27 JUNE, 1916: Sowing Seeds

Like this Austrian cartoon, most people thought the Paris Conference was all about British economic dominance. Not this time, not quite…

A hundred years ago today, participating nations ratified agreements reached by the Allied Economic Conference of 14-17 June 1916.  This didn’t have much popular impact at the time, given the competition from cataclysmic military events in progress on various fronts, and has of course been left out of the heritage showreel.  On the other hand, it did mark a significant step on a road from nineteenth-century laissez-faire economics to the kind of multinational economic cooperation embodied by, for instance, the European Union – so now seems a good time to give it a mention.

Any economic historians happening to blunder into this page should probably look away now, because I’m about to generalise, big time, about an area that’s hardly my special subject.  I realise that makes this journalism rather than history, but here and now I don’t mind exposing my own relative ignorance if it reminds anyone of where we came from in matters of economic cooperation – so here goes.

Classic nineteenth-century global economics – and the trade networks of the imperial age were global, if not in the instant way we understand them now – were purely national (or imperial) in outlook and involved minimal government interference in the affairs of private businesses.  This was essentially the situation on the outbreak of war in 1914, though the German government had been acting in close cooperation with national businesses since the late nineteenth century, manipulating tariffs and slanting legislation in ways that were seen elsewhere (particularly in France) as key to the amazing, expanding success of the German economy.

War put a huge and unprecedented strain on economic resources for all belligerent states, while profoundly altering international patterns of trade, migration and capital flow.  Long before 1916, it had become clear to European businessmen and politicians that the prosperity and security of the economic world after the peace needed some serious attention.

Among the Central Powers, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman economies quickly slipped into dependence on German aid, and long-term economic planning was overwhelmingly concerned with maintenance of imperial integrity – in other words with restoring pre-War economic conditions – while the essentially pre-industrial Bulgarian economy was internationally irrelevant.  In Germany, the struggle to maintain a war effort in the face of Allied naval blockade called for absolute concentration of resources on immediate needs, and planning for a post-War economy never progressed beyond a plan, discussed in 1914, to absorb conquered economies into a greater German economy.  The same idea lay behind wartime German management of its allies’ economies, and after Russia’s collapse in 1917 it would be applied (with disastrous results for all concerned) to German-occupied Eastern Europe – but for obvious reasons it had no direct impact on European economic planning after the German empire’s defeat and collapse.

Among the Allies, wartime economic cooperation was less one-sided.  Britain remained by far the wealthiest of the partners, and Serbia was no more economically relevant than Bulgaria, but France was one of the world’s most important economies, Italy was in the throes of rapid economic growth and industrial expansion, Russia was a potentially enormous economic player and Belgium’s small economy was usefully modern.  Everyone was going broke by 1916, and piling up debts (above all to the USA) as the cost of total war mushroomed beyond all prior imagining, but although the western European allies practiced close wartime economic cooperation, debates about the War’s economic aftermath had so far been conducted within individual states.  Most politicians tended to see future economics solely in terms of restoring national prosperity, and it was left to business leaders, along with some political supporters, to take the lead in seeking ways to ensure a future of international economic security and balance.

The latter approach offered three main options for Allied economies.  The first and simplest was an attempt to rebuild the pre-War world of interdependent but competing individual economies. The second option, equally backward looking in its way, favoured a tightening of  ‘imperial preference’ trade areas, in other words attempting to make pre-War European empires more macro-economically self-sufficient.  A third, more radical strand of opinion foresaw a future world economy dominated and stabilised by giant blocs of cooperating states, broadly along the lines of current international alliances.  It should come as little surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of European economics during the last two hundred years that, by early 1916, the idea of cooperating as a bloc was particularly favoured by the French government.

A group of French political economists, led by commerce minister Étienne Clémentel, had taken on board German plans for European economic dominance in 1914, noted the widespread wartime destruction of northern French and Belgian industry, and were determined not to squander military victory through post-War economic defeat. They identified post-War economic cooperation as a means for France to secure the raw materials and markets needed for protection against any revival of German economic power, and in December 1915 – immediately after the first inter-Allied strategic summit at Chantilly – Clémentel presented these arguments to the premier, Briand.  Briand, already anxious to increase the depth of wartime economic cooperation, agreed to push for an allied economic conference and put post-War cooperation on the agenda.

A preliminary conference took place in late March, when delegates from France, Britain, Russia, Italy, Belgium, Japan, Serbia and Portugal agreed in Paris on a completely pointless Declaration of Unity in military, economic and diplomatic affairs.  The conference proper finally met – again in Paris and including delegates from the same states, as well as observers from the British dominions and the USA – over four days from 14 June 1916, when Clémentel presented his vision for mutual protection against any future revival German ‘economic slavery’ by formation of a post-War economic bloc that would exclude Germany.  This, he proclaimed, would found ‘a new order of things, which will mark one of the dominant stages in the economic history of the world’.  History would prove him right about multinational economic blocs, but 1916 wasn’t interested.

The French government’s ambitions for a prototype European economic union ran up against Italian and Russian unwillingness to abandon their pre-War links to German markets and technical expertise, and against the preference of some British and French industries for maintenance of their own pre-War trade with Germany.  It also outraged Britain’s increasingly influential ‘white’ dominions, which (understandably) saw inter-European trade agreements as a threat to imperial preference.  In the end, the conference resolutions ratified on 27 June (as the Paris Economic Pact) amounted to little more than an agreement to share wartime access to raw materials, along with a commitment to explore the possible benefits of long-term economic cooperation.

Nobody outside the French government, least of all Punch magazine, took the Paris Economic Pact very seriously.

So big ambitions but no big deal, yet the Allied Economic Conference resonated around the world and into the future.

Across the Atlantic, Clémentel’s idea of a European economic bloc was regarded with deep suspicion as a restriction on future American trade, and became a political issue that informed both the 1916 presidential election and President Wilson’s approach to the peace in 1919.  The idea was also discussed among economists in Japan, where it was seen as a corollary to their own ambitions by those who envisaged a future Japanese zone of economic dominance in south-east Asia, and particularly in China.

Meanwhile, French governments would press for European cooperation against post-War German economic revival throughout the conflict – though with little more success than in 1916 – and the spectre would continue to dominate French economic thinking into the late 1940s.  After that, fear of a potentially even more dangerous Soviet Union forced a switch of priorities and drove the French to join Germany in seeking security through pan-European economic union.  The rest should be history, a tale of continental security through diplomatic and economic cooperation, but seems to have been polluted by the melodramatic myths of propaganda and national heritage – and that’s my only real excuse for quietly commemorating 1916’s fearful, stillborn contribution to the modern idea of the European Union.

15 JUNE, 1916: A Very Dangerous Drug

A month or so back (14 May 1916: Bad Hand? All In!), I wrote about the Austro-Hungarian Army’s Trentino Offensive on the Italian Front.  My focus then was on Austrian chief of staff Conrad’s fatally optimistic (and typical) decision to exploit respite elsewhere for one more grand attack rather than for the reconstruction and recovery the Austro-Hungarian war effort so desperately needed.  I did also mention that the initial success of the offensive – which had caught the Italian Army off guard and forced a retreat into Italian territory – triggered the resignation of Italy’s beleaguered Salandra government on 12 June.  Three days later, on 15 June, the appointment of veteran Liberal politician Paolo Boselli as prime minister of a new coalition reflected an extraordinary and ultimately momentous shift in the Italian political landscape.  Let’s talk about that.

Since the country’s formation in the 1860s, two decades of Fascism aside, Italian politics have been a byword for instability.  Coalition governments have come and gone with bewildering frequency, plagued by bipolar divisions between left- and right-wing factions, while the industrialised north and the agricultural, less developed south have behaved like separate, often mutually hostile nations. This familiar pattern had been reflected in furiously divided attitudes to the outbreak of war in August 1914, to Italian intervention on the Allied side the following May, and to subsequent Italian conduct of its war against Austria-Hungary.

By the spring of 1916, Italy was in the grip of rampant industrial unrest from the left, fuelled by the usual antagonism between those working or dying for a war and those profiting from it, while its government faced furious criticism from the right for its conduct of a war that had so far brought only repeated military failure and heavy casualties.  Food shortages in the north meanwhile bred resentment of the well-fed south, which in turn resented its loss of lives to a ‘northern’ war, and everyone was learning to resent Allied failure to provide the promised military or economic aid.  Basically, Italy was a cauldron of bickering discontent, still locked into a fundamental debate about its commitment to war… until Trentino.

Trentino transformed the popular and political mood in Italy.  The spectre of invasion shoved aside internal divisions, unleashing the one thing common to all strains of Italian political and popular thinking – patriotism – and with it an outburst of universal nationalism and belligerence comparable with the those in Britain, France or Germany at the height of war fever in August 1914.

Nationalism, as the twentieth century demonstrated to spine-chilling and murderous effect, can be a powerful and very dangerous force, apt to promote appalling human behaviour, catastrophic geopolitical chauvinism and chaotic socioeconomic chain reactions. First though, and usually by exploiting fear of a dangerous common enemy, it creates an understandably attractive illusion of national unity.  In the wake of Trentino the whole of Italy appeared united in determination to drive out the invader, and that noisy illusion brought Boselli to power.

A political ‘fixer’ in his mid-seventies,  Boselli’s career dated back to the national struggle for independence of the 1860s, and he had emerged from semi-retirement in August 1914 as a committed supporter of intervention alongside the Entente powers.  His strong association with both the war effort and the golden age of national unity made him an obvious candidate to replace Salandra, and maintenance of both were his priorities on entering office.

What a fine, upstanding symbol of national unity he makes... shame about the cabinet.
What a fine, upstanding symbol of national unity he makes… shame about the cabinet.

While the Italian Army was thrown into a sixth offensive on the River Isonzo, by way of satisfying the national thirst for action, Boselli attempted to seize the moment by appointing a large cabinet designed to keep all sides on board the unity bandwagon.  It included the leaders of the pro-War, moderate socialist faction (Bisoletti) and of the church party, along with staunchly pro-War interior minister Orlando, while the aggressively expansionist (and hugely unpopular) Sonnino, representing the extreme nationalism of the political right, kept his post as foreign minister.  It didn’t work.

The illusion of Italian national unity soon faded.  Under Boselli’s largely inert leadership, the cabinet turned into a cockpit for the usual disputes and the influential Sonnino retained effective control of a war effort that again lost momentum after failure of the sixth Isonzo offensive in August.  Italy’s war also remained subject to remote control by its allies, who demanded and got a belated declaration of war against Germany in August, a move that worsened the country’s economic woes and increased the danger of German intervention on the Italian Front.

Meanwhile left and centre political elements railed against Sonnino’s conduct of the war, the right blamed Boselli for failure to censor an increasingly hostile press or suppress a new wave of strikes, and the serious food shortages that followed 1916’s poor harvest fuelled rising popular discontent.   It is a measure of Italy’s rapid return to the political paralysis of internal conflict that the old man clung to office until a combination of economic chaos and military defeat finally saw him replaced by Orlando in October 1917.

On the surface, Boselli’s government changed nothing.  Italian politics and Italy’s conduct of the War staggered along the same old path with barely a pause to drink in the nectar of nationalist unity. But once experienced, the illusion of tribal togetherness against a common foe takes some shifting from the psyche, and while the fervour of August 1914 (or June 1916) could be absorbed into the political orthodoxies of long-established nations like Britain and France, it could warp the basic fabric of younger, less socially integrated or secure states like Germany or Italy.  Through the pain and disappointment of the next few years, to the end of the War and the peace that followed, Italian politics carried the imprint of June 1916, and recovery of national unity became a guiding principle for many Italians.

Boselli, who stayed alive until 1932, was a case in point.  He retained his parliamentary seat until 1921, when he moved to the upper house and took on the role of spokesman for a rising political leader whose brand of aggressive nationalism was designed to bind all Italians to a struggle against the rest of the world – Benito Mussolini.  Boselli was, as the world knows all too well, not alone.

So although there may not be much reason to commemorate Italy’s change of government a century ago, it seems to me we could do worse than pause to remember the mass psychology behind it, particularly at a time when nationalism’s illusions are poised to wreak havoc in Britain.

10 JUNE, 1916: The Great Game (Of Two Halves)

A hundred years ago today, the Ottoman garrison of Mecca surrendered the holy city to rebel forces led by Sherif Hussein Bin Ali, ruler of Islam’s second holy city, Medina. This was the first great, highly symbolic victory of what is generally known as the Arab Revolt, proclaimed a few days earlier and sponsored by British agents based in Egypt.

Orthodox western history describes the Revolt as an expression of both British geopolitical interests and of a nationalist, anti-Ottoman drive for independence by the Arab peoples of the northern Middle East.  History as seen from within the Middle East takes a more mixed view, with some modern commentators dismissing the Revolt as the self-interested work of the British and their collaborators. These are seen as a small minority of disgruntled Arab chieftains, educated in Western values, most notably nationalism, and greedy for the material and political fruits of Western-style national power.

I’m a white, middle-class Brit, so I mention the latter, relatively extreme theory without any kind of judgement, rather as a reminder that we all operate subjectively when history informs the politics of the present.  With that in mind, and apologies if my attempts at dispassion clash with your passions, here’s a quick overview of the Revolt’s opening months, beginning with the basics.

The Arab Revolt was an uprising by native peoples of western, central and northern parts of what was then loosely described as Arabia (stretching north as far as modern Syria) against the Ottoman Empire, which had governed the region since the late sixteenth century.  Ottoman rule was largely superficial by 1914. Most of a tribal population of some 6 million, roughly half of them nomadic, owed allegiance to local chieftains rather than Constantinople, and most of the chieftains were in no position to rebel.

To the north, Syrian overlord Nuri-es-Shalaan was too close to the Turkish heartlands to risk any provocative action, and to the south – east of Sinai – the Shammar Confederacy under Ali Rashid was dependent on its role as the Empire’s principle supplier of camels. Though hostile to Ottoman rule, the central Arabian Wahabi people (led by Ibn Sa’ud) were too isolated to make rebellion either practicable or necessary, and the same applied to tribes near the Red Sea coast in the southwest. In the far east of the Empire, also isolated from potential allies, natives of the floodplains around the Tigris and the Euphrates, known to the contemporary Europeans as Marsh Arabs, were basically hostile to anyone infringing on their territories and spent the War years as an elusive, often aggressive third party in the battle on the Mesopotamian Front.

The only overt pressure for Arab independence came from the relatively fertile Hejaz region, where Sherif Hussein BIn Ali controlled almost 1,000km of the central Arabian Red Sea coastal zone. The Hejaz extended as far north as the tip of Sinai, and was connected to the Ottoman heartlands by the Medina-Damascus railway. It also included the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, so that the Sherif (who claimed direct descent from the Prophet) was an important figure in the Islamic religious hierarchy, and a natural focus for secret independence societies founded in the wake of the Young Turk government’s pre-War attacks on Arab autonomy. Hussein established close contact with one of these – the important, Damascus-based Al Fatat group – through his third son, Feisal, in early 1915, and relations between the Hejaz and Constantinople became very tense after the government’s mass executions of Al Fatat membership in the spring.

The spellings might take some working out, but here's the Hejaz.
The spellings might take some working out, but here’s the Hejaz.

Hussein’s second son, Abdullah, had meanwhile been in touch with the British, informing then Egyptian c-in-c Kitchener of his father’s desire for independence in early 1914 and maintaining contacts through 1915. By early 1916, with the British chasing support while building up to an invasion of Palestine from Egypt, plans for an uprising had been laid and British rifles were being shipped to the Hejaz across the Red Sea. By May, the Ottoman government, aware of preparations, had initiated a blockade of the Hejaz coast and begun readying troops in Damascus for a move south – but played by the rules of what was still a phoney war by announcing that the troops were intended to reinforce German efforts in East Africa.

Feisal ended the phoney war by declaring rebellion on 5 June, and he was joined by some 30,000 untrained fighters for an opening attack on the Turkish garrison at Medina. It failed against the skilled defence of veteran Turkish commander Fakhri Din Pasha, but rebels did cut the railway north. Further south, another ‘Sherifian’ force under Hussein took Mecca on 10 June, after three days of street fighting had dislodged the 1,000-strong garrison, and a few days later a third force, supported by a Royal Navy seaplane carrier, took the surrender of 1,500 Turkish troops at the port of Jiddah. During the next month two more garrison ports – Ragebh and Yenbo – fell to the rebels, and from late September, when (Moslem-crewed) British artillery from Egypt joined Sherifians to take the town of At Taif, Medina was the last remaining Ottoman stronghold in the southern Hejaz.

So far, so good for Hussein, who styled himself Sultan of the Hejaz (later upgraded to King of the Hejaz) and placed his sons in command of an Arab Army’s four main bodies. Two large hosts, each of about 9,000 men, occupied areas to the south and southeast of Medina; further south, a mixed force of native Arabs and Egyptian Army regulars (up from the Sudan) mustered about 1,500 men; and Feisal commanded another 8,000 men in positions inland from Yenbo.

On the other hand, while Hussein appeared content to rest on his laurels, many of his troops were very young or very old, few were in any way trained, their numbers and positions were subject to random fluctuations, and they had very little artillery support. In October they were driven further south by attacks from the Medina garrison, and that reopened the railway north to Turkish reinforcements. When a British liaison group reached Jiddah later that month, it found the Revolt losing momentum and troops drifting away from the Arab Army.

Worried that repayment on their investment in the Hejaz – which amounted to minimal military support and a promise of full independence – had peaked, the British liaison group sent a junior officer inland to make contact with Feisal’s force. The officer concerned was Thomas Edward Lawrence, a scholarly, Welsh-born Arabist destined to make a difference.

The meeting of Lawrence and Feisal marks the beginning of a story – part military epic, part myth – that is enshrined in British heritage lore and movie history. It’s for another day, and so is most of the controversy around the Revolt as a whole.

At this point, confined to the southern Hejaz, the Sherifian uprising was a fairly typical example of the diplomacy practiced by major belligerents seeking wartime allies. The actions of the Sharif, motivated by ambition and ready to believe British promises of its fulfilment, hardly differ in principle from those of leaders elsewhere. The Ottoman Empire, Italy, Romania, Greece and a host of other states had already fallen for, or were in the process of falling for, what amounted to bribes from one side or another, and British promises to Hussein were no more or less dubious than those given to most of them. So for now the Revolt was just another case of need meeting greed, relatively insignificant to the majority of Arabs, to the course of the War and to the future of the region as a whole.

That would change. Lawrence would help create a new intimacy between Britain and the Revolt, help turn it into an altogether more powerful influence within the Arab world, and help guide it towards what can only be seen as a premeditated betrayal by its British sponsors. In other words, the Revolt was a cynical, greedy business, and was comprehensively stitched up by the British… but not necessarily at the same time.

7 JUNE, 1916: The Bruiser And The Cruiser

There was plenty going on in the world at war as summer got underway in 1916, more than enough to leave me well off the pace and backdating a bunch of posts for the same crowded week. But with offensives on progress on all three European fronts, and Arab rebellion erupting in the Middle East, the headline story in British newspapers on 7 June mourned the loss of a national hero and icon, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum.  I’m not going to shine any surprising lights on the War here, and Kitchener’s pretty much the business of the heritage trade, but I can’t resist a few words around the centenary of his passing.


Kitchener had been drowned just off the Orkney Isles on 5 June, when a mine sank the cruiser, Hampshire, which was taking him from Scapa Flow to Archangel for talks with the Russian Tsar. Viewed by the British press and public as a national disaster, and the most senior military fatality of the War to date, his death came as a considerable relief to the British government… and thereby hangs a whole bunch of conspiracy theories.

A ruthlessly effective colonial campaigner, and a former governor of Egypt famous for quelling tribal rebellion in the Sudan, Kitchener was Britain’s most eminent soldier when war broke out, towering above the rest of the Army establishment. Too old for active service at 64, he was a natural, popular and almost inevitable choice as war minister – but not a particularly practical one.

Horatio Kitchener was a very strange and remote person. Vain, arrogant and taciturn to the point of mysticism, he made no secret of his contempt for politicians – and little attempt to behave like one. His stern, mandarin air brooked no debate, and he saw no need to keep ministers informed about military strategy, let alone about the thinking behind it.

Naturally enough, Kitchener didn’t explain why he, alone among senior European strategists, believed in August 1914 that the coming conflict would last for years and cost millions of lives – but he did institute the immediate creation of a volunteer mass army for the purpose, becoming in the process the most famous recruitment poster in the history of the world, ever.  Mass recruitment proved vital when stalemate on the Western Front called for huge numbers of British reinforcements, but the flood of volunteers unleashed by Kitchener’s appeal also disrupted labour distribution and contributed to the major supply problems suffered by the BEF in 1915 (15 May, 1915: The Blame Game).

As war minister, Kitchener took some of the blame for supply problems, and by late 1915 his popular reputation as a politician was somewhat tarnished.  As a strategist, he generally gave solid, largely silent support to concentration on the Western Front, but he also backed Churchill’s Dardanelles adventure in 1915, only to indulge in a bout of opaque wavering as the campaign developed. His uncertainty promoted continued but half-hearted commitment of military resources to Gallipoli, and his prestige took a further hit when the shambles came to an ignominious end. Subsequently a trenchant ‘westerner’, but no longer influential enough to prevent extended commitment of Anglo-French forces to Salonika, he offered his resignation in early 1916.

The rest of the government was, to a man, desperate to be rid of Kitchener, but his resignation was turned down. The scourge of the Sudan was still a popular love object, and amid the gathering war weariness of early 1916 the government needed all the friends it could keep. On the other hand a spell of respite from the big, brooding bully with the piercing blue eyes was an irresistible temptation, so when talks in Russia called for a delegate of genuine international standing, Kitchener was offered the job. Happy to accept a respite from the travails of office, the old colonial butcher headed for Scapa Flow and oblivion.

This was a convenient death, providing an heroic end for a national hero while freeing the national war effort from his baleful influence… and nothing so convenient reaches posterity without attention from conspiracy theorists. The first targets for public suspicion were German saboteurs, soon joined by Communists, anarchists, Irish republicans and the other usual suspects, including a brief fashion for blaming vengeful victims of Kitchener’s ruthless conduct during the Boer War. In the century since the Hampshire‘s demise, and with no credible supporting evidence, theorists have gone on to suggest collusion by the British government, a plot by a cabal of British admirals and grandees, and a host of the other unlikely scenarios.  I could spend time explaining the weaknesses that render all of them at best unlikely, at worst ridiculous, but think Kennedy, Robert Maxwell or Princess Diana and you should get the message.

Having doffed an acknowledgment to the sudden, noisy departure of a man whose career spanned Britain’s uncomfortable transition from late-nineteenth century colonialism to twentieth-century realpolitik, I’m happy to leave more detailed examination of the Field Marshal’s legacy to the commemorative industries – just so long as we’re clear about the conspiracy theories.

4 JUNE, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…

On the Western Front in early June, the German assault on Verdun was still grinding down French territory by the metre.  In the Alps to the north of Italy, Austro-Hungarian forces were threatening breakthrough in the Trentino Valley.  In Chantilly, half a year earlier, the Allies had agreed to launch supporting offensives whenever one of them was attacked.  So where were the British and Russians when the French and Italians needed them?

The British Army in northern France was deep into exhaustive preparations for its offensive at the Somme, a grand scheme that was hardly a secret, hardly different in anything but scale to all the BEF’s previous grand schemes, and impervious to haste – but was at least expected to be a game-changer.  Meanwhile the Russians, though far more amenable to bullying by their allies, were generally considered incapable of a successful attack after almost two years of miserable failure.

The Russian Army’s early offensives on the Eastern Front had achieved little more than parity against attacks by the Central Powers, and had been thrown back hundreds of miles by the German-led offensives of 1915.  Its only real success had come in early 1916 on the Caucasian Front, where smaller armies under General Yudenich had outmanoeuvred and outfought weakened Ottoman forces to occupy eastern Armenia, but since then the Lake Naroch offensive, a first attempt to distract German forces from Verdun, had collapsed in complete failure.

Understandable pessimism about Russian capabilities didn’t stop the French – in what they and the rest of the world considered their hour of greatest need – from demanding a renewed effort in the east almost at once, or dissuade the Russian high command, Stavka, from reluctant agreement to the challenge.  Stavka did demand time to build up manpower and artillery in preparation for yet another heavily concentrated attempt at ‘breakthrough tactics’… only to be told by one general that he was ready to attack on short notice with the minimum of reinforcement.

The maverick in question was General Alexei Brusilov.  Approaching his mid-60s, and an aristocrat unhampered pre-War factional alliances, Brusilov had commanded the Eighth Army on the Eastern Front since 1914 and made it the most respected Russian fighting unit in the theatre.  Having managed to emerge from the fiascos of 1915 with some credit, he had been appointed c-in-c of the Eastern Front’s southwestern sector in March 1916.  In April, he proposed a series of simultaneous attacks all along his sector of the front, without the massed artillery and tightly focused infantry assaults required by breakthrough tactics.

Stavka wasn’t overly impressed.  Both central sector commander Evert and northern sector commander Kuropatkin enjoyed considerable numerical superiority over enemy forces shorn of many German units, but Brusilov didn’t.  His armies in the southwest mustered about 600,000 men and 1,700 big guns, against some half a million men (almost all of them Austro-Hungarian) and 1,350 guns. His plan was authorised, but with little enthusiasm or optimism, and only as a preliminary to a more conventional offensive being prepared by Evert.

Brusilov may have been deaf to the siren song of breakthrough tactics, but experience had taught him other, more valuable lessons in the grim craft of trench warfare.  In stark contrast to previous Russian offensives, his attack was carefully prepared, making extensive use of reconnaissance aircraft, of sappers to mine towards enemy positions and of huge dugouts to protect waiting reserves.  It also stood out from previous Russian battle plans in making almost no use of cavalry.

Weeks of Russian preparation were observed but not interrupted by (German) General Linsingen’s five armies, four of them Austro-Hungarian and one Austro-German.   Aware of Brusilov’s numerical strength, or lack of it, they kept faith with a well-constructed trench system and, when the attack came, concentrated infantry in forward positions to await the usual Russian tactics – an ineffectual preliminary bombardment followed by massed breakthrough attempts on narrow fronts.  That’s not what they got.

The attack opened on 4 June with an extraordinarily accurate series of bombardments that inflicted heavy casualties on forward defenders.  Infantry assaults all along the line followed, scattering Austrian reserves to multiple crisis points and bringing immediate success in four main areas.  To the north, with the Pripet Marshes on its right, the Russian Eighth Army attacked along a 30km front, steamrollered through the Austrian Fourth Army and took the town of Lutsk on 6 June.  Further south, the Russian Eleventh Army broke through at Sopanóv, taking 15,000 prisoners, and the Seventh Army gained ground with a smaller victory at Jazlowiec.  None of these matched the progress made by the Russian Ninth Army, at the extreme south of the line, where an initial victory around Okna on 5 June was followed two days later by a secondary breakthrough to the north that drove the Austrian Seventh Army into headlong retreat.

All that mass slaughter calls for a map, so here it is, complex and stolen but illustrative if you’ve got the energy for a close look.


The retreat soon became a chaotic rout.  Conflicting orders from above and the breakdown of transport arrangements split the Seventh Army in two, with half hurrying west to the Bukovina region while the rest attempted to hold a line at the River Prut, beyond Czernowitz, until driven back from 17 June.  Brusilov next launched an attempt to trap German forces positioned between his own and the central sector, but it was called off for lack of meaningful support from Evert’s command, and with supply lines lengthening the offensive paused for rest and reinforcement.  At this point the Russian advance had taken some 200,000 prisoners and 700 guns, shifted the front line as much as 80km west in places, and all but cleared Galicia of Austro-Hungarian forces.

Both sides brought up reinforcements during the second half of June.  Twelve fresh divisions joined Brusilov, while the Central Powers, still preoccupied with offensives elsewhere, managed to add sixteen (far less fresh) divisions from France and Italy.  Nine of the latter took part in a counterattack against the Russian Eighth Army from 20 June, but it had made only token gains and cost 40,000 casualties when it was called off at the end of the month, by which time Brusliov had launched a second phase of attacks.  Often distinguished as the Ukraine Offensive, these had taken another 40,000 prisoners and 63 guns by 7 July, pushing the sector’s front line between 10 and 35 kilometres further west.

The Eastern Front offered a more spacious take on carnage... Brusilovs troops advance.
The Eastern Front offered a more spacious take on carnage… Brusilov’s troops advance.

This was sensational stuff, prompting loud celebrations in Britain, France and Italy, exposing the fragility of Austro-Hungarian units and weakening Falkenhayn’s position as German Army chief of staff – but the length of his supply lines and his own 50,000 losses again forced Brusilov to pause.  That gave Stavka, the most outstandingly incompetent wartime high command in a competitive field, a chance to stifle the enterprise.

To the north of Brusilov’s front, General Evert had begun his own, breakthrough-style offensive on 2 July, but it followed the usual, ill-prepared pattern of earlier Russian operations and collapsed inside a week with 80,000 losses.  Stavka then decided to concentrate all its offensive efforts in the southwest, and ordered Brusilov to mass his forces for another breakthrough bid, this time at the north of his lines towards Kovel.  In a move that typified its inability to separate political and military priorities, it transferred overall command to Evert – an ardent monarchist who epitomised the caution, inefficiency and cabalism of many senior Russian generals – as a means of overcoming his reluctance to shift forces south.  This marked the end of the Brusilov Offensive proper and the beginning of what is known as the Kovel Offensive, which would get underway in late July, grind on until October and mark a grim return to the failed tactics of 1915.

I’ve had enough massed armies for one day, particularly in the wake of last week’s longwinded Jutland manoeuvres, and I’ll talk about Kovel later in the summer.  For now, that was the Brusilov Offensive. Its successes marked an important stage in the fateful transfer of military power in Germany to Ludendorff and Hindenburg, but clearly failed to change anything much about the Russian high command.  In strategic terms it achieved little more than another temporary and costly positional shift in the front line, and although it did help persuade Romania to join the War on the Allied side, hindsight sees that as more of a disaster than an achievement.  Not much in return for several hundred thousand killed or wounded (and yet another battering for the battle-scarred landscape of Eastern Europe), but worth commemorating as another massive battle we tend to ignore because no Tommies were involved.