Book Review: August 1914 by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

When World War I broke out, great crowds of people in Russia found themselves, like crowds in France and Germany, swept up in a burst of patriotic fervor. Men were eager to do their part for Mother Russia, and to serve the Tsar in this great endeavor. Unfortunately, poor preparation led to disaster. Russia in 1914 was not on a par with the other European powers, all of which had gone through massive industrialization in the 19th c. Russia came late to industrialization, and was still, largely, pre-industrial.

Consequently, the Germans expected the Russians to be very slow in mobilization and their plan of attack, the Schlieffen Plan, developed in 1905 by Count Alfred von Schlieffen was predicated on the assumption that. For the first six weeks of the war, they could focus their attention on France, which they saw as the biggest threat. If all went according to plan, the French would be defeated or near defeat within 6 weeks, and then German could turn its victorious army to the East to take on the Russian forces. The original Schlieffen plan did not involve Russia at all.

Things did not go exactly as Germany envisioned. The plan called for an attack on France from the North, through Belgium. The Belgians, though, refused to cooperate and grant free passage through their country; the delay in Belgium allowed France and its new ally, Britain, which was offended by a brutal attack on “little Belgium,” to take a stand in Northern France.

In addition, the Russians fielded a much larger army sooner than expected. Their numbers were about twice that of the German forces, who planned on having six weeks to deal with France before facing the Russians. This miscalculations required Germany to send more of its troops to the East.

Read more of Bernard Norcott-Mahany's 2015 reviews of books about the First World War:

January 12, 2015
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

February 5, 2015
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

March 13, 2015
Tarzan the Untamed by Edgar Rice Burroughs

April 6, 2015
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

May 4, 2015
Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner

June 3, 2015
The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings

July 8, 2015
Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship by Victor Appleton

Though the Russians mobilized faster than expected, they could not maintain proper supply lines. Russian rail lines were of a different gauge than that on the German lines, leaving Russian trains useless at the border. When the Russian army reached Prussia, the only way they could use the German rail tracks was to capture German trains, and so troops, artillery, and supplies had to travel on foot or horseback or by car once they hit the border, delaying the reinforcement and supplying of Russian forces.

The Russians also failed to do proper reconnaissance. They did not use airplanes or balloons to do recon. They often had no idea where the enemy was, or even where other parts of the Russian force were. And the two Russian generals in command in Prussia, Paul von Rennenkampf (commanding the 1st Army) and Alexander Samsonov (commanding the 2nd Army), could not stand one another and so they did not coordinate their movement.

Finally, the Russian forces did not use coded communication, but broadcast information on position and movement in the clear, so that the German High Command had access to enemy communiques — this was so peculiar, the German High Command’s initial reaction was that these communiques were planted and false. In the battle for East Prussia, the Russians lost a tremendous number of men, armaments and supplies, which left the Russian Army, by the end of September, far weaker than they had been at war’s start. Samsonov’s Second Army was largely wiped out, and Samsonov himself committed suicide.

As a young man, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn hit upon the idea of writing a great epic cycle of novels about Russia, and especially the history of the creation of the Soviet Union and its rise. He first began work on this series of novels (August 1914, October 1916, March 1917, and April 1917) known collectively as the The Red Wheel, in 1936. But August 1914 was first published in 1971, by which time Solzhenitsyn had become a great critic of the Soviet Union. The current edition of August 1914 (published first in 1984) adds another couple of hundred pages to that published in the seventies.

In reading August 1914, I had the sense that Solzhenitsyn was very much influenced by Tolstoy and his great novel, War and Peace. Tolstoy’s sweeping novel mixed the private lives of a few Russian noble families and looked at the Napoleonic War and the Invasion of Russia in 1812 as it affected them. It is through the lens of these families that the war and their enemy, Napoleon, are viewed. For Tolstoy, his was a better way of relaying history than more traditional history books, as it allowed the reader a vicarious sense of living history. Solzhenitsyn is largely doing the same thing here, though perhaps on a grander scale. The original plan for The Red Wheel was to cover the years from 1914-1922, but the four completed novels run only to 1917 and are 8 volumes.

Solzhenitsyn follows a lot more people than Tolstoy did and he spends much more time with the soldiers on the front. He also includes occasional snapshots from the news of the day, with actual snippets serving as snapshots of the day at different parts of the book.

Unlike many of the novels I’ve read so far this year, which cover a longer period and emphasize the long hard slog of the war, this focuses on a particular moment in time, a point when Russia surprised its foe and almost won a major battle which would have helped to dramatically shorten the war. But it is also a time when poor Russian preparation and a failure of leadership led to disappointment, and which contributed to the environment which would give Lenin and his Bolsheviks the chance to take power. This particular disaster did not end the war for Russia, but Solzhenitsyn sees it as a major turning point (“knots” as he called them) which had far-reaching effects.

Solzhenitsyn took great care to research the events of the war, looking at Russian and German records, but he also takes great care to personalize this key month in Russian history through the supporting characters he creates.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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