31 August 1914 – Russian Poland

When the war was declared, the crowds in St. Petersburg were at least as large as those in any European capital (see above). All wars become less popular with time, but during this one, Russians will pay the highest blood-price of any combatant nation, making it a deeply unpopular conflict.

The Russian soldier is brave in the face of great privation and sacrifice, but he is poorly-led. Nine days ago, Russian General Alexander Samsonov committed suicide in East Prussia rather than report his disastrous defeat to the Tsar. Today, his rival Paul von Rennenkampf begins his retreat from East Prussia with the 1st Army. It is the last time that Russians will touch German soil until 1945, and the beginning of the casualty lists and epic defeats that will change Russia — and the world — forever.

And within that story of Russian dissolution, today marks the beginning of modern Poland and other newly-independent Baltic and Eastern European states. A series of changes here shall keep map-makers in business throughout the 20th Century.

The Tsar kept three fifths of his peacetime strength in the Polish salient. Surrounded on three sides, this was a blessing that became a curse

The Tsar kept three-fifths of his peacetime strength in the Polish salient. Surrounded on three sides, this advantage became a dangerous vulnerability as his army bled away its strength in multiple directions

A formerly-independent nation split up by three conquerors who have impressed their own languages and cultures on their subject dominions, Poland is a fire that has smoldered for more than a century. It has been such a source of international tension that Woodrow Wilson makes ‘the Polish question’ thirteenth of his Fourteen Points during the postwar peace talks at Versailles.

Many of the issues created by Poland’s subjugation are international in scope. Just as Polish labor has stressed Poland’s European Union partners in our time, an economic diaspora of Poles already existed across Europe in 1914. The war interrupts a regular migration of farm workers between Poland and Germany’s breadbasket, for example, and Polish coal miners in France will wind up serving on the Western Front.

Józef Klemens Piłsudski, father of modern Poland

Józef Piłsudski, father of modern Poland, predicted that her occupying empires would destroy themselves

Two million Poles will serve in all three occupying armies during the war. Even now, volunteer Polish Legions are fighting for the Central Powers in Galicia, to the south of Russian Poland. They are commanded by Józef Piłsudski, who has already endured Siberian exile for his national dream. He hates the Russian empire with such passion that he led his men into Russian Poland well ahead of the creaking, slow Hapsburg army.

But Piłsudski has also secretly informed France and Britain that this army will never be used against them, and in 1917 he will break with the Central Powers. Poland’s independence will depend on its relationship to the West, particularly France — creating the new balance of power upon which events will cascade to war again in 1939.

Russian doctrine placed as many troops as possible at the front line to repel attacks. This made them vulnerable to massed artillery fire

Instead of forming a defense in depth, Russian doctrine placed as many troops as possible in the front line to prevent lost ground — and then left their flanks vulnerable when they attacked

Russian development failures play a big role in their defeat: the Tsar has not built enough roads or rail lines, while his armies lack the telegraph and telephone infrastructure to manage a war on three fronts. But prewar training has not been adequate to the demands of a new battlefield, either, and as an autocrat the buck once again stops with Nicholas II.

He has failed to provide his army with enough food or ammunition, or enough barbed wire to construct layered defenses; men attack shoulder-to-shoulder and are mowed down by massed fire; officers have been rewarded for loyalty rather than competence, and corruption is so endemic that troops are as likely to sell their bread rations as eat them.

Three armies will be broken here in Poland, but they do their best to break Poland, too. A scorched-earth campaign of destruction and deportations by Russia, followed by the equally-destructive exploitation of the Central Powers, leaves Piłsudski’s Second Polish Republic with a devastated economy, cities, and industrial base. Poland is free at last, but only at tremendous cost.

A view of the devastation in Kalisz, bombarded by Germany for three weeks in August 1914

A view of the devastation in Kalisz, bombarded by Germany for three weeks in August 1914