The Russian October Revolution 1917 I THE GREAT WAR Week 172

The Russian October Revolution 1917 I THE GREAT WAR Week 172


Each episode of this show begins with a hook;
something that hasn’t happened so far in the war, but not today. This week’s episode begins with a hook that
has happened before, in fact, it happened only eight months ago – revolution in Russia. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week, the Central Powers breakthrough
on the Italian front – the Battle of Caporetto – continued, with the Italians retreating
all week and the Germans and Austrians taking prisoners in the hundreds of thousands. ANZAC mounted infantry performed brilliantly
as the Ottomans were defeated at Beersheba, the Canadians advanced slightly at Passchendaele,
taking heavy casualties; the British government announced its support for a National Home
for Jews in Palestine, and there was ominous unrest in Petrograd. And as this week unfolded, that unrest grew
and exploded. On the 3rd, German and Russian soldiers fraternize
on northern front. On the 5th, Prime Minister and Minister of
War Alexander Kerensky ordered troops outside the city that he believed were loyal to him
to enter the city to quell revolutionary activity, but on the 6th they declined to do so. That evening, the Bolsheviks occupied the
railway stations, the bridges over the Neva River, the state bank, and the telephone exchange. On the 7th, more than 18,000 Bolsheviks surrounded
the Provisional Government Ministers who had holed up in the Winter Palace, and who were
defended by fewer than 1,000 people. More than 13,000 sailors from Kronstadt had
arrived in the city, dedicated to revolution. That evening the cruiser Aurora, anchored
in the Neva, announced that it would fire on the Winter Palace and fired blank charges
to show it was serious. By 0100, the Bolsheviks had overrun the palace
and scattered the defenders. On the 8th, Lenin proclaimed a new government
– the Council of People’s Commissars. Lenin was elected the Chairman of the Council,
and was now nominally ruler of the capital city. Leon Trotsky became Commissar for Foreign
Affairs. This was the October Revolution – we’re
still in October by the Russian calendar then in use. The first government decree that day was the
decree of peace, which Lenin read out in the evening to an ecstatic crowd. On the 9th, Trotsky asked his ministry to
translate it into foreign languages for immediate distribution abroad, but 100 officials loyal
to either the Tsar or the Provisional Government, walked out. On the 10th, 4 million copies will be sent
to the front, calling for an end to the fighting. One thing here, this new “government”
did not have support of the moderate Socialist Revolutionaries nor the Mensheviks in the
Petrograd Soviet, and it had not been ratified by any Constituent Assembly. Until that could happen, it would be run by
a series of ad hoc committees with no political legitimacy. As the week ended, it was still great turmoil
in Petrograd and Moscow, since nobody had any idea how this was going to play out. There were a couple of things, though, that
were playing out this week in Italy – Caporetto and Cadorna. Italian army Chief of Staff Luigi Cadorna
had played very little part in the battle. He hadn’t actually thought there would even
be one once the snow had arrived in the Julian Alps at the beginning of October so he’d
taken a two-week vacation to Torino. Even when he returned he still didn’t listen
to the rumors about an impending offensive, and that offensive had turned into a rout. And the fighting was still going on. On the 5th, the Germans crossed the Tagliamento
and the Italians were again on the retreat. On the 8th, the Germans were pushing the Italians
toward the Piave River and that day outflanked 17,000 Italians, who surrendered. The same day, Austrian troops coming down
from the Dolomites and Julian Alps occupied Vittorio Veneto, just 55km from Venice. In ten days, the Italian retreat from Caporetto
had been 100km, but at the end of the week, the Italians were established behind the Piave. King Vittorio Emanuele, who was technically
in charge of the army called a meeting of the leaders of the Western Allies for November
5th at Rapallo to try to deal with Italy’s precarious situation. Cadorna didn’t bother attending, and sent
General Carlo Porro instead. At the conference, Porro claimed the Germans
had attacked with 35 divisions, not the seven they actually had attacked with. The Italians asked French and British Prime
Ministers Paul Painlevé and David Lloyd George for 15 British and French divisions to be
sent at once. The British sent in 5 artillery and infantry
divisions and the French 6 (Caporetto). The King was now furious with Cadorna and
called for another meeting the 8th. In English he told those assembled that the
responsibility for the Caporetto disaster lay with the Italian generals, and he called
for the resignation of Cadorna and Luigi Capello. Now Cadorna grew furious and blamed everyone
but himself. He refused to resign. The king fired him. The general consensus was that the Duke of
Aosta, who was still undefeated, should replace Cadorna, but the king didn’t want to appoint
a cousin, so he appointed General Armando Diaz as new Chief of Staff. Diaz was a lot different from Cadorna. He was from the south – from Naples – and
was of Spanish descent. He had originally been an artillery officer,
though he’d spent the bulk of two decades in Rome as a staff officer. As a younger man, he had seen action in Libya,
where he’d been wounded and decorated, and in the World War he’d risen quickly through
the ranks, commanding infantry regiments on the Carso. He became a Corps commander in April this
year and his Corps was the only one to gain ground in the 10th and 11th battles of the
Isonzo River. Unlike Cadorna, Diaz cared deeply for the
welfare of his men and was concerned with keeping casualties as low as possible. His jobs now were to rebuild the Italian army
and hold the Piave line. Also at the conference, the Allies decided
on the creation of a Supreme Allied War Council for the western front. This was to be a body charged with constantly
surveying the field of operations as a whole, and from the information gathered, coordinating
the plans of the different general staffs. There was a breakthrough on another front
that also continued this week – the Palestine Front. Following the capture of Beersheba, Gaza now
fell after a massive bombardment from ten British and French naval vessels off the coast. A German sub managed to sink two of them. A combined infantry and mounted assault then
hit the city, and in minutes overwhelmed the defenses that Kress von Kressenstein had spent
the year building. This whole campaign featured more and more
cavalry and mounted infantry charges, used for their shock value, then culminating in
hand to hand combat. On the 8th, for example, the Warwickshire
and Worcestershire Yeomanry charged Turkish positions at Huj that were supported by machine
guns and artillery. “A whole heap of men and horses went down
20 or 30 yards from the muzzles of the guns. The squadron broke into a few scattered horsemen
at the guns and then seemed to melt away completely… I had the impression I was the only man alive. I was amazed to discover we were the victors.” – Lieutenant Wilfred Mercer. They then turned the captured machine guns
on the fleeing enemy. Any way you slice it, cavalry overrunning
machine guns is a serious achievement, but cavalry’s main advantage was that it could
provoke total panic on breaking through. However, in spite of British General Edmund
Allenby’s success, the Ottomans repeatedly escaped encirclement and withdrew to fight
again. And the Canadians were fighting again as well,
on the Western Front at Passchendaele. The assault November 6th was, in fact, to
be an all-Canadian one. In all the other sectors only artillery would
engage. Two Canadian Divisions attacked at 0600 – General
Arthur Currie was going for speed and surprise, and after just two minutes of shelling, the
creeping barrage began. The infantry had already crawled into no-mans
land in the dark and thus avoided the German artillery that now fell on their trenches. By 0745, two battalions of the 1st Division
were already 1km from their assault trenches. The 2nd division had taken Passchendaele itself
by 0740, “a pile of bricks with the ruin of a church, a mass of slaughtered masonry
and nothing else left on this shell-swept height.” The men could see in the distance across the
far end of the remains of the village, a land of tall trees and green fields, with undamaged
houses and unmarked fields, an incredible contrast to the battlefield. Canadian troops drove the Germans off enough
of Passchendaele Ridge for British Army Commander Sir Douglas Haig to claim victory. The price of this little victory was almost
exactly what Currie had predicted a couple weeks ago for it – 16,000 men. And the week ends, with a new Italian Commander
trying to stem the tide, British success in Palestine, Canadian success at a heavy cost
at Passchendaele, a Supreme war Council formed, oh! And Austrian General Svetozar Borojevic von
Bojna is promoted to Field Marshal. And there was another revolution in Russia. But you know what? This Bolshevik coup, for that’s what it
is at the moment, was not the heroic rise of the workers you find in Russian histories,
it was “…the exhausted capitulation of Kerensky’s moribund and virtually defenseless
government.” Seriously. The under-1,000-people I mentioned that were
guarding his government at the winter palace? It was made up of teenaged cadets, a bicycle
squad, two companies of Cossacks, and 135 wom n from a Women’s Death battalion who
expected to fight Germans at the front and had no desire to defend Kerensky’s government. That was it. Against tens of thousands of Bolshevik Red
Guards and revolutionary sailors. At least, though, there wasn’t a great deal
of blood. For now. If you want to learn more about Russia before
the revolution, you can click right here to watch our special episode about that. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Ninip
Lazar – thank you for your ongoing support on Patreon which makes this show what it is
today. Don’t forget to subscribe, see you next
time.