Thirteen Years at the Russian Court Thirteen Years at the Russian Court Thirteen Years at the Russian Court

Nicholas II, Commander-in-Chief - Aleksey at G.H.Q. - The Front - Pierre Gilliard - Thirteen Years at the Russian Court


The Grand-Duke Nicholas left G.H.Q. on September 7th, two days after the arrival of the Tsar. He left for the Caucasus, taking with him General Yanushkevich, who had been replaced as First Quartermaster-General of the Russian armies by General Alexeiev a short time before. This appointment had been very well received by military circles, who had high hopes of Alexeiev. He it was who had drawn up the plan of campaign in Galicia in the autumn of 1914, and as Commander of the North-Western Front he had just given further proof of his military talent. The burden which was now laid upon his shoulders was a crushing one, for as a result of the irresistible advance of the Germans the Russian army was in a very critical position, and the decisions which he had to take were exceptionally grave. From the outset the Tsar gave him an entirely free hand with regard to the operations, confining himself to covering him with his authority and taking responsibility for everything he did.

A few days after Nicholas II took over the Supreme Command the situation suddenly took a turn for the worse. The Germans, who had massed large forces north-west of Vilnam, had succeeded in breaking the Russian front, and their cavalry was operating in the rear of the army and threatening its communications. On September 18th we seemed on the verge of a great disaster

Thanks to the skill of the dispositions which were taken and the endurance and heroism of the troops, the peril was averted. This was the last effort of the enemy, who himself had shot his bolt. In the early days of October the Russians in turn gained a success over the Austrians, and gradually the immense front became fixed and both sides went to ground.

This marked the end of the long retreat which had begun in May. In spite of all their efforts the Germans had not obtained a decision. The Russian armies had abandoned a large stretch of territory, but they had everywhere escaped the clutches of their foes.

The Tsar returned to Tsarskoe-Selo on October 6th for a few days, and it was decided that Aleksey Nicolaievich should go back with him to G.H.Q., for he was most anxious to show the Heir to the troops. The Tsarina bowed to this necessity. She realised how greatly the Tsar suffered from loneliness, for at one of the most tragic hours of his life he was deprived of the presence of his family, his greatest consolation. She knew what a comfort it would be to have his son with him. Yet her heart bled at the thought of Aleksey leaving her. It was the first time she had been separated from him, and one can imagine what a sacrifice it meant to the mother, who never left her child, even for a few minutes, without wondering anxiously whether she would ever see him alive again.

We left for Mohilev on October 14th, and the Tsarina and the Grand-Duchesses came to the station to see us off. As I was saying good-bye to her, Her Majesty asked me to write every day to give her news of her son. I promised to carry out her wishes faithfully the whole time we were away.

The next day we stopped at Riegitza, where the Tsar wished to review some troops which had been withdrawn from the front and were billeted in the neighborhood. All these regiments had taken part in the exhausting campaigns in Galicia and the Carpathians, and their establishment had been almost entirely renewed two or three times over. But in spite of the terrible losses they had suffered, they marched past the Tsar with a proud and defiant bearing. Of course, they had been resting behind the line for several weeks, and had had time to recover from their weariness and privations. It was the first time that the Tsar had passed any of his troops in review since he had taken over the Command. They now looked upon him both as their Emperor and Generalissimo. After the ceremony he mixed with the men and conversed personally with several of them, asking questions about the severe engagements in which they had taken part. Aleksey Nicolaievich was at his father's heels, listening intently to the stories of these men, who had so often stared death in the face. His features, which were always expressive, became quite strained in the effort not to lose a single word of what the men were saying. His presence at the Tsar's side greatly interested the soldiers, and when he had gone they were heard exchanging in a whisper their ideas about his age, size, looks, etc. But the point that made the greatest impression upon them was the fact that the Tsarevich was wearing the uniform of a private soldier, which had nothing to distinguish it from that of a boy in the service. On October 16th we arrived at Mohilev, a little White Russian town of a highly provincial appearance to which the Grand-Duke Nicholas had transferred G.H.Q. during the great German offensive two months before. The Tsar occupied the house of the Governor, which was situated on the summit of the steep left bank of the Dnieper. He was on the first floor in two fairly large rooms, one of which was his study and the other his bedroom. He had decided that his son should share his room. Aleksey Nicolaievich's camp-bed was accordingly placed next to his father's. I myself and some members of the Tsar's military suite were lodged in the local court-house, which had been converted for use by G.H.Q.

Our time was spent much as follows. Every morning at half-past nine the Tsar called on the General Staff. He usually stayed there until one o'clock, and I took advantage of his absence to work with Aleksey Nicolaievich in his study, which we had been obliged to make our workroom owing to lack of space. We then took lunch in the main room of the Governor's house. Every day there were some thirty guests, which included General Alexeiev, his principal assistants, the heads of all the military missions of the Allies, the suite, and a few officers who were passing through Mohilev. After lunch the Tsar dealt with urgent business and then about three we went for a drive in a car.

When we had proceeded a certain distance from the town we stopped and went for a walk in the neighborhood for an hour. One of our favourite haunts was the pretty pine-wood in the heart of which is the little village of Saltanovka, where the army of Marshal Davout met the troops of General Raievsky on July 29th, 1912 (the French army in its march on Moscow occupied Mohilev on July 19th, and Marshal Davout lived for several days in the same house which the Tsar and Tsarevich had made their quarters). On our return the Tsar resumed work while Aleksey Nicolaievich prepared the lessons for the next day in his father's study. One day when I was there as usual the Tsar turned towards me, pen in hand, and interrupted me in my reading to remark abruptly:

"If anyone had told me that I should one day sign a declaration of war on Bulgaria I should have called him a lunatic. Yet that day has come. But I am signing against my will, as I am certain that the Bulgarian people have been deceived by their king and the partisans of Austria, and that the majority remain friendly to Russia. Race feeling will soon revive and they will realise their mistake, but it will be too late then."

The incident shows what a simple life we led at G.H.Q., and the intimacy which was the result of the extraordinary circumstances under which I was working.

As the Tsar was anxious to visit the troops with the Tsarevich, we left for the front on October 24th. The next day we arrived at Berdichev, where General Ivanov, commanding the South-Western Front, joined our train. A few hours later We were at Rovno. It was in this town that General Brussilov established his headquarters, and we were to accompany him to the place where the troops had been assembled. We by car, as we had more than twelve miles to cover. As we left the town a squadron of aeroplanes joined us and escorted until we saw the long grey lines of the units massed behind forest. A minute later we were among them. The Tsar walked down the front of the troops with his son, and then each unit defiled in turn before him. He then had the officers and men on whom decorations were to be bestowed called out of the ranks and gave them the St. George's Cross.

It was dark before the ceremony was over. On our return the Tsar, having heard from General Ivanov that there was a casualty station quite near, decided to visit it at Once. We entered a dark forest and soon perceived a small building feebly lit by the red flames of torches. The Tsar and Aleksey Nicolaievich entered the house, and the Tsar went up to all the wounded and questioned them in a kindly way. His unexpected arrival at so late an hour at a spot so close to the front was the cause of the general astonishment which could be read on every face. One private soldier, who had just been bandaged and put back in bed, gazed fixedly at the Tsar, and when the latter bent over him he raised his only sound hand to touch his sovereign's clothes and satisfy himself that it was really the Tsar who stood before him and not a ghost. Close behind his father stood Aleksey Nicolaievich, who was deeply moved by the groaning he heard and the suffering he felt all around him.

We rejoined our train and immediately left for the south. When we woke next morning we were in Galicia. During the night we had crossed the former Austrian frontier. The Tsar was anxious to congratulate the troops, whose prodigies of valour had enabled them to remain on hostile soil notwithstanding the dearth of arms and ammunition. We left the railway at Bogdanovka and gradually mounted the plateau on which units from all the regiments of General Tcherbatchev 's army had been assembled. When the review was over the Tsar disregarded the objections of his suite and visited the Perchersky Regiment, three miles from the front lines, at a place which enemy artillery fire could have reached. We then returned to our cars, which we had left in a forest, and went to General Lechitzsky's army, which was some thirty miles away. We were overtaken by darkness on our way back. A thick mist covered the countryside; we lost our way and twice had to go back. But after many wanderings we at length struck the railway again, though we were sixteen miles from the place where we had left our train! Two hours later we left for G.H.Q.

The Tsar brought away a most encouraging impression from his tour of inspection. It was the first time that he had been in really close contact with the troops, and he was glad that he had been able to see with his own eyes, practically in the firing-line, the fine condition of the regiments and the splendid spirit with which they were inspired.

We returned to Mohilev in the evening of October 27th, and the next morning Her Majesty and the Grand-Duchesses also arrived at G.H.Q. During their journey the Tsarina and her daughters had stopped at several towns in the Governments of Tver, Pskov, and Mohilev, in order to visit the military hospitals. They stayed three days with us at Mohilev and then the whole family left for Tsarskoe-Selo, where the Tsar was to spend several days.

I have somewhat lingered over the first journey which the Tsar made with his son, and to avoid mere repetition I shall confine myself to a short summary of the visits we paid to the armies in the month of November.

We left Tsarskoe-Selo on the 9th. On the 10th we were at Reval, where the Tsar visited a flotilla of submarines which had just come in. The boats were covered with a thick coating of ice, a sparkling shell for them. There were also two English submarines which had surmounted enormous difficulties in Penetrating into the Baltic, and had already succeeded in sinking a certain number of German ships. The Tsar bestowed the St. George's Cross on their commanding officers.

During our next day at Riga, which formed a kind of advanced bastion in the German lines, we spent several hours with the splendid regiments of Siberian Rifles, which were regarded as some of the finest troops in the Russian army. Their bearing was magnificent, as they marched past before the Tsar, answering his salute with the traditional phrase: "Happy to serve Your Imperial Majesty," followed by a tremendous round of cheers.

A few days later we were at Tiraspol, a little town sixty miles north of Odessa, where the Tsar reviewed units from the army of General Tcherbatchev. After the ceremony the Tsar, desiring to know for himself what losses the troops had suffered, asked their commanding officers to order all men who had been in the ranks since the beginning of the campaign to raise their hands. The order was given, and but a very few hands were lifted above those thousands of heads. There were whole companies in which not a man moved. The incident made a very great impression on Aleksey Nicolaievich. It was the first time that reality had brought home to him the horrors of war in so direct a fashion.

The next day, November 22nd, we went to Reni, a small town on the Danube on the Rumanian frontier. An immense quantity of supplies had been collected there, for it was a base for the river steamers which were engaged in taking food, arms and ammunition to the unfortunate Serbians whom the treachery of Bulgaria had just exposed to an Austro-German invasion.

The following day, near Balta in Podolia, the Tsar inspected the famous division of Caucasian cavalry whose regiments had won new laurels in the recent campaign. Among other units were the Kuban and Terek Cossacks, perched high in the saddle and wearing the huge fur caps which make them look so fierce. As we started to return, the whole mass of cavalry suddenly moved forward, took station on both sides of the road, broke into a gallop, tearing up the hills, sweeping down the banks of ravines, clearing all obstacles, and thus escorted us to the station in a terrific charge in which men and animals crashed together on the ground while above the town rose the raucous yells of the Caucasian mountaineers. It was a spectacle at once magnificent and terrible which revealed all the savage instincts of this primitive race.

We did not return to G.H.Q. until November 26th, after having visited practically the whole of the immense front from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

On December 10th we heard that the Tsar was intending to visit the regiments of the Guard which were then on the frontier of Galicia, On the morning of our departure, Thursday, December 16th, Aleksey Nicolaievich, who had caught cold the previous day and was suffering from a heavy catarrh in the head, began to bleed at the, nose as a result of sneezing violently. I summoned Professor Feodorov but he could not entirely stop the bleeding. In spite of this accident we started off, as all preparations had been made for the arrival of the Tsar. During the night the boy got worse. His temperature had gone up and he was getting weaker. At three o'clock in the morning Professor Feodorov, alarmed at his responsibilities, decided to have the Tsar roused and ask him to return to Mohilev, where he could attend to the Tsarevich under more favorable conditions.

Professor Feodorov accompanied the Tsar on all his journeys after the latter took over the supreme command. Dr. Botkin and Dr. Derevenko had remained behind at Tsarskoe-Selo.

The next morning we were on our way back to G.H.Q., but the boy's state was so alarming that it was decided to take him back to Tsarskoe-Selo. The Tsar called on the General Staff and spent two hours with General Alexeiev. Then he joined us and we started off at once. Our journey was particularly harrowing, as the patient's strength was failing rapidly, We had to have the train stopped several times to be able to change the plugs. Aleksey Nicolaievich was supported in bed by his sailor Nagorny (he could not be allowed to lie full length), and twice in the night he swooned away and I thought the end had come.

Towards morning there was a slight improvement, however, and the haemorrhage lessened. At last we reached Tsarskoe-Selo. It was eleven o'clock. The Tsarina, who had been torn with anguish and anxiety, was on the platform with the Grand-Duchesses. With infinite care the invalid was taken to the palace. The doctors ultimately succeeded in cauterizing the scar which had formed at the spot where a little blood-vessel had burst. Once more the Tsarina attributed the improvement in her son's condition that morning to the prayers of Rasputin, and she remained convinced that the boy had been saved thanks to his intervention.

The Tsar stayed several days with us, but he was anxious to get away as he was wishful to take advantage of the comparative stagnation at the front to visit the troops and get into the closest possible touch with them.

His journeys to the front had been a great success. His presence had everywhere aroused immense enthusiasm, not only among the men but also among the peasants, who swarmed in from the country round whenever his train stopped, in the hope of catching a glimpse of their sovereign. The Tsar was certain that his efforts would tend to revive feelings of patriotism and personal loyalty in the nation and the army. His recent experiences persuaded him that he had succeeded, and those who went with him thought the same. Was it an illusion? He who denies its truth can know little of the Russian people, and cannot have the slightest idea how deep rooted was monarchical sentiment in the moujik.

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