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 27th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
July 13, 1912: Russia Promises to Attack Germany
Beginning in 1910, the general staffs of France and Russia, allied since 1894, held regular talks once a year, alternating between Paris and St. Petersburg, to coordinate their military strategies in case of war with Germany. In June-July 1912, members of the Russian general staff, led by General Yakov Grigorievich Zhililnsky, made the several weeks’ journey to Paris to discuss strategy with the French general staff, led by General Joseph Joffre, in a meeting covering both land and naval plans.
Joffre and Zhilinsky had already conferred in an exchange of letters in January and February 1912, where Joffre laid out his vision for Russian participation in a war with Germany.
With France facing a likely German flanking attack through Belgium, Joffre needed the Russians to mobilize their forces for an attack on the German rear as fast as possible; a rapid Russian attack in East Prussia, the heartland of Germany’s Prussian military elite, might force the Germans to withdraw troops from the attack on France in order to protect the Fatherland. Zhilinsky broadly agreed: if France went down to defeat in the West, Russia would be left to face the entire German army, and probably the entire Austro-Hungarian army as well, all by itself.
In a military convention signed in Paris on July 13, 1912, Joffre and Zhilinsky firmed up the details, with the Russian generals formally promising to attack Germany within 15 days of mobilization, or M+15. This was an impressive commitment, considering that just several years before, conventional military wisdom held that Russia would be unable to mobilize its troops and make an attack within less than six weeks. Indeed, that was the assumption made by General Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of German strategy, who gambled that six weeks gave Germany enough time to take advantage of the dense western rail network to defeat France, then hurry east to confront the Russians before they overran Prussia. A Russian attack in the east by M+15, just two weeks after the Russian army got the order to mobilize, might throw a (big) monkey wrench into the Schlieffen Plan – exactly what Joffre intended.
When war finally came in August 1914, the Russian general staff, responding to Austro-Hungarian aggression against Serbia, concentrated most of their armies (the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 8th Armies) for a planned invasion of Galicia in the northern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while still leaving enough troops, in the 1st and 2nd Armies, to also mount a surprisingly rapid attack on German territory in East Prussia on August 17 – as promised, just 15 (well, 16) days after Germany’s declaration of war against Russia on August 1. This invasion forced the Germans to hurry mobilization for new defensive armies, but the commanders of the outnumbered German forces, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff, scored brilliant victories over the Russians at Masurian Lakes and Tannenberg.
While Schlieffen was probably correct in his assumption when he was designing his strategy, and even more so after the catastrophic Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, towards the end of that decade the Russians embarked on a massive – and massively expensive – series of reforms and upgrades intended to restore the Russian army as a fighting force in Europe and Asia. In addition to rebuilding shattered divisions and equipping them with modern artillery, the Russian general staff made a number of pragmatic changes to their strategy. Among other revisions, they decided to pull the Russian line of concentration (the step following mobilization) back towards Russia, leaving Russia’s Polish territory undefended. The general staff reasoned, probably correctly, that attempting to hold the Polish salient would leave their armies in Poland vulnerable to a joint German and Austro-Hungarian pincer attack from the north (East Prussia) and south (Galicia). Instead, they would gather the Russian armies closer to a central position in the Russian heartland and then use an improved rail network to quickly send them north or south, against Germany or Austria-Hungary, as necessity determined.
However the Russian mobilization plan relied in part on railroads that had yet to be built – which is why France was glad to provide her Russian ally with literally billions of francs in loans for railroad construction, including huge sums earmarked for ten railroads with primarily military purposes – specifically speeding Russian war mobilization. Indeed, by 1914 France had loaned the Russian government and government-backed industry a majestic 10.5 billion francs, or around 3.4 billion rubles – four-fifths of Russia’s total foreign debt of 4.23 billion rubles. (This wasn’t pure charity, of course. According to one estimate, French bondholders made six billion francs from their Russian holdings from 1889-1914).
Franco-Russian Naval Convention
The Franco-Russian military convention governing land operations was followed not long after, on July 16, by a similar agreement coordinating their naval strategies in case of a war with Germany – possibly in combination with other enemies including Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. While naval strategy was obviously of lesser importance given the allies’ continental preoccupation with Germany, the Franco-Russian Naval Convention confirmed their commitment to total cooperation in all military matters.
And in some theatres Franco-Russian naval cooperation might actually prove decisive. In the Middle East, for example, Russia’s Black Sea fleet and France’s Mediterranean fleet might be able to force the Turkish straits at Constantinople, thus liberating Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which could in turn help the French confront Germany in the English Channel and North Sea. Of course British naval intervention on the side of the Franco-Russian alliance would be decisive in all theatres – if it could be secured. On July 12, 1912 Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, had agreed to initiate naval negotiations with France.