27 December 1914 – Allied Surge

The Russian Army seemed to have lost momentum by mid-December, a victim of poor prewar planning and wartime mismanagement that left troops without shells or weapons in a vast Polish salient that was assailed by enemies on three sides. Indeed, Russian troops were forced to lift the  siege of Kracow just four days ago at the height of Germany’s third attempted offensive on Warsaw. But a renewed effort at the front is yielding results: forcing two Carpathian passes today along the borders of Galicia and Hungary, Russians also throw back a German force across the Bzura River at Skierniewice. Another victory is unfolding against the Turks at Sarikamish, though the results will not be known until the new year.

This trend feeds the perception in the final days of 1914 that the allies of the Triple Entente are making slow, but steady progress. Participating in Joseph Joffre’s offensive, Belgians retook the polder town of Diksmuide before Christmas; today, they take German trenches and prisoners east of Lombardsijde, and recover what is left of the little town of St. George near the Western Front’s coastal terminus at Nieuport. French troops are making gains in the Alsace region this week.

The only place where the allies seem to make no progress today is in the 27-mile British sector of the line, where episodic fraternization, cultural tradition, and a German charm offensive have resulted in the so-called ‘Christmas truces’ that still have some parts of their line quiet today. There has been very little ‘Christmas spirit’ in the East — only bitter fighting in subzero weather, for Russia still uses the Julian calendar and it is therefore December 13th in Moscow today.

The Western Front had seen heavy delivery of Christmas parcels to the men in the trenches; Russian troops had received much less at this point

Men were in a holiday mood on the Western Front, which had seen heavy delivery of Christmas parcels. Russian troops had received far less ‘cheer’ by now. Other than a few local truces around the besieged Austrian fortress of Przemysl, Christmas Day was characterized by Russian harassing artillery fire in the Carpathians and intense German attacks around Warsaw

Maurice Paléologue, the French ambassador to Petrograd, has independently confirmed the alarming reports of material insufficiency in the Russian procurement system that drove him to distraction at the beginning of the month, when it seemed that German armies were on the verge of taking Poland. Attending the Tsar yesterday in Moscow on his return from the Caucasus, Paléologue reports in his memoir that a renewed determination has set in at court:

All the Moscow papers have fastened on the occasion to affirm that the war must be fought out until the defeat of Teutonism; several have remarked, very happily, that to attain that end a “flash of enthusiasm” is not enough; what is needed is stubbornness of will, inexhaustible patience and a determination to face and accept immense sacrifices.

Nicholas II dreams of a Russian restoration of Byzantine Constantinople, the holy city of the Eastern Orthodox church. It is just one of the religious justifications that distract him from the necessary business of  actually winning the war for his god. Expanding his notes in today’s entry, Paléologue writes that Britain’s new willingness to carve up the Ottoman Empire is the talk of the town:

“The acquisition of the Straits is of vital interest to the Empire, far more important than all the territorial advantages Russia may obtain at the expense of Germany or Austria… The neutralization of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles would be an imperfect, hybrid compromise, fraught with peril for the future… Constantinople must be a Russian city… The Black Sea must become a Russian lake…

A French manufacturer who has come from Kharkov and Odessa tells me that the same thing is being said there. But whereas the historical, political, and mystical aspects inspire Moscow, it is the commercial argument which appeals to southern Russia. The corn of the tchernoziom [ed: rich Russian soil] and the Donetz coal basin are responsible for the cry for the Mediterranean.

Indeed, Russia longs for year-round, ‘warm water’ access to the world’s markets for its enormous agricultural sector and growing industrial output, but the Tsar also wants to open a supply route for western factories to supply his army with shells and rifles. Reversing a century of diplomatic policy, the British Navy is already operating in the Dardanelles Strait to prepare the way for a bloody campaign at Gallipoli. This failed effort to give the Tsar’s autocratic empire a maritime lifeline will cost tens of thousands of allied lives — but of course, Paléologue has no way of knowing the future. He can only report to Paris on what Russians think:

It is becoming ever clearer that there are two currents in Russian public opinion — one flowing on towards bright horizons and beckoning conquests, Constantinople, Thrace, Armenia, Trebizond, Persia…the other beating against the invincible obstacle of the Teutonic cliff and ebbing back to gloomy prospects ending in pessimism, a feeling of impotence and resignation.

The really curious point is that these two currents run side by side, or at any rate frequently alternate, in the same individual, as if they both satisfied the two outstanding propensities of the Russian soul — dreams and disillusionment.

The devastated engine yard

The devastated engine yard at Skierniewice. Reduced rail capacity made Russian forward defense and counterattacks harder

In their recent retreat, Russian troops finished what German armies started by evacuating the rolling stock and locomotives at Skierniewice station and destroying the remaining rail infrastructure. Intended to make German drives on Warsaw more difficult, this action will only wind up hindering their defense in the new year. The gains of this Russian surge are limited in scope and made temporary by the same material insufficiencies that Paléologue has reported. No amount of willpower or determination can possibly overcome a lack of rifles to shoot, or shells to fire, or rails to bring men and explosives to battle. God apparently does not care about the Tsar’s best intentions for Constantinople, either, and the currents of Russian public opinion prove very fickle.

Nevertheless, the ‘Russian soul’ has never come so close to a complete fulfillment of its most avaricious dreams for conquest. For a moment at the end of 1914, it is possible to survey the Eastern Front from Petrograd, or Moscow, and visualize the Russian Empire finally becoming a truly global power as the greatest Tsars have dreamed for centuries. The illusion of progress will not be completely shattered for some time yet.