Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Fateful Alliance: France and Russia, 1894

When I first started studying the Great War, George Kennan's book on the French-Russian alliance was considered "cutting edge" amongst students of the war's origins. It didn't get a lot of attention in 2014, when so much was written about the causes of the war, but it is still essential reading.  Here is a summary of his argument and the document negotiated in 1892 and finalized two years later. The alliance was renewed and strengthened in 1899 and 1912.

The Lead Negotiators:
French General Raoul de Boisdeffre and Russian General Nikolai Obruchev

The first chancellor of Imperial Germany, Otto von Bismarck, forged the “Triple Alliance” with Austria-Hungary and Italy in 1882, and he also maintained cordial relations and a nonaggression pact with tsarist Russia. Bismarck was dismissed in 1890 by the young Kaiser Wilhelm II, however, and his successors refused to renew the nonaggression pact with Russia on the grounds that it was logically inconsistent with Germany’s commitments to Austria-Hungary. The Russian foreign ministry sought to preserve friendly relations with Germany, but the Russian military insisted that a new alliance with France was essential for Russian national security. The tsar’s top military aide, General Nikolai Obruchev, took it upon himself to open direct talks between the French and Russian general staffs after a chance encounter with his French colleague, General Raoul de Boisdeffre, while vacationing on the Riviera. Despite reservations among the professional diplomats of both Russia and France, the generals persuaded Tsar Nicholas II and the French cabinet to endorse their secret military convention, which was signed by the chiefs of the army general staffs in August 1892 and ratified in January 1894 through an exchange of notes between the Russian and French foreign ministers. That agreement is reproduced below.


(signed by Generals Obruchev and Boisdeffre and ratified in January 1894)

If France is attacked by Germany or by Italy supported by Germany, Russia will employ all its available forces to attack Germany. If Russia is attacked by Germany or by Austria supported by Germany, France will employ all its available forces to combat Germany.

In case the forces of the Triple Alliance or of one of its members begin to mobilize, France and Russia will immediately and simultaneously mobilize all of their forces and deploy them as close to their borders as possible, as soon as the enemy mobilization is announced, without any need for prior discussions.

The forces available for deployment against Germany will amount to 1,300,000 men on the part of France, and 700–800,000 men on the part of Russia. These forces are dedicated to combating Germany simultaneously from the East and West in the most effective manner possible.

The military general staffs of the two countries will deliberate together to prepare and execute the measures outlined above. They will communicate to each other in times of peace all the intelligence regarding the armaments of the Triple Alliance that may come to their attention. The ways and means for coordinating their actions in times of war will be studied and planned in advance.

France and Russia will not conclude a separate peace.

This convention will have the same duration as the Triple Alliance.

Every clause enumerated above will be kept strictly secret.

SOURCES: George Kennan, The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War and


  1. Guess I need the book, but what was the point of the agreement being secret? Wouldn't France and Russia have wanted Germany to know what would happen if it attacked either country?

    Of course, why would Kaiser Bill incentivize Russia to seek friends elsewhere?

    1. Why didn't Germany lend the money to Russia instead of allowing the French to do so? Kaiser Wilhelm complained for years after the war that his perfidious Uncle Bertie, the United Kingdom's Edward VII, had planned all along to encircle Germany with enemies so that he would lose the coming war between the great European powers.