The First World War in the East

I’ve read little about World War One and the little I’ve read has been around American involvement that began in April, 1917 when America entered the war on the side of France, Britain and the Commonwealth countries.

But the fact is the war had been going on since August, 1914 and all sides, Allied powers and Central powers had already suffered millions of casualties before US involvement.

While I was at least familiar with Western Front battles such as Verdun,  Ypres, the Somme and others I knew virtually nothing about the Eastern Front where the Central Powers battled against the Russians.

Recently, I purchased a book titled The Eastern Front, 1914-1920, From Tannerberg to the Russo-Polish War by Michael S. Neiberg and David Jordan. The book concentrates on the big picture of the various campaigns that raged for 6 years because while the Central Powers ceased fighting Russia in 1917 the conflict continued in Russia between the Red Communist forces and the White Russians who did not want to submit to Lenin’s communism. After the Russian Civil War the Russians fought a war with Poland, a state that was reconstituted after the war from the Polish sections of Germany, Austria-Hungry and Russia. Whew!

The Austro-Hungarian Army had many problems but excellent artillery.

The Austro-Hungarian Army had many problems but excellent artillery.

Complicated? Yes. But also interesting in understanding the roots of the First World War and the balance of power between the belligerents in August, 1914. If it not for World War One and the war in the east I wonder if Lenin and the communists would have ever had the power to take over that country and change the course of European history?

So, all that to say here’s ten things I’ve learned from this fascinating book’s first chapter, The Balance in the East.

1. Russia’s primary ally in the First World War was France. Russia was the necessary counter-weight France needed to offset Germany. Prussia had defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and it’s fair to say would not mind a bit of revenge for their humiliating defeat. France invested heavily in Russia’s railways so that the massive Russian Army could be mobilized and moved quickly in the event of war thus tying down the bulk of the German Army in the East..

2. Britain was allied with France and Russia. The British alliance with Russia was one of convenience in a strategic sense. Britain and France along with Turkey had all fought Czarist Russia as recently as the Crimean War (1853-56). Britain and Germany were related oddly enough through their royal houses, but they were also rivals as the Germans built up their fleet to offset the Royal Navy and expand their own colonial empire. The British would get involved not so much to help Russia but to protect Belgium, their historical ally since the Napoleonic Wars.

3. Britain and France were democratic governments with representative governments while Czarist Russia was the most repressive in Europe. It was an awkward alliance and both Britain and France wondered how effective the massive Russian Army would be. The Russians suffered a massive defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1905 and few thought much of the Czar’s Army. The Czar on the other hand wanted to regain some respect after the Russian-Japanese War.

4. Russia’s main enemy at the start of the First World War was Austria-Hungary, not Germany. The Czar wanted to be the champion of all Slavs, including Serbia. Serbia was the sworn enemy of the Austro-Hungarians by 1914. Ultimately, the beginning of this ghastly war began when Serbian anarchists killed the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife and Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. That seemingly footnote in history set n motion a war that would take the lives of millions!

5. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a polyglot empire of many ethnic groups many of whom resented the German (Austrian)dominated government. Whole units of Slavs would desert when the Austrian-Hungarian Army came to grips with the Russians. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was large but remarkably weak.

6. Austria-Hungary’s traditional enemy, the Ottoman Turks, were now an ally, united in keeping the Russians out of Constantinople (Istanbul) something the French and British were not opposed to either. For centuries the Ottoman’s were the bad guys in Europe but they too were collapsing as a major player.

7. The Germans (Prussia) had fought the Austro-Hungarians as recently as 1866. They suspected the military competence of the Austro-Hungarians with good reason but they were an ally the Germans could not afford to lose. The Austro-Hungarians for their part thought their German ally arrogant with good reason. Awkward.

Austrian and German prisoners of the Russians. Russia would surrender to the Germans and Austrians in 1917.

Austrian and German prisoners of the Russians. Russia would surrender to the Germans and Austrians in 1917.

8. Italy was allied with Germany but dropped out of the alliance and went neutral until Austria-Hungary lost a few battles against the Russians. Italy then declared for the allies and went to war with Austria-Hungary over the southern Tyrol region. It went badly for them.

9. The Germans for their part disliked the Russians just as they disliked most Slavs because they believed them backward. Ottoman Turkey had fought the Russians many times so the Germans would be the necessary counter-weight to any further war with Russia. The Germans two primary allies were empires in serious decline.

10. George Washington advised us to not get involved in entangling alliances and the alliances that existed prior to World War One were just about as entangling as one could imagine with yesterday’s enemies now friends, and yesterday’s friends now enemies.

The US entered the war primarily because  of unrestricted submarine warfare and because the Germans tried to make an alliance with Mexico hoping the Mexicans could off set American involvement. As a whole, the US was pro-British to begin with. In German dominated American cities like Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati the German-Americans just wanted to stay out if it.

Great book that helps understanding why the map of Europe looks like it does today.

4 comments on “The First World War in the East

  1. It was a complicated mess, but one that didn’t have to lead to a devastating war. From what I’ve read, it almost appears that a whole series of unlikely events had to happen for a world war to occur, and, in the end, they unfortunately did.

    Your last point about entangling alliances is important because had the US not intervened, I believe the other combatants would have eventually declared a truce of sorts, without the guilt and reparations that were imposed on the losers and helped lead to World War II.

    The book sounds interesting and informative; I’ll have to put it on my to-read list.

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