In the East, the great battle of 1916 is about to begin.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 84. This week I would like to thank listener Henry for supporting the podcast on Patreon where he now gets access to special Patreon only episodes like the massive 4 part series on cavalry during the first world war. You can also become a supporter over at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar. So far this year we have only talked about one of the massive battles that would occur in 1916, and that was of course Verdun. There were 3 other large offensives, these launched by the Entente, which all had committed to in December 1915. The last half of this year’s episodes will be spent mainly concerned with the last 3 of these offensives, with the Somme and the Isonzo coming later because right now we are going to be talking about the Brusilov Offensive. Unlike every other major offensive that I know of from the war, this one is actually named after the general that launched it instead of the location that it was occurring. This is due partly to the fact that General Aleksei Brusilov is considered to be, by far, the best Russian commander of the war but also because it is his specific blueprints that would be used in the attack to great effect. The overall effects of the coming offensive were massive and it would include the best months of fighting that the Russians would be able to muster for the entire war. It would relieve some of the pressure at Verdun, with the German high command forced to move troops East. It would thin out some of the reinforcements available for the defense on the Somme when it would be launched a month later, and finally it would cause Conrad to cancel his dreams of large attacks in Italy, thinly out the line on the Isonzo in the process. Essentially, the Brusilov offensive was a critical piece of the 1916 puzzle. With that build up, what are going to be talking about over the next several episodes? Today we will be catching up on the situation in the Russian army in early 1916. We will then talk a bit about who Brusilov was and his experience up to 1916. We will then spend the last half of this episode discussing the attack that would be launched by Russia in March of 1916 that would be a precursor to the attack in the south in June. This story will of course not be done in this episode after over the next few installments we will look at what was happening in Austria-Hungary in early 1916, then spend about three episodes tracking the progress of the effort by the Russians. As with everything in 1916, while it will start with a bang, it will sort of drag out and end with a whisper. So strap in and prepare for what is sure to be an interesting ride.
It has been quite awhile since we have discussed Russia, as I look back through all of the episodes this year I think it was all the way back in Episode 61 which was the 1916 preview episode that we discussed them in any real depth. With that fact in mind I think we should probably start with a bit of a review of what had happened to Russia during 1915, just to refresh everyone’s memory. In the summer of 1915 the Russians had suffered a disaster when the Germans and Austrians attacked their front in Poland. The Russians were forced to retreat hundreds of miles, losing all of their holdings in Poland and 10s of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of casualties. The most critical of these casualties were the huge number of officers that were either killed, wounded, or captured. These men were critical to turning the massive Russian conscript armies into a fighting force, and in many instances there simply were no longer enough of them available. While this was certainly a problem for the Army, it also presented something of an opportunity, as dark as that sounds. In other armies, who were also having serious officer problems, they were able to bring in civilians, give them some concentrated training, and then turn them into competent leaders. This also brought in new ideas and new mindsets into the fold in the army which while often not altering the situation at a high level did have effects at the front. This was also happening in Russia to some extent, with young junior officers being able to shed the crushing weight of tradition to bring their new ideas and fresh thoughts into ever higher levels of the officer corps as they were promoted out of necessity. While this was a good trend for the Russian army, it was also resisted by many commanders who were more likely to promote older, less competent, regular soldiers instead of their more competent and energetic colleagues, especially if they were not in the army before the war. This was problematic, and probably hampered the general effectiveness of Russian units on a small scale, they were also held back on a larger scale. From the very top of the Russian command structure down to many divisional commanders there was a problem in the Russian Army, and the problem was that they were only learning about half of the lessons that they should have been from the fighting that was happening in the war. They saw that they needed a manpower superiority in their attacks, never a Russian problem, and that they needed a ton of artillery. However, they did not seem to grasp the other innovations necessary to make these two sets of numbers work together. The tight timing between the artillery barrage and the infantry advance and the ability to drop the artillery precisely on enemy positions. Instead they continued to believe that if they had enough manpower and enough artillery shells it really did not matter what they did with them, when they were all brought to bear they would be successful. These ideas would be proven false during the attacks near Lake Naroch that we will discuss here shortly, but the conclusions that would be drawn would once again be incorrect. They believed that they did not need something different, just more, and since they could not really get more than they had in the attack, then they could not do anything. Now, to be one hundred percent fair, the first part of that statement is the exact conclusions that the British, French, Italians, and Germans would all come to as well, they needed more. However, the second part of that statement would be changed in their case to be, and we need to use what we have more effectively, which was the part that the Russians often seemed to miss.
While I probably just painted a very gloomy picture, let me pull back on that a bit and say that not everything was going down the toilet for Russia in 1916. To start, the Russian army that was taking the field in 1916 was essentially an entirely new one compared to the army that had retreated from Poland. The units had been reorganized, the men were better fit and trained for war, and even the officers in general were now better through forced promotions necessitated by battlefield attrition as well as a mass of dismissals after 2 years of failure. Many of the other generals, the most conservative, had been removed after the disaster of 1915. This effort was spearheaded by the Minister of War Alexei Polivanov, who now also found himself unemployed not because of incompetence but because Tsarina Alexandra did not like him. To go along with having a better set of men, there were also now more of them. The Russians had been able to easily make up their losses with new conscripts fresh from the training depots. This was the one thing that Russia would never have a problem with, they had a population almost double that of Germany and France combined. These men were also better equipped than at any point since 1914, and maybe even better than at that time. Many of the supply problems, at least on the macro scale, had been somewhat solved and this meant that there was drastically more artillery and ammunition at the front and they even almost had enough rifles to give one to every man, with only around 100,000 men in the army not able to count on a weapon. Finally, they were also able to catch up on the manufacturing of all of the periphery of war, things that did not go boom like bandages, barbed wire, gas-masks, shoes, shirts, everything that was required to keep a man in the trenches were now available in previously unknown quantities. This was a huge improvement. There were now 2 million men under arms in Russia, and that number only includes front line soldiers, fighting strength, and does not take into account the massive number of support and rear area troops that all armies possessed to keep the fighting front strong. There was also one big benefit to the defeats of 1915, sure a lot of men had been lost, but for Russia they were replaceable. Sure, a lot of territory had been lost, but it was theoretically reconquerable. These were both downsides, but the big upside was that the retreat had drastically shortened the front that the Russians had to occupy. The Russian lines in Poland had been pushed out into a huge salient that had to be occupied. Now, this was no longer a concern and it allowed the Russians to have an even larger number of men per mile of the front. The positives almost certainly outweighed the negatives, if they could be properly utilized by someone.
Which brings us to General Alexei Brusilov, almost like I planned it that way. Alexei was born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1853. At this point in history Georgia was part of the Russian empire. He came from a family with a long history of military service to the Russian state dating all the way back to his great grandfather who had been in the army under Peter the First. As Brusilov moved into his teenage years it was almost inevitable that he would continue the tradition and join the army as well, and this in fact occurred when he was at the ripe old age of 14. His first taste of action would come in the Russo-Turkish war in 1877, one of the several times that the centuries long antagonism between Russia and Turkey would result in conflict. In 1881 he would become of the instructors at the cavalry officer’s school in St. Petersburg, just one of many of the Allied commanders who had their roots in the cavalry. While this of often something that is seen as a negative, especially when discussing the British commanders on the Western Front. However, generally in the 1800s the cavalry attracted the most adventurous, bold, and intelligent officers. Which is why so many would be in leadership positions during the war, not because they had spent a bunch of time in the saddle. I should probably not go further down this rabbit hole, but there is a deep one around that topic. Back to Brusilov, who would next see action in the Russo-Japanese war where he would find himself in command of a division. During the war he did not do anything incredible, but he led his division well, and received a promotion after the war. After the war he would become somewhat well known for his ruminations on the failure of the Russians during the war. This was a hotly discussed topic after the war, as all great military failures are, and Brusilov found himself among the droves trying to figure out a way to make sure it did not happen again. To this end, he would put in command of a Corps in the Warsaw Military District, which he would begin in 1909. Over the next 5 years he would lead many war games in his area of responsibility, which gave him good knowledge of the terrain on which the Russian army was about to be fighting a war. When the war started Brusilov quickly made a few observations, the first was that cavalry was definitely ill suited for the battlefield of 1914, and it would not play a large role in any of his future attacks. Over the first year and a half of the war Brusilov would take the units under his command, first a corps, then an army group, and perform quite well in some very challenging situations for the Russians as a whole. This included Brusilov’s men conducting a reasonably orderly retreat in 1915. After this action, and the metaphorical bloodbath that would be visited upon the Russian commanders afterwards, Brusilov would be promoted and put in charge of the entirety of the Southwestern Front, representing a third of the front occupied by the Russians, however it was seen as the least important, facing mostly Austrian troops, and with the previously impassable Carpathians to its south. This would be his position when the plan for 1916 was being formulated, and he was still confident that he might be able to crack the nut that was the fighting during the war. He would have his chance in the future, but the Russians had to make one more mistake first.
This mistake would be made in the north, near Lake Naroch. It was not an attack that was launched entirely out of desire by the Russian leaders to launch another attack, instead their hand was a bit forced. This was because of the agreements made at that fateful meeting at Chantilly back in December 1915 where it was agreed that if any of the allies were attacked the others would launch attacks to try and help them out. This was an agreement that the Russians introduced and strongly lobbied for, they had felt so isolated during the summer and fall of 1915 and wanted to make sure that the British, French, and Italians were all held accountable in case the Germans and Austrians decided to have another go against the Russian armies in 1916. However, this would not end up being the case and in some ways the Russians would instead be hoisted by their own petard. That is why the planning for the Naroch attack began on the 24th of February, which if you are keeping track of the 1916 calendar was just 3 days after the attack at Verdun started. Since the Russians felt compelled to attack the question was which of the three fronts should launch it, it was quickly narrowed down to one of the two northern fronts, both of which had an almost 2 to 1 advantage in manpower. It was eventually decided that the task would fall onto the Western Front, which was the one in the middle which I only mention because all these fronts and positions I find a bit confusing. This front was commanded by General Evert. Evert was able to call upon the largest concentration of Russian artillery that had been mustered together up to this point in the war with 1000 field guns, almost 600 howitzers, and hundreds of other guns. These would be concentrated in an area of attack east of Vilna, where there had been hard fighting in 1915. In this area the Russians were able to construct a massive superiority in artillery and men, with 350,000 men attack at German force of just 75,000. Even with this advantage, there were a few serious problems that the Russians would have to contend with, as there always is. The first was simply that the Germans would know about the attack about two weeks before it was launched. The second was the weather, Norman Stone would say that the weather and general conditions were such that, even if the Germans were able to pick the time for the attack, the conditions could not have been worse. This was because it was early spring and that meant that the ground that had been frozen through the winter was now thawing out, but it was not yet warm enough to be above freezing all the time. This put the ground in a cycle of freezing at night and thawing during the day that turned it into a sea of mud. This included, most importantly, the roads that were so critical for any attack on the sale that the Russians were planning. The weather caused a mass of confusion behind the lines as supply convoys, groups of men, and large units of cavalry all got mixed up and slowed to a crawl as they moved to the front. The third and final problem for the Russians was that their positions were, in this area of the front, total garbage. In many areas the troops did not have good positions, in some they did not have any trenches at all. In some areas this was due to a simple lack of preparation, but in others it was simply impossible due to the conditions and marshy ground that the Russians occupied. This meant that it was going to be difficult to shelter the men before the attack, and of course it would also be difficult to protect them from the German artillery that was sure to meet any Russian attack.
The attack would begin on March the 18th, the artillery hammered away for what should have been long enough to accomplish something, but there were a few reasons that this was not the case. The first was that the guns had serious problems hitting the enfilading positions and communication trenches that the Germans had constructed. Generally this was because the Russians simply did not know where these positions were. Another problem that the Russians had was simply the amount of shells available. As we have discussed on the Western Front the number of shells required to fully neutralize enemy positions was massive, and it required not just a large initial stockpile but also a continuous stream of shells to feed the guns. At Lake Naroch the mud was greatly reducing the number of shells that could be brought forward initially, as well as the ability of the Russians to resupply once the fighting began. Also, just as a general statement, the Russian generals believed that they needed far fewer shells than what was required, with some commanders believing that just 200 rounds per day per gun was enough for the bombardment to be effective. Finally, there was little coordination present between the artillery and the infantry. This at a time when in the west there was a huge amount of thought going into trying to combine the powers of the two arms, which even though they were not always successful, was going in the right direction, the Russians were not even really trying. In fact, in some areas the artillery commanders and infantry commanders never even met to discuss the plan in any real capacity, instead just vaguely communicating based on some maps that were often not even correct. This created a recipe for disaster, and as it turned out this was exactly what happened. On his front, General Pleshkov thought that it would be sufficient to just focus his artillery on 2 kilometers of his 20 kilometer wide front, and when the men on these two kilometers actually did see some success they unfortunately just found themselves in a kill box with Germans occupying strong positions on three sides. Only on this very narrow front were Pleshkov’s men successful, and everywhere else they were stopped in their tracks. Pleshkov’s corps would lose 15,000 men…in just 8 hours. Pleshkov was not the only man commanding a corps that was sent forward, but the other attacks would not go forward until the 21st. Pleshkov would send his men forward again, with the same amount of success, and to the south there was much the same, with 10,000 casualties with the second corps. It was only in the third and final corps under the command of General Baluyev where there was any sort of success at all, and go figure, it was only under Baluyev’s command that any attempt was made to coordinate the infantry and artillery. Even with these measures taken, there was only a small amount of success, and only a few square kilometers were captured. Overall, the battle would cost the Russians around 100,000 casualties all told, not including the over 10,000 men who died of exposure both before and after the actual fighting. On the other side, the Germans lost only around 20,000 men. These numbers seem a bit fuzzy, lots of variance from the sources I am seeing, which is of course par for the course on the Eastern Front but I feel like I should mention it every time. Regardless of the exact numbers, what was absolutely true was that it failed to gain any substantial territory and it also failed to pull any German focus away from the Western Front. It was such a failure that the Germans were able to reinforce by shifting some reserves around in the East. To add insult to injury, the Germans would wait just a bit over a month, solely to wait for conditions to improve, and then they would launch a counter attack that would recapture all of the ground that they had lost, and they would suffer very few casualties doing it. The biggest effect of the attack had nothing to do with the territory or the casualties, these did not really matter to the Russians, the real problems was the effects on the Russian mentality. The reason for this was because the Russian generals believed that they had more than enough men and shell, but they still failed. This created the mindset that if 350,000 men, a thousand guns, and a giant mountain of shells could not produce results, what possible could? The artillery blamed the infantry for not following through, the infantry blamed the artillery for not properly neutralizing the Germans, there were all kids of accusations floating around, but no solutions. And this meant that a good number of Russian generals came to the conclusion that positive results simply were not possible, and therefore over the coming year they would do their best to resist any desire by anybody in the Russian chain of command to attack. This resistance would continue, even with the successes that Brusilov was about to have, all the way until the revolution.
It was this pessimism that the Russian commanders brought with them when Alexeyev summoned them to a conference on April the 14th, which also happens to be my birthday. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss another attack that was to take place in the late spring or early summer. Alexeyev was still under pressure from the British and French to launch another attack, even after the failure at Naroch and because of this he asked his three front commanders if this was possible. Alexeyev favored another attack in the north, spreadheaded this time by the northern front under the command of General Kuropatkin. However, he would claim that ‘it is quite improbably that we could break through the German front, the lines of which have been strongly fortified and so developed that success is hardly imaginable.’ Evert pointed to his recent effort as the reason that he could not be the one to attack. It was Brusilov, who had only recently taken over for Ivanov on the southwestern front who volunteered for an attack. This was odd, and somewhat unexpected by the others in attendance because it was only in the south that the Russians did not possess a massive numerical advantage. They were far less concerned about the Austrians and their ability to attack and therefore had constantly robbed this front of reinforcements to pad their numbers in the north. In 1916 Brusilov found himself with roughly the same number of men in his armies as the ones facing him. This did not overly concern Brusilov, and instead he was suggesting that he launch an attack on a massive front, and he also stated that is preparations were already underway. Alexeyev made it clear that he was not offering to provide any additional support in either men or material for the proposed attack, but Brusilov said he was okay with this and it did not alter his plans. Alexeyev did decide to officer Brusilov some assistance by coaxing Event into also launching an attack at the same time. In reality none of the generals had any real faith in Brusilov’s proposed effort. With the die cast, and Brusilov now preparing to launch his attack in the south, which was seen as sort of a supporting effort to the one that Event was going to launch to his north, I think it is a good spot to stop this episode. Join me next episode where we talk about specifics of what Brusilov was planning, how it was different than what had come before, and the state of the Austro-Hungarian troops that they would be running into.