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

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Russian Origins of the First World War

by Sean McMeekin
The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011
Terrence J. Finnegan

Russian Prisoners at Tannenberg
Massive Losses in a Secondary Sector

At first glance, Sean McMeekin’s 2011 work on Russia appears to be a revisionist approach to the countless works on origins of World War I. The title is misleading, however. His work, nevertheless, is an important gap filler—full of insightful detail on what was and what was not accomplished by the largest army in the world when war was declared and in the years that followed. To my surprise, Russian Origins resonates with facts that have not been brought forward over the past century. That makes this work essential for discussion on any topic about Russia's involvement in World War I. Having spent the past seven years researching the role of aviation over the Eastern Front and its land campaigns, I found solving the enigma of how Russia suffered repeated catastrophic failures much more understandable with McMeekin's assistance, spelling out the behind-the-scenes facts of the ongoing drama.

For instance, McMeekin shows a Russian bias in conducting their opening campaign against Germany and Austria-Hungary. German East Prussia was not an objective, for it did not promise reward of territorial gain. The Southwest Front opposite Austria-Hungarian armies in Galicia—a less formidable force, hamstrung by so many cultures and languages, and not capable of defending the territory that Russia sought—was clearly their objective. Meanwhile, the Northwest Front’s holding pattern opposite Germany’s 8th Army resulted in the Tannenberg disaster of August 1914. Had Russia succeeded in applying mass more effectively against German forces in East Prussia, the road to Berlin could have been reached and the outcome of the entire world history changed for the remainder of the 20th century.

Later, Russian objectives on the Eastern Front still placed Southwest Front priorities first—Galicia was the prime objective for Russian military strategists, as seen by the number of armies fielded and the best commanders such as General ot kavalerii Brusilov leading the Russian Eighth Army toward Lemberg and beyond. The Galician campaign did not benefit the Western allies. In fact, it allowed Germany greater flexibility to focus more on the Western Front over the Eastern Front, despite the obvious threat to Berlin, given a successful Russian advance.

Russian Recruiting Poster  

McMeekin’s work continues past 1914, making the title confusing for the cursory reader. His depth of knowledge on the emerging role of Turkey as a member of the Central Powers is clearly apparent as campaigns are spelled out. Foremost in this reading is the revelation of Russian failure in supporting the Allies at Gallipoli–Churchill’s doomed offensive on the Straits of the Dardanelles. Clearly, a successful conquest of the straits benefited Russia most of all, freeing their fleet to be more than a fixture on the Black Sea. Russian manipulation of British priorities hinged on what was in store for Egypt and Persia, the latter rarely mentioned in writings on the war. A vision of Turkey divided up after the war governed a sizeable portion of priorities for fighting in the region. Russia stood to gain the most from a dismembered Turkey, and Great Britain gained satisfaction that their priorities for holding onto Persia would remain.

Churchill’s proposal for naval operations offered to the Russians in January 1915 vastly underestimated what was required. The Russians saw this chancy campaign being highly risky, most likely reinforcing their desire to let the British (and French) proceed on their own in the Dardanelles. McMeekan summed up the sad legacy with “Inspired or not, Russia’s generals saw no reason to risk losing their own sailors and soldiers if the British and French were willing to do this for them.” In subsequent chapters the Russian legacy of not supporting the British was evident with Townsend’s campaign that led to the disaster at Kut.

Another important discussion addressed is Russia’s role with Armenian nationals that eventually led to the Ottomans' crushing resistance and committing the horror on an entire culture that remains an issue to the current day. McMeekan details the fighting between Armenians and Turks going back to 1890. Conflict escalated between 1894–1896 with as many as 50,000 to 80,000 Armenians killed. Russia’s role was to assume the Armenians were “in their pocket and aimed unambiguously to exploit them.” Details on how the Russians factored the Kurds into this complicated scenario are provided by the author, with the Russians seeing both Armenians and Kurds keeping the Ottoman troops tied down in counterinsurgency operations.

When Turkey entered the war about 200,000 Armenians crossed over to Russia. Russian foreign policy paralleled what occurred at Gallipoli with the British—they promised support to the Armenians as long as they acted in full obeisance to Russia’s instructions. The gap between Russia’s imperial ambitions and her limited means to achieve them played havoc with Armenian objectives. The resulting legacy of halfhearted support discovered by the Ottomans meant any military action by Armenian “rebels” required massive retribution. Atrocities by both Turks and Armenians at Van in eastern Turkey on 13–14 April 1915 only reinforced the desire to eliminate anything Armenian, and the Genocide commenced. Russia’s only excuse was that this was the time of the great retreat in the Southwest Front in Galicia—priorities were focused on the direct threat to Russia by advancing German and Austria-Hungarian forces.

The writing in Russian Origins is well done. The story unfolds very well despite a lack of common knowledge in the west of the key Russian figures (outside of the Tsar, Grand Duke Nikolai, and Rasputin). Research at key archives in the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, Germany, Austria, and Russia further shows McMeekin’s depth of analysis based on original sources. The geographical maps are superb, easy to follow and apply to the reading. Photos are scarce, but this does not take away from the book’s purpose to spell out the strategic role played (or not accomplished) by Russia. McMeekin has done justice to history, and his work should be sought by those wanting a complete understanding of all the campaigns that shaped the First World War.

Terrence J. Finnegan


  1. I really appreciate this review, especially since the Russian war is one of my 'weak areas'. Also, the insights contained here are probably quite a revelation to a lot of us. Thank you, Terry!

  2. Excellent review. I look forward to reading the book. Cheers

  3. Very good review.
    McMeekin has been doing solid work on the full range of the eastern front, including the Ottomans.