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

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Tactics, Diplomacy, and Revolution: The Importance of the September 1917 Riga Offensive

A factor in the accelerating decline of the Kerensky  government  was  the  German  offensive  around  Riga  in September. Though it was a limited affair, and the only real German advance  between  the  summer  of  1917  and  their  final  moves,  it  was significant both in its effect on Kerensky and Lenin, and in its own right as  a  military  operation,  for  it  introduced  what has historically and inaccurately been called “Hutier  tactics,”  which were to come close to winning the war for Germany.  General  Oscar  von  Hutier  was  commander  of  8th  Army,  on  the northern end of the German line along the Baltic coast.  His army would be tasked with taking Riga.

German Troops Entering Riga, 3 September 1917

For two years the Germans had been making occasional attempts to take the fortress of Riga, all without success. Wishing to capitalize on Russia’s internal difficulties, the Germans decided to exert more pressure on the Provisional Government; the taking of Riga might make them ask for an armistice. By now the technicians and theorists of the General Staff had made a  thorough  study  of  the  tactical  impasse  on  the  fighting  fronts. They had carefully analyzed the successes and the failures of both sides. They noted the way some of the British units had made an initial gain on the Somme, how their own troops had attacked at Verdun, and how the French had riposted; they studied Brusilov’s tactics in his great offensive as well. They came to essentially the conclusion that Brusilov and his staff had reached. A vital difference was that the Germans knew why they had reached it, whereas Brusilov had largely stumbled on it by the accident of ammunition shortage and discarded it as soon as the shortages were made up. Brusilov’s lucky shot became Germany’s tactical doctrine. 

The German solution was Stosstrupp (shock troop or storm troop) tactics featuring a brief but intense and precisely targeted artillery preparation and specially trained, independent squads tasked with finding and infiltrating weak spots and bypassing strongpoints, leaving them for follow-up by the regular infantry. Riga would be the first trial of the new doctrine, where it would prove successful, as it would the following month on the Italian Front at Caporetto. This set the approach for the great Ludendorff offensives of 1918.

The Riga offensive contained all the new elements: last-minute approach of fully briefed and highly trained troops, specialized units assigned to given tasks, short preliminary barrage that did not give the attack away, close coordination and support for infantry by carefully controlled  artillery  fire,  and  advance  and  infiltration  that  bypassed strongpoints and flowed through weak spots. The drive opened suddenly on 1 September. Two days later, Riga was German and the Baltic coast wide open. A week after that Kornilov attempted his coup. 

In the next month the Germans went on to overrun Latvia and the Baltic islands, creating an obvious threat to Petrograd, and in November Lenin seized power. Three weeks later he asked for an armistice. It took the Germans a week to reply, but hostilities along the Eastern Front  were  suspended  in  early  December.  The  representatives  of  the Central Powers and of the Bolsheviks met at Brest-Litovsk in Poland on 3 December  to discuss a peace settlement. Trotsky, ultimately representing the Soviets, was in a poor bargaining position. His government had already broadcast to the world a request for an immediate peace without annexations or war indemnities, which had been utterly ignored in  the  chancellories  of  the  belligerents. The  Allies  regarded  the Bolsheviks as traitors to the great cause and were already considering how  they  might  be  brought  down  and  Russia  kept  in  the  war.  

Signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

The Central Powers, having won at least this part of their war, were in no mood to listen to what they considered sophomoric and utopian schemes from their victims. In addition, the Bolsheviks’ domestic situation was far from secure. If they gave in too much to the Germans, they might well be overthrown at home; indeed, their power base was so insecure that they were still receiving financial support from Germany, and the Germans  were  still  paying  it  because  they  wanted  to  keep  the Bolsheviks afloat long enough to get their peace treaty negotiated.

Sources: A Short History of World War I by James Stokesbury; Over the Top, February 2018


  1. Is there a good study of the Riga campaign?

    And harrumph, I think that's unfair to Brusilov. He planned his great success himself. He didn't set things aside so much as get betrayed by other generals and a lack of Stavka support.

  2. With failure of the Kerensky Offensive in July and basically the disintegration of the Russian Army following the effective German counterattack, I thought the goose was cooked that summer. The fall of Riga was just another nail in the coffin.