Secret Talks Between Russia and Germany
But the War Sees No End.
‘It is Butchery…and Useless Butchery’
Special to The Great War Project.
(12 September) Let’s take stock of the Great War, in Russia, by mid-November a century ago, two-and-a-half years into the war.
On the Eastern Front, the Russian offensive is running out of steam. “The Russian offensive had reached its limit,” writes historian Martin Gilbert. And so the offensive ends by this moment in the war, undermined on the home front by the withdrawal of support from soldiers and civilians alike on the home front.
“Nearly 200,000 Russian workers were involved in an estimated 177 political strikes,” Gilbert reports. “Whether any further Russian military initiative might be possible was cast in doubt when the Tsar was warned [in November]…that there were only sufficient reserve troops for a further five months’ fighting.”
Reports Gilbert: “At the end of the month a Russian army censorship bureau reported that…
…soldiers were saying: “After the war we’ll have to settle accounts with the internal enemy.”
The roll call of death is astounding. “On the last day of October 1916, Russian losses were estimated at 4,670,000 killed and wounded, more than 1,000,000 missing,” and more than 2,000,000 taken prisoner.
Shortages plague the Russian war effort, “impeding any hope of a renewed Russian success,” writes historian Gilbert. Adds one military observer in his diary on November 5th, “The plain truth is that without aeroplanes and far more heavy guns and shell, and some knowledge of their use….it is butchery…and useless butchery…to drive Russian infantry against German lines.”
So did all this butchery change the balance on the battlefield? Hardly at all, and “essentially inconclusive.” Under the best of conditions, Germany and Austria-Hungary would combine their forces and smash the Russian war effort.
But faced with stubborn resistance on the Western Front – Verdun and the Somme tying the Central powers down for most of 1916 – the Allies destroy Germany’s hope of making significant progress.
In an attempt to break the stalemate, the Germans decide to create a new German-controlled state in Poland. Coming with it is a new army that the Germans can throw against the Russians.
So the Germans take hold of this new army in Poland and use it in the Polish provinces of Russia, “an ally and bastion against further Russian inroads, leaving Germany freer to concentrate on the Western Front.
But the Poles turn the table on the Germans. They resist providing Berlin with Polish troops without a commitment from Germany to support the creation of a largely independent Polish state.
The Russian resistance in the face of these political developments is powerful. “Whatever its territorial arrangements might have been,” writes Gilbert, “one thing is certain…
The Tsar could not accept an independent Polish kingdom carved out of his western provinces.”
This puts to rest any rapprochement between Germany and Russia. It turns out that secret talks have been underway for some time, alarming the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin who, writes Gilbert, “from his Swiss exile had been worried that the conclusion of a peace between Russia and Germany would prevent the outbreak of revolution in Russia.”
“Not the possibility of peace,” writes Gilbert, “but the certainty of continuing war marked the reality of the coming of winter in 1916.”