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Twilight of the Empire: 10 facts about Russia in WWI

Published time: August 02, 2014 04:47
Edited time: August 02, 2014 12:45
Russian troops attacking on the South-Western front (photo made in 1916, and reprinted by N. Pashin in 1963.
(RIA Novosti)

Russian troops attacking on the South-Western front (photo made in 1916, and reprinted by N. Pashin in 1963. (RIA Novosti)

With a century passed since the beginning of World War I, a memorial has been inaugurated in Moscow to honor the 2 million lives the conflict cost Russia. But what was WWI to the country, which saw its military campaign collapse amid the 1917 revolution?

World War I began for Russia on August 1, 1914, less than three years before the revolution which brought down the royal family. On that day, Germany declared war on the Russian Empire. This was four days after the official beginning of WWI and a just over one month after the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was murdered in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip.

Reproduction of the photo from Russian Illustration magazine (No. 31, 1915) from the funds of the Military and Medical Museum in Leningrad (St. Petersburg currently). The first aid at the battle field during the World War I of 1914-1918. (RIA Novosti)

Russia fought WWI together with its Entente allies – France and the UK, which were supported by over two dozen states, including the US, Japan, Serbia, Italy and others. On the opposing side were the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

Russian troops in Buchacha, June 1916. Brusilov Offensive, May-July 1916. South-Western Front. WWI (1914-1918). State History Museum. Photo reproduction. (RIA Novosti / Yuri Kaplun)

A total of 60,000 soldiers were killed or taken prisoner as result of a failed Russian offensive in East Prussia in late August 1914. However, Russia’s involvement also became a major distraction for the German Empire, preventing it from achieving a successful blitzkrieg on the Western front and occupying France.

German prisoners of war seen during the Lake Naroch Offensive in March 1916, World War I (1914-1918). During the operation, the Russian Imperial Army took prisoner a total of 1,275 German soldiers. Image reproduced from a photograph. National History Museum. (RIA Novosti / Yuri Kaplun)

In September 1914, Russia inflicted a painful defeat on Austria-Hungary, claiming large territories in Galicia (now Ukrainian territory). Austria-Hungary lost nearly half of its 830,000 troops in the massive Galician campaign, raising doubts about its capabilities.

Russian artillery firing at the enemy lines during the Lake Naroch Offensive in March 1916, World War I (1914-1918). Image reproduced from a photograph. National History Museum. (RIA Novosti / Yuri Kaplun)

Advances by the Central Powers and a shortage of artillery shells forced Russia to withdraw from Galicia and Poland in June to September 1915, which was labeled the Great Retreat. Despite leading to numerous casualties, the maneuver exhausted Germany's offensive potential and allowed Russian forces to regroup.

Soldiers leave burning village. Russian army retreat from Galicia. 1915. WWI of 1914-1918. Photo reproduction. (RIA Novosti / M. Filimonov)

The Brusilov Offensive in Galicia, in June-September 1916, was Russia’s greatest success during WWI. It saw the Central Powers losing 1.5 million troops through death or injury.

First World War. South-Western front line. Bonding between Russian soldiers of the 37th rifle infantry division and Hungarians. Funds of the Central Museum of the Revolution of the USSR (now the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia) in Moscow. Photocopy. (RIA Novosti)

The Russians also conducted successful operations against the Ottoman Empire throughout 1916, taking control of the strategic cities of Erzurum, Trapezund, Erzincan and Mus. The Tsarist armies' achievements on the battlefield effectively inspired Romania to join the war on the side of the Entente.

Soldiers of a battalion created to fight deserters in World War I. (RIA Novosti)

However, the euphoria was short-lived. By early 1917, supply shortages, political instability and anti-war calls within the country seriously affected the battle capabilities of the Russian army, which failed to achieve significant military gains after the successes of 1916.

Protest in Russia's troops (RIA Novosti)

This further aggravated the crisis within Russia, where bread riots broke out in Petrograd and led to the revolution that brought down the Romanovs. The subsequent Provisional Government tried to keep Russia in the war, but the Bolsheviks swept to power several months later in the October 1917 revolution, using Vladimir Lenin's program of "Peace, Bread, Land" and "All Power to the Soviets" to win a majority of the workers, soldiers and peasants to their side.

Soldiers leave the front line during the World War I. (RIA Novosti)

Following the establishment of the world's first socialist state, the Bolsheviks fulfilled their campaign promise to take Russia out of the war, signing a peace treaty with the Central Powers. According to the treaty, signed in Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, the new government canceled all Imperial Russia’s commitments to its allies.

The women's battalion of death leaving for the front in the First World War. (RIA Novosti)

WWI saw Russia paying the greatest price among the members of the Entente, with 1,670,000 troops and 1,070,000 civilians perishing in the conflict. The losing Central Powers Germany (2,036,897) and Austria-Hungary (1,496,200) had a greater military death toll, but managed to avoid Russia's crippling civilian losses.

Soldier at a common graveyard. WWI (RIA Novosti)