The Grand Duke had no part in the planning and preparations for World War I, that being the responsibility of General Vladimir Sukhomlinov and the general staff. On the eve of the outbreak of World War I, his first cousin once removed, the Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, yielded to the entreaties of his ministers and appointed Grand Duke Nicholas to the supreme command. He was 57 years old and had never commanded armies in the field before, although he had spent almost all of his life on active service. His appointment was popular in the army. He was given responsibility for the largest army ever put into the field up to that date. He recalled that “… on receipt of the Imperial order, he spent much of his time crying because he did not know how to approach his new duties.”
Grand Duke Nicholas was responsible for all Russian forces fighting against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. He decided that their major effort must be in Poland, which thrust toward Germany like a salient, flanked by German East Prussia in the north, and Austro-Hungarian Galicia in the south. He planned to attend first to the flanks and when they were secure to invade German Silesia. In the north poor coordination of the two invading Russian armies resulted in the disaster of Tannenberg.
The Battle of Tannenberg, also known as the Second Battle of Tannenberg, was fought between Russia and Germany between 26 and 30 August 1914, the first month of World War I. The battle resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Russian Second Army and the suicide of its commanding general, Alexander Samsonov. A series of follow-up battles (First Masurian Lakes) destroyed most of the First Army as well and kept the Russians off balance until the spring of 1915.
The Grand Duke picked and chose from the various plans offered by his generals. The Grand Duke begged for the artillery and ammunition they desperately lacked, so he could not embark on a coherent plan for victory. Grand Duke Nicholas came to power because of his royal status, and the tsar’s belief that God was guiding his decision. He lacked the broad strategic sense and the ruthless drive to command all the Russian armies. His headquarters had a curiously calm atmosphere, despite the many defeats and the millions of casualties. He failed in terms of strategy and tactics, as well as logistics, selection of generals, maintaining morale, and gaining support from the government. On a personal level he was well liked by both officers and men.
After the Great Retreat of the Russian army, the Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Yanushkevich, with the full support of the Grand Duke Nicholas, ordered the army to devastate the border territories and expel the “enemy” nations within. The Russian authorities launched pogroms against German populations in Russian cities, massacred Jews in their towns and villages and deported 500,000 Jews and 250,000 Germans into the Russian interior.
As a result of his failure, Emperor Nicholas II removed the Grand Duke as commander of the Russian armed forces on August 21, 1915 and took personal command.
Upon his dismissal, the Grand Duke was immediately appointed commander-in-chief and viceroy in the Caucasus (replacing Count Illarion Vorontsov-Dashkov). While the Grand Duke was officially in command, General Yudenich was the driving figure in the Russian Caucasus army, so the Grand Duke focused on the civil administration. Their opponent was the Ottoman Empire. While the Grand Duke was in command, the Russian army sent an expeditionary force through to Persia (now Iran) to link up with British troops. Also in 1916, the Russian army captured the fortress town of Erzerum, the port of Trebizond (now Trabzon) and the town of Erzincan. The Turks responded with an offensive of their own. Fighting around Lake Van swung back and forth, but ultimately proved inconclusive.
It is reported that, while visiting the garrison of Kostroma he met Said Nursi, a famous Muslim cleric who was a prisoner of war. Because of Nursi’s disrespectful attitude, the Grand Duke gave an order to execute him. But after seeing Nursi’s devotion to his religion during his last prayer, Grand Duke changed his mind and amnestied Nursi. Nothing in the Grand Duke’s record suggests that he would have even considered such a war crime. At the time he was urging the Emperor to set up colleges for training Muslim clerics so they would not have to study abroad.
Nicholas tried to have a railway built from Russian Georgia to the conquered territories with a view to bringing up more supplies for a new offensive in 1917. But, in March 1917, the Tsar was overthrown and the Russian army began slowly to fall apart.
The February Revolution found Nicholas in the Caucasus. He was appointed by the Emperor, in his last official act, as the supreme commander in chief, and was wildly received as he journeyed to headquarters in Mogilev; however, within 24 hours of his arrival, the new prime minister, Prince Georgy Lvov, cancelled his appointment.
Grand Duke Nicholas spent the next two years in the Crimean Peninsula, sometimes under house arrest, taking little part in politics. There appears to have been some sentiment to have him head the White Army forces active in southern Russia at the time, but the leaders in charge, especially General Anton Denikin, were afraid that a strong monarchist figurehead would alienate the more left leaning constituents of the movement. He and his wife escaped just ahead of the Red Army in April 1919, aboard the British Royal Navy battleship HMS Marlborough.
On August 8, 1922, Nicholas was proclaimed as Emperor Nicholas III of all the Russias by the Zemsky Sobor of the Priamurye region in the Far East by White Army general Mikhail Diterikhs. Nicholas was already living abroad and consequently was not present. Two months later the Priamurye region fell to the Bolsheviks.
After a stay in Genoa as a guest of his brother-in-law, Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy, Nicholas and his wife took up residence in a small chateau at Choigny, 20 miles outside of Paris. He was under the protection of the French secret police as well as by a small number of faithful Cossack retainers.
He became the symbolic figurehead of an anti-Soviet Russian monarchist movement, after assuming on November 16, 1924 the supreme command of all Russian forces in exile and thus of the Russian All-Military Union, which had been founded in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes by Gen Pyotr Wrangel two months prior.
The monarchists made plans to send agents into Russia. Conversely a top priority of the Soviet secret police was to penetrate this monarchist organization and to kidnap Nicholas. They were successful in the former, infiltrating the group with spies. (OGPU later lured the anti-Bolshevik British master spy Sidney Reilly back to the Soviet Union (1925) where he was killed.) They did not succeed however, in kidnapping Nicholas. As late as June 1927, the monarchists were able to set off a bomb at the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.
Grand Duke Nicholas died on January 5, 1929 of natural causes on the French Riviera, where he had gone to escape the rigors of winter. He was originally buried in the church of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Cannes, France. In 2014 Nicholas Romanov, Prince of Russia (1922–2014) and Prince Dimitri Romanov (1926-2016) requested the transfer of his remains. The bodies of Nicholas Nikolaevich and his wife were re-buried in Moscow at the World War I memorial military cemetery in May 2015.