The fifth and final volume of Winston Churchill’s “remarkable” series, The World Crisis: The Eastern Front tells a gritty, true-to-life account of the combat in eastern Europe—written by someone whose decisions had a profound impact on the success of war efforts both in the East and in the West (Jon Meacham).
While the battle for modern civilization was being fought on the Western Front during World War I, an equally important war—with equally high stakes—was being fought on the Eastern Front, between Russia, Germany, and Germany’s Austrian allies.
It’s rare that a historical account of World War I documents in as much detail the events of the Eastern Front as those of the West. Churchill’s account was one of the first to do so, telling the story of an armed conflict that was shockingly dissimilar from its counterpart in the West.
“Whether as a statesman or an author, Churchill was a giant; and The World Crisis towers over most other books about the Great War.” —David Fromkin, author of A Peace to End All Peace
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About the Author
Over a sixty-four-year span, Churchill published over forty books, many multi-volume definitive accounts of historical events to which he was a witness and participant. All are beautifully written and as accessible and relevant today as when first published.
During his fifty-year political career, Churchill served twice as Prime Minister in addition to other prominent positions—including President of the Board of Trade, First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Home Secretary. In the 1930s, Churchill was one of the first to recognize the danger of the rising Nazi power in Germany and to campaign for rearmament in Britain. His leadership and inspired broadcasts and speeches during World War II helped strengthen British resistance to Adolf Hitler—and played an important part in the Allies’ eventual triumph.
One of the most inspiring wartime leaders of modern history, Churchill was also an orator, a historian, a journalist, and an artist. All of these aspects of Churchill are fully represented in this collection of his works.
Read an Excerpt
THE DUSK OF HAPSBURG
If for a space we obliterate from our minds the fighting in France and Flanders, the struggle upon the Eastern Front is incomparably the greatest war in history. In its scale, in its slaughter, in the exertions of the combatants, in its military kaleidoscope, it far surpasses by magnitude and intensity all similar human episodes.
It is also the most mournful conflict of which there is record. All three empires, both sides, victors and vanquished, were ruined. All the Emperors or their successors were slain or deposed. The Houses of Romanov, Hapsburg and Hohenzollern woven over centuries of renown into the texture of Europe were shattered and extirpated. The structure of three mighty organisms built up by generations of patience and valour and representing the traditional groupings of noble branches of the European family, was changed beyond all semblance. These pages recount dazzling victories and defeats stoutly made good. They record the toils, perils, sufferings and passions of millions of men. Their sweat, their tears, their blood bedewed the endless plain. Ten million homes awaited the return of the warriors. A hundred cities prepared to acclaim their triumphs. But all were defeated; all were stricken; everything that they had given was given in vain. The hideous injuries they inflicted and bore, the privations they endured, the grand loyalties they exemplified, all were in vain. Nothing was gained by any. They floundered in the mud, they perished in the snowdrifts, they starved in the frost. Those that survived, the veterans of countless battle-days, returned, whether with the laurels of victory or tidings of disaster, to homes engulfed already in catastrophe.
We may make our pictures of this front from Napoleon's campaigns. Hard and sombre war; war of winter; bleak and barren regions; long marches forward and back again under heavy burdens; horses dying in the traces; wounded frozen in their own blood; the dead uncounted, unburied; the living pressed again into the mill. Eylau; Aspern; Wagram; Borodino; The Beresina — all the sinister impressions of these names revive, divested of their vivid flash of pomp, and enlarged to a hideous size. Here all Central Europe tore itself to pieces and expired in agony, to rise again, unrecognizable.
In earlier volumes I have traced the remorseless growth of those antagonisms which in the last quarter of the nineteenth century converted Europe into an armed camp, and into two great systems of alliances upon whose equipoise the peace of the world was uncertainly founded. But this long process was studied and described primarily from the standpoint of the Western powers, and centred upon the abiding quarrel between France and Germany and the attitude of Great Britain thereto. We now re-ascend the streams of history to those sources of the World War which arose in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe. Even if Germany and France had never been rivals and enemies, or if England had never been estranged by Germany, the fountain-heads of wrath in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Balkan States would sooner or later have overflowed in a deluge of war. Without these eastern sources of trouble the mighty Western powers might have long dwelt in the sunshine of peace and progress. It was the fatal confluence of two powerful separate and self-moving sets of antagonisms that alone rendered possible the supreme catastrophe; and it was the course of events in the east that fixed the fatal hour.
The states and peoples of central and south-eastern Europe lay upon its broad expanses in the confusion left from ancient wars. The old battlefields were cumbered with the bones of bygone warriors, and the flags and trophies of far-off victories, and over them brooded the memories of many a cruel oppression and many a perished cause. In the main the empire of the Hapsburgs and the states of the Balkan Peninsula sate amid the ruins of centuries of struggle with the invading, proselytizing, devastating Turk. Here, long after they had ebbed and ceased in the west, the tides of warlike Islam had finally been dammed. After long-drawn struggles the Danube was liberated. For a while the Ottoman power reigned over the Christian races of the Balkans, and even in its decrepitude held them in a withering grip. One by one, aided mainly by Russia, these fierce races, hammered hard upon the anvil of Turkish misrule, shook themselves free; until finally the Turkish power was broken for ever. Roumania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece, relieved from the curse of bondage for five hundred years, stood erect, and gazed upon each other almost immediately with eyes of keen malevolence and rivalry. Each of them remembered that at one time or another the hegemony of the Balkans had been hers; and all began to gather up the tangled, severed threads of their conflicting national histories.
First among the champions of Christendom stood the empire of the Czars. If Austrian and Hungarian chivalry had stemmed the Turkish invasions, it was Russia who for two centuries had advanced upon Turkey, inspired to the deliverance of kindred races still in bondage, and impelled by other motives towards Constantinople and the warm, open waters of the Mediterranean. The feud between Russia and Turkey was as old and as deadly as that between France and Germany. But whereas Russia, animated by Peter and Catherine and other famous Romanov sovereigns, had waxed continually, the Ottoman power had waned and set. From the fourteenth to the eighteenth century the peril and preoccupation of central and eastern Europe was Turkish strength. During the nineteenth its danger was Turkish weakness.
The final retreat of invading armies, the freeing of virile races and wide domains, the decay and disappearance of a common foe, gradually relaxed or destroyed the bonds which had long united the races of the Dual Monarchy. The necessities which had induced the Teutons, Czechs, Magyars and Slavs to form a joint empire for security had stood the strain of a succession of disastrous wars and civil wars. As the external enemy faded and died, the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire began to fall to pieces. Like the liberated states of the Balkans, the four constituent peoples of the Danubian plains began to think again for themselves about their past and their future. Hungary had in revolt and revolution almost torn herself away in 1848. Caught and crushed by Russian armies pouring through the passes of the Carpathians, she was led back captive by the Czar and chained once more to the throne of his brother Emperor. It was upon an orgy of blood and executions that the youthful Francis Joseph entered upon his long and fatal reign. Bohemia in the general resurgence of nationalism which marked the close of the nineteenth century fretted, chafed and struggled in the Austrian net. Perhaps she might have been reconciled if the Dual had become a Triple Crown. But this neither Francis Joseph nor Hungary would concede.
To the southward the problems of the Empire were even more acute. The southern Slavs lay astride the Imperial frontiers. The core of the race was in Serbia, but large numbers of Slavonic folk dwelt north of the Danube and in the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The sentiment and tradition of all the southern Slavs turned towards Serbia as to a magnet, and through Serbia far back across the ages to the once great Serb empire of Stephan Dushan. To revivify those glories and reunite the lands and peoples now sundered, became the persisting ambition of the Serbian people from the moment they had shaken off the Turkish yoke. This hardy warlike stock, 'the Prussians of the Balkans,' whose teeth were whetted in centuries of unrecorded ferocious struggles with the Sultan's troops, respected nothing that stood in their way. Reckless of consequences to themselves or others, fearing naught and enduring all, they pursued their immense design through the terrors and miseries of Armageddon, and have, in fact, achieved their purpose at its close.
All these disruptive forces were actively and increasingly at work within the Empire in the latter part of the last century. The progress of the western world, the advance of democratic ideas, the imperative necessity for universal education, the adoption of representative and Parliamentary institutions upon a wide franchise, the requirements of compulsory military service, all tended to aggravate the stresses. So long as education was a privilege gained with difficulty by the ardent few, questions of language and history were not disturbing; but when mixed populations and mingled religions took their obligatory seats in millions at the desks, every classroom, every curriculum in every village school became an arena. There was not in the declining Empire any force equal to that which has imposed throughout all innumerable national schools of the United States one single language and one universal secularism. Each race in the Dual Monarchy indulged its separatist tendencies to the full, and reviving ancient, even long-forgotten tongues, used these as weapons in ever-extending hostilities.
Vain to assemble such contrary elements in an Empire Parliament house. Vain to suppose that the processes and amenities of English House of Commons procedure would afford expression to such bitter divergencies. Parliaments can only flourish when fundamentals are agreed or at least accepted by the great majority of all parties. In the Parliaments of the Hapsburgs bands of excited deputies sat and howled at each other by the hour in rival languages, accompanying their choruses with the ceaseless slamming of desks which eventually by a sudden crescendo swelled into a cannonade. All gave rein to hatred; and all have paid for its indulgence with blood and tears.
These racial manifestations and their allied, though not coincident socialistic and proletarian tendencies were viewed with gnawing anxiety by the cultured, privileged, land-owning aristocracy, by the numerous hierarchies of officials and by the military classes upon whom the defence of property, the cohesion of the Empire and the maintenance of the monarchy depended. Three or four Irelands, at once Sinn Fein and socialistic, brawled together and wrenched at the structure of the Empire, while the powerful governing classes whose safety and prosperity were wrapt in its survival, watched the scene with wrath, fear and perplexity. Thus the twentieth century dawned upon the sixty million persons over whom the weary, stricken, tragic, octogenarian heir of the ages and their curses continued for a space to reign.
The spectacle of Turkish decrepitude, of Balkan ambitions and Austrian decay would not be complete without the Polish dream. While along the Danube the centrifugal forces gathered momentum, the centripetal preserved an undying energy on both sides of the Vistula. Here lay the famous kingdom of Poland, for one hundred and thirty years partitioned between the three military empires which surrounded it, but treasuring always the hope of freedom and reunion and capable of shaking to their very vitals every one of its three devourers. Deep hidden in the vaults of Warsaw reposed the old banners of the Polish nation. Helpless in the talons of the three Imperial eagles, closely woven into the texture of the three proud armies, liable at any moment to be marched against each other in compulsory fratricidal strife, twenty or thirty million Poles awaited the day when amid the ruins of Empires, their hidden flags would once again salute the daylight. Here too was a dream which has not failed.
The creaking and straining system of the Dual Monarchy revolved ponderously around the person of the aged Emperor. Francis Joseph had ascended his throne in 1848 amid executions, martial law and the rigorous suppression of revolt. He had sustained every kind of public tribulation and domestic tragedy. His brother the Emperor Maximilian had been executed in Mexico by a rebel firing party. His only son Rudolf, heir to the throne, had perished tragically in 1889. His wife had been stabbed through the heart on a jetty at Geneva by an Italian anarchist. He had never declared a foreign war he did not lose, nor bent himself to a domestic policy which was not evidently failing. In 1859 the fields of Solferino and Magenta had stripped him of north Italy. In 1866 the battle of Sadowa had transferred the hegemony of Germany from Austria to Prussia. Hungary against whom he had warred with severity asserted a challenging separatism in the heart of the Empire. Bohemia, whom he would never recognize as a partner, chafed bitterly under his hands.
However, he lived and thrived. He had sat on the throne for more than sixty years when King Edward VII died. At seventy-five he was not only well preserved, but vigorous. He walked far; he could still ride: his chief amusement was shooting boar and bears and deer. He had borne his bereavements stoically. He was jealous of his brother Maximilian; he did not love his wife; he had been on bad terms with all his family, some of whom had incurred a public notoriety which by his rigid standards was beyond any pardon; he politely acquiesced in the existence of his nephew, the new heir, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand; but he could never forgive him for his love-marriage. General Marchenko, Russian Military Attaché at Vienna from 1905 to 1911, in memoirs which are a definite contribution to history, says that a colleague, Major von Bülow, the German Attaché (brother of the German Ex-Chancellor, and afterwards killed in Belgium), remarked upon the Emperor's troubles: 'He is used to all that. Without a misfortune in the day's work he would be bored.' Marchenko himself says that Francis Joseph 'regarded his defeats and reverses as sacrifices to fortune.' A courtly, sagacious, crabbed, disillusioned old gentleman, reared in the purple, harassed from youth up by awful public responsibilities, with an ever-present self-questioning about their adequate discharge.
In the closing phase of his reign he had become almost an automaton. He discharged routine duties without pleasure, indeed with distaste, punctually and assiduously, literally from dawn to dusk. He rose usually at four in the morning, and, dressed in his sky-blue uniform, drank his coffee at his desk amid official portfolios and files. His wish was to go to sleep not later than eight o'clock at night. He resented keenly all functions which interrupted this rule. When compelled to entertain company he dined as late as five or even six o'clock in the afternoon. Otherwise, although in Vienna the usual hour was between eight and nine o'clock, the Emperor took his evening meal between three and four. Alone upon his rocky pinnacle from which the tides of time had sunk, this venerable, conscientious functionary continued in harness pulling faithfully at the collar, mostly in the right direction, to the last gasp.
A living picture of the Court is given by Baron von Margutti who was for the last seventeen years of the Empire high in the Household. Francis Joseph lived in intimacy with a curious small coterie consisting of two septuagenarian aides-de-camp — Count Paar and Baron Bolfras, who was also chief of the military cabinet — and Count Beck, seventy years of age in 1906, and perhaps the Emperor's one trusted male friend. All these three men stood around the centre of power. They had dwelt there before most of Francis Joseph's subjects had been born. Their lives were wrapped up in the service of the Emperor. Paar, ably served by younger men, dealt with all the questions, great and small, of etiquette and a large part of patronage. Bolfras presided over the court side of the military sphere; but he brooded over higher matters of policy, had constant occasions to give his advice, and indeed claims to have both counselled and planned in 1878 the original occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Beck, who had served the Emperor for fifty years in 1906, managed and looked after all the movements and public appearances of his beloved master. He knew exactly how he liked reviews, manuvres, inspections of camps or garrisons, and every nonpolitical public activity to be conducted. He studied the imperial wants and idiosyncrasies; he protected his Sovereign from every kind of minor annoyance; he also no doubt supplied him with a stream of antiquated opinion upon military matters, for he had been, in his day, Chief of the Staff of the Austro-Hungarian army.
Such was this ancient band of survivors eminently Victorian, unswervingly faithful, who surrounded the very old but clear-headed potentate in whose person all the loyalties of a disrupting Empire centred, and against whose régime all its hatreds welled.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The World Crisis: Part V — The Unknown War The Eastern Front"
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Table of Contents
I. The Dusk of Hapsburg,
II. The Annexation of Bosnia,
III. Towards the Abyss,
IV. The Murder of the Archduke,
V. The Austrian Ultimatum,
VI. The Fronts and the Combatants,
VII. Declarations of War,
VIII. The Mobilization Interval,
IX. The Assembly of the Eastern Armies,
X. Austria Against Russia,
XI. The Battle of Lemberg,
XII. The Invasion of East Prussia,
XIII. The Battle of Tannenberg,
XIV. The First Masurian Lakes,
XV. The Second Round,
XVI. The Battle of Lodz,
XVII. East or West?,
XVIII. The Winter Battle,
XIX. Beyond the Dardanelles,
XX. The Fall of Warsaw,
XXI. The Reckoning with Serbia,
XXII. Falkenhayn Returns to the West,
XXIII. Brusilov's Offensive,
XXIV. The Russian Collapse,
Appendix I: The Hapsburg Dynasty,
Appendix II: Some Authorities Consulted,
Appendix III: References,