In August 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn provided a graphic account of the Great War’s pivotal first month on the Eastern Front. Too often, our attention is drawn to faulty execution of Schlieffen’s plan and the ensuing stalemate a thousand miles to the west. Solzhenitsyn masterfully captures the War’s opening events in East Prussia, using a blend of history and fiction to educate the reader on all levels of war: strategic, operational, and tactical. A credible historical account of what would later become known as the Battle of Tannenberg, and Solzhenitsyn’s adroit use of the fictional Colonel Vorotyntsev give the reader marvelous insights into 19th-century Russia’s foolhardy attempt to support a bleating ally and take on a 20th-century army before it was ready to do so (and much earlier than von Schlieffen thought possible when he developed his famous plan). The results proved that the Russians learned little from their 1905 debacle with Japan.

The book has something for everyone, whether the reader’s interested in Russia’s tough peasant army, the seeds of revolution, or even intrigues in the Tsar’s court. Its great strength, however, lies in its dissection of military events at the operational level of war. Although most readers of this review are familiar with Russian performance at Tannenberg—ineffective tactical intelligence, woeful operational security (sending troop movement and position location information en clair), and lack of coordination between two massive armies—there is much more.

Careerism oozes from the pages. Russian generals, particularly at corps level and above, owed their positions more to familiarity at court than demonstrated operational ability. They failed almost universally. Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and German corps commanders ran circles around them. Russian tenacity and incredible bravery at regimental and battalion levels were consistently squandered by ill-informed, even cowardly senior commanders, exacerbated by inadequate artillery and nonexistent logistical support. Yet, the ill-advised and premature Russian attack on the home of the Junker class in East Prussia ultimately caused two German corps to be shifted from west to east. As a result, the outcome transcends what happened in the dense forests around those Masurian Lakes and indirectly contributed to four years of trench warfare in the west and directly to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Solzhenitsyn captures all of it as only a Russian could. If unfamiliar with Tannenberg, consider first scanning the relevant pages of John Keegan’s First World War. August 1914 should be required reading at all our nation’s senior war colleges. It is a primer on senior leadership.

overlay image