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Nicholas II may not have led men in battle, but he did command from the front—to the ultimate detriment of his country, his army, his family and himself.

Reporting on recent Russian military adventures in eastern Ukraine, Time magazine put Russian President Vladimir Putin on its cover with the headline What Putin Wants. The editors answered their own rhetorical question, listing Premier, President and Czar in descending order with the first two crossed out. If Time is right and Putin has ambitions of being a 21st century czar, he should study the military misadventures of Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II.

Nicholas occupies a unique niche in history as the last warrior-king to lead his armies from the front. The history of Europe is littered with other monarchs who personally led troops in combat—some victoriously, most not so much—notably Charles XII of Sweden, Peter the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, Britain’s George II and Emperor Napoléon I of France. In 1743 George II was the last British monarch to ride into battle, but Continental royalty was old-fashioned. The last European monarchs to face each other on the battlefield were France’s Napoléon III and Italian ally Victor Emmanuel II against Austria’s Franz Josef I at Solferino in 1859. Known as “the Battle of the Emperors,” that engagement for all practical purposes brought down the curtain on emperors as field marshals. With the advent of mechanized warfare in the 20th century most everyone agreed wars should be left to the professionals. Fighting kings seemed a thing of the past—at least until Czar Nicholas II, “Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.”

Born into the Romanov dynasty, Nicholas’ position in relation to his army was different from that of his contemporaries George V of England, Franz Josef I of Austria and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. More so than any other European army, the Imperial Russian Army pledged its loyalty to its sovereign. Its uniforms bore the imperial coat of arms, not the Russian flag.

Nicholas considered himself a soldier in the finest tradition of Romanov royal sons. He had received extensive military training and instruction in his youth and been appointed to the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Life Guards, giving him the right to wear an officer’s uniform for the rest of his life. In photographs Nicholas is always pictured in uniform and often surrounded by similarly uniformed men, suggesting he was a full-fledged member of the officer corps. Yet, not even in the imperial Russian military did he ever reach the rank of general, and unlike his idol, Peter the Great, he never commanded men in battle. The closest he got to any action was reviewing the troops. Those who knew Nicholas best admired him for what he was—a modest, charming, mild-mannered fellow who happened to be next in line to the throne when his father died in 1894. The immense burden of measuring up to his illustrious ancestors rested on narrow shoulders. He tended to follow the advice of the last person with whom he spoke, especially if that person were his wife, Alexandra “Alix” Feodorovna, a member of the German nobility and a granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria.

As the world geared up for war in 1914, Nicholas was haunted by memories of the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War. In humiliating twin defeats at the hands of the Japanese—at Mukden, Manchuria, on March 10, 1905, and in the Tsushima Strait on May 28—Russia lost 100,000 men and the better part of its navy. The czar was forced to accept a peace treaty mediated by the United States only to learn afterward that Russian land forces had been in a good position to drive the Japanese from Manchuria. The military debacle and resulting loss of confidence on the Russian home front helped spark political and social unrest. Nicholas convinced himself that had he gone to the front for a firsthand view of things, he would have made the right decisions.

At a training camp in Veliky Novgorod, Nicolas consecrates a dragoon regiment about to deploy. (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo)

At the outset of World War I Russia’s biggest military advantage was its vast manpower reserve. Since the days of Alexander I the elite branches of the army had been the artillery and the cavalry, neither of which had changed its doctrine or organization since the Napoléonic wars. The army’s greatest weaknesses were its industrial backwardness and a highly politicized officer corps, with hundreds of supernumerary generals and colonels. Events soon proved that Russian soldiers’ bravery and devotion to their “Little Father” were no substitutes for rifles, motor transport and a modern air force. At the top was Nicholas Romanov, all anyone could ask for in an ally—a team player, loyal and principled—but not a seasoned commander in chief.

Nicholas’ decisions on the eve of the war placed Russia at a disadvantage even before the first shots were fired. He had long sought to avoid conflict by remaining in personal telegraphic contact with his German counterpart and cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II. Ultimately pressured by his own generals to seize the initiative, Nicholas ordered partial mobilization of the army on July 28, 1914. The next day, after being advised that halfway measures would throw the army into chaos, the czar ordered general mobilization, causing an alarmed German high command to shift into high gear with its own war plans. After receiving a telegram from Wilhelm, Nicholas again ordered partial mobilization, then on renewed pressure from his generals and ministers changed his mind once more and reinstated general mobilization, thus exasperating his own military and confusing his allies. Regardless, on August 1 Germany declared war on Russia, and German troops crossed the Belgian border three days later. Nicholas ordered an immediate invasion of Prussia. These early miscalculations set the pattern for the czar over the course of the conflict.

On the first day of the war he appointed his cousin Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich supreme commander in chief, adding cryptically, “until I can join the army.” The czar’s military advisers all agreed with his decision. Fifty-seven-year-old Nikolayevich was a graduate of the General Staff Academy, had fought bravely in the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War and was awarded the nation’s highest military decoration. However, Nicholas decided to pick his cousin’s staff.

Nikolayevich first established his Stavka, or general headquarters, at the railway junction of Baranovichi (in present-day Belarus), roughly midway between the German and Austrian fronts. In 1915, under pressure from German advances, he relocated it farther east to Mogilev. Though the high command did its best to keep Nicholas in Petrograd (recently renamed from St. Petersburg to sound less German), the war was not yet a month old when the czar made his first of many visits to the Stavka. No one could accuse him of lacking courage. When he did visit, the generals tried to keep him occupied by having him inspect fortifications, decorate heroic soldiers and make rousing speeches. They were happiest when he remained home at the imperial palace.

In Mogilev he stayed in the provincial governor’s house but was at headquarters each morning by 9:30. There he reviewed reports, usually followed by a leisurely lunch, and in the afternoon he might visit the men in their camps before ending the day visiting field hospitals. Reviewing his soldiers in formation never failed to cheer him, leading Nicholas to believe he was really making a difference. After a dinner prepared by his personal chef and served on the royal dinnerware, he would sit in on planning sessions until late at night. He often brought his young son and heir, Alexis, with him on these visits, considering it good training for the future emperor. Meanwhile, Alexandra remained in Petrograd as regent, running the country in his absence, listening to no one but Grigori Rasputin, her manipulative mystic adviser.

Nicholas’ early hesitation to inject himself directly into military operations lasted less than a year. Leaving final decisions to the supreme commander and his staff was fine, but Nicholas’ title and the Life Guards uniform he invariably wore made it impossible to ignore his helpful suggestions—which were really orders in more circumspect language. A facial expression in council, even the twitch of any eyebrow, could indicate disapproval, and one did not rise to high rank in the imperial Russian army without knowing how to placate royalty.

In the second year of the war he detailed his activities in a book, His Royal Highness Emperor Nicholas II Serving in the Army, published under the imprimatur of the Ministry of the Imperial Court. According to the memoir he had personally met thousands of soldiers, thanked them for their service and consoled them for their losses. He expressed hope his presence would inspire them to even greater “feats of defiance.” The book recapped his visits to fortifications, field hospitals and captured German entrenchments—of which there were few. It included a portrait of Nicholas in his Life Guards uniform. As most of his soldiers were illiterate, the book was obviously aimed at the upper classes back home, to remind them of the burdens their emperor had to bear.

By 1915 good news was hard to come by. The army had been pushed out of eastern Prussia and Poland, knocked back on its heels on almost every front, in the process losing 1 million men killed or wounded with another three-quarters of a million captured. No army could sustain such losses. The intensely loyal and modestly trained force that had entered the war had been largely destroyed. By 1917 only one officer in 10 was a veteran; their replacements were conscripts and malcontents. Nicholas tried to stay informed about field operations on every front, rewarding performance and weeding out incompetence, and always in the back of his mind was the belief his position gave him the divine right to assume personal command should he so choose. The thought horrified his senior officers, but Nicholas’ wife encouraged it; Alexandra firmly believed her “Nicky” should be at the head of his soldiers.

By the latter half of 1915 refugees and dispirited soldiers choked the roads leading out of Russian Poland. Nicholas felt he could remain on the sidelines no longer. The only way to save Russia was to take charge of the army himself. From Mogilev he telegraphed his cousin George V in England: “In this serious time which my country is going through, I have decided to take the leadership of my armies in my own hands. In announcing to you this fact, I once more express my conviction that with God’s help and through the combined efforts of the Allies, their final victory will crown this bloody war.” It may not have been the King’s English, but it was clear enough to perturb George V about the state of affairs with his Eastern ally. By mid-August Grand Duke Nicholas was out and Czar Nicholas in as supreme commander, with General Mikhail Alekseyev as chief of staff of the Stavka. Nicholas still saw his own role largely as morale booster rather than field commander, but everyone from his allies to his ministers in Petrograd knew the truth—he was commander in chief in all matters. Defenders of the move have since argued that no one else at his disposal was capable of command, but it is apparent Nicholas believed in some mystical way his hour was at hand. He did not so much have the inspired courage of a Joan of Arc; in an unguarded moment he mused aloud, “Perhaps a scapegoat is needed to save Russia.” Ever in his corner, Alexandra encouraged his fantasy of being personally called to save Russia, and she saw only better days ahead with him at the head of his armies.

The Russian officer corps met the stunning turn of events with remarkable acquiescence, perhaps due to their avowed loyalty to the czar first and nation second. But while the way was open for Nicholas to exercise his full royal prerogative, in characteristic fashion he hesitated. Though regularly presiding over councils of war, he tried not to impose his will except when necessary to resolve an argument. His officers all knew this, however, thus they often resolved arguments in keeping with his opinions. Nicholas leaned heavily on Alekseyev, a hardheaded and unpopular traditionalist. But unlike his cousin Wilhelm, Nicholas did not feel bound to respect the hierarchy of his general staff. He sometimes ignored them, who then suggested summoning senior commanders for personal meetings, during which he interrogated them closely about their plans.

Nicholas’ first year as supreme commander seemed to confirm he had picked the right man for the job. He replaced the timid General Nikolay Ivanov on the Southeastern Front with the dynamic Aleksey Brusilov, who in the summer of 1916 justified his promotion by directing what one historian has called “the most massive and successful Allied offensive” of the war, nearly knocking out Austria-Hungary and shaking the German high command down to its jackboots.

Yet each time Nicholas did something commendable, he did something reckless, such as calling off Brusilov’s successful offensive due to mounting casualties, or appointing his uncle the incompetent Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich to lead an army outside the regular chain of command. Whatever morale benefit Nicholas’ presence produced at army headquarters, it was more than offset by the rampant intrigue and growing despair encouraged by his frequent absences from court. Indeed, Nicholas generally enjoyed himself at the Stavka. Back in Petrograd he saw nothing but carping and crisis all around.

At the Stavka he could issue sweeping orders everyone quickly obeyed. On June 14, 1916, he held a council of his ministers and generals, groups that never communicated directly. They met in an open-sided tent erected alongside the imperial train. To buck up the fainthearted, Nicholas announced his unwavering commitment to “fight to a victorious end.” Later that year he dismissed his prime minister for seeking to open negotiations with Germany toward a separate peace. Nicholas was determined there would be no surrender. He had made that mistake with Japan. Never again.

Nicholas’ decision to name himself supreme commander fed his ego and brought a certain degree of stability to military operations, but it also tied his own fate to that of his armies. Their collective failures became his personal failures. One of the few pieces of good advice he had received came in 1914 from Rasputin, who had begged him not to get involved in the war, “for war will mean the end of Russia and [the royal family], and you will lose to the last man.” As the advancing Germans continued to rout and annihilate Russian troops, the blame fell on Nicholas. His doctor and Alexandra each worried he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Adding to his woes on the battlefront was unrest on the home front, and in March 1917 politics overtook military matters. Radicals in the State Duma decided the monarchy had to go. They seized power and formed a provisional government. When word reached Nicholas in Mogilev, he hopped a train and raced toward Petrograd, a day’s ride north.

The czar seemingly believed he would save his empire. In later years historians and czarists alike would criticize his decision to leave army headquarters. Though the Russian army was battered by mutiny, mass desertion and massive casualties, Nicholas was jumping from the frying pan into the fire. A brewing revolution awaited him in Petrograd. The Stavka, the sole remaining instrument of his royal authority, was perhaps the safest harbor for him. Regardless, he never made it to Petrograd.

In the early morning hours of March 3, 1917, Czar Nicholas met secretly with four men—Duma representatives Aleksandr Guchkov and Vasily Shulgin and generals Nikolai Ruzsky and Yuri Danilov—in a car of the imperial train parked at Pskov, little more than halfway to Petrograd. They told him that both the general populace and his beloved army were in revolt, more out of disillusionment and war-weariness than any conspiracy. The officials advised him the only way to save the nation and the dynasty was to transfer power—in short, abdicate. They had expected an argument; what they met was meek compliance. Nicholas signed the papers they drew up, naming his brother Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich successor (a decision negated by the provisional government the next day) and reappointing Grand Duke Nikolayevich to the post of supreme commander in chief.

Having removed himself from all decision-making, Nicholas returned to the Stavka rather than continuing to the capital, perhaps believing it his duty. The next day he addressed the written announcement of his abdication not to the nation or even the Duma but to his beloved army, to the end clinging to his view of himself as warrior-king. The signed document even referenced the revolutionary upheaval from a military standpoint: “Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war.” Yet even in the midst of internal collapse he sought to cheer his men: “The cruel enemy is making his last efforts, and the hour approaches when our glorious army together with our gallant allies will crush him!…May the Lord God help Russia!” A March 2 entry in his journal reflected darker thoughts: “All around me are treason, cowardice and deceit.”

As usual the train had already left the station for Nicholas II. After 500 years of czarist rule Russians had forced out their emperor, ending Nicholas’ reign and the 300-year Romanov dynasty. No one was more surprised than Nicholas when the army dutifully fell in line with the provisional government. A year later the revolutionary Bolshevik government signed a treaty with Germany, ending Russia’s participation in World War I, though civil war loomed.

Napoléon III reportedly once said of his nemesis Franz Josef that the Austrian monarch could lose a battle, perhaps even a war, and still remain emperor, whereas he, the French emperor, was dependent on success to keep his throne. Nicholas II faced a similar predicament in World War I. Wilhelm II or Franz Josef might have negotiated a peace settlement as late as the spring of 1918 and remained in power. But from the time he took over as Russian commander in chief, the czar’s fate hung largely on his success on the battlefield.

History must assess Nicholas’ performance on several levels: Did his conduct rally his people to the throne? Did his participation in war councils have a positive effect? Did he do his duty? On only one of those points did Nicholas succeed: Whatever else he did or did not do, no one could ever accuse him of not doing his duty. His precipitous fall is unprecedented. Nicholas had never received so much love from his people as he did at the outbreak of the war. Unfortunately, he mistook their love of the monarchy and Mother Russia as love for himself.

Vladimir Putin seems to entertain dreams of being another Peter the Great. He should take heed, lest he become another Nicholas II. However the current Ukrainian mess plays out, perhaps Putin can draw comfort from the fact that in 1996 the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas and his family as saints, complete with gilt halos on their iconic image. Win or lose, Putin might aspire to that distinction. 

Fort Worth native Richard Selcer has taught and written about history for four decades. He is the author of 10 books and dozens of magazine articles. For further reading he recommends The Last Tsar, by Edvard Radzinsky; and Nicholas II: Emperor of All the Russias, by Dominic Leven.