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The Other First World War

Douglas Boyd
In the account book of the Great War the page recording the Russian losses has been ripped out. The figures are unknown. Five millions or eight? We ourselves know not
Generalfeldmarschall Paul Von Hindenburg

The consequences of this ill-considered venture were to be disastrous both to our prestige and to the fortunes of those Russians who supported us. It raised hopes which could not be fulfilled. It intensified the civil war and sent thousands of Russians to their deaths.“
Bruce Lockhart, British Diplomat

The author's first exposure to Russia, the Russian language and history came whilst enduring his National Service in the RAF at the Joint Services School for Linguists, where a mixed bag of instructors taught unsuspecting young servicemen the Russian language so they could monitor Soviet military communications. The author pinpoints that this period of time spent in daily contact with various Russians, Czechs, Estonians and assorted others had started a fascination with Russian history and as most of the instructors had lived through the colossal upheaval of the First World War and the subsequent Revolution and counter-revolutions that specific period of history. My own personal interest in the period was first ignited by reading Alexander Solzhenitzyn's August 1914 as a teenager.

Whilst this historical study does not have the narrative flair of Solzhenitzyn it carries the weight of excellent research and the eyewitness accounts of many ranging from British nurses serving in the various Field Hospitals trying vainly to cater for the Imperial Russin Forces to unnamed peasant soldiers writing to their families throughout the vast Russian Empire. The book begins in Sarajevo, obviously, and narrates the Austrian's efforts in that first theatre of conflict, Serbia, from there it takes us across the vastness of the Eastern front as the ponderous bulk of the Imperial Russian Army confronts the Central Powers.

It spans the whole conflict from the disastrous days of August 1914 at Tannenberg through Galicia to the Russian campaign against the Ottoman's in the Caucasus onto the end of the Empire and the descent into five years of bloody civil war and multicoloured terror. The institutionalised incompetence of the Imperial Russian Army and Government is laid bare as the litany of failures continues from a failure to establish enough industrial capacity to manufacture adequate small arms ammunition through to a monstrously inefficient rail network contributing to an inability to move large numbers of troops or supplies in a timely fashion. The fragility of the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire is highlighted by the unreliability of whole ethnic groups within the Army, who either desert or go over to the enemy in droves. It also highlights how the necessity to move troops to the Eastern front hampered the German High Command's ability to bring overwhelming numbers to bear at critical points, the fact that after Verdun there were no German offensives in the West until an Armistice had been signed with Lenin's Government and the High Command could transfer troops to the West is highlighted.

The most interesting points are those normally hidden from wider view, such as the letters written home by the soldiers of various nationalities. The description of the various Foreign units and corps that were left in Russia at the end of the War from the Czech Legion through to the German Garrison in the Baltic states and their activities is highly illuminating. Including the description of how a RN VC was won on 19th June 1919 by Lt Agar, the description of how the various interventions by the Allied nations fared is again both illuminating and highly descriptive, including as it does excerpts from the writings of various central characters.

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It's an excellent book covering a largely unknown and forgotten period of history as both Winston Churchill and Russian historians have described it. The narrative is well paced and the descriptions are frequently illuminated with contemporary accounts. There are quite a few illustrations and frequent mapping which is excellent.

A well deserved four out of five mushroom heads.
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