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Battle of Kovel-Stanislav, or the Brusilov Offensive, 4 June-20 September 1916
The battle of Kovel-Stanislav, 4 June-20 September 1916 is better known as the Brusilov Offensive after the Russian General who planned and executed the attack. Alexei Brusilov had proved himself to be one of the more able Russian army commanders, and early in 1916 he was appointed to command the South West Army Group, on the front between the Pripet Marshes and the Romanian border.
In December 1915 the Russians had agreed to mount a summer offensive during 1916 as part of the general Allied plan for the year. The Allies plans were disrupted by the Central Powers. First the Germans attacked at Verdun, triggering an abortive Russian offence at Lake Naroch (18-26 March 1916), mounted at French request in an attempt to force the Germans to transfer troops from the Western Front. Then on 15 May the Austrians attacked on the Trentino and threatened the entire Italian front. Once again the Russians were asked if they could intervene, this time to drag Austrian troops away.
The Russians had been planning to launch a massive set-piece attack north of the Pripet Marshes, beginning in late June 1916. At a meeting in April it was decided to continue with this northern offensive, and all available Russian reinforcements went to the support it. Amongst the Army Group commanders only Brusilov was confident of success. He though he had developed a method that would allow him to break the weakened Austrian lines in front of his armies, and as he was asking for no reinforcements and little new material, his plan was approved. It too was to be launched in late June. When the request for assistance came from Italy, Brusilov was willing to launch his offensive three weeks early.
Brusilov had a simple plan. He realised that the problem with an attack on narrow front was that it allowed the enemy to flood their reserves to the crisis area, and plug the gap. He decided to launch his attack along a 200 mile front with all four of his armies, a total of 200,000 men, supported by 900 guns. The artillery bombardment would be short but intense, to maintain the element of surprise. He also took some sensible precautions that were not common along the Russian lines. No mans land on the eastern front was often up to be a mile wide. Brusilov narrowed this gap, and built forward trenches that reached within 75 yards of the Austrian and German lines. Dugouts were built to protect the troops while they were preparing to advance.
Brusilov was faced by four Austrian and one German army – 150,000 men supported by 600 guns. By the standards of the Western Front he did not have enough men to make a successful attack, but when the battle began on 4 June the Austrians and Germans were caught entirely by surprise. By the end of the first week the Russian Eighth Army at the north of the line and the Ninth at the south of line had both pushed Austrian armies back at least ten miles. The Austrian Seventh Army, at the south of the line, was close to collapse. By the middle of June it had been split in two, and Russian troops were advancing towards the Carpathians.
Everybody but Brusilov was surprised by the extent of his victories. The Russians flooded reinforcements south to keep the advance going, while the Germans eventually moved fifteen divisions to the Eastern Front. The initial Russian advance continued until the middle of July, and was followed by two more attacks. The final offensive lasted from 7 August-20 September. When it ended the Russians had advanced between twenty miles (in the middle of the line) and one hundred miles (in the south), where they had reached the eastern slopes of the Carpathians.
Both sides suffered massive casualties during the Brusilov offensive. The Russians lost one million men, the Austrians at least that many and the Germans 350,000. The battle had a series of momentous consequences. The Austrians could no longer mount independent offensive operations, and had to accept an ever increasing level of German control. On 27 August, encouraged by the Russian success, Romania declared war on the Central Powers. It reduced the already limited standing of Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of Staff, and at the end of August he was replaced by Hindenburg (Falkenhayn would then go on to play an important role in the defeat of Romania). Finally it exhausted the Russian armies. The losses suffered during the Brusilov Offensive have sometimes been blamed for the outbreak of revolution in 1917.
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Battle of Kovel-Stanislav, or the Brusilov Offensive, 4 June-20 September 1916 - History
General Alexei Bruslilov
Appeals from France persuaded Russia into launching a dual winged attack into Vilna Naroch as a counter to German activity in Verdun. Instituted on 18-Mar-1916, it ground to a halt in the mud of the spring thaw. German losses of 20,000 men were nothing compared to the 70,000 - 100,000 lost by the Russians. It did nothing to improve already low Russian morale.
Later that spring the Austrians attacked Italy at Trentino, bringing cries for help from the Italian government. The Russian government saw an opportunity to re-establish their previous military prestige and bolster public morale with a potentially glorious victory. General Aleksei A. Brusilov organized and launched this delayed, but still somewhat premature, surprise offensive on 4-Jun-1916.
General Brusilov replaced General Ivanov on 14-Apr-1916 by order of the Czar Nicholas II. Brusilov proposed an offensive to the Czar but the two other generals, Evert and Kuroptkin, preferred to stay defensive in the war, claiming a lack of heavy artillery and shell for an offensive. They argued heatedly until the Czar agreed to give the go ahead for Brusilov's Offensive. Brusilov had advised an attack on all fronts in light of Germany's superior rail communication. The surprise attack would be launched at the end of May and the southwestern front would make the initial move with the main thrust following on the western front towards Wilno. The southern front's objective was to take Kovel, an important Austrian railway center. The four armies were to be given six weeks of preparation time without obvious amassing of troops or preliminary artillery preparation in order to preserve the element of surprise. With four armies forming behind a 200 mile line sector, anticipating the main attack becomes very difficult. Unfortunately, Brusilov's initial plan disintegrated (much like the Schlieffen Plan) in the field.
Austro-Hungarian marksmen of the Tiroler Kaiserjaeger
await action on the Eastern Front, 1916.
The original plan anticipated six weeks of preparation time. This was not to be so. The Austro-Hungarian line Brusilov intended to break through was solidly fortified. One behind the other, three defensive belts lay. Each belt was a minimum of three well-built, full-depth trenches including machine gun nests, sniper hide-outs and communication tunnels dug 50-60 feet apart. Aerial photographs, courtesy of Russian aircraft, provided an excellent view of these defenses and the information transferred to a large-scale map. Officers studied the terrain of the intended battle site. Most soldiers kept well behind the line. The Russians dug their own trenches as assembly and jump off points along the Austrian Front-line trenches. As Brusilov readied his troops and the end of the month drew nearer, the pressure began to mount. Then, just before the projected date of attack, Evert announced his Western Front troops required more time for further preparation. Brusilov was alarmed, to say the least, as his Southwestern Army was only a preliminary diversion for Evert's main Western offensive. The urgent situation at Verdun to the West added further pressure on the success and swiftness of the Russian offensive.
Russians bringing in wounded German POWs.
The surprise assault was launched on 4-Jun-1916. Three of the Russian armies broke through Austro-Hungarian lines. The element of surprise, a thorough artillery prep and the alacrity with which the Czechoslovakian soldiers of the Austrian army surrendered fostered the Russian attempts. The thrust towards Kovel and Lutsk succeeded in capturing the latter on 8-Jun. By this time, the Austrians were in full and fast retreat. Mind that this was just the preliminary attack. The stronger offensive was to follow. No reserves had been constructed as the attack was a wide spread, one-shot effort, not the typical hammer blow assault. On 9-Jun, a very frustrated and distressed Brusilov was informed that the Western attack was deferred until 18-Jun. Evert was unwilling and hesitant to commence his maneuver. By then, the German General Ludendorff, intent on reinforcing the severely weakened Austrian army, had managed to scrape together a counter attack. The preliminary main thrust split its advance in two directions due to vague instruction from the GHQ. The chance to take Kovel was lost. On 18-Jun, a small, poorly readied, and futile front moved towards Baranowicze. This was Evert's long awaited and much needed main thrust for which Brusilov's army was only preliminary. It was then that Brusilov realized that the Russian GHQ would do exactly what he had been so vehemently opposed to. They transferred troops from Evert's Western Army to Brusilov's Southwestern, assuming the additional troops would assist in exploiting fully the success of his initial attack. The German, making the best of rather meager resources, noticed the move of troops and prepared a counter to the south. Because of their superior rail, they arrived first. And the battle continued. By the end of July, very little progress had been made in spite of renewed attempts. Austrian, German and Russian armies began to tire. With Russian casualties numbering more than half a million, the Offensive ground to a halt on 10-Aug-1916. But the effort was not entirely in vain. Austria had lost extensive territory and, excluding the dead and wounded, 375,000 as POW's.
Russian POWs by German artist Max Rabes, 1916.
The Brusilov Offense had quite an effect on the course of history. Strategically, it weakened the Central Powers on the Italian front and at Verdun. The Austrians were forced to forsake their Italian victory, rushing to fight the Russian in the North. An important factor on the Western Front, the Eastern attacks saw Germany terminating its Verdun Operation to transfer no less than 35 divisions from the Schlieffen right hook to the Eastern Front. This helped to sufficiently undermine Schlieffen plan enough for France to sustain a successful defense. The Offense ruined Austria-Hungary. Weakened by political turmoil, Austria was unable to cope with its losses, of funds and of soldiers. It was forever eliminated as a major military power. The future brought the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and the formation of the Austrian and Hungarian republics.
Within its own, the loss of one million Russian soldiers and the decayed public morale hung heavily on the people. Widespread famine caused by the diversion of all resources to the war effort induced rioting. Nicholas II abdicated from the throne and the provisional government, set up in his place, was overthrown in a Bolshevik coup abruptly afterwards. In 1917 the Russian Revolution was well under way. A failed success, the Offense assisted the Allied war effort but brought upon itself much strife.
The objectives for Brusilov’s offensive were to ease pressure on Britain and France by draining the resources of the Central Powers. It also aimed to force the Hapsburg Empire out of the war through an overwhelming defeat.
The plan was to strike at the Austro-Hungarians flank. The Hapsburg army was stretched as many forces were fighting along the Italian Front. Brusilov was to strike toward Lviv and Kovel in modern day Romania. He requested that offensives were launched further north to assist his main drive: a request denied by the High Command.
Brusilov assigned 4 armies to his offensive. These comprised 40 infantry and 15 cavalry divisions. His reserve was brought to the front to dig trenches, which were designed to hinder enemy observations of his movements. As with the Western Front, the use of tunnels was adopted. Unlike his counterparts on the West, Brusilov did not tunnel underneath the enemy line but instead tunnelled to positions close to their front lines. The distance between the end of these tunnels and the Hapsburg front lines was between 70 and 100 metres.
The Attack Begins
The attack did not start like Brusilov’s grand assaults, with a short sharp barrage to shock and weaken the enemy. There was no preparation and no artillery fire accompanying the first wave of soldiers.
In Kovel, the Germans had prepared the ground for defence. They had laid barbed wire, which the guardsmen had to cut their way through, and set up deadly machinegun nests. It helped the Germans that the Russians were attacking on a front eminently suitable for defence. They had to advance along three causeways across a swamp, and the defenders had set up their guns to ensure heavy fire upon these choke points.
Despite these circumstances, the brave soldiers of the Guards Army made some advances in this frontal assault. These came at the cost of 30,000 men.
The battle [ edit | edit source ]
The Tsar had provided large amounts of artillery and shells for Brusilov's army, however this had repercussions for the Russians as Brusilov reverted to the tactic of extensive barrages followed by waves of advancing soldiers, a tactic that had proved unsuccessful since 1915 Ώ] with German commanders observing the new similarities between Kowel and the Western Front. ΐ]
The German commander, Linsingen, sought to check the Russian army under the command of General Brusilov. The Russian force of 29 Infantry and 12 Cavalry divisions faced only 12 Austrian divisions, however the ineffective barrage and the tactic of using 'waves' of attacking soldiers resulting in significant Russian casualties and the stalling of the Brusilov offensive.
On June 4 the Russians opened the offensive with a massive, accurate but brief artillery barrage against the Austro-Hungarian lines, with the key factor of this effective bombardment being its brevity and accuracy. This was in contrast to the customary, protracted barrages at the time that gave the defenders time to bring up reserves and evacuate forward trenches, while damaging the battlefield so badly that it was hard for attackers to advance. The initial attack was successful and the Austro-Hungarian lines were broken, enabling three of Brusilov’s four armies to advance on a wide front (see: Battle of Kostiuchnówka).
The success of the breakthrough was helped in large part by Brusilov’s innovation of shock troops to attack weak points along the Austrian lines to effect a breakthrough, which the main Russian army could then exploit. Brusilov’s tactical innovations laid the foundation for the German infiltration tactics used later in the Western Front.
Brusilov Offensive: This Russian Victory Came at Tremendous Cost in World War I
Russian General Aleksei Brusilov unleashed a spectacular offensive on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1916 that put Austria-Hungary in great peril during World War l.
Brusilov intended to order shorter barrages to baffle the enemy. Austrian commanders would be kept guessing as to what the brief bombardments really meant. On the one hand, it might mean that a major offensive was planned. On the other hand, it might simply be a diversion to distract from a major assault at some other point.
Offensive action in World War I was understandingly obsessed by the concept of puncturing an enemy’s line in order to bring about a breakthrough that would lead to victory. Conventionally, that meant a sledgehammer blow on one specific, narrow point on the enemy’s trench line, and then pouring in as many reserves as you could once that breakthrough was achieved.
Brusilov did not entirely abandon the narrow, overwhelming thrust concept, just modified and expanded it. There would be not one push, but four—one for each Russian army under his command. What is more, the attacks would be launched simultaneously. “I considered it absolutely vital to develop an attack at many different points,” said Brusilov.
Brusilov was nothing if not thorough. He was blessed with a meticulous attention to detail. Nothing seemed to escape his notice. Russian artillery units were assigned specific objectives that they were to achieve. Light guns would first blast holes in the prickly barbed wire entanglements that fronted Austrian positions. Brusilov required that there be at least two holes, both measuring about 14 feet.
With that task accomplished, the artillery would switch to neutralizing any Austrian guns in the enemy forward positions. The Russians knew exactly where Hapsburg gun emplacements were from a combination of prisoner interrogation and aerial reconnaissance.
Brusilov stipulated that attacks were to consist of at least four waves. The first wave would be armed with rifles and hand grenades. Its task was to take the Austrians’ first trench line and neutralize any Austrian guns that escaped Russian bombardment. The second wave would follow the first, advancing 200 paces behind. The second wave was entrusted with the most important assignment of all, which was the capture of the second line of Austrian trenches.
“We have to consider that our opponent normally places the strength of his defense in the second line, and therefore troops halting in the first line serve only to concentrate the enemy’s fire,” said Brusilov. Thus, it was of vital importance that the second line to taken as rapidly as possible. The second line was the backbone of the Austrian defense system. Once the second line was carried, Brusilov believed the remaining lines would fall more easily.
At that point, a Russian third wave would fan out and exploit the success. The troops would bring forward their machine guns to prevent any attempt by enemy forces to repair the breech in their lines. A fourth wave would consist of light cavalry, such as the dreaded Cossacks. These expert horsemen would ride deep into the enemy’s rear.
Brusilov issued a directive to his subordinate commanders on April 19, 1916, that detailed his concepts and methods and how they would be carried out. He planned to launch the offensive along the entire 250-mile length of the Russian Southwestern Front, which stretched from the Romanian border in the south to the Styr River in the north. It was an ambitious undertaking.
The attacking troops had two key objectives: Lutsk and Kovel, both important railroad junctions. In addition, his four army commanders would be free to choose which segment of the front they wished to attack. Brusilov stipulated that the segment chosen ideally would be from nine to 12 miles wide however, it could be a minimum of six miles wide or a maximum of 18 miles wide.
There was another factor in Brusilov’s favor. It was something that could not be measured by lists of men and armaments. This was the sheer contempt the Germans and Austrians held for their Russian foes. Just two days before Brusilov launched his offensive, Colonel Paulus von Stoltzmann, General Alexander von Linsingen’s chief of staff, dismissed any notion of a Russian attack. “The Russians lacked sufficient numbers, relied on stupid tactics, and thus had absolutely no chance of success,” he said.
Austrian preoccupation with Italy and the Italian Front also played a role in Vienna’s complacency. General Conrad von Hotzendorff, chief of the Austrian general staff, considered Russia a broken reed, still capable of some fighting but no longer a viable threat. Instead, he focused his attention on the frontier between Northern Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire where the Italians and Austrians were locked in a bloody, high-altitude struggle in Alpine mountains and valleys.
Italy had been an ally of Austria, but when the war broke out the country declared its neutrality. After a series of complex negotiations Italy joined the Allies in 1915, hoping in the end to be rewarded with parts of the Tyrol and territory on the Dalmatian coast. This sudden about face enraged Hotzendorff and most other Austrians. To him, as to other Austrians, this was betrayal, and he was obsessed with punishing a country that in his eyes showed so much deceit.
This Italian obsession was to bear bitter fruit for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The combination of contempt for the Russians and desire for revenge against the Italians created an environment that was likely to bring Austria-Hungary to the brink of total collapse. Hotzendorff compounded the problem by transferring battle-tested units from the Eastern Front to the Tyrolean (Italian) Front and replacing them with battalions that were mediocre at best. What is more, he transferred nearly all of the Austrian heavy artillery, approximately 15 batteries, to the Tyrol.
The Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army was a reflection of the empire at large, a polyglot force in which as many as 15 languages were spoken. The lingua franca of the empire’s armed forces was German otherwise, the average Hapsburg soldier spoke his native tongue. By 1916 the Austro-Hungarian officer corps had been reduced by 50 percent as a result of casualties incurred since the beginning of the war. Many of these were prewar officers who had taken it upon themselves to learn the language of their ethnic commands, yet by mid-war they were gone.
The Austrians were pleased, even complacent, about their defensive arrangements on the Eastern Front. They had constructed a formidable layered defense in the region around Lutsk that serves as a good example of what the Russians would be up against. The layered defense in this sector consisted of three lines of heavily fortified trenches. A 40-foot-wide belt of barbed wire fronted the Austrian position. The Austrian generals had placed the bulk of their infantry in the rear trenches where they were protected in huge concrete-reinforced dugouts. These steps were taken to ensure that the Russian artillery would not inflict serious casualties on the vulnerable infantry.
The Austrians positioned their field artillery behind the first line of trenches. The first trench line, which bordered the no-man’s land between the armies, was protected with earthen berms punctuated by concrete-reinforced positions for machine guns placed to deliver enfilade fire. The field artillery was situated behind the first line of trenches. The field artillery had to be within 3,000 yards of the first line of Russian trenches to be effective.
The Austrian troops lived a pleasant life at the front, with all the proverbial comforts of home nearby. The soldiers had at their disposal bakeries, sausage factories, and equipment for pickling and smoking meat. They even planted vegetable gardens and grew their own grain. To minimize the strain of hauling equipment, they used dogs to pull sleighs on which they put weapons and supplies.
Thus, the Austrian Eastern Front defenses were well planned and designed. “They were beautifully constructed of great timbers, concrete, and earth,” noted one observer. “In some places, steel rails had ben cemented into place as protection against shell fire.”
The Russian Southwestern Front comprised four armies: General Alexsei Kaledin’s Eighth Army, General Vladimir Sakharov’s Eleventh Army, General Dmitri Scherbatschev’s Seventh Army, and General Platon Letschitski’s Ninth Army.
The Central Powers had two major army groups on the Eastern Front: Army Group Linsingen and Army Group Bohm-Ermolli. Archduke Joseph Ferdinand’s Fourth Army, which technically was part of Group Linsingen, held the ground just south of the Pripet Marshes. In the coming offensive, the Russians would mount some of their heaviest attacks against this army.
Army Group Bohm-Ermilli consisted of two armies: the First and the Second. General Paul Puhallo von Brlog’s First Army held the position to the immediate right of the Fourth Army. By contrast, the Second Austro-Hungarian Army held the front between Dubno and a point north of the Tarnopol-Lemberg railway. The Central Powers front was rounded out by General Karl von Pfanzer-Baltin’s Seventh Army and General Karl von Bothmer’s South Army, the latter predictably the Central Powers’ anchor to the far south.
The great Brusilov Offensive began at 4 am on June 4, 1916. General Kaledin’s Russian Eighth Army on Brusilov’s right wing at Volhynia offers a good impression of the opening stages of the attack. The Eighth Army comprised the Eighth, Thirty-Ninth, and Fortieth Corps. The three corps fielded a combined strength of 100 battalions. The Eighth Army was deployed on a front about 30 miles long for its advance toward Lutsk, which was its main objective. Their opponents were Archduke Ferdinand’s Fourth Army.
Gen. Alexei Evert, commander of the Russian Western Army Group, favored a defensive strategy and was opposed to Brusilov's offensive. Tsar Nicholas II had taken personal command of the army in September 1915. Evert was a strong supporter of Nicholas and the Romanovs, but the Tsar approved Brusilov's plan. The objectives were to be the cities of Kovel and Lviv, which had been lost to the Central Powers the previous year. Although Stavka had approved Brusilov's plan, his request for supporting offensives by neighboring fronts was denied.
Mounting pressure from the western Allies caused the Russians to hurry their preparations. Brusilov amassed four armies totaling 40 infantry divisions and 15 cavalry divisions. He faced 39 Austrian infantry divisions and 10 cavalry divisions, formed in a row of three defensive lines, although later German reinforcements were brought up.  Brusilov, knowing he would not receive significant reinforcements, moved his reserves up to the front line. He used them to dig entrenchments about 300 by 90 metres (328 yd ×㻢 yd) along the front line. These provided shelter for the troops and hindered observation by the Austrians.  The Russians secretly crept to within 91 metres (100 yd) of the Austrian lines and at some points as close as 69 metres (75 yd). Brusilov prepared for a surprise assault along 480 kilometres (300 mi) of front. The Stavka urged Brusilov to considerably shorten his attacking front to allow for a much heavier concentration of Russian troops. Brusilov insisted on his plan and the Stavka relented.
The Attack Begins
The attack did not start like Brusilov’s grand assaults, with a short, sharp barrage to shock and weaken the enemy. There was no preparation and no artillery fire accompanying the first wave of soldiers.
In Kovel, the Germans had prepared the ground for defense. They had laid barbed wire, which the guardsmen had to cut their way through, and set up deadly machine gun nests. It helped the Germans that the Russians were attacking a front eminently suitable for defense. They had to advance along three causeways across a swamp, and the defenders had set up their guns to ensure heavy fire upon these choke points.
Despite these circumstances, the brave soldiers of the Guards Army made some advances in this frontal assault. These came at the cost of 30,000 men.
Though bested by the Germans at Tannenberg in 1914 the Russians scored a decisive victory over Austro-Hungarian soldiers such as these in Galicia.
The 1916 Brusilov offensive was intended to bring an early end to World War I—but Russia paid the price for its own failure.
One hundred years ago this summer the Russian empire’s massive Brusilov offensive, which played out along the southern sectors of World War I’s Eastern Front, came close to winning the war for the Allies two years before the 1918 Armistice. The ultimate failure of that effort had sweeping consequences that extended well into the postwar era. It is thus fitting on the anniversary of the campaign that we consider one of the most significant, if lesser known, what-ifs of modern military history.
In 1915 General Aleksey Alekseyevich Brusilov, newly appointed commander of Russia’s Southwestern Front army group, argued for an attack against the Austro-German forces facing him. (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/ Alamy Stock Photo)
When the war began in August 1914, Great Britain and France placed a great deal of hope in the ability of the vaunted Russian “steamroller” to absorb some of the combat punch from the expected main German effort in the West. Those hopes died by month’s end following the First Battle of Tannenberg, in which the Germans destroyed the greater part of a Russian army—though it could be argued the ill-starred Russian invasion of East Prussia that led to Tannenberg spared France by drawing off German forces from the Western Front at a critical moment. In Austrian Galicia, however, the Russian armies scored a decisive victory over the heterogeneous elements of the Austro-Hungarian army, forcing it into the Carpathians and hobbling it for the remainder of the war. These events established a pattern that persisted throughout the conflict in the East—the qualitatively superior Germans could generally defeat the Russians, while the Russians held the same advantage over the Austro-Hungarians.
In fact, it was the necessity of shoring up their faltering ally that forced the Germans to launch their Gorlice-Tarnów offensive out of the Carpathians in May 1915. What was initially conceived of as a local attack soon expanded far beyond its planners’ expectations, and by summer’s end the Central Powers had driven the Russians out of Poland and part of the Baltic coast. Russia’s manpower losses were correspondingly massive, its army suffering an estimated 1,410,000 killed and wounded and another 976,000 captured.
Despite this disaster, which further exposed the incompetence of Russia’s command structure and seriously undermined public support of the war effort, by early 1916 Russian forces had largely rebounded from their losses. Furthermore, a shell shortage that had bedeviled the army the previous year was being rectified as the Russian economy gradually adjusted, however imperfectly, to the demands of modern war.
Russia’s newfound confidence coincided with a deci sion by Allied representatives meeting in Chantilly, France, in December 1915 to coordinate their attacks for the coming summer, in order to prevent the Central Powers from using their superior communications to shift reserves from one front to another. The British and French would attack along the Somme River, the Italians would renew their efforts along the Isonzo River, and the Russians would attack along their front—all within a month of each other. How ever, the massive German attack at Verdun in late February quickly drew off French reserves and eventually made the Somme offensive a mostly British affair.
Representatives of the Russian high command met at supreme headquarters, Stavka, in Mogilev on April 14. Czar Nicholas II, who had assumed the role of commander in chief the previous fall, formally presided over the meeting, but General Mikhail Vasilyevich Alekseyev, his chief of staff, actually conducted the proceedings, the emperor essentially rubber-stamping his recommendations. Despite the improvement in the army’s fortunes, both General Aleksey Nikolayevich Kuropatkin, commander of the Northern Front army group, and General Aleksey Yermolayevich Evert, his opposite number on the Western Front, opposed launching offensives in their sectors, citing the Germans’ powerful defenses and their own shortage of heavy artillery. Only General Aleksey Alekseyevich Brusilov, newly appointed commander of the Southwestern Front army group, argued for an attack against the Austro-German forces facing him. Alekseyev, more than a little surprised, agreed to Brusilov’s proposal, although he warned him he could expect no reinforcements. However, Brusilov’s pugnacious attitude seems to have sufficiently embarrassed the others into reluctantly agreeing to launch supporting attacks.
On April 24 Stavka issued a directive assigning Evert’s Western Front army group to make its main effort from the Molodechno area in the general direction of Ashmyany and Vilnius, while the Northern Front would support it with a converging attack from the Illkust–Lake Drisvyaty area in the direction of Novoalexandrovsk, or from the area south of the lake toward Vidzy and Utsyany. The Southwestern Front was to make its main push along the northern wing in the direction of Lutsk.
Brusilov’s plan called for the Eighth Army to make a two-pronged effort toward Lutsk and Kovel’. That attack by his northernmost army would offer the most immediate assistance to the neighboring Western Front and threaten the vital railroad junction of Kovel’, the capture of which would greatly impede the ability of the Central Powers to maneuver men and materiel from north to south. The two center armies (Eleventh and Seventh) would carry out strictly supporting attacks along their front, while the Ninth Army would make a secondary attack along the front’s left wing in order to draw off enemy reserves and perhaps prompt Romania to join the Allies.
The Southwestern Front would attack with 573,000 infantry and 60,000 cavalry, supported by 1,938 guns, of which only 168 were heavy caliber. The Central Powers forces opposing them included the Austro-Hungarian First, Second, Fourth and Seventh armies and the German South Army, which collectively numbered 437,000 infantry and 30,000 cavalry, plus 1,846 guns, of which 545 were heavy. Thus, while the Russians enjoyed a significant manpower advantage and were almost equal in the number of guns, they were notably inferior in the all-important category of heavy artillery. However, the fact that the majority of enemy forces facing them were Austro-Hungarians, hobbled by poor training and ethnic divisions, gave the Russians a reasonable chance of success.
Brusilov decided on a novel method for conducting his attack. Up till then combatants on both the Eastern and Western fronts had organized their attacks around a single sector. Such attacks involved enormous masses of artillery and men, as had been the case at Verdun in February and during the Russians’ unsuccessful offensive around Lake Naroch in March. It was virtually impossible to keep such large-scale preparations hidden from the enemy, who generally had plenty of time to move in reserves to blunt the attack. Thus such assaults usually collapsed in short order with a great loss of life for the attacker and miniscule territorial gains.
Rather than repeat such a costly and ineffective gambit, Brusilov instead decided to launch several simultaneous attacks along the entire 280-mile front. Each army commander was instructed to organize the forces in his sector, while a number of corps commanders were in turn instructed to prepare breakthrough zones in their sectors, for a total of four army and nine corps breakthrough sectors. Brusilov calculated that the widespread preparations would confuse the enemy as to the direction of the main attack.
Russian intelligence had revealed the presence of at least three fortified enemy defensive zones, approximately 1 to 3 miles apart, girded by multiple rows of barbed wire. Each of these zones, in turn, comprised no fewer than three trench lines, each 150 to 300 paces from each other. The enemy had strengthened these defenses with communica tions trenches, electrified wire and explosive devices.
Russian tactical preparations for overcoming these defenses were unusually thorough. Their intelligence had studied the enemy positions and supplied commanders at all levels with the appropriate maps. The Russians also moved up their trench line at night until by the time of the attack they stood no more than 100 paces from the enemy positions. So as not to give away the time of the attack, troops of the first assault wave moved up to their jumping-off positions only a few days before the start of the offensive.
Once again, however, the Central Powers upset the Allies’ plans by launching an offensive of their own—this time by Austro-Hungarian armies in the Trentino region of northern Italy on May 15. When Italy urgently appealed for assistance, Russia responded by moving up the date of the Southwestern Front’s offensive to June 4. The Western Front’s offensive was to begin on June 10 or 11.
At dawn on June 4 Russian guns launched an opening barrage along the entire front, in places lasting from six to 46 hours. The most impressive advance took place along the main attack axis, where General Aleksey Maksimovich Kaledin’s Eighth Army broke through Austro-Hungarian defenses along a 50-mile front, advanced 15 to 21 miles and captured Lutsk on June 7. According to General Erich von Falkenhayn, then chief of the German General Staff, “The part of the Fourth Austro-Hungarian Army, which was in line here, melted away into miserable remnants.” South of the breakthrough the Russian Eleventh Army under General Vladimir Sakharov made almost no progress and, in fact, was forced to fend off enemy counterattacks. General Dmitry Shcherbachev’s Seventh Army advanced slightly, throwing the enemy behind the Strypa River. On the far southern flank General Platon Lechitsky’s Ninth Army pushed the defenders across the Prut River and captured Chernovtsy on June 18. By June 9 Brusilov claimed to have taken more than 70,000 prisoners and 94 guns, plus large amounts of other military equipment.
The commander’s pleasure at a well-earned success was short-lived, however. On June 14 Alekseyev informed him Evert would be unable to attack on the appointed date, sup posedly due to bad weather, although he assured Brusilov the Western Front army group would launch its offensive on June 18. However, Alekseyev also said Evert was reporting that enemy forces opposite his attack sector were too strong. The Western Front commander then appealed to the emperor to shift the attack toward Baranovichi, and the latter agreed, with the proviso the attack be launched no later than July 3.
Brusilov later bitterly recalled that his worse fears had been realized, writing, “I would be abandoned without sup port from my neighbors, and that in this way my successes would be limited only to a tactical victory and some forward movement, which would have no influence on the fate of the war.” He knew that in the absence of support the enemy would be free to throw all available reserves against him. Brusilov suspected that Alekseyev’s references to the emperor were merely a convenient screen, as Nicholas II was, in his words, “a child” when it came to military affairs. He instead believed the fault lay in Alekseyev’s lack of moral courage in facing up to Evert and Kuropatkin, who had been his superiors during the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War. Had the Russians another supreme commander in chief, he concluded, Evert would have been relieved for insubordination, and Kuropatkin would never have received a responsible command.
The Central Powers were quick to exploit the Russians’ dithering and began to transfer sizable reinforcements, mostly German, to the threatened zones. The transfers brought in units not only from the northern sector of the Eastern Front but also from France. Taking advantage of their superior rail links, they quickly rushed forces east, and as early as mid-June they were attacking the Russian penetration around Lutsk. However, as the German assaults were delivered piecemeal, they achieved little and succeeded only in temporarily halting the Russian advance. A lull then settled over the front, as each side prepared to renew its efforts.
Meanwhile, to the north the Western Front’s long-delayed Baranovichi offensive began on July 3 and almost immediately collapsed in bloody failure, just as Brusilov had predicted. Given the continued inertia along Kuropatkin’s Northern Front, this meant the enemy remained free to shift his available reserves against the Southwestern Front.
Regardless, Brusilov pressed gamely on, though he must have realized the time for achieving any real gains had passed. On July 5 the Eighth Army, supported by General Leonid Lesh’s Third Army, which had been transferred from the Western Front, renewed the assault on Kovel’. By mid-month they had reached the Stokhod River immediately west of the city and had captured several bridgeheads. Lieutenant General Erich Ludendorff, who with General Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg commanded German forces along the northern sector of the Eastern Front, later recalled the action: “This was one of the greatest crises on the Eastern Front. We had little hope that the Austro-Hungarian troops would be able to hold the line of the Stokhod, which was unfortified.” However, the Austro-Hungarians, supported by the Germans, were just able to stem the Russian advance through the swampy terrain along the river. There the exhausted Russians bogged down, then prepared to renew the offensive.
To the south Eleventh Army remained essentially in place, fighting just to hold its gains against fierce counterattacks. Territorial gains were greatest in the south, where the Seventh and Ninth armies again pushed Austro-Hungarian forces back to the Carpathians before also running out of steam.
As Russian troops along the decisive axis continued preparations for a renewed attack, Stavka belatedly started shifting reserves to Brusilov’s front. These reserve forces formed the core of the new Special Army, which with Third Army was directed to capture Kovel’. Eighth Army was directed due west toward Volodymyr-Volyns’kyy, while Eleventh Army was to attack toward Brody and Lwow. The Seventh and Ninth armies were to move west toward Halych and Stanislav.
On July 28 the Russians resumed their offensive along the entire front. Brusilov later recalled, “I continued the fighting along the front, but without the previous intensity, trying to spare people as much as possible and only insofar as it was necessary to tie down as large a number of enemy forces as possible, thus indirectly assisting in this way our Allies—the Italians and French.” To what degree this self-serving state ment is true is open to interpretation. What is not is the attack’s lack of success toward Kovel’, where the Russians were held to miniscule gains and heavy losses along the Stokhod. Farther south the Russians captured Brody and Stanislav, but by early August it was clear the offensive had run its course, although sporadic fighting continued into the fall.
Despite its disappointing conclusion, the so-called Brusilov offensive nevertheless achieved impressive results. The general himself later claimed that from June through mid-November his forces had captured more than 450,000 of the enemy and inflicted some 1,500,000 casualties. While these figures are likely exaggerated, it was clear the Austro- Hungarian army had suffered a catastrophic defeat and would henceforth require German support to keep fighting. In exchange for German assistance the Austro-Hungarians were forced to accept an extension of Hindenburg’s authority as far south as Brody. The fate of the dual monarchy was bound to that of Germany to the bitter end.
Brusilov’s offensive did succeed in having an impact on other fronts. In France the Germans were compelled to limit operations around Verdun to forces already at hand, while farther north they had to cancel plans for a pre-emptive attack against British offensive preparations along the Somme. Likewise, the Austro-Hungarians had to call off their Trentino offensive and dispatch forces to Volhynia. Brusilov’s initial success also convinced Romania to throw in its lot with the Allies and declare war on the Central Powers on August 27. By then the crisis had passed, however, and the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were able not only to halt the Romanian offensive in Transylvania but also launch a decisive counteroffensive that crushed the Romanians by year’s end.
More than 200,000 Russian troops were taken captive during the ultimately failed summer offensive of 1916. (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/ Alamy Stock Photo)
In the end the Brusilov offensive had been a near thing and could have achieved much more had the Russian high command been able to organize anything approaching a coordinated offensive along the entire front. The drain on German reserves might have enabled the Russians to destroy the opposing Austro-Hungarian armies and perhaps bring about the collapse of the empire itself. That, in turn, would have opened the Italian and Macedonian fronts to Allied penetration, as was eventually the case in 1918. The resulting strain on the German war effort would certainly have been too much, conceivably leading to an Allied victory in 1917, obviating the need for American involvement in the war. Such an outcome would have not only spared the combatants two more years of bloodshed but also enabled Europe to put its own house in order.
The failure of the offensive to achieve such a decisive strategic result had especially tragic consequences for Russia. Its losses in 1916 totaled more than 2 million dead and wounded and 344,000 captured, with 1.2 million casualties and 212,000 prisoners in the summer campaign alone. On the home front an initial patriotic upswing prompted by the initial successes gave way to bitter disappointment over the high command’s bungling, in turn undermining what little faith the country’s educated elite retained in the czarist system. As for the peasant masses, they had grown increasingly weary of dying for a cause they did not understand. Dissent spread, the desertion rate climbed, and as early as autumn 1916 there were reports of soldiers refusing to attack. All of this presaged the collapse of the imperial army in early 1917 and the country’s descent into revolution, military defeat and civil war.
Obscure History: The Battle of Kovel
The Western Front predominates much of the coverage of WWI, when the Middle Eastern and Eastern Fronts had the more enduring long term geopolitical impact. One of the grimmer ironies of this is that this is a war where Germany ultimately defeated Russia three times, only to have this all swept away when the 1918 offensives failed. The Eastern Front, unlike the West, relied on sweeping maneuvers of mighty armies and illustrates what a more mobile, active Western war might have been like.
The 1916 battles in the East have received most of their attention, such as it is, focused on the Brusilov Offensive, one of the few genuine successes of the WWI Russian Army. It was an atypical battle, which accounts for much of its focus. It also was the true kiss of death for the Habsburg Empire, which survived by virtue of being Finlandized by the German Empire and serving as auxiliaries to the Heer in the war from that point forward. It was not, however, the decisive battle of the year. In terms of real time effects, it would be this battle.
Kovel was the belated effort of a Habsburg General, von Linsigen, to try to mitigate the results of Brusilov's Offensive. He committed major troops to focus on those of the elderly Baltic German general (and a curiosity of WWI, especially in the era of fascism that would succeed it, is that the Slaventum vs Deutschum grand conflict of WWI saw a predominantly ethnically German officer corps leading the Russian Army) Alexei Evert. The battle was a fairly short one, by the standard of the Western Front, lasting from the 24th of July to the 8th of August in Galicia, Marking this particular portion of what was then and after the war Poland as the graveyard of the Habsburg Empire, though now it’s part of Ukraine. This was a standard Eastern Front battle of the usual pattern, where both sides' definition of generalship was hurling enough bodies at each other until one side or the other broke.
The battle proved as terrible a bloodmill as Verdun and the Somme, it devoured the last trained manpower reserves of the Tsarist army, all to no avail to alter the outcome. It single-handedly derailed the successes of the Brusilov Offensive, and in reducing the last vestige of loyalist sentiment to the Romanov Dynasty sealed its fate and that of monarchy and aristocracy in Russia in less than a few months. Few battles in history, or in this war, can boast of more decisive results than one that toppled a throne that endured for 300 years, and which would ultimately create a hollow victory that toppled those of the victors along with it.
There is a good argument that absent Kovel a revolution in Russia would never have become the Soviet Union, either. With the one that did, it left a nominally vast but demoralized Russian army ripe to exploitation by a leadership both opportunistic and ruthless. And that is just what, ultimately, Vladimir Ulyanov would provide it.