European Royalty: Russia--The Tsaraevich Alexis and the War Years

Figure 1.--After Alexei joined his father at the front in 1915, he generally appeared in an army uniform.

World War I erupted in prosperous Europe as a result of the assassination of, Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. Nicholas had familily ties through Queen Victoria to both the German and British royal families. Unfortunately the ties with the Kaiser did not prevent the outbreak of war. Nor did the ties with King George V save his family. The British royal family was advised that to make the war a struggle of the demoracies against the Kaiser authoratative rule, it would be seemly to offer sanctuary to the Czar. Ironically, without the Czar army, however poorly it perforned, almost certainly the Germans would have won the war.

War Declared

When war was initially declared with Germany, the Royal Family was at sea, enjoying the glorious summer weather. On one occasion, as they were returning to port, Nicholas and the Captain went ashore to discuss tactics with some generals. The ship was to remain circling around the fjords. It was raining, so visibility was low. With the Captain and the Tsar absent, Alexei was in command. While he was playing with a friend in his state room, he was summoned to the bridge. When he arrived, they informed him that an unidentified ship was approaching. Knowing well that the war had just started and they could be in danger, he made his decision. He had the crew plot an intercept course and load all weapons. Once they were in weapons range, without hesitation, he ordered them to fire. It was a direct hit on their aft section of the other ship which came about and was preparing to return fire. Knowing this, Alexei ordered evasive maneuvers. The unidentified ship returned fire, but missed. Then as it closed on them, one of the crewman was able to see it clearly with some binoculars. He recognized it as being the Polar Star, his grandnmother's yacht. Then, Alexei ordered the Standart to all stop and he had the crew run up the white flag. The Polar Star slowed it's approach. Alexei finally ordered the Standart to go alongside of the Polar Star to bring survivors aboard. This incident was not reported at the time Alexei was not punished for what he did. Dispite the result, he did do the right thing. An unidentified ship was approaching them during a time of war. He had no way of knowing that it was his grandmother's ship, since their radio was out. A HBC reader questions the accuaracy of this account. HBC will look into it.

Eastern Front Disasters

The war on the eastern front with Germany proved a steady stream of disasters. Two entire Russian armies were desimated by the German tandum of Hindenburg and Lundendorf. This disaster and the preformance of a poorly armed and led Russian army resulted in enormous losses and untold suffering to the Russian people. The disasters of 1914 in reality saved France. The French Army could have nevered stopped the German juggernaught on the Marne had the Germans not been forced to divide their forces. Only minor British units were able to be marashalled in August and that first month the French and the gallant Belgians led by Leopold II fought the Germans alone.

Figure 2.--Alexei and his tutors (Pierre Gilliard, Vladimir Voeikov, Stanley Gibbs, and Peter Petrov) at the Russian Stavka headquarters.

Personal Command

The Czar disappointed with the course of the war, decided to take personal command of the Army. The generals thought this was the wrong decision. They were probably correct. Nicholas had no military experience or ability. As the generals advised him, if the war continued to go badly, the people would blame Nicholas persionally. Even worse it meant that he was away from the capital and unable to deal with the worsening political situation. Alexandra proved unequal to the task. Her political efforts and her German heritage just further weakened the status of the royal family.

Alexei Joins His Father

Alexei was eventually allowed to join his father at the front. While Alexei was at the front, he stayed at the military base at Stavka. Alexei's presence had a profound effect on the troops. He was a sign of hope for the future to these troops. He would accompany his father on inspections, and diplomatic functions. He did all this for around 9 months, then something (only rumored and not proven) may have profoundly affected his relatiinship with his father.

Unsubstantiated rumors suggest that one day in mid-summer 1915, Alexei, his Tutor Pierre Gilliard, The Tsar, and a General went into a military hospital. Upon their arrival they were greeted by a doctor. Nicholas then asked this doctor how the regiment was doing. The doctor told him that they were doing very poorly. Then Nicholas and the General were taken by the doctor into another room. While Gilliard, and Alexei waited for them to return, Alexei reportedly began to walk around the ward. He came up to one soldier which had lost a leg, then he looked at this soldiers face. It was the face of a child. The Tsareivich looked at the medical record by this patients bed, and it said the year of birth was 1903. This patient was only one year older than Alexei. He immediately questioned his tutor about this. In response the tutor told him that he knows about it. Alexei was furious, and asked if there were anymore like this. Gilliard told him, "Yes." Then Alexei asked how many, the tutor looked at the door that Alexei's father went through, and replied, "I don't know." Alexei went to the door, and Gilliard was unable to stop him. When Alexei entered that room, a wave of horror hit him like a brick wall. In that room were between 200-300 children, with either bullet wounds, burns, or missing limbs. He was horrified, then Alexei's father realized he was there. When Nicholas reached Alexei, he told him not to over react. Alexei asked his father if he really did send these children into battle. Nicholas replied with something like, "Desperate times deserve desperate measures.". Alexei then said in extreme anger, "How long did you think that you could keep this from me." Then he stormed out of the building. That evening, Alexei and his tutor headed back to the palace.

Figure 3.--The Czar and Tsareivich at the Stavka Headquarters dressed in formal military regalia.

As Alexei was returning with his tutor, something quite severe occurred. Alexei was beginning to show symptoms of a mild cold. That evening when the Tsarevich sneezed, it caused a blood vessel to rupture. With his nose uncontrollably bleeding, his condition rapidly dropped. Dr. Dervenko was running out of options. Pierre Gilliard even thought twice during the evening, that the end had come. However, when all options had been exercised the most logical one presented itself. Unfortunately this option was so painful that it caused Alexei to pass out; however, it did work. They used a small device to carterise the injury. Alexei was worn, but alive nonetheless.

Abdication and Arrest

The war continued to go very badly for the Russians. Back home the Tsar's popularity fell drastically. His wife was running the government into the ground. And from the sideline, Alexei watched as his future fell apart. By the beginning of March 1917, the Tsar was forced to abdicate his throne. When Nicholas returned to Tsarskoe-Selo, the Provisional Government placed him and his family under arrest.


Alexei as a boy mostly wore sailor suits, except for state occassions, when he might wear a formal military uniform. We do not yet have details, but I believe this continued until he joined his father at the front in 1915. At this time he began wearing a simple army uniform. He continued wearing this uniform after his father was arrested.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: June 6, 1998
Last updated: July 29, 2001