ottoman Empire, Russia initially could receive help only via Archangel, which was frozen solid in winter, or via Vladivostok, which was over 6,400 kilometers (4,000 mi) from the front line.
By 1915, a rail line was built north from Petrozavodsk to the Kola Gulf and this connection laid the foundation of the ice-free port of what eventually was called Murmansk.
The Russian High Command was moreover greatly weakened by the mutual contempt between Vladimir Sukhomlinov, the Minister of War, and the incompetent Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich who commanded the armies in the field.
In spite of all of this, an immediate attack was ordered against the German province of East Prussia. The Germans mobilised there with great efficiency and completely defeated the two Russian armies which had invaded.
The Battle of Tannenberg, where an entire Russian army was annihilated, cast an ominous shadow over Russia’s future.
Russia had great success against both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman armies from the very beginning of the war, but they never succeeded against the might of the German Army.
In September 1914, in order to relieve pressure on France, the Russians were forced to halt a successful offensive against Austria-Hungary in Galicia in order to attack German-held Silesia.
Russian prisoners after the Battle of Tannenberg, where the Russian Second Army was annihilated by the German Eighth Army
Gradually a war of attrition set in on the vast Eastern Front, where the Russians were facing the combined forces of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, and they suffered staggering losses.
General Denikin, retreating from Galicia wrote, “The German heavy artillery swept away whole lines of trenches and their defenders with them. We hardly replied.
There was nothing with which we could reply.
Our regiments, although completely exhausted, were beating off one attack after another by bayonet … Blood flowed unendingly, the ranks became thinner and thinner and thinner. The number of graves multiplied.”
On 5 August, with the Russian army in retreat, Warsaw fell. Defeat at the front bred disorder at home. At first, the targets were German, and for three days in June shops, bakeries, factories, private houses, and country estates belonging to people with German names were looted and burned.
The inflamed mobs then turned on the government, declaring the Empress should be shut up in a convent, the Tsar deposed and Rasputin hanged.
Nicholas was by no means deaf to these discontents.
An emergency session of the Duma was summoned and a Special Defense Council established, its members drawn from the Duma and the Tsar’s ministers.
In July 1915, King Christian X of Denmark, first cousin of the Tsar, sent Hans Niels Andersen to Tsarskoye Selo with an offer to act as a mediator.
He made several trips between London, Berlin, and Petrograd and in July saw the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna.
Andersen told her they should conclude peace.
Nicholas chose to turn down King Christian’s offer of mediation, as he felt it would be a betrayal for Russia to form a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers when its allies Britain and France were still fighting.
The energetic and efficient General Alexei Polivanov replaced Sukhomlinov as Minister of War, which failed to improve the strategic situation.
In the aftermath of the Great Retreat and the loss of the Kingdom of Poland, Nicholas assumed the role of commander-in-chief after dismissing his cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich, in September 1915.
This was a mistake, as the Tsar came to be personally associated with the continuing losses at the front. He was also away at the remote HQ at Mogilev, far from the direct governance of the empire, and when the revolution broke out in Petrograd he was unable to halt it.
In reality, the move was largely symbolic, since all important military decisions were made by his chief-of-staff General Michael Alexeiev, and Nicholas did little more than review troops, inspect field hospitals, and preside over military luncheons.
Nicholas II with his family in Yevpatoria, Crimea, May 1916
The Duma was still calling for political reforms and political unrest continued throughout the war.
Cut off from public opinion, Nicholas could not see that the dynasty was tottering.
With Nicholas at the front, domestic issues and control of the capital were left with his wife Alexandra. However, Alexandra’s relationship with Grigori Rasputin, and her German background, further discredited the dynasty’s authority.
Nicholas had been repeatedly warned about the destructive influence of Rasputin but had failed to remove him.
Rumors and accusations about Alexandra and Rasputin appeared one after another; Alexandra was even accused of harboring treasonous sympathies towards Germany.
Anger at Nicholas’s failure to act and the extreme damage that Rasputin’s influence was doing to Russia’s war effort and to the monarchy led to Rasputin’s eventual murder by a group of nobles, led by Prince Felix Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a cousin of the Tsar, in the early morning of Saturday 17 December 1916 (O.S.) / 30 December 1916 (N.S.).
Nicholas with members of the Stavka at Mogilev in April 1916.
As the government failed to produce supplies, mounting hardship resulted in massive riots and rebellions.
With Nicholas away at the front from 1915 through 1916, authority appeared to collapse and the capital was left in the hands of strikers and mutineers, soldiers.
Despite efforts by the British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan to warn the Tsar that he should grant constitutional reforms to fend off a revolution, Nicholas continued to bury himself away at the Staff HQ (Stavka) 600 kilometers (400 mi) away at Mogilev, leaving his capital and court open to intrigues and insurrection.
Ideologically the tsar’s greatest support came from the right-wing monarchists, who had recently gained strength.
However they were increasingly alienated by the tsar’s support of Stolypin’s Westernizing reforms, by tsar’s liberal reforms taken early in the Revolution of 1905, and especially by the political power, the tsar had bestowed on Rasputin.
By early 1917, Russia was on the verge of the total collapse of morale.
An estimated 1.7 million Russian soldiers were killed in World War I.
The sense of failure and imminent disaster was everywhere.
The army had taken 15 million men from the farms and food prices had soared. An egg cost four times what it had in 1914, butter five times as much. The severe winter dealt the railways, overburdened by emergency shipments of coal and supplies, a crippling blow.
Russia entered the war with 20,000 locomotives; by 1917, 9,000 were in service, while the number of serviceable railway wagons had dwindled from half a million to 170,000.
In February 1917, 1,200 locomotives burst their boilers and nearly 60,000 wagons were immobilized. In Petrograd, supplies of flour and fuel had all but disappeared.
War-time prohibition of alcohol was enacted by Nicholas to boost patriotism and productivity, but instead damaged the treasury and funding of the war due to the treasury now being deprived of alcohol taxes.
On 23 February 1917 in Petrograd, a combination of very severe cold weather and acute food shortages caused people to start to break shop windows to get bread and other necessities.
In the streets, red banners appeared and the crowds chanted “Down with the German woman! Down with Protopopov! Down with the war! Down with the Tsar!”
Police started to shoot at the populace from rooftops, which incited riots. The troops in the capital were poorly motivated and their officers had no reason to be loyal to the regime.
They were angry and full of revolutionary fervor and sided with the populace.
The Tsar’s Cabinet begged Nicholas to return to the capital and offered to resign completely. The Tsar, 800 kilometers (500 mi) away, was misinformed by the Minister of the Interior, Alexander Protopopov, that the situation was under control, and he ordered that firm steps be taken against the demonstrators.
For this task, the Petrograd garrison was quite unsuitable.
The cream of the old regular army had been destroyed in Poland and Galicia.
In Petrograd, 170,000 recruits, country boys or older men from the working-class suburbs of the capital itself, remained to keep control under the command of wounded officers invalided from the front and cadets from the military academies.
The units in the capital, although many bore the names of famous Imperial Guard regiments, were in reality rear or reserve battalions of these regiments, the regular units being away at the front. Many units, lacking both officers and rifles, had never undergone formal training.
General Khabalov attempted to put the Tsar’s instructions into effect on the morning of Sunday, 11 March 1917.
Despite huge posters ordering people to keep off the streets, vast crowds gathered and were only dispersed after some 200 had been shot dead, though a company of the Volinsky Regiment fired into the air rather than into the mob, and a company of the Pavlovsky Life Guards shot the officer who gave the command to open fire. Nicholas, informed of the situation by Rodzianko, ordered reinforcements to the capital and suspended the Duma.
However, it was too late.
On 12 March, the Volinsky Regiment mutinied and was quickly followed by the Semenovsky, the Ismailovsky, the Litovsky Life Guards, and even the legendary Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Imperial Guard, the oldest and staunchest regiment founded by Peter the Great.
The arsenal was pillaged, the Ministry of the Interior, Military Government building, police headquarters, the Law Courts, and a score of police buildings were put to the torch.
By noon, the fortress of Peter and Paul, with its heavy artillery, was in the hands of the insurgents. By nightfall, 60,000 soldiers had joined the revolution.
The order broke down and members of the Duma and the Soviet formed a Provisional Government to try to restore order.
They issued a demand that Nicholas must abdicate.
Faced with this demand, which was echoed by his generals, deprived of loyal troops, with his family firmly in the hands of the Provisional Government and fearful of unleashing civil war and opening the way for German conquest, Nicholas had little choice but to submit.