In 1914, Russia was a formidable power in Europe. Emperor Tsar Nicholas II [pictured left] ruled over an enormous land mass that stretched across the great swathes of Europe and Asia, and he commanded an army fuelled by a population of over 170 million. This was emphasised by The Illustrated London News in a supplement to the 4 July 1914 edition entitled “Imperial Russia: Her Power and Progress”. Despite this, Russia was the “dozing giant” of the Great European Powers. Though making some small gains in terms of industrialisation, she was far from becoming a modern state and remained reliant on foreign investment to develop her infrastructure.
With relations between Austria-Hungary and Serbia becoming ever more tense after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Russia soon began to mobilise her vast armies in support of her ally, Serbia. This was a key moment in the events leading to the outbreak of World War One. Until then the crisis between Serbia and Austria-Hungary could be seen as a national dispute, but Russian mobilisation ultimately propelled the crisis into a much larger conflict, with Germany declaring war on Russia in response.
Russia faced a great many problems with mobilisation. Though the Russian military had recovered from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, their re-armament programme and improved railway links to Eastern-Germany were decidedly unfinished. Furthermore, there were severe shortages in equipment, including weapons and clothing, for the vast number of men at Russia’s disposal.
Despite this, Russia was initially portrayed in the Great Eight collection of magazines as the great thorn in Germany’s side. The successful exploits of the Russian armies in 1914 on the Eastern Front were often reported in The Sphere and depicted by its most famous war artist, Fortunino Matania. The Bystander published an illustration of Kaiser Wilhelm being squashed by the weight of Russia (Russia depicted as an anvil [pictured left])
The Russian Empire did enjoy some early successes against the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia in 1914, but these achievements were short-lived. During the Battle of Tannenberg the German artillery forced the Russian army to retreat all the way to Soldau. The Russians managed to launch a counterattack that allowed the Russian Army Corps to escape, but by the evening of 29 August 1914 the Russians were surrounded by the German Army.
By 31 August, the Germans had taken 92,000 prisoners and slaughtered half of the Russian Second Army. The German Army quickly turned its attention to the Russian First Army and drove it from East Prussia. It was an overwhelming defeat for the Russians, with around 250,000 men and significant resources lost. In the following Battle of the Masurian Lakes, Germany successfully expelled the Russian Army from her soil.
Though Russia was left battered by the first six months of fighting in the First World War, she was not knocked out of the conflict. The country would continue to fight on the side of the Allies until the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917.