Russians Resume Brusilov Offensive

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.

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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. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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