Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, June 4, 2016

100 Years Ago: The Brusilov Offensive Launched



Russian Infantry Advancing After an Initial Success Against an Austrian Position

Where:    Galicia on the Southwestern Eastern Front, Part of Present Day-Poland & Ukraine

When:     4 June – 20 September 1916

Initial Participants:

  • Russian: Four Armies of Southwestern Front: 7th, 8th, 9th, 11th  [Brusilov]
  • Central Powers:

Austro-Hungarian: Five Armies — 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th; Combined

        German/Austrian South  [Conrad, Bothmer] Germany: Army Group Lingsingen

Reinforcements:

  • Additional Russian armies were committed, as well as Romanian divisions for the Entente.
  • German Divisions were shifted from other sections including the Western Front; Austro-Hungarian Divisions from the Trentino.    


U.S. Army Map

Casualties: (Estimates Vary Greatly)

  • Central Powers:  1.4 million [Killed, Wounded, Captured] 
  • Russian, Romanian:  1.0 +/- million [Killed, Wounded, Captured]


Memorable Aspects:
General Brusilov

  • Most successful and competently executed Russian offensive of World War I. 
  • Succeeded in forcing the Central Powers to divert divisions from the Western and Italian Fronts diminishing pressure on Verdun and the Trentino.
  • General Brusilov's deceptions, innovative artillery, and breakthrough tactics, which were precursors of the methods of 1918. 
  • Initial Russian successes brought Romania into the war with the Entente.
  • High Russian Army casualties and stresses on civilian population contributed to the Revolutions of 1917.


 Summary

In the spring of 1916 the Central Powers gained the strategic initiative over the Entente.  Verdun, was indeed "bleeding" the French Army – and the German attacking force, as well – and in May the Austro-Hungarian command had launched a strategically daring assault from the Trentino in an effort to surround the Italian Armies deployed farther north along the Isonzo River and in the Carnic Alps.  Once again Russia was asked to help her allies by marshaling an attack speedily.  

After the catastrophic losses of 1915, few Russian generals were interested in commanding another offensive, though. The exception was Alexei Brusilov, who led a group of four armies deployed from the Romanian border in the south north to the Pripet Marshes. Aiming for Galicia, he chose the distant cities of Lublin and Lemberg as specific objectives. His intention, however, was to administer  a devastating defeat using a new approach for attacking the entrenched forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire deployed against him. He chose to mount an assault over an extremely broad front of 300 miles to preclude any countering of his successes by reinforcements quickly shifted via rail and to eschew concentrating on one or two breakthrough points, rather seeking many penetrations to utterly splinter the enemy. Instead of a long, widespread preliminary artillery barrage, one of his artillery experts, Lt. Col. V.F. Kirey devised a plan emphasizing short, intense, and irregular local barrages to keep the opposing forces, which were heavily concentrated near the front, in place and underground. Lightning assaults by specially trained infantry were to follow to break into the rear.

Russian Cavalry Advancing

The initial attacks could not have been more successful.  Austrian frontline troops were pounded in place and those farther back were encircled and captured in great numbers during the first stage advance — almost 50 miles in some sectors.  This initial triumph marked the high point, however, for Russia and Brusilov in the First World War. The battle then turned — probably inevitably — into another massive exercise in attrition.  A number of factors contributed to this.   Brusilov did not receive support from the adjacent Russian commanders he needed, particularly on his northern flank from General Alexei Evert, who was late in launching a second major offensive, which fizzled when it finally began. The superior rail network of the Central Powers gave them a great advantage in delivering timely reinforcements and supplies. New troops supported the nearly [but not fully] shattered Austro-Hungarian forces from as far as Turkey, Italy, and the Western Front. The Austrian/German South Army under Count Felix von Bothmer fought an effective fighting retreat despite the disintegrating situation around them. The Hindenburg-Ludendorff team assumed full command of the Eastern Front and were able to organize a concerted holding action.   

Casualties mounted on both over the summer as Brusilov fought off counterattacks and tried several different approaches for regaining the initiative, but he began running low of both ammunition and manpower. Romania joined the Entente in August and contributed fresh troops in Brusilov's most southern sector in September, but their military effectiveness was limited and they became another liability for Russia. The great offensive had clearly ground to a halt by late September, the original strategic objectives of Lublin and Lemberg never achieved.  Yet another offensive designed to destroy the enemy's army had succeeded in part, but also yielded nearly equivalent damage on the instigator. Revolution and a new government would come to Russia before she would be able to launch another offensive, which would once again be commanded by Brusilov — but much less successfully.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent post. What an underappreciated offensive, the most successful (I think) of the Entente up until that point.

    I added links to a few more resources here:
    http://www.metafilter.com/160149/Russia-has-not-yet-reached-the-zenith-of-her-power

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  2. Indeed, it is underappreciated.

    I briefly covered it on my blog (very briefly) and I'm very glad to see it covered here.

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  3. By the end of the first week, the Austrian fourth and seventh armies on the flanks of the front were shattered, while the eighth and the Sudarmee were still intact in the center, though retreating in good order to avoid being encircled by the Russians. Though by the time that the Russians had crested the Carpathians, there was talk of a separate peace in Budapest.

    ReplyDelete