And so it goes

End of an Empire: Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarevich Alexei

THERE WAS NO clarity –  only danger and growing desperation.

The climax of a week of drama came with the abdication, on 15th March, of the Tsar. Several days previously, Moscow, Kharkov and Odessa had declared their support for the Provisional Government, composed of leaders of the Duma.

Inevitably, no doubt, authority vested in the hands of the metropolitan high-bourgeois was not going to satisfy everyone. Sergei Bulgakov, not exactly a neutral voice, described the scenes in Moscow:

The red Dionysus was carousing round Moscow and pouring his red intoxicants into the crowd. Everything was swathed in red with vile red rags everywhere you looked, and either Germans or Bolsheviks agitating against the war. My soul is heavy with death. The revolution is odious and repellent in my eyes.

On 13th March, the Tsar left Mogilev at 5 a.m. His plan was to return to take command of the situation. As ever, his grasp on reality appears to have been impervious to recent events. He also planned to return to Tsarskoe Selo to comfort his children who had succumbed to measles  –  a rather more scalable ambition, one might have thought, but soon to be overtaken by events. On 14th March, the Provisional Duma Committee decided the monarchy was to be abolished for ever and “confined to the archives of history”. President Rodzianko was to meet the Tsar at Dno but was stuck in meetings so the Tsar’s train proceeded to Pskov. The increasingly forlorn Emperor of all the Russias was told that morning that his abdication was “necessary”.

For all that reactionary twaddle –  entrusted by God to safeguard autocratic control to pass on to his son and so forth –  the Tsar appears to have capitulated without a whimper. The Instrument of Abdication was signed just before midnight, for the sake “of Russia’s salvation and of maintaining calm in the army”. His generals, whom he had consulted, did not rush to stand in his way.

The Instrument of Abdication

Nicholas wrote in his private diary later: “I left Pskov at one o’clock at night, with a heavy heart. All around is betrayal, cowardice and deceit.” His first idea had been to give way to his son, Alexei. The dynasty was bigger than the man, after all, but it hardly equated with the best interests of his deeply sick son, not yet thirteen years old. He then named as his heir his younger brother, Mikhail.

The Romanovs, he seems to have believed, would continue to rule. The instrument of abdication had ended loftily but improbably:

We appeal to all loyal sons of Russia and ask them to do their sacred and patriotic duty by obeying their Tsar at this moment of painful national crisis and to help him and the representatives of the nation to guide the Russian state into the path of prosperity and glory. May God help Russia!

The contrast between the man and the mission continued to stun observers. Maurice Paleologue, the French Ambassador, was shocked at the speed of the abdication which “had taken place in such casual, commonplace and prosaic fashion, and above all with such indifference and self-effacement on the part of the principal hero”.

The hero, having slept well, arrived back in Mogilev on 16th March to a dose of cold reality. His brother had been persuaded to abdicate too, but not before promising elections to a Constituent Assembly based on universal suffrage. The following day, he had to confront his mother, Dagmar of Denmark, who had arrived from Kiev. The Dowager Empress, an aunt of King George V, emerges as an indomitable character, and was deeply loved by her son. The conversations which must now have passed between them, as they surveyed the wreckage of 300 years of Romanov rile, are unrecorded.

The Tsar and the Dowager Empress back in 1896

Rather like the great Whig Charles James Fox, after the storming of the Bastille, the Manchester Guardian took an optimistic view of events:

The first duty of a British correspondent in these days of national upheaval is to assure his compatriots that ‘Russia is alright’ as a friend, ally and fighter. The fiery trials she is undergoing will only steel her heart and arms.

I have been day and night in the streets for the last three days; I have seen long queues of hungry men, women, and children at the bakers’, seen wanton firing with rifles and machine-guns, seen civil war in the main thoroughfares; but I have not heard a single word against the war.

The shortage of food, the lack of organisation, and the neglect of the most elementary precautions are popularly ascribed to German influences.

The unnamed correspondent failed to mention that the mood in Petrograd was very ugly towards anyone hoping to fall back on emoluments or rank. The indescribably fabulous Winter Palace was targeted at once, and declared state property. Former tsarist ministers were placed under arrest and, rather more constructively, new officials in the city and in local government (the zemstvo) made desperate efforts to accelerate the distribution of food and fuel.

The fate of the Tsar and his family was also on many people’s minds, with his former Majesty exclaiming:

Let me live in my own country, as the humblest and most obscure proprietor, tilling the land and earning the poorest living. Send us to any distant corner of Russia, but let us stay.

He should be so lucky. Vasily Mishnin, the diarist-soldier at a field hospital in Belarus was nearer to the spirit of the age:

17 March.  We really are living in troubled and frightening times… Tsar Nicholas II has abdicated… The chief doctor read out the telegram, then he shouted ‘hurrah’, though you could tell he wasn’t entirely happy… defenders of the old regime, they’ve had it now.

19 March.  Such joy, such anxiety that I can’t get on with the work. I want to convince all the doubters that these developments are good news and that things will get better for us now. Good Lord, it’s so great that Tsar Nicholas and the autocracy no longer exist! Down with all that rubbish, down with all that is old, wicked and loathsome.

Russia seemed lost, but nobody else was winning. For the Allies, the Western Front afforded some satisfaction. In the Somme area, British troops took over 170 villages in three days, piling into land evacuated by the Germans, and occupying Bapaume on 17th March and Chaulnes and Peronne the next day.

Arriving in the last of these, Geoffrey Malins, who had been a cameraman on the recently-released film on the Somme, was horrified:

German names were everywhere; the names of the streets were altered, even a French washerwoman had put up a notice that said ‘washing was done here’ in German… The once beautiful church was totally destroyed. In the square was the base of a monument upon which, before the war, stood a memorial to France’s glorious dead in the war of 1870… Germans had destroyed the figure and, in its place, had stuck up a dummy stuffed with straw in the uniform of a French Zouave.

Peronne in 1917

It was no better elsewhere:

It was as if a human skeleton had been torn asunder, bone by bone, and then flung in all directions. Then, look around and say — this was once a man. You could say the same thing of Biaches — this was once a village.

Here was the evidence of the scorched-earth policy in which the Germans had begun to invest so heavily. Peronne, held by the Germans since August 1914, was in ruins. On the damaged town hall, the Mairie, the Germans had hung a large wooden panel with the inscription: Nicht argern, nur wundern! (Don’t be angry, just wonder).

But they were angry. Malins watched as British troops crossed the Somme to pursue the German remnants retreating towards St Quentin:

In the distance I watched our cavalry deploying in extended order and advance towards a wood to clear it of the enemy rearguards. Motor-cyclists, with their machine-guns, were dashing up the hill anxious to get into contact with the flying enemy.

Geoffrey Malins

Meanwhile, French forces occupied Nesle, Noyon, and Guiscard on 18th March. The euphoria of those liberated was tempered by distress and fear for the fate of those older boys and girls who had been removed by the retreating Germans. When the 16th Highland Light Infantry arrived in Nesle on 19th March, they had difficulty in stopping the villagers from killing their German prisoners.

The 16th Highland Light Infantry at the time of the Somme

Rage and the thirst for vengeance are not difficult feelings with which to identify. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that they were conceived with only the enemy in mind. Captain Paul Tuffrau at Verdun was presently commanding a company of men, debilitated and badly in need of rest. In his diary of 16th March he considered that:

They no longer have the strength to resist an attack, they haven’t even the muscles to throw grenades.

But when he pleaded their need for respite, General Mangin was having none of it. The 246th division had to hold out until October, Tuffrau was crisply informed, while the big offensive was launched elsewhere. Meanwhile, Magin informed him, they must expect 24 days on the front line and one day of rest, no more.

Tuffrau was appalled, but when he tried to press their case, Mangin cut him off: “There is no use debating… The 246th must do what is required of it, for the greater good.”

That was that. Tuffrau recorded:

Then, with a brief salute, he went back into his well-heated private office where it’s easy to avoid the reality and talk of the greater good. As for me, I was stunned by his extraordinary refusal to acknowledge the courage of the men of the 246th. That night, after hearing this ‘heroic’ pep-talk, I led my men along the tracks that were horribly muddy and slippery. Some of them were crying with exhaustion and rage.

God knows who was right there. The ability to prosecute a war depended upon abnormal toughness and sacrifice and yet, quite as much, upon a humane bond being forged between those who led and those who followed. There was no squaring this particular circle. Out of such abrasive and embittering encounters was forged later insurrection.

French soldiers waiting for rations, 1917

The British seem to have been generally better at maintaining an underlying compact between officers and men. Of course, they did not know the horror and mortification of their country being occupied and, to that extent, perhaps, they had the easier task.

Not that easy, however, and always costly. An American, Major Eric Fisher Wood, serving in the British Army, wrote acutely this week:

March 17 …I come upon a spot where, not a quarter of an hour before, a shell… had burst upon the road to kill a British soldier boy… An infantry pack stands in the highway. Against the pack leans a rifle, whose speckless, shining barrel bears sterling testimony to the soldierly qualities of its late owner. Upon the hard and pitted surface of the highway, lies a great pool of life-blood, still fresh and bright scarlet in colour.

Across the gutter, at a distance of four or five paces from where I stand, is a shallow new-made grave… A broken fragment of a board, blown from the mantelpiece of a once peaceful home-hearth, has been hurriedly whittled into some semblance of a rude headboard; rough characters are printed upon it in pencil… Here lies an UNKNOWN HERO of the Australia Corps…

Here am I, from one far-off country, rendering silent homage to the unknown dead young soldier, who had come from a land still farther away. I feel an earnest gratitude to the other passing soldier who, not satisfied to cover the shattered body with a blanket of mother earth, had in rude epitaph recorded his own tribute…

As ever, there were reminders that no side had wholly clean hands, nor were anyone’s utterly soiled. Beb Asquith, back at the Front since late February, now with the 30th division near Arras, experienced the Germans’ scorched earth policy as the British pushed forward:

Bridges had been blown up and railways destroyed, huge mine-craters gaped in the middle of roads, orchards had been felled, the fruit trees, severed near the root, lay in rows neatly tilted onto their branches, and even the currant bushes in the village gardens had not escaped attention. On this strand of deserted territory they had left the print of their nature, the seal of ruthless efficiency…

But even so:

also, here and there, signs of chivalry. On the slope of a bank behind the reserve trenches I found twelve crosses, some of which supported the weather-worn helmets of French soldiers; a rough board on the centre bore the German inscription to their foes: ‘Here lie twelve soldiers of France who have died the Heldentodt [hero’s death]’.

Such heroics can seem to contrast cruelly with the posturing and preening of those in the upper echelons of the chain of command. The power struggle between Haig and Nivelle, which had erupted during the recent Calais Conference, simmered on. Lloyd George had tried to bring the British Army under French command; now, at a conference in London, on 12th–13th March, Haig clawed back most of what he had lost. Nivelle would not be allowed to communicate directly with London but only through Haig. It was also stated that: “All the British troops stationed in France remain in all circumstances under the orders of their own chiefs and of the British Commander-in-Chief.”

General Robert Nivelle

The real menace here was Lloyd George. There was nothing outrageous about a Prime Minister demanding a strategic overview, but his interventions were not disinterested. They seem to have been animated by a peevish aversion to Haig and by dismay at the losses sustained during the previous year. Nor did it help that he appeared to have conceived a schoolboyish, uncritical, admiration for Nivelle.

Haig’s fury at being side-lined owed little to amour-propre. He thought Nivelle a poor commander and had no confidence in his plan for a summer offensive. Moreover, many French commanders were in agreement. The French Minster for War, Hubert Lyautey, erstwhile professional soldier, was particularly appalled by Nivelle’s cavalier approach to security. It was said that Nivelle had boasted of his coming offensive so much that it had become the talk of salons and press columns.

Aristide Briand

On the other hand, Premier Briand was desperate for a French victory to shore up his coalition government and Nivelle had promised to deliver one. Once again military and political stakes vied for supremacy. In desperation, Lautrye resigned on 14th March, refusing to identify himself with an offensive he was convinced was doomed to fail.

Three days later, the government of Briand fell and President Poincaré was left searching for replacements. French political ructions were, however, a veritable pique-nique by the side of what was happening in Russia but, at the time, they mattered.

At sea, the war was no less cruel. On 19th March, the passenger ship SS Alnwick Castle, which had left Plymouth on 17th March bound for Cape Town with 14 passengers, 100 crew and a cargo of silver was attacked by U-81. Six lifeboats were launched as the ship sank in 30 minutes.

In contemplating the fate of those in the boats, one is made forcibly aware that the horrors of war were not confined to the trenches. Two boats vanished without trace. The captain’s was rescued after five days while the chief officer’s, with 31 aboard, including two women and a four-month-old baby, drifted in turbulent seas and bitter cold. Water supplies ran out, ten people died, and others went insane. On the ninth day, it was rescued by Spanish fishermen. In all, 40 people from the Alnwick Castle died –  including the baby.

These numbers pale by the side of those sacrificed when, on 19th March, French battleship Danton was torpedoed in the Mediterranean 22 miles south-west of Sardinia. The ship was carrying over 1,000 men, en route to join the French naval blockade in the Adriatic, when she was targeted by U-64. Electrical equipment had failed so the lifeboats could not be launched. The destroyer Massue arrived to the rescue and attempted, unsuccessfully, to depth-charge the submarine, which succeeded in fleeing the scene unscathed. Eight hundred and six men were rescued but 296 had lost their lives.

Out of this carnage, the only salvage was the hope that the Americans’ restiveness over unrestricted submarine warfare would soon coalesce into hostility. The cargo ship Vigilancia was lost this week, with 15 souls drowned, and the passenger ship City of Memphis sank off Fastnet Rock following an attack by UC-66 although the 57 crew aboard all survived.


News was also now emerging of the loss of the Algonquin, an American cargo ship sunk in the Atlantic on 12th March. The crew, including eleven Americans, all suffering from exposure, had reached Penzance on 14th March, after 27 hours of strenuous rowing –  and with a story to tell.  The Times recorded on 15th March:

London is not expecting anything but the worst from German submarine commanders, but nevertheless reports of some of the details of the sinking of the American steamer Algonquin aroused indignation today.

The details were that the ship had been shelled without warning, boarded and bombed, sinking in four minutes. The crew had been removed to boats but, when they asked to be towed to land in view of the rough seas and bad weather, they alleged that the Germans claimed to be “too busy” and just laughed at them.

The fate of another empire also hung in the balance this week.

Having ejected Turkish forces from Baghdad the previous week, the British now moved north, occupying Kerind on the Teheran road and pursuing the retreating Ottomans. On 19th March, Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude issued a proclamation, in the name of the King, to the people of Baghdad Vilayet:

You should prosper even as in the past, when your lands were fertile, when your ancestors gave to the world literature, science and art, and when Baghdad city was one of the wonders of the world.

The we-come-not-as-occupiers-but-as-liberators theme was predictable. He contrasted the trade relations between Great Britain and Baghdad, characterised by mutual profit and friendship, with the attitude of the Germans and Turks who

have despoiled you and yours… making Baghdad a centre of power from which to assail the power of the British and the Allies of the British in Persia and Arabia.

The British, he promised, would be different:

I am commanded to invite you, through your nobles and elders and representatives, to participate in the management of civil affairs in collaboration with the political representatives who accompany the British Army, so that you may be united with your kinsmen in North, East, South and West in realising the expectations of your race.

A pan-Arabic vision, therefore, was enunciated –  a very big deal indeed. While all this was happening, Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, was discreetly formulating his own zionist ideas. These irreconcilably different policies seem small change by the side of the week’s greater dramas –  but, for the future, they were to prove momentous.

A new imperial vision? Sir Stanley Maude (second from the right) and British and Russian officers