86: Brusilov Offensive Pt. 3


In the East, the great battle of 1916 is about to begin.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 86. This week we continue with part 3 of our discussion of the Brusilov offensive on the Eastern front in 1916. Last episode we covered all of the run up to the launching of the attack and this episode the guns start firing. Over the next 30 minutes or so we will look at the bombardment before discussing just some general statements about how the attack began on both sides. Then we will dive in and take a bit more detail about some of the fighting where we will start in the south and work our way north. One note here is that I will not be detailing all of the fighting, instead we will be focusing on the events effecting the Austrian 7th army under General Pflanzer-Baltin in the south and the Russian 8th Army under the command of General Kaledin in the north. There will be miles of fighting on either side of these efforts, but we will just barely touch on it. We will then close out the episode with a look at the results of the fighting during the first week of the fighting and its effect on both the Austrian and Russian armies. This would be a battle that lasted for months, and that meant that there were natural ebbs and flows to the fighting, and the first week, from June 4th to about June 11th was the first wave of the fighting, and maybe the most exciting.

The artillery fire would begin at the nice hour of 4AM on June the 4th, and it would continue for just 3 hours before it stopped. This was again that tactic where the artillery fire would go for a bit, and then it would stop while Russian observers looked over the damage that had been caused, and looked for obvious signs of the defenders. Just under an hour later it began again, and this time it continued until 6PM. This time, the Austrians thought that the attack was actually happening and they let loose with their planned artillery fire to interdict the defenders, except that the Russians were not actually attacking and instead they were still sitting in their trenches. For another hour the Russians once again just observed the Austrian positions, and now they had the location of some of the artillery, and after the hour was up the bombardment began yet again. This time it would continue until the next morning, and then continue until 9AM, at which point it reached its maximum density. At that time the fire lifted to the next set of trenches and the Russian infantry went forward. The day of the bombardment had been a day in hell for the Austrian defenders. In some areas, like that of the Fourth Army, there had been few casualties and most of the men had successfully endured the bombardment in their protected defensive positions. In other areas the men had been hit much harder. In all of these areas the more exposed defensive positions had been destroyed by the firing, and the wire in front of the positions had been hard hit with the Russians having little problem in opening enough gaps in the wire along most of the front. Although many of the weaker defenses were destroyed the Austrians in their deep dugouts and shelters were mostly okay, the problem was those pauses that I mentioned earlier. These had conditioned the Austrians to not come out and man their defenses instantly, instead they would just stay in their dugouts when it paused. Unfortunately when the attack finally came this would have disastrous consequences as the Russians did a fantastic job of staying right behind their artillery as it advanced to the next line.

When the Russians hit the Austrian and German trenches they found an enemy that was greatly confused. They had been in their dug-outs so that they could survive the artillery fire, but they had made two huge mistakes that would cause serious problems for the defense. The first was that the defenders did not properly account for how close the Russian jumping off trenches had gotten to the defensive positions, in some areas they were just 40 meters away. This led directly into the second problem, which was the defenders emerging to man the defenses far too slowly. This meant that by the time that the men got out of the dugouts and into the trenches the Russians were already on top of them, if they were able to man the line at all. This also meant that in some areas the first line was overrun without a single shot being fired by the Austrians. In their account of the fighting two Austrian officers would explain that “In the shelters of the first trench, in Infantry Regiment 82, the men still had the roar of the barrage ringing in their ears, even though for five seconds it had no longer been directed against the trench. In the sixth second some quick-witted person perhaps cried: ‘Out into the trenches!’ In the seventh second, he collided with someone in the stairwell, who between mangled and splintered low-hanging beams flung a hand grenade after him. And in the eighth second, a voice from above called to the people in the shelter that they could give themselves up. All resistance would be useless.” Basically, all of the amazing dugouts, which had served so well during the bombardment had turned into deathtraps when the attack had come. The reserves in the second and third trenches were also usually too close to the first line, and they were swept up in the first series of attacks because they had the same problem, a general failure to emerge fast enough from their dugouts to meet the attack. None of the defenders, at any point in the defenses, was helped by the huge amount of dust and debris that the bombardment had kicked up as it moved from one trenchline to the other to allow the Russians to advance, here is the account of one Austrian investigator who reported after the attack that “there was drum-fire of hitherto unequalled intensity and length which in a few hours shattered and levelled our carefully-constructed trenches’. Chaos had broken out: ‘Apart from the bombardment’s destruction of wire obstacles, the entire zone of battle was covered by a huge, thick cloud of dust and smoke, often mixed with heavy explosive-gases, which prevented men from seeing, made breathing difficult, and allowed the Russians to come over the ruined wire-obstacles in thick waves into our trenches” All of this confusion led to mass surrenders all along the front, in just an hour the 4th army alone lost more than half of its men to either action or just surrender, which was more than half of the army. The 7th Army lost 131,000 men during the first day of the fighting. The numbers were basically the same all along the front. Prisoners were captured by the Russians in the 10s of thousands, in the first few days the number would balloon to be close to 300,000. If you just looked at the front as a whole, it looks like Brusilov’s gamble was definitely paying off, he had committed all of his troops to a number of large offensives. But lets move into some specific situations along the front to look at why in some ways it was everything the Russians could have wanted, but maybe not precisely what they needed.

For the southern end of the front June the 4th was a day of disaster for the Austrians and of great success for the Russians. Here the Russian 9th, 7th, and 11th armies crashed into the Austrian 7th, 2nd, and the Sudarmee. Of these Austrian armies the 7th was hit by far the hardest by a combination of the 9th and 7th Russian armies. Because of the importance of this area it is the area that we will focus on in detail for this episode. For the next five minutes or so, when I say the 7th Army, I will be referring to the Austrian 7th Army, if I speak of the Russian 7th I will specifically call it out, this should lesson the number of times I have to say Austrian by about 20. The 7th army was commanded by General Pflanzer-Baltin and it was thought to be very solid, and that it could be counted upon to hold the line at least as well as any Austrian Unit at the front. Under Pflanzer-Baltin’s command were 8 infantry divisions made up of primarily Hungarian and Croatian troops, however there was a smattering of Czech, Polish, and Ruthenian units as well. They occupied lines on either side of the Dniester River, and this river basically bisected the 7th Army’s positions which would present some problems as the action got going. The 7th Army was on the whole quite prepared for the attack before it was launched with the preparation ramped up in rough parallel to the Russians. The biggest weakness of the 7th Army was that in early 1916 its four best divisions had been taken from it and first put in strategic reserve and then sent on to Italy. These 4 divisions were well trained and had years of experience at the front, and were therefore very difficult for the Austrian Army to properly replace. While Pflanzer-Baltin was given units to replace them he saw that they were not as capable and sort of just had to hope that the defenses that were being built would give them enough protection when the time came. He would however make some very important mistakes on a more tactical level that would cause his army to be put in a rougher spot than maybe would have been required. One good example of these tactical mistakes is what happened to the 79th Honved Infantry Brigade, and I know that I am zooming in way deep with talk of individual brigades, but stick with me here. The 79th was brought into the line not long before the battle started, and they were brought in to replace a different Brigade in the line. The problem was that this brigade was much smaller than the 79th, and this meant that the positions at the front could not properly accommodate all of the 79th’s men. This meant that when the bombardment started not everybody could fit in the underground shelters. Because the shelters were absolutely packed to capacity the men also really did not want to stay in them any longer than was required, so when the pauses in the bombardment happened the first time the men quickly got out of the overcrowded areas and moved back into the line, only to then be absolutely decimated when the bombardment resumed. The damage was devastating, and the survivors were very hesitant to leave their protection so, when the attack did some the men were even slower than most in getting back out to meet it. This is a great example about how a small problem, like putting too large of a unit on too small of an area of front, can cause huge problems later on. It is also a good example of why sometimes more men is not always better.

On the southern end of the southern end of the front, I did not realize how ridiculous that phrasing was until right now, let me rephrase by saying the 7th Army’s men south of the Dniester river were being attacked by the Russian 9th Army. The 9th was under the command of General Lechitski who used a series of rapid cycles of artillery fire where he would have his guns pause for just 15 minutes, then begin again, then go through several cycles of this in the hours before the attack. This, coupled with the fact that the Russian lines were very close to the Austrians in this area, just 40 yards away at the closest but generally always under 100, meant that by causing so many false alarms it almost guaranteed success. So when the Russians did finally move the artillery fire off of the front lines, the Austrians did not even make it out of the dugouts before the Russians were already on top of them. The 79th Honved Brigade which we discussed earlier lost 4,600 men, out of just 5,200 as either casualties or prisoners. It took just 3 hours for the Russians to advance all the way to their objectives, and there the attack was paused. This gave time for Pflanzer-Baltin to commit all of his reserves to the front to the south of the river and he put them on some high ground directly behind the front. When what was left of the front line troops retreated to these positions with the reserves they were able to use their increased numbers, and the drastically decreased effectiveness of the Russian artillery to finally stop the Russian advance, and this line head for several days, even though increasing large Russian attacks were launched. This may seem like a wasted effort by the Russians, but by drawing in and holding all of 7th Army’s reserves on the front south of the river, they were able to give the attack to the north of the river an even better chance of bearing fruit. The reason that this opportunity was presented is because the attacks to the north of the river did not go forward on the 5th of June like those to the south, instead there was a slight delay. This slight delay was expected and Brusilov had deemed it to be acceptable, in this cause it ended up being perfect. When the bombardment started at 4AM on the 6th of June it would fall on troops with very few reserves behind their lines, with the strategic reserves of the 7th Army sent to the south. When the attack was launched the next morning initially the defenders actually did pretty well, they at least managed to keep the situation from turning into a rout. However, as more Russian troops moved forward the Austrians, like in other areas, began to simply collapse.

Thousands of men would surrender, the XIII Corps basically ceased to exist as a fighting force. By the end of the 7th of June the 7th Army had to deal with the fact that the men on the north side of the river were in full retreat, and there was nothing to give them to try and help stop the tide. As the men to the north retreated, they quickly exposed to men on the south of the river and the only option was then to order a retreat for those troops as well. Pflanzer-Baltin’s initial plan was to retreat to the southwest, away from the pressure to the north. However they could have caused critical problems for the front as a whole, a separation of the 7th Army from the Sudarmee to its north would have opened a massive gaping hole in the Austrian lines. The 7th army had began to move in the southwest direction when news of this reached the Austro-Hungarian High Command who were forced to order a change in direction, the 7th Army, regardless of how bad it was for their specific situation, had to retreat directly west to keep the front coherent.

With the 7th army in retreat the Russians had a golden opportunity to push forward, however, they were not able to pursue as hard as they would have liked for two reasons, the first was that the Austrians were still able to turn and fight some rearguard actions to slow the advance. When this happened the Russians were not nearly as effective as they had been at the beginning. It was becoming obvious that without their carefully stockpiled and registered artillery bombardments to assist them the Russian infantry was just as incapable of attacking effectively as they had always been. The second problem was that the Russians, like every attacking army were beginning to outrun their supply lines. These two problems came to a head when in the middle of June the northern flank of the 7th Army stabilized when a scratch group of reserves and dismounted cavalry finally stopped the Russian advance. This represented basically the last of the 7th Army’s reserves, but it did cause the Russians to pause their northern advance and instead shift their focus to the south, when again caused a cascading failure along the front and the retreat continued. When asked by High Command why his men were not able to turn and fight Pflanzer-Baltin would say of one of his corps’ situation that “There is at present absolutely no possibility of holding against an enemy attack. The decision to attempt it would lead to the total destruction.” As the retreat continued the need to keep in contact with the Sudarmee to the north and continue to guard the Carpathian passes to the south began to stretch the 7th army. Much like when you attach a string on two end and pull it back in the middle it can stretch, and the 7th army was doing that, but at some point if you put enough pressure on it the string will break. One benefit of this increase in the frontage of defense was that the Russians also had to keep expanding their area of attack to keep up, in fact Letschitski was forced to split his forces into groups that had little contact with one another just to continue to push forward. This allowed the advance to continue but made it much weaker and made it easier to slow down as each group could be slowed individually. All of these problems climaxed on the 15th of June when the 7th Army was told that they would be receiving no more men, no matter how bad the situation became, as they were being used elsewhere. This was probably the moment of greatest concern for the 7th Army and Pflanzer-Baltin, but they did get a reprieve for two reasons. The first was that the German 105th Division came into the line to their north, which stiffened that area and blunted the Russian advance closest to the Sudarmee, the second was that it was becoming clear that the Russians were running out of steam. While the retreat would continue for another week the risk of the 7th Army disintegrating, which was a real concern in the first week of the attack, had already faded.

On the northern wing of the attack on June the 4th all eyes were on the Russian 8th Army under the command of General Aleksei Kaledin. Brusilov had always preached the necessity of attacking on a wide front, but this did not mean that there was not a primary point of effort, and for this offensive and for the entire Southwestern front that point of emphasis was the 8th Army. Kaledin would be attacking on a 48 kilometer front, and under his command would be enough men to give him a 50,000 advantage over the defenders. This may not seem like a ton in the grand scheme of the war but for this particular offensive it was huge. Kaledin also had under his command 300 artillery pieces and almost the entirety of the Russian reserves. If there was any hope of true victory to come out of the attacks by the southwestern front it was from Kaledin’s men, and they would go forward on June the 5th. On that day, much like the southern Russian forces they would quickly start to roll over the Austrian and German positions ahead of them. Some Austrian divisions would lose more than half of their men, many did in fact. General Linsingen, the German commander on the northern side of the attack simply could not react fast enough, by the time he decided that he should send in reserves, and where precisely he should send them, the Russians were already through the first few Austrian positions. The men were also thrown into the fire piecemeal with small units trying to either counterattack or simply hold positions in isolation from other efforts, this meant that many were just chewed up in the Russian steamroller without greatly contributing to the defense. Linsingen was forced to order a retreat across the board by 10PM, right around the time that it also started to rain. To his south the hardest hit troops were under the command of Archduke Joseph Ferdinand. Here his men were in disarray and were forced to retreat to the city of Lutsk. The Archduke had the foresight to properly entrench Lutsk with concrete fortifications and large belts of wire all the way around the city just in case this type of disaster were to happen, and now the Austrians retreated to these positions and others on the east side of the River Styr. Here the men retreated and settled into positions that had been created in 1915 but had not really been manned since. These positions were decent in quality with two defensive lines however with their backs to the river and the only way to cross being the 9 bridges over the river, it was a precarious position. There was also a critical weakness in the line around the key to the entire position of Lutsk. This weakness was the hills to the south of the city on the Krupy ridge. Here the defenders found themselves quickly having to retreat after Russian attacks and this allowed the Russians to base artillery here with perfect sight lines to the defenses of Lutsk. As the shelling began panic spread among the troops, causing some to simply break and collapse. It was now becoming crystal clear to the commander of the 10th Corps, German Martigny that his men who were occupying the positions on the east side of the river had to be withdrawn. If they stayed in their positions and they proved indefensible they would be cut off and quite possibly destroyed. He would actually give the orders to prepare to destroy the bridges, only to then be dismissed from his command for the action. As he was replaced nobody wanted to be the one to order the army to cross the river, it escalated all the way to the top of Army command, with each commander passing the buck up the chain, before somebody was able to order the retreat to happen. This order did not solve all of the problems for the men to the East or the Styr though because as they began to pull back and cross the river some of the troops controlling the explosives to destroy the bridges blew them up too quick trapping thousands of Austrians on the other side of the river, soon to be prisoners of war. And so, Lutsk, which could have been a solid area of defense for the Austrians had been forced to surrender, with 50,000 men and 77 guns along with it, because of one small problem in the defensive plan, such was war. With what was left of the Austrians across the river the Russian advance began to slow, more because the men had outran their supplies instead of such great Austrian defensive resurgence. Kaledin, quite frankly, had been surprised at the complete success of the attack and was not truly ready to continue to follow it up. On the first first night of the attack he had called a halt to the advance to reorganize his men and refocus their efforts. By the time they came to the Styr they were 75 kilometers from where they had started, over country hard hit by artillery and it was becoming quite difficult to continue to feed the beast not to mention how completely disorganized and confused most of the Russian units were. However, by the 10th of June the 8th Army was regaining its composure and was ready for another effort, and Kaledin would send forward the 32nd Corps, a unit that was mostly fresh, their objective would be to advance past the Styr and onto the city of Kovel, but that is a story that we will save for next week.

Lets take a step back and take a look at how each side of the line was feeling in about the middle of June. When the attack initially started disaster had struck for the Austrians, hundreds of thousands of men had surrendered as the retreat first started and then continued far longer than anyone expected. With each step westward the morale of the Austrian troops declined. The first affected were the men, who were basically spending their days fighting off the Russian advances before continuing to retreat every night. Then it affected the artillery, with one Russian observer saying that “although the artillerists knew their business well, they did not now have the courage to do their duty by the infantry. Batteries made off to the rear much earlier and more rapidly than they should have done, and left the infantry to its fate.” These feelings then also began to trickle all the way up the chain of command, right up to Conrad’s staff. As this failure, and the search for the reasons for it, got higher and higher up the chain the more the search for a scapegoat intensified. Stories circulated that the Ruthenian and Polish troops were surrendering in massive numbers without any reason. But then there were other stories that said that it was actually the Czech and Moravian troops, then there were other rumors that it was the Jewish soldiers. All of these were used by the Austrian commanders as a way of sidestepping placing any blame on the commanders themselves, preventing any true introspection and actual fixing of the problems. As a general statement, the ethnicity of a particular division did not have much of a correlation to its performance in 1916. For example the 7th Army was made up to 5 Slavic, 1 Polish, 1 Ruthenian, 1 Croatian, and 2 Czech divisions and their numbers of prisoners and casualties had far more to do with where they were in the line than on their soldiers themselves. This behavior, the search for ethnic scapegoats, was a constant problem for the Austrians throughout the war, and resulted in a situation where the commanders were constantly blaming their soldiers instead of their tactics. The situation only got worse as most of the troops were kicked out of their prepared positions after June the 4th and they were forced to fight in the open field where their training and skills, or more appropriately lack their of, really began to show. During the height of the retreat the high command was forced to release a proclamation that said “Every man in the army must be aware that he is fighting here to decide the campaign, and to decide the fate of the Fatherland.” This would also not immediately receive the thing that had always saved them in the past, German troops. Falkenhayn believed that this new Russian attack was nothing more than a spoiling attack from the Russians, trying to distract the Germans from the real effort that Evert would launch to the north. Even if more German units were not flooding in it did not already mean that the Germans were not already taking control of the situation. In the north Linsengen essentially took over the command of all of the northern sectors. This after he strongly advocated for the Archduke and some of his generals to be relieved of their commands for incompetence. Regardless of who was in command though, the troops were beginning to lose faith, and unfortunately for them the defeats were not even close to over.

After discussing the horrible situation for the Austrians you might be surprised to know that I am about to talk about how the initial impetus of the attack was pretty much spent by this point. The first step of the Brusilov offensive had been achieved, the line had been breached and unlike the previous Russian efforts they had done it on a large enough scale to really be useful. However, by the night of June the 10th they were reaching the end of their abilities. First of all they were running away from their supplies, with penetrations over 50 kilometers. This was more complicated as the armies started to cross rivers and other natural obstacles, like the Styr to the west of Lutsk. Second, while we have spoken quite a bit about the catastrophic Austrian casualties, the Russian casualties had been large as well. This could have been made good by Russian reserves which the Russians had, but they were not under Brusilov’s command. There were tons of troops to his norther under Evert who should have been attacking with him, but they were not, a situation that we will discuss next episode. Brusilov now had to find the appropriate thing to do with the men that he had, and that meant he had to stop attacking along the entire front and pick some direction to go. But then this ran into the classic eastern front problem, where the hell were they going, really? The distances between real objectives were huge, he could either go directly to the west to fully capitalize on the advances of Kaledin, or he could go to the northwest towards Kovel to hopefully benefit the most from Evert’s impending attack. The first option had the advantage of hitting the Austrians harder, and pushing toward more important areas. Many military historians, and Brusilov himself, would say after the war that advancing to the west was the correct call in this instance, but it is not what was chosen in 1916. Instead he decided to focus his efforts on advancing to the northwest and toward the city of Kovel. This did have its advantages, particularly that it would put Kaledin in the perfect position to both assist Evert’s attack and also to benefit the most from it. To accomplish this new goal Brusilov transferred men and artillery to the north flank of the 8th Army. And we will pick up next episode as the Russians prepare for their second effort and their drive towards Kovel.