Soldiers Throw Down Their Arms.
Refuse Orders to the Trenches.
Mutiny Favors the Bolsheviks.
Special to The Great War Project.
(10 September) The turmoil in Russia remains unabated. It is not yet clear who rules Russia in the aftermath of the revolution earlier in the year and the abdication of Tsar Nicolas the Second.
But political and military circumstances are dangerously unpredictable.
In the midst of this tumult a century ago, reports historian Martin Gilbert, “the Germans achieved two victories at the extremities of the Eastern Front. During the first week of September one hundred years ago, after a massive bombardment with more than 100,000 gas shells, German troops drove the Russians from the Baltic port of Riga.”
Across Europe, on the Romanian Front, “the Germans advanced five miles on an eighteen-mile line, taking 18,000 prisoners.”
There is also a contingent of Russian troops stationed south of Paris awaiting orders for action at the Western Front.
Reports Gilbert, “Raising the red flag of Bolshevism, they refused to go to the trenches.”
Several days later, “their camp was attacked by another Russian brigade of troops opposed to the Bolsheviks and loyal to Russia’s remaining in the war.” The Bolsheviks, a growing movement, want Russia to pull out of the war.
It is a small fight, reports Gilbert, but it quickly becomes known as the massacre of La Courtine. Several dozen Russians are killed. It comes just one day after Alexander Kerensky, the liberal ant-Bolshevik revolutionary leader, declares Russia to be a republic.
Firmly opposed to Bolshevism, Kerensky is determined “to see Russia emerge from the war as a democracy. But power is slowly and inexorably passing” to the Bolshevik communists in the capital, Petrograd.
“Russian military morale was indeed collapsing,” reports historian David Stone, “Desertion increased rapidly after the February Revolution and grew even worse as a summer offensive approached and soldiers seized any opportunity to escape the front and save their lives.”
“Two million men deserted between March and October 1917.”
Reports Stone, “the stock of trained and reliable soldiers continued to fall. It was left with middle-aged men and youths, often politically unreliable.” There are hundreds of thousands of battle-ready troops in Petrograd, but reports Stone, “they could be transferred to the front only at great risk of political explosion.”
But for Berlin as well, “time is running out on a German victory. The German high command looked for a way to expend minimal lives for maximal effect to drive Russia out of the war and enable a grab for victory in the west.”
The best prospects for Germany appear to be an attack on Latvia’s capital Riga. It is successful and quickly the Germans establish a firm line south of the city.
The Russian loss of Riga turns politics in Petrograd “even more poisonous,” reports historian Stone. The tension explodes into an attempted coup d’etat against the anti-communists. It fails.
Reports Stone, “it was the final blow to military discipline. Soldiers were far more mistrustful of their officers than before. Some commanders were killed by their own troops.” Many others were arrested and replaced, sometimes through popular election, but also by junior officers or even enlisted men based on their revolutionary sympathies.
The events of the summer and fall a century ago benefit no one but Lenin’s Bolsheviks.