CLOSE

Russians Launch Brusilov Offensive, Arab Revolt Begins

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 238th installment in the series. 

June 4-5, 1916: Russians Launch Brusilov Offensive, Arab Revolt Begins 

Following the Russian defeat at Lake Naroch in March 1916, the military chiefs of the Central Powers complacently assumed that Russia had finally exhausted its offensive power. They proved disastrously mistaken. Heeding the repeated calls of their French and Italian allies, under pressure from concerted German and Austrian attacks at Verdun and Asiago, respectively, the Russians agreed to mount another major attack in June 1916 – this time with an important difference.

The difference was General Alexei Brusilov (below), previously commander of the Russian Eighth Army, now elevated to command of the entire Southwest Front, composed of four armies containing 650,000 troops, facing around 500,000 mostly Austro-Hungarian troops (the Südarmee or “South Army” was a hybrid Austro-German force). 

Today unknown to most Western readers, Brusilov was undoubtedly the most talented Russian commander of the First World War and in fact one of the best commanders of the war overall. While his grasp of grand strategy was middling, Brusilov’s genius lay in his close attention to battlefield tactics, with a special focus on organization, preparation, and deception.

Hailed as a pioneer of “combined arms,” in which different weapons work together smoothly as a unified whole, Brusilov carefully coordinated the action of heavy and light artillery, mortars, machine guns, aerial reconnaissance and finally the infantry attack itself to create openings in the enemy line which threatened encirclement, methodically forcing the enemy to withdraw again and again.

By dividing infantry attacks into waves, with the first waves armed with grenades and supported by subsequent waves carrying mobile machine guns, Brusilov mirrored many of the German innovations in stormtroop tactics. Additionally, he ordered heavy artillery to focus on the enemy’s rear areas, destroying communication trenches and preventing enemy reinforcements from moving forward. Perhaps most ingeniously, Brusilov ordered preparations to go forward without concealment along the entire Southwest Front, measuring some 280 miles from north to south; the result was paralysis, as his opponents found themselves apparently threatened everywhere, and thus unable to reinforce anywhere.

Click to enlarge

On June 4, 1916, the Russian Eighth Army’s artillery opened a relatively moderate but unusually accurate bombardment of the Habsburg Fourth Army’s positions, followed by careful observation from planes and artillery spotters to assess the exact degree of damage to frontline defenses. Only later in the day did Russian troops begin to advance, striking narrow areas of the front, all weakly held because the Habsburg commanders had been unable to shift reinforcements, exactly as Brusilov planned (below, Russian troops advance).

Despite this the Russians incurred heavy losses for modest gains over the first couple days – but their offensive, gradually grinding forward, was wearing down already demoralized Habsburg troops who now found themselves cut off from supplies and repeatedly forced to dig new defensive positions. The Austro-Hungarian First and Second Armies lost key sections of the front, but it wasn’t until the Russian Ninth Army broke through the Austro-Hungarian Seventh Army’s positions near Okna to the south on June 5 that the situation became critical for the Habsburgs.

The Austro-Hungarians responded by sending a constant stream of reinforcements to the front (suffering heavy casualties from Russian artillery as they did so) and finally managed to stem the advance of the Russian Ninth Army – but now the sheer magnitude of the Russian offensive began to tell, as the main focus of attack shifted to the Russian Seventh Army to the north. By June 9 the Russian Seventh Army had advanced around 20 miles and taken 16,000 prisoners – at which point the Russian Ninth Army was ready to return to the attack.

The constant shifting of fighting along the front confused and overwhelmed the Habsburg commanders, and further demoralized Habsburg troops, while the slow but steady advance energized the Russians. By June 8 the Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, was sufficiently alarmed that he swallowed his pride (no small feat) and asked his detested German counterpart, Erich von Falkenhayn, for help. Falkenhayn, preoccupied with Verdun, initially rebuffed the request, telling Conrad to end his Asiago offensive and withdraw divisions from the Italian front instead; only two days later, however, Falkenhayn relented and instructed the German commanders on the Eastern Front, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, to send five divisions to prop up the Habsburgs in the south.

The Germans were able to send the reinforcements because Brusilov’s colleague, General Alexei Evert, failed to mount a promised attack to the north with his Western Army Group – providing yet more evidence of the disastrous lack of overall coordination in the Russian high command. Evert’s negligence meant that Brusilov’s breakthrough in early June and the following weeks, however impressive, would ultimately remain a local victory. 

Nonetheless the Brusilov Offensive’s impact would be far-reaching: by the time it ground to a halt in September 1916, Austria-Hungary would be almost destroyed as a military power, left completely dependent on Germany for its continued survival. The Russian success would also persuade the Romanians to join the war in the second half of 1916 (with disastrous consequences for Romania). By the same token, huge losses sustained by the Russian armies in the latter part of the offensive would fuel growing anger at the Tsarist regime, helping lay the groundwork for revolution.

For ordinary people living in the Austro-Hungarian provinces of Galicia and Bukovina, the Brusilov Offensive spelled yet another round of terror and displacement. A Polish landowner recalled the panicked scene in a village outside the city of Czernowitz, as peasants and townsmen fled the approaching enemy once again:

The horizon was red with the glow of fires. For the third time our poor villages were burning. Whatever had survived previous battles was now given up to the flames. Homeless refugees, evacuated from the threatened villages, were passing with their poor, worn-out horses and their cows – all their remaining wealth. In perfect silence; no one complained; it had to be.

 According to the same witness the arrival of defeated Habsburg soldiers, followed by abandonment by their own government, produced predictable results:

Then a panic began. Some one had come from a neighboring village reporting that he had seen Cossacks. Soon refugees from the villages outside were streaming through the town. General confusion. Children were crying, women sobbing. A mass flight began… Then a drum was heard in the square. It was officially given out that the situation was extremely grave and that whoever wished to leave the town had better do so immediately.

Meanwhile a citizen of Czernowitz recalled the growing chaos as the Russians approached on June 11: 

The gray dawn found the city in full flight. The streets were filled with crowds, the tramcars were carrying wounded soldiers… The square before the railway station was closely packed with people, but the police were admitting only railway officials. The women were begging, crying, lifting up their children… The artillery fire was drawing closer and closer, and above the heads of the crowd appeared a Russian aviator. Their hearts were shaking with fear.

In what was by now a familiar scene from the war, the town’s central square was clogged with terrified townspeople and peasants trying to board trains, as law and order rapidly broke down: 

The news that the town would soon come under fire led to a sheer panic. The crowd in front of the station was seized with frenzy. Against the resistance of the officials it forced its way into the station and invaded a half-empty military train. The same happened in the case of the next train, and to all the following ones. In the course of Sunday 6 to 8,000 people left Czernovitz.

Arab Revolt 

On June 5, 1916, the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein Ali threw off his status as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire and proclaimed himself King of the Hejaz, opening the Arab Revolt. At any other time the uprising would have been dismissed as a tempest in a teacup. But in the context of the First World War, the rebellion added a new chess piece to the board, which the Ottoman Empire’s enemies were quick to exploit – setting the stage for the dramatic (perhaps melodramatic) feats of T.E. Lawrence, a romantic figure who gripped the world’s imagination as “Lawrence of Arabia.” 

In mid-1916 no one knew who Lawrence (a low-ranking British intelligence officer) was. His crucial meeting with Hussein Ali’s son, Faisal, was still some months in the future. For the time being, Hussein Ali’s Hashemite Arab tribesmen were fighting on their own with outdated weaponry against the Turks, who were equipped with modern artillery, airplanes, machine guns, and rifles. The early results were not encouraging: under the flinty Fahreddin Pasha, the Turkish garrison at Medina rebuffed repeated attacks, forcing the Arabs to lay siege to the city. However the Turks were forced to commit precious resources to defending Medina and the Hejaz Railway connecting it to the rest of the empire (see map below). 

Although Hussein Ali’s aims might be considered nationalistic – he hoped to unify most of the Arabs of Arabia, Syria and Mesopotamia in a single pan-Arab kingdom – he was careful to curry favor with the Muslim world by presenting his rebellion as a blow against Turkish “infidels,” referring to the secular Committee of Union and Progress or "Young Turks," who had deviated from their pious forebears and failed in their duties as protectors of the Holy Places of Islam. His official proclamation of the rebellion, on June 27, 1916, read in part: 

We leave the whole Mohammedan world from East to West to pass judgment on this contempt and profanation of the Sacred House.  But we are determined not to leave our religious and national rights as a plaything in the hands of the Union and Progress Party. God (blessed and exalted be He) has vouchsafed the land an opportunity to rise in revolt, has enabled her by His power and might to seize her independence and crown her efforts with prosperity and victory, even after she was crushed by the maladministration of the Turkish civil and military officials. She stands quite apart and distinct from countries that still groan under the yoke of the Union and Progress Government.  She is independent in the fullest sense of the word, freed from the rule of strangers and purged of every foreign influence. 

As it happened, two of the most powerful foreign influences – Britain and France, soon to be Hussein Ali’s allies – had rather different ideas about the future of the Middle East. 

Death of Kitchener

On June 5, 1916, the British suffered one of the great symbolic losses of the war with the death of Lord Kitchener, who perished at sea after his ship, the HMS Hampshire, hit a mine and sank with all 650 hands aboard just off the Orkney Islands. Kitchener had been en route from Scotland to Archangelsk in northern Russia, with plans to visit the Eastern Front and strengthen ties with Britain’s ally. 

An iconic hero from colonial wars of the Victorian era, hastily appointed Secretary of State for War by the profoundly unprepared British government in the first days of August 1914, “Kitchener of Khartoum” provided continuity and reassurance for ordinary Britons during the first months of this unprecedented conflagration. As the mustachioed face of the recruiting posters proclaiming “Lord Kitchener Wants YOU,” his avuncular image was ubiquitous, even as his own role in government shrank. 

Indeed, Kitchener had been steadily sidelined by his colleagues in the Cabinet, who criticized his apparent inability to delegate responsibility, combined with chronic indecision and frequent inattention to crucial matters. At the same time, Kitchener was held responsible for the shell crisis, Gallipoli, and Loos, among other disasters. It was an open secret that the trip to Russia was intended to get Kitchener out of the way for a while (succeeding more than anyone expected).

Despite his shortcomings, for the British and Allied publics Kitchener’s loss was a major blow; in fact he was the highest-ranking serving military officer to die during the war. It was especially devastating coming close on the heels of the British losses at Jutland, which many observers decided was a defeat, despite government propaganda (the judgment of history is more ambiguous). Tragically, far worse was to come: the great British offensive at the Somme was less than a month away.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
© Nintendo
arrow
fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
Original image
© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES