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Literature / August 1914

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August 1914 is a 1971 historical fiction novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

It focuses on the Battle of Tannenberg between Germany and Russia in 1914, the first major engagement on the Eastern Front of World War I. At the start of hostilities the Russians invade the German province of East Prussia. Their armies are hastily organized and poorly equipped, lacking in transportation. Army intelligence is nearly non-existent, leaving the First and Second Army to enter German territory almost blind. The Russian armies are slow and ponderous, marching in territory mostly without railroads, leaving the men footsore and starving. There is no coordination between them, with the First Army taking a leisurely break after its first battle while the Second Army penetrates deep into enemy territory around Tannenberg. Worst of all, the Russians are horribly led, with nearly the entire senior officer corps consisting of fat old incompetent careerist generals, who are too lazy, too cowardly, or too stupid to rise to the crisis of the moment.


The result is disaster, as the Second Army is surrounded and annihilated by the Germans in the most spectacular victory either side enjoyed in the whole war.

The central character is Colonel Vorotyntsev, an officer from the General Staff sent to Second Army to assess the state of affairs. Colonel Vorotyntsev, who in contrast to his superiors is highly competent and intelligent, flits about from spot to spot during the battle, trying frantically to warn his superiors of the decaying situation and get them to take action before it's too late. Also prominently featured as a point-of-view character is General Samsonov, the Real Life commander of Second Army, an amiable dunce who is in way, way over his head, and Yaroslav Kharitonov, a lieutenant who commands a platoon in the thick of the action.


This was the first volume in Solzhenitsyn's "Red Wheel" series that chronicled the collapse of Tsarist Russia. It was followed by November 1916, March 1917, and April 1917.


  • Abandoned Area: Several different Russian units grow steadily more nervous as they advance through East Prussia and find nobody—no German soldiers, no German civilians, just a lot of empty houses in unfortified towns and villages. The reason, as events prove, is that the Germans have deliberately withdrawn in order to lure Second Army into the interior of East Prussia, where it can be surrounded and destroyed.
  • Alternative Calendar: Not that you would know it from reading the text. But all dates given in the narrative are dates from the Julian calendar still used by the Orthodox Church and thus by the government of Tsarist Russia in 1914. The Julian calendar was thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar used by Western countries, so all dates given in this book are thirteen days behind what one will find in non-fiction histories of the battle of Tannenberg.
  • Call-Back: As Vorotyntsev arrives for the meeting of the General Staff in the last chapter, his buddy Svechin observes that all the generals are waiting for is news of the capture of Lvov; taking the city is meaningless as the Russians bungled and allowed the Austrians to escape but presenting it as a "victory" would allow the army and the government to sweep Tannenberg under the rug. On the last page of the novel, as Vorotyntsev is leaving the meeting, the telegram arrives.
  • Call-Forward: Vorotyntsev, while fully understanding how incompetent Nicholas II is and how his government is full of knaves and stooges, has nothing but contempt for those anti-Tsarist types who took joy when the Russians were defeated by the Japanese. He understands just how bad for the country that humiliation was and how much worse it could be if the war against Germany goes bad.
    "It only needed two or three such defeats in succession for the backbone of the country to be put out of joint forever and for a thousand-year-old nation to be utterly destroyed."
  • Cannon Fodder: How infantry officer Sasha Lenartovich thinks of himself after just one day under German bombardment. He decides to surrender.
  • The Cassandra: Vorotyntsev. In particular, he is shocked and horrified to find out that Samsonov's headquarters is sending out orders to subordinate commanders "in clear"—that is, uncoded, over the open air. Samsonov and the toadies at HQ blow him off, telling him that their radio operators are too stupid to work a code and that the Germans probably aren't listening anyway. The Germans are listening and the info they gain from monitoring Russian radio proves crucial in springing the trap.
  • Colonel Badass: Vorotyntsev. He is one of a group of reformist officers called the "Young Turks", younger officers that recognize the hopeless backwardness of the Russian army and the desperate need to update everything. He sees how events are deteriorating at Tannenberg and tries, and fails, to get senior commanders to take necessary action.
  • Deleted Scene: In-Universe. When this book was first published in the West Chapter 22 was omitted, with a message saying "Chapter 22 is omitted at the author's request." What actually happened is that Chapter 22 was A Day in the Limelight chapter in which Vladimir Lenin, then in exile in Western Europe, anticipates the opportunity for revolution that the war provided. This chapter was deleted at the insistence of Soviet censors. It was included in later, expanded versions of this novel.
  • Dirty Coward: Several of Samsonov's generals, who at various times simply refuse orders to advance or to hold positions, sometimes retreating all the way back into Russia. General Klyuev surrenders even though his troops want to fight on and he actually outnumbers the Germans in his front by quite a bit.
  • Due to the Dead: While trying to find his way back to Russian lines through the forest, Vorotyntsev is surprised to find a few survivors of the Dorogobuzh regiment carrying the body of their commander, Col. Kabanov, back to Russia for burial—that is, carrying a corpse on a stretcher through the trackless forest on a foot journey that will last for days. When he encounters them they have already carried Col. Kabanov's body 25 miles. Eventually Vorotyntsev talks the late colonel's men into giving him a burial, with full Orthodox rites, in the forest.
  • Driven to Suicide: As happened in Real Life, General Samsonov wanders off into the forest and shoots himself.
  • A Father to His Men: These exact words are used to describe brave Col. Peruvshin, who leads the disorganized remnants of XIII Corps in its last desperate breakout attempt. He is killed as he personally leads a charge against the German lines.
  • French Jerk: The German general Francois is a brilliant tactician who not only makes his Russian opponents look like the morons they are, but also outshines his own superiors like Ludendorff. He is also arrogant and condescending and insolent towards those same superiors. And he happens to be a descendant of exiled French nobility.
    "However much he might deny the fact or suppress it, there was still something of the turbulent Frenchman in von Francois."
  • General Failure: Almost all of them, starting with Samsonov, who is dull-witted and indecisive. At the moment of crisis all he can think to do is move up closer to the advancing center corps, which is not just pointless, it is actively harmful, as he loses contact with the left and right wing. General Artamov panics and withdraws the left wing at the worst possible time. Another commander simply refuses to hold a vital rail junction that the Russians needed to hold for the army to retreat. All of this is in contrast to the masterful German General Francois, who runs rings around the Russians.
  • Heroic BSoD: Samsonov, not a strong leader when things were going well, completely unravels when the scope of the disaster becomes clear. Vorotyntsev is startled to find Samsonov in the middle of a large but disorganized concentration of Russian troops at Orlau, chatting in a paternal manner with them but making no effort to organize them and get them out. Vorotyntsev is further shocked when Samsonov doesn't even seem to recognize him. For the rest of his story until he finally shoots himself, Samsonov is lost in his own thoughts, hardly bothering to pay attention to what is happening around him.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many. Leo Tolstoy pops up in a flashback, Samsonov is a main POV character, his vastly more competent German counterpart General Francois is also a POV character, and other Real Life senior commanders like the Russian General Martos are seen/mentioned. The extended edition includes several more, such as Lenin, Tsar Nicholas II, and Petyr Stolypin, the Russian prime minister assassinated in 1911.
  • Historical Fiction: A novel about the disastrous Russian defeat at Tannenberg, which started the ball rolling that ended with the destruction of Tsarist Russia.
  • Insignia Ripoff Ritual: Mixed with Shameful Strip. As Samsonov and his headquarters party, now reduced to a few frightened officers on foot, are trying to find a way out of the forest, the headquarters staff all rip off their officer's epaulettes. Samsonov is horrified, but they force him to do the same. Technically it's to hide their identities and their high rank in case they are captured, but Samsonov finds it humiliating—not only does it bring home the scope of his failure but it forces him to recognize that his staff officers are no longer obeying him, that he no longer commands anybody. Very soon after this he walks off into the forest and shoots himself in the head.
  • It Will Never Catch On: One chapter is nothing more than a series of newspaper headlines and stories as war approaches. One story calls the conflict "THE LAST WAR IN EUROPEAN HISTORY" and goes on to explain that "a European war cannot be a prolonged conflict."
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Filimonov, one of Samsonov's staffers, is a bootlicking jerkass who flatters Samsonov to his face while issuing misguided orders behind his back and obstructing officers like Vorotyntsev who actually know what they're doing. But when Samsonov decides to move headquarters to Nadrau, right behind the vanguard, Filimonov correctly points out that not only will this break his communications with the General Staff (Samsonov's real point behind the move), it will cause him to lose communication with his left and right wings. Samsonov ignores him, and as a consequence loses all operational control of either wing of his army.
  • Last Stand: The Dorogobuzh regiment is ordered to make a stand to cover the retreat of the rest of an army corps. They do, holding up the Germans until sunset, but in the process getting almost all of their regiment slaughtered. The narration wonders how it is that men can sometimes stop fearing death.
  • Medium Blending: A couple of passages, among the more surreal ones, abandon the prose format and describe the action as a sort of blend between screenplay and free verse poetry. Other chapters abandon the novel format, and are just straight history describing the events unfolding as the Russians march into a German trap.
  • No Help Is Coming: This happens a lot as Second Army falls apart, mainly due to the sheer cowardice of most of the Russian generals. Late in the story General Nechvolodov, one of the few competent Russian generals, enters the outskirts of Willenberg. There are hardly any Germans in his way and all he needs is some support from divisional headquarters to push on another mile or so, open up a link to the Russians inside the encirclement, and allow thousands to escape. But instead he gets a telegram from his gutless commanders telling him to withdraw.
  • No Indoor Voice: Zakhar Tomchak the Ukranian farmer/landowner is said to be "incapable of speaking in a polite murmur," instead speaking in a booming voice all the time regardless of setting, like when he's talking to his daughter's teacher.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: At one point the author pauses to reassure the audience that he is not making things up and things really were just that bad and the Russians really were that incompetent and really did bungle just that badly.
    "No one would dare to write a fictional account of such unrelieved blackness...a writer would distribute the light and shade more evenly...What novelist would be believed if he wrote that General Klyuev, who led the center corps farthest of all into Prussia, had never before seen active service?
  • Overly-Nervous Flop Sweat:
    • Samsonov is several times described as mopping off his sweaty bald forehead, as the pressure of events overwhelms him. One time his flop sweat drips on a map as Samsonov looks at a map and starts to get an inkling of how badly things have gone.
    • Klyuev the Dirty Coward also has to mop his sweaty brow, but in his case he gets the bright idea to use his handkerchief as a white flag.
  • Patriotic Fervor: In the early going a woman named Varya boggles at how the war fever has changed the tone of the conversation in Russia, how just weeks ago all thinking Russians regarded Nicholas II as a contemptible joke, but now they cheer him.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The last chapter of the novel is Vorotyntsev, back at army headquarters, going on a long rant in which he recounts the bumbling incompetence of the General Staff and all the many errors it made as it sent Samsonov and Second Army to destruction.
  • Re-Cut: An extended version was released by Solzhenitsyn after the fall of Communism. This version included a chapter about Lenin that was removed in 1971 on the insistence of the Soviet authorities, as well as additional material on Petyr Stolypin (the reformist prime minister of Russia, assassinated in 1911) and Tsar Nicholas II.
  • Rousing Speech: Averted. Samsonov meets fleeing Russian troops at Nadrau and attempts to give them a Rousing Speech to snap them back to attention and duty—and draws a complete blank. All he can do is bleat a few platitudes.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: Vorotyntsev watches a Russian wagon train cross a bridge. One carter "even contrived to bounce along the cobbled road in a squatting Russian dance." Besides adding a little bit of atmosphere, this whole passage is meant to demonstrate how crude and half-assed the Russian supply system is; a theme throughout the whole book is how thoroughly Easy Logistics is averted, as Russian soldiers starve for days while on the march.
  • Title by Year: The story is set in August 1914.
  • Total Eclipse of the Plot: A civilian character mentions having seen a total eclipse. There was in fact a total eclipse of the Sun visible in (among other places) the western reaches of the Russian Empire, just a few days before the battle of Tannenberg.