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