“The Russian Army was eating itself in the final days” – Nick Lloyd on Russia’s WWI defeat

Three times the size of the Western Front, the war in the East saw over 6.5 million killed and set the stage for yet more carnage in the decades to come.

Featured image by Press Illustrating Service/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Nick Lloyd sitting against a grey background. he is wearing a blue suit, with a blue shirt and jeans.
Author and historian Nick Lloyd
(Photo by Rebecca Northway)

Released earlier this year, The Eastern Front is the second book in Nick Lloyd’s First World War trilogy, which began with The Western Front, published in 2021. In this work, Lloyd uncovers what Winston Churchill named the “unknown war”, spanning much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. While reconstructing the front’s story, Lloyd meticulously details battles up to 62 miles (100 km) in length, which led to the collapse of three empires.

Lloyd spoke to History of War about the characteristics of the Eastern Front. He details how its size and mobility created distinct experiences for the men who fought on it while posing unique tactical challenges for commanders. Lloyd then covers how a fragile and tense peace came to the Eastern Front via the Russian Revolution and the Brest-Litovsk and Versailles treaties. The borders drawn in the peacemaking process remain central in understanding Europe’s bloody twentieth century and the current war in Ukraine.

What was the balance of military power in the East during the opening months of the First World War? 

The Eastern Front started in a bizarre way with three main protagonists who didn’t want to fight, although smaller powers came in later. On the traditional Eastern Front, there was the Russian Army, which was the largest, over 4 million men strong. Then, there was the Habsburg Empire, whose armies were split between the Galician main front in the north-eastern corner of the empire bordering Russia, about two million men strong, and the considerable forces against Serbia as well. The German Eighth Army was limited to East Prussia, because when the war began, seven-eighths of the German Army was in France and Belgium on the Western Front. 

A German artillery crew stand next to their mortar concealed in a ditch.
A German mortar in position near Predeal, Transylvania, Romania, 1916.
(Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The war in the East started out with nobody wanting to fight. The Germans had massed their troops in the West to win a decisive victory there. The Hapsburg Empire wanted to fight against Serbia to quash its troublesome Balkan neighbour and they didn’t want to fight the Russians. The Russians didn’t want to engage the Germans because they were wary of German strength and wanted to focus on the Austrians. 

Related: How the Bloody ‘May Coup’ Set Serbia on the Path to World War I

What were the environmental characteristics of the Eastern Front?

The Eastern Front is challenging from a geographical perspective. It ranges from deep, almost primaeval forests in the Baltic and Poland. Then, the Carpathian Mountains have snowy, difficult, hilly conditions. Further on are the plains of western Ukraine and Bielorussia. There is a sense from the German soldiers that fight there that it is like going back in time and the vastness of the East has a profound impact on them. 

Men on the Eastern Front also had to tackle environmental challenges, particularly when fighting in severe winter conditions. We see this in accounts from the Carpathian Mountains in the winter of 1915, where there was heavy fighting. Men underwent terrible conditions, thawing out rifles, moving on sleds and fighting without artillery because the guns couldn’t be brought up. In parts of the East, there would only be a handful of guns for a mile. 

Conditions across all armies were appalling, with men having to fight in cotton jackets in the depths of winter, but there was some variation. The Austrians were not equipped for winter warfare and the Russians tended to be hardier. Deaths from hypothermia and exposure were commonplace. There was one instance where a whole Austrian regiment walked over to the Russians and gave up because they’d had enough. 

What do you think accounts for the comparatively cruel treatment of civilians on the Eastern Front?

There was some bad treatment of Belgian civilians on the Western Front working in factories in impressed labour, but that was nothing like the horrors in the East. Once the Eastern Front moved, there was an unravelling of the ethnic makeup of the states, particularly in Poland, Ukraine, and Austria-Hungary.

Both powers used the war to settle old scores and envisage new forms of order after the war. That rapidly turned into elements of ethnic cleansing and the Jews tended to be the first victims of the retreating Russian armies. They viewed the Jews as being pro-German or Austrian, so they looked at them with suspicion. The Russians often packed Jewish people off into long Refugee columns and there were scattered pogroms. 

Then, when the Austrians advanced into the Russian Empire, they encountered ethnic groups that they tried to use to undermine Russia by offering them independence. Russia was doing the same thing, promising that they could free certain ethnic groups from the Central Powers. Ethnic groups gaining quasi-independence was a huge problem for the Tsar’s forces because it threatened to unravel the empire, so they reacted by uprooting populations from areas where they could come under Austrian influence.

This intertwined with the Great Retreat of 1915, where the Russian army used scorched earth tactics, burning villages. The Eastern Front never got to the Ottoman levels of genocide against the Armenians, but it was nasty and got worse as the war went on. When the Eastern Front intensified, the stakes got higher and populations found themselves in the middle of different forces. They had to predict who was going to win and offer their loyalty accordingly. 

The Russians also tried to bring further populations under the influence of Russian culture. When they moved into Ukraine, they embarked on Russification. They removed Ukrainian speakers, changed road signs to Russian and insisted Ukrainian wasn’t taught in schools, which was a similar process to what is happening today. 

How did the revolution impact Russia’s ability to fight?

Lots has been written about the revolution and historians tend to be interested in the politics with the war as a backdrop. I came at it from the other angle, interested in the war and how the revolution had a catastrophic effect on it. It was really fascinating to see in the second half of the book how the Eastern Front and Russian Army just dissolved.

Tsar Nicholas II and his entourage ride horses past Russian troops standing to attention.
Nicholas II visits his troops in preparation for the Brusilov Offensive (1916)
(Photo by ullstein bild Dtl. / Getty Images)

Russia gradually deteriorated as the war went on, although they managed to revive themselves early in 1916 and crack the Austrian Army. Yet, the winter and autumn of 1916 was when they began to decline in morale. At that point, there was a scandal with Rasputin and the generals lost confidence in the Tsar. With growing disorder in Petrograd, they felt that they had to make a stand and the army completely fell apart after the revolution. The death of the Eastern Front is fascinating, bewildering and farcical because the Russian Army was eating itself in the final days of Tsarist Russia and the new revolutionary state. What was interesting in writing the book was following that story through because the Eastern Front didn’t end in 1917, but in 1918. 

Related: For Tsar and Country: Britain’s Role in the Russian Civil War

What I found particularly fascinating was that the generals and leaders at the top of Tsarist Russia, one of the most stratified societies in history, saw their Army dissolving around them and they couldn’t understand the bewildering sense of chaos as 1917 went on. There were men like Mikhail Alekseyev who had to plead with private soldiers in person to fight on. The generals kept trying to attack, hoping that victory would pull everything together, and when this didn’t work, the Army disappeared around them. It got to a strange situation where generals packed their bags and drove back to Moscow while the state fell to pieces around them, meaning they didn’t really have a home to go back to.

With that came the strange end of the Eastern Front because it didn’t really end despite the Brest-Litovsk treaty. Germany still had to deal with chaos in the East and keep millions of men there to exploit its resources, morphing into another type of war. As soon as the ink on the Brest-Litovsk treaty was dry, the Bolsheviks began working on ways to undermine it. Ludendorff was a black-and-white individual. He had won in the East but couldn’t work out why the Bolsheviks weren’t accepting defeat. Instead, they were flooding Ludendorff’s lines with propaganda. 

Follow Nick Lloyd on X. To read our full interview with Lloyd, pick up issue 132 of History of War.