Sunday, 15 May 2016

Brusilov's offensive - June-September 1916

Aleksei Alekseevich Brusilov
Apart from the initial successes at Lemberg (Lviv) and in Galicia in 1914; plus some limited success at the Lake Narotch in early 1916 (see Eastern Front Action 25/1/16) the Russians had endured a miserable two years. Following defeats at Tannenberg; throughout Poland, and most dramatically at Gorlice-Tarnow they had endured a long retreat to a 500 miles front running north to south from the Baltic to the Eastern Carpathian mountains. After a relatively quiet winter, however, they had regained momentum in terms of men, communications and armaments production; and since the Chantilly conference in late 1915, were co-ordinating their efforts better with the Western Front allies. 
So who was Brusilov? The only General throughout the whole of WW1 to have his name attached to a strategic campaign - a distinction that eluded Joffre, Foch, Haig etc. -  he must have been an impressive man.
General Aleksei Brusilov was aged 60 at the outbreak of war in 1914, and by mid 1916 was one of the few people to have been involved in action continuously since that time. Like many senior generals his training had been as a Cavalry officer, but he recognised the central role of infantry tactics in modern warfare. He distinguished himself in the early advances following Lemberg, and again in early 1915 when he led the further advances as far as the Hungarian plain. It was the disaster at Gorlice-Tarnow that forced his reversal, and thereafter he had to lead rearguard actions during the long Russian withdrawals from Galicia and Poland. Favoured by the Tsar after his successes, he gained promotions and decorations and in April 1916 was given control of the southernmost sector of the front. The tactics he introduced for his offensive led to Russia's greatest successes of the war, and were adopted by other combatants as the war ground onwards - notably the German shock troops of late 1917 and 1918. Brusilov is viewed as one of the great fighting commanders of WW1. Following the February Revolution in 1917, he was made Commander in Chief of the Russian army but was relieved of his post before the Bolshevik Revolution in November, during which he was badly injured. He died in 1924, aged 70, and received a state funeral from the Bolsheviks.

Brusilov's starting point (left) and the double bulge north
and south (right) created by the advances of Khaledin
and Lechitski
The Russians were planning to move in concert with their Allies in Summer 1916, at a moment when the Germans were maximally committed at Verdun and the Somme offensive had started. The Russian Commander-in-Chief (nominally the Tsar) had his 500 mile front covered by three army groups: the NorthWest, led by Kuropatkin; the West, led by Ewart; and the Southwest group led by Ivanov. Ewart's central group was best placed to make a significant push towards Germany, but all three commanders, scarred by their experiences to date, were defensively minded and reluctant to take the initiative against the Germans. However, in April, Ivanov was recalled to Imperial HQ, and Brusilov was promoted to take over leadership of the SW Army group. Resolved to act at once, Brusilov gained permission to attack along the entirety of his sector - nearly three hundred miles from the Pripet Marshes in the north to Cernowitz and the River Dniester in the south. Because of the pressure in Italy from Trentino, this was before the start of the Somme campaign. Breaking with perceived wisdom, his artillery preparation was intense but very short, and he allocated all of his reserves to the initial assault. Brusilov had four armies within his group, all led by experienced generals, and they attacked in five sectors right along his front. Following the bombardment of 12-20 hours, the attacks began on June 5th. The northernmost group could make little headway through the flooded terrain of the Pripet Marshes, but to the south Generals Kaledin and Sakharov made a major breakthrough in the Volhynian triangle, comprising the fortress towns of Rovno, Dubno and Lutsk. The Austrians made a headlong and hasty retreat.
Similar dramatic success was achieved in the far south where Lechitski's 9th army advanced rapidly along the Dniester into the Bukovina region of Galicia. However, in the centre the Austrian and German resistance, led by Bothner, was stiffer and progress was slower. This meant that the two leading groups of Brusilov were diverging, and this would prove to be a problem later when German reinforcements arrived. Neither was Brusilov helped by the tardy responses of Ewart's army group to the north, which should have been pressurising the Germans to prevent their re-deployment.
Gen Alexey Kaledin.
Blazed the trail for Brusilov
into the Volhynian Triangle
By late June, Brusilov's greatest successes had been achieved (not without heavy casualties). Kaledin's 8th army and Lechitski's 9th had both advanced more than 50 miles, and taken 200,000 prisoners and large quantities of guns and war material between them.
Thereafter, matters became much more difficult for Brusilov, as German and Austrian reinforcements were pulled all the way from the Western Front and Trentino respectively. Effectively, Kaledin and Lechitski were now fighting separate campaigns, separated by a region where Bothner's Austrian forces were holding on - in one case re-inforced by a German Army Corps that transferred the 1000+ miles from Verdun in only six days. Kaledin and Sakharov made further advances towards their objectives, Kovel and Lemberg, but with heavy losses. Despite the major battle raging on the Somme, the germans were able to mount counter-offensives under another of their outstanding generals, von Linsingen. On one day of such battles, 9th August, the Russians lost 55,000 men. To the south, Lechitski' made valiant efforts to strengthen his grip on Bukovina and to cut off supplies for Bothner's central armies, but by September, Brusilov's offensive had come to an end.

Gen. Alexander von Linsingen
Veteran of the Marne and Ypres 1.
Halted Keldin's charge at the Battle of
Kovel, 24th July 1916
Approximate losses were 1 million for Austria-Hungary, including 400,000 as prisoners; 350,000 for Germany, and 500,000 for Russia. For Austria this was a fatal blow, and she was no longer a serious military player in the war. Thereafter Hindenburg took every significant decision on the Eastern Front. For Russia, although this was their most successful campaign of the war, the high losses in the later stages exacerbated the drop in morale that would culminate in revolution in 1917.
Paradoxically, Brusilov's brilliant successes did most for Britain, France and Italy, weakening appreciably the central powers' efforts in Trentino, Verdun and the Somme. Arguably, had Brusilov been better supported by his colleagues in the central and northern army groups, the offensive might have achieved enough to tip the scales of the Somme conflict in favour of the British.

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