Hard Nosed Folks Both Good & Bad HUH! Leadership of the highest kind Real men This great Nation & Its People Well I thought it was neat!



The lives of Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill overlapped, but they met in person only once — at a dinner in the Governor’s Mansion in Albany, New York on December 10, 1900. The 42-year old Roosevelt was about to relocate to Washington DC to assume his duties as Vice President. The 26-year old Churchill, who was visiting America to shore up his finances by a lecture tour, was about to take his seat in Parliament.

What happened at their dinner is unknown. But to the extent historians have noticed the dinner (which isn’t a large extent[i]), they have accepted the view, first attributed to Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, that the two men did not get along because they were so much alike.[ii] As Robert Pilpel, in his Churchill in America 1895 – 1961, put it: “It was a case of likes repelling.”[iii]

But was it?

We will never know for certain because the witnesses are not available for deposition. But based on the evidence, the “likes repelling” theory is unpersuasive. Something else, something deeper, was afoot.

Let’s review the record, starting with Winston Churchill’s reaction to the dinner.

His reaction was a case of the dog not barking. If one examines Churchill’s papers, one might conclude that the event never took place.  On December 21, 1900, eleven days after the dinner, he wrote a detailed letter to his mother, describing his American trip. The letter mentions his lectures, his earnings, and his many meetings with American luminaries. It mentions that he was “considerably impressed” by President McKinley. But as to Theodore Roosevelt, Churchill says nothing.[iv]

Subsequently, Churchill’s references to Roosevelt are very few and entirely benign. In December 1906, after an earthquake had destroyed Kingston, Jamaica, an American admiral landed armed soldiers to help clear the rubble.

Sir Alexander Swettenham, Governor of the island, issued a harsh letter condemning the move, and pointing out that the recent looting of a New York millionaire’s house would not have justified a British admiral landing armed soldiers to help the police. President Roosevelt complained to London about the ill-tempered letter, and Churchill, then the top assistant to the Colonial Secretary, supported Roosevelt, calling Swettenham “an ass … wrong on every point.”[v]

In December 1908, upon learning that the lame duck President was planning an African safari, Churchill sent Whitelaw Reid, the American ambassador in London, a copy of My African Journey, his account of  his own 1907 hunting exploits on that continent, with a request to forward it on to Roosevelt.[vi]

In April 1918, Churchill suggested enlisting Roosevelt as a plenipotentiary in a rather far-fetched and never implemented mission to persuade the Bolsheviks to bring Russia back into the war on the side of the Allies.[vii]

That is all there is regarding the impression Roosevelt made on Churchill. There is nothing to show that Churchill was repelled by Roosevelt.

When we investigate Churchill’s impression on Roosevelt, a very different picture emerges.

To start, Roosevelt’s papers show that the dinner was actually his idea. Roosevelt was eager to meet the young Englishman in person. On December 4, 1900, Major James Burton Pond, the manager of Churchill’s American lecture tour, had invited then Governor Roosevelt to attend Churchill’s upcoming New York City lecture and had even offered him a box in the theater. Pond’s transparent aim in inviting Roosevelt was to use his famous name to promote the Churchill event.

Roosevelt reasonably might have ignored the invitation, or dismissed it with a curt letter of regret. Instead, in his December 6 response, he first declined the invitation due to a scheduling conflict, then lobbied for a meeting:

I am really sorry as I am a great admirer of Mr. Churchill’s books, and should very much like to have a chance of meeting him socially. Is he now in New York? I should greatly like to have him take lunch or dinner with me if he is in Albany on Monday; or lunch if he is here Tuesday, of next week. Where shall I write him?[viii]

Major Pond had merely invited Roosevelt to attend a lecture. He had not suggested a personal meeting. But here was Roosevelt inviting Churchill to break bread with him in Albany, and offering no fewer than three possible time slots, each one a meal rather than  a perfunctory meet-and-greet office session. Roosevelt’s inquiry as to where he could write Churchill directly reveals his eagerness for a personal meeting.

But while Roosevelt very much wanted “a chance of meeting [Churchill] socially,” once he had that chance, he didn’t like what he saw.

After the dinner, on July 12, 1901, the now Vice President Roosevelt wrote to Hermann Speck von Sternburg, a family friend and German diplomat, who had spent time in India. The letter dealt mainly with military and international affairs. Roosevelt wrote: “I saw the Englishman, Winston Churchill here, and although he is not an attractive fellow, I was interested in some of the things he said.” [ix]

The “things” that interested Roosevelt were Churchill’s views on the fighting qualities of Gurka, Sikh, Punjabi, and Pathan regiments. The casual reference to Churchill’s unattractiveness was purely gratuitous and had nothing to do with the subject of the letter. But it set a tone. In subsequent letters, Roosevelt would miss no opportunity to denigrate Churchill, whether relevant to the correspondence or not.

On September 12, 1906, the now President Roosevelt wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge. Referencing Churchill’s recently published 2-volume biography of his father, Roosevelt commented: “I dislike the father and dislike the son, so I may be prejudiced.” He proceeded to describe both Churchills as “possess[ing] such levity, lack of sobriety, lack of permanent principle, and inordinate thirst for that cheap form of admiration which is given to notoriety, as to make them poor public servants.”[x]  (Lodge responded a few days later, admitting he had not read the biography, but adding that he considered the son “clever but conceited to a degree which it is hard to express either in words or figures.”[xi])

On October 25, 1906, Roosevelt wrote to John St. Loe Strachey, a British journalist and newspaper proprietor. Strachey had asked Roosevelt for his opinion of William Randolph Hearst. Roosevelt replied: “[I]t is a little difficult for me to give you an exact historic judgment about a man whom I so thoroly [sic] dislike and despise as I do Hearst.” He called Hearst “a man without any real principle.” Then, reverting to his favored object of invective, Roosevelt added: “But when I have said this, after all, I am not at all sure that I am saying much more of Hearst than could probably be said … about both Winston Churchill and his father, Lord Randolph.”[xii] Although the subject was Hearst, Roosevelt could not resist bringing up Churchill.

For Roosevelt, it wasn’t enough to express his distaste for Churchill himself. He also expressed his distaste for those who admired Churchill. On November 14, 1906, Roosevelt wrote to Lodge again, this time attacking Archibald Primrose, the fifth Earl of Rosebery. The former Prime Minister’s sin was praising Winston Churchill’s biography of his father as “remarkable.” Roosevelt indignantly referenced Rosebery’s “lack of sense or proportion.”[xiii]

On May 23, 1908, Roosevelt wrote to his son Theodore Jr., then a student at Harvard. Young Theodore had just read Churchill’s biography of Lord Randolph and wanted to know his father’s opinion. Roosevelt answered: “Yes, that is an interesting book of Winston Churchill’s about his father, but I can’t help feeling about both of them that the older one was a rather cheap character, and the younger one is a rather cheap character.” (Underlining in original.)[xiv]

On November 6, 1908, the lame duck President Roosevelt wrote to British historian George Otto Trevelyan about the recent election of his then friend (and later opponent) William Howard Taft to succeed him. After discussing his post-White House plans, Roosevelt turned to history and once again attacked Rosebery, this time for the way “he speaks of Winston Churchill’s clever, forceful, rather cheap and vulgar life of that clever, forceful, rather cheap and vulgar egoist, his father.”[xv]

In January 1909, when Roosevelt received Churchill’s gift of his African Journey, he was taken aback.  He admired the account but he didn’t like the author. So he dashed off a short thank you note to the donor (in which he expressed the hope that he “shall have as good luck as you had”),[xvi] and forwarded it to Ambassador Reid, with this cover: “I do not like Winston Churchill but I suppose I ought to write him. Will you send him the enclosed letter if it is all right?”[xvii]

Time did not moderate Roosevelt’s hostility.

September 10, 1909 found the former President at the foot of Mount Kenya, during the hunt in which he hoped to match Churchill’s luck. In a letter to Lodge and his wife, handwritten in pencil, Roosevelt described the American influence on British colonial reading habits. “Among the novels I see in the houses no English ones are more common than for instance, David Harum, or Winston Churchill’s – I mean, of course our Winston Churchill, Winston Churchill the gentleman.”[xviii] Roosevelt’s reference to “Winston Churchill the gentleman” was to the popular New Hampshire novelist, whose books were widely read and whose political career Roosevelt supported. The implication that the English Winston Churchill was not a gentleman is consistent with Roosevelt’s earlier references to Churchill as “unattractive” and “cheap.”

Following his African tour, Roosevelt traveled to Europe, where he met with a long parade of prominent royal, political, and intellectual figures. But the parade was not long enough to include Winston Churchill, who had been appointed Home Secretary in February 1910. On June 4, Roosevelt wrote to Lodge: “I have had a most amusing and interesting time here, but, literally there hasn’t been a five minutes free…. I have refused to meet Winston Churchill, being able to avoid causing any scandal by doing so.”[xix]

On October 1, 1911, Roosevelt reminisced about his African adventure in a long letter to Trevelyan. Discussing his visit to Khartoum, he described how the white settlers in British East Africa hoped that he would speak sympathetically about them when he traveled on to England. Then he added: “They had hoped much from Winston Churchill’s visit, but for various reasons most of them had disliked him ….”[xx] This of course was Roosevelt projecting his own enmity toward Churchill onto the local English community.

On October 5, 1911, in a letter to the playwright David Gray, Roosevelt described his experience as a special ambassador to the funeral of King Edward the previous year. “I dislike Winston Churchill and would not meet him,” he recounted, “but I was anxious to meet both Lloyd George and John Burns, and I took a real fancy to both of them.”[xxi]

On August 22, 1914, shortly after hostilities had erupted, Roosevelt wrote to Arthur Hamilton Lee, the British politician and soldier. Just as when he received Churchill’s African Journey, Roosevelt was in a bind. It was painful for Roosevelt to say anything positive about Churchill but the situation called for doing so.

Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, had had the foresight to mobilize the fleet before war broke out, much as Roosevelt himself had ordered Admiral Dewey to prepare to attack the Spanish Fleet on the eve of the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt, perhaps gritting his teeth, wrote: “I have never liked Winston Churchill, but in view of what you tell me as to his admirable conduct and nerve in mobilizing the fleet, I do wish that if it comes in your way you would extend to him my congratulations on his action.” To assure that his rare compliment did not gain publicity, he added: “It must be strictly confidential, of course.”[xxii]

The evidence, taken as a whole, contradicts the verdict of Alice Roosevelt and some historians that this was a case of “likes repelling.”

First, the “repelling” was completely one-sided. Theodore Roosevelt was thoroughly repelled by Winston Churchill. After the dinner, he seems to have been determined to make sure that everyone knew how much he disliked Churchill. But nothing suggests that Winston Churchill was repelled by Roosevelt. After the dinner, Churchill simply didn’t think about Roosevelt very much, and when he did think about him, he seems to have just assumed that all was well between them.[xxiii]

Second, Roosevelt and Churchill were hardly “likes.” Granted both were sportsmen born into upper class families, and both pursued political careers. But they were markedly different in age, experience, and family ties. Roosevelt grew up in a warm, loving home, raised by parents who adored him. Churchill was largely ignored by his parents; any warmth he received growing up came from his nanny, Mrs. Everest. Roosevelt favored athletic endeavors that involved close physical contact, such as boxing and wrestling. Churchill stayed a polo mallet’s length away from his competitors.

If this were not a case of “likes repelling,” then what accounts for Roosevelt’s hostility?

As his correspondence with Major Pond shows, Roosevelt was anxious to meet Churchill. When the 26-year old Churchill showed up for dinner, Roosevelt doubtless expected a certain degree of deference from the younger man.

For all his progressive political inclinations. Roosevelt was deeply conservative in his views on social propriety and decorum. If one were a gentleman, one behaved in a certain way. Roosevelt rode, worked, and endured hardships as well as the lowliest ranch hand in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory.

But it was understood that when he slept in his cabin, the ranch hands were to move their mattresses up to the loft because the “boss” had to have the downstairs to himself. Similarly, the neighboring ranchers were expected to address him as “Mr. Roosevelt,” even if they were wealthy enough to consider themselves his equal. Nobody called him “Roosevelt” and certainly no one called him “Teddy.”[xxiv]

But the brash young visitor had no time for such niceties. If Roosevelt was ruled by his views of social etiquette, Churchill was constrained by his views of his mortality. He believed he had only a short time to live. His father had died at the age 45. His father’s sisters died at the ages of 45 and 51, and their brother died at 48. Churchill did not expect to live much beyond the 42 years of his dinner host.[xxv]

Churchill was not inclined to defer to Roosevelt’s seniority because he did not expect to live long enough to enjoy such seniority of his own.

So one diner appeared that evening expecting deference, and the other diner arrived demanding equality. We can imagine a dinner conversation marred by the incongruity. Roosevelt is accustomed to dominating the conversation. But young Churchill believes he has just as much wisdom to impart, and refuses to yield the floor. Roosevelt wants to talk about his charge up the San Juan Heights. Churchill tries to cut him short so that he can orate on Omdurman. They both consider themselves experts on Indian affairs – although they have in mind Indians of different continents.

For Churchill, the evening’s give-and-take must have been great fun. He probably drank and talked a good deal, as was his wont. More likely than not, he left Albany happy with his performance, and confident that his merry self-assurance had made a positive impression on his older and more accomplished host. In the future, he would just assume that Roosevelt would welcome the chance to read his book on hunting. Why wouldn’t he? After all, they had had such a good time that night at dinner!

But for Roosevelt, the evening must have been one long infuriating ordeal. The brash younger Englishman did not behave as he was supposed to. Rather than conducting himself like a gentleman, he behaved like a showman. He spoke when he should have listened. He interrupted when he should have deferred. How cheap!  How conceited! How insufferable! He was not an attractive dinner guest and would never be welcome at his table again.

And so the two giants of history met for dinner and parted ways, each left with a different aftertaste.

Lawrence J. Siskind is of counsel at Coblenz Patch Duffy & Bass LLP in San Francisco, where he specializes in intellectual property law.

[i] Andrew Roberts, in Churchill: Walking with Destiny, devotes three sentences to the event and its aftermath. (p. 78) William Manchester gives it one half of one sentence in his Churchill biography The Last Lion. (p. 331)  The dinner does not even merit a mention in Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

[ii] Richard Langworth, Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, Finest Hour 163, Summer 2015 (February 8, 2015).

[iii] Robert H. Pilpel, Churchill in America 1895 – 1961, p. 38.

[iv] The Churchill Archives, December 21, 1900 Letter from Winston Churchill to Jennie Churchill, CHAR 28/26/77-79.

[v] Richard Langworth, op. cit.

[vi] The Churchill Archives, December 8, 1908 Letter from Whitelaw Reid to Winston Churchill, CHAR 2/36/33.

[vii] Richard Langworth, op.cit.

[viii] The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. II, The Years of Preparation 1898 – 1900, p. 1454.

[ix] The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. III, The Square Deal 1901 – 1903, pp. 116 – 117.

[x] Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge 1884 – 1918, Vol. II, pp. 231 -232.

[xi] Id., at 232.

[xii] The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. V, The Big Stick 1905 – 1907, p. 468.

[xiii] Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge 1884 – 1918, Vol. II, pp. 260 -261.

[xiv] The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. VI, The Big Stick 1905 – 1907, p. 1034. A carbon copy of the letter is in the Theodore Roosevelt Collection in the Library of Congress in Washington DC. The staff kindly made the carbon copy available to the author. It shows the underlining.

[xv] Id., at p. 1329.

[xvi] The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. VI, The Big Stick 1905 – 1907, p. 1467.

[xvii] Id., at p. 1465.

[xviii] Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge 1884 – 1918, Vol. II, p. 349.

[xix] The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Vol. VII, The Days of Armageddon 1909 – 1914, p. 87.

[xx] Id., at p. 350.

[xxi] Id., at p. 406.

[xxii] Id., at p. 810.

[xxiii] Churchill had a habit of forgetting people, and two of them were Roosevelts. On July 29, 1918, during World War I, Churchill met the Assistant Secretary of the US Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, at a dinner in London. Twenty-three years later, on August 9, 1941, during World War II, the two men met again in Placentia Bay near the shore of Newfoundland. Franklin Roosevelt noted that the two had met before during the Great War, and referred to it as one of his “treasured recollections.” Churchill admitted that the event “had slipped his memory.” Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking With Destiny, p. 673.Fortunately for the cause of Allied cooperation, this particular President Roosevelt was not as easily offended as the earlier one.

[xxiv] Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p. 331.

[xxv] Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking With Destiny, p. 31.


I am thinking of buying this myself


In January 1902, the Duke of Marlborough wrote to his first cousin Winston Churchill, describing a court ball he had attended in St Petersburg. Marlborough was astonished by the anachronistic grandeur in which the Tsar of All the Russias appeared to be trapped. He described Nicholas II as a ‘nice and amiable man who tries to play the proper part of an autocrat’.

The reception was worthy of Versailles in all its ostentatious glory. ‘Supper was served for nearly three thousand people. The effect of this spectacle of so many people sitting down at the same time is difficult to describe. The scale on which it is carried out can only be estimated when I remind you that there were some two thousand servants in all to wait upon the guests, including Cossacks, Mamelukes and runners [footmen] like those we have heard of in eighteenth century England with huge ostrich-feather hats on their heads. A regimental band is stationed in every room, so as to play the national anthem wherever the Czar may go . . . There was another guard of honour whose duty apparently was to hold their swords at attention for five consecutive hours.’

When Marlborough’s young wife, Consuelo Vanderbilt, asked the Tsar at a subsequent dinner about the possibility of introducing democratic government in Russia, he replied: ‘We are two hundred years behind Europe in the development of our national political institutions. Russia is still more Asiatic than European and must therefore be governed by an autocratic government.’

Marlborough was also struck by the idiosyncrasies of the Guards regiments which dominated the military system. ‘The Grand Duke Vladimir, who is the head of a portion of the army, has the recruits brought up before him. Those men who possess snub noses go into the Pavlovsky Regiment, which was created by the Emperor Paul, who possessed a snub nose.’

Like the court, the Imperial Russian Army was ossified by archaic etiquette, protocol and bureaucracy. Captain Archie Wavell, the future field marshal but then a young officer in the Black Watch, observed when on attachment there just before the First World War that even officers of field rank were afraid of showing initiative. ‘An example of the conservatism of the Russian Army,’ he added, ‘was their custom of invariably carrying the bayonet fixed on the rifle at all times.’ This dated back to an order of Marshal Suvorov in the late eighteenth century after a Russian column was surprised in an ambush and wiped out.

Russian officers regarded it as disgraceful ever to be seen out of uniform. A dragoon captain who quizzed Wavell on the customs of the British Army could not believe that their officers wore civilian clothes off duty and did not carry swords in public. He jumped to his feet, scandalised. ‘But people will not be afraid of you,’ he blurted out. A Tsarist officer had the right to punch any of his soldiers in the face as a summary punishment.

Wavell was not surprised that the Russian intelligentsia regarded their rulers ‘as bureaucratic oppressors; they mistrusted the police and despised the army’. After the humiliating disasters of the Russo–Japanese War of 1904–5 and the massacre of Father Georgy Gapon’s peaceful protest march to the Winter Palace in January 1905, respect for the regime and the armed forces had disintegrated. ‘Russia swung to the left overnight,’ wrote Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, under her nom de plume of ‘Teffi’. ‘There was unrest among the students, there were strikes among the workers. Even old generals could be heard snorting about the disgraceful way the country was being run and making sharp criticisms of the Tsar himself.’


In exchange for its great privileges, the nobility was supposed to provide its sons as officers for the army and the bureaucracy in St Petersburg. The 30,000 landowners were meanwhile expected to maintain order over the countryside through local ‘land captains’.

The liberation of the serfs in 1861 had done little to improve their desperate lot. ‘Our peasantry lives in horrible conditions, lacking properly organised medical care,’ wrote Maksim Gorky. ‘Half of all peasant children die of various diseases before the age of five. Almost all the women in the village suffer from women’s diseases. The villages are rotting with syphilis; the villages have sunk into destitution, ignorance and savagery.’ The women also suffered from the violence of their men, usually when drunk.

Any idea of the sturdy Russian peasant forming part of an irresistible military steamroller was an illusion. Roughly three out of four young peasants were rejected in peacetime on the grounds of ill health. Officers complained of the quality of conscripts arriving during the First World War. In the Second Army, a report stated, ‘It is deplorable and quite common that lower ranks inflict wounds on themselves to avoid combat. There are also a lot of cases of surrendering to the enemy.’ It described them as ‘just ordinary muzhiks . . . They stare in front of them in an indifferent, stupid and gloomy way. They are not in the habit of looking back cheerfully and merrily into their commander’s eyes.’ Evidently, the Russian peasant in uniform adopted the tactic which the British Army used to define as ‘dumb insolence’.


Even enlightened members of the gentry and aristocracy feared the ‘dark masses’ and their occasional explosions of terrifying violence, like that of 1773 led by Yemelyan Pugachev. Aleksandr Pushkin described it as ‘Russian revolt, senseless and merciless’. In the wave of unrest and manor-burnings in 1905 which followed the disasters of the Japanese war, the only hope of landowners was to appeal to the local governor to call out troops from one of the many garrison towns.

Karl Marx’s notorious remark in the Communist Manifesto about ‘the idiocy of rural life’, with its implication of credulity, apathy and submission, was also true beyond the peasant village. Small provincial towns could be almost as stultifying. Satirists such as Saltykov-Shchedrin and Gogol peered beneath the murky surface of the stagnant pond. It was Saltykov, ironically a favourite author of Lenin, who also invoked ‘the devastating effect of legalised slavery upon the human psyche’, a phenomenon common to both Tsarist and Soviet eras. Leon Trotsky blamed the mental straitjacket of the Orthodox Church. He argued that revolution could never come until the people broke with ‘the icons and cockroaches’ of Holy Russia.

Attempts at land reform achieved results only in certain areas. Unlike that great magnate of the nineteenth century, Count Dmitry Sheremetev, who owned 1.9 million acres (763,000 hectares) with approximately 300,000 serfs, most estates were small and impoverished. Even if they had wanted to, very few landowners could afford to improve housing conditions or introduce the most basic form of mechanisation. Instead, many were compelled to sell or mortgage their properties. Relations became increasingly artificial and tense. The poorer peasants remained victims of illiteracy, which meant that they were exploited by both village elders and corn merchants, and also mistreated by many landowners, still resentful of their loss of power. As a result, obsequious tenants, bowing to their noble masters, would take any opportunity to cheat them as soon as their backs were turned.

Migration to the cities accelerated the growth of the urban working class, the proletariat which Marxists saw as the vanguard of the revolution. From little more than a million inhabitants at the turn of the century, the population of St Petersburg rose to more than 3 million by the end of 1916. Conditions in factories were appalling and dangerous. Workers were regarded as expendable by the owners since so many peasants were waiting to take their place. There was no right to strike, and no compensation for dismissal. In the case of any dispute, the police always sided with the factory owners.

Many saw it as serfdom in the city. The workers slept in galleried barracks, doss-houses and tenements amid squalor and disease. ‘There are no sewage systems in the cities,’ wrote Gorky, ‘there are no flues in factory chimneys; the open ground has been poisoned by the miasma of rotting refuse, the air – by smoke and dust.’

In such overcrowded conditions, tuberculosis and venereal diseases spread alongside occasional epidemics of cholera and typhus. Life expectancy was as low as in the poorest villages. The only freedom lay in the lowest circle of hell inhabited by the lumpen proletariat of the unemployed – a subterranean world of child prostitution, petty theft and drunken fights, an existence worse than anything depicted by Dickens, Hugo or Zola. The only disaster which could make life even worse for the poor in Russia was a major European conflict.

The Suicide of Europe 1912–1916

The pace of industrial growth in Russia before the First World War produced a heady over-confidence among its ruling classes. The disastrous conflict with Japan just under a decade before was forgotten. The war party in St Petersburg became more vociferous, demanding an attack on Turkey after it closed the Dardanelles in 1912. Even the formerly cautious foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, was outraged at the way Russia had been treated by the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires over the First Balkan War.

So, when Vienna issued its ultimatum to Serbia following the assassination in June 1914 of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Sazonov asked the chief of the general staff to prepare the army for war. He told the Tsar that if Russia failed to support its fellow Slavs in Serbia, it would constitute a fatal humiliation. Nicholas II felt obliged to concede to the calls for the first stage of partial mobilisation, but then army commanders insisted that if Russia mobilised against the Austro-Hungarian armies, Russian forces would have to mobilise all along the central and northern fronts against the Germans.

The imperial family’s counsellor and faith healer, Grigory Rasputin, was absent from the capital. That fateful summer, he had returned home to Siberia, where he received news of the rush to war in a telegram from the Tsarina. He set out immediately to send a reply to advise the Tsar to resist the pressure, but a peasant woman waylaid him, stabbing him in the stomach. She was a follower of Iliodor, a former priest who had turned against him, denouncing him as a lecher and a false prophet.

Rasputin nearly died and was incapacitated in hospital. When he regained consciousness and heard that mobilisation had been ordered, he insisted on sending the telegram which warned that war would destroy both Russia and the Romanovs. This final chance of persuading the Tsar to stand up against the belligerents all around him arrived too late, but it would probably have made little difference.

The fear of the Russian general staff that the Central Powers could mobilise more rapidly was not the main factor in the escalation to war. That had come from the Austrian determination to crush Serbia before the major European powers could step in. Germany refused to stop them. General Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of the German general staff, even urged the Austrians to ignore any plea for moderation from his own government and push on with their attack. Diplomacy and royal connections stood little chance. War was indeed too important to be left to the generals, as the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau was soon to observe.


Once war had been declared, things could only go from bad to worse for the ‘grey mass’ of Russian peasant-soldiers. Altogether 15,300,000 men would be called up into the army and navy. After the defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg and then the infamous ‘Great Retreat’ in 1915, following the German victory of Gorlice-Tarnów (just southeast of Kraków), bitterness and suspicion of treason at court set in among officers as well as soldiers. Talk of ‘the German stranglehold’ soon began, partly because so many generals had names of Teutonic or Scandinavian origin. But most cursed the German Tsarina and her camarilla dominated by their éminence grise, Rasputin. The dissolute monk interfered with shameless corruption in appointments once the Tsar unwisely decided to assume the supreme command of the armies at the Stavka, the supreme headquarters in Mogilev.

Trench life for Russian soldiers along the whole front running through the Baltic provinces, Poland, Belarus, Galicia and Romania was an inhuman experience. ‘Having dug themselves into the ground,’ wrote Maksim Gorky, ‘they live in rain and snow, in filth, in cramped conditions; they are being worn out by disease and eaten by vermin; they live like beasts.’ Desperately short of ammunition, many lacked boots and had to resort to bast shoes made from birch bark. Casualty clearing stations at the front were almost as primitive as in the Crimean War.

Attempts to modernise failed disastrously. ‘The most recent technological development has finally reached us,’ Vasily Kravkov, a senior doctor on the staff, wrote bitterly in his diary. ‘That is to say 25,000 gas masks for our corps. They had been tested by the supreme commission chaired by our top “pasha”, the Duke of Oldenburg. I carried out a sort of test by putting gas masks on my medical orderlies. Two minutes later they started to suffocate. And we are supposed to equip everyone in the trenches with that stuff!’

Army censorship departments could have had little illusion about the state of morale at the front on reading soldiers’ letters home. Many complained of being hopelessly outgunned by the German artillery and of the utterly callous attitude of officers towards them. Men were either brutalised or traumatised by what they saw. ‘Corpses are still lying there,’ wrote one in a letter. ‘Ravens have already eaten their eyes and rats are crawling on the bodies. Oh my God, this terrible sight can neither be described or imagined.’

Another wrote about a mass grave which officers had ordered them to dig and fill with their own dead. ‘We collected the bodies from the battlefield, dug a hole that was 30 fathoms long and 4 fathoms deep. We laid them in there, but as it was late, we covered half of the hole with earth and left the other half until the morning. We placed a sentry and it turned out that one of the dead clambered out of the hole at night and was found sitting on the edge of the grave, while some others had been turning, because they hadn’t been killed, just wounded and shocked by explosions of heavy shells. This happens quite often.’

Intense resentment was caused by the contrast in conditions between officers and men. Many officers retired each night to the warmth and relative comfort of peasant izbas behind the front, while their soldiers and sergeants were left in the cold and squalor of the trenches. ‘The ordinary soldier leading the attack for the Motherland is paid 75 kopecks [a month],’ one conscript wrote home. ‘The company commander coming on behind is paid 400 roubles, and the regimental commander who is even further back gets a thousand roubles . . . Some have nice dishes and alcohol and prostitutes under the flag of the Red Cross, while the others are starving.’

The idea that Red Cross nurses were there for the sexual convenience of officers alone was almost obsessive, yet there was a basis of truth. Dr Kravkov, the head of medical services for a whole army corps, recorded how a colleague of his was dismissed. ‘It was very simple. The doctor displayed too much tact and did not succumb to the demands of the headquarters clique to set up a brothel using his nurses . . . This was not unfamiliar to me. I saw this at the Tenth Army and it was one of the reasons for my escape from there.’

Officers offered hard-up women students in Odessa hundreds of roubles for nude pictures of themselves: ‘Please write to me if you are ready to be photographed one more time, with more details,’ wrote one young officer. He then told her that if she visited the regiment she could earn up to a thousand roubles.

While officers cavorted, ordinary soldiers were not allowed to see their wives, even in areas far behind the front. Evdokiya Merkulova, the illiterate young wife of a Cossack in the 9th Independent Don Sotnia did not know the regulations and went to visit her husband in early December 1916. She had the courage to make a formal complaint afterwards about her treatment by his squadron commander. ‘Commander of the sotnia Mikhail Rysakov soon learned about my arrival,’ her dictated testimony ran. ‘I don’t know why, but on 5 December he ordered the sotnia to form up on parade and made me lie face down in front of them. Two Cossacks were ordered to roll up my skirt and undershirt and hold my arms and legs. The commander ordered my husband to whip me fifteen times on my naked body. He personally controlled the execution of the punishment and threatened my husband, saying that the strokes should be applied with full strength, and on the skin rather than clothes. My husband was afraid of his chief and administered bloody strokes that are still healing. I was then sent back across the Don with an escort.’

As cannon-fodder, the peasant-soldier hated the war, the mud, the lice, the bad food and the scurvy. Dr Kravkov despaired of their diet. ‘Another delivery of foodstuffs has arrived, this time from Orenburg,’ he noted in his diary. ‘It consisted of 1,000 poods of hams and sausage, all of it rotten! The whole of our mother Russia is rotting away.’

The rainy season came in October 1916 with a vengeance which disturbed Kravkov. ‘Dr Tolchenov, whom I had dispatched to the positions to investigate the sanitary conditions, gave a hair-raising report on the horrible situation in which our unfortunate soldiers are living: in mud that reaches up to their waist, with no shelter from bad weather, with no warm clothes, hot food or tea.’ Two weeks later he wrote: ‘We received reinforcements, boys that are green behind the ears. They were sent into a bayonet attack on the following day . . . It was a stunning scene when many of them, who did not want to die, cried out in despair: “Mama!”.’ The military authorities suppressed news of mutinies which were ruthlessly put down.

That winter in Petrograd, criticism of the government did not come just from liberals and the Left. Arch-conservatives, such as the politician Vasily Shulgin, were appalled by the irresponsibility of the rich, indifferent to the fact that Russian casualties were running at twice the rate of their German and Austro-Hungarian enemies. ‘And here we are,’ he wrote bitterly, ‘dancing the “last tango” on the breastworks of trenches choked with corpses.’ Shulgin was infuriated by the rumours and conspiracy theories which ran around the capital’s salons, especially the ‘chatter about treason’. He blamed the leader of the Kadet Party, Pavel Milyukov, for his sensational speech when the State Duma reconvened on 1 November. Milyukov’s savage attacks on the Tsar’s ministers astonished those present because he was usually so moderate. Now, he openly denounced ‘occult forces fighting for the benefit of Germany’. To great cheers, after each example of incompetence he hammered in the rhetorical question: ‘And what is this? Stupidity or treason?’

The pervasive corruption in the capital shocked idealistic young officers at the front. ‘Everyone knows that all kinds of swindlers at the establishment of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna arrange safe positions in exchange for bribes,’ a young cavalry officer in the Seventh Army wrote to his fiancée, who wanted to secure a post for him in the rear. ‘But I implore you to not bribe anyone. I want to live and die a nobleman.’

Even firm supporters of the monarchy despaired. The Tsar’s obstinacy stemmed almost entirely from a weak nature. Against all advice, he had insisted on taking over as supreme commander from his cousin, the immensely tall Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, after the disastrous retreats of 1915. Wavell considered the Grand Duke ‘the handsomest and most impressive man I have ever met. He had no great brain power or book knowledge but was full of common sense and character.’ His nephew, Nicholas II, unfortunately lacked both qualities. ‘Autocracy without an autocrat is a terrible thing,’ observed Shulgin.

One of the main reasons the Tsar immersed himself at the Stavka in Mogilev was that he preferred to be surrounded by loyal officers rather than critical politicians. He left the administration of the country to the Tsarina and Rasputin and resolutely refused to appoint a government of ministers from the Duma. Yet his presence at the Mogilev headquarters remained purely symbolic and his entourage made sure that any tours of the front were carefully managed.

‘General Dolgov’s chief of staff told us at dinner, without a trace of irony, about the preparations for the Tsar’s visit,’ Dr Kravkov noted in his diary. ‘All the soldiers were brought back from the trenches, and the night was spent dressing them in brand-new uniforms and equipment. All the artillery was ordered to open fire at the moment the royal visit began, and as he put it, “a true battle scene was staged”. The Tsar was happy and thanked them all, and our brave warrior was decorated with the St. George’s Cross for his successful staging.’

In that winter of 1916, nobody at Mogilev dared tell the Tsar of the rumours in Petrograd. Revolutionary pamphlets about Rasputin had started to appear, such as ‘The Adventures of Grishka’, hinting at orgies with the Tsarina and even her daughters. These pornographic fantasies were reminiscent of those other caricatures more than a century earlier in Paris against Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe. Inevitably, such grotesque stories turned Rasputin, the supposed peasant-debaucher of grandees, into something of a folk hero.

Rasputin’s murder on 17 December by Prince Feliks Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich and Vladimir Purishkevich, the leader of the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds, increased the impression of aristocratic corruption in the capital. The idea of Yusupov using his wife Irina, the beautiful niece of the Tsar, as bait for the lecherous monk added a salacious twist to the drama. The public’s imagination was gripped above all by the difficulties the conspirators had in killing Rasputin, with poisoned cakes and several revolver shots, then finally disposing of his huge body through an ice hole below a bridge so that it was not found for two days.

The profound cynicism which developed in the rear created a dangerous apathy. An officer called Fedulenko, back from the front, was invited by his colonel to a lunch. ‘Two Guards officers were sitting next to us,’ he recorded. ‘They began to talk about Rasputin; I was shocked by their talk.’ They repeated gossip about the Tsarina and Rasputin and said that the Tsar was a weakling. ‘As I was returning to Oranienbaum with the colonel afterwards, I asked why such a filthy thing was allowed, why these two young men who were shaming their Emperor had not been stopped. They had been talking in Russian right in front of the servants who could understand them.’ The colonel made a gesture of resignation with his hand. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘The downfall is already beginning. A horrible time lies ahead.’ Dr Kravkov had no doubts at all. ‘Whatever the outcome of the war, there is going to be a revolution.’