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The legend of Verdun

In 1916, in one of history’s longest and deadliest battles, 300,000 French and German troops died for a few acres of France. The ghosts still linger.

1914-15

Understandably, the 2014 centennial memorials to the loss and sacrifice of the First World War dwelled in this country on Britain’s contribution. France’s role was often obscured; but, in fact, the French bore the brunt of the German onslaught for virtually the whole of the first two years. In the “Battle of the Frontiers”, the initial, ill-conceived and overzealous offensive by France in the summer months of 1914, its army lost 400,000 men (more than the total number of British killed in the whole of the Second World War) and a further 600,000 were wounded, went missing or became prisoners of war.

The next year, 1915, extended the fruitless and bloody offensives against a German line well entrenched and backed heavily with machine-guns and superior artillery. The line stretched in a continuous belt from the Channel to the Swiss frontier, occupying a large area of industrial northern France, and reaching to less than 100 miles from Paris. This was intolerable for the French, and, supported by the rapidly expanding British Expeditionary Force, their troops hurled themselves repeatedly against unbreakable German positions. French generals called it grignotage, or “gnawing away”, though British critics likened it to “chewing at a steel door with false teeth”. Casualties soared: in one battle, Loos, the British lost 50,380 men to the Germans’ 20,000. By Christmas 1915 the French army had lost 50 per cent of its regular officers.

1916

This was to be a bloodier year still, the most costly one of the whole war – for both sides. It was the year of the Somme, and of Verdun. Between the Battle of the Marne in 1914 and General Erich Ludendorff’s last-gasp offensive in 1918, the Germans attacked only once to break the murderous stalemate called the Western Front: at Verdun on 21 February 1916. Sometimes likened to Stalingrad in 1942, Verdun usually doesn’t appear on British and US screens, because it was almost exclusively a “French v Germans” affair. And yet, perhaps above all the other First World War battlegrounds, the ghosts here refuse to die. They have been preserved largely by the character of the battle, which retains an evil reputation as the longest in any war, and the most intense in its horrors.

Another factor peculiar to Verdun is that, whereas the fighting on the Somme, and elsewhere on the Western Front, took place in ephemeral trenches all but effaced by the passage of time, here it swirled around a ring of 19 huge forts, 14 of them reinforced with concrete. They gave the city its reputation at the time as the world’s most powerful fortress. Two of these bases were Forts Vaux and Douaumont, the latter reputed to be the strongest in the world.

Verdun’s sinister fame as the most atrocious battle in history also derives from the sheer concentration of the battlefield: over a period of ten months from February to December 1916, an area smaller than Manhattan was subjected without let-up to the most intensive artillery bombardment ever experienced. Most of the men who died there did so without ever seeing the enemy.

The German commander-in-chief, General Erich von Falkenhayn, devised a bizarre strategy for his men’s assault in February 1916; it was not to break through, nor even to capture a key city, but to lure the French army into a trap where it would be “bled white” by superior German firepower. The trap was the defence of a bastion that, for strategic, historic (and moral) reasons, the Grand Quartier Général – France’s wartime headquarters – could not afford to give up. The city of Verdun lay only 150 miles along the direct route from Paris, in a temptingly exposed salient on the Western Front.

The very choice of words by General Falkenhayn, “bleed the French army white”, suggested the image by which this battle would for ever be associated. However, Verdun “bled” the attacking Germans in almost equal measure. Yet, well beyond the war of 1914-18, Verdun would stand out in French memory as the amulet signifying supreme courage, and supreme sacrifice.

Taking the French by surprise, the 5th Army, under the command of the German crown prince, Wilhelm, opened its offensive on 21 February 1916 with three elite corps and 1,200 heavy guns, all concentrated on a front just eight miles long. The German assault infantry were used as bait in the trap to draw the French forces into the grinding machine.

Before they could reach the main line of Verdun’s forts, they had to capture the Bois des Caures, and on the first day much of the firepower from the unprecedented concentration of artillery was directed against this one, small wood. It was held by two battalions of French chasseurs, just 1,200-strong. They were commanded by Colonel Émile Driant, a former deputy for Nancy and writer who had tried in vain to warn Marshal Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, about the threat of an attack. Against impossible odds, Driant held the Bois des Caures for two days until most of his men were dead. Killed at the end of its defence, Driant became a hero to the French. Today, tucked away in the solitude of a clearing in the woods, the concrete bunker that served as his command post still stands, displaying scars from the crown prince’s heavy guns.

Just behind the Bois des Caures lay Beaumont, one of the nine villages in Meuse completely destroyed during the Battle of Verdun. Today, in springtime, you can still catch occasional glimpses of apple and lilac blossom amid the rampant undergrowth: the only traces of the orchards of this small agricultural community that somehow survived the 1916 bombardment. Like most of the other villages, there remains only a signpost to recall Beaumont’s existence.

***

By 24 February, the fourth day of the battle, the attacking German infantry had reached the approaches to Fort Douaumont. A quarter of a mile across, the fort’s eight-foot-thick concrete carapace could resist even the Germans’ 420mm “Big Bertha” howitzer, the heaviest artillery in the army of any combatant. Douaumont mounted a 155mm gun and twin 75s in retractable steel turrets, as well as numerous smaller guns and machine-guns; in its vaults, it could house a whole battalion of infantry. But unknown to the Germans and the French local commander alike, Douaumont, the world’s most impregnable fort, was, by a series of almost incredible errors in February 1916, virtually undefended.

On 25 February the fort was captured, without a single death, by a handful of Prussian infantrymen led by Eugen Radtke, a 24-year-old lieutenant. Wandering down an unprotected tunnel, Radtke penetrated to the centre of the edifice, capturing an ancient guardian and his skeleton crew. It was one of the most remarkable feats in the whole war. (After many abortive attempts, Douaumont was recaptured in October; its recovery is estimated to have cost the French as many as 100,000 men.)

On the day Douaumont fell, General Philippe Pétain was appointed to take over the threatened Verdun sector, even though he was stricken with pneumonia. He was regarded as an officer who would not waste the lives of his men in vain offensives, unlike most French leaders at that time; yet even he could not resist the strategy that called for unit after unit to be poured into Verdun. In his memoirs, he records the anguish with which he watched from the balcony of the town hall as three-quarters of the French army marched past up the road from Bar-le-Duc – the future “Voie Sacrée” – towards the terrible attrition of Verdun.

Each kilometre of the Voie Sacrée is now marked by a cairn surmounted with the helmet of a poilu, an infantryman.

With Pétain’s arrival, French resistance stiffened and the German attack got bogged down. But still, battalion after battalion had to be thrown into the defence of Verdun. Pétain’s own regiment, the 33rd, was decimated. Among the casualties was a gangly young captain, Charles de Gaulle, wounded, gassed and taken prisoner near Douaumont. De Gaulle was then a fervent admirer of Pétain’s economy with lives. A generation later in the Second World War, as leader of the Free French and of Nazi-occupied Vichy France respectively, they became bitterest enemies.

In March the French began to hit back at the attacking Germans with flanking fire from long-range artillery on the west side of the River Meuse. As in so many battles where the original impetus is lost, the attacking commander now ordered an extension of the front. For the next three months, the fighting swayed back and forth across a small ridge already ominously known as Le Mort-Homme. The aim of “bleeding France white” seemed to become obscured as German losses spiralled, too. It was as if the battle, removed from human control, had assumed a murderous authority all of its own.

All through April and May the killing continued, the French sticking with desperate determination to the toeholds protecting
Verdun. By the end of March, little over a month into the battle, the French had suffered 89,000 casualties; but the Germans, too, had lost 81,607 men. By 1 June the casualty figures had risen to 133,000 and 120,000, respectively. So much for Falkenhayn’s doctrine of bleeding France white. Now, with the honour of das Vaterland so deeply challenged, his strategy shifted to one of capturing Verdun regardless of cost.

At the beginning of June he launched a final, all-out attack on Verdun, the immediate objective being Fort Vaux. The smallest of the forts, Vaux had lost its water supply and had all its guns knocked out by the 420mm “Big Berthas” long before the assault began. But, for seven days, its garrison of 600 men under Major Sylvain Raynal held out in its underground corridors, under attack from gas and flame-throwers, and contributing one of the most heroic episodes of the battle, until thirst forced them to surrender.

On 1 July, in what became known as “the Black Day of the British army”, nearly 20,000 men lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a gallant but disastrously conceived offensive to take pressure off Britain’s allies at Verdun. Yet still Prince Wilhelm’s troops battered on. Their last attack, on 12 July, finally narrowed down to about 30 men atop Fort Souville, the last fortification before Verdun, and well within sight of the twin towers of the city’s cathedral. Then, at last, the Germans abandoned their costly offensive.

Verdun was saved; it was the turn of the French to go over to the attack. On 24 October, Fort Douaumont was recaptured. It is estimated that its recovery cost more than 100,000 French lives. By 19 December the Battle of Verdun was over. It had achieved nothing: a few ruined acres of France, with 800,000 casualties across the two sides, over ten months. The longest, and possibly the deadliest, battle in history, it could be judged the unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war.

Yet over the interwar years it justly came to be seen as France’s “finest hour”. Under Pétain’s noria system of rapid relief, three-quarters of the 1914-18 French army passed though l’enfer de Verdun, witnessing its carnage. Veterans’ associations kept alive its memories. But at the same time, because of the losses suffered in the battle, its symbolism also came to play a baneful role in the defeatism that brought France low in 1940. Forts Vaux and Douaumont had displayed remarkable success in standing up to bombardment by the heaviest Krupp guns. This suggested to André Maginot, the old soldier with a limp from a wound in the leg at Verdun who served three times as minister of war between 1922 and 1932, that the only way France could survive another war would be to surround herself with a chain of such forts. Yet the “Maginot Line” coupled a defensive strategy with defeatism – as represented by the octogenarian hero of the battle, Marshal Pétain. As one young officer, Second Lieutenant Raymond Jubert, wrote shortly before he was killed at Verdun:

They will not be able to make us do it again another day; that would be to misconstrue the price of our effort. They will have to resort to those who have not lived out these days . . .

***

What were the lessons of Verdun, if any? In 1940, Hitler’s smart new generals, such as Heinz Guderian, tackled the problem of static warfare with a blitzkrieg technique of fast-moving armoured attack. They went round the side, and back, of Maginot’s costly fortresses, making them capitulate without firing a shot. Verdun fell in a matter of hours, France after a six-week campaign. But Hitler missed the main point, militarily: never make a fetish of any fortress, any stronghold, so that you become committed to hold it however unacceptable the costs.

The capture of Verdun in 1916 would have been unlikely to have caused France to lose the war. Yet in the Second World War, Hitler’s orders to his generals not to surrender an inch of ground, led to repeated disasters – beginning with the sacrifice of Friedrich Paulus’s entire 6th Army at Stalingrad, which eventually brought about the destruction of the Third Reich.

And yet, in the heart of the French army, the myths and the slogans of Verdun, chimeric as they were, persisted well into the 1950s. Brave young paras died at Dien Bien Phu in the First Indochina War with Verdun on their lips.

 

Verdun today

On the handful of hills bordering the city on the sleepy Meuse, just 150 miles from Paris, the big guns on either side exacted hundreds of thousands of French and German casualties over the ten-month duration, so torturing the soil that after the war whole sections of the land defied all attempts to return them to cultivation.

Today Forts Vaux and Douaumont, scenes of some of the bloodiest fighting of the battle, are kept open to the public. Battered and crumbling, they stand like Shelley’s Ozymandias: monuments to the folly, pride and heroism that epitomised what we still call the Great War. Each year, visitors in their thousands still troop through their rugged casemates. One French writer, Jean Dutourd, taken to Verdun as a boy, claimed:

No historical remains I have seen since, however impressive, not even the Coliseum or the Temples of Paestum, moved me so profoundly as the forts of Vaux and Douaumont.

Nearby stands the spooky ossuary housing, heaped in vaults visible to the casual eye, 100,000 unidentified victims of the battle.

In the half-dozen or more times that I’ve been to Verdun since writing The Price of Glory, the grim majesty of the place – and its sadness – have never failed to haunt me. The ghosts refuse to be exorcised. On many trips there I noted that no birds sang, as did others who were with me. Two things repeatedly brought a lump to my throat. One, on the wall of Fort Vaux, is a small ceramic plaque, placed there by an unknown mother: “À mon fils; depuis que tes yeux sont fermés, les miens n’ont cessé de pleurer” (“To my son; your eyes closed, and since then mine have not stopped shedding tears”). At some point, it was destroyed by some heartless vandal. The second is a German military cemetery. In it stand a number of stones bearing not the usual Teutonic cross, but a Star of David: memorials to Jewish soldiers loyal to the kaiser who died for Germany at Verdun. It appals the mind to reflect on the probable fate of the kith and kin of these valiant patriots less than a generation later.

On 22 September 1984 the then German chancellor, Helmut Kohl (whose father fought near Verdun in the First World War), and President François Mitterrand of France (who was taken prisoner by the Germans near Verdun in 1940) stood at Douaumont, holding hands for several minutes in the driving rain. The huge stature of Kohl next to the slender, nimble figure of Mitterrand seemed like a tableau out of Franco-German history; the gesture of reconciliation was a memorable one between two foes who had torn Europe apart three times in a century.

Since then, the killing fields of Verdun have become a healing place for Europe’s self-inflicted wounds of the past. To symbolise this, the small memorial chapel formerly known as Saint-Nicolas de Fleury, erected on
the fragments of the old church in one of the battlefield’s lost villages, has been renamed “Notre-Dame de l’Europe”. Even the song
of birds can be heard once more.

Alistair Horne’s “The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916” was first published in 1962. The following year, it was awarded the Hawthornden Prize – the first time that a work of non-fiction had been selected for it. The book remains in print, published in paperback by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle

AKG-Images/Russian State Archive for Film and Photography, Krasnogorsk
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What caused the Russian revolution? Look to the powder keg of Petrograd

How unrest exploded in 1917 – with help from Russia’s Terrible Twins.

Nineteen seventeen is a year that resonated through the 20th century. But place matters here as much as time – “place” meaning not just Russia, but Petrograd, as the imperial capital became known after “St Petersburg” was de-Germanised on the outbreak of war in 1914. Though in due course 1917 was touted as a universal model for revolution, it cannot be detached from the impact of the Great War in a distinctive country and a uniquely combustible city. Nor can it be separated from the intertwined stories of two almost incomprehensible men, a failed autocrat and a ruthless dictator: Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s Terrible Twins.

The Great War may as well have been called the Great Killing. In 1916, the London Annual Register offered this elegant summary of the callous calculus that passed for Grand Strategy: “[T]he number of men possessed by the Entente Powers was much greater than the number that the Central Powers could command. The war was therefore to be a crude process of sheer killing. And then, assuming that each side killed equally effectively, the Entente would reach victory in an inevitable manner through the working of a simple mathematical law.”

But each side did not kill “equally effectively”. Not only were the Germans more efficient killers than their opponents, but the homicidal potency of each country on the battle front depended on its industrial efficiency on the home front. Despite frequent strikes, Britain and France “worked” as societies and economies; the main member of the Entente, Russia, did not. Its Achilles heel was the supply of fuel and food by a broken transport system during the coldest winter in years. In early 1917 bread riots broke out in many cities. But only one of those cities was the crucible of revolution.

Petrograd was unusual, by Russian standards and those of the modern world. The fifth-largest metropolis in Europe, it was an industrial sweatshop of 2.4 million people in a predominantly rural country. Seventy per cent of the city’s workers were employed in factories with a staff of over 1,000, a proportion unmatched even in the conurbations of Germany and the US. Sucked in by the war boom, they lived amid squalor: more than three people on average to every cellar or single room, double the figure for Berlin or Paris. About half the homes lacked water supply or a sewage system; a quarter of all babies died in their first year.

Yet wealth and privilege were staring these workers in the face: the main factory district, on the Vyborg Side of the Neva, lay just across the water from the imperial palace and the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. This cheek-by-jowl polarisation contrasted with more suburbanised industrial centres such as Berlin, London and Paris. Equally important, Petrograd was a large garrison, with over 300,000 soldiers in and around the city. That, an eyewitness said, was like placing “kindling wood near a powder keg”.

Today the barracks and the sweatshops are gone. But even in modern St Petersburg one can see why Petrograd literally walked into revolution in 1917. A 90-minute hike will take you from the Finland Station on the Vyborg Side, across the Liteiny Bridge, west along the embankment to Palace Square and then left down Nevsky Prospekt to the Moscow Station. Maybe an hour, if you cross the Liteiny Bridge and turn east to the Tauride Palace and Smolny Convent. Along these axes, within the space of a few square miles, the drama of 1917 played out.

Thousands of spectators looked on and many recorded what they saw. Some were foreign residents and journalists, whose impressions are the stuff of Helen Rappaport’s lively narrative Caught in the Revolution. Sticking closer to raw sources is John Pinfold’s Petrograd, 1917, which is lavishly illustrated with postcards and prints from the Bodleian Library’s collections. Some of the city’s biggest factories were British-owned and British-managed: the Thornton Woollen Mill, employing 3,000 workers, belonged to three brothers from Yorkshire. Many of the luxury stores along Nevsky Prospekt – tailors, dressmakers, food emporiums, bookshops – were British or French, catering for expatriates and wealthy Russians in the days when French was still the lingua franca of the elite.

For months it had been clear that trouble was brewing. “If salvation does not come from above,” one Russian duchess warned the French ambassador, “there will be revo­lution from below.” Yet few anticipated how Petrograd would stumble into a new era.

Thursday 23 February (tsarist Russia still followed the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West) was International Women’s Day, a red-letter date for socialists. Thousands flocked across the bridges and the frozen river from the Vyborg Side and other industrial areas and marched down Nevsky Prospekt demanding bread. Trams and other obstacles were pushed aside. “I have heard the Marseillaise sung many times,” wrote Florence Harper, an intrepid American journalist, “but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be” – with raw class hatred.

Marchons! Marchons! All day the tide surged along and around Nevsky. Across the river, strikes spread violently through the factory districts. More demonstrations followed on Friday, and clashes escalated with the hated mounted police. Yet life still went on: the Alexandrinsky Theatre, one block off Nevsky, was packed that evening for a performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Government Inspector, its tale of official corruption, incompetence and self-delusion from the era of Nicholas I still richly apt in the dog-days of Nicholas II. By the weekend, however, trams had shut down, most shops were closed and looting was rife. Troops and policemen massed around the main squares. But when the police started sabring the crowds, Cossack troops and even crack Guards regiments sided with the protesters.

On Monday 27 February, with temperatures rising literally as well as figuratively, thousands of mutinous soldiers joined the milling crowds, which were now armed with booty looted from military arsenals. Army officers were particular targets. One of them, bemedalled and swaggering, was pursued along Nevsky by a crowd of women who stripped him of his weapons. A grey-haired woman screaming abuse broke the officer’s sword over her knee and tossed the bits into a canal. By nightfall, the tsarist regime had lost control of most of the city, except the Winter Palace and a few government buildings nearby. It was “a revolution carried on by chance”, Bert Hall, an American aviator attached to the Russian Air Service, wrote in his diary – “no organisation, no particular leader, just a city full of hungry people who have stood enough and are ready to die if necessary before they will put up with any more tsarism”.

Although Hall’s account was rather simplistic, this was indeed a revolution in search of a leader. On 2 March the tsar abdicated, but plans for a constitutional monarchy evaporated when his brother Mikhail refused the throne, leaving Russia headless. A rump of the parliament dithered and bickered in one wing of the Tauride Palace, while a heaving jumble of soldiers, workers and activists in the other wing congealed into the “Petrograd Soviet”. Aptly, they were on the left of the palace and the politicians were on the right, with little to connect the two sides. The politicians became the Provisional Government but the soviet had authority over the army. “Dual power” signalled a duel for power.

The duel proved painfully protracted. Four coalitions ensued in less than nine months, not to mention seven major reshuffles. Meanwhile the country slipped towards civil war – a process well documented by Stephen Smith in Russia in Revolution, based on a deft synthesis of recent research. Peasants with guns and pitchforks looted the big houses and seized the estates. Workers’ committees took control of much of the defence industry. In the army, “all discipline has vanished”, the French ambassador told Paris. “Deserters are wandering over Russia.” Smith emphasises that February aroused idealism as well as anarchy: a yearning for political rights, decent living standards and, above all, peace. Yet the leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, decided to mount a summer offensive against the Germans, which quickly became a disaster, with vast losses of troops and territory. The people were turning against the government but the indecisive duel dragged on.

Enter Lenin. Contrary to Soviet mythology, he was not a “man of the people”. His father belonged to the provincial establishment – a reformist inspector of schools in the Simbirsk region, south-east of Moscow. Lenin’s pedigree was also hushed up by the Soviet authorities: his maternal grandfather was Jewish and his paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk from central Asia, hence those “Mongol eyes” and high cheekbones. Most of all, he was a man who had been going nowhere for years, or, rather, had been going round in circles. Yet when finally he went for the jugular it proved decisive for him – and fatal for Russia.

Victor Sebestyen brings the man’s complexities to life in Lenin the Dictator, balancing personality with politics in succinct and readable prose. Like other biographers, Sebestyen roots young Vladimir’s revolutionary turn in the double trauma in 1886-87 of his father’s sudden death and his elder brother’s execution for plotting to kill the tsar. From now on Lenin’s one-track, control-freak mind was fixed on the goal of a Russian revolution, in defiance of Karl Marx’s insistence that this would be impossible until feudal peasant Russia had first become a bourgeois society.

For three decades, however, the would-be revolutionary was a failure, spending much of his time in exile flitting between Munich, London, Paris and various “holes” in Switzerland – Geneva, Bern, Zurich – endlessly plotting revolution, frenziedly writing revolution, but not actually doing revolution. In fact, Lenin seemed to have a knack of being in the wrong place at the right time: outside Russia in the upheavals of 1905, likewise when war broke out in ­August 1914, and again when tsarism was toppled in February 1917. It was almost as if he was so obsessed with revolution that he could never see it coming.

This life of frustrated waiting took an enormous toll on nerves and health. Sebestyen describes particularly keenly how this ruthless, domineering, often vicious man depended on three women to sustain him. There was Maria Ulyanova, his mother, who provided financial and emotional support until her death in 1916. Then his wife, Nadezhda (“Nadya”) Krupskaya – written off in Soviet times as a mere cook and amanuensis, but who Sebestyen and other biographers show to be an intelligent and devoted partner in the revolutionary project and one with whom Lenin talked out his ideas before writing them down. And Inessa Armand, a chic French divorcee for whom Lenin fell, passionately, in the only real “affair” of his life. A superb linguist and accomplished pianist, Inessa was not only his sharpest intellectual critic but also an intrepid party organiser, undertaking dangerous missions in Russia. Nadya accepted the ménage à trois with remarkable equanimity and the two women seem to have become good friends. Nadya, who was childless, was especially fond of Inessa’s two young daughters.

Lenin might have gone to his grave playing out this pointless life of head and heart but for the accident of the February revolution. Now frantic to get back to Petrograd, he could not see how to travel from Zurich across or around war-torn Europe. His plans to do so became increasingly surreal. A wig to conceal his giveaway bald pate? Maybe a Swedish passport? (Forgeries were easily obtained.) “Find a Swede who looks like me,” he instructed a Bolshevik in Stockholm. “But as I know no Swedish, he will have to be a deaf mute.”

In the end, the kaiser’s Germany came to his rescue, eager to undermine Russia’s home front. To quote Winston Churchill’s celebrated one-liner, “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

In Lenin on the Train, Catherine Merridale tells the famous story with colour and detail, setting it in the crucible of a Europe at war. Her introduction relates how she faithfully retraced his 2,000-mile journey to Petrograd, even leaving Zurich on the same date as Lenin, though this personal odyssey is not then woven into the body of the book. And because her account does not extend as far as the October revolution, we finish the book on a slight sense of anticlimax. But Merridale offers an engrossing account of the physical train ride – in a single wooden carriage, painted green, consisting of three second-class and five third-class compartments plus a baggage room. German guards sat at the back behind a chalk line on the floor, to preserve the fiction that Lenin had no contact with Russia’s enemy.

A martinet as ever, he imposed specific sleeping hours on his Bolshevik fellow travellers, banned smoking in the compartments and corridor, and instituted a pass system to regulate use of the toilet between smokers and those answering the call of nature. After a tense delay in Berlin, the train chugged on to Germany’s Baltic coast, from where a ferry and then more train journeys through Sweden and Finland brought Lenin to the Finland Station in Petrograd on Easter Monday, 3 April.

That night he delivered a tub-thumping, two-hour speech to his socialist comrades explaining that the first phase of Russia’s revolution was over and the second was beginning. Not for him a coalition of the left, let alone the British/French staging post of liberal democracy: the Russian bourgeoisie was locked in to capitalism and wedded to the war. No, the second stage was quite simply to “place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasantry”. To most of his listeners, Merridale remarks, “this was not just bad Marxist theory; it was an invitation to political suicide”. Even Nadya was overheard telling a friend, “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”

Once home again, Lenin seemed to succumb to the Petrograd paralysis. He hectored large crowds and churned out endless articles, insisting, “No great question . . . has yet been resolved in history other than by force.” But in June he warned key aides not to let anti-war demonstrations get out of hand: “Even if we were now able to seize power, we’re in no position to hold it.” When the protests did escalate and the government cracked down, he fled to Finland, provoking bitter accusations of cowardice from many of his jailed supporters.

But finally he went for broke. After three months in exile again, he slipped back into Petrograd on the night of 10 October to browbeat the Bolshevik Central Committee into affirming that the time was “perfectly ripe” for “an armed uprising” against Ker­ensky and the Provisional Government, rejecting arguments that they should work for a peaceful transfer of power at the Second Congress of Soviets 15 days later. As Sebestyen observes, “If anything disproves the Marxist idea that it is not individuals who make history but broad social and economic forces it is Lenin’s revolution.”

On 24 October, Lenin’s comrades tried to keep him tucked away on the Vyborg Side because he was still on the government’s wanted list. But by the evening he could not endure to wait yet again in the wings. Crudely disguised with glasses, a grey wig and a worker’s peaked cap, he took off for the Smolny Institute where the Bolsheviks had their military headquarters. Without a car or tank for transport, he and one bodyguard got on a tram to the Liteiny Bridge and then tramped the rest of the way along the embankment, narrowly avoiding arrest. Like the protesters in their February revolution, Lenin walked into Red October – and finally into history.

Today Lenin’s mummified body still resides in its shrine in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. But in fact, as Sebestyen writes, Tsar Nicholas “did as much as anyone, including Lenin, to bring about the destruction of the Romanov dynasty and to ensure the Communist takeover in Russia” – not just by setting his face against reforms that might have averted revolution, but also because he had “no understanding of the nature of power”. Russia in 1917 was “an ­autocracy without an autocrat”.

In The Last of the Tsars, Robert Service ­examines the mentality of this lost leader. He does so through the lens of Nicholas’s experiences and reflections during the 16 months between his abdication in March 1917 and his family’s grisly end in July 1918. The tsar’s limp surrender of the throne ­continues to amaze. Emotional exhaustion; pressure from the army command; concern for his haemophiliac son; the impossibility of squaring a constitutional monarchy with his coronation oath: one can intuit possible explanations. But it still seems astonishing that this proud scion of the Romanov dynasty, rulers of Russia for three centuries, signed away his throne on a provincial railway station with blank calm – as if, to quote one aide, “he were turning over command of a cavalry squadron”.

The abdication wasn’t something Nicholas discussed during his peripatetic house arrest in 1917-18 around western Siberia and the Urals. Nor did the eks-Imperator (as he was described on his ration card) express any regret about his record as a ruler: he blamed Russia’s woes on alien forces instead. Top of the list were the German invaders and the Bolshevik revolutionaries: he described the peace treaty that Lenin signed with the Kaiserreich, surrendering the Baltic states and the Ukraine, as a “nightmare”. The tsar may have been a devoted husband and father – romanticised in the movie based on Robert Massie’s 50th-anniversary encomium Nicholas and Alexandra – but, as Service writes: “In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist and a virulent anti-Semite.”

Originally the Bolsheviks had envisaged a show trial, like those of Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France. But by July 1918 the time had passed for political theatre: Russia was engulfed in civil war and hostile Czech troops were closing in on Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs were now being held. Service has no doubt that Lenin authorised the killing but – as in 1917 when he was trying to cover up German help and money – any documentation was destroyed. Instead, conveniently in keeping with the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the soviets”, responsibility for the deed was ascribed to party leaders in Ekaterinburg.

Yet even after Nicholas’s death his regime lived on. “As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian,” Orlando Figes remarked in his 1996 classic, A People’s Tragedy. “It was a mirror-image of the tsarist state.” Lenin and Stalin replaced the Tsar-God, and the Cheka/NKVD/KGB continued (even more systematically) the brutal work of the tsarist police state. In a new introduction to a reprint of his book, Figes emphasises that Putinism is also rooted in this Russian past – in the enduring weakness of civil society and the scant experience of deep democracy.

Not that the West can easily point the finger at Russia. In the age of Trump and Brexit, with an ossified EU and a global refugee crisis, we should not be complacent about the sophistication of our own democracy, or about the thin screen that separates peace and civilisation from the law of the jungle.

The American diplomat and historian George Kennan described the Great War as “the seminal tragedy” of the 20th century – seedbed of so many horrors to come. The events of 1917 were its bitter first fruit. As Stephen Smith writes, “[T]here is a great deal to learn from the history of the Russian Revolution about how the thirst for power, the enthusiasm for violence, and contempt for law and ethics can corrupt projects that begin with the finest ideals.” 

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit