CLOSE
Original image
Wikimedia Commons

Russian Tsar Vows “We Shall Do Everything” for Serbia

Original image
Wikimedia Commons

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 August, 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 101st installment in the series. 

February 2, 1914: Russian Tsar Vows “We Shall Do Everything” for Serbia

“Greet the King for me and tell him, ‘For Serbia we shall do everything.’” Although neither man could know it at the time, Tsar Nicholas II’s parting words to Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić on February 2, 1914, with a message for Serbia’s King Peter, foreshadowed the massive sacrifice Russia was about to make on behalf of her Slavic cousins exactly six months later.

Pašić and Serbia’s Crown Prince Alexander had come to St. Petersburg to discuss foreign policy, reaffirm Serbia’s loyalty to its great Slavic patron, and maybe even forge a new connection with the Russian royal family through marriage. Pašić, an elder statesman, did most of the talking on the Serbian side, and left a detailed account of their meetings with the tsar and his ministers.

Ironically, Pašić’s main talking point was Serbia’s desire for peace in order to rebuild her strength after the exhausting Balkan Wars—but he also hinted that this period of peace wasn’t going to last forever. Indeed, Serbia needed to rearm as fast as possible to meet the looming threat from Bulgaria and Austria, now allied against her.

Pašić recalled: “I led the conversation around to a discussion of Austria’s deliveries of arms to Bulgaria … the Tsar added that Germany too was supporting Bulgaria. I begged him that Russia should likewise aid us, and that out of her magazines she should deliver to us 120,000 rifles and munitions and some few cannon, particularly howitzers, if they could spare them … And here I took occasion to tell the Tsar how pleased we were that Russia had armed herself so thoroughly; it gave us a feeling of security...” The Tsar promised to help Serbia at some point, but couldn’t guarantee anything in the near term, since Russia’s war industries were fully occupied supplying its own military needs.

Next they discussed the situation with Austria-Hungary where, according to Pašić, six million South Slavs longed to be united with their brothers in Serbia: “I then told the Tsar how great a change in sentiment had taken place among the Slavs of Austria-Hungary … [who] now comprehended that … salvation could come to them only from Russia or Serbia, and that they could scarcely await the opportunity to see their desires fulfilled.” Fittingly Pašić then segued into war, telling the tsar that Serbia would be able to field half a million troops in the next Balkan conflict. Nicholas II appeared impressed, remarking, “one can go a great way with that.”

Finally Pašić broached the subject of a royal marriage between Crown Prince Alexander and one of the Tsar’s daughters, which would cement the relationship between the two countries as well as strengthen the position of the Serbian monarch at home. There was plenty of precedent for such a connection: The tsar’s first cousin once removed (sometimes referred to as his uncle), the Grand Duke Nicholas, had married a Montenegrin princess, Anastasia Nikolaevna. However, the tsar, who apparently embraced Victorian romantic notions, merely smiled and said he let his children choose their spouses for themselves.

All this talk of Slavic unity and military preparations, along with the tsar’s dramatic parting words, might seem to suggest that Russia and Serbia were anticipating war and Russia, by promising unconditional support, was practically encouraging Serbia to precipitate the conflict. But as usual the truth was a bit more complicated. Neither Pašić nor the Tsar wanted war, at least not in the near future; the problem was they weren’t fully in control.

For one thing, neither government could actually present a coherent foreign policy, as both had to contend with rival factions at home. In the case of Serbia, Pašić—the head of a moderate civilian government—was facing off with the military’s ultranationalist spymaster, Dragutin Dimitrijević (codename Apis), who was plotting a coup as well as organizing the conspiracy to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. Where Pašić wanted to conciliate Austria-Hungary in the near term, Dimitrijević called for ceaseless agitation and subversion among the empire’s South Slavs; it’s unlikely that Pašić had any knowledge of the conspiracy at this point.

Russia was similarly divided between moderates and radicals: while the tsar himself was peacefully inclined, he and his ministers were under growing pressure from “pan-Slav” ideologues who accused them of selling out their Slavic cousins in Serbia during the Balkan Wars. The pan-Slavs were a powerful force shaping Russian public opinion, and had to be heeded, resulting in an inconsistent foreign policy. Thus Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, a moderate, was forced to appoint a radical pan-Slav, Baron Nicholas Hartwig, as Russian ambassador to Serbia—and while Sazonov frequently expressed exasperation with the Serbs, vowing to leave them to fend for themselves the next time they got into a jam, Hartwig consistently sent the opposite message, egging them on in their conflict with Austria-Hungary; in December 1913 he told his hosts in Belgrade that Serbia would be Russia’s “instrument” to “destroy” Austria-Hungary.

Just six months later the radicals would thrust Serbia and Russia into a confrontation with Austria-Hungary much sooner than the moderates could have foreseen—and then Russia would have no choice but to fulfill the tsar’s parting promise to the Serbs.

See the previous installment or all entries

Original image
Getty Images
arrow
History
13 Vintage Photos of People Watching Solar Eclipses
Original image
Getty Images
Ahead of the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, take a peek at these old photos of Earthlings with their eyes glued to the skies.
Original image
Hulton Archive // Getty Images
arrow
History
10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
Original image
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios