Upon the outbreak of World War I, Michael telegraphed the Emperor Nicholas II requesting permission to return to Russia to serve in the army, providing his wife and son could come too. Nicholas agreed and Michael travelled back to Saint Petersburg, via Newcastle, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The war was not expected to last long and the couple assumed they would be moving back to England at its conclusion.
In the meantime, Michael offered its use to the British military. At Saint Petersburg, now named Petrograd, they moved into a villa at 24 Nikolaevskaya street, Gatchina, that Michael had bought for Natalia. Natalia was not permitted to live in any of the imperial palaces.
He was promoted from his previous rank of colonel to major-general and given command of a newly formed division: the Caucasian Native Cavalry, which became known as the “Savage Division”. The appointment was perceived as a demotion because the division was mostly formed from new Muslim recruits rather than the elite troops that Michael had commanded previously.
The men were all volunteers as conscription did not apply to the Caucasus and, although it was difficult to maintain discipline, they were an effective fighting force. For his actions commanding his troops in the Carpathian mountains in January 1915, Michael earned the military’s highest honour, the Order of St. George. He, unlike his brother the Emperor Nicholas II, was a popular military leader.
At the start of the war, Michael wrote to Nicholas II asking him to legitimise his son in order that the boy would be provided for in the event of Michael’s death at the front. Eventually, Nicholas II agreed to make George legitimate and granted him the style of “Count Brasov” by decree on March 26, 1915.
In July 1915, Michael caught diphtheria but recovered. The war was going badly for Russia and the following month Nicholas appointed himself Supreme Commander of the Russian forces. The move was not welcomed. Nicholas’s bad decisions included instructing Michael to authorise a payment to a friend of Rasputin, an army engineer called Bratolyubov, who claimed to have invented a devastating flame-thrower.
The claim was bogus and Bratolyubov was arrested for fraud, but Rasputin intervened and he was released. Michael appeared gullible and naïve; a friend of Natalia’s said he “trusted everybody … Had his wife not watched over him constantly, he would have been deceived at every step.”
In 1916 the slights against him by the Emperor ‘s retinue continued, though. When he was promoted to lieutenant-general in July the same year, unlike all other Grand Dukes who attained that rank, he was not appointed as an aide-de-camp to the Emperor with the rank of adjutant-general. Michael admitted that he “always despised Petrograd high society … no people are more devious than they are; with a few exceptions, they are all scum.”
Michael made no public political statements, but it was assumed that he was a liberal, like his wife, and British consul Bruce Lockhart thought he “would have made an excellent constitutional monarch”. The poor progress of the war and their almost constant separation depressed both Michael and Natalia. Michael was still suffering from stomach ulcers and, in October 1916, he was ordered to take leave in the Crimea.
Next week the conclusion.