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World War I Centennial: France Lays Out the Best-Case Scenario

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 34th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

September 2, 1912: France Hopes Austria-Hungary Will Get Embroiled in Balkans

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By September 1912, Europe was divided into two alliance blocs, knit together by treaties both secret and public: on one side there was the alliance between France and Russia, which was augmented by the increasingly friendly entente cordiale between France and Britain (further cemented in the summer of 1912 by the Anglo-French Naval Convention, negotiated in July and finally signed on August 29). On the other side were Germany and its ailing sidekick Austria-Hungary, drawing ever closer together amid fears of diplomatic isolation and “encirclement” by the opposing alliance bloc. Italy, nominally allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Triple Alliance, was in fact basically undecided, keeping its options open in the event of war.

That event was more and more on the minds of European leaders, as the continent-wide arms race heated up following the Second Moroccan Crisis, and more trouble brewed in the Balkans. In every European capital, the general staff considered innumerable scenarios which might bring the alliance blocs into conflict, war-gaming different strategies in the hopes of entering the fight on terms most favorable to themselves – or at least avoiding disaster.

War Games

For example, Germany’s nightmare scenario was a simultaneous war with France, Russia, and Britain; even with Austria-Hungary at its side, this was a formidable combination that even the Kaiser’s most bellicose generals hoped to avoid. Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of Germany’s plan for a surprise flank attack on France through Belgium, simply assumed that Britain would stay out of a war between France and Germany, or arrive too late to help the French, allowing Germany to dispose of France before hurrying east to confront Russia. The optimal scenario for Germany was confrontation with France or Russia alone, with help from Austria-Hungary, Italy, and maybe even the Ottoman Empire.

For France, the worst-case scenario was to be left in the lurch by both Russia and Britain, forcing outnumbered French armies to face the Germans alone – a possibility French generals and diplomats tirelessly worked to avert by demonstrating their good faith to the skeptical Russians and wooing the skittish British. Meanwhile the best-case scenario for France (Germany’s nightmare) would see France supported by both Russia and Britain in a war with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The optimal conditions for France involved the Balkans as well. As the weakest of the Great Powers, Austria-Hungary’s participation in support of Germany was taken for granted: it had no other friends, and if Germany went down, Austria-Hungary was going down too. At the same time, it was generally recognized that Austria-Hungary might in fact be the cause of the war, given its entanglements in the Balkans, where neighboring Slavic states, especially Serbia, hoped to liberate their ethnic kinsmen under Hapsburg rule.

On September 2, 1912, the French general staff submitted a top-secret memorandum to the French premier, Raymond Poincaré, advising him that, if war had to come, the most advantageous scenario would be to have it begin with Austria-Hungary getting drawn into a conflict with one or more Balkan states – almost certainly including Serbia.

The French military planners reasoned that a Balkan war would tie down Austro-Hungarian armies, freeing Russia to concentrate its forces against Germany – the main threat to France. While this called for a fair amount of flexibility on the part of their Russian allies, the French knew this would probably be possible because they were privy to the latest Russian military plans, which called for concentrating the bulk of Russian forces closer to the center of European Russia and then sending them north or south, against Germany or Austria-Hungary, as needed.

In fact on July 13, 1912, the Russians had committed to attacking Germany by M+15, or the fifteenth day after mobilization – soon enough, the French hoped, to seriously disrupt the Schlieffen plan by forcing the Germans to withdraw troops from the attack on France. However, the French were too optimistic about the size of the forces Russia would send against Germany for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the Russians had no way of knowing for sure where the Austro-Hungarian armies would be deployed, due to limited intelligence-gathering capabilities. Second, if the war were triggered by Austro-Hungarian aggression in the Balkans, it only made sense for the thrust of the Russian response to fall against Austria-Hungary. Finally, even if they realized the Austro-Hungarian armies were concentrated elsewhere, the Russians still had their own fish to fry: while it was important to help France, their main long-term goal in the event of war with Germany and Austria-Hungary was conquering the northeastern Austrian province of Galicia, whose Ruthenian inhabitants were ethnically similar to Russians and Ukrainians; one secret internal memo actually described Galicia as part of the historic Russian heartland.

With this ambition firmly in mind, the Russians were less likely to oblige the French by concentrating the bulk of their forces against Germany, and more likely to remain focused on Austria-Hungary. Indeed, Austria-Hungary’s Balkan preoccupations would simply be an added invitation to invade Galicia in force, thus securing a major war aim at the beginning of the conflict. When war finally came in August 1914, the Russians did just that – sending the bulk of their forces against the Austrian front, while leaving enough troops to attack Germany in fulfillment of Russia’s treaty obligations to France. As a result, the Russian sally against east Prussia was sufficient to get the Germans’ attention – but not nearly strong enough to be decisive.

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WWI Centennial: Bolshevik Coup Attempt Fails
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 282nd installment in the series.

JULY 16-18, 1917: BOLSHEVIK COUP ATTEMPT FAIL

Far from enhancing the prestige of Russia’s Provisional Government as hoped, the disastrous outcome of the Kerensky Offensive in July 1917 put the new regime on the defensive with its own people as well as the enemy. Within weeks, its already fragile authority faced a grave internal threat, as Lenin’s radical Bolsheviks staged their first coup attempt. Although the communist uprising failed, the “July Days” made it clear to all that the Provisional Government was living on borrowed time.

While the moderate socialists who formed the majority of the Petrograd Soviet were content to cooperate with the Provisional Government under the ineffectual idealist Premier Lviv, at least for the time being, Lenin had never concealed his ambition to overthrow the “bourgeois” liberals and seize power for the Soviet—which in reality meant the Bolshevik Central Committee.

The debacle on the Galician front seemed to present an ideal moment for the coup, as military morale plunged to new lows and popular support for the Provisional Government dwindled. An opportunist first and last, Lenin seized on another (supposedly) unexpected event—a military mutiny—to make his bid for power.

Mutinous elements, never far from the surface during this unsettled period, began bubbling again when the Provisional Government ordered a number of units from the Petrograd garrison to the front. The Bolsheviks depended on disaffected soldiers from their ranks as a big part of their power base, and were determined not to lose this leverage: a sudden blitz of propaganda excoriating the “imperialist” Provisional Government helped push troops from one unit, the 1st Machine Gun Regiment, over the edge into open rebellion (it’s unclear exactly how much Lenin knew about the event beforehand, but the fact that he went to Vyborg, Finland, not far from Petrograd, for a “restful holiday” a few days before the mutiny suggests he knew what was coming).

On July 15, two leading Bolsheviks, Lev Bronstein (better known by his nom de guerre, Trotsky) and Anatoly Lunacharsky, addressed thousands of troops from the 1st Machine Gun Regiment, demanding the Provisional Government hand power to the Petrograd Soviet and encouraging the soldiers to refuse to obey any orders until this happened. The next day the regiment heard even more inflammatory speeches by anarchist agitators allied with the Bolsheviks, who openly called for rebellion, and in the afternoon of July 16 the mutiny began as the troops elected a revolutionary committee. One of their first actions was to send representatives to recruit support from rebellious sailors stationed at the naval base of Kronstadt, who quickly convened their own soviet and voted to join the rebellion; they were soon joined by workers from the Putilov factory complex (below Bolsheviks address workers).

With thousands of soldiers and sailors rallying to the banner of revolution, a handful of Bolshevik leaders, including Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, tried to engineer a parliamentary coup in the Petrograd Soviet by calling an emergency meeting of the workers’ section and presenting a resolution calling for the Soviet to seize power and overthrow the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks were opposed by rival socialist parties, including the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, but simply passed the resolution themselves after the latter walked out in protest.

L-R: Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By the late evening of July 16 a large crowd of soldiers and factory workers had gathered outside the Tauride Palace where the Soviet met, calling for the delegates to join the Bolshevik coup attempt and overthrow the Provisional Government (which was seemingly unable to intervene to stop these events, revealing how powerless it really was). In another strange twist, the Petrograd Soviet now found itself in the same position as the Provisional Government in March, with power being thrust on it by unruly mobs—practically at gunpoint.

On July 17 the mutinying soldiers in Petrograd were joined by the sailors from Kronstadt, who arrived and helped take over most of the city, using commandeered automobiles and trucks. Alexander Kerensky, the charismatic war minister who had so far managed to keep the Soviet and Provisional Government united (and who would soon replace Lviv as prime minister), was forced to flee the capital, narrowly escaping a kidnapping attempt. Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist member of the Soviet, recalled the scene as chaos spread throughout the city:

“Come as soon as possible,” we were urged, “a new Bolshevist riot has broken out.” Without any delay we started. On Sergievskaia Street all was serene, but as soon as we turned into the Liteiny we saw a number of heavy motor trucks, full of armed soldiers and sailors and fitted with machine guns, being driven furiously in the direction of Tavrichesky Palace. Private automobiles were being stopped and seized by the rioters. We saw a mutinous regiment crossing the Liteiny Bridge and near at hand we head the crack of rifles. Revolution was hungry again and was calling for human sacrifice.

As Sorokin noted, the column of rebellious sailors and civilians came under rifle fire from some unknown assailants, perhaps supporters of the Provisional Government, in the “bourgeois” Liteiny neighborhood of Petrograd, causing them to briefly scatter before resuming their march (top, the column disperses). They joined the 1stMachine Gun Regiment and over ten thousand workers from the Putilov factories in front of the Tauride Palace, where the crowd was growing increasingly threatening to the Soviet—the same Soviet they were supposedly supporting against the Provisional Government—while inside the Bolshevik leaders tried to persuade the other socialist parties to seize power. Later that day Sorokin described the weird situation:

Meanwhile, the crowd outside grew into a dense throng. Bolshevist speakers urged the throng to break down the doors of the palace and to disperse the Soviet. My head bursting with excitement and the close atmosphere of the room, I went out into the yard of the Duma. In the gray twilight of the July night I saw a perfect sea of soldiers, workmen, sailors… Here and there cannon and machine guns pointing at the Palace, and everywhere red banners floating and incessant firing. It was like a madhouse. Here was the mob demanding “All the Power to the Soviets” and at the same time training cannon on the Soviets, threatening it with death and extinction.

The drama was about to take an even more bizarre turn thanks to the Provisional Government’s minister of justice, Pavel Pereverzev, who decided the only way to head off the coup attempt was to discredit the Bolsheviks—specifically by releasing secret police documents indicating that Lenin was in the pay of German intelligence. The gambit worked, as even most radical revolutionaries still loathed the foreign enemy, and viewed any cooperation with them as treason.

As suddenly as it had arisen, the popular support for the Bolshevik coup collapsed, allowing military units loyal to the Soviet to enter the Tauride Palace, rout the Bolsheviks, and free the other members of the Soviet, who had effectively been held hostage by the mob in their own building. Sorokin recalled the moment when an officer leading loyal troops arrived in the chamber to restore order:

The explosion of a bomb could scarcely have produced such an effect. Wild, joyous applause on the one hand, shrieks, groans, maledictions on the other. As for Trotzky, Lunacharsky, Gimmer, Katz, and Zinovieff, as one of my colleagues expressed it, they “shriveled like the devil before holy water.” One of them did make an effort to say something, but was instantly howled down. “Out of here! Away!” shouted the Soviet, and with their partisans at their heels they left.

Discredited by the allegations of German support and sought by the police along with many others of the party’s leaders, Lenin was forced to flee Russia in disguise, clean shaven to look like a Finnish peasant (below, Lenin in August 1917). Many observers understandably assumed that the Bolsheviks were finished. But the Provisional Government neglected to ban the party, and the socialist members of the Soviet remained more sympathetic to their Bolshevik brethren—who in the opinion of many were just overzealous in their advocacy on behalf of the Soviet—than the “bourgeois” Provisional Government, now under the increasingly dictatorial Kerensky.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Indeed, the coup had also served several purposes, allowing the Bolshevik leaders to assess both the vulnerability of the Provisional Government and potential support for their program in the Soviet, and above all also acting as a huge publicity stunt for the small, previously obscure party. Rank and file members could continue organizing, and unlike their peers in other parties, they focused on the “big picture,” long-term goal of establishing an independent power base from the Soviet. Eduard Dune, a young Latvian Bolshevik, recalled that even immediately following the failed coup, the situation seemed far from hopeless:

People of all walks of life cursed the Bolsheviks, yet at the same time there was growing interest in us. What did we want? What were we proposing? Delegates from small factories, dozens of kilometers away, visited us at the factory… This was the time when the Bolsheviks were being persecuted, so there was heightened interest in our speakers from all quarters. Political differentiation became noticeable even at our factory. The Mensheviks sweated over purely practical work and agitated against the organization of a Red Guard, which none of them joined. The newspapers spoke of the Bolsheviks losing their influence on the masses, but in fact we noticed that it was growing, at least to judge by the number of those wishing to join the Red Guard detachment.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: Russian Black Sea Fleet Mutinies

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 280th installment in the series.

June 18-24, 1917: Russian Black Sea Fleet Mutinies

The Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, had long been notorious as a source of revolutionary ferment, most notably during the 1905 Revolution, when the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied against their officers and attempted to spark an uprising in the nearby port of Odessa before the disorder was finally crushed. In June 1917 mutiny erupted once again – but this time against the already fragile authority of the Provisional Government, casting doubt on its ability to maintain the war effort amid the growing chaos and dissension at the front.

As always, it wasn’t hard to discern the mutineers’ motives: while conditions aboard ship and in the naval barracks had improved somewhat since the Revolution, they were still squalid, and the sailors also feared that their officers intended to reassert their authority and maybe even stage a counterrevolution, due to the refusal of some officers to give up their personal firearms or remove their badges of rank. The sailors were further alarmed by rumors that the Provisional Government was finally going to order the long-planned amphibious attack on Constantinople, with the goal of seizing the Turkish straits – an “annexationist” goal opposed by socialist rabble-rousers in the ranks.

In fact the mutiny came just as Lenin’s Bolsheviks were planning violent demonstrations against the “bourgeois” Provisional Government, supposedly on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet but in reality in a bid to seize power themselves. Although the demonstrations were called off at the last minute due to opposition from the more moderate factions in the Soviet, the Bolsheviks were quietly creating a rival power base outside the Petrograd Soviet by establishing local factory committees in the provinces, forming their own paramilitary units (supposedly to protect the factories from saboteurs), and taking control of the regional soviets that sprang up across Russia following the Revolution.

They were also busy infiltrating the armed forces: although most rank-and-file soldiers and sailors still supported the Provisional Government – as long as it agreed with the Soviet, that is – in the summer of 1917 the Bolsheviks’ calls for an immediate end to the war and “All Power to the Soviets” found an increasingly receptive audience among troops reluctant to sacrifice their own lives just as a bright new revolutionary dawn seemed to be arriving. The Provisional Government added to its own woes by transferring some radical revolutionary sailors from the mutinous Baltic Sea Fleet in an attempt to restore some semblance of order there – only to have them spread the rebellious impulse to their comrades in the south (top, sailors rally in Sevastopol for May Day celebrations).

General Anton Denikin recalled the subversive efforts of the Bolsheviks, who worked with the “soldiers councils” to stir up dissent, for example by distributing thousands of copies of various newspapers with the title “Pravda” or “Truth”:

The total of evil done by the committees is difficult to estimate. No firm discipline any longer exists. If a patriotic and soldierly decision is made by a majority vote, this amounts to nothing. Another vote will soon change it. Hiding behind their privilege as members of the committee, the Bolshevik’s sow revolt and trouble everywhere… There arrived 7,000 copies of the Pravda, 2,000 copies of the Soldatskaia Pravda, and over 30,000 of the Social Democrat, between March 24th and May 1st. Between May 1st and June 11th there were again 7,000 copies of the Pravda, 32,000 of the Social Democrat, and over 61,000 of the Soldatskaia Pravda. These sheets were handed out to every one by the soldiers themselves.

Desertion and insubordination were widespread by June 1917, according to Dmitri Fedotoff-White, an officer in the Russian Navy, who was conducting the American Admiral James Glennon on a tour of the Russian rear areas at that time, and recalled an incident in Moscow:

There was an inordinately large crowd of soldiers on the platform, all intent on going somewhere, regardless apparently of the direction of the train. As I opened the door of our car, followed by one of the American naval officers, a large beefy soldier without shoulder straps on his tunic made to rush the car, shouting to others to follow him and “throw the damn bourgeois out!” I realized what his success would mean as soon as I saw him, and as there was not time to lock the door I swung out, hit him squarely on the jaw, and threw him off the step of the car… Because of this incident my stock skyrocketed among my fellow officers.

Coincidentally, the American naval mission arrived in Sevastopol just as the mutiny was erupting, to the great embarrassment of Fedotoff-White and his fellow officers:

The morning we were approaching Sebastopol, I noticed that the trains we passed at the stations were crowded with well-dressed people obviously agitated and nervous. I saw a naval officer on one of those trains going from Sebastopol north, and went out to speak to him to find out what was causing this exodus. He told me that the bluejackets had gout out of hand, that [fleet commander Admiral] Kolchak had been arrested by the Soviet, and that men were disarming officers.

In fact Kolchak, who was not known for his emotional self-control, indignantly refused to turn over his own personal sidearm – a purely ceremonial golden sword presented for bravery during the Russo-Japanese War – and instead flung it into the water in a fit of pique (which probably helped provoke the sailors to attempt to place him under arrest; however he was not actually arrested). Kolchak either resigned in anger or was recalled by the Provisional Government, according to various accounts, to be replaced by Vice-Admiral Lukin.

Fedotoff-White reached the gloomy conclusion: “The picture was clear. The Black Sea Fleet, the last citadel of order and discipline of the Russian navy, had been captured by the Bolsheviks.” But just as the situation appeared utterly hopeless, in a remarkable turn of events the Russians’ esteemed guest and representative of their great new democratic ally, somehow managed to restore order, ending the mutiny:

Admiral Glennon had gone to a large public meeting attended by several thousands of seamen and soldiers… He told the men about the great American democracy, about the discipline in the American navy, about the traditions of freedom coupled with self-restraint which alone made democracy possible, called on them to desist from insulting their officers, urged that they return their weapons, and pressed upon them the necessity of accepting the rudimentary forms of discipline without which the Fleet would become worthless. He also spoke of Kolchak in terms of high praise, and pleaded with the men to be loyal to him. Glennon’s speech was superbly translated and made a deep impression on the meeting. Probably this was an instance unique in all naval history that a foreign officer made a speech that helped to quell a mutiny.

Nonetheless the mutiny of the Black Sea Fleet couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the Provisional Government was planning one more great offensive, named for the charismatic Minister of War (later briefly the virtual dictator of Russia) Alexander Kerensky but under the direction of the brilliant General Alexei Brusilov, who had planned the most successful Russian offensive of the war in 1916. The big push on the southwestern front, facing the depleted and demoralized forces of Austria-Hungary, was intended to demonstrate Russia’s continued will to fight to the Allies, while enhancing the prestige and authority of the Provisional Government in the eyes of ordinary Russians.

Because discipline had vanished following the Soviet’s abolition of military ranks in March, any chance of success would depend on getting the soldiers to fight voluntarily – a tall order, following three years of misery and bloodshed, to say the least. Despite this Kerensky, a gifted public speaker with a sentimental, sometimes almost mystical tone that appealed to ordinary peasant soldiers, took it upon himself to tour the front addressing huge crowds of troops, imploring the committees to do their patriotic duty and rid the Motherland of the foreign interlopers, while reminding them that defeat might rob them of their new liberties, recently won in the Revolution.

One listener remembered his dramatic, histrionic oratorical style: “He leaves the rostrum, jumps on the table; and when he stretched out his hands to you – nervous, supple, fiery, all quivering with the enthusiasm of prayer which seizes him – you feel that he touches you, grasps you with those hands, and irresistibly draws you to himself.”

At first glance Kerensky seemed to have achieved a miracle, as whole units pledged their loyalty to the new flag of the Provisional Government and promised to attack when the time came. But according to many accounts their militant fervor faded as soon as Kerensky left to address the next crowd. General Denikin later recalled the lead-up to the offensive:

M. Kerenski, Minister of War, while on a tour of inspection, delivered an inspiring appeal to glory, and received a staunch welcome from the 28th Infantry Division. One half hour after this orator’s departure, a deputation from one of the regiments in this division was sent after him with a resolution they had taken, declaring they would not attack… On June 8th a committee at the front decided not to attack. Then, shifting, it decided for an attack. On June 1st the committee of the Second Army decided not to attack, and on June 10th changed this decision. The Soviet of Workmen's and Soldiers' Delegates at Minsk refused to authorize the attack, by a vote of 123 to 79…

Meanwhile the Bolsheviks, well-funded by German intelligence agents, were still relentlessly undermining the soldiers’ morale through a propaganda campaign, delivered both in print and in person. Thus the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, General Alexeyev, struck a much darker note in a meeting with his top generals in May 1917: “The Army is on the brink of the abyss. Another step and it will fall into the abyss and will drag along Russia and all her liberties, and there will be no return. Everyone is guilty, and the guilt lies heavily upon all that has been done in that direction for the last two and a half months.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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