Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 245th installment in the series.
July 28, 1916: Russians Resume Brusilov Offensive
Perhaps the most stunning development of 1916, surpassing even Verdun and the Somme, was the massive success of the Russian offensive on the Eastern Front launched by General Alexei Brusilov, widely regarded as one of the most talented commanders of the First World War. A pioneer of “combined arms” tactics – in which artillery, shock troops, regular infantry, and aerial reconnaissance worked in close coordination to overwhelm enemy defenses – in June 1916 Brusilov was given authority over the entire Russian Southwest Front, with four armies under his command, and stunned the world by breaking through the Austrian defenses and pushing the demoralized Habsburg armies back over a hundred miles in places. After a pause to regroup and redeploy his forces (including the addition of the Third Army and a special Guards Army, drawn from elements drawn from other Russian armies, the latter not shown on the map below), on July 28, 1916, Brusilov resumed the offensive – but this time with only limited success.
Simply bringing Brusilov’s armies to a state of readiness again was an impressive feat, given the incredible logistical difficulties the Russians faced in Galicia, Bukovina, and southeast Poland (now western Ukraine), served by some of the most primitive infrastructure in Europe, including narrow, unpaved roads – or no roads at all – and a glaring deficiency in motorized transport. Stanley Washburn, a war correspondent following the Russian armies, described the achingly slow progress of supply columns and reinforcements moving to the front in July:
Miles and miles of peasants’ carts bearing food, provender, huge loaves of bread, were succeeded by four-horse wagons piled high with regimental and staff baggage. These, in turn, turned aside to let the field telegraph outfit pass, with its innumerable little two-wheeled carts loaded with poles and coils of wire for communications. Perhaps behind them a long column of the two-wheeled, two-horse carts holding the small-arm ammunition for the infantry passed tumultuously over the rough cobbled stones… Wagons loaded with barbed wire wound on great spools were conspicuous in the procession… A dozen times a day the traffic must pull aside to permit the passage of troops going to the front. These came through, battalion after battalion, their copper-tinged faces now gray with the fine, white dust of the road.
Violent thunderstorms didn’t help matters much, although they did make for some surreally picturesque nighttime vignettes, as recorded by Washburn, who at least got to travel in one of the scarce automobiles:
… in two minutes we were wallowing through mud six inches deep, with wheels spinning and smoking tires filling the air with the smell of superheated rubber. One instant the entire landscape would be thrown into vivid relief by the flash of the lightning, and the next, with eyes half blinded by the glare, we would be staring into blackness... With the coming of the flashing lightning, with its illumination of the country for miles about, we could see that we were in the midst of the seething life of the army… For one instant one sees them stretching away ahead and behind on the road as far as the eye can reach, and then the return of the darkness shuts them out as utterly as the putting of a cap on the lens of a camera.
After several false starts, by late July Brusilov’s forces were ready to launch the next phase of the offensive. At 4 a.m. on July 28 the Russian artillery opened up along the entire front, stretching from near Czernowitz to the southern reaches of the Pripet marshes, followed just an hour later by the first infantry attacks by the Russian Eleventh Army against the hybrid Austro-German Südarmee (South Army). Although the Eleventh Army failed to make much progress here, it did succeed in pinning down the Südarmee, preventing the Germans and Austrians from sending reinforcements elsewhere.
This set the stage for more successful attacks further south, where the Russian Ninth Army’s artillery pounded the Austro-Hungarian Third Army and forced it to retreat towards the town of Stanislau (today Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine) and threatened to breach the juncture with the Südarmee, forcing the latter to pull back as well. Meanwhile further north the Russian Eighth Army inflicted a shattering defeat on the beleaguered Habsburg Fourth Army, led by swarms of Russian shock troops, who overwhelmed the first line of Austro-Hungarian defenses and captured the second line so quickly there was basically no time to react.
These breakthroughs were exploited by bands of Russian Cossacks, who excelled at their traditional mission of sowing chaos behind the lines and generally striking terror into the enemy, often armed with weapons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the medieval period (top, Cossacks in Galicia). Malcolm Grow, an American surgeon volunteering with the Russian Army, described seeing a Cossack unit in action around this time:
Each man was armed with a fourteen-foot lance with a knife-like steel point, a great curved sabre at his side with a blade like that of a razor, a short dagger with a nasty two-edge blade in the belt, and a carbine on a leather strap slung across the shoulder… After running the Austrians through with their long lances, the Cossacks would ride by and disengage their weapons with a strong pull. Occasionally, however, the lance would be torn from their grasp, and then out would flash their long keen sabres. I attended a number of Germans after this fight, which showed the deadly power of the Cossack cutting stroke… One man I attended had his entire arm and shoulder carried away by a single blow from a sabre. Another poor devil had been struck in the top of the head and he was split through to his breast-bone, the skull cut as clean as though the work had been done with a saw.
By the end of July 28 the Habsburg Fourth Army had lost 15,000 men, most of these taken prisoner after surrendering with little resistance.
However Brusilov’s main push, towards the town of Kovel, met with less success. After some initial victories by the Russian Third and Guards Armies, the German and Austrian commanders wisely withdrew a relatively short distance to safe defensive positions behind the Stokhod River, a tributary of the Pripet River (for which the Pripet Marshes are named). The Russians found it impossible to even reach the Stokhod, as thousands upon thousands of troops were mowed down by Central Powers artillery while approaching through the mud of the broad, open marshes lining the river (below, the Stokhod River today).
Despite very heavy losses, the Russians continued the offensive in the days that followed, keeping the pressure on the Austrians but making only gradual progress, in large part due to a lack of coordination between Brusilov’s army commanders. On July 30, Washburn described the strangely dispassionate attitude of Russian artillerymen shelling enemy positions behind the Stokhod:
As we came up, the whole operation was proceeding as methodically as a drill. An officer sitting on a stump, with a notebook, was directing the fire from instructions received every few minutes from an orderly at a telephone in a near-by bomb proof. All the directions were in figures denoting changes in elevation and deviation from the target, and not a man in the battery, the officer not excepted, knew what their target was. Their aiming point was a tree in the rear, and as long as the gunner had his sights on that he cared not whether he was shooting at a village, a trench, or an enemy battery. The man at the breech sat at his post with as little concern as though working a lathe in a machine shop. The war has become absolutely casual, as a matter of fact, and these people go about their work without excitement or confusion.
In early August Brusilov regrouped before mounting a new wave of attacks, which again achieved some notable successes – but the balance of forces was gradually beginning to turn against the Russians, as supply lines stretched out and artillery started to run low on ammunition, while the Germans rushed more divisions to shore up their helpless Austrian allies.
Overall the Brusilov Offensive had a major impact on the course of the war, but its effects were ambiguous. On one hand, along with the British and French attack at the Somme, it forced German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn to withdraw troops from Verdun, ending the great German offensive of 1916 and leading to Falkenhayn’s removal and replacement by Paul von Hindenburg, the hero of Tannenberg. It also persuaded Romania to join the war on the side of the Allies (though this proved a mixed blessing, at best).
But Brusilov’s victories also came at an astronomical cost: from June to September 1916, when the offensive ended, Russia suffered an incredible 1.4 million casualties, bringing its total losses for the war to date to around eight million, including killed, wounded, prisoners, and missing. By the second half of 1916 it was becoming increasingly clear that Russia could no longer sustain these losses while maintaining loyalty to the autocratic and ever-more dysfunctional monarchy of Tsar Nicholas II. Something had to give.