87: Brusilov Offensive Pt. 4


All three armies take a breather in the East, as all prepare for what is to come.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 87. This week a huge thank you goes out to Jensen for choosing to support the podcast on Patreon. You to can help make this show happen over at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar where you can unlock access to special members only episodes. Last episode saw the launching of the Brusilov offensive on June 4th 1916. Over the next week the Russians made great advances along the front, but they hoped that it was just the beginning. One thing that did not go off as planned was the attack that Evert was supposed to launch to the north of Brusilov’s front. Evert had more men, more guns, and more supplies and was supposed to be the primary point of effort for the Russian Army. We will start this episode by discussing why his attack did not happen until far later than expected, and then what happened when it did finally kick off. We will then roll into the next set of attacks by Brusilov on his front. These efforts would be in the direction of the city of Kovel, which will play a large role in the rest of our episodes on the Eastern Front in 1916. The initial attack in Kovel’s direction would have a disappointing result. We will then discuss the situation for the Russians before their next set of attacks in July as Brusilov tried to bring more men into the line to make good his losses from June, men that as he would find out were very difficult to replace.

The attack by the Russian Western Army Front, under the command of General Evert was a story of delays and postponements for the entire month of June. It was quite clear that while the plan called for him to make the primary Russian effort he dimply did not want to attack at all. He had 750,000 men, far more than Brusilov had to his south, and he also commanded two thirds of all of the available Russian heavy artillery, but this made no difference. His initial plan was to attack in the area around Lake Naroch, again, and this was originally scheduled to go forward on June the 1st, which was also when Brusilov was supposed to attack. However, just a few days before the 1st Evert decided that it was not the appropriate place to attack and instead changed his mind and wanted to make the center of his front the main point of effort. It was this change in plan that caused Brusilov to move his attack back four days to June the 4th. Evert though would need far more than a few days to change the entire direction of his army and he postponed the attack until June the 14th. If this date would have been held to it would have meant that Evert would have attacked just as Brusilov’s men were starting to really bog down and it might have been able to keep the defenders of balance, however, 2 weeks just was not enough time to move the troops and equipment down from their area around Lake Naroch to the new area of attack. When June the 14th arrived, Evert still did not attack, on that day he contacted Alekseev and said that he would have to postpone the attack due to bad weather. This delay pushed the attack until the 18th. When that date arrived Evert again contacted Alekseev, and he now had a new excuse. This time Evert claimed that the Germans had caught wind of the attack and had shifted large numbers of troops into the area, including large numbers of artillery. With these new facts in mind, and they were facts, he again requested a postponement to allow for the attack plan to be adjusted, and this delay would push it all the way into July. During all of these conversations and delays Brusilov was kept apprised of the situation, and he of course was not happen. He made it clear to Alekseev that he believed that the inaction of Evert was costing his army and Russia as a whole huge opportunities. Brusilov did not wholly blame Evert though, instead he blamed Alekseev, Evert, and Kuropatkin, the commander of the far northern Russian army. All of them were being complacent, all of them were to blame, in his memoirs Brusilov would say that “I was well aware that the Tsar himself bore no guilt, because he was a mere amateur in military affairs. Alekseev grasped very well though, how the situation had developed and how criminally Evert and Kuropatkin conducted themselves. [ . ] Had another military man stood at the head of the Russian Army as supreme commander, Evert would have been dismissed without delay from his post for his indecisiveness, and Kuropatkin never would have found a place in the active army.”

Brusilov was not the only one feeling the effects of Evert’s constant waffling. The men under his command found out in early June that they had to plan an attack at a completely new area of the front in just 2 weeks. These type of large attacks took even the best staffs months to prepare for. They were not at all assisted by the fact that tehir maps sucks, their guns were not even in the area let alone registered onto targets, there had been little aerial reconnaissance of the German positions so even if the artillery could hit an exact target, they did not know where that target was, they only had the vaguest idea really. Also, the infantry had no time to move their trenches forward to try and close the gaps between the lines, Brusilov had started these types of preparations months ahead of his attack in June, and here another army was trying to do it in just 2 weeks. A thousand guns were available, but with no time to prepare their strength was mostly wasted. Even with all of these problems on July the 2nd 21 infantry divisions went over to the attack. To meet them the Austrians and Germans had put most of their men in the second line of trenches, which kept them completely safe from the initial artillery bombardments. For the first day most of the fighting took place in front of this second line of trenches, in fact even when more Russian reinforcements were sent forward late in the day, they were still only able to capture the first line of trenches and were stopped cold by the primary line of defense. While they were not able to break through the line, they were able to grind down the Austrian troops opposite of them, these troops had taken the brunt of the attack and were in a pretty rough spot. They had taken a lot of casualties while fighting off the Russian advances. Seeing the danger of the situation Prince Leopold of Bavaria, commanding the neighboring German 9th Army sent a German division to help them, he also sent some artillery. With this help the Austrians were able to stabilize their front and fully put an end to any Russian advances. The attacks would continue for another few days until they finally wound down on July the 4th. They did manage to launch another attack on July the 8th, but this was just as unsuccessful as the earlier attacks. With Evert’s effort now over the Russians had lost 80,000 men while the defenders lost just a fraction of that. The attack had also used, in the week that it lasted, more artillery ammunition than Brusilov’s entire, month long, effort, which is really a bit mind-blowing if you think about it. With it very clear that Evert was getting nowhere, Alekseev began to divert all reinforcing and replacement troops to Brusilov in the hopes that he would be able to get his front going again.

With Evert’s effort now over, lets flip back over to the other side and talk about Conrad, Falkenhayn, and the fight for control of the Eastern Front. Conrad had to fight for Falkenhayn to send him assistance, he pointed out how many men the Austrians had lost, and how close they were to losing everything, this and other arguments started to get the ball rolling and the first German reinforcements would arrive on June the 7th. This was not out of pure generosity, the Germans were just in a position where they had to make sure that the Austrians were not completely destroyed. These 4 divisions were sent by Falkenhayn from the Western Front, not because that was Falkenhayn’s first idea, but because Ludendorff certainly was not going to let any go from the northern end of the Eastern Front. Falkenhayn probably could have overruled him, but the German Chief of the General Staff did not have the power that he once did and Ludendorff was able to point to the large numbers of troops opposite him as a good excuse. These first German troops, and the next 14 divisions that would come over to the East did not come without strings attached. The first of these strings was that General Linsingen had to be put in command of not just his German Army, and the new reinforcements, but also the Austrian 1st and 4th Armies. With this request Falkenhayn was determined to make sure that any effort, in this case a possible counterattack, was fully under the command of a German general. That was just the first of the strings though. Just a few days later Falkenhayn requested that Mackenson be put in the command of all of the Eastern Front from the Pripet Marshes, were German command ended to the Dniester river way down by the Carpathians. This was too far for Conrad to go along with, putting so much of the Austrian army under the direct command of the Germans was essentially turning in his command card. He was able to talk Falkenhayn down to just putting a German, Major General Hans von Seeckt, as chief of staff of the 7th Army, although Linsingen would still get the 1st and 4th Austrian Armies put under his command. While Falkenhayn agreed to this his attempts to grow German power in the east did not stop. Part of this effort was to spread German reinforcements out along the front instead of under one specific commander. On the surface this might seem like an altruistic effort, it provided help to all of the hard pressed Austrian armies. However, what it really did was give the Germans a bridgehead into every Army and Corps of the Austrian army. Over time, as the German and Austrian troops fought together, and as German performance continued to be higher, it would give Falkenhayn an excuse to increase German power, just here and there, until it was everywhere. These efforts would continue until Hindenburg was put in command of everything in the East. This meant that his command stretched from the Baltic, all the way down through Poland, and to the borders of the 7th Army in Galicia. To the south of the 7th Army would be the final reguge of independent Austrian command on the Eastern Front. Even this was something of a lie though, this area was technically under the command of Archduke Karl, but in reality it had General Seeckt as his Chief of Staff, and in the German model, much like with Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the Chief of Staff had an enormous amount of power. There was one final string that Falkenhayn attached to his troops, and that was about Italy. Even though Conrad believed that Italy would be a decisive theater for Austrian he still had to give it up when Falkenhayn agreed to send troops. Although I guess he really did not have any choice if he wanted German help. The Austrian troops who had been attacking in Italy were told to pull back to a defensive line to the north, and two and a half divisions were taken off the line and dispatched to the Russian Front. The hope was that, once these troops arrived, they could be joined up with the German troops coming from the West and this would give Linsingen an army of around 7 divisions that he could use to launch a counter attack. This would be the plan, and they would put it into action, but not before Brusilov launched another round of his offensive.

This attack was launched on June the 14th, which if you remember was the second time that Evert was supposed to attack, but did not, Brusilov did not wait for him though and instead went forward with his plans. The main area for this new attack would be with Kaledin’s 8th Army, which had been reinforced by two corps, and they would be used in an attack towards Kovel. There would be two other attacks by to the 8th Army’s north by the 3rd Army and to the south by the 11th. These two attacks were designed only to make sure that the Austrians and Germans could not move reinforcements into the area of Kaledin’s attack when he went forward. The attack of the 3rd Army would end up being a disaster, even though the Russians had a manpower advantage in the realm of 5 to 1. The biggest problem was that the 3rd Army had only recently been given to Brusilov and had not had time to properly put his tactics int place. This meant that when they did attack they looked far more like Evert’s efforts in July than Brusilov’s at the beginning of June. 7,000 casualties later, the 3rd Army had accomplished almost nothing, the Germans had lost only a few hundred men. When Kaledin in the center went forward, unlike the complete success that his men had during the initial attack, they also rapidly began to slow. The Austrian troops in front of the attack, even though they had been hit hard during earlier fighting, were able to mostly hold their ground. The Russians attacked multiple times throughout the day, and in many different areas, but to no avail. Fortunately for the Austrians in this area, and part of the reason for their strengthened resistance, they had German reserves that they could fall back on if they needed, and more importantly they had the German artillery on their side. Even though they had done well throughout the day, the Austrians still decided to retreat to the next line of defenses, but this was strictly a voluntary effort, and was done in an organized fashion. This gave them the advantage of being able to relieve the pressure on their line for the time being, which was good because the Austrian 4th Army was rapidly running out of men and they were far from out of the woods.

On June the 20th, Linsingen would finally be able to catch his breath and begin the troops that he now had available to him, which at this point was several German divisions who had arrived from the West and some Austrian troops from the Italian front. He would use these men to launch a counterattack, and soon. Unfortunately the initial efforts would not see much success, they would take some ground and some Russian prisoners here and there, but they failed to achieve anything groundbreaking. Part of the problem was that the Russians were still launching attacks themselves and Kaledin and Liningen were basically just hitting each other back and forth for the rest of June. Both men still believed that these attacks could be a success and the enemy was reeling and could not possibly continue, but both were wrong. For the next 10 days this back and forth slugfest continued, with the Germans attacking one day while the Russians would attack the next. The only thing accomplished was to wear down the reserves for both sides, which was a failure if you are looking at it from the German perspective. Linsingen had squandered what could have been one hell of a trump card, if he just would have waited for the full compliment of troops to arrive to his command he could have hit the Russians hard. Instead he did not allow his strength to concentrate and he dissipated it in a series of poorly prepared attacks. It may have also been much worse too, if the Russian troops were not already exhausted and so far from their bases of supply. As it was, the attacks in front of Kovel just sort of went one, with attacks launched all the way into July, at which point another major effort would be launched by the Russians. The only positive thing that I have to say of these German and Austrian attacks is that it prevented Kaledin, with the strongest collection of forces on the South Western front, from making any progress, but they probably would have stopped the Russians regardless of whether or not they attacked.

Before we jump into the next set of Russian attacks I think it is appropriate to take a moment to discuss the state of the Russian army. I have spent more than two years and 87 episodes talking about badly the Russian army was doing, but now it is time for them to finally right the ship, at least for awhile. Historians, and then myself, are not the only ones to have noticed the changes that were happening inside the Russian army after the first wave of successful attacks in June. In fact even the German commanders would recognize what was happening, here is Linsingen “Just to show the Pickelhaube [the distinctive spike atop the Germany infantry helmet] over the top of the trenches, was no longer enough to strike fear and horror into the Russians.” The Russian soldiers also noticed this increase in confidence in success, and it just upped their confidence even more. A British news correspondent would compare the Russian troops around the city of Lutsk and what he had seen the previous summer during the retreat from Warsaw “From not many miles away, by night and day, comes an almost uninterrupted roar of heavy gunfire, and all day long the main street is filled with the rumble and clatter of caissons, guns, and transports going forward on one side, while on the other side is an unending line of empty caissons returning, mingled with wounded coming back in every conceivable form of vehicle, and in among these at breakneck speed dart motorcycles carrying dispatches from the front. The weather is dry and hot, and the lines of the road are visible for miles by the clouds of dust from the plodding feet of the soldiery and the transport. As the retreat from Warsaw was a review of the Russian armies in reverse, so is Lutsk today a similar spectacle of the Muscovite armies advancing; but now all filled with high hopes and their morale is at the highest pitch.” This increase in confidence and morale, while always helpful did not make all of their problems go away though and the biggest problem was simply the number of casualties that they had sustained in over a month of hard fighting. Since June 4th Brusilov had lost hundreds of thousands of casualties. Sure there were more warm bodies to replace those that were lost but those men had been given weeks and months of training before the attack, the new replacements would not have the same level of training and ability. What he was not getting was either raw recruits straight from basic training, often without any combat experience, or he was getting cast offs from Evert and Kuropatkin. While in previous years these two commanders had hoarded their men jealously, they now gave them to Brusilov by the thousand. It is likely that they did this so that their fronts would not also have to attack. In total 2 Corps from each of the other fronts were on their way to Brusilov in the south. Brusilov would also receive another form of reinforcements, although in this case they would not be raw recruits or cast offs, but instead it was the men of the Special Army, and in this army were the Imperial Guards. The Guards had been created way back by Peter the Great, who much like other European monarchs at the time had chosen only the largest and tallest men in his army and put them all into one unit. This unit would receive special training, and they were all over 6 feet tall, and you can’t teach that. The first 18 months of the war had not been kind to the Guards, and after the retreat from Poland they had been taken off the line. Behind the front their ranks had been refilled and they had been given new and more rigorous training. When the Guards were given to Brusilov he found that it was not the men, or their morale, that were the problem, in fact both were top notch. Instead the problem was their commanders. The Guards, being the prestigious unit that they were, attracted a special kind of officer. It was seen as a great position to put royalty, men of the court, or relatives of influential Russians as a way to get the military experience and maybe a couple of medals. Because of this it was generally connections and family name that were more important than silly little concepts like skill and competency when it came to who got promoted in the Guards. Here is Brusilov giving his judgement of the men in charge of the Guards “The commander of the Special Army, the General Adjutant Bezobrazov, was an honorable and upstanding man, though of limited understanding and unbelievably stubborn. His chief of staff, Count Ignatiev, knew absolutely nothing about serving on a staff and had no idea of staff work, regardless of the fact that he had graduated from the General Staff Academy with honors. The chief of artillery, the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was a good man at heart but had only a very vague concept of the role of artillery, though the use of artillery had grown vastly in importance and there could be no more success without the meaningful support of the artillery. [ … ] The commander of the I Guards Corp, Crown Prince Pavel Aleksandrovitch-overall a very sensible and doubtless personally courageous man-under-stood absolutely nothing of military affairs. The commander of the II Guards Corps, Rauch-a clever and well-versed man-had a difficult weakness for a soldier: his nerves gave out as soon as shots were fired, and in danger he lost his spirit of resistance and it was no longer possible for him to lead.” As you can see, he was not a huge fan. He requested that Alekseev allow him to replace the men that he found incompetent on several different occasions, but it was not up to Alekseev, it was only the Tsar who could authorize a change in the Guards, since they were technically his personal bodyguards and under his personal command. Alekseev refused to even ask him to let Brusilov do this, because Alekseev saw it as an implicit questioning of the Tsar, since it was the Tsar who had appointed the men in the first place. Therefore, when the time came, the Guards would be committed with the commanders that they had.

As Brusilov looked around the front at the end of June he wanted to keep attacking, but the question was, where to do it? He kept looking around and then he kept coming back to Kaledin’s 8th Army and the move towards Kovel. However, while his eyes kept wandering there, he was also continuing to shrink his front down, and this time instead of 3 armies attacking it would just be two, the 3rd and the 8th. This is seemingly the first time that Brusilov starts getting a lot of negative reactions from historians. Whether or not this is because Brusilov was wrong or just because the attack would not be entirely successful is up for debate. What is known for sure is that now Brusilov was the point of decision for the entirety of the Russian front. He had basically a blank check from Alekseev, and he would use it when launching the two armies into the attack. He would place the Special Army, now bolstered with other troops and deemed the 4th Army, in reserve to exploit any success that was hopefully about to come. With all of these troops combined he had 250,000 men, a two to one advantage. Brusilov’s Southwestern Front had also been given enough men in total that its advantage in manpower had actually grown since the beginning of the attack, with a 280,000 man advantage. The increased ammunition supply available to Brusilov began to be put to use at 4AM on July the 4th. This bombardment once again created an amazing amount of dust that almost completely blinded the defenders. This prevented accurate defensive fire and allowed the Russian troops to almost be on top of the defenders before the fighting really started. The Austrians and Germans were almost instantly forced to retreat, and gaps began to open in the line. Linsingen became very concerns about his entire front, and instead of trying to piece together reinforcements he just decided that his entire front should retreat. While in some ways this movement was voluntary, in many ways it was not because it was at this point that something began to happen and reports of it started to trickle up the chain of command. This event had never happened in any large scale on the Eastern Front, many of the Germans believed it to be completely impossible. These reports stated that German units were beginning to lose their ability to mount cohesive defenses, not because of the numbers against them, but because of a lack of morale. By recognizing this problem, Linsingen was able to retreat his army to another line of prepared positions in some kind of order. With the vacuum now in front of them Brusilov ordered the Third and 8th Armies to continue to push forward. He hoped that he could follow the defenders close enough so that another attack could be launched before they were settled. Unfortunately, due to the slowness of the Russian advance, by the time they reached the new defensive line the troops were already settled in and waiting. Not wanting to waste any more troops the Russians paused to allow for a bit of regrouping to happen before they tried again. While the Germans in the north had been able to disengage successfully and now things were looking okay, in the far south it was a different story. I have not talked about the southern end of the front very much this episode, and this was because there had not been a ton of extra troops, or any at all really, sent down there. The southern end was also not a real focus for Brusilov in July. The attacks had continued though, and on July 5th they managed to achieve something. It was on this day that the Russians of the 9th army launched another attack against Pflanzer-Baltin’s beleaguered men. They hit the Russian line and, after the strain of a month of fighting, it just shattered. With all of the fighting around Kovel, the southern end of the Austrian front had been just as neglected as the Russian side had been, few reserves had been available and the Russians were hitting what were divisions on paper, but could have been mistaken for regiments. For the Austrians it was nearly a disaster, all along the front the Austrians had to retreat. It nearly because a complete rout and it was only the fact that the Russians were overextended, with so many of their resources in the north, that saved the Austrians an even greater defeat. While the attack slacked off, another huge block of Austrian territory had been lost. Pflanzer-Baltin simply reported back that if he did not receive reserves he would have to continue his retreat all the way into the Carpathians, and maybe beyond. Linsingen was then forced to send men south, cancelling out any ability he may hae had for a counter attack. There was simply no choice, and behind the line in France and in in the north, German men boarded trains with one destination. Brusilov had lost another 500,000 men in the four days of attacks between July 4th and 7th, but he had done the thing that every ally had been screaming at him to do, he was pulling in Austrian and German troops, not by the regiment or battalion, but by the division and the corps. By he was not satisfied with this, there were more attacks to launch, more ground to gain, maybe even a victory to take, and we will talk about that next episode.