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The Russian February Revolution 1917 I THE GREAT WAR Week 137

September 18, 2019


What do you do when you can’t get food? When you can’t afford to buy even the food
that’s available? When working conditions are intolerable? Well, if you’re the Russians, you hit the
streets. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week French General Robert Nivelle proposed
to take control of the British armies on the Western Front. The British were advancing there as the Germans
fell back to the Hindenburg Line. They also advanced on the Tigris, taking Kut-al-Amara
and setting their sights on Baghdad. The Serbian rebellion in Bulgarian occupied
Balkan territory continued, as did major U-Boat sinkings at sea. The US public found out about a German plot
against them, and Austrian Army Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf lost his job. That was a busy week. Well, they’re all busy weeks and this is
no exception. There was more turmoil in Russia, for starters. This week, a strike began in the Putilov munitions
works, which was the Russian army’s main provider of ammunition. Also in Petrograd, food riots began that continued
for days, with citizens in the streets demanding bread. By the 8th there were 90,000 factory workers
on strike. There were, in fact, food shortages in all
the major cities; agricultural production was down from so many farm workers being called
to the army and there were colossal distribution problems on the overstretched railway system. Inflation had soared, but wages remained the
same, so the poor were being priced out of the market for any food that was available. The results were hunger, which caused food
riots, and open political dissent that all blamed the Tsar for the suffering. More and more military units began to go over
to the revolutionaries. A decade ago the military had put down a revolution,
but in 1917 the army had no enthusiasm or desire to fire on the people. The 8th was also International Women’s Day
and the strikers were joined by those celebrating that occasion, so by the end of the week,
200,000 protesters were in the streets of Petrograd. The Tsar was completely isolated from all
this and totally out of touch; this week he wrote to his wife that he was going to take
up dominoes again, and in his diary that he was reading a French book about Julius Caesar’s
conquest of Gaul. It was the beginning of the end. A side note here – a while back I talked about
Interior Minister Alexander Protopopov and it was a bit controversial. I will certainly bow to superior knowledge
of the events and circumstances in Russia at this time, particularly about Protopopov
and what he did or did not do. Many of you know far more about the subject
than I do. I will say one thing further about him here,
though. Now, I only have this from one source, “The
Story of the Great War”, make of that what you will. They claim that he deliberately had food trains
to Petrograd halted in the provinces, and when everybody was on strike, the two labor
leaders who supported the Duma made an appeal for the workers to go back to work, but he
had the appeal censored. That source claims Protopopov was deliberately
fomenting revolution so that during the crisis a peace with the Central Powers could be made
and the revolution put down by the army. Many of you have written that Protopopov was
not capable of this kind of machination, and even I have described him as “laughably
incompetent”, I’m just putting this out there. There is one source that claims this is so. I’m curious to hear your thoughts. There was action in the Middle East this week
as well. The British were pursuing the Ottomans up
the Tigris River, heading for Baghdad. On the 6th, British cavalry was 20km from
the goal. On the 8th, the Tigris was bridged and the
Ottomans driven from positions 10km from the city. The British also made a surprise crossing
of the Diyala River. The Ottomans were actually also retreating
en masse from Persia toward Baghdad, with the Russians in pursuit. This week the Russians occupied Kangavar,
South of Hamadan. In the Balkans, the Serbs’ Toplica Rebellion
continued occupations of its own. The rebels took half a dozen small towns and
were threatening the town of Vranje, which would be a big blow to the Central Powers
if it fell. So the alarmed Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian
commands began to organize a counter attack. It would begin soon. And something else that could signal another
beginning was the possibility that the US might join the war. It’s now been a month since diplomatic relations
between the US and Germany were severed. This week, President Woodrow Wilson took the
oath of office to begin his second term as President. His inaugural speech reaffirms his commitment
to armed neutrality. This is primarily in response to Germany’s
unrestricted submarine warfare policy, which had sunk 500,000 tons of food for Britain
in February alone. We’ve talked a lot about stuff dealing with
the US over the past few weeks and I’d like to talk about something I haven’t had time
for yet, the Great Call Up. In June 1916 there had been a real possibility
of war between the USA and Mexico. The US army had put together around 12,000
troops for its cross-border campaign, but they’d need a lot more to show how serious
the US was about protecting the border. So they mobilized the entire National Guard. There was a plan for orderly mobilization,
but rushing as many guardsmen to the border as quickly as possible was the order of the
day, and by the end of July there were 110,957 national guardsmen at the border. There was a lot of confusion and a lot of
problems, and I’ll just briefly mention some of them here. Reluctance to serve was a big problem and
the physical condition of the men another. The Surgeon General said, “The large percentage
of rejections at the muster-in physical examination… appears to the department surgeon as the most
disappointing… feature of the mobilization, indicating that the enlistment examinations
had been nominal and superficial.” And the army’s logistical system was overwhelmed. There weren’t enough supplies for the guardsmen,
and since there had been no prearranged plans for border mobilization, 100,000 inexperienced
men suddenly there needed to be trained, so the regular army was stripped of officers
to do so. The red tape was colossal, and I love this
quote about the staggering problems with requisition forms just to get basic equipment, “There
was not only a shortage of blank forms, but a shortage of the forms needed to requisition
the blank forms.” The National Guard blamed the army for all
the shortages, and the army blamed Congress. Let’s not even get into the overload issues
for the railways that had to move all the men, and the economic issues at the border
once 100,000 men arrived in border towns. Still, by Christmas, 156,414 guardsmen had
been transported to the border, even though three quarters of them were untrained men
led by officers of limited experience. And reports, like one in the excellent book
“The Great Call-Up”, read like this, “Under most favorable conditions… the regiment
might be made available for field service against an inferior enemy in six months, against
trained troops it will require two years.” You can see why the Central Powers were not
especially worried about American intervention if they could bring the war to a conclusion
in 1917. Thing is, America learned a lot from the Great
Call up; the mobilization problems were all highlighted on display, including things like
the army’s reliance on animals instead of cars and trucks, and steps were made to correct
all of this mess. So the period from June 1916 to now was one
of intense training and troubleshooting. Why it’s important here is that it really
served as a dress rehearsal for American mobilization. “The Great Call up transformed the National
Guard into a much more effective fighting force, for it was as close as the United States
came to the large scale military maneuvers in which European armies traditionally engaged.” The idea that the US would join the war was,
for Germany, offset by the news from Russia, where things looked bad militarily as well
as politically. British Military Attaché Colonel Knox had
sent London a note saying that a million men had been killed, two million were either missing
– dead – or prisoners, half a million were in hospital, a million and a half more were
on leave or had been excused from more service, and another million had deserted. Knox said that the number of the troops at
the front was not enough to continue the war as it was. But that’s how things stood at the end of
the week. The British on the move in Mesopotamia, the
Russians in Persia, rebel success in the Balkans, Chaos in Petrograd, and the US saying yet
again that it would remain neutral. Armed neutrality. So ships could defend themselves from the
U-boat menace. But that’s not neutral, is it? The Germans sinking ships with American civilians
aboard is an act of war. American civilians firing on German subs is
an act of war. You can get as technical with the terminology
as you liked but that is war. And how long do you think the American public
would put up with reading about drowned American civilians. And how long would the Russians put up with
starvation and intolerable working conditions? I’m gonna guess not very long. If you want to learn more about the defenses
against submarines, check out our special about that right here. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Kitsuka
– help us out on Patreon so we can improve this show as the war gets even bigger. Don’t forget to subscribe, see you next
time.

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