Russians Attack At Lake Naroch

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 229th installment in the series.  

March 18, 1916: Russians Attack At Lake Naroch 

With France fighting for its life at Verdun, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre pleaded with his country’s Allies to immediately launch their own offensives against the Central Powers, in hopes of forcing Germany to shift troops from Verdun and take some of the pressure off France. The result was a series of attacks against Germany and Austria-Hungary, mounted with little hope of success in an effort to demonstrate solidarity. 

Following the total failure of the Italian attack on Austria-Hungary at the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, the next big Allied push was the Russian offensive against Germany on the Eastern Front at Lake Naroch, from March 18-30, 1916, where General Kuropatkin’s Northern Army Group attacked a thinly-held part of the German front. Despite a huge advantage in manpower (350,000 to 75,000) and artillery (1,000 guns to 400), the attack by the Russian Second Army under General Smirnov on the German Tenth Army under General Eichhorn ended in defeat, as well-entrenched German defenders in multiple lines of trenches repelled the human-wave style assaults of the Russian infantry. However, the fact that the Russians could mount an attack at all was a warning that the Central Powers ignored to their detriment. 

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Indeed, the Russian preparations for an attack at Lake Naroch came as something of a surprise to German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who complacently assumed that Russia was basically out of the war following serial defeats at the hands of the Central Powers in their 1915 summer campaign on the Eastern Front. While Russia was in fact under increasing internal stress (like most of the other combatants), it was far from finished. 

By the same token, Russia’s backwards infrastructure and the Russian Army’s lamentable logistics meant the Germans had plenty of time to prepare their defenses around Lake Naroch and its environs, now located in modern-day Belarus and Lithuania; they were aided by aerial reconnaissance which revealed huge – but slow – Russian troop movements. Malcolm Grow, an American surgeon volunteering with the Russian Army, recalled the columns of Russian infantry arriving in the weeks leading up to the new offensive:

For miles they stretched across the frozen landscape. The roads were like huge brown arteries through which flowed slowly moving columns of men, artillery and transports, ebbing on endlessly to replace our corps – a constant stream of gray-brown…Huge 9-inch and 6-inch guns came lumbering through the village. The roads had not yet begun to thaw and they were easy to move. Endless columns of caissons loaded with shells rattled back and forth bringing up shells…

The offensive would take place in swampy terrain amid frequent freezing, thawing, and re-freezing, which made it very difficult to dig trenches deep enough to offer protection. Grow described the shallow trenches and general lack of good cover against German artillery: 

The trenches were again at the edge of a great forest, facing across a flat open field, across which was another great forest of pines… The trenches were dug in only about two feet. There was a thick covering of ice on the bottom. To make up for their lack of depth, they had been built up in front with banks of dirt and sod. On account of the swampy character of the ground, very few dug-outs had been constructed and not one fit for use was at our disposal. We had to work in tents covered with pine boughs to hide them from observation… The only protection we had from the German artillery were the tree trunks.

On March 16, 1916 the Russian Second Army launched a huge two-day bombardment, with an intensity unprecedented for Russian forces in the First World War, but German dominance in the air meant that much of the artillery fire was inaccurate, due to a lack of aerial reconnaissance. Furthermore the combination of mist and smoke from the artillery shelling made it even harder for Russian spotters to identify targets and assess damage. Grow remarked on the low visibility:

I went down into our first-line trenches, which were half filled with icy snow and muddy water, coming up almost to my knees, and peered out through a loophole toward the German trenches. The black line of forest along which his first line ran was almost hidden by spurting clouds of smoke and dirt. A gray haze simply hid them from view where the high explosive shells tore up barbed wire and trench parapets. 

On March 18 the Russians unleashed the first of many human wave attacks aiming to overwhelm the outnumbered German defenders through relentless assaults, but paid a steep price when it was discovered most of the German machine guns were still in action. Their task was made even more difficult by the melting snow and ice, which turned the wide, flat fields into a muddy morass, pockmarked by shell holes filled with water. Finally, even when the Russians managed to break through in places, they faced a second and third line of German trenches, still mostly intact. Grow described the fate of the first wave: 

They were hardly over the top when the German machine-guns turned a withering fire on them, the machine-guns hammering and the rifles cracking. Across the flat, white field they went, and every here and there a man would go down sprawling in the snow. The German barrage fire appeared as a haze of whirling smoke and dirt, partly hiding them as they went through it, and the earth shook with the violence of the explosions. The sprawling forms were like the foam that a receding wave leaves on the sand as it sweeps back to its parent sea. Many came running or crawling back with all manner of wounds, as the advancing line became lost to sight in the tumbling, rolling fog of the barrage; but No Man’s Land was covered with men who would never move again. 

The Russian female soldier Yashka (real name Maria Leontievna Bochkareva) painted a similar picture of the Russian infantry attacks:

The signal to advance was given, and we started, knee-deep in mud, for the enemy. In places the pools reached above our waists. Shells and bullets played havoc among us. Of those who fell wounded, many sank in the mud and were drowned. The German fire was devastating. Our lines grew thinner and thinner, and progress became so slow that our doom was certain in the event of a further advance. 

After multiple human wave attacks, the Russians finally broke through in some places, advancing up to ten kilometers – but were eventually forced to withdraw or face encirclement. Yashka described the retreat, followed by the dangerous work of retrieving wounded from the battlefield:

How can one describe the march back through the inferno of No Man’s Land on that night of March 7th, [N.S., March 19th] 1916? There were wounded men submerged all but their heads, calling piteously for help. “Save me, for Christ’s sake!” came from every side. From the trenches there went up a chorus of the same heartrending appeals… Fifty of us went out to do the work of rescue. Never before had I worked in such harrowing, blood-curdling circumstances… Several sank so deep that my own strength was not sufficient to drag them out… Finally I broke down, just as I reached my trench with a burden. I was so exhausted that all my bones were aching. 

By March 30, 1916, the swampy conditions, lack of ammunition and exhaustion of the Russian troops left little choice, and Smirnov’s superior General Evert called the offensive off; a coordinated attack near the Baltic Sea port of Riga also failed. The price was enormous but no longer shocking by the standards of the First World War: across all the offensives in this region they suffered around 110,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing and prisoners) including at least 12,000 from frostbite. Meanwhile the Germans lost “just” 20,000 men. Yashka remembered the stomach-churning aftermath of the battle: 

Our casualties were enormous. The corpses lay thick everywhere, like mushrooms after rain, and there were innumerable wounded. One could not take a step in No Man’s Land without coming into contact with the corpse of a Russian or a German. Bloody feet, hands, sometimes heads, lay scattered in the mud… It was a night of unforgettable horrors. The stench was suffocating. The ground was full of mud-holes. Some of us sat on corpses. Others rested their feet on dead men. One could not stretch a hand without touching a lifeless body. We were hungry. We were cold. Our flesh crept in the dreadful surroundings. I wanted to get up. My hand sought support. It fell on the face of a corpse, stuck against the wall. I screamed, slipped and fell. My fingers buried themselves in the torn abdomen of a body.

Afterwards she described the preparations to bury the bodies in mass graves: “Our own Regiment had two thousand wounded. And when the dead were gathered from the field and carried out of the trenches, there were long, long, rows of them stretched out in the sun awaiting eternal rest in the immense common grave that was being dug for them in the rear.” For his part, Grow got some idea of the losses in conversation with a Russian officer, who told him: “Of my company of two hundred men, only forty got back uninjured…” Later, Grow noted: “One regiment which had had four thousand men only a few hours before now had only about eight hundred!” 

The fate of wounded Russian soldiers was hardly much better, Grow added, as paltry medical facilities were quickly overwhelmed by huge numbers of casualties: “The cold was intense, and as our tent could not accommodate all the wounded, many had to lie in the snow wrapped in such poor blankets as we could supply. At times there were as many as a hundred lying in the snow outside the tent, many of them having only their wet overcoats to protect them against the cold!” 

The failure of the Lake Naroch Offensive encouraged the Germans to resume their former complacency, concluding that Russia had finally exhausted itself. In fact, the giant realm still had huge untapped reserves of manpower, and industrial production of war-related goods was expanding quickly. Perhaps most importantly, the Russian Army was experimenting with new offensive tactics, led by the brilliant battlefield strategist Alexei Brusilov.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Everything That’s Leaving Netflix in April
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If you’ve been desperately trying to plan a Batman movie marathon with your friends, you’d better make it happen quickly. As of April 1, Netflix will no longer be streaming Tim Burton’s stylish 1989 reimagining of the Caped Crusader. (They’ll be eliminating Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin, too—though you may not care as much about those latter two efforts.) In order to make room for the dozens of new movies, TV series, and specials making their way to Netflix in April, here’s everything that’s leaving the streaming giant’s library.


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Batman Forever

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Begin Again

12 Outrageous The Office Fan Theories

Mind-bending shows like Lost and Westworld bring out the conspiracy theorist in all of us. But even less cerebral shows have a way of inspiring some absolutely bonkers ideas. The Office was a sitcom that ran on NBC for eight years. But the way some of its fans talk on Reddit, you’d think it was a piece of science fiction. Here are 12 of the wildest theories about Andy’s “alcohorse,” radon poisoning, the Loch Ness Monster, and beyond.


One of the most enduring fan theories is that Michael Scott, noted idiot and jerk, is actually a brilliant businessman. A lot of people have suggested that Michael is putting on an act the whole time, making clients and bosses underestimate him so that he can manipulate them into giving him what he wants. Reddit points to the season two episode “The Client” as one example; this is the episode where Jan Levinson and Michael have a very important meeting, which Michael moves from the Radisson to Chili’s. He’s completely blowing it from Jan’s perspective, coming off as an unprofessional clown to their VIP client (Tim Meadows), but Michael’s approach loosens the guy up, allowing him to swiftly close the deal. There are a few other examples of Michael’s possible genius. Or he could just be a lucky dummy.


From season one, fans were rooting for Jim Halpert to win over Pam Beesly and get out of the paper business. But one fan theory suggests Dunder Mifflin’s slacker salesman manipulated us all. Reddit user Yahnster thinks Jim actually wrote the show, which is why he comes off as the hero and the coworkers he doesn’t like (i.e. Dwight Schrute) seem so annoying. Meanwhile his boss Michael, who never punishes Jim for his pranks or for being plain lazy, is written as a buffoon.


Kevin Malone isn’t the sharpest employee at Dunder Mifflin. He shreds his own credit cards by accident and can’t transfer a call to save his life. In one especially mean prank, Dwight convinces new HR exec Holly Flax that Kevin is mentally challenged. Like the Michael Scott theory, some fans believe Kevin was just pretending to be dumb—in this case, so that no one would notice he was embezzling money from the company. It would explain how he was able to buy a bar, and why he makes a weird comment about insider trading. (“I had Martin explain to me three times what he got arrested for, because it sounds an awful lot like what I do here every day.”) Check out the video above for even more evidence.


Anyone who has watched all nine seasons of The Office has probably noticed that the characters get a little bit stranger as the series goes along. There’s a theory that explains this—and it’s kind of dark! There’s a running joke on the show that the office is due for radon testing. But because Toby Flenderson is always the one bringing it up, it’s dismissed. According to one theory, Toby was right—and the entire staff has slowly been developing brain cancer. Eventually, the illness begins to alter their personalities, causing them to act in demented and strange ways. It’s also why Michael is way more mature in the series finale. Moving to Colorado with Holly did wonders for his radon-poisoned brain. Once he was out of the toxic office, he could finally grow up.


Reddit has piggybacked off the radon theory to explain Andy Bernard’s behavior, which is probably the most exaggerated of the bunch. While Andy could be suffering from radon poisoning, one theory suggests his brain damage is more directly the result of a fateful drink. In the season seven episode “Viewing Party,” Andy is having a hard time dealing with his ex Erin Hannon’s new relationship with Gabe Lewis. He’s processing all this while he’s in Gabe’s room, where he finds a mysterious container. Temp Ryan Howard tells him it’s full of powdered seahorse, which gives people superhuman strength. Andy dumps it in his wine and downs it all. The combination of alcohol and, uh, seahorse messes Andy up permanently. If this theory weren’t crazy enough, it also comes with a ridiculous name: “alcohorse.”


Fans might like the Michael theory, but they love the idea that HR’s milquetoast Toby is the Scranton Strangler. Seriously, there are entire videos laying out the claims (see one above). Could Toby actually be the notorious criminal who dominates the local news in later seasons? Fans have built up quite the case. For starters, he wasn’t at work when everyone watched the police chase and apprehend the Scranton Strangler. He didn’t even show up for the Glee party later that day! Then he makes it onto the jury, where he can help put the other guy behind bars. He’s pretty eager to share insider info from the courtroom with his coworkers—eager because of the attention, or because he’s getting away with murder? Later on, after the Strangler is found guilty, he tells everyone he’s not so sure they convicted the right guy. Did his guilty conscience overwhelm him? Or is Toby just a normal dude who takes jury duty seriously? You decide.


No really, hear this one out: A bunch of people sincerely believe that the Scranton office is hell—but that it didn’t become a hellscape until after one key episode. “Stress Relief” is a two-parter from season five. In the first part, Stanley has a heart attack in the middle of a safety drill. He survives, and soon returns to work. But what if Stanley really died that day? The theory goes that Stanley’s heart attack kills him and he’s sent straight to hell. (He did have all those affairs, after all.) Stanley hated his work more than anyone, so for him, hell is the office. But because this is hell, all his coworkers are exaggerated versions of themselves: more annoying and more cartoonish.


It’s impossible to forgot where Bob Vance works, because he repeats the name of his business (Vance Refrigeration) every time he introduces himself. But is Bob an awkward hype man, or a savvier businessman than we all suspected? One popular theory says that Bob isn’t selling his services to the people he meets onscreen, but to the people watching the documentary. It’s his way of scoring free ads, even if he does seem a little strange to Phyllis’s coworkers.


Rainn Wilson in 'The Office'

Dwight Schrute frequently struggles to separate fiction from reality. Here’s a quick list of examples, as documented by TimmestTim: He thinks he can raise and lower his cholesterol at will; he thinks Jim might be turning into a vampire and that his neighbor’s dog is a werewolf; he can’t tell the difference between a hero and a superhero or a Benjamin Franklin impersonator and the actual Benjamin Franklin. TimmestTim posits that Dwight has this disconnect because he wasn't allowed to watch movies growing up. Once he got older, and got very into fantasy and sci-fi (i.e. Battlestar Galactica), his brain couldn’t quite separate what he saw on the screen from real life. Since he had no exposure during his formative years, the distinction was harder, which is why he has no problem believing Jim is a creature of the night.


Dunder Mifflin is never the most financially stable company. Even before Sabre buys it out, Michael’s bosses are constantly warning him about layoffs or branch shutdowns—and begging him to stop spending large amounts of money on holiday parties. Based on the wider company problems and Michael’s frequent mistakes, the Scranton branch should’ve been shuttered during the first episode. So how does it survive for so long? One Reddit user theorizes that the camera crew kept them in business. Sensing that the office antics would make for great television, the crew bought up Dunder Mifflin paper so they could keep filming, and eventually make their money back on a TV show deal. Considering the damage Michael does to the warehouse alone, it must have been a lot of paper.


There’s a pretty convincing case that The Office is happening at the same time as Parks and Recreation and Dexter, and it all comes down to office supplies. In season six, a printer company called Sabre buys out Dunder Mifflin. A few Sabre employees became recurring characters, like Jo Bennet (Kathy Bates) and Gabe Lewis (Zach Woods), and the Scranton office suddenly has to drink out of metal water bottles, as per company policy. Otherwise, not much changes. But Sabre is important, because its products have appeared on other shows. Eagle-eyed viewers have spotted Sabre printers on Parks and Recreation and even Dexter. But some people think the connections run deeper. (Here’s a lengthier case for crossover involving Creed and a Parks and Rec cult.)


Creed, the strangest man at Dunder Mifflin, is the subject of many theories. But by far the best one is that he’s trying to catch Nessie. In “The Seminar,” Creed gives a speech about the Loch Ness Monster (which you can watch above), where he describes the creature and mentions the totally fake reward for its capture: all the riches in Scotland. So he’s clearly fixated on this folklore, but LaxBro316 pieced it together with another Creed non sequitur to explain his ultimate goal. “If I can’t scuba, then what’s this all been about?” he asks. “What am I working toward?” It’s unclear if Creed ever found Nessie, but we hope he’s enjoying all the riches of Scotland.


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