When your country is crumbling around you, the best course of action is to launch an attack, obviously.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 126. This week I a big thank you goes out to Rachel for choosing to support the podcast on Patreon where you can support the show to gain access to special Patreon only episodes. Head on over to patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar to find out more. I would also like to thank Jane for sending in a fairly critical email about my grammar and pronunciation. Neither of those topics are a strong suit for me, as my teachers in High School could have told you, so thank you for the feedback, I can tell you it caused me to change the wording on at least 3 sentences in this episode alone. This week we bring our attention out of Russian politics and back to the war. Once things had begun to settle down in Petrograd and the rest of Russia, with the Provisional Government now mostly in control, everybody’s mind turned back to the war. The most important area of focus was the upcoming attack that the Russians had promised that they would launch in the summer of 1917. This agreement had been reached late in 1916 when, much like in previous years, the French, British, Russians, and Italians had all met to try and determine their plans for 1917. They all decided that they would attack in spring and summer 1917, hopefully all around the same time, much like they had planned to do in 1916 before Verdun got in the way. This agreement would result in the Nivelle Offensive in the west which we have not covered yet, with the British and French attacking along the front, and the attacks on the Isonzo that would make up the 10th and 11th battles. The Russian part of this was a promise to launch an attack somewhere along the Eastern front, with the positioning of that attack left up to them. Even with the change in government in March this was still the plan. With all of the instability of the government and the army you may be wondering why this was a good idea, and, well, it was not a good idea at all. We will spend a good part of this episode discussing why trying to get the 1917 Russian army to attack was about the worst possible thing that could be done, and it would hasten the collapse of the Army as a whole.
The revolution that had happened in Petrograd could not help by affect the men at the front. When the revolution had occurred many of the soldiers at the front supported it and when the Tsar abdicated many were extremely happy with how things were going. The Tsar received much of the blame for the problems at the front. Another development that was more than welcomed was the new voice that the soldiers felt that they had in the government of the country, this came to them courtesy of the soldier’s representatives in the Petrograd Soviet. Having this connection to national government was important, and the soldiers put their faith in the Soviet, which I find to be interesting considering how separated from the front those soldiers in Petrograd were. They had even made it clear in their agreement with the Provisional Government that no troops from Petrograd could be moved to the front. They were still soldiers though, which was more than could be said for any other group, so they had at least some power over the soldiers at the front. Seeing their importance they issued Order No. 1 in which the Petrograd Soviet called upon the soldiers of the army to obey the Provisional Government, with one big caveat. This caveat was that they should only obey orders that did not contradict the policies of the Soviet. While there were changes happening to the national government the units at the front also brought self-government a little closer to the trenches by forming soldier’s committees as the company and battalion levels. These were used to organize pushes for reforms for soldiers at the front which at the start were simple things, better food, higher pay, more support for soldier’s families. All of these were typical things that any soldier would want, and in these demands you can also determine something of the mindset of the soldiers. When asking for items like better food and pay it is clear that they planned to continue to fight in the war, they were not yet ready to abandon their posts. If they felt that they were done with the war why would they be asking for items that would make the rest of the war better?
The development of these committees were a worrying trend for the officers of the Russian army. On March 11th, just a few weeks after the revolution had occurred Alexeyev, Chief of the Russian General Staff, sent a letter to all of his commanders giving them information about the situation. He warned his generals that the Provisional Government had some serious weaknesses and that the army must maintain its strength to meet the upcoming challenges. His fear was that extreme elements would make their way into both the army and the government making possible future armed combat among Russians a likely possibility. He also suggested that the officers not try to stamp out the soldier’s committees that had already formed. He believed that this would just increase resentment among the soldier and instead he suggested the best course of action was to have officers participate in the groups, to try and gain some measure of control over them. This was a reasonable course of action, in theory, the officers could be a moderating influence on the groups, and could maybe even nudge them in the way that they wanted over time. There were some problems in having the officers try to integrate with the groups though. The first was that the officers of the Russian army had maintained perhaps the largest amount of separation from the enlisted men of any of the armies of Europe during the war. They had also been disconnected from normal Russian life while they had served in the army. During this period of time they had grown to have a mindset that they were different, better, than the ordinary soldiers, many of which had peasant backgrounds. Once they began participating in the groups another problem was encountered, the officers were completely unpepared to handle the questions and conversations that were happening within the committees. This was especially true around political questions, which were obviously a common topic. Questions were being asked like how the army related to the social and political systems of the country, the position that the army and its soldiers played in the state, what a state even was. During their instruction to become officers nothing that they had been taught prepared them to answer these type of questions. The officers simply did not have any experience dealing with these topics and found themselves outclassed by the men. This caused many officers to no longer participate out of fear that they would be outed as perhaps not being as smart as they liked to pretend and it also reinforced previously held beliefs on both side of the soldier/officer divide. For the men it reinforced that the army and its structure were like the old government and was not something that could be changed, only dismantled. On the officer side it emphasized that discussing matters as a committee, on equal terms, with the soldiers below them was a recipe for disaster.
The problems back in Petrograd also began to migrate to the front in another way, beyond just political rhetoric and questioning. This was in the form of some of the economic and supply problems revolving most importantly around food but also dealing with other goods at the front. Rations were something hard to come by, and at times they were substituted with paper money which could, in a more reasonable time, be used to buy food in the rear areas. However, due to the economic instability of the Russian economy this paper money was practically worthless. This was doubly true in the rear areas behind the front where black marketing profiteering was the rule and not the exception. This might not have been enough to cause a catastrophic failure of the army, and in fact most soldiers were still willing to defend their country in 1917. When people like Kerensky would come to the front and give speeches in the spring and summer of the year many soldiers would often buy into and agree with his message. Sacrifices had to be made for as long as it took to defend the new country and government from the Germans, the motherland must be protected from all who would seek to tear it down. This was a message that the soldiers could identify with, especially because they now felt that they had a larger voice in national politics than at any previous point in history. However, not matter how much the soldiers were leaning toward continued support for the government the new from home was not very good at all. There were constant letters from family members describing how cold and hungry they were, sometimes they were just barely able to make it by. What good was the sacrifices at the front to safeguard a government that could not even provide for its citizens? Was it worth continuing to fight when at the end there may not be anybody at home to return to?
The problems at the front, and concerns about the home front were items that caused issues for the army in 1917. Some estimates put the number of deserters per month as high as 35,000 a month. That is more than a combat division every single month. However, there are other historians that put the number quite a bit lower than that. In his book The Eastern Front Norman Stone dismisses some of these larger, more doom and gloom inspired estimates claiming that they were embellishments and mistakes made by officers who were not sure what was happening “Officers said that the army had dissolved: but mainly because the men had repudiated the more extreme forms of their authority. They mistook questioning for disobedience, committees of the soldiers for mutiny,” This is supported by the fact that there is a lot of evidence that most soldiers were supportive of the government to at least stay in the lines to defend their country. Unfortunately this was not all that their country was going to ask them to do, and instead they were not going to be called upon to launch an attack. Brusilov, who always seems to have been optimistic about the changes of the army, would later say that the summer 1917 offensive was a mistake not due to a flawed plan but instead because it put so much strain on an army that was already on shaky footing and it would not prove to be up to the task.
One move that was made early in the planning process for the attack was a replacement at the top of the Russian army. Alekseev had long been in command, but now that there was new political leadership he was seen as too negative and he would be replaced by the one person who seemed to be both positive and skilled, Brusilov. Brusilov was still riding high off of his successes of 1916 but these successes did not make him well liked by his subordinates. This dislike was increased greatly when Brusilov came out in general support and acceptance of the soldier committees that most other generals saw as a serious breach of discipline. Brusilov tried to be more realistic about the current situation in the army, in his mind the soldier’s committees had been a fait accompli and the only possible course of action was to adjust to the new reality. Brusilov also believed that the army could and should attack. This was not a view shared by Alekseev and other members of Russian command before Brusilov took command, they believed that the Army should go on the defensive until the situation at home stabilized a bit more. Brusilov led a group of generals who believed that now was the time to strike. The hope was that the revolution would re-invigorate the Russian army, they were now fighting for their new country where they had a voice in the government, this was much the same as what had happened during the French Revolution, and in that revolution the army had been spurred on by patriotic fervor and that led them to victory. That was the thought anyway, it remained to be seen if it would actually happen. Regardless of their veracity these beliefs both got him the job and then were used by Kerensky and others in the government to push for political support for the attack. At the front the belief in the attack was in all actuality quite, fluid. The commander of the Fifth Army General Dragomirov would say that “in reserve, regiments declare their readiness to fight on to full victory, but then baulk at the demand to go into the trenches.” There were units at the front that were ready and willing to attack, these were units that did buy into the new government, that were filled with patriotic feelings, and they would attack with just as much force as any Russian general could hope for, the question became, was there enough of them.
The attack would take place in Galicia, where it was hoped that the Austrian troops would prove an easier nut to crack than the Germans would do their north. However by this stage in the war the two armies were largely integrated together, with the Austrian units under German command and having a fair amount of German personnel and equipment. The initial plan called for a massive attack using a very large number of troops, however, this was difficult to make happen. Just moving that many troops, then keeping them supplied before during and after the attack would put too much strain on the limited transportation available to the Russians at the front. So instead of massing huge numbers of troops like what had happened before instead Brusilov would use special shock battalions would be used to find and assault weak points in the lines which would then be neutralized by follow on troops. This was not that much different than other armies’ use of assault troops and in this case it aligned well with the strengths of the Russian Army. They had a relatively small number of very dedicated and loyal troops, these could be used in the assault battalions to maximum effect. Hopefully when they were successful it would be easier to get the other, less certain, troops to join in the attack. The end result in either case would not be some massive offensive with the goal of knocking somebody out of the war or taking a large amount of territory. Instead, the goal was just to tie down the German troops, hopefully making them transfer troops to the East or at least keep all of their troops in the East while the French and British attacked in the West.
The original plan called for the attack to begin on June 10th, however there were some issues meeting this date, most of which were political. Kerensky was trying to make sure that he had the support of all of the major political groups within the government before launching the attack and to do this he used a few different methods. First he tried to convince them that by launching the attack the Russians would be put in a position of strength from which to call for peace. He also mixed in his own opinions on the men and their morale from the front. Over the preceeding weeks and months he had visited the front several times, which as a charismatic leader was helpful since he was able to give impassioned speeches that were well received. However, these speeches, the audience to which he was speaking, and their reactions led Kerensky to make some incorrect assumptions and overbroad generalizations about the situation at the front. When he would meet a group of soldiers they were often hand-picked men, mainly officers, members of soldier committees, and men who were well educated socialist thought leaders before the war. All of these were hand-picked by the organizers to give a good impression to Kerensky. From this very unrepresentative cross-section of the army Kerensky made assumptions about how ready and willing every soldier was to fight in the upcoming attack. Kerensky was not the only one to make these mistakes though, and many army leaders up to and including Brusilov would make similar misjudgments. Brusilov also believed that the soldiers desperately wanted peace, so much so that they would attack willingly if they were promised that it was the quickest way to end the war. The assumptions from both of these Russian leaders would prove to be far off base when the attack was launched.
One area that we have not discussed much for the Russian army was the area of military intelligence. In the decade before the war the Russians had greatly increased their funding for military intelligence and this had allowed them to do a pretty good job at gathering and analyzing information. They had some really good maps of Germany’s eastern provinces, with information about the fortifications and strategic points in the area. They also had a pretty good idea on what the Germans were going to do. On the Austrian front they were even better prepared. However, most of this intelligence was gained in the prewar years where they could travel freely in the countries that they were gathering the information on and much of this was gained by diplomats in the foreign countries. When the war started the critical deficiencies in other areas of military intelligence would begin to emerge for the Russians. One particularly problematic area, and one that would haunt them for the rest of the war, was around radio and signals security. Right from the start the Russians found it almost impossible to keep their secret messages, well, secret, with the Germans and Austrians breaking code after code. Some of this was due to bad luck and bad timing, but also some of the issues were caused by Russian ineptitude. For example, there were instances where both old and new codes would be used by various army groups when sending the same message, this would instantly give the enemy the chance to decrypt the new code as soon as it was introduced. Since the enemy often knew what was happening, or at least had a pretty good idea, it was much easier to react to the Russian actions, this would be true in the summer of 1917 as well. The Germans and Austrians would know both of the Russian plans and that conditions behind their front were deteriorating rapidly.
The attack would begin at 9AM on June the 18th, and it started out, surprisingly, quite well. The artillery barrage had destroyed many of the Austrian positions and the Russian armies began advancing on a front of 40 miles. These gains would prove to be illusory though. The Austrians and Germans had begun using the elastic defense much like what they were doing in the West in 1917, and this meant that they were barely defending the areas that the Russians were now advancing into. Once the advance had reached a depth of 2 miles, which took about 2 days, the leading attack units just…stopped. They believed that they had done their part in the attack and that it was now time for reserve units to come forward and continue the attack, only those units did not want to do that. The reserve units simply refused to go forward to take their turn in the attack, and while officers tried their best to enforce this movement and to reestablish discipline they were unsuccessful. Therefore the attack just ended, and when the counter attacks were launched in response the Russians were disorganized and low on morale, causing them to simply disintegrate.
One interesting unit that took part in the attack was the 1st Russian Womens’ Battalion of Death. This was a unit of several hundred women that had been formed by Maria Bochareva. She had petitioned the government for permission to create an all-women’s unit to participate in the war at the front. This was granted, and out of 2,000 volunteers 300 would make it long enough to get to the front. The government hoped that this group would inspire the men at the front and cause them to attack because, after all, the women were doing it. It was also seen as a valuable bit of propaganda. To this end they would be put in the trenches for the Summer 1917 offensive. When the time came, and they went over to attack, very few men would end up being inspired by them. The Battalion was able to take a few German trenches, like many other units during the attack, however they were soon pushed back by counter attacks. With the failure of the attack the question became what to do with this unit, and other women’s units who were in the process of creation. At the front they were often seen as a liability due to the resentment that was focused on them from male units, and equipping and training the units used valuable resources that could be used elsewhere. There was some thought in using female units to replace the men in auxiliary roles behind the front, like as railway guards and other security troops. However the men who had those roles were none too eager to be replaced by female units, because when they were replaced there was only one place that the men could go, to the front. In August the units would be disbanded, but several more all women units would be formed in the coming months as the October revolution began, we will meet one such unit next episode as it makes a name for itself in the October revolution as the last defenders of the Winter Palace and the Provisional government against Bolshevik aggression.
The attack as a whole had cost only around 37,000 casualties, which was a miniscule amount compared to previous Russian attacks, some of which had cost 10 times as many men. However, among those 37,000 were a high proportion of the most loyal and willing troops that Russian still had, and that they would need if they wanted to launch future attacks, or even continue the war. Since many units had refused to go forward, those who did go forward found themselves taking the heaviest casualties, and in the future units would not make the same mistake. Therefore, the actual effect on the army was far greater than just the 37,000. There were also many deserters, somewhere around 170,000 troops over the course of the offensive. These came not just in one or two or small groups but also in the form of entire units, who took over entire regions behind the front. A few weeks leader the Russian 8th Army essentially ceased to exist due to the number of men who had deserted. This was also basically the beginning of the end of the war on the Russian Front. In August the Germans would take advantage of the situation to launch an attack in the north which resulted in them capturing Riga. The failures at the front, both on the offense and defense would break the morale of even the most loyal supporters of the Kerensky government. The collapse of the attack would also have a catastrophic effect on the Provisional Government. It has placed it future in the hands of the army’s attack, using most of it political capital to gain support for the attack. And now that gamble had failed, and soon the leaders of Russia would pay the price because as Summer came to a close and Autumn dawned there was a new threat to the Russian government on the horizon.