The First World War was indeed a major cause of the Tsar’s overthrow in the February Revolution. However, it was not the sole factor – rather, it was a catalyst and a focus that allowed all the other preexisting factors to boil over into revolution. The First World War caused a multitude of problems for the peasants of Russia, both at home and on the front. The vast majority of conscripts were from farming villages, meaning that less men were at home to till the soil and produce food – it also meant a general slump in food production as a whole, resulting in a shortage of grain to feed the hungry industrial workers in the cities.
As the death toll of the backwards, ill-equipped Russian Army was devastatingly high, this meant that virtually everyone in Russia would lose someone they knew, regardless of social status. The lack of reliable supplies of food and basic commodities such as coal (most of it was going to the front) further crippled the economy, especially during the harsh Russian winter. This caused riots and protests to break out, ones that the once-Royalist troops were now unwilling to curb. Economic problems aside, the Tsar also made several extremely misguided decisions that further damaged his reign.
While he intended to use the Great War to secure his status as Father of the People, Nicholas failed utterly in two respects. Firstly, he left directly to command the front – this meant that all the blame for every military defeat fell on his shoulders and not some scapegoat commander. He would no longer be able to divert the illwill of the people should defeats occur, and they did indeed. Secondly, he left the Tsarina in charge of running the Empire while he was away, and this was a disasterous choice on many levels.
Tsarina Alexandra was a German-born princess, which naturally aroused severe animosity on the part of the people who were actually fighting the Germans. Even worse, she listened to Rasputin in everything, sacking many loyal ministers and replacing them with his incompetent cronies. This threw the already-disorganised Russia into even greater disarray, preventing supplies from getting through to the hungry workers and wrecking the economy even further. The Russians called her a spy and accused her of conducting an affair with Rasputin, whom they loathed.
They could not fathom why an uncouth, dirty peasant would find so much favor in the eyes of their monarch. The status of the Royal Family was at an all-time low in the eyes of the people, and everyone began to talk about how they should be disposed of – in every class of society, no less. Further compounding the problem was the fact that the vast majority of the Russian Army was at the front. Unlike the 1905 Revolution, where the Tsar could quickly sign a peace treaty with Japan and get his soldiers’ loyalty with generous payments to crush the revolution, the First World War showed no signs of ending.
The army’s morale was incredibly low. With mass desertions almost every day due to the obsolete nature of both Russian millitary tactics and equipment, many soldiers had gone back to the cities of Petrograd and Moscow to live with their families. This meant that when the tide of public sentiment finally broke out against the Tsar in another revolution, these soldiers turned in support of the revolutionary cause. Because of the poverty and chaos caused to civilians by the war, the loss of millitary support and disasterous handling of the army, and finally the Tsar’s own mistakes, the Romanov Dynasty was at an end.
That being said, there were other factors that stemmed from before the Great War. After the 1905 Revolution, the Tsar had promised to make his rule more constitutional. These token promises were shown in the October Manifesto, his abolition of redemption payments and the creation of the Duma, an elected parliament who in theory would help him run the empire. However, these were merely halfhearted, hollow words. The Tsar practically ignored the Duma, dashing the hopes of the middle class and destroying their trust in him.
In addition, he released the 1906 Fundamental Laws, which shrewdly reestablished his sovereign authority by stating that everything in the October Manifesto was permissible – but only in the limits of the law, which naturally the Tsar still controlled. Additionally, the Tsar had his new Chief Minister Stolypin carry out land reforms. He allowed the more capable peasants to accumulate the holdings of their neighbours, creating a prosperous class of ‘kulaks’ or wealthy peasants.
It was hoped that this would both stabilise food prices and create a ‘barrier to revolution’, a lower-middle class that would be loyal to the Tsar and unwilling to upset the favorable status quo. It mostly worked. However, what Stolypin had overlooked was the fact that many peasants would be displaced by this new mini-elite. Evicted from their homes and encouraged by the government to settle on the Trans-Siberian Railway, they traveled many miles in cramped and cold conditions only to find that all the prime land had already been bought up by wealthy capitalists.
Feeling cheated and betrayed by their Tsar, these peasants drifted into the city and found meager work in the factories. When the time came for a second revolution, they were ready. Stolypin himself was assassinated in 1911, leaving Russia a disorganised mess. No other statesman of his caliber would ever step up again in the Tsarist regime. The First World War was a major cause of the 1917 Revolution, but not the sole one. Rather, it was a climax that focused and pushed all previous elements over the edge.